Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)

I don’t buy the resurrection story. That would normally be all I need say. But I am routinely asked why. This collection of short essays serves to answer that question. There are many reasons I am not a Christian. My atheism is based on findings more fundamental than anything to do with particular religions, but the arguments in favor of the Christian worldview as opposed to any other are ubiquitous in my culture and always center around the historical claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. As an historian, expert in ancient Greco-Roman society, and with a good knowledge of Greek, I’m qualified to make a professional judgement in the matter. This essay explains why I find the Resurrection to be an unconvincing argument for becoming a Christian.

This project began in 1998 and has grown enormously with many new editions over the years, and my thanks go to all those who helped to improve it. The present edition, completed in 2004, updates and reorganizes all previous materials. My debate against Mike Licona at UCLA that same year adds even more perspective to my reasons for not believing Jesus was raised from the dead, as will three scholarly chapters I have contributed to an anthology due to be released next year. I also discuss more of my reasons in other online essays besides this one (see Note 1). Altogether, there are basically four so-called “naturalistic” theories of how the first Christians came to believe Jesus was raised from the dead: either he survived, or his corpse was misplaced, or his corpse was stolen, or the belief arose solely from epiphanies (as dreams, hallucinations, or inspirations from scripture), not from any missing or revived body.

Survival is the least probable (as I will demonstrate, the odds that this can explain the evidence are less than 1 in 700). Misplacement fits the evidence better than most scholars think, and theft fits the evidence even better still, though I only discuss these possibilities elsewhere (see Note 2). I think it is most likely by far that the original belief was derived from dreams, hallucinations, or “inspired” readings of scripture, which later became embellished into fabulous legends serving different dogmas. This could arise in either of two different ways: either a belief arose that Jesus had risen in the flesh, and all evidence to the contrary was dismissed as a trick of the Jews, or a belief arose that Jesus had risen into a new body entirely, leaving his old body behind–in which case there could not have been any contrary physical evidence. The latter I think is the most probable account of all (and I make a preliminary case for it here–while much more evidence and argument will be found elsewhere: see Note 3).

The three key reasons I reject the resurrection story that are elaborated here are these: (1) the evidence is insufficient to warrant belief in this case; (2) even survival (mistaken as a resurrection), despite being the least probable unmiraculous explanation, is more probable than a miracle; and (3) some evidence suggests the original conception of the resurrection of Jesus was spiritual in nature and did not involve his flesh (contrary to what some of the Gospels struggle to claim).

Special Note from 2009:This collection of essays is growing increasingly out of date, and I have no plans to update this collection any further. Though I’m not aware of anything egregiously wrong here, I may have changed some of my views or understanding of the methods and facts in the intervening ten years since this collection first began. My most recent published work (in print and online) should be considered as superseding anything it may contradict here, and the following materials should be used with that caution in mind.

Note 1: I have discussed some of my reasons for rejecting the resurrection story in other essays besides this one, and in three chapters I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), including “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” (pp. 105-232) and “The Plausibility of Theft” (pp. 349-68). For works online see: Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day (2002), which was significantly updated in The Empty Tomb (pp. 369-92); Review of “In Defense of Miracles” (1999), especially sections 4b (Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole) and 4e (Craig’s Empty Tomb and Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus); Review of “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” (2000); Thallus: An Analysis (1999); Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange (2002); and Kersey Graves and “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors” (2003). And more are always being added to my Secular Web Index.

Note 2: These two possibilities (misplacement and theft) I do not discuss here, but I do discuss them in separate chapters that I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), in “The Plausibility of Theft” (pp. 349-68) and “The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law” (pp. 369-92). Those chapters are significant updates to my preliminary case for misplacement in Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day (2002), and my preliminary case for the plausibility of theft in “The Guarded Tomb of Jesus and Daniel in the Lion’s Den: An Argument for the Plausibility of Theft,” Journal of Higher Criticism 8.2 (Fall 2001), pp. 304-18. I have also composed FAQs for those who have read The Empty Tomb and still have questions: Burial of Jesus FAQ and Plausibility of Theft FAQ.

Note 3: See the video of my UCLA debate with Mike Licona or, better yet, the far more detailed chapter on the subject that I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), which answers most objections anyone might have raised against my case in the UCLA debate (since there was too little time to present all the relevant evidence there), while any others I probably address in a FAQ for the The Empty Tomb chapter on this theory: Spiritual Body FAQ.


Introduction

What is the purpose of this collection of essays? Many things could be said which cast doubt on the story of the Resurrection of Jesus by God, but there are three above all that are most decisive in leading me to reject the story as unworthy of belief (see Summary). This collection of essays details these three primary reasons. The importance of this collection is to explain a major reason why I am not a Christian: since I cannot rationally bring myself to believe this story, I cannot rationally bring myself to be a Christian. Those eager to convert me respond that few Christians hold the resurrection to be the sole revelation of God, but I do not claim this. The resurrection is only the central revelation justifying the Christian faith, i.e. not just belief in god, but in a particular God with a particular plan that we have to follow or be damned. As Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is groundless” (1 Corinthians 15.17). Indeed, the only reason I wrote these essays was because hundreds of Christians have e-mailed me or knocked on my door making exactly this argument: the resurrection of Christ proves that the Christian God is all-powerful and will save us in the same way. It is this argument that this essay responds to.

My would-be benefactors are not alone: a joint work of 14 leading Christian apologists, including William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, and Douglas Geivett, concludes with the argument “If God has acted in human history, particularly in the Incarnation, earthly life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then human beings clearly are a focus of God’s interest and concern” (p. 276, In Defense of Miracles, InterVarsity Press, 1997) and “the resurrection of Jesus represents victory over the grave, not only for Jesus but for all who believe in him” (p. 279, Ibid.). Josh McDowell is even more adamant: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christianity stand or fall together” (1st ed., § 10.pr., p. 179; 2nd ed., p. 203, § 9.1A; cf. also 9.2A and 9.3A). On subsequent pages he cites, as affirming the same sentiment, Theodosus Harnack, W.J. Sparrow-Simpson, H.P. Liddon, Wilbur Smith, D.F. Strauss, B.B. Warfield, Frederick Godet, Michael Green, John Locke, Philip Schaff, and even St. Peter himself (as well as Jesus, cf. § 10.2B). In my ten years of experience in this field, I have seen this to be the standard argument for converting to Christianity, regularly used to persuade others to join, and hailed as the reason many believers themselves came to believe.

There may be other good arguments for believing some kind of god or other exists. The present essay does not address that question. But if the resurrection is not a proof of the Christian creed, what is? If anyone wants to think that the Christian system allows even doubters of the resurrection to be saved, then perhaps the resurrection need not be a proof of anything. But insofar as “whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16.16), and so long as the resurrection stories were written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20.31), the resurrection must be a proof equal to the task of saving lives, and my essay remains pertinent in pointing out that the resurrection fails to meet that standard.

There are other reasons why I consider Christianity to be an ill-chosen creed, such as the morals actually taught in the Bible, many of which are abhorrent to a compassionate and just man, or other details of its theology which run counter to observable facts. These have been discussed at length by others here in our Modern Library, and in part in some of my other essays, such as From Taoist to Infidel (2001) and Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay (1999). Even though other aspects of the creed are agreeable, the falsehood of its most important claims, and the imperfection of its teachings, are sufficient grounds to abandon it–just as these are sufficient reasons for Christians to abandon every other religious faith in the world, no matter how well-meaning or wise in their teachings. This does not mean I throw out the baby with the bathwater–for if there is anything good in Christianity which can be defended as good without appeal to the supernatural, I am probably a firm believer in it. I just don’t see the need to call such things “Christian” as opposed to merely “human.” Christians do not hold a monopoly on wisdom. At any rate, here I will only discuss the falsehood of the central Christian “supernatural” claim, that of the Resurrection. In other words, here I only answer the question “Why don’t I buy the resurrection story?”

Faith vs. Proof: Some argue that conversion is entirely about faith, not evidence. This is a moot point here, since this collection of essays is only addressed to those who believe the evidence is sufficient to convince–it is not addressed to those who think belief can be warranted without sufficient evidence. I find the latter to be a thoroughly unacceptable way to approach questions of truth anyway. For example, Ryan Renn (whose critique of my earlier edition no longer exists online) once asserted that he does “not desire to be ‘just as right’ as Thomas was in the Gospel of John,” meaning he does not want even to ask for sufficient evidence, as Thomas did. This is an issue of the ethics of belief, of what Renn thinks a person ought to believe, given certain reasons, and this is based upon his own subjective values. I simply disagree with him. In my opinion, Thomas behaved far more ethically than any other character in the stores we have. Other critics, too, have told me that reason and facts don’t belong in questions of faith, and that they are only a barrier to a personal relationship with Jesus. This is also a claim about the ethics of belief, and it is a sentiment that I find to be quite immoral. But I will not argue this here. I have addressed the ethics of belief in other essays (e.g. Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?, What Atheists Ought to Stand For, and A Fish Did Not Write This Essay). And many of my other online essays address related issues (click the link on my name in the title above for a complete list), including my credentials, epistemology, and attitude toward history.

Background and history of this collection: This lengthy collection of essays was heavily revised in 1999 from the original 1998 version, was revised twice more in 2000, and then most recently again in 2004. The second edition united the original with the thirty-three addenda that accumulated over that year, and reconsidered many probabilities and added a few new details. I am very grateful to all those who criticized the original or offered suggestions. The thirty-three addenda were inspired by all of my readers, and the incorporation of these now into the new text is a further recognition of their valuable contribution. The text then grew so large that I was obliged to break it up into a directory of its own, putting each entry as a separate page. Subsequent editions met new needs by revising and adding to the whole.

The third edition aimed to complete the utility of these essays as an addition to the Jury Project, addressing arguments in chapter 10 of the 1st Revised Edition of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (now chapter 9 of the 2nd edition, the The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict). Since my essays were not originally designed for this purpose, their format does not follow McDowell’s. Instead, sections or points have simply been added where appropriate when something peculiar to McDowell begs for a response. No matter the format, this paper has always effectively stood as a rebuttal to McDowell’s certainty that “Christ is risen indeed” (McDowell, 1st ed., p. 260, § 10.6A; 2nd ed., p. 284, § 9.8A), and now it will do so even more directly than before, even though very little had to be added. Both his first (1972, slightly revised in 1979) and his second (1999) editions will be addressed, though they do not differ greatly on this subject. Even so, if you, the reader, find any important points McDowell makes (in either edition) that are not addressed here, please announce that fact in our Feedback Forum. This also goes for any facts or details that I have failed to address or take into account anywhere in this essay.

The fourth edition involved two changes: First, I had lectured on this topic at Yale, using a shorter summary text of the same title that actually brings in points I made in other essays, as well as entirely new material, and still more ideas came to me after the nearly two hour Q & A session that followed. I then gave this lecture on several other occasions, and wanted to reproduce it online with footnotes on sources and critical issues I never have time to address in person. Second, after receiving a lot of mail from people who clearly failed to understand what I said at several points in the original essays, I decided to rewrite certain sentences throughout all my materials to make them clearer. No substantial changes were made apart from how I said the same things this essay already said in the third edition. The fifth edition of 2004, however, completely reorganized the collection in a more streamlined and integrated way, drawing what had become scores of pages into a smaller collection of a few longer essays. I also updated several arguments in light of my more recent research, changed the way I said some things, and made everything more accessible with hyperlinked tables of contents. Finally, I changed many of my estimates of probability to make them as low as I could believe possible, to eliminate any charge of bias.


Main Argument

What follows is a half-hour lecture I have given on several public occasions, first at Yale on 26 October 2000 at the request of the Yale College Humanists and Secularists. It was followed by a Q & A session of nearly two hours. Many in my audiences have asked that I reproduce the speech online, with hyperlinked footnotes in brackets giving more detail than I am able to provide in person. I have now made this the central argument in my collection of essays on why I don’t buy the resurrection story. In this 2004 edit, I have made only a few minor changes to the original 2000 text.


Today I am going to tell you why I don’t buy the resurrection story. By that I mean the tales in the Gospels, of Jesus physically rising again from the grave. As a professional historian, I do not believe we have anywhere near sufficient evidence or reason to believe this, and I’ve been asked by the Yale College Humanists and Secularists to explain why. If any of you want to know more about this than what few points I can cover in thirty minutes, I have several writings on this and other subjects on the Secular Web. But here I will cover the most important reasons why I don’t buy the resurrection story.

It actually begins with a different tale. In 520 A.D. an anonymous monk recorded the life of Saint Genevieve, who had died only ten years before that. In his account of her life, he describes how, when she ordered a cursed tree cut down, monsters sprang from it and breathed a fatal stench on many men for two hours; while she was sailing, eleven ships capsized, but at her prayers they were righted again spontaneously; she cast out demons, calmed storms, miraculously created water and oil from nothing before astonished crowds, healed the blind and lame, and several people who stole things from her actually went blind instead. No one wrote anything to contradict or challenge these claims, and they were written very near the time the events supposedly happened–by a religious man whom we suppose regarded lying to be a sin. Yet do we believe any of it? Not really. And we shouldn’t.[1]

As David Hume once said, why do such things not happen now?[2] Is it a coincidence that the very time when these things no longer happen is the same time that we have the means and methods to check them in the light of science and careful investigation? I’ve never seen monsters spring from a tree, and I don’t know anyone who has, and there are no women touring the country transmuting matter or levitating ships. These events look like tall tales, sound like tall tales, and smell like tall tales. Odds are, they’re tall tales.

But we should try to be more specific in our reasons, and not rely solely on common sense impressions. And there are specific reasons to disbelieve the story of Genevieve, and they are the same reasons we have to doubt the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus. For the parallel is clear: the Gospels were written no sooner to the death of their main character–and more likely many decades later–than was the case for the account of Genevieve; and like that account, the Gospels were also originally anonymous–the names now attached to them were added by speculation and oral tradition half a century after they were actually written. Both contain fabulous miracles supposedly witnessed by numerous people. Both belong to the same genre of literature: what we call a “hagiography,” a sacred account of a holy person regarded as representing a moral and divine ideal. Such a genre had as its principal aim the glorification of the religion itself and of the example set by the perfect holy person represented as its central focus. Such literature was also a tool of propaganda, used to promote certain moral or religious views, and to oppose different points of view. The life of Genevieve, for example, was written to combat Arianism. The canonical Gospels, on the other hand, appear to combat various forms of proto-Gnosticism. So being skeptical of what they say is sensible from the start.[3]

It is certainly reasonable to doubt the resurrection of Jesus in the flesh, an event placed some time between 26 and 36 A.D. For this we have only a few written sources near the event, all of it sacred writing, and entirely pro-Christian. Pliny the Younger was the first non-Christian to even mention the religion, in 110 A.D., but he doesn’t mention the resurrection. No non-Christian mentions the resurrection until many decades later–Lucian, a critic of superstition, was the first, writing in the mid-2nd century, and likely getting his information from Christian sources. So the evidence is not what any historian would consider good.[4]

Nevertheless, Christian apologist Douglas Geivett has declared that the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus meets, and I quote, “the highest standards of historical inquiry” and “if one takes the historian’s own criteria for assessing the historicity of ancient events, the resurrection passes muster as a historically well-attested event of the ancient world,” as well-attested, he says, as Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.[5] Well, it is common in Christian apologetics, throughout history, to make absurdly exaggerated claims, and this is no exception. Let’s look at Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon for a minute:

  • First of all, we have Caesar’s own word on the subject. Indeed, The Civil War has been a Latin classic for two thousand years, written by Caesar himself and by one of his generals and closest of friends. In contrast, we do not have anything written by Jesus, and we do not know for certain the name of any author of any of the accounts of his earthly resurrection.
  • Second, we have many of Caesar’s enemies, including Cicero, a contemporary of the event, reporting the crossing of the Rubicon, whereas we have no hostile or even neutral records of the resurrection until over a hundred years after the event, which is fifty years after the Christians’ own claims had been widely spread around.
  • Third, we have a number of inscriptions and coins produced soon after the Republican Civil War related to the Rubicon crossing, including mentions of battles and conscriptions and judgments, which provide evidence for Caesar’s march. On the other hand, we have absolutely no physical evidence of any kind in the case of the resurrection.
  • Fourth, we have the story of the “Rubicon Crossing” in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age: Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, Plutarch. Moreover, these scholars have a measure of proven reliability, since a great many of their reports on other matters have been confirmed in material evidence and in other sources. In addition, they often quote and name many different sources, showing a wide reading of the witnesses and documents, and they show a desire to critically examine claims for which there is any dispute. If that wasn’t enough, all of them cite or quote sources written by witnesses, hostile and friendly, of the Rubicon crossing and its repercussions.

    Compare this with the resurrection: we have not even a single established historian mentioning the event until the 3rd and 4th centuries, and then only by Christian historians.[6] And of those few others who do mention it within a century of the event, none of them show any wide reading, never cite any other sources, show no sign of a skilled or critical examination of conflicting claims, have no other literature or scholarship to their credit that we can test for their skill and accuracy, are completely unknown, and have an overtly declared bias towards persuasion and conversion.[7]

  • Fifth, the history of Rome could not have proceeded as it did had Caesar not physically moved an army into Italy. Even if Caesar could have somehow cultivated the mere belief that he had done this, he could not have captured Rome or conscripted Italian men against Pompey’s forces in Greece. On the other hand, all that is needed to explain the rise of Christianity is a belief–a belief that the resurrection happened. There is nothing that an actual resurrection would have caused that could not have been caused by a mere belief in that resurrection. Thus, an actual resurrection is not necessary to explain all subsequent history, unlike Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.[8]

It should be clear that we have many reasons to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, all of which are lacking in the case of the resurrection. In fact, when we compare all five points, we see that in four of the five proofs of an event’s historicity, the resurrection has no evidence at all, and in the one proof that it does have, it has not the best, but the very worst kind of evidence–a handful of biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, second-hand witnesses. Indeed, you really have to look hard to find another event that is in a worse condition than this as far as evidence goes. So Geivett is guilty of a rather extreme exaggeration. This is not a historically well-attested event, and it does not meet the highest standards of evidence.

But reasons to be skeptical do not stop there. We must consider the setting–the place and time in which these stories spread. This was an age of fables and wonder. Magic and miracles and ghosts were everywhere, and almost never doubted. I’ll give one example that illustrates this: we have several accounts of what the common people thought about lunar eclipses. They apparently had no doubt that this horrible event was the result of witches calling the moon down with diabolical spells. So when an eclipse occurred, everyone would frantically start banging pots and blowing brass horns furiously, to confuse the witches’ spells. So tremendous was this din that many better-educated authors complain of how the racket filled entire cities and countrysides. This was a superstitious people.[9]

Only a small class of elite well-educated men adopted more skeptical points of view, and because they belonged to the upper class, both them and their arrogant skepticism were scorned by the common people, rather than respected. Plutarch laments how doctors were willing to attend to the sick among the poor for little or no fee, but they were usually sent away, in preference for the local wizard.[10] By modern standards, almost no one had any sort of education at all, and there were no mass media disseminating scientific facts in any form. By the estimates of William Harris, author of Ancient Literacy [1989], only 20% of the population could read anything at all, fewer than 10% could read well, and far fewer still had any access to books. He found that in comparative terms, even a single page of blank papyrus cost the equivalent of thirty dollars–ink, and the labor to hand copy every word, cost many times more. We find that books could run to the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Consequently, only the rich had books, and only elite scholars had access to libraries, of which there were few. The result was that the masses had no understanding of science or critical thought. They were neither equipped nor skilled, nor even interested, in challenging an inspiring story, especially a story like that of the Gospels: utopian, wonderful, critical of upper class society–even more a story that, if believed, secured eternal life. Who wouldn’t have bought a ticket to that lottery? Opposition arose mainly from prior commitments to other dogmas, not reason or evidence.

The differences between society then and now cannot be stressed enough. There didn’t exist such things as coroners, reporters, cameras, newspapers, forensic science, or even police detectives. All the technology, all the people we have pursuing the truth of various claims now, did not exist then. In those days, few would even be able to check the details of a story if they wanted to–and few wanted to. Instead, people based their judgment on the display of sincerity by the storyteller, by his ability to impress them with a show or simply to persuade and “sell” his story, and by the potential rewards his story had to offer.[11] At the same time, doubters didn’t care to waste the time or money debunking yet another crazy cult, of which there were hundreds then.[12] And so it should not surprise us that we have no writings by anyone hostile to Christianity until a century after it began–not even slanders or lies. Clearly, no doubter cared to check or even challenge the story in print until it was too late to investigate the facts.[13]

These are just some of the reasons why we cannot trust extraordinary reports from that time without excellent evidence, which we do not have in the case of the physical resurrection of Jesus. For on the same quality of evidence we have reports of talking dogs, flying wizards, magical statues, and monsters springing from trees.[14] Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980’s? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well–no.[15] What about alien bodies recovered from a crashed flying saucer in Roswell, New Mexico? Many people sincerely believe that legend today, yet this is the modern age, with ample evidence against it in print that is easily accessible to anyone, and this legend began only thirty years after the event.[16]

Even so, it is often said in objection that we can trust the Gospels more than we normally would because they were based on the reports of eye-witnesses of the event who were willing to die for their belief in the physical resurrection, for surely no one would die for a lie. To quote a Christian website: “the first disciples were willing to suffer and die for their faith…for their claims to have seen Jesus…risen bodily from the dead.” Of course, the Gospel of Matthew 28:17 actually claims that some eye-witnesses didn’t believe what they saw and might not have become Christians, which suggests the experience was not so convincing after all. But there are two other key reasons why this argument sounds great in sermons but doesn’t hold water under rational scrutiny.

First, it is based on nothing in the New Testament itself, or on any reliable evidence of any kind. None of the Gospels or Epistles mention anyone dying for their belief in the “physical” resurrection of Jesus. The only martyrdoms recorded in the New Testament are, first, the stoning of Stephen in the Book of Acts. But Stephen was not a witness. He was a later convert. So if he died for anything, he died for hearsay alone. But even in Acts the story has it that he was not killed for what he believed, but for some trumped up false charge, and by a mob, whom he could not have escaped even if he had recanted. So his death does not prove anything in that respect. Moreover, in his last breaths, we are told, he says nothing about dying for any belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but mentions only his belief that Jesus was the messiah, and was at that moment in heaven.[17] And then he sees Jesus–yet no one else does, so this was clearly a vision, not a physical appearance, and there is no good reason to believe earlier appearances were any different.

The second and only other “martyr” recorded in Acts is the execution of the Apostle James, but we are not told anything about why he was killed or whether recanting would have saved him, or what he thought he died for.[18] In fact, we have one independent account in the Jewish history of Josephus, of the stoning of a certain “James the brother of Jesus” in 62 A.D., possibly but not necessarily the very same James, and in that account he is stoned for breaking the Jewish law, which recanting would not escape, and in the account of the late 2nd century Christian hagiographer Hegesippus, as reported by Eusebius, he dies not for his belief in a physical resurrection, but, just like Stephen, solely for proclaiming Jesus the messiah, who was at that moment in heaven.[19]

Yet that is the last record of any martyrdom we have until the 2nd century. Then we start to hear about some unnamed Christians burned for arson by Nero in 64 A.D.,[20] but we do not know if any eye-witnesses were included in that group–and even if we did it would not matter, for they were killed on a false charge of arson, not for refusing to deny belief in a physical resurrection. So even if they had recanted, it would not have saved them, and therefore their deaths also do not prove anything, especially since such persecution was so rare and unpredictable in that century. We also do not even know what it was they believed–after all, Stephen and James did not appear to regard the physical resurrection as an essential component of their belief. It is not what they died for.

As far as we can tell, apart from perhaps James, no one knew what the fate was of any of the original eye-witnesses. People were even unclear about who the original eye-witnesses were. There were a variety of legends circulating centuries later about their travels and deaths, but it is clear from our earliest sources that no one knew for certain.[21] There was only one notable exception: the martyrdom of Peter. This we do not hear about until two or three generations after the event, and it is told in only one place: the Gnostic Acts of Peter, which was rejected as a false document by many Christians of the day. But even if this account is true, it claims that Peter was executed for political meddling and not for his beliefs. Even more important, it states that Peter believed Jesus was resurrected as a spirit, not in the flesh…[22]

Which brings us to the second point: it seems distinctly possible, if not definite, that the original Christians did not in fact believe in a physical resurrection (meaning a resurrection of his corpse), but that Jesus was taken up to heaven and given a new body–a more perfect, spiritual body–and then “the risen Jesus” was seen in visions and dreams, just like the vision Stephen has before he dies, and which Paul has on the road to Damascus. Visions of gods were not at all unusual, a cultural commonplace in those days, well documented by Robin Lane Fox in his excellent book Pagans and Christians.[23] But whatever their cause, if this is how Christianity actually started, it means that the resurrection story told in the Gospels, of a Jesus risen in the flesh, does not represent what the original disciples believed, but was made up generations later. So even if they did die for their beliefs, they did not die for the belief that Jesus was physically resurrected from the grave.

That the original Christians believed in a spiritual resurrection is hinted at in many strange features of the Gospel accounts of the appearances of Jesus after death, which may be survivals of an original mystical tradition later corrupted by the growing legend of a bodily resurrection, such as a Jesus that they do not recognize, or who vanishes into thin air.[24] But more importantly, it is also suggested by the letters of Paul, our earliest source of information on any of the details of the original Christian beliefs. For Paul never mentions or quotes any of the Gospels, so it seems clear that they were not written in his lifetime. This is supported by internal evidence that suggests all the Gospels were written around or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., well after Paul’s last surviving letter, which was written around the year 58.[25]

Yet Paul never mentions Jesus having been resurrected in the flesh. He never mentions empty tombs, physical appearances, or the ascension of Jesus into heaven afterward (i.e. when Paul mentions the ascension, he never ties it to appearances in this way, and never distinguishes it from the resurrection event itself). In Galatians 1 he tells us that he first met Jesus in a “revelation” on the road to Damascus, not in the flesh, and the Book of Acts gives several embellished accounts of this event that all clearly reflect not any tradition of a physical encounter, but a startling vision (a light and a voice, nothing more).[26] Then in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul reports that all the original eye-witnesses–Peter, James, the Twelve Disciples, and hundreds of others–saw Jesus in essentially the same way Paul did. The only difference, he says, was that they saw it before him. He then goes on to build an elaborate description of how the body that dies is not the body that rises, that the flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and how the resurrected body is a new, spiritual body. All this seems good evidence that Paul did not believe in the resurrection of a corpse, but something fundamentally different.[27]

Finally, when we examine the Gospel record closely, it becomes apparent that the physical nature of the resurrection was a growing legend, becoming more and more fabulous over time, a good sign that it wasn’t the original story. Now, we don’t actually know when any of the Gospels were written, but we can infer their chronological order. Luke and Matthew both copy whole phrases from Mark and arrange them in an identical order as found in Mark, so it is clear that Mark came first among those three. Scholars dispute whether Luke preceded Matthew or the other way around, but it seems to me that, since they show no apparent awareness of each other, they were written around the same time, though scholars generally hold that Luke perhaps wrote later than Matthew. John presents the most theologically elaborate of the accounts, suggesting a late development, and even earliest Christian tradition held that this Gospel was the last to be written, and scholars generally agree on this.

So we start with Mark. It is little known among the laity, but in fact the ending of Mark, everything after verse 16:8, does not actually exist in the earliest versions of that Gospel that survive.[28] It was added some time late in the 2nd century or even later. Before that, as far as we can tell, Mark ended at verse 16:8. But that means his Gospel ended only with an empty tomb, and a pronouncement by a mysterious young man [29] that Jesus would be seen in Galilee–nothing is said of how he would be seen. This was clearly unsatisfactory for the growing powerful arm of the Church a century later, which had staked its claim on a physical resurrection, against competing segments of the Church usually collectively referred to as the Gnostics (though not always accurately). So an ending was added that quickly pinned some physical appearances of Jesus onto the story, and for good measure put in the mouth of Christ rabid condemnations of those who didn’t believe it.[30] But when we consider the original story, it supports the notion that the original belief was of a spiritual rather than a physical event. The empty tomb for Mark was likely meant to be a symbol, not a historical reality, but even if he was repeating what was told him as true, it was not unusual in the ancient world for the bodies of heroes who became gods to vanish from this world: being deified entailed being taken up into heaven, as happened to men as diverse as Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, and Mark’s story of an empty tomb would simply represent that expectation.[31]

A decade or two passes, and then Matthew appears. As this Gospel tells it, there was a vast earthquake, and instead of a mere boy standing around beside an already-opened tomb, an angel–blazing like lightning–descended from the sky and paralyzed two guards that happened to be there, rolled away the stone single handedly before several witnesses–and then announced that Jesus will appear in Galilee. Obviously we are seeing a clear case of legendary embellishment of the otherwise simple story in Mark. Then in Matthew a report is given (similar to what was later added to Mark), where, contrary to the angel’s announcement, Jesus immediately meets the women that attended to his grave and repeats what the angel said. Matthew is careful to add a hint that this was a physical Jesus, having the women grovel and grab his feet as he speaks.[32]

Then, maybe a little later still, Luke appears, and suddenly what was a vague and perhaps symbolic allusion to an ascension in Mark has now become a bodily appearance, complete with a dramatic reenactment of Peter rushing to the tomb and seeing the empty death shroud for himself.[32a] As happened in Matthew, other details have grown. The one young man of Mark, which became a flying angel in Matthew, in this account has suddenly become two men, this time not merely in white, but in dazzling raiment. And to make the new story even more suspicious as a doctrinal invention, Jesus goes out of his way to say he is not a vision, and proves it by asking the Disciples to touch him, and then by eating a fish. And though both Mark and Matthew said the visions would happen in Galilee, Luke changes the story, and places this particular experience in the more populous and prestigious Jerusalem.[33]

Finally along comes John, perhaps after another decade or more. Now the legend has grown full flower, and instead of one boy, or two men, or one angel, now we have two angels at the empty tomb. And outdoing Luke in style, John has Jesus prove he is solid by showing his wounds, and breathing on people, and even obliging the Doubting Thomas by letting him put his fingers into the very wounds themselves. Like Luke, the most grandiose appearances to the Disciples happen in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark originally claimed. In all, John devotes more space and detail than either Luke or Matthew to demonstrations of the physicality of the resurrection, details nowhere present or even implied in Mark. It is obvious that John is trying very hard to create proof that the resurrection was the physical raising of a corpse, and at the end of a steady growth of fable, he takes license to make up a lot of details.[34]

We have no primary sources on what was going on in the forty years of the Church between Paul in the year 58 and Clement of Rome in the year 95, and Paul tells us almost nothing about what happened in the beginning. We only conjecture that the Gospels were written between Paul and Clement, though they may have been written even ten or twenty years later still. But what I suspect happened is something like this: Jesus died, was buried, and then in a vision or dream appeared to one or more of his Disciples, convincing them he had ascended to heaven, marking the beginning of the fast-approaching End Times as the first to be raised, and then what began in the simple story of Mark as a symbolic allusion to an ascended Christ soon to reveal himself in visions from heaven, in time led some Christians to believe that the resurrection was a physical rising of a corpse. Then they heard or came up with increasingly elaborate stories proving themselves right. Overzealous people often add details and color to a story they’ve been told without even thinking about it, and as the story passed from each to the next more detail and elaboration was added, securing the notion of a physical resurrection in popular imagination and belief.

It would have been a natural mistake to make at the time, since gods were expected to be able to raise people bodily from the dead, and physical resurrections were actually in vogue in the very 1st century when Christianity began. Consider the god Asclepius. Doctors associated themselves with this god, and many legends were circulating of doctors becoming famous by restoring the dead to life, as recounted by Pliny the Elder, Apuleius and others.[35] Asclepius was also called SOTER, “The Savior,” as many gods were in that day. He was especially so-named for being able to cure the sick and bring back the dead, and since “Jesus” (properly, Joshua) means “The Savior” in Hebrew it may have been expected that his resurrection would be physical in nature, too. After all, so was that of Lazarus, or of the boy raised by Elijah in 1 Kings–a prophet with whom Jesus was often equated.[36] Jesus’ association with many healing miracles may also have implied a deliberate rivalry with Asclepius, and indeed, Jesus was actually called SOTER, and still is today: we see the Christian fishes on the backs of cars now, containing the Greek word ICHTHUS, the last letter of which stands for: SOTER. Not standing to be outdone by a pagan god, Christians may have simply expected that their god could raise himself physically from the grave.[37]

Then there is Herodotus, who was always a popular author and had been for centuries. He told of a Thracian religion that began with the physical resurrection of a man called Zalmoxis, who then started a cult in which it was taught that believers went to heaven when they died. We also know that circulating in the Middle East were very ancient legends regarding the resurrection of the goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar), who was crucified in the underworld, then rescued and raised back to earth by her divine attendant, a tale recounted in a four thousand year old clay tablet from Sumeria.[38] Finally, Plutarch writes in the latter half of the 1st century how “Romeo-and-Juliet-style” returns from the dead were a popular theme in contemporary theatre, and we know from surviving summaries and fragments that they were also a feature in romance novels of that day. This trend is discussed at some length in G. W. Bowersock’s book Fiction as History.[39]

So the idea of “physical resurrection” was popular, and circulating everywhere. Associating Jesus with this trend would have been a very easy mistake to make. Since religious trust was won in those days by the charisma of speakers and the audience’s subjective estimation of their sincerity, it would not be long before a charismatic man, who heard the embellished accounts, came into a position of power, inspiring complete faith from his congregation, who then sought to defend the story, and so began the transformation of the Christian idea of the resurrection from a spiritual concept to a physical one–naturally, calling themselves the “true church” and attacking all rivals, as has sadly so often happened in history.

Lending plausibility to this chain of events was the Jewish War between 66 and 70 A.D.[40], which ended with the complete destruction of the original Christian Church in Jerusalem, and much of the entire city, after all Judaea itself was ravaged by war. It is likely that many if not all of the original believers still living were killed in this war, or in Nero’s persecution of 64, and with the loss of the central source of Christian authority and tradition, legends were ripe for the growing. This would explain why later Christians were so in the dark about the history of their own Church between 58 and 95. It was a kind of mini-dark age for them, a time of confusion and uncertainty. But what exactly happened we may never know. However it came to change, it seems more than likely that the first Christians, among them Paul, believed in a spiritual resurrection, and not the resurrection story told in the Gospels.

So this is where we end up. We have no trustworthy evidence of a physical resurrection, no reliable witnesses. It is among the most poorly attested of historical events. The earliest evidence, from the letters of Paul, does not appear to be of a physical resurrection, but a spiritual one. And we have at least one plausible reason available to us as to why and how the legend grew into something else. Finally, the original accounts of a resurrection of a flesh-and-blood corpse show obvious signs of legendary embellishment over time, and were written in an age of little education and even less science, a time overflowing with superstition and credulity. And, ultimately, the Gospels match perfectly the same genre of hagiography as that life of Genevieve with which I began. There the legends quickly arose, undoubted and unchallenged, of treeborn monsters and righted ships and blinded thieves. In the Gospels, we get angels and earthquakes and a resurrection of the flesh. So we have to admit that neither is any more believable than the other.

It should not be lost on us that Thomas was depicted as no less righteous for refusing to believe so wild a claim without physical proof. We have as much right, and ought to follow his example. He got to see and feel the wounds before believing, and so should we. I haven’t, so I can’t be expected to believe it.[41] And this leads me to one final reason why I don’t buy the resurrection story. No wise or compassionate God would demand this from us. Such a god would not leave us so poorly informed about something so important.[42] If we have a message for someone that is urgently vital for their survival, and we have any compassion, that compassion will compel us to communicate that message clearly and with every necessary proof–not ambiguously, not through unreliable mediaries presenting no real evidence. Conversely, if we see something incredible, we do not attack or punish audiences who don’t believe us, we don’t even expect them to believe–unless and until we can present decisive proof.

There is a heroic legend in the technology community about the man who invented elevator safety brakes. He claimed that any elevator fitted with his brakes, even if all the cables broke, would be safely and swiftly stopped by his new invention. No one trusted it. Did he get angry or indignant? No. He simply put himself in an elevator, ordered the cables cut, and proved to the world, by risking his own life, that his brakes worked.[43] This is the very principle that has delivered us from superstition to science. Any claim can be made about a drug, but people are rightly wary of swallowing anything that hasn’t been thoroughly tested and re-tested and tested again. Since I have no such proofs regarding the resurrection story, I’m not going to swallow it, and it would be cruel, even for a god, to expect otherwise of me. So I can reason rightly that a god of all humankind would not appear in one tiny backwater of the Earth, in a backward time, revealing himself to a tiny unknown few, and then expect the billions of the rest of us to take their word for it, and not even their word, but the word of some unknown person many times removed.

Yet, if one returns to what was probably Paul’s conception of a Christ risen into a new, spiritual body, then the resurrection becomes no longer a historical proof of the truth of Christianity, but an article of faith, an affirmation that is supposed to follow nothing other than a personal revelation of Christ–not to be believed on hearsay, but experienced for oneself. Though I do not believe this is a reliable way to come to a true understanding of the world, as internal experience only tells us about ourselves and not the truth of the world outside of us,[44] I leave it to the Christians here to consider a spiritual resurrection as a different way to understand their faith. But I don’t see any reason to buy the resurrection story found in the Gospels.


 The Rubicon Analogy

James Holding claims that we have as much evidence that Jesus rose from his grave as we have that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (“Julie’s River Run: On Comparing the Rubicon to the Resurrection“). There are numerous errors in his argument. This rebuttal responds briefly to the most important issues. In the end, my claim remains unchallenged: we have better evidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon than we have that Jesus rose from the grave. Therefore, the claim that this resurrection is “as well attested” as the Rubicon crossing is false. The Resurrection could still be a better explanation of its evidence, but that is not the issue under debate here. I take that up elsewhere.

Issues of Fact

1. Does Caesar Mention Crossing the Rubicon? Holding claims that Caesar’s book The Civil War does not mention any crossing of the Rubicon. Perhaps Holding is just being picky. What Caesar does say, in his own words, is that he was “atRavenna” where he assembled and spoke to his troops whenRome declared war upon him (1.4-6). He straightaway adds: “Once the will of his soldiers was known, he marched with this legion to Ariminum,” modernRimini, where several defectors with messages fromRome were waiting to receive him (1.8.1).Ravenna lies on the Italian coast twenty miles north of the Rubicon. Ariminum lies on the Italian coast ten miles south of the Rubicon. The towns were directly connected by a major Roman road that crossed the Rubicon, the Via Flaminia. You do the math.

In case you are still skeptical, take a good look at a map: there is no way to march an army from Ravennato Ariminum except through the Rubicon. The only other road available was the Via Aemilia, and though there would have been no logical reason for Caesar to take such a detour, this road also crosses the Rubicon. And the Rubicon at the time flowed from nearby mountains impassable to an army. So there is no possible way Caesar could have marched from Ravennato Ariminum without crossing the Rubicon. Therefore, when Caesar says he made that march, he is saying he crossed the Rubicon. By analogy, no one reports ever having seen Jesus rise from the grave. They only infer this from related facts (a burial, an empty tomb, and subsequent appearances), and these have various possible explanations. Caesar’s march from Ravennato Ariminum has only one.[1]

2. What about Cicero? Holding claims (to the horrified astonishment of all historians ofRome!) that it is “questionable” whetherCicero was Caesar’s enemy. Doesn’t Holding even think to check these things? Holding often does this: asserts what every historian knows is completely false, makes claims exactly the opposite of what we learn even in the most introductory courses on the subject, and then poor sods like me have to do the legwork to prove him wrong. It is as if he insists the grass on my lawn is not green, so that I actually have to take the absurd step of bringing in witnesses to testify that my grass is in fact green.

Okay. Here we go. Cicero himself says others argued against him because Cicerowas Caesar’s enemy, and anything he said about Caesar should carry little weight (Phillipics 1.11.28). Cicero admits he sided with Pompey against Caesar in the Civil War (Phillipics 2.9.23) and claims that had Pompey listened to Cicero before the war and taken action against Caesar as Cicero advised, the entire war would have been averted (Phillipics 2.10). In fact, Cicero was so prominently Caesar’s enemy that Brutus shouted only one name after stabbing Caesar to death: “Thanks to Cicero!” (Phillipics 2.12.28).

Though Ciceroasserts he always preferred peace to violence, he nevertheless says that even though people wrongly accuse him of planning the assassination of Caesar, he counts this accusation as praise, for he regards Caesar’s assassination as “a glorious act” carried out by “a gallant band” of men to whom “the republic owes a debt of gratitude.” Additionally, Cicero “admires” them for performing a deed so excellent that it would be absurd for his accusers to believe he would deny involvement unless he really wasn’t involved, for their name and number is “glorious” and “honorable” (Phillipics 2.11), and no greater or more glorious a deed was ever done at Rome, to the point that Cicero is happy to be included in their number (Phillipics 2.13.32-33).

Despite all that, Holding has the audacity to claim Ciceroshowed no sign of approving the assassination. Obviously, Holding just says what he pleases, and doesn’t even bother checking the facts. Even besides Cicero’s political opposition to Caesar and approval of his assassination, Ciceroalso called Caesar “wicked” (Phillipics 3.6.14) and regarded many of Caesar’s legislative acts to be unconscionable (Phillipics 1.7.16, 1.9.23).

In the end, Cicerowas the enemy of Caesar every bit as much as anyone who sided with the South in the American Civil War was the enemy of Lincoln. The fact that Cicerohad previously been Caesar’s friend actually makes Cicero’s testimony more persuasive, and that is exactly my point in citing him. Just as Christians use the fact that Paul converted from an enemy to a friend of Christianity as evidence he really saw a revelation of Christ, so does Cicero’s conversion from friend to enemy stand as evidence that Caesar really crossed the Rubicon.[2] This crossing was the final event that launched the war, the last point of no return, before which Caesar could have averted the war. For the Rubicon was the border of the legally assigned province of Caesar, and it was an act of treason for a general to march an army outside his assigned province, especially into Italy (see Cicero, Phillipics 6.3.5 and 7.8.26). This is why “crossing the Rubicon” has become a catch phrase, and why the Rubicon, otherwise a small and insignificant river, became symbolic of Caesar’s war againstRome.

Cicerorecords Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in the same way Caesar himself does. In his letter to his freedman Tiro (letter 311, or Letters to Friends and Family 16.12, dated 27 January in the year of the war, 49 B.C), Cicero says: “[W]hen Caesar yielded to the promptings of what may be called downright insanity, and–forgetting his name and his honours–had successively occupied Ariminum, Pisaurum, Ancona, and Arretium, I left the city [Rome].” In other words, Caesar invadedItaly at Ariminum and proceeded down the coast seizing every town on the way. The only way Caesar could have invadedItaly at Ariminum was to cross the Rubicon (Ariminum is only ten miles down the road from the Rubicon).

Therefore, Ciceroattests that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in the very year he did so (in fact, within the very same month). Likewise, in a previous letter to Tiro dated 12 January, Cicerois aware that Caesar is about to invade Italy, and preparations are being made to hold Italyagainst his advance (300, Letters to Friends and Family 16.2). Then in a letter to Atticus dated 19 January (303, Letters to Atticus 7.2),Cicero reveals there is all manner of confusion as to how far Caesar has advanced. By the 27th he has an accurate account of Caesar’s march.

So these three letters together represent a contemporary report that Caesar had not crossed more than a few days before January 12, definitely crossed before January 19, and had gotten as far as Arretium by January 27.Ciceroalso included actual letters from Caesar and Pompey on the further conduct of the war between them down the coast ofItaly, and letters from other people fighting against Caesar, confirming his advance all the way to Brundisium, finally chasing Pompey out ofItalyaltogether.

If we had this kind of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, we would definitely have much better evidence than we do now.[3] Imagine letters by Caiaphas or Joseph of Arimathea reporting the things they did, saw, heard, and investigated, all dated the very year and on the very days these things were going on.[4] Even if they never used the word “resurrection,” that would not matter–describing details of the event would be the same thing, just as describing a march into Italy beginning at Ariminum is the same thing as saying “Caesar crossed the Rubicon.”

3. What Counts as Physical Evidence? Holding correctly interprets my wording when he infers I did not claim we had any actual physical depictions of an army crossing a Rubicon (or inscriptions saying “I, Caesar, crossed the Rubicon”). That is not what I mean by physical evidence. Though such things would surely count (if they dated from the life of Caesar), they are not the only things we could have. This is true for the Resurrection, too. It is not necessary to have an inscription stating “Jesus rose from this grave” or a coin depicting this. Though such things would indeed constitute better evidence than we actually have, so would other kinds of physical evidence.

If we had an actual papyrus carbon-dated to the first century containing a letter by Pilate or Peter documenting or detailing any of the key facts surrounding the resurrection claim, that would be physical evidence. If we had an inscription commissioned by Joseph of Arimathea attesting to the fact that he found his tomb empty and that Jesus then appeared to his disciples, that would be physical evidence. If we had a coin issued by Agrippa just a few years later declaring faith in Christ, that would be physical evidence. If the empty tomb acquired miraculous powers as a result of so momentous a miracle there, or if the angels never left but remained there to converse with all who sought to know the truth, so that either fact could be physically confirmed today–so that we could go there now and see these miracles or angels for ourselves–that would be physical evidence.

But in no way is it “just as well to appeal to, say, the letters of Paul as equivalent to” the inscriptions and coins of Caesar, because the letters of Paul do not physically date to the life of Paul. This is a considerable problem, since we have already purged numerous interpolations and emendations from these letters by later scribes, and suspect many more, thus exemplifying the difference in reliability between having the actual letters written by Paul and having copies of copies of copies made by fallible scribes with a religious agenda.[5] This does not mean the letters we have should be rejected as wholly unreliable. What I am saying is that actually having the original letters is better evidence than having these flawed and tampered copies, and therefore such physical objects fall into their own category of evidence.

Consider what we have for Caesar. In 47 B.C. coins were struck by the government of Antioch(which Caesar had just liberated from Pompey) declaring it to be “year two of the era of Caesar.” Cicero’s letters confirm that Caesar’s conquest of the Roman Empirebegan in 49 B.C., two years before this coin was struck. This is corroborating physical evidence. Comparably, if we had coins struck in Damascusin 33 A.D. declaring “year two of the era of Jesus Christ,” that would be physical evidence corroborating the resurrection of Jesus.[6]

We have other coins struck by Caesar himself during the war to pay his soldiers, then coins struck celebrating Caesar’s victory over Rome(and then coins struck by Brutus celebrating his assassination of Caesar). In a similar fashion, inscriptions document Caesar’s victory over Rome, his capture of Italy, and his founding of colonies for veterans of the war there. We could certainly have had similar inscriptions by or about Jesus erected during his life, or shortly thereafter, documenting his miracles in life or appearances after death, or the subsequent commitments of the Church, and so on. But we don’t.

Issues of Method

1. Is Oral History as Reliable as Written? Holding claims that distrust of oral history is “a thoroughly modern, graphocentric prejudice.” In so speaking, Holding is parting company with every professional historian I know or have ever read. It is not a “prejudice” to employ the best methods available for avoiding error and getting at the truth. And historians know that written records are preserved more accurately and honestly than oral tradition.[7]

Oral tradition cannot be confirmed–it is taken solely on someone’s word, and is subject to restatement, embellishment, and mistake. The latter entails either misunderstanding what was said or mistaking what one person said as what someone else said. Moreover, oral history lacks controls: there is no way to go back and “check” to make sure a statement was gotten right or correctly attributed–or genuinely said at all.[8] In contrast, though written transmission can be doctored, this is not so easy as in the case of oral tradition. Since many people have a text to compare a written transmission to, claims can often be checked. Furthermore, manuscript traditions often survive, allowing us to identify errors and corruptions. And though written transmission was subject to error, its errors were usually minor and often easily identified, for the kinds of mistakes a copyist makes are much more limited than mistakes of memory and formulation.

Moreover, the ancients had developed a professional system for ensuring the reliability of transmitted writings, with supervisors who checked copies against originals and made corrections, as well as standards and processes for collating critical editions. No comparable system was in place for oral transmission–at least none that we know was used by Christians. For example, Jewish oral law was institutionally taught in formal schools and routinely recited daily in courts of law, and there is no evidence of any such institutional system of memorization in the first-century Church. Likewise, scientific evidence for an imperfect but modestly reliable transmission of oral epics and songs pertains only to stories constrained by meter and rhyme, or to brief apothegms and proverbs, never to long prose narratives or speeches, which we’ve instead found very prone to distortion and change. The wide diversion among all the resurrection narratives of the Gospels are a case in point.[9] Finally, all evidence of reliability in oral transmission pertains not only to these limited and categorically different circumstances, but relates only to memory, not the ability to deliberately add, subtract, or change things.

Consider how many changes and interpolations were already allowed into the written Bible–which we can now exclude and “correct” precisely because we have other manuscripts to compare. If the tradition were oral, we would have nothing to check our current version by, and would therefore have a very incorrect Bible on our hands. The problem would even be worse, since oral transmission is much more subject to distortion, alteration, and error than written tradition. This is so precisely because the mechanisms available to check and correct distortions were available only in the latter case, as physical documents were copied and disseminated. Moreover, oral transmission requires much more rapid copying, and therefore entails a far greater number of opportunities for distortion.

This is because the same physical manuscript can be read by (or to) thousands of people and stored for a hundred years or more, but an oral record has to be “copied,” often dozens of times, to reach this same audience. And then it is inevitably copied again as all these people spread it, each in their own way, while those who hear it from them copy it, again in their own way. It quickly becomes impossible to identify which version is the original, even for a skilled investigator. And there is no evidence that any such highly skilled personnel were involved in controlling the Christian story in the first century.

Obviously, the closer a written source is to the actual things said, the better. Recent studies of oral transmission have confirmed that prose stories become distorted–in fact, they are routinely altered to suit the needs and interests of each particular audience or circumstance. This is especially true when an oral tradition becomes important to some political, social, or religious agenda (for example, see the works of Rosalind Thomas or Greg Sarris). In fact, this is exactly why we turned to a reliance on writing and developed a distrust of oral transmission. Everyone knows that “this guy told this other guy who told this other guy who told me” is never a trustworthy source.

The ancients knew this too. That is why the best historians of the day, such as Thucydides and Polybius, insisted on relying only on direct eyewitness testimony, distrusting oral traditions altogether. Even mediocre historians, such as Herodotus, made a point of relying on no more than one generation removed from eyewitness testimony, and were suspicious of oral reports of more distant origin. Tacitus specifically wrote: “That everything gets exaggerated is typical for any story” and “all the greatest events are obscure–while some people accept whatever they hear as beyond doubt, others twist the truth into its opposite, and both errors grow over subsequent generations” (Annals 3.44 & 3.19).

In Roman law, oral contracts were still common, but often required five witnesses (especially to verify weddings, wills, and the emancipation of slaves), and when contested in court, all five witnesses often had to be presented to confirm what they saw. Second hand testimony was never trusted. So for any contract expected to outlive its witnesses, Romans got it in writing. They knew better than to trust oral tradition. So did the Jews, who also banned second-hand testimony from the courts in almost every case.

Therefore, it simply is not true that “Jesus’ own speech to his disciples is thus as good as Caesar’s own hand” because we have sound reasons to believe the Civil War we now have is a copy (with minor errors) of what Caesar wrote. The required standards and mechanisms of checked-and-corrected copying were demonstrably in place, and Caesar’s style is too difficult to fabricate. But we have no way to know whether what some unknown people claimed Jesus said is what Jesus said.[10] Even if we accept the names attributed to these stories (and few scholars do), we still don’t know for sure who these people were, when they wrote, or how they got any of their information. Indeed, because they never name or assess their sources, we have no idea what the reliability of transmission was, how many people the claims passed through, or what they originally looked like at the start of this process.

Moreover, when the Gospel authors wrote their stories down, there may have been no way for anyone to check their claims–we have no evidence any witnesses were alive by the time these documents circulated. Indeed, even the authors themselves might not have been able to check. We simply don’t know, because they don’t tell us. Even the dubious “added” ending to John (chapter 21; cf. 20:30-31) only claims an anonymous “we” heard the account from an anonymous eyewitness never mentioned anywhere else–not even in Luke, the only author who claimed to have “followed everything precisely from the beginning.”

Finally, oral tradition wasn’t the only bugbear. It was typical for writers to invent speeches, too. Even when they wanted to try and capture what really was said, the rules were very flexible, and no one expected exact words to be written down. Thucydides was one of the most strict historians, yet even he said “my practice has been to make the speakers say what in my opinion was demanded of them by the various occasions–or what in my opinion they had to say on the various occasions–of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what was really said,” insofar as he knew what that was (1.22.1). This is the strictest standard we know from the time–and yet it amounts to admitting he is often making things up, ultimately limiting himself only to what he thinks people “must have” said.

Few historians in antiquity were so strict, and in fact many complaints are heard from ancient authors about how much liberty numerous historians actually took in constructing speeches and even entire narratives. When we add the incentive to defend dogmas, the possibility of readily believing a claim of questionable origin, or simply fabricating a claim that someone knew “had” to be true but couldn’t find actual evidence of, we find ourselves in a very problematic position. We can’t rule any of this out because the authors give us no information to go on. This is universally true throughout the field of ancient history, not just in the study of Jesus. How much more this would have been the case for oral transmission, where there is no constraint to copy a written account faithfully, and no written account to check claims against.

Then there is Holding’s last objection, that Caesar would have dictated his book, which is just silly. Even if that were true (and it often wasn’t–many aristocratic writers put their own hand to scroll or wax), Caesar still would have continually checked and corrected the text, and the words written would still be his in both content and style. That is, they would have without doubt originated with him and not someone else. Therefore, there is no analogy here to oral transmission. This is still Caesar’s words, as Caesar himself wrote or spoke them. Had Jesus done the same–had someone recorded what he said in writing after he rose from the dead, and Jesus checked and corrected and signed off on it–that would count as an eyewitness report direct from Jesus. It would indeed provide better evidence for the Resurrection than we now have–if we had as much reason to believe the document was authentic as we do for Caesar’s Civil War.

But the truth is, “after Jesus rose from the dead” our earliest and only eyewitness report says he only spoke “in a revelation” and not in “flesh and blood” (Gal. 1:11-12, 1:15-16). In other words, it was a subjective experience in the mind of the believer that Jesus was speaking to him. We know there are many other causes of such an experience besides an actual spirit of a deceased person contacting us, and have never yet confirmed that any such contact can or ever has happened to anyone. Therefore, this is not comparable to Caesar dictating to a slave. “Jesus said it” is exactly the proposition that remains to be proven, before we can trust that he did.

2. What about Hostile and Neutral Sources? Holding objects to my application of the criterion of hostile attestation on the grounds that “we would never expect ‘enemies’ of Christianity to record it, since it would not serve their purposes.” Of course, if the evidence were really so clear, there would not be many enemies in the first place: many leading, literate Jews would have converted, many more than just Paul, and all would have left us letters and documents about their experiences and reasons. But that would fall under the category of eyewitness testimony, of which we have none, except Paul, who of course never testifies to ever meeting Jesus in the flesh, to seeing the empty grave, or to seeing the actual corpse of Jesus rising and talking. In fact, Paul never really says anyone saw these things.

Instead, my category of hostile attestation is distinct from this, for if even those who don’t like it or don’t believe it nevertheless report it, even if only to denounce or deny it or explain it away, that is itself stronger evidence than we now have. For example, if we had what Matthew claims the Jews were saying in Matthew 28:11-15 from a first-century Jewish writer, that would be hostile attestation.[11] Certainly many Jews would have an interest in publishing such lies or explanations, if in fact Christians were making such claims then, and there really were enough Christians making these claims for anyone to care. Instead, the complete absence of any Jewish texts attacking Christianity in the first century is astonishing–unless Christianity was a socially microscopic cult making unverifiably subjective claims of revelations from God that no one could falsify. Otherwise, ancient authors were not beneath writing tracts slandering other people, and later pagan authors had no scruple against attacking the Christians. So why did no one attack the Christians earlier? There are problems here, surely.

But that isn’t the only kind of evidence I meant. Neutral parties also count under this criterion. For example, if we had genuine letters from Pilate recording what claims were made and how his investigations turned out, he would have simply reported the facts, probably attributing them to sorcery or the miracles of just another god among many, or at worse speculating on possible trickery. But because he wouldn’t be a believer or have any interest in defending the belief, this would count as hostile contemporary attestation.

Indeed, it would matter a very great deal if we had a hostile or neutral attestation to the actual content of the original Christian belief. If the Jews were in fact accusing the Christians of stealing the body within a year of their movement’s origin, that would be proof that the first Christians believed the tomb was empty. That would indeed be something–a lot more than we actually have. Instead, we don’t have this claim from any Jewish author, only a Christian author defending the empty tomb claim many decades after the fact. Or imagine a letter from Pilate to a friend or an official describing the full content of the dispute between the Christians and the Jews, even including the report of Thomas that he handled the wounded body. If Pilate dismissed this as idle nonsense, he would be a hostile witness to the claim being made from the very beginning, thus ruling out legendary development.

And contrary to Holding’s strange assertion, there is no reason such hostile or neutral corroboration “would not serve their purposes.” Pliny’s letters on the Christians, Matthew’s purported “Jewish lie,” and Lucian’s account of Glycon served their authors’ purposes.[12] The latter, in fact, is a perfect example of hostile attestation to the existence and miracles of Glycon. Lucian didn’t believe Glycon’s miracles were real, but nevertheless he records them–with his own explanations. We have nothing like that for Jesus. It doesn’t matter if we have no reason to expect it, due to the poor chance of records surviving or even being written (though such momentous events as are claimed in the Gospels hardly seem the type to escape records). The fact that this evidence is not available now still means we lack evidence for this claim that we otherwise have for the Rubicon crossing. It doesn’t matter why this is the case. It still is the case.

In the same fashion, Holding objects to my criterion of physical evidence by claiming that “to expect coins and inscriptions from such an event as the resurrection would be unreasonable.” Again, that is irrelevant–the issue is what evidence we have, not why we have none. But we can still question Holding’s assumption that we should expect no physical evidence. Was it unreasonable of Diogenes of Oenoanda to erect an inscription conveying the complete gospel of his beloved philosopher Epicurus? Was it unreasonable of pagans who saw God to erect inscriptions honoring the event (as documented by Robin Lane Fox in Pagans and Christians)? Was it unreasonable of people to erect inscriptions documenting the miracles performed on them or for them by various gods? Or of various Jewish sects to erect inscriptions honoring their God? No.

Nor would it be unreasonable to expect some Christians to have done the same. If any king had been converted, for example, it would not be unreasonable for him to mint coins honoring his new god, just as Vardaman has tried to claim for king Aretas. If Joseph of Arimathea was indeed a rich believer, it would not be unreasonable for him to do what Diogenes did and inscribe his own beloved gospel in stone somewhere. And motives aside, the point remains we still don’t have any such evidence. It doesn’t matter why we don’t have it. We still don’t have it. But we do have some such corroborating evidence for the Rubicon crossing. And that is a material difference.

Combining both points, if we had the actual papyrus letter supposedly written by Claudius Lysias quoted in Acts (23:26-30), that would be much better evidence than we have now. That is, if it had mentioned anything relevant, though apparently it didn’t. It doesn’t even name Paul, much less Jesus, and makes no mention of the resurrection of Jesus being the point of dispute between Paul and the other Jews. But it could have. Lysias could have spelled out the dispute. And if he did, and we actually had the datable papyrus itself, we would have both physical evidence and hostile or neutral corroboration. But in fact we have neither.

3. Are the Evangelists as Good as Historians? Holding claims it doesn’t matter that many major historians record the Rubicon crossing, but not the resurrection of Jesus.[13] This seems rather silly. Clearly we would have better evidence if the resurrection story were discussed in all these same historians–especially if they in turn cited earlier historians whose works otherwise don’t survive, and even more if they also cited (as they often do) official or eyewitness documents. So when I claim that we have better evidence for the Rubicon crossing than the resurrection of Jesus, this is plainly true. Holding’s attempt to deny this is simply bizarre. Surely if we had such accounts, he would cite this fact in support of the Resurrection. So he can’t claim it “makes no difference.”

But what matters most for the issue of method is Holding’s apparent presumption that I dismiss the Gospels “merely” because they are late, and therefore later historians should count even less for me.[14] This totally mischaracterizes what I’ve argued in several places, including the section he is criticizing. Lateness is a problem, but not in itself grounds for dismissing a source. The quality and reliability of a source requires an assessment of all the relevant factors. The Gospels fail to count as reliable histories because they fail on every criterion, not because they fail on only one or two.[15] I address this issue at greater length elsewhere, including the problems with the best of them (Luke-Acts) by comparing its features with good ancient historians.[16] But to make a long story short, Luke exhibits none of the markers of a careful, critical historian, but instead preaches and propagandizes, and implicitly serves an ideological agenda, not an objective inquiry into the truth.

For a good extreme comparison unrelated to the Rubicon question, compare the explicit methods of Arrian with Luke-Acts: Arrian records the history of Alexander the Great five hundred years after the fact. But he does so by explicitly stating a sound method. Arrian says he ignored all works not written by eyewitnesses, and instead only followed surviving ancient texts by actual eyewitnesses to Alexander’s campaign. He names them and discusses their connections to Alexander. He then says that on every point on which they agree, he will simply record what they say, but where they significantly disagree, he will cite both accounts and identify the sources who disagree (and he appears to have followed this method as promised, though not always faithfully).

Now, this is not the best method–modern methods have improved considerably upon Arrian–but this is among the best methods ever employed in antiquity. And it is considerably different than just writing stories five hundred years later. Quite clearly, if Arrian did what he says, he is almost as good as an eyewitness source (in fact, arguably better). But notice how Luke does none of this (nor do any of the other Gospel authors). We have no idea whom Luke used for what information (he doesn’t even tell us he used Mark, even though we can prove he did). We also have no idea how he chose whom to trust or whom to include or exclude.[17] Luke is therefore not even in Arrian’s league as a critical historian. He fares even worse when compared with Polybius or Thucydides. Nor does he reach the level of lesser historians like Tacitus or Josephus, either–who, though they do not give such clear discussions of their methods, nevertheless often name their sources and explicitly show critical acumen in choosing between conflicting or confusing accounts.

The significance of all this is simple: we know for a fact these historians carried out at least some decent research and critically examined evidence and admitted doubt or conflicting information. We don’t trust any ancient historian as much as we’d trust a good modern historian–all ancient historians get things wrong on a variety of points for a variety of reasons (and therefore, by extension, we can be certain Luke did, too). But we do trust ancient historians to the extent that they exhibit the qualities of a trustworthy historian, such as being a critical thinker with an explicit interest in checking claims against documents and eyewitness accounts.

Now, Holding claims that for the Gospel authors “there was no dispute over source material,” but this is plainly false. All the Gospels disagree.[18] Even Luke, who claims to follow everything precisely, leaves out many things. Luke also recasts what Jesus said or did in a slightly different way than his one known source (Mark) and provides a completely different chronology than John. Obviously, there must have been disagreements. A critical historian would address them and, if possible, resolve them by naming and citing sources. For example, consider current Christian efforts at harmonizing the Gospel accounts. That is exactly what an author like Luke would have done–had he been a critical historian, and not a mere mouthpiece defending an ideology.

But what I actually said goes beyond what Holding tries to dodge. The problem is not just that Luke made no effort to resolve disputes and differences among his sources, and made no effort to name, verify, or establish the merits of any of his sources. Those are both serious problems. But the bigger of the two is that Luke doesn’t tell us anything about his methods–so we can’t know how reliable they are–or his sources–so we can’t know how reliable they are–or even who he is. Many other historians at least tell us this somewhere–some, like Appian and Josephus, even wrote entire autobiographies.

Even in general, Luke does not behave like a critical thinker. A critical thinker starts skeptical and only ends up a believer after finding the evidence strong–and then expects his audience to approach the truth the same way.[19] Consequently, he expresses doubt at amazing claims and then goes the extra mile to explain why he nevertheless believes, or admits where he believes but isn’t sure, and so on. Ancient historians aren’t always very good at this. But they at least do it a little. Luke does not.

Therefore, as I originally said, Luke and the other Gospel authors are, in terms of overt markers of reliability, among the lowest echelon of “historians” (and properly speaking, in the entire New Testament only Luke claims to be writing history). They are not neutral observers, but believers selling a religion, whereas we have the Rubicon crossing in numerous neutral and demonstrably critical historians, about whom we know a lot more than we do about Luke. Therefore, the evidence for the Rubicon crossing is better than the evidence for the Resurrection, and any claim to the contrary is false.

Conclusion

Clearly my argument stands unrefuted. On the Rubicon crossing we have corroborating physical evidence, and we know several contemporaries wrote on the war and thus provided direct or indirect evidence for the crossing. Apart from the direct testimony of Caesar himself, we have the letters of Cicero and his friends, and the letters he had from Caesar and Pompey, and we know Livy, Pollio, and others also recorded the event (for later historians used their accounts). Later, several known critical historians investigated and documented the event. And the course of history–including abundant physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, and the records of contemporaries and later critical historians–demonstrates decisively that Caesar invadedItaly’s east coast all the way down, chased Pompey out ofItaly, and eventually seizedRome. There is absolutely no way this could have happened had he not crossed the Rubicon. The “belief” that he had done so could not cause any of this evidence to exist nor have produced the subsequent historical outcome.

On the Resurrection, however, no eyewitness wrote anything–not Jesus, not Peter, not Mary, not any of the Twelve, nor any of the Seventy, nor any of the Five Hundred. All we have is Paul, who saw nothing but a “revelation,” and who mentions no other kind of experience or evidence being reported by anyone. On the Resurrection, no neutral or hostile witness or contemporary wrote anything–not Joseph, not Caiaphas, not Gamaliel, not Agrippa, not Pilate, not Lysias, not Sergius, not anyone alive at the time, whether Jewish, Greek, or Roman. On the Resurrection, no critical historian documents a single detail, or even the claim itself, until centuries later, and then only by Christian apologists who can only cite the New Testament as their source (and occasionally bogus documents like the letter sent by Jesus to Abgar that Eusebius tries to pass off as authentic). On the Resurrection, no physical evidence of any kind was produced–no coins, no inscriptions, no documentary papyri, no perpetual miracles. And everything that followed in history was caused by the belief in that resurrection, not the resurrection itself–and we know an actual resurrection is not the only possible cause of a belief in a resurrection.

So, again, we still have no eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no neutral or hostile witnesses to the resurrection claim. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no critical historical work on the resurrection claim. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no corroborating physical evidence for the Resurrection. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no need of an actual resurrection to explain the belief that influenced the course of historical events. But we do need an actual crossing of the Rubicon to explain the subsequent course of historical events. Therefore, on all five points, we have better evidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon than that Jesus rose from his grave. In fact, on four of the five, we have absolutely nothing for the Resurrection. And on the one single criterion it meets, we do not have the best kind of evidence, but among the worst.

[1] This refutes Holding’s suggestion that Caesar didn’t cross with his army. See Addendum A below.

[2] On the importance of this point, see Addendum B below. Note that I have little quarrel with the idea of Paul having a vision of Christ. Paul may well have thought he saw Christ in a revelation, as I have argued elsewhere. For example, see Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 105-232.

[3] Holding continues to claim that “we have just as much evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus,” but if we discovered the actual, direct testimony of any ideologically neutral or hostile witness like Pilate, Caiaphas, Joseph, the alleged guards of the tomb, bystanders, or anything like that, Holding would not hesitate to argue we had discovered more and better evidence for the Resurrection than we previously had.

[4] Note that I do not assume Joseph of Arimathea was a “disciple,” as the Gospels of Matthew and John claim, because no other Gospel mentions this–neither Mark, the first Gospel written, nor Luke, the only author who claims to have written a careful history–and Acts fails to mention Joseph being a disciple or continuing with the Church in any capacity.

[5] This holds even for Caesar’s text: if we had a papyrus copy of it dated to the 1st century, we would have better evidence than we already do. But this is even more the case for the Bible. See Addendum C below.

[6] Obviously, this alone would not prove the Resurrection genuine. Rather, the point is, if we had any evidence like this corroborating any element of the Resurrection claim (coins, inscriptions, documentary papyri, or anything), we would have better evidence than we have now. Though Holding claims such evidence “doesn’t make a whit of difference,” I doubt he is being honest. If we found any such evidence, Holding would not hesitate to claim it makes a difference. He would argue it makes the Resurrection claim even more credible and skepticism even less tenable. I agree. That’s exactly my point. Whether we “need” such evidence, or whether it would be enough to justify our believing Jesus rose from the dead, is not the issue. That it would be more evidence than we have now is the issue.

[7] Holding plays rhetorical games at this point, claiming “written tradition cannot be confirmed any more than oral tradition,” “is taken solely on someone’s word,” and “is subject to restatement, embellishment, and mistake, just as readily as oral tradition.” I have placed in italics the words that render these statements false. As I go on to explain, though there are similar problems attending written transmission, they are greatly reduced in kind, degree, scale, and rate of accumulation, due to the very features that distinguish written transmission from oral.

[8] Certainly, if we could show that a recorded oral report was checked (for example, by the recorder questioning several witnesses as to whether something said is correct), then we would be dealing with critical history, not oral history. This is a distinction Holding fails to grasp. See Addendum D below.

[9] Holding correctly observed that my original wording was too sweeping. Some of the content of the Gospels conforms to the structural features of proverbs and apothegms that aid in their memorization, which may well be the reason the record of what Jesus said consists of so many short, often disconnected sayings. I acknowledge my error and corrected it.

[10] In other words, even those elements of the sayings of Jesus that may have made memorization easier or more accurate do not themselves confirm that those sayings came from Jesus.

[11] Holding provides us with another example when he asks rhetorically whether I have “read the speech of Gamaliel in Acts.” If we had Gamaliel’s speech from Gamaliel, or from anyone who actually heard it, even that would be more than we now have–if he had even bothered to mention what the Christians were preaching that he was asking his colleagues to ignore. Holding spends a lot of time making excuses for why we don’t have any of this, even citing this speech to that effect, but that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t have any of this evidence, nor the fact that we do have such evidence for Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. That is the entire point and thesis of my rebuttal. I can only conclude that Holding doesn’t want his readers to notice this.

[12] Holding falsely alleges I “lied” about his argument here because “Josephus and Tacitus are the equivalent to a Lucian reporting Glycon’s miracles,” but he can only support this claim by being dishonest himself. See Addendum E below.

[13] Holding claims he didn’t say this, but in the same sentence admits to having said what amounts to the same thing. See Addendum F below.

[14] Holding claims he didn’t say this, but I never said he did. I only said this was an “apparent presumption” of his. And despite his protestations, it is still an apparent presumption of his. See Addendum G below.

[15] As almost all ancient histories do. Modern history leaves ancient methods in the dust, as far as reliability is concerned, which is why no historian today trusts any ancient historian implicitly. See: Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995); Charles Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (1983); John Marincola, Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (1997); Averil Cameron, ed. History As Text: The Writing of Ancient History (1990); Bruno Gentili & Giovanni Cerri, History and Biography in Ancient Thought (1988).

[16] Richard Carrier, “Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?,” chapter 7 of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False?” (2005).

[17] Holding continues to make excuses for why Luke didn’t do any of this, but excuses don’t change the fact that he still didn’t do them. So, unlike Arrian, we are not in a position to assess the quality or reliability of Luke’s sources or methods.

[18] Holding claims there are no significant disagreements, not even in the chronologies of Luke and John. The general consensus of experts does not agree with him. But see Addendum H below.

[19] Holding incorrectly claims this “amounts to saying that Luke didn’t end up with Carrier’s own view of the world, so therefore he must have been uncritical from the start.” To the contrary, had Luke actually engaged a proper critical method and still found what he reports to be true, then I would not expect him to end up with my worldview. Indeed, had that happened to me, even I would not have ended up with my worldview. The difference is not in where we ended up. The difference lies in whether we used sound methods and thus have a reasonable claim to have discovered the actual truth. We can’t prove that Luke did, because he tells us nothing at all about his methods and offers no clear evidence he employed sound ones. See the links provided in Addendum D below.


Responses to Holding’s Dishonest Addendum

Addendum A: Holding’s attempt to distinguish personal and corporate crossing is irrelevant for two obvious reasons: (1) the evidence from Caesar himself, Cicero, and every historian plainly says Caesar personally crossed with his army; and (2) no evidence whatsoever even hints at Caesar taking a different route toRome than that taken by his army.

Bayesian analysis confirms the conclusion. First, the “alternate route” theory has a lower prior probability. We know from many historical precedents that a charismatic leader embarking on treason would not likely leave his troops to their own devices, nor pit his main force against his most capable foe (Pompey) without his most capable leader and tactician in command (Caesar himself). Second, the “alternate route” theory makes the evidence we have less probable. All the eyewitnesses, contemporaries, and critical historians say Caesar was with and went with his army, and no hint or record survives of anything else. And the probability of his army maintaining loyalty and success (and thus achieving victory) without Caesar’s leadership presence, especially when invading their own country and killing their own countrymen, is also lower (thanks to Paul Doland for inspiring this point). According to the formal logic of Bayes Theorem, a theory that has a lower prior probability than personal crossing and makes the evidence less probable than personal crossing will always have a lower final epistemic probability than personal crossing. Therefore, if we believe Caesar’s army crossed the Rubicon, we must also believe Caesar personally crossed the Rubicon with his army, since that has an even greater probability of being true.

By analogy, Holding claims I “suggest that Jesus survived the crucifixion,” but he fails to tell his readers that I actually found this very improbable–far less probable than many other theories, except miracle, for which we have no basis for assigning a higher prior probability (see Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). Thus, the possibility that Jesus survived the cross has a lower epistemic probability than other theories, hence even I concluded the “survival hypothesis” is not worth considering unless and until all other theories bearing a higher epistemic probability are eliminated. The survival hypothesis is therefore as unworthy of credit as “Caesar took a different route than his army.” And yet, unlike that theory, we do have some evidence supporting survival: being seen alive after being declared dead would certainly be cited as evidence of survival in a court of law, being taken down from the cross so early greatly magnifies the probability of survival, and so on. Yet even with that evidence in place (to which we have nothing comparable in the case of “Caesar taking a different route than his army”), survival is still too improbable to credit because other theories bear a higher epistemic probability. For exactly the same reason, “Caesar went with his army” has a higher final epistemic probability than “Caesar took a different route than his army.” Since a less probable theory is ruled out by one more probable, we have no reason to consider whether Caesar took a different route. All the evidence we have more strongly supports personal crossing than not.

In his effort to make this distinction between corporate and personal crossing seem even remotely relevant, not only did Holding fail to tell his readers what I actually concluded about the survival hypothesis (which would have readily exposed why I consider the corporate-but-not-personal distinction irrelevant), he then repeatedly implies I sympathize with those who advance even more ridiculous theories about the origins of Christianity. This is the contemptible fallacy of “poisoning the well,” another example of Holding’s lack of honesty.

Addendum B: On the question ofCicero’s hostility to Caesar, Holding deploys at least four dirty tricks:

(1) When Holding says “we get no actual quote from any historian ofRomethat says any such thing,” i.e. thatCicerowas Caesar’s enemy, he is clearly implying none do. In actual fact, every historian who discusses the matter saysCicerowas Caesar’s enemy. But since I know Holding plays games with quotations by simply gainsaying anyone whose expert opinion I might care to cite, I pipped him at the post by going straight to the primary evidence itself, which is clear, unambiguous, and irrefutable. Let Holding find any real historian ofRomeclaiming anything else. He cannot. And he knows it. Will he admit it? Probably not.

(2) Holding then deceptively claims I demand “testimony from hostile witnesses for the Resurrection” when in fact I only said having “hostile or even neutral records” counts as better evidence than not having them. Thus, I said hostile or neutral, and I didn’t “demand” it, I simply stated the fact that having it is better than not. The very first paragraph of my original rebuttal said, “The Resurrection could still be a better explanation of its evidence, but that is not the issue under debate here.” Instead, Holding consistently ignores the point in dispute, which is whether we have as much evidence for one event as we have for another, not whether we have enough evidence to believe either.

(3) Holding willfully ignores my point that whyCicero was Caesar’s enemy is what lends credibility to his testimony.Cicero had no religious or dogmatic motive to report the crossing. His salvation did not depend on it. He did not base his system of moral values on it, nor did he believe it would morally improve people who believed it. His participation in a society of friendship and support did not require affirming it. And he was not at all predisposed to believe it. To the contrary, it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, nor is it what he expected. It dashed his very hopes, which were settled quite strongly on the contrary, that there would be no civil war. His letters make clear he was shocked and surprised by it. It is the very event that converted him from friend to enemy. That makesCicero’s testimony stronger than that of someone, for example, who thought he would benefit strategically by spreading propaganda about a crossing that hadn’t occurred, or someone who believed that affirming it would secure him an eternal life in paradise, or turn people back to God.

(4) Holding makes the clear, and dishonest, implication that I lied about what my source said, claiming Cicero’s Phillipics somehow says something other than what I claimed. But what I actually said (contrary to Holding’s bogus misrepresentation of what I said) is that “Cicero was the enemy of Caesar every bit as much as anyone who sided with the South in the American Civil War was the enemy of Lincoln,” an example of ideological, not personal, enmity, the very distinction Holding accuses me of ignoring. I also used the analogy of Paul’s hostility to the Church, which was also ideological and not personal. And let’s be honest: If President Bush were assassinated and I said this was a “glorious” act that I would consider it praise indeed to be accused of, Holding wouldn’t let anyone get away with claiming “to call Carrier an ‘enemy’ of Bush is questionable.” So Holding’s irrelevant distinction between hating the man and hating what he stood for has nothing to do with anything I said, and is essentially a pointless distinction designed solely to rescue Holding from the embarrassment of having falsely insinuated thatCicero was not Caesar’s enemy.

Addendum C: Experts have found considerable evidence that there was an atmosphere of religious and dogmatic doctoring and editing of the New Testament wholly unlike anything affecting Caesar’s text. Holding pretends I am just making this up, but it is a mainstream and recognized fact. Indeed, most experts already agree several entire letters claiming to be from Paul are forgeries, while others have clearly been tampered with (e.g. Romans has two endings, and the manuscripts don’t even agree whether the letter was actually written to the Romans; 1 Cor. 15:51 and 2 Cor. 5:3 were fudged to sound more orthodox; etc.). See the entries for each of the letters attributed to Paul in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000) and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd. ed. (1997), and see the introductory chapters to each of them in The New Interpreter’s Bible (1995). Also see Bart Ehrman’s library of scholarly studies on the subject: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1996); Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005); The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 3rd ed. (2003); The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (2003).

Addendum D: Holding says oral transmission can have controls, but a possibility is not an actuality. I am talking about what actually is the case, not what could have been the case. At no point, anywhere in the Gospels, is any such critical inquiry or “checking” of the facts ever mentioned, much less discussed in enough detail for us to assess their merit in establishing the truth and correcting error, such as by naming a witness and identifying his or her qualifications, or by discussing how conflicting reports were reconciled. Since we have no evidence of this, we cannot conclude there were any effective controls on what we actually find written in the Gospels. If we did have such evidence, then we would not be looking at oral history anymore, but critical history, and what I say about oral history pertains to the former, not the latter. For more on the problem of critical transmission in early Christianity, see Richard Carrier, “Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?,” “Would the Facts Be Checked?,” and “Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?,” chapters 7, 13, and 17 (respectively) of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False?” (2005).

Addendum E: Holding claims “Josephus and Tacitus are the equivalent to a Lucian reporting Glycon’s miracles.” This is dishonest.

(1) Tacitus never once mentions any miracles associated with Jesus, or even that there were any miracles associated with Jesus. He doesn’t even mention there being a claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Indeed, if all we had about Jesus was this passage in Annals 15.44, we would never even know anyone had claimed Jesus rose from the dead. See “Tacitus” in Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable? (2000). Holding knows this. So how can Holding honestly claim that Tacitus failing to mention any miracle whatsoever is “the equivalent” of “Lucian reporting Glycon’s miracles”? He can’t. Not honestly.

(2) It is very unlikely that Josephus ever mentioned any miracles associated with Jesus, and it cannot be established that he mentioned his resurrection. Qualified experts on the question are virtually unanimous that the only passage in Josephus mentioning this has been extensively tampered with, or forged in its entirety, by Christian scribes. Since the text has been compromised, no definitive conclusions can be reached as to what, if anything, Josephus himself actually said. Scholars agree the evidence is fairly strong that whatever Josephus may have wrote, he didn’t mention the resurrection of Jesus (e.g. if he had, Origen would have mentioned this fact). Holding knows this. So when he neglects to mention any of this to his readers, and instead simply asserts that Josephus “directly” reports “that Christians believed Jesus was resurrected,” he is not being honest.

Even the Christian apologist Josh McDowell agrees that Josephus did not mention the resurrection of Jesus, affirming that after he looked at all the evidence, McDowell found himself “agreeing with those scholars” who conclude that “some Christian additions” have been added to what Josephus wrote, and one of those additions McDowell himself concedes is the only reference to Jesus having risen from the dead. See Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1999), pp. 123-24. Holding is thus in a radical and untenable fringe if he believes what even McDowell doesn’t. And it is dishonest to assert as a settled fact what few experts believe, even among conservative Christians. For more on Josephus, see “Josephus” in Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable? (2000).

Not only is Holding dishonest here, but he would be wrong even if he was telling the truth. Neither Tacitus nor Josephus were witnesses or even contemporaries of the Resurrection. So they bear no analogy at all to Cicero or Lucian, the original examples he was responding to, or to any of the other examples I brought up in my rebuttal. In other words, Holding dodges my entire argument by changing the subject. Suddenly, without reason, though rebutting my citation of an unfriendly contemporary, Holding jumps all the way to later critical historians (even though those sources fall into my fourth category of evidence, not my second). Since all my examples and discussion related to contemporaries, Holding’s reference to later historians is wholly irrelevant to my argument. That is why I addressed his remarks as pertaining to the absence of contemporary neutral or hostile records of the Resurrection claim: because that was the claim he was purporting to rebut.

Maybe Holding goofed and meant to put those original remarks lower down in his rebuttal to my fourth point instead of my second, but that’s his mistake, not mine. I simply defended my second point against the arguments he made against it, and for that he accuses me of lying. Yet Holding continues to reference my use of the example of Lucian, even though treatments of Jesus in Tacitus or Josephus do not resemble Lucian’s treatment of Glycon, who reported miracles he himself actually saw or learned first hand, orCicero’s treatment of Caesar, who reported events he heard from several sources within weeks of their happening. Did Holding not understand my original argument?

Perhaps not. When Holding claims his “point” was that “we would not expect Lucian to record Glycon’s miracles as real,” he seems to think this is something he has to explain to me, when I had already said that very thing–in fact, that was my very point in citing Lucian as an example. My very words were: “Lucian didn’t believe Glycon’s miracles were real, but nevertheless he records them.” So what exactly was Holding arguing in his original rebuttal my second point? I have no idea. He claims “it would not serve the purposes of enemies of Christianity to report the Resurrection as real,” but I never said they would report it as real. I even gave specific examples making absolutely clear I meant no such thing. So in what way does Holding’s “point” rebut anything I said? Again, I have no idea. I can only assume Holding goofed and is trying to smokescreen his way out of it, instead of acknowledging that his original argument wasn’t applicable or correct.

Addendum F: In response to my remark that “Holding claims it doesn’t matter that many major historians record the Rubicon crossing, but not the resurrection of Jesus,” Holding now makes the following claim:

In fact I nowhere say it “doesn’t matter” and I never even use those words anywhere. I make no comment at all of this sort anywhere, and make no such “bizarre” denial as Carrier claims. The closest I come to any such statement is in explaining why such historians would not make note of the Resurrection, or how they would if they knew about the claims of it.

Holding’s entire argument, the entire thesis of his rebuttal, is that we don’t have less evidence for the Resurrection than for the Rubicon crossing. In defense of this thesis, as he concedes even above, he offers the fact that he can explain “why” we don’t have this evidence. That amounts to arguing it doesn’t matter that we don’t have the evidence. If it mattered, then he would be agreeing with me that we have more evidence for the Rubicon crossing than we have for the resurrection of Jesus (in the form of discussions in several critical historians).

Anyone who says having these references doesn’t provide more evidence for the Rubicon crossing than we have for the Resurrection, in rebuttal against someone explicitly arguing it does, is saying these references don’t matter. And that is clearly what Holding meant. When I said we “have the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age,” but nothing like this for the Resurrection, Holding’s immediate rebuttal was, “This is true, but what of it?” What of it? Holding’s first response is to flippantly dismiss as irrelevant the facts I just stated. That clearly amounts to saying that “having the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period” doesn’t matter. I believe Holding’s denial of this is dishonest.

Addendum G: When I said Holding has an “apparent presumption” that I dismiss the Gospels “merely” because they are late–because he argues that “therefore later historians should count even less for me”–Holding seems to think I was asserting he said this. No, I said it was an “apparent presumption” in what he did say. And Holding’s attempt to deny this only reinforces my point, and further confirms his dishonesty:

Carrier manufactures arguments for me out of thin air; I say nowhere (despite the quote marks) that Carrier “merely” dismisses the Gospels because they are late. No such word is found in my article related to that issue. He does admit here that he sees lateness as a problem, and that is as far as my point went: That his bald appeal to sources for the Rubicon crossing contains a “problem” that he blithely covers up, while he would (as he has in the past) be all over this “problem.”

Holding thus denies the presumption and then immediately embraces that very presumption! He claims that as far as his point went, my “appeal to sources for the Rubicon crossing contains a problem” that I “cover up.” What problem is that? He mentions only one: “lateness.” In other words, even here Holding presumes that mere lateness presents a problem for my use of those sources. He mentions no other.

And that is exactly his original presumption. I claimed that having “the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period” counts as more evidence than we have for the Resurrection. In his first rebuttal, the very first argument Holding advanced against this claim was that these historians are late, “later than even Carrier believes the Gospels to be.” In fact, he says, “to make matters worse for Carrier, our earliest manuscripts of these works are as much as a millennium removed from the originals.” And so, merely because of this, he says his point is that “to treat these documents in the same way Carrier treats the Gospels would be an absurdity.” In other words, Holding concludes that my treating the Gospels differently than these critical historians is absurd for no other reason than that they are as late as the Gospels.

There is no other argument he could possibly be making here than that I am absurdly dismissing the Gospels because they are late, because the only evidence he offers that my dismissing them is absurd is that it would be absurd to dismiss critical historians because they are late. Since he had discussed no other criterion by the time he made this statement, that is the only thing he could mean when he says, “to treat these documents in the same way Carrier treats the Gospels would be an absurdity.” For the presumption here must be that I am dismissing the Gospels because they are late. Otherwise, if I dismiss them for some other reason, his argument makes exactly zero sense. He could not claim I am doing something absurd because those historians are at least as late as the Gospels, because the latter fact would have nothing whatever to do with why I treat the Gospels differently, and would therefore have no bearing on whether my treating them differently was “absurd.”

Since there is nothing else Holding could possibly have meant, his attempt now to deny it is appalling. And accusing me of dishonesty for saying his argument contained this apparent presumption is even more appalling.

Addendum H: Holding claims there are no significant disagreements among the Gospels, not even in the chronologies of Luke and John. The general consensus of experts does not agree with him. But I will grant that with some interpretive acrobatics, one could force the chronology of John to fit that of Luke–by admitting, for example, that John erred when he said Jesus was crucified on “the day of preparation for the Passover” (19:14-16 and 19:31), or that Luke erred when he said it was already the Passover when Jesus was crucified (22:7-16; also the interpolated verse at 23:17), and by admitting that Luke did not “carefully follow everything from the beginning” as he claims to (1:3), since he left a lot out. For example, John describes the ministry of Jesus through three Passovers (John 2:13-23; 6:4, 6:10; 11:55, 12:1, 13:1, 18:28, 18:39, 19:14); but Luke, only one (Luke 22). John also only mentions Jesus clearing the Temple once, years before he is executed (John 2:13-23), and long before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-20), but Luke only mentions Jesus clearing the Temple once, mere days before he is executed, and after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-48). Similarly, John records a miraculous catch of fish after Jesus died, not before (John 21), while Luke only records a miraculous catch long before Jesus died, not after (Luke 5:1-11). And so on. But other contradictions are just too huge to allow any rational harmony. For example, see the closing example in my Plausibility of Theft FAQ. For more, see the articles relating to the New Testament in the Secular Web section on Biblical Errancy.


General Case for Insufficiency:
The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory

According to the Christian theory, God is god of All Humankind, and more than that, He is god of All the Universe. This is inconsistent with the proof offered for such a deity, that of the Resurrection of Jesus. This event is said to defy nature and thus prove God’s supremacy over death and to assure us that, by believing in this deed, God will perform the same deed for us. An inconsistency exists here in two respects:

(1) A miracle whose purpose is to prove something to all humanity must logically be an event that can be observed by all humanity.

(2) An event that is to demonstrate the power and existence of a “god of the universe” must logically demonstrate divine powers of such a magnitude, and not of a vastly lesser magnitude.

These are different problems. The first concerns whether the resurrection is adequate to prove to all humanity that Jesus is the path to salvation. The second concerns whether the resurrection is adequate to prove the Christian God exists, as opposed to some other God (or gods).

For example, a “god of all humankind” could have carved “Jesus Lives” on the face of the moon, where all humankind could witness the miracle, and observe it for all time without relying on hearsay–at the very least, he could have extended the darkness and earthquake and mass rising of dead people, reported to have occurred at his crucifixion by Matthew (27:45-54)[Note 1], over the whole earth, where it would be recorded by every historian of every civilization, so that all humanity could share in the prodigy–he could have attended the moment with a voice or vision seen and heard by every human being, affirming his divinity and sending the message of Life to all. Why, a “god of the universe” could have even rearranged the stars to spell “Jesus Lives”–the sort of feat that can never be replicated by technology and which would demonstrate a truly universal power over all of nature. Without miracles of such magnitude, a god fails to show the extent of his power, fails to advertise to all his subjects, and fails to prove himself thereby. He fails to exhibit his means and message in a manner proportionate to what we are supposed to believe about him.

And it misses the point to object that IHSOUS ZWN in giant letters across the moon could not be understood by any but Greek speakers, since those who later heard the Gospel and wanted to confirm it was true would simply have to learn Greek, just as anyone today who wants to confirm what the Bible really says must, and can easily, learn Greek. And it would not matter that this mysterious change in the moon would not be immediately understood around the world. People everywhere, India, China, Rome, would record the event before knowing its significance, and thus we could today check these unbiased and independent records of the day the moon changed to bear the new carvings, and upon hearing the Gospel, we would have a strong, independent proof that it’s central message, “Jesus Lives,” was confirmed by a fantastic and universally confirmable miracle. And if God needed more room to write more, just to be sure, then the stars are available for an entire book to be written in the sky, only legible when seen from Earth, confirming our cosmic importance in a way that no natural explanation could dismiss. Or the big words on the moon could be surrounded by a whole book carved into the face of it, which could then be read when telescopes were invented, a technology which Jesus could even have given to mankind, with the call to use them to read God’s message on the moon.

That’s just an example. The point is that we only need a universally confirmable divine proof that the events related by the Gospels were in fact under divine sanction and did in fact happen when they say: “Jesus is not dead” sums up the one key event that needs independent proof. The rest is just the detail. But again, the stars are available, telescopes are available. Or, if it is vital to have the whole New Testament confirmed as God’s word, God can simply make every true and correct copy of the New Testament indestructible. If anyone wanted to test which Bible was correct, he need only slice a knife through a page and watch it heal miraculously, or see it resist the blade miraculously. Gods can do a hell of a lot. That’s why the resurrection is not impressive relative to what a God can actually do to prove a point. And thus the resurrection does not prove its point. I could literally list a hundred things that would be better evidence than what we have, which is a religious book of questionable accuracy and authority.[Note 2]

So, first of all, a resurrection of one man observed by a handful of others in one tiny spot on one tiny planet in one tiny corner of the cosmos is more consistent with a very minor deity (or a very stingy and secretive one), or even more likely a natural event: for there is an easy naturalistic explanation in religious zealotry or scientific ignorance. Of course, even if we grant it was supernatural, there is no good reason to believe in, or even care about, a petty Palestinian deity–some spirit, mage, or alien capable of pulling off such a small-time swami trick. So even assuming the whole story is genuine, this proof still does not fit the claim.

The following three sections elaborate on this central point: I. Even Granting the Supernatural Makes No Difference; II. “No Miracles Today Implies None Then“; and III. A Message for All Would be Sent to All, and Not By the Fallible and Limited.

I. Even Granting the Supernatural Makes No Difference

Now, as William Lane Craig writes, “It would be very odd, indeed, were an atheist to grant the resurrection of Jesus as a historical and miraculous event and yet assert that perhaps only an angel raised him from the dead.”[Note 3] But to say “an angel did it” is to presume there was a greater being around who sent him. Thus, naturally, anyone who makes such an argument is behaving very oddly, indeed. But I know of no one who has ever made that argument, except perhaps early Christian heretics and pagan critics, who were content to believe in many gods, even those who would pull off tricks just to lead the credulous astray (as even the Christians believed the Devil had already done many times).

I only grant the possibility of other supernatural powers here for the sake of making a philosophical point: the resurrection, even if genuine, is an inadequate reason to become a Christian, for carving the moon or rearranging the stars is more consistent with the Christian’s description of God, as well as more consistent with that god’s purported objectives. Yet, despite the importance of those objectives, despite the reputed magnitude of God’s powers, we see nothing even remotely like this. Thus the event is, at best, poorly planned, considering its intended effect and declared purpose, and, at worst, no more a proof that the Christian god is One and All and Good than the feats of Indian gurus, if also genuine, would be proof of the Hindu cosmology.

But the fact is that I no more believe that Sarapis used Vespasian to heal the blind and lame than I believe that Simon Magus used magic to fly through the air. But if we allow any evidence to point to the supernatural, to any unobserved possibilities like gods, then we allow all the evidence to do so. We must be consistent. If we think the resurrection story as we have it proves anything supernatural, then if Tacitus insists that eye-witnesses saw Vespasian, at the command of Sarapis, heal the blind and lame, if Aelius Aristides insists that Asclepius came to him in a dream and cured his disease, we must accept that as proof that Sarapis and Asclepius exist, too. There is abundant evidence of magic and demons and ghosts in antiquity. What are we to make of it?

My point is thus not that, e.g., it is actually possible that Jesus used magic to restore himself to life, but that if he did so, God would then have failed “to exhibit his means and message in a manner proportionate to what we are supposed to believe about him.” That is, even were I to grant it was supernatural, I am left with no reason to grant that there is a god of all the universe, and one and only one god, and that not believing in this event would secure my eternal damnation. For if I were to allow the possibility of the supernatural on such feeble evidence, I must allow much more than this. I must allow the possibility that there are many gods, that there is such a thing as magic, that I may be reincarnated, that I may be able to escape this unreasonable Palestinian demonlord by hurtling my soul into Nirvana. In other words, the event itself is not sufficient to accomplish the task of saving my life–it is like throwing a life preserver to the victims of the Titanic, knowing full well they will freeze to death anyway. It is too little, too long ago. A god ought to know better.

II. No Miracles Today Implies None Then

The Resurrection demonstrates no more than amazing natural events or, at best, supernatural events of a minor scale. That is one reason why the “Christian God of the Universe is Proven by the Resurrection” argument fails to be rationally convincing. Such a god would not use a mere Resurrection as proof of his particular existence and divine plan for our salvation, and even if he did, we cannot accept it as such, for we cannot rule out the equally probable actions of a lesser deity, nor even natural causes–natural causes of the event itself, or of the account of it.

But the point goes even deeper still. An event only observed by a few men can only be a proof, as Thomas Paine wrote, for those men. It can never be a proof for all mankind, who did not observe it. No amount of argument can convince me to trust a 2000 year-old second-hand report, over what I see, myself, directly, here and now, with my own eyes. If I observe facts that entail that I will cease to exist when I die, then the Jesus story can never override that observation, being infinitely weaker as a proof. And yet all the evidence before my senses confirms my mortality. My identity is inexorably connected with my ability to see, hear, think, feel, and remember–it is built necessarily upon my memories, derived from all these things. Yet we know for a fact that by removing certain portions of one’s brain, or removing the materials needed for the brain to function, such as oxygen, we cause each of these elements of human identity to be lost or altered. The memory of words has its place in the brain, the ability to imagine images has its place, and we know them. When our brain loses blood, as I know from direct experience, it stops working, and when it stops working, all thinking ceases to exist.

Yet if you can remove my memories by removing sections of my brain, if you can remove my will or my reason or my emotional control by damaging other sections of my brain, if you can cause my whole consciousness to grind to a halt so that it fails to notice a whole minute of time, all by merely draining me of blood, then it follows necessarily that if you remove all the parts of the brain, if you remove all of its blood and put none back in, then there will not be anything left to call “me.” A 2000 year-old second-hand tale from the backwaters of an illiterate and ignorant land can never overpower these facts. I see no one returning to life after their brain has completely died from lack of oxygen. I have had no conversations with spirits of the dead. What I see is quite the opposite of everything this tall tale claims. How can it command more respect than my own two eyes? It cannot.

This argument that such a radical restoration of life is “impossible,” based on present observations, does not presuppose naturalism or materialism. It only presupposes that what we observe now is how things worked then. Indeed, I do not really claim that a radical restoration of life is impossible–I think it is very definitely possible–I simply don’t know of anyone (or thing) who can pull it off, and thus I don’t believe that anyone (or thing) has. If God were regularly performing unquestionable miracles today, perhaps turning all guns in the world into flowers, rendering the innocent impervious to harm, protecting churches with mysterious energy fields, and all the queer things we would expect if there really was a god, then the very same argument that I use here would actually vindicate the resurrection as most probably miraculous. After all, even the followers of Jesus reputedly got to watch him raise Lazarus from the dead, drive demons into pigs, walk on water, glow, and talk face-to-face with Moses, and converts got to watch disciples resist snake poison, stand beneath flaming tongues appearing in mid-air, and speak in a dozen languages without having learned them–if this were really going on now, I just might be a Christian. Thus, I do not presuppose materialism at all. My argument is perfectly consistent with godism. The evidence of today simply does not produce any godist conclusions, leaving us to wonder which is more likely: that God stopped parting seas and raising the dead, or that these stories are, for various historical reasons, fictions.[Note 4]

Nor am I even arguing that “no resurrections now means none then” on the false analogy that ordinary people today are like Jesus. Since Jesus was a special case, you might say, obviously his resurrection hasn’t been repeated. But my argument has nothing to do with this analogy. It has to do with the fact that “no miracles now means none then”–in other words, it would not be necessary to repeat the exact same miracles of Jesus to change my conclusion. All that is needed is the demonstration that God, like the laws of nature, is a regular, functioning part of what exists today, and that he actually has powers sufficient to work a resurrection. There is, in my experience, no such demonstration of present miracle-working, of any kind, sufficient to suggest that a particular miracle, like the resurrection of Jesus, is likely to be a miracle from a god. This is actually the way everyone thinks, all the time: we do not believe stories that come to us second-hand which contradict our direct experience, because each fact presents us with two possible realities, the only evidence of one is a story, the only evidence of the other is direct observation. The latter always wins: for no amount of persuasion will convince me that a poisonous snake won’t kill me, no matter how many men named Jesus are reported to have said otherwise. Above all, even the author of the Gospel of John depicts Thomas the Doubter as rational and wise for refusing to believe without direct observation, and this shows that we have no more grounds to believe than Thomas did, and until granted the same evidence as he, we are as right as he was to call it bunk.

III. A Message for All Would be Sent to All, and Not By the Fallible and Limited

The miracle of the resurrection is inadequate to the task of convincing all humankind, and so a failure as far as divine plans go. The colloquialism of a tiny event happening only inPalestinemakes no sense if a god wanted all humankind, including the Chinese, to witness the event and be saved. It makes more sense if it was a local idiosyncracy and not a divine event at all. That is to say, The Resurrection, as told, is more consistent with a mere natural occurrence that inspired a few locals, than with an act of a cosmic god aimed at saving all humanity. It is too small, too obscure, too long ago. Again, a god ought to know better. But men, we know, are prone to think of their little tiny place as the whole of creation, and of their little tiny slice of history as the whole of time. Men, we know, are more than capable of making this story up, or of believing it without really checking the details. The story is all too sensible as a yarn, whether sincere or devious. But as the centerpiece of a divine, cosmic plan, it makes no sense at all.

A resurrection, after all, is not all that impressive a feat. If so, why haven’t there been more of them? To be honest, there have been. I give examples later in Section V of the next chapter (Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). I could even add the obvious: how many “resurrections” have been secured by CPR and electric defibrillators? We don’t think about it now because it is so common that we take it for granted, but thousands of people every year die and come back to life. It’s routine. Moreover, one reason the office of the coroner was established was to prevent people mistaken for dead being buried or cremated alive. It is precisely because cases of people surviving or being revived from seemingly fatal circumstances are replete throughout history that the case of Jesus’ survival is not unique at all. As I will note, even if we take all records as entirely true, we have no account at all of anyone confirming that Jesus was actually dead: heart stopped, brain degenerating. And since we cannot have a true resurrection without an actual death, we have no record at all, not even an invented one, that Jesus was actually resurrected from the dead.

But all that aside, a resurrection is localized, not cosmic in scale, and it is not that technically difficult. Carving the moon or rearranging the stars is more consistent with the Christian’s description of God, as well as more consistent with that god’s objectives. We already expect that we, mere humans, will be capable of accomplishing true resurrection (i.e. reanimation of a long-dead corpse) in fifty to a hundred years. Even a miraculous resurrection can only prove a wonderworker of meager, within-the-realm-of-humanly-possible powers. It cannot prove a god of cosmic, supernatural might. And a god of cosmic might would want to prove he was the latter, not the former. Thus, the Resurrection is not consistent with what a cosmic god would do, but it is consistent with what ignorant men would dream up and believe with all credulity. So the falsehood of the Resurrection is thus more reasonable, more likely, than its truth, even within the theory of Christianity itself.

This is a point lost on Josh McDowell, who for some reason thinks an isolated historical event, far out of the reach of all decisive investigation, with what little that can be checked being open only to experts in ancient history, cultures, and languages, is actually better than a “mere” philosophical system that is based on universally observable truths open to every human being’s examination. This is the premise of his entire section 10.1A (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 1st ed.; § 9.3A in his 2nd ed.), yet obviously the latter is far superior in effect and utility than the former, and so no intelligent God would set up the inferior system when he has ready recourse to the superior. Since no God would do this, it is reasonable to believe that no God did. And as I explain in my Lecture on the resurrection, it would actually be cruel of a god to expect us to come to any other conclusion, much less punish us for it–or through inaction let us suffer for it.

Note 1: Matthew uses the word polla, which translates in English as “many” but in Greek usually means quite a lot, from dozens to hundreds or even thousands. It is the exact same word as hoi polloi, which means “The Masses.” Hence, “a mass” is an accurate translation here. In contrast, the word tis “some, several” was more usually used for smaller numbers, like around a dozen or less, but is not used by Matthew here. He clearly envisioned a mass event.

Note 2: See Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole, and also Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels; The Date of the Nativity in Luke; and The Formation of the New Testament Canon; and also questions raised by my Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark; Luke and Josephus; and Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay, among many others (click my name in the title above for a complete list).

Note 3: W. L. Craig, Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus, Edwin Mellen, 1985, p. 497).

Note 4: I have written on the related matter of the gullibility of witnesses in the time of Jesus in another essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire,” and on the question of miracles in general in my Review of In Defense of Miracles.


Probability of Survival vs. Miracle:
Assessing the Odds

After years of study as an historian, I now believe that Jesus simply died, and the rest was invented, consciously or not, by his disciples, as a means to carry on his teaching and gain divine authority for it–precisely the same thing preachers use the story for today (for what I think really is most likely, see Summary). But even if we posit that there is some truth to the appearances of Jesus after his death, even if we grant half of the argument, as I am willing to do here, the argument fails to convince. Why? Because there are too many reasons to doubt that a miracle occurred at all.

For the event to be a miracle, the Resurrection must defy the course of nature, and for that to happen, Jesus had to have died. His heart had to have lain still and quiet for up to half an hour, his brain had to have starved from lack of oxygen, with the whole network of neurons largely disintegrated, dissolved from massive cell death and the pooling of blood acids. Gases and fluids had to pool in his extremities and body cavities, with rigor mortis setting in, and coming and going as it does. His body had to begin to rot. Anything less than this cannot be considered death. If his heart kept beating, perhaps one can argue it was only in defiance of nature that it did so, and perhaps one can extend this argument to the brain, to the decay of the corpse, or to every aspect of death. Perhaps Jesus lay in a magical, miraculous stasis. This would entail that he was not Resurrected from death, but that he survived by a miracle instead. But this would still be the claim that he survived by miraculous intervention, and that his survival was in spite of nature, and not an exhibition of the natural, if extraordinary, course of physics, chemistry, and biology. I claim that we have no reason to believe that either miracle occurred. For we have no reliable evidence that Jesus died, and we certainly have none whatsoever that he survived by some magical kind of stasis: no one observed the corpse of Jesus while it lay in the tomb, and no doctors examined him, on the cross or off it.

Indeed, not only do we have no way of really knowing that Jesus died on the cross (we can’t travel back in time with the medical machinery and team of doctors necessary to certify it), there is an abundance of evidence which throws suspicion on the claim that he did. This suspicion, even though it does not produce a belief that he survived, is nevertheless sufficient for any rational person to remain unconvinced that anything miraculous happened, even if it actually did. That is, even if a god wanted this to be a proof of something, he failed to make it so. The evidence leaves enough room for survival to be naturally possible. But even though the survival of Jesus is very unlikely, it still cannot be excluded with enough certainty to justify categorically denying it as something impossible, and so it cannot be excluded with enough force for one to believe that divine intervention is the most sensible explanation. This is all that this essay will show.

It is easy to test the Christian’s honesty in claiming that the evidence warrants rational belief. Simply posit essentially the same evidence and essentially the same account, but given of a modern Bob, whose central message was that Christianity was a lie, and that his was the true word of God, and his resurrection was proof of that. Would the Christian convert? Logically, he must, for the evidence is exactly equal in merit but for these details: the new message is more recent and has not had the opportunity of being doctored or mishandled in transmission, and it has occurred in an age where almost everyone is literate and in possession of more scientific literacy than even the most educated scholar of two millennia ago. These two advantages are enough to give the evidence for the new messiah far more weight than that for the old (we might even add a third: the fact that the means and personnel would be available to test the event in ways never possible two millennia ago). But would the Christian convert, and renounce Christ? I doubt it. I think, then, the Christian would see all that is really wrong with his own evidence. It is far too weak to warrant conversion to Bob. But this entails that it is even weaker still in the case of Christ.

I. A Cumulative Case Can be Made that Jesus did not Really Die

Decision theory is the science of making our decisions more accurate, and more capable of being analyzed. The idea is simple: instead of trusting intuitive judgments that others cannot examine, and that we cannot consistently weigh against other judgments, we can try instead to assign numerical values to the weight of our judgments, and use math to analyze them. In this section, I will use a simple form of this method, so you can follow along and do your own math with your own judgments, and so you can see what weight I give to my own judgments. The statistics that I employ from here on out are thus given to quantify my estimations of the relative weight of options, so that you, and I, can see more clearly what I mean when I say “this is unlikely” or “this is very likely” or “this is more likely than that.” I am doing the same thing everyone does when they evaluate evidence and make a decision concerning what to believe, only I am doing it more openly and with greater precision. I am committing to more concrete guesses, and not hiding behind vague allusions.

Why? The first reason is because this allows other readers like yourself to insert your own values for each probability, based on your own beliefs about, and familiarity with, reality. And, using exactly the same evidence that I present, you can come to your own conclusion. That is the merit of applying decision theory to something like this–especially an issue that is so very complicated. In the end, I will consider the possibility that my estimates are greatly in error, and then show that even if they are ten times off the mark, then my conclusion is still valid. Indeed, they could be a hundred times off the mark, and I think my conclusion would still be valid, for even a royal flush is a very unlikely event, yet hardly a miracle. And it is important to emphasize all that this conclusion is: the realization that the probability of survival is not low enough to make it impossible. For I actually conclude that the probability is low enough to disbelieve in survival, since we have more probable natural explanations available (see Summary but especially General Case for Spiritual Resurrection and Main Argument), but if we had no other explanations, the probability of survival is still high enough to believe he survived before believing in a miracle.

This leads me to another reason I use numbers here: it is often claimed that an event is a miracle when it is so unlikely to happen naturally that there is no way we could expect it ever to happen. This invites us to test this theory by estimating the unlikelihood of survival, a natural explanation of the Resurrection, to see if we must conclude that it is a miracle (see Note 1). There are certainly natural events that are so rare that they only happen to one person every generation, and though this means that there is a 1 in 6 billion chance of such an event happening naturally, we see that this is almost certain to happen once every generation. Even reducing the population to a low ancient value of 100 million, an event as unlikely as 1 in 100 million persons-per-generation will often happen once every generation. So the odds of a natural explanation for the Resurrection must be less than at least this figure before we can conclude that natural explanations are too implausible to believe. Therefore, the chance that Jesus survived and this was interpreted or refashioned into a claim that he rose from the dead must be less than 1 in 100 million, before we can begin to claim a miracle must have happened instead.

It must be added, however, that some events that are even very likely may still only ever happen once: that a man exactly like Winston Churchill should be born and grow up to lead England during a war with a Nazi-run Germany is certainly no miracle, even though it is almost certain to happen only once in all of time. This is because the convergence of all the right circumstances must be present, and even though such a convergence is not improbable in itself, that such a convergence would happen again is improbable, to the point of being almost impossible. Thus, even though I find the Resurrection to be more likely than an event that happens only once in a generation, it does not follow that it should have happened more than once, despite the passing of hundreds of generations. Like Winston Churchill, that the right circumstances could converge once may be likely, but that they would do so twice might be extremely unlikely indeed–although we do have a record of a resurrection, giving birth to a religion, happening at least one other time: the resurrection of the Thracian Zalmoxis, which Herodotus (4.94-6) feels happy to give a natural explanation in trickery, even though he could not really have had any more proof than we do in the case of Jesus (see Main Argument).

It is important to emphasize that my use of statistical numbers in this section is not science, nor is it a new method of “doing history.” I do not claim scientific accuracy, and I am not solving a historical problem–this section is not about what happened, but what could have happened. It is about historical potential, not historical truth. Hence, I only claim to be making decisions about probability and likelihood, which everyone does, with less care, every time they decide what to believe, and using this to reveal why I do not believe survival to be impossible enough to ensure it was miraculous. And if you agree with my estimations, or using your own still come to the same conclusion, that then entails you should not believe it either. So this is not a trick or a pseudo-argument, but an attempt to make my reasoning more transparent and thus more easily tested against your own subjective understanding of the same facts. I thus encourage, and expect, every reader to consider each fact on their own, and determine in each case their own estimations of probability, and then do the math again, based on your own estimations.

Decision theory is designed for this very purpose, and before the Conclusion I give the complete equation that is built up throughout this section. In developing it, I believe I have accounted for all the significant questions in how I personally arrive at the odds of survival. Yet each distinct estimation of odds involves a collection of assumptions about the circumstances and setting, and I try to mention all of them that influence my decision regarding probability. This leaves two ways in which I can be corrected: first, if I fail to account for a significant factor in my equation; and second, if, in any one of the factors I do consider, I have neglected a feature of the situation or time as we know it, or gotten one wrong. The second error, once pointed out, may change my estimate of the odds for that factor. The first error, once pointed out, may change the equation itself. If you find any such errors, please call them to my attention in the Feedback Forum. Even if I end up rejecting certain factors as irrelevant or insignificant, you can still account for them yourself, by letting them affect your own estimation of the odds of the relevant factor in the equation when you calculate your own conclusion. And before rejecting my conclusions, I ask all readers to run through the equations themselves, and honestly, to see what you actually must believe on your own assumptions.

II. What Are the Odds that Jesus Could Have Survived?

Jesus, we are told, was taken down the same day he was put up, without breaking his legs, unlike the others crucified with him (John 19:32; nor does any other Gospel mention his legs being broken). Death by crucifixion typically took days, and breaking the legs is, based on this passage, taken as a possible means of hastening death, by perhaps cutting off the airway under the weight of the crucified’s own body. Thus, the possibility of his survival remains. Being removed before the typical time of death, and being treated uniquely among all others in the same place and time, in such a way as to increase greatly his chances of survival, casts great doubt on his death. If we imagine that even as few as 75% of all victims survived on the cross more than a day (at least such odds are necessary for Pilate to express amazement at Jesus’ early demise in Mark 15:44), then already we have a 75% chance that Jesus did not die on the cross.

It has been noted that we must also explain how Jesus survived his scourging or torture, as well as the crucifixion itself and the burial. But this is not necessary. All victims of crucifixion were routinely scourged, and frequently tortured, beforehand, and thus if people regularly survived for days (and all evidence suggests they did), this means they regularly survived for days despite their additional scourging and torture. All accounts as we have them show Jesus alive after any torture he suffered, so we do not have to account for his surviving it–all witnesses already claim that he did. It is also not remarkable. People in history have survived far worse. The removing of tongue, nose, and ears was a common punishment in Sumeria, and you can bet they did not use antiseptics, anesthetics, or sutures, and this was all too often survived–that was, in fact, the point of doing it. As for the burial, being carefully swaddled and lain on a slab in an open, roomy tomb is never going to present a survival problem.

Evidence from Josephus has been used to make the survival of Jesus seem less likely (Life of Flavius Josephus § 420-21). Josephus himself witnessed three crucified people taken down, and one survived. However, the passage says nothing about what wounds the victims received before being crucified (they were war captives, after all, not peacefully arrested criminals), nor does it say how long they were up, or how long they lived before finally giving in, only that they died while under the care of a physician. Of course, in antiquity, care by a physician, sometimes employing unsterilized needles and knives for surgery and suturing, and using unscientific folk remedies like hot baths or poisonous hellebore, could sometimes magnify rather than alleviate the chances of death, but more usually medicine at the time was sufficiently advanced for one to be better off with it than without it. At any rate, we are told by Josephus that one out of the three rescued lived. At worst, this calls for changing my estimate of surviving a few hours, after a mere beating beforehand, from 75% to 33%. I think the circumstances are too different (even though there is no doubt that if Jesus lived, he most likely did not live long–how long did Josephus’ friends live?) and the data too limited: his two dying friends could merely have been unlucky, or longing for death from their crushed spirits, or they could have suffered war wounds beforehand, or they could have been up more than a day, etc. But I will grant it anyway, and say the basic odds of survival are 33%.

III. What Are the Odds of Trickery?

Three of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion depict a sponge soaked in some liquid being pressed into Jesus’ face, with Jesus expiring immediately thereafter (Matthew 27.48-50, Mark 15.36-37, John 19.29-30). We are told it was sour wine (oxos), which was often used to revive the swooning, yet Jesus expires immediately afterward, a suspicious reaction indeed. So the possibility of his being drugged is distinct. We cannot check what was really placed on the sponge, and we have no neutral account of the sponge-offering. Certainly, I will not bet my life that it was not a drug that was supplied, and his immediate and otherwise inexplicable death after receiving the sponge makes the chances of a drug greater still. What are the odds that Jesus was drugged into the mere appearance of death? Even though it is highly suspicious and no one can bring forward any evidence against the possibility, I will be overly skeptical of such a clever trick, and say that the odds are only 1%.

It has been said that if one offers a secret plot to explain how this all happened, not only is it all conjecture (or worse), it must be based on a selectively inerrantist reading of the gospels. Both objections are misapplied. One must admit, conjecture or not, that a secret plot was possible, no matter how unlikely. All we need estimate is exactly how unlikely. Indeed, as we know from the elaborate frauds pulled off by Alexander of Abonuteichos recorded by Lucian, and the witches who drew down the moon by various schemes recorded by Hippolytus, fraud was evident in antiquity, and had it not been for the mere chance of these keen fellows happening upon them and bothering to root them out, we would never know anything about the fraud behind their schemes. Most observers were credulous, or didn’t care to prove false what they already rejected out-of-hand (see Note 2). And it is in the nature of trickery for the evidence to be buried.

All that remains is to see, based on what evidence supports that possibility, what the odds are it could have been done. The sponge event, for example, is very odd. So is the fact that Jesus was removed so early and treated so well. But added to this, the opportunities were rather great, as I will soon note: a day of no guards, a wealthy supporter, and being placed in that man’s tomb by him. Thus, trickery is no blind conjecture. It is actually plausible, explaining some unusual elements of the received story, and made more probable by them. So the objections to trickery are already built in to my decision-theory analysis: despite my suspicions, I have decided to be generous and yield to the objectors, and that is why I give odds of only 1% that a trick was pulled. What odds do you give?

As for this charge of “selective inerrantism”, it is misapplied here. One can say as much about every work of history or fiction ever written. If I read Sol Yurick’s The Warriors and note that his hero’s use of a penny gum machine shows that gum only cost a penny when the book was written (1965), am I being “selectively inerrantist” simply because I acknowledge that this book is otherwise a work of fiction? And if I conclude from a study of available water supplies in Greece that Xerxes could not possibly have fielded as many men as Herodotus claims he did, but accept as true the rest of that historian’s account of the Persian War, am I to be impugned for being “selectively inerrantist”? You decide.

Many of my points depend on certain New Testament passages being historically accurate, without making any argument for their accuracy. Doesn’t that, at least, weaken my argument? Not really. For we must face the Catch 22: if someone argues that the verses my theory is based on are false, then it becomes likely that the resurrection story itself is false. For if lies or errors exist in important details of the story, though this does not prove the story false, it throws greater doubt on that story being correct, not less. The probability of it not being a miracle is then even greater than I make it out to be. But I am deliberately giving the Christian argument a reasonable chance, by allowing at least some truth to the resurrection accounts, even though it is possible (albeit unlikely, in my opinion) that they are totally fabricated. Only when I can offer definite reasons for a passage to be regarded as false will I consider that possibility in this section. Otherwise, I will treat the accounts of the crucifixion as we have them as if they are true.

Thus, I do address at several points in my essay the possibility that certain passages are false, like my discussion of how rejecting the Spearing Story affects the leg-breaking story. There I also make the point that if we reject that account entirely, then we also have no reason to think his legs were broken, since no other account remarks on this practice. The same holds true of my analysis of the spear wound’s location: it has been rightly noted that John’s description may not be accurate, but it then follows that we have no idea where the spear wound was, and thus we still cannot know whether the wound would have been fatal. In a similar fashion, if we reject any passage as false which I grant as true, then my argument becomes stronger as a result, not weaker. This is because, unless there is a contradictory passage already in existence (and those relevant cases I address, such as the varying accounts of Paul’s “visitation” discussed in my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection), if we reject any given passage, then we are left with no basis for any assumptions at all, much less the assumption of a genuine resurrection.

I ask all readers, if they think any particular passage being false creates a particular problem for my conclusion that the Resurrection was not a miracle from a god, to please point out the fact so that I may consider the matter and address it, or correct my conclusion accordingly. But I cannot answer general, unspecified objections. I must also note that it is completely improper to “invent” aspects of the story that support a Resurrection. For if someone is allowed to make up something that we are not in fact told in any of the accounts, we can just as easily make up something else that makes a Resurrection less likely, and nothing can be gained from such a game of make believe. We either trust what we are told, or admit we cannot trust it. Nothing more is rationally appropriate. And following this rule, we have a distinct possibility trickery was involved, yet I assign it a low probability of only 1%. I do not think anyone can argue the probability was any lower.

IV. A Digression on Witnesses Being Willing to Die

It is still rather unlikely, I am told, that the original believers were making what they believed up for personal gain, in light of the persecution they suffered, and I have a lot to say about this, requiring a substantial digression. It is neither necessary to assume they made it up, nor is it certain that if they did they would be unwilling to die for some greater good that they saw in their creed. And if any original eyewitness did face death and recanted we might not have heard about it: Matthew’s remark at 28.17 that some eyewitnesses didn’t believe may be seen as a rhetorical defense against evidence of recanters. But most importantly, as I will argue in detail, most believers, and all whom we know died for their belief, were not eyewitnesses. This proves without a doubt that people were willing to die for something that they believed merely on someone else’s word. And if they were willing to do that, might they not be willing to die for other equally feeble reasons? From kamikaze Japanese dive-bombers and torpedo-peddlers, Islamic suicide-bombers, to any of the dozens of suicide cults in history, or indeed the whole nation of Israel, twice fighting against an obviously unbeatable and demonstrably vindictive Rome, because of beliefs in prophecies of their victory, it is clear that people have a tendency to be willing to die for a seemingly good cause, even when their reasoning really isn’t that good.

It is important not to forget that, in actual fact, we have no reliable record of any eyewitness dying for their belief. The closest we have are brief mentions, like that of the execution of James the brother of John in Acts 12. But that is not an “account,” containing few details about the circumstances of his death, or whether recanting would have saved him, or what it actually was he thought he was dying for. All real martyrdom accounts are of converts, not witnesses, except for that of Peter. But the account of his death is first found in the Gnostic Acts of Peter, a tale which includes, among other things, a talking dog, a flying wizard, and the resurrection of a tunafish. Moreover, the account is Gnostic and assumes, as in Peter’s dying words in it, that the Resurrection was spiritual, not physical, a point I will be discussing in more detail in General Case for Spiritual Resurrection (and in my Main Argument). But most importantly, he would not have escaped death if he had recanted, for he was killed by a magistrate, as the story relates, whom he had angered with his political meddling, and not because he was a Christian. So his death does not prove that he was willing to maintain his faith despite being threatened with death if he didn’t recant, because he wasn’t. He was condemned no matter what his profession of faith, so his devotion proves nothing here.

Let us also not forget that Paul himself, the one without whom there would have been no Christianity as we know it, was not an eye witness. And the first actual account of a martyr is that of Stephen (Acts 7.54-60). But Stephen was not recorded anywhere as being among the original disciples or among the witnesses of any appearance of Jesus: he is listed as being a very devout member of the later converts (Acts 6.5). One might say that as he is being set upon by a mob, he has a vision of Jesus sitting next to God in the sky, but this is clearly not a physical appearance: none of the mob or onlookers saw this, and the details are far from being that of a physical appearance. Moreover, if Jesus was alive and walking about at this time, surely he would be mentioned in Acts as still participating in the movement, but instead, he had already been taken up (Acts 1.9-11), and surely he would have stepped in front of Stephen and intervened if he were “there.” Moreover, Stephen gives a speech, professing the belief for which he is killed and is willing to die, yet he does not mention the appearances of Jesus after death, nor the empty tomb, or anything like that. He merely professes that Jesus was the messiah, fulfilling Jewish anticipations, and that Jesus was unjustly killed. Indeed, he does not even claim that Jesus was God or the son of God. Stephen seems to be treating Jesus like all the other famous prophets who were killed, and whose deaths were regarded as a rebuke upon the wickedness of Jewish authorities who reject God’s message. Stephen, and others in the early church, may thus have seen their victory in the belief and salvation of the believer, not in Jesus’ resurrection. At any rate, Stephen was willing to die for a lot less than the claims of Jesus’ appearances or even divinity (for more on this whole issue see my Main Argument).

And it is not enough to say that Stephen “could” have been thinking of the resurrection when he died, because the point is that we have no evidence of any kind that he died for that reason, and therefore no basis for assuming that he did. If any of the eyewitnesses stood firm for the same reasons Stephen did, then we don’t even need to explain why they would be willing to, since Stephen’s reasons contain nothing miraculous in them. There is also the possibility that the early creed was of a spiritual resurrection, as I will discuss later. Of course, we must also consider the unlikely but still possible notion that the resurrection beliefs were produced by delusion or expectation or deception by untouchable parties. Joseph of Arimathea, or Jesus by himself, or with accomplices who went unnamed and unnoticed but aided him for money or for a sense of a greater good, could all have brought the event about without the disciples being any the wiser, as I discuss above and below. Such possibilities allow one to hold that there was never anything but sincere belief, and in such a case their very belief would actually cause them to disregard death (as is evident in all martyrdom tales, cf. also Acts 5.41).

There is still the problem of the “original believers,” those who would have been privy to any kind of deception or hyperbole (if we conclude that there was such). But history is replete with people willing to die for a seemingly greater good. Remember Jonestown. And do not forget the image, still burned in my brain, of the Buddhist monk setting himself on fire before the American embassy to protest the Viet Nam War. In antiquity we have the case of Proteus Peregrinus, and various suicidal Brahmen. I will eventually outline several reasons why the Christian creed, even if known to be in some sense a lie, would be believed to be a necessary change for the good ofIsrael, and there have been millions of revolutionaries in history willing to die for just such a cause.

But I have been accepting an assumption here: that the original believers were actually willing to die. Yet by all accounts, they avoided violence by any means possible. Look at the adventures of Paul, for example, e.g. Acts 9.23-25, 29-30. And why did what happened to Stephen never happen to Peter or any eyewitness? Is it an accident that Peter recants precisely when he cannot protect himself from sudden retribution, but then reconverts when safe? And who else among the original cast could fall back on Roman citizenship for self-defense like Paul did? Even the one early account of Peter’s death that we have, if true at all, claims that he was killed for political reasons, and not for his belief. If their story was in any sense a sham, the conspirators would actually seek to spread their message while guarding themselves. They could have easily maneuvered other followers into the path of violence (a deed no more unscrupulous than the possible murder of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.1-11), or even left town when it suited them (see, for example, Acts 8.1)–and what are they doing in Tyre, begging Paul not to go back to Jerusalem in Acts 21.3-6? See also 22.18, etc.

There is also the bigger problem that persecution could not possibly have been so serious as it is often painted to be. As both Suetonius and Tacitus show regarding the persecutions in Rome, it was unusual, and politically motivated by one or two events, and the onlookers were sympathetic. I must also add that we have no good evidence that there was any eyewitness in Rome–even if Paul was there, he was not a true eye witness. There is no other record in any history of any other persecution until that under Pliny in the 2nd century (apart from a poorly attested act of Domitian, equally sporadic and atypical). In Jerusalem, as far as we are told, there was also no unified opposition to the creed (Acts 5.33ff., 23.6ff.), there was large enough support to actually instill fear in the persecutors (Acts 5.26, 4.21-22), no other source records any persecution in Jerusalem, not even Josephus (though he describes many riots and violent disputes), the legal powers of the Sanhedrin did not extend to any Greek quarter or city in the region (like Tyre), and Paul and the other persecutors merely put people in prison (Acts 5.17, 8.1-3), which was always, for whatever reason, easily escaped (Acts 5.19, 5.22). Moreover, no non-Jews would have cared, and there were whole cities of non-Jews in the Palestinian area, as well as Samaritans right between Galilee andJudaea, who also would not have cared. Acts even says there were often times of peace (Acts 2.47, 9.31). Surely the opposition must have been rather fickle, if it allowed this.

But there are more direct questions we can ask: When Paul returns to Jerusalem, preaches the creed, and starts a riot, it is only he, and no one else in the church–who were clearly there (Acts 21.17ff.)–who is attacked or arrested. Why is that? And why do the reasons he is attacked have nothing to do with his profession of Christianity? (21.29, 21.38) Why does there have to be a conspiracy of foreigners to trump up a false charge and drag out false witnesses to get Stephen arrested? (6.8-14) And why does Paul only report that it was refusal of circumcision that caused persecution, not belief in the resurrection? (Galatians 6:12) On the other hand, how is it possible that a persecuted church can maintain its council of elders right inJerusalem for years on end? They must have been very wily indeed. Why were they not all killed or arrested? Why is the only actual death we hear about in this persecution that of Stephen, which was an isolated riot, begun over what was actually a trumped-up misunderstanding of what the Christians were actually preaching (Acts 6.13-14), and not a reaction against what they actually believed? There is simply too much reason to doubt that the “persecution” of any eyewitnesses would have been serious enough to dissuade them from any plan that had enough merit to get them going in the first place.

V. How Do We Know He was Dead?

Above all, what evidence do we have that Jesus was dead? We are not told of doctors. Only one centurion gives his assessment. But officers in the Roman army have no training in diagnostics. They are among the least knowledgeable in medical theory, and they never seem to even touch him to examine him, except, by one account, at spear’s length (John 19:34; and this probably did not happen, cf. Section VII). In fact, in the one account that gives any detail, the centurion who answers that he is dead when asked (Mark 15:44) actually seems to have arrived at that conclusion in a very unreliable way: “when the centurion standing just opposite him saw that he breathed out [his life] in such a way, he said ‘Truly this was the son of God'” (Mark 15:39; some manuscripts have it “that by crying out in such a way he breathed out [his life]”). The past tense in the centurion’s remark makes it clear that, as the story is told, the centurion already concluded Jesus was dead, having made no other observation than that he appeared to breathe his last. And when Pilate later raises a question about it, he does not go back to make sure or apply any other tests, but immediately affirms that Jesus is dead. And then no one touches Jesus but Joseph of Arimathea, who alone takes Jesus down from the cross (Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). None of the other accounts mention anyone else taking him down first to get a better look at whether he was really dead (cf. Matt. 27:57-60; John 19:38).

McDowell, citing Michael Green, also very strangely thinks that this hearing of Jesus cry out counts as proof he was dead (1st ed., p. 198; § 10.4A.1B.1C; 2nd ed., p. 223, § 9.6A.1B.1C). It is a good thing modern doctors do not announce someone’s death on such evidence! McDowell cites Green and E.H. Day in the same place as asserting that the Roman soldiers at the crucifixion were “specialists” in assessing death, though that is a bit silly. Seeing people die does not make one a medical expert, nor does being an expert in killing people result in the discovery of how to check a pulse or touch the eye or apply any other technique that is necessary to reliably check someone for life who appears to be dead. After movies and TV educated the public, the idea of checking a pulse, for instance, has become common knowledge (and mass novels in the 19th century spread the word somewhat), but in antiquity only an elite few even knew of such a thing. So there is absolutely no reason to believe that common soldiers knew what a pulse was, much less how to check one–and certainly, we hear of no such detailed examination: the accounts we have explicitly deny it by asserting that Jesus was declared dead before he was even taken down. If we reject the accounts as false, we have nothing left to show that survival was less likely–we become completely ignorant of what really happened that day.

Being mistaken for dead is not impossible. Ancient accounts of misdiagnosed deaths exist. Pliny the Elder, writing in the 60’s and 70’s AD, collects several of them in his Natural History (7.176-179): people who were deemed dead, observed as dead all through their funeral, and on the pyre, ready to be set aflame, but who walked away nonetheless (and since all Romans served in the army, one can see from this fact that arguments about the special skills of soldiers are moot). One account includes a wound that would seem almost certainly fatal (a cut throat, 7.176). Alexander the Great himself was impaled by a spear, which punctured one of his lungs, yet he recovered. Even modern accounts of misdiagnosed deaths exist, proving that even medical experts can be in error: as recently as 1989 in Springfield, Ohio (cf. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 17, pg. 2A) and 1994 in San Leandro, California (Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 29, pg. A20). Indeed, before the 20th century this was more common than we would imagine, sometimes causing widespread hysteria (see Jan Bondeson’s Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, 2001).

More interesting is what an unnamed member of the school of Aristotle recorded sometime in the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. in a collection of amazing things (many of which are known natural phenomena) called “On Marvellous Things Heard.” An excerpt from entry 101 reads as follows:

They say that there is a tomb on Lipara, one of the seven islands called the Isles of Aeolus, about which they tell many marvels . . . [including the story] that someone who got himself drunk before dawn fell asleep there. His servants searched for him for three whole days, and on the fourth they found him seemingly dead and carried him to his own tomb. After all the funeral rites were finished he suddenly rose and related what happened to him.

The author doubts the story simply because it sounds more like a legend, but he admits it should be recorded, and it seems evident from Pliny that this was a common theme throughout the known world at the time–reflected in the similar legend told by Socrates according to Plato (Republic 614.b-c), and in that story the man in question actually journeyed into the afterlife and returned to talk about it (another story like this appears in Plutarch’s Divine Vengeance 563d-567f, cf. also On the Sign of Socrates 590a-592e). This no doubt reflects the fact that such misdiagnoses were commonplace enough that several authors had heard at least one such story (e.g. Apuleius Florida 19; Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.45; Aulus Cornelius Celsus On Medicine 2.6.15; Pliny Natural History 26.15; Diogenes Laertius, 8.67-8; compare 1 Kings 17:17-22, 2 Kings 4:19-37, Mark 5:21-43 [Matt. 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56], Luke 7:11-17, Acts 9:36-43 & 14:19-20, John 11:5-44; etc.), and it had even entered mythic consciousness: several related stories involve bright lights or experiences in heaven before returning, possibly reflecting Near Death Experiences. See Susan Blackmore’s book on the subject in modern times, Dying to Live; ancient examples include Cicero’s Dream of Scipio and stories related in the Philopseudes of Lucian (esp. ch. 26), and the Dionysian mystery tablets recovered from graves (Miroslav Marcovich, “The Gold Leaf From Hipponion,” Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik, bd. 23, 1976, pp. 221-4).

Most interesting of all is an ancient Jewish document called the Tractate of Mourning (Semahot), which describes the very reasons for the tradition of going to the tomb on the third day (counting inclusively–thus, the second day after burial, by our reckoning): “One should go to the cemetery to check the dead within three days, and not fear that such smacks of pagan practices. There was actually one buried man who was visited after three days and lived for twenty-five more years and had sons, and died afterward” (8.1, translation by Shmuel Safrai, “Home and Family,” The Jewish People in the First Century (1976), vol. 2, pp. 784-5). In other words, misdiagnosis was actually common enough that an entire tradition was developed to make sure people were not buried by mistake–the very tradition which probably lay behind Mary’s visit to the tomb of Jesus in the first place! The Romans also delayed funerals for the very same reason (reported by Ps.-Quintilian, as discussed by D.R. Shackleton Bailey in Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 88 (1984), pp. 113-37). Moreover, Celsus, a medical encyclopedist of the 1st century, estimated that even the best doctors erred in misdiagnosing death roughly 1 in 1000 times (De Medicina 1.109-17), a sentiment corroborated by Pliny (NH 2.619-31). Worse doctors, and non-doctors, must then have erred far more often still.

All this evidence does not mean that this mistake happened often–it was certainly still a rare event–but it happened. What are the odds that Jesus was misdiagnosed as dead? As it is, we must grant at least a 0.1% chance that the centurion mistook him for dead, and that is granting him an excellent diagnostic skill (according to Celsus, the best of the day), especially to assess this at a distance as the story says he did. If Jesus was drugged, this chance would certainly have to rise to at least a 50% chance, for how would a centurion know anything of the possible effects of drugs, much less that they had been administered? As far as he knew, the sponge was soaked in vinegar. Since I give the odds of being drugged at 1%, we can assess the total chance of misdiagnosis at (0.01 x 0.50) + (0.99 x 0.001) = 0.00599 = 0.6%. With a basic chance of survival of 33%, this makes a chance of actual survival, misdiagnosed as death, of 0.2% (0.33 x 0.00599 = 0.0019767). Though McDowell cites Samuel Chandler arguing that the absurdly excessive anointing of the body recorded in John (19:39) would surely have exposed Jesus as alive if he were (1st ed., pp. 199-200, § 10.4A.1B.1C), this can be dismissed for two reasons: these were sympathizers, and thus could easily have concealed the fact if they knew Jesus were alive; and this burial anointing almost certainly didn’t even happen (see below).

We also have accounts of survival despite incredible injuries. Josephus watched one of three particular victims of crucifixion survive (Life of Flavius Josephus § 420-21), and John’s implication that the legs of the crucified were broken to hasten death entails that survival was common enough to require such an extraordinary measure (cf. Section VII). A few doctors have tried to assert that death by crucifixion was certain, by appealing to graphic analyses of the speculated procedures and effects of execution in antiquity (see Doctors Pronounce Jesus Dead! for my analysis of a prominent and typical example of this literature), but even the best of these analyses produce insufficient certainty, and are refuted by the eye-witness observation of Josephus that crucified people could survive. There is no doubt that crucifixion was hideously painful and meant to kill–but slowly, and the survival of a passionate, possibly even drugged, fanatic, after only a few hours on the cross, is distinctly possible.

Indeed, people have survived far worse. The Coast Guard WWII hero Douglas Munro was impaled a dozen times by Japanese rifle bullets, yet continued to drive his landing boat, dying only after completing his mission–receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously. So even when very unlikely, survival is demonstrably possible. And complete recovery need not be assumed. Jesus had no known ministry after his death, wrote nothing, and commissioned no inscriptions, despite having wealthy benefactors who could have arranged it (although it is still strange, even if he actually was resurrected, that such things were not commissioned). In my opinion, he certainly must have died soon after his ordeal (unless he secretly secured medical attention), but this does not entail that his survival could not have been mistaken, or preached, as a resurrection (cf. Section XI).

It can happen after surviving such ordeals that a sudden but temporary upswing in health precedes eventual downturn and death. In the National Library of Medicine MEDLINE database, record no. 68403724, such an account is recorded: a terrorist bomb threw so many fragments into the brain of Assaf Ben-Or that surgery was ruled out as impossible without killing him. His brain was bleeding heavily internally and the doctors could do nothing about it. A week later, he was listed in good condition and was talking and walking. He then died shortly thereafter. Certainly, passion, religious fanaticism or drugs can improve chances of such a temporary upswing: it is not impossible, and not even remarkably unlikely. The possibility of such a thing cannot be dismissed in the case of Jesus, who was far less injured than Assaf Ben-Or, and who had no cut throat, no impaled lung as far as we know, no dozen rifle wounds. So survival is certainly more likely in the case of Jesus than that of Assaf or any of these other survivors.

McDowell cites the absurdly quaint pseudo-medical observations of Bishop LeCamus against survival, asserting the most ridiculous causes of death: “contact of the body with the cold stone of the sepulchre,” never mind that he was wrapped in linen, “would have been enough to bring on syncope through the congelation of the blood, owing to the fact that the regular circulation was already checked” (1st ed., p. 200; § 10.4A.1B.1C). From this farcical medical terminology one would think LeCamus a believer in warts caused by toads. It hardly deserves comment. Nor does the claim that the tomb was “hermetically sealed.” One wonders what sort of space age technology the Jews were supposed to have–at any rate, the Tractate cited above proves that survival over several days was so possible that a ritual visit had to be established to rescue those buried alive. We also know from surviving examples that tomb stones were placed loosely enough that air could circulate. It is also absurd to suppose that a “stench” of spices would be lethal to an injured man–indeed, McDowell contradicts himself here, citing the smell of spices as a cause of death right after he cited that same smell as what would have been a certain cause of his revival!

It is also unlikely spices were even present. Their quantity is ridiculously exaggerated in John, the only one to mention them (19:38-40). In contrast, Mark, the earliest and least fantastic source, leaves no one time to anoint the body (15:42, 16:1), Luke concurs with this, saying that the spices had to be prepared later for application Sunday (23:53-6), and Matthew, like all of them, mentions only a cloth. So John’s lie is exposed by the universal disagreement of his colleagues. Indeed, packing bodies in spices was not a Jewish practice, contrary to John’s assertion that it was–instead, it was Egyptian, and the mention of spices here may be an invention meant to link the burial of Jesus with that of Israel (Jacob) and Joseph (Genesis 50:2, 50:26). To the contrary, Jews washed corpses and wrapped them in a clean cloth. But even supposing such an odd burial, a packing of a mere hundred pounds of spices would not do much to kill anyone. Imagine spreading 100 pounds of mud over your whole body–the hazard would be minimal, especially for a prone person, and would have the beneficial effect of providing warmth to counter-act systemic shock, and pressure against blood loss. Perhaps we could insist they mashed the stuff into his face, but we are not told they did, and the Jewish law I cited above would presuppose against it. So we can dismiss all far fetched objections like these. They are speculations upon speculations, often contradicted by the actual evidence. And without evidence, the possibility of survival remains, regardless of the number of speculations you wish to heap up.

The fact of the matter is that we know far too little about the actual details of crucifixion, making even the opinions of physiological experts all but irrelevant to the case. One must first do the work of a historian before such opinions can relate to the actual facts of crucifixion, but even the most capable historians have not been able to establish the details that physiologists need to know for their opinions to be relevant. And this general reality is only compounded by the fact that the Gospel narratives are not very reliable for eyewitness details, not having been written by eyewitnesses, and having theological and soteriological reasons for adding the details they do (e.g. Section VII). For what little we know or can conjecture, see “Crucifixion in Antiquity” by Joe Zias. Zias presents the best lay summary I’ve seen so far (though one of his diagrams misleads in giving the impression that a cross was a cross–what little evidence we have is unanimous in one respect: the “cross” was actually a flat T-shape).

All these considerations make it clear that no one can argue that the odds of misdiagnosis were less than 0.6% (0.00599), making the odds of survival-plus-misdiagnosis 0.2% (0.0019767).

VI. How Could He Get Out of the Tomb?

Typical tomb blocking stone, exterior view on left, interior view on right (from Biblical Archaeology Review Sep/Oct 1999, 25:5, p. 25)

Some argue that we have to account for the odds Jesus could get out of the tomb. I conclude that the odds are effectively 100%, if he survived, that he could move a tombstone given a day of trying, and so this does not have to be accounted for. But if it must affect your own analysis, let it affect how you estimate the odds that Jesus could escape (Section IX).

Tomb blocking stones in 1st-centuryJudaeawere quite small. We know of no stones larger than 4.5 ft. in height, and that only on the tomb of king Herod’s family. Most are typically between three and four feet. The one shown above is under 4′ x 3′ x 2′, and all are made of limestone, which would make this one about a ton in weight–too heavy to lift, but not too heavy to push over (for comparison, consider how easy it is for one person to rock a car–the average automobile weighs at least a ton). It was easy to open a tomb from the inside: all one had to do was shove, and the stone would fall away under its own weight. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew even describe a single elderly man rolling the stone into place (Mk. 15:46, Mt. 27:60), so if we believe them, the stone in question could not have been too hard to manage, even if in a fit of dramatic exaggeration it is later described as “very large” (whatever that means: Mk. 16:4).

Indeed, there would have been a difference between carefully moving the stone such that it could be placed back over the tomb–a task that might have required many men–and simply pushing it over, which a single man could accomplish, even as the task of putting the stone back would be much more difficult. In all likelihood however, based on the use of the word “roll” throughout the narratives, the actual stone that the Gospel writers had in mind was the thin, round type which fell into use after the Jewish War, long after the time of Jesus. This was lighter and very easy for one person to move by rolling it on its edge. See my discussion of “new evidence” in my review of In Defense of Miracles.

McDowell cites T.J. Thorburn calling on a curious reading in the margins of the Codex Bezae manuscript of Mark that the tomb cover-stone was so large that even twenty men could not roll it away (1st ed., p. 208; § 10.4A.1B.4C). Of course, this is immensely improbable, as already noted above, and would not relate to whether the stone could be merely pushed over, but only to the task of carefully moving it. Even so, the argument McDowell makes that this spurious reading (and a gloss at that, not even incorporated into the text itself) from a late, 4th century manuscript, found in no other versions or translations, is somehow closer to the original, is so groundless it is astonishing he would even advance it. On the true nature of textual criticism, see the material in my Critique of Douglas Wilson, and on the more realistic fate of manuscript interpolations, see the relevant parts of my discussion of Thallus and Phlegon.

This particular gloss is too much like a story in Josephus to be genuine. Josephus wrote an account of the miracles related to the great Temple in Jerusalem that immediately presaged the doom of Judaea in 66 A.D., among them was a bronze gate, which scarcely twenty men could move, that unbolted, unlocked and opened itself at midnight right in front of the temple guards (Jewish War 6.288). Here we have a story with an identical number of men mentioned with almost identical phrases (scarcely twenty men could move it, not twenty men could roll it away), in similar contexts (the tomb is being compared with the temple, and a bad omen for the Jews is made into a good omen for Christians). Josephus reports of his account that the common people thought “God did thereby open the gate of happiness,” while the learned took it as signifying that “the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies.” To transfer this legend to the tomb of Christ therefore makes too much sense to be a coincidence: the moving of this stone did, like the moving of the doors of the temple, presage the opening of the gate of happiness for the people, as well as the looming destruction of the temple of the Jews (also symbolized in all manuscripts of Mark by the rending of the temple veil). The story is thus almost certainly a symbolic invention by a later scribe seeking to embellish the story. Considering this, and the implausibility of so large a tomb stone for anyone inPalestine, in addition to the fact of its late appearance as a gloss in a single manuscript, this account is to be dismissed.

VII. What Are the Odds That Jesus Was Speared?

Though he must have had at least a 33% chance of not having died on the cross, John records a spear wound. It has been said that the description of the wound pouring out blood and water (19:34) suggests a mortal wound, being a blow near the heart (McDowell, citing James Thompson, E.H. Day, and William Stroud: 1st ed., p. 198, § 10.4A.1B.1C; 2nd ed., pp. 223-5, § 9.6A.1B.1C). Of course, this is probably an invention–there was a belief that the messiah came “with water and blood” (1 John 5:6-8), representing baptism and death. Consequently, several church fathers (Ambrose, Augustin, and Chrysostom in particular) understood this spearing passage symbolically, not literally: the blood represented the eucharist; the water, baptism. Perhaps also this referred to the Jewish tradition of the time that the rock in the wilderness that Moses smote twice “poured out blood at the first stroke, and water at the second” (Shemoth Rabba, folio 122), the sign of God’s grace and the gift of life (and Christ was understood by Paul as representing this rock: 1 Cor. 10:4). Moreover, John is alone in having Jesus perform a transmutation of water to wine (atCana, 2:1ff.), and this is unlikely to be coincidence. The same symbolism is no doubt intended there. Thus, the wound thus testified to the fact that this was the messiah, and it could therefore be an invention for that purpose. John himself already reports a scriptural reason to invent the spearing (19:37), and makes suspiciously excessive assertions of its truth (19:35).

But even supposing this wound to be genuine, anyone who knows anything about anatomy will agree that the only place in the body where a noticeable amount of water or any clear liquid would ever be visible, along with blood, to a medically ignorant soldier a spear’s length away, is the large intestine (and even then only abnormally, e.g. diarrhea), suggesting a wound that is unlikely to be fatal until many days later. I conclude this after consulting several real doctors, contrary to McDowell’s citation of Michael Green (1st ed., p. 199, § 10.4A.1B.1C; 2nd ed., p. 225, § 9.6A.1B.1C), since we do not know that the blood did not spurt (the description is too brief and vague for such claims), and blood pouring from a vein does not spurt in any case–only that from an artery does. Moreover, the effect of a flow of distinctly separated serum and clotted blood, visible to a distant layman, is exceedingly unlikely. Unabsorbed water from the large intestine is far more likely in such a case, and even that would only occur if Jesus were suffering from some sort of medical condition that would cause an abnormal accumulation of water there. One might imagine a blow to a full bladder as having the same visible effect, but there are two reasons to discount this: struck from below, the bladder is well-guarded behind one of the thickest bones in the human body and thus is unlikely even to be targeted by a soldier, much less actually pierced from that angle, and it is inconceivable that a man who endured hours of beatings and crucifixion would be able to hold his water throughout.

Munro and Assaf and those other amazing survivals mentioned earlier (Section V) probably occur, let’s say, no more than 1 in 1000 times, but a spear wound to the large intestine, though likely to kill in time, is nothing compared to the wounds these people temporarily survived. I must say the odds of surviving such a wound for up to a week must be at least 10%. Throw in the chances of surviving a partial day of crucifixion (33%), and we get a chance of survival, with the spear wound, of 0.33 x 0.10 = 3.3%. With misdiagnosis as well, we get a final chance of 0.00599 x 0.033 = 0.00019767 (roughly 1 in 5000).

But the account of his being speared is illogical and late. It appears only in John, the last of the gospels to be written (after 90 AD). There, soldiers decide not to break his legs because he is dead, and then spear him to make sure he is dead. This is contradictory and inexplicable behavior. The spear wound later comes up in the context of the doubting Thomas story, which also only appears in John. As a late insertion in the story, it looks an awful lot like a rhetorical “vicarious conversion” aimed at answering arguments of skeptics, and being late this is to be expected: such doubts had certainly been voiced by then, and John would have liked to answer them (see also Main Argument). Thus John has as much a motive to invent the spear wound as he has to invent the entire Thomas story, which, after all, is found in no other account, not even in the writings of Paul. All three facts create great doubt that Jesus was stabbed with a spear. This makes survival even more likely. The odds that the spear story is false, based on the fact that three earlier accounts fail to mention it, that John has several rhetorical reasons to invent it, and the account of it does not make sense, I think must be at least 75%. This gives us a 75% chance that the odds of survival and misdiagnosis are 0.0019767 and a 25% chance that they are 0.00019767, for a combined chance of (0.75 x 0.0019767) + (0.25 x 0.00019767) = 0.0015319425 (0.15%).

One might argue that the “not breaking his legs” account must be dropped if we drop the spearing account. In fact, some argue that John felt the need to claim that Christ’s bones were not broken in support of prophecy, as is stated explicitly in John 19:36, and many commentators find a connection with the passover-prohibition on bone-breaking, based on Exodus 12.46 and Numbers 9.12, and John’s other predilections for such an analogy. Of course, the same passover rule also prohibits taking the flesh outside the house, which doesn’t fit here, and John’s words are also taken directly from Psalm 34:20, a passage which discusses righteous men in general, and has no overt connection with the messiah or crucifixion or anyone’s death. Still, John alone has Jesus buried in the same place he is crucified (19:41), which could be meant as fulfilling the prophecy that the bones never left their house. So there are good reasons for John to invent the whole leg-breaking story to justify his passover lamb analogy (maybe even drawing on a real practice: see Note 3). But even if John invented the story of the leg-breaking, we are still left with no reason to think Jesus’ legs were broken, and if the leg-breaking story is true, John still tells us Jesus’ legs weren’t broken, and no other gospel claims otherwise.

The spearing also has a scriptural reason to be invented or mentioned. Since it is taken from an actual messianic passage in Zechariah 12, it could reasonably be expected to be about the messiah and thus anyone in John’s position might assume it ought to apply to Jesus, or they would want it to apply, to “prove” Jesus was the messiah. But that passage also mentions other things, like the blinding of the world’s horses, and the besieging ofJerusalem at the same time as the coming of the messiah, which John omits. Thus, he is borrowing only what he wants to use. Our question is thus “why?” The use of the wound to have the symbolism of blood and water and to dramatize the Doubting Thomas story give the most obvious reasons, as I note above. It is also possible that in this or even also the leg-breaking account John may have needed a scriptural passage to justify what really happened. But this is less likely given: (1) the illogic of spearing him after leaving his legs alone, (2) the fact that it dovetails with the already-suspicious Doubting Thomas story and allows the symbolic introduction of blood and water, and (3) it is not mentioned by anyone else, including the three earlier evangelists.

So the conclusion stands so far that the odds of survival and misdiagnosis are (0.75 x 0.0019767) + (0.25 x 0.00019767) = 0.001532 (0.15%).

VIII. Was the Tomb Guarded?

But what about the guards? Doesn’t the fact that the tomb was guarded make escape unlikely, even if Jesus survived? Although one gospel accuses the Jews of making up the theft story, it is only that same gospel, after all, which mentions a guard on the tomb, and the authors have the same motive to make that up as the Jews would have had to make up the theft story: by inventing guards on the tomb the authors create a rhetorical means of putting the theft story into question, especially for the majority of converts who did not live in Palestine. And it is most suspicious that the other gospel accounts omit any mention of a guard, even when Mary visits the tomb (compare Matthew 28:1-15 with Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1-9), and also do not mention the theft story–this claim is not even reported in Acts, where a lot of hostile Jewish attacks on the church are recorded, yet somehow this one fails to be mentioned. Neither Peter nor Paul mention either fact, either, even though their letters predate the gospels by decades. Worse, Matthew’s account involves reporting privileged conversations between priests and Pilate, and then secret ones between priests and guards that no Christian could have known about (27.62-65, 28.11-15). This is always a very suspicious sign of fiction. Such a story could very easily be a Christian invention. They had the motive to make it up, to answer the objections of later skeptics (just like the Thomas story in John), and the story looks like an invention, because it narrates events that could not be known by the author.

How would this story develop? If a doubter had claimed that the Christians “could have” stolen the body, and someone overheard this charge and, in the manner of all rumors which get altered in transmission, thought that they heard the body was stolen and then accused the Christians of theft, the Christians could have responded that “the Jews said that, to thwart us” (as Matthew says, “this story is spread around among Jews to the present day,” 28.15). This would be quite plausible, since the story does portray the Jews as having a motive to torpedo the cause. One can easily imagine the skeptics answering back that if the Jews really feared theft, they would have guarded the tomb. This skeptical charge would then inspire the addition of guards, which would also require a story of bribery to explain why there are no guards around who could vouch for the resurrection, as well as the invention of an earthquake and angelic intervention to explain why the guards would not interfere with Mary, since, now that he has placed guards on the scene, Matthew has to invent some bizarre reason for their cowering before a woman, a strange story appearing in no other accounts of Mary’s visit to the tomb.

It seems, then, that a lie might have been getting larger and more implausible, in a desperate attempt to make it more plausible, a fate that has befallen many a tall story. This fits with the fact that Matthew is the most prone to recording implausibilities: cf. the earthquake, recorded nowhere else, even though it split rocks, cf. 27.51; the zombies, 27.52-53; not to forget the fable concerning Herod and the killing of the babies, cf. 2.16, a story told of kings and great men for centuries before and after Jesus, and yet not mentioned by anyone else in this case, not even by other New Testament authors (especially Luke, who dates the birth of Jesus ten years after Herod died! cf. 2:1-3, and my essay on Luke and Quirinius), and not even by Josephus, who mentions many other atrocities of Herod. So we have good grounds to suspect the story of guards to be fiction.

McDowell makes too much of the claim there were guards, and ironically gave me a crucial piece of information that makes the guard-story even more likely an invention: an important achievement of the Matthew story is the placing of the seal on the stone covering the tomb. In fact, one can view the entire story as being a pretext for this single act. Why is this event so important? Because it converts the tomb of Jesus into the lion’s den of Daniel: for when Daniel was entombed with the lions, and thus faced certain death, King Darius placed a seal on the stone “so that nothing might be changed in regard to Daniel” (Daniel 6:17; I thank McDowell’s quotation of D.D. Whedon for this find, 1st ed., p. 209, § 4A.1B.5C), exactly the same purpose of the Jews in Matthew. Thus, Jesus, facing real death, and sealed in the den like Daniel, would, like Daniel, escape death by divine miracle, defying the seals of man.

The parallels here are far too dense to be accidental: like the women who visit the tomb of Jesus, the king visits the tomb of Daniel at the break of dawn (6:19); the escape of Jesus signified eternal life, and Daniel at the same dramatic moment wished the king with eternal life (6:21; the identical phrase appears in reference to God in 6:26); in both stories, an angel performs the key miracle (Matt. 28:2, Daniel 6:22); after this miracle, the guards become “like dead men,” just as Daniel’s accusers are thrown to the lions and killed (6:24). Matthew alone among the Gospels ends his story with a commission from Jesus (28:18-20), whose power extends “in heaven and on earth,” to “go and make disciples of all nations” and teach them to observe the Lord’s commands, for Jesus is with them “always.” Curious, then, that the same author who alone creates a parallel with Daniel, is also alone in borrowing language from the same story for this commission: for King Darius, after the rescue of Daniel, sends forth a decree “to all nations” commanding reverence for God, who lives and reigns “always,” with power “in heaven and on earth” (Daniel 6:25-28; the Greek phrase is identical in both cases: en ouranôi kai epi tês gês). The stories thus have nearly identical endings.

In both texts (Matthew and the Septuagint text of Daniel) the stories have in their beginning the verb “to seal” (sphragizô), and in their endings the noun “eon” (aiôn, Daniel says “Oh king, live through all ages,” Darius decrees “He is the living God through all ages,” Jesus says “I am with you through all days until the end of the age”). Furthermore, in earliest Christian art, Daniel was the hero with whom Jesus was most commonly equated (cf. Thomas Matthews, The Clash of the Gods, 1993, pp. 77ff.), and Matthew alone depicts Magi visiting Christ at birth, whereas in the whole of the Old Testament the actual term “Magi” only appears in Daniel–for Daniel was most commonly associated with miracle working in the East. Since Matthew is clearly creating the guard story to create a seal and thus link Jesus with Daniel in death as in birth, the story is even less likely genuine than I grant above (see Note 4). The guard-placing account also involves the Sanhedrin both holding a meeting and placing a seal on a tombstone on the Sabbath, which is strictly prohibited by Jewish law. Thus, Matthew shows them violating the Sabbath to work against the good, after having shown them attacking Jesus for violating the Sabbath to do good (12:1-14). So Matthew may be deliberately crafting a story to create a symbolic contrast, another reason we cannot be sure it is true.

An additional reason to reject Matthew’s story is that it contradicts all other accounts and is illogical: if the tomb was sealed until the angel came and moved the stone before the women and the guards, how did Jesus leave the tomb undetected? Did he teleport? For he wasn’t in the tomb: it was already empty. Even if we want to imagine that he did teleport, all the other Gospels record that the stone had already been moved when the women arrived (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1). Thus, Matthew’s account is contradicted three times, even by an earlier source (Mark), and does not make a lot of sense. That is further grounds for rejecting it: for Matthew alone must have the angel open the tomb when the women are present in order to silence the guards that he alone has put there. Thus, if his account of the opening is false, the reason for that account–the guards–is likely also false.

So what do I think are the odds that the guard story is an invention? Considering all the evidence above that it is a fabrication, the chance it’s true cannot be better than 1 in 3 (33%).

IX. If the Tomb Had Guards, What Are the Odds of Evading Them?

At best, neither the story of an accusation of theft nor that of guards is more likely to be true than the other. But even if we assume a guard, the gospel also depicts these guards as accepting a bribe to lie about theft, and thus it follows that the guards would be just as likely to accept a bribe to allow Jesus to escape. Indeed, they would probably have no qualms about accepting both bribes, being twice the richer for it. And since Jesus was placed in the tomb of his rich and influential supporter, Joseph of Arimathea, there is a strong possibility of bribery.

McDowell suggests that Roman legionaries were immune to bribery, out of loyalty to Rome, superhuman discipline, or fear of horrible punishment, even though this contradicts everything we know about human nature, and no one has yet offered any evidence that it was even rare among the legions. Since they were tried by juries comprised of their fellow soldiers, it was sometimes easy to escape punishment–a serious social problem mentioned more than once in surviving sources. Moreover, Matthew’s entire story must be false unless they did take bribes. But this question is actually moot, for if there were guards at all, it is almost impossible they would be legionaries. McDowell cites Albert Roper claiming that they were and that we know the name of the centurion in charge–but that, and all other details like the number of men and the use of an Imperial Roman Seal, do not exist in the New Testament and are very late legends or the imaginative inventions of scholars (1st ed., p. 210, § 4A.1B.6C.1D; 2nd ed., p. 235, § 9.6A.1B.6C.1D). Pilate would not care that much about petty religious squabbles among the natives, nor about the fate of a body of a foreign criminal that he already released to the dead man’s followers. Pilate’s trial behavior makes his disinterest clear even in the Christian sources, but it is even greater than they make out, as any perusal of Josephus would show. Thus, if Pilate provided a guard at all, it would have been, at best, an auxiliary–a non-citizen soldier. But even more likely, it would have been the local militia–not necessarily the temple guards, but city watchmen, or simply picked men, who were under the command of the local city councils, and who were often slaves or freedmen.

The story, as it is told to us, actually supports this. First of all, the Greek says the Jews only tell Pilate “order the tomb to be secured” (keleuson oun asphalisthênai ton taphon, Matt. 27:64), which permits but does not entail providing a guard, for it could also mean only allowing one to be set. Pilate responds “you have a guard” or “have a guard” (echete koustôdian, 27.65), and the verb here may be indicative or imperative: the former actually denies that he meant them to take one of his men, and the latter only allows but does not entail this. But then he tells them to make the tomb secure as they know how (i.e. he does not give these orders to the guards, but the Jews), and then the Jews themselves “secure the tomb with the guard” (êsphalisanto ton taphon…meta tês koustôdias, 27.66), and they, not the guard, place the seal (therefore it could not have been a Roman seal). In other words, the passage as written does not entail sending a guard, but more likely means allowing the Jews to arrange their own guard. They had temple guards of their own, or could have simply appointed anyone to the task. As members of the city council, that was their job.

This interpretation has further support in Matthew: when legionaries or Pilate’s men are meant, this author usually says so (cf. Matt. 27.27, 27.54), and the word for “guard” used by Pilate (koustôdia) does not mean an actual person (that would be koustos) but the general idea of “a guarding.” So when Matthew describes Pilate as saying “have a guard” he means “set a watch,” not “take some guards.” Moreover, Matthew 28:11-15 reports that these guards go immediately to the Jews after the discovery of a missing body, not to Pilate or any superior officer, yet this would be even stranger behavior for a Roman soldier than accepting bribes. That the Jews promise to keep Pilate from punishing them offers no proof that they were Roman, since the governor could punish anyone tasked with failing to prevent a theft, and it would be strange for Jews to claim influence over a Roman military court unless legionaries, who formed the jury, could be bribed after all. For Roman legionaries were citizens and thus had the right to a trial, and in the military trial juries were comprised of fellow legionaries–who, by the way, would have no interest in condemning their comrades to death for what was nothing more than a disgrace to mere Jews. There was no death penalty for being overpowered while standing watch anyway. The guards, after all, did not abandon their watch but were overcome by superior force–and if Pilate would not have believed the supernatural truth, a suitable lie about armed men would have sufficed. But even this is moot. Whether legionary or auxiliary, Roman or Jew, we have ample grounds for believing a bribery possible.

But even if we exclude bribery, there are other ways in which the guards would be ineffective. We do not know the configuration of the tomb site, yet we know it belonged to a wealthy supporter, and that the body was placed in the tomb by that supporter, and that the disappearance occurred on a high holy day, when, due to religious laws and observances, the fewest potential witnesses would be about. The possibility of covert escape, given these facts, is great indeed. There is also the possibility of a switcheroo: the body could have been taken to another tomb than the one claimed, and thus the guards could have been guarding an empty grave all along. And it cannot be forgotten that there is no account given of why the Jews would know where the tomb was. If they had been told which tomb he was buried in, a different tomb could have been deliberately pointed out, or the body already removed. This is especially important, because we have no record of Jews or guards looking in the tomb to make sure a body was there before closing it up. Matthew only says that they put a seal on a tomb which had already been closed by Joseph (27.66). So we must admit that the actual body could have been taken anywhere from the start, especially since it was “taken” by a wealthy supporter, who could buy anyone’s silence or complicity. The mere fact that Pilate allowed him to take the body shows that Joseph had an awesome degree of influence: that he was a rich and influential member of the elite, and a Christian convert, is claimed by the gospels themselves (cf. Matt. 27.57, Mk. 15.43, Luke 23.50-51, John 19.38).

Most importantly, no guards or suspicions of mischief were raised until a day later (27.62-63). This means that Joseph had carte blanche with the body. Matthew 27.57-61 records that Joseph was given the body directly, and sealed the tomb himself. The only ones recorded as being with him are the two women, also supporters of the movement. So even if the accusation of theft, even if the guards, are genuine events, as Matthew himself writes the guards were only requested a day later. By then the body could already have been stolen, Jesus could already have escaped, or never even been in the supposed tomb when guards were finally posted on watch.

As one can see, these factors make the chance of Jesus escaping detection rather great. What do I think the odds are that Jesus escaped detection, given the fact that he had at least a full day with no one guarding him? I will say the odds cannot possibly be lower than 1 in 5 (20%). The chance that he did in fact have a full day to himself and his supporters? Based on the account as given by the Christians themselves, at least 80%. And if we include the odds that the guard story is an invention, and thus that there were no guards at all, there is an additional 33% chance that Jesus had a day or more to himself. What about the chance that guards were immediately posted, yet that Jesus, having survived, still escaped detection by some means like a hole in the tomb or a switcheroo or bribery? I will give this a mere 1% chance. We end up with a 33% chance of a 20% chance of escape, and a 67% chance that the odds of escaping are roughly 33%, based on an 80% chance it was 20% vs. a 20% chance it was only 1%, or (.8 x .2) + (.2 x .01) = 0.162. This makes for a total chance of escape equal to (0.33 x 0.2) + (0.67 x 0.162) = 17% (0.17454).

X. Adding Things Up

The combined odds of survival, misdiagnosis, and escape are thus, in my opinion, 0.0002674 (roughly 1 in 4000; see equation below). That means that given what we know about this event, as calculated so far, I must believe there is at least 1 chance in 4000 that nothing miraculous occurred, since even survival is as likely as that. However, another important factor (the chance a resurrection claim would be believed after a mere survival: explained next in Section XI) pulls these odds down to 0.000147363, or 0.015%–roughly 1 chance in 6800. So we will conclude with that.

Am I being too liberal? I doubt it. In every case I have estimated odds even lower than are probably correct, and as low as I think any reasonable person could honestly set them. But cut the final odds in half, quarter them, even cut them to a tenth that figure, and we still have odds that are too great to rule out. Even if there were only 1 chance in 68,000 of survival accounting for the evidence, that would still be good enough a chance to discount any miraculous explanation. For who needs to resort to “miracles” to account for what can occur even once in 68,000 times under the same conditions? It is amazing, truly, but not impossible–as we began, we noted that even an event that occurs only once in 100 million lives is still not miraculous. You might as well use a royal flush in a local poker game as proof of God’s divine might. Royal flushes and resurrections are two separate things, so comparing them directly would be a false analogy. But I do not mean to compare the events. I compare only the odds of either event being natural rather than miraculous. If survival in all the same circumstances (as far as we can know them) by natural means can happen once in 68,000 tries, yet the odds of a royal flush happening naturally are roughly 1 in 650,000 (see Royal Flush Odds), and we know royal flushes happen without being regarded as miracles, why should we regard something that is over four thousand times more likely as miraculous? Even if we try to argue that more poker hands have been dealt than people have died, we still don’t escape the fact that this comparison is merely an illustration. For even if only one hand of poker were ever dealt in history, and it was a royal flush, we would still be unjustified in calling it a miracle. In fact, it would hardly occur to us to make such a claim. We would merely say “Wow! What a coincidence!”

Thus, no matter what you argue, an event that can happen 1 in 68,000 times is still not rare enough to regard as a miracle. That it has not happened more often is due to the fact that the same circumstances have not presented themselves, just as they have not generated another Winston Churchill. Indeed, I will say that the odds of an eclipse meeting the Battle of Pydna were astronomical–pardon the pun. Yet it happened. Do we need a miracle to explain it, simply because it was so amazing a coincidence? A 1 in 68,000 chance of survival is vastly more likely to see out than the event at Pydna, and yet every reasonable consideration leads us to a hugely more achievable 1 in 6800 chance of survival. Thus, we cannot seek an explanation in miracle. We simply have no grounds. We would have something to argue with if we could state how often miracles happen. If we knew 1 in every 1000 amazing events was a genuine miracle, if we could prove miracles that common, then miracle would be more likely than survival in this case. But since we do not really know for sure of any miracles happening at all, much less how often an amazing event is genuinely miraculous, we are left back where we started: natural explanations are simply more likely. Indeed, this is true even if the resurrection just happened to be a real miracle. Hence the point made in my General Case for Insufficiency.


COMPLETE EQUATION

  • A = Odds of Surviving Several Hours on the Cross: 33% (0.33) [II]
  • B = Odds of Being Drugged: 1% (0.01) [III]
  • C = Odds of Being Mistaken for Dead if he was not Drugged: 0.1% (0.001) [V]
  • D = Odds of Being Mistaken for Dead if he was Drugged: 50% (0.50) [V]
  • E = Odds of Surviving the Spear Wound: 10% (0.10) [VII]
  • F = Odds that Spearing Story is False: 75% (0.75) [VII]
  • G = Odds that there were no Guards: 33% (0.33) [VIII]
  • H = Odds of Jesus Escaping Tomb Given at Least a Day Unguarded: 20% (0.20) [IX]
  • K = Odds of Guards Being a Day Late: 80% (0.80) [IX]
  • L = Odds of Jesus Escaping Given Immediate Guards: 1% (0.01) [IX]
  • M = Odds that Whole Event Was a Well-Planned Trick: 1% (0.01) [XI]
  • N = Odds that Whole Story Was Made Up Later: 10% (0.10) [XI]
  • P = Odds that Whole Story Started from a Mistake or Delusion: 50% (0.50) [XI]
  • Q = Odds of Such a Well-Planned Trick Being Successful: 25% (0.25) [XI]

[{F x A x [(B x D) + ([1 – B] x C)]}
survival unspeared
+
{(1 – F) x A x E x [(B x D) + ([1 – B] x C)]}]
survival speared
x
[(G x H) + ([1 – G] x [(K x H) + {(1 – K) x L}])]
escape
x
[1 – {(1 – [M x Q]) x (1 – N) x (1 – P)}]
story believed

=

[{0.75 x 0.33 x [(0.01 x 0.50) + ([1 – 0.01] x 0.001)]}
+
{(1 – 0.75) x 0.33 x 0.10 x [(0.01 x 0.50) + ([1 – 0.01] x 0.001)]}]
x
[(0.33 x 0.20) + ([1 – 0.33] x [(0.80 x 0.20) + {(1 – 0.80) x 0.01}])]
x
[1 – {(1 – [0.01 x 0.25]) x (1 – 0.10) x (1 – 0.50)}]

=

(0.001482525
+
0.0000494175)
x
0.17454
x
0.551125

=

0.000147363 = 0.015% = 1 in 6786

XI. How Do We Account for the Rise of Christianity?

I do not believe Jesus survived. I think my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection more closely describes what happened, since the rise of a religion from the ashes of a defeat is more probable than its continuation from some kind of survival scenario, at least given the evidence as we have it. This essay’s aim has not been to argue what I think happened, but to show that the event does not qualify as a miracle, on the grounds that at least one natural explanation (survival), possibly even the least likely one at that, is still within the realm of the naturally possible (see Section I). But an interesting question can still be asked: “How do you explain the development of early Christianity if Jesus was not truly raised from the dead?” This question has been asked many times in many different forms, and it deserves a lot of space here. Although my essay seeks only to examine whether the “resurrection” itself was a miracle from a god, and not the development of the Christian creed, the two are not unrelated.

In general, it would be sufficient that the original witnesses thought (or deceitfully taught) that Jesus was truly raised from the dead, either spiritually or physically. It is not at all necessary, nor even more likely, that such teachings should follow only a true resurrection, and this is why I think an actual death is more likely than survival to have generated the faith of Christianity, so I will say something on why I come to this conclusion. I will discuss in my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection various reasons and motives why this story would be believed or told by eye-witnesses (and I say more in my Main Argument). As for men like Paul (the true father of Christianity) and all converts to the creed, their faith in the original story’s truth would not really depend on whether the story was true, since they could not, and as far as we know did not, check. All that mattered was whether the story’s tellers were believed, and it is quite demonstrable that audiences were ready to believe almost anything in those days. I have written an essay on this very point, “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire.”

Thus, the only relevant concern is the probability that those few eye-witnesses would transmit such a story given that it was not a genuine resurrection. This is complicated by the fact that the early Christian creed may not have involved a physical resurrection at all. It is most likely, in my opinion, that Christianity began with the message that Jesus was raised in a spiritual sense (by being given a new, better body and leaving the old one behind), which was inspired the same way most religious beliefs are: through dreams, hallucinations, or inspired interpretations of scripture, etc. If so, then we do not need to explain why the “witnesses” would tell such a story, since such a story can arise by natural causes and would be very easy to believe, and there were sufficient motives and expectations that would lead to such a belief. All that would then need explaining is how this early faith transformed into the belief in a physical resurrection (see Note 5).

But if we allow the alternative, that a physical resurrection was believed or taught by some of the eye-witnesses as a result of (or in combination with) Jesus surviving, we must explain why they would do that. Of course, it may not have been taught by all of them: the earliest source we have is Paul, who was not an eye-witness and may have taught a different gospel, the others agreeing that in principle it was the same message and that the details were less relevant. This is suggested by the letters of Peter, where emphasis is placed on the transfiguration and none on the resurrection, and Paul’s claim that he was willing to adjust his message to suit his audience (1 Corinthians 9.19-23). But if a physical resurrection was in the message of at least some of the eye-witnesses who preached the creed, there are the possibilities of design (whether with or without the collusion of the witnesses, e.g. the sponge theory, the escape theory, etc.), or of fabrication or delusion, which allow plenty of room for stories of miraculous survival to arise or be developed among the followers of Jesus after he actually died.

If he survived, however, some argue this would produce a different result: namely, the witnesses would see him as having narrowly escaped death, and not as having been divinely resurrected. This is not necessarily true. Although this is more likely if the survival was an accident, it is less so if it was by some design, and if it was design, we will never know it, for any definite proof of fraud would have been covered up at once, and it is only when keen skeptics were on hand that ancient fraudulent miracles were uncovered (cf. Hippolytus Refutation of All Heresies, Lucian Alexander the Quack Prophet, etc.). We have no writings from any such person who is even aware of Christianity in the first century, thus no keen skeptic checked the facts when they were still able to be checked. It may also have been partly both: Jesus may have, as he is portrayed to have, preached that he would be resurrected, and may have even believed it himself, such that his accidental survival would be readily interpreted in light of this expectation, even by himself.

But the question remains: Why would appearing half-dead and desperately in need of medical attention evoke worship of Jesus as triumphant? This question was first advanced by David Friedrich Strauss in his second “Life of Jesus” in 1864. The question assumes, naturally, that there was no plan, before or afterward, by anyone, to alter the account for the greater good of the cause, and that Jesus did in fact appear half-dead and “desperately” in need of medical attention. Assaf did not, after given a brief time to recover, and Jesus was not as badly injured as he. There is also the possibility that Jesus held a self-delusion of immortality, or other religious passions, which could cause him to ignore his state or act as if he was unhurt, behavior which might actually have prevented his long-term survival at the expense of seeming fine in the short term, a course of events not unheard of in history or medical science. The question also assumes that the witnesses would not delude themselves, because of their own needs and expectations, something I think was very likely, based on what even I have seen of the behavior of fanatics. Finally, Jesus might not have appeared so unwell as Strauss suggests. Moreover, John records Jesus was still wounded when Thomas handled him, for example, so clearly Jesus looking wounded did not dissuade any Christians from believing he was raised. Fanaticism, drugs, or delusion could sustain Jesus in the appearance of remaining strong and victorious in spite of his injuries–at first–but the problem of “after” remains.

Thus, we are left with the question of where he went afterwards, for which we have no clue as to the answer, but then we would not expect to. This is one of the reasons that I find survival, though still possible, to be the weaker explanation, though I don’t think it entirely incredible. Did he go into the wilds somewhere and die anonymously? Indeed, he could have gone into a secluded spot to pray and died, or dropped dead on a road to anywhere, never to be found, devoured by animals, or buried by an unknowing stranger. He may even have intended to preach to Jews in Persia, and died on the way, or in some other foreign country. Or did one or two faithful converts, or all of them, quickly cover up his genuine death for the good of the cause? See my discussion of Paul’s Vision for what that greater good could have been. Or was his second death interpreted as an ascension by most observers by reason of delusion or expectation, and his body disposed of in some secret fashion, by someone more privy to the truth? These hypotheses become increasingly unlikely. Still, whether his brief survival was seen as miraculous or not (assuming he survived at all), there remained good reasons to cover it up and portray it as miraculous, or to miss his death altogether.

His message may have been seen as too important, or his followers may have seen their position as too precarious, to let the truth escape. There also remain good reasons to misinterpret it as miraculous: it would be natural for the defeated followers to deny the reality, to find any delusion to cling to, in order to restore their faith in his divinity and power, and justify all the time and credulous faith they had placed in him and his message, as well as to convince themselves that they, too, will be chosen and resurrected, and thus escape death, the hope of all hopes. Lest anyone think this unlikely, I offer the case of Jonestown: several survivors have, in order to preserve their faith that Jim Jones was good and divine, concocted stories of secret government hit squads, and still today stick by their “eye-witness” accounts of groups of soldiers firing machineguns into the crowds, despite overwhelming evidence that only a few dozen were killed by firearms (and they only by single pistol-shot to the head each), the other 900 by suicidal doses of poisoned punch. For example, see Michael Meiers, Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence, published by Mellon Press, which also published four other books by Jonestown survivors, all with bizarre “eyewitness” accounts justifying their participation in, and one might think, guilt-ridden survival of, the Jonestown disaster (see Note 6).

Nevertheless, after considering all of this, I agree the odds that Jesus “survived” are affected by the evidence that his survival was eventually taught as miraculous. One must consider the possibilities of design, before or after the fact, of fabrication or hyperbole, and of misinterpretation or delusion, and then account for the possibilities that his actual death afterward would be covered up or unmentioned in any record.

(1) The first possibility is that of design. I have already estimated the odds of this at 1%, based on the very odd detail of the sponge (not to mention the odd burial arrangements, early removal, etc.). It is interesting to note that the Zalmoxis story may have been heard by Jesus or a colleague and inspired the idea of a similar plan. It is even possible that this plan failed, and that Jesus died even though he expected to survive by deceit, at which his colleagues might have tried to salvage the plan by hiding the body. Regardless of these musings, given that the resurrection was in any way a set-up, what do I think are the chances that it would go off as planned and thus produce the desired result (the story as we have it)? In that day and age, and given the unusual arrangements allowed as shown in the record, and the fact that such a plot had probably worked before (in the case of Zalmoxis), such a plan must have had at least a 25% chance of success, including covering up his actual death later, for a final chance of 0.01 x 0.25 = 0.25%.

(2) The second possibility is fabrication. I will detail in my next essay some reasons to suspect this, but I will still only give it a 10% chance, giving the followers the benefit of a doubt, and accounting for the difficulties of pulling off such a lie–even though they are not actually great, especially if the first story was ambiguous as to whether it was a physical resurrection, and considering that, according to Acts 1:3 (and 2:1-14), they waited over 40 days before spreading the story, and that Christianity was mainly initially successful outside of Palestine, and then eventually had to expand to Gentiles, failing to increase its success among Jews. All these facts tend to support a scam of some sort, over a real miracle. But certainly at least 1 in 10 people would be willing to try something like this, even if they were entirely well-meaning–in fact, because of such higher motives–and we know there were dozens of people following Jesus, thus several would have been willing to attempt a pious fraud if they saw the merit in it, for furthering the moral cause of Jesus or their own standing among their peers.

(3) The third possibility is misinterpretation or delusion. This encompasses all cases where Jesus dies without anyone’s knowledge in an unknown place. I think the chances of this are not bad. Even in the accounts themselves, the witnesses seem overly receptive to such an effect. For instance, Mary sees a gardener and then thinks it is Jesus and acts as such (cf. Section IX of my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection). Normally, I would make the odds at least 75%, based on my belief that natural explanations are more likely than supernatural ones. But if I put aside that belief for a moment, I must still make the odds 50%, since the accounts themselves as analyzed in my next essay do not completely fit with an actual resurrection, but do largely fit the misinterpretation hypothesis (and on delusion or hallucination, see the relevant part of my discussion of Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus).

I concluded that the odds of survival were about 1 in 4000. I can now recalculate this according to the above observations, to account for the odds that survival would actually generate the religion as we have it. The odds that survival would produce the stories as we have them are, in my own estimation, equal to one minus the product of the chances that each option above would fail to account for the evidence, i.e. 1 – (0.9975 x 0.9 x 0.50) = 0.551125, so about 55%. Thus, the combined odds of both survival as reckoned above, and the production of the stories as we have them, is 0.0002674 x 0.551125 = 0.0001474, or 0.015%, roughly 1 in 6800 (see Previous Section). Again, even if we cut the odds by a factor of ten this remains true, since even 1 chance in 68,000 is still too good a chance to dismiss, given the extent of human history and comparisons with other, even more unlikely things, which have happened, and still happen, regularly.

Some ask “Well, isn’t it a little coincidental that the one who was purported to be the Christ was also the one who survived the rigors of crucifixion? What are the odds of that?” The odds are very good indeed. Countless people have survived even worse rigors, but no story of miracles surrounded their survival precisely because neither they nor their companions ever claimed such. What are the odds that an amazing event being trumped up as miraculous would produce stories that it was a miraculous event? Pretty good, I imagine. On the theory that he survived, it is precisely because Jesus’ extraordinary claims coincided with an otherwise unusual event that it became told as a miracle from a god rather than just an ordinary miracle of natural causes, like that of Assaf Ben-Orr. Few would even suspect a natural explanation in that day, for hardly anyone knew any better. To make anything more out of this is even worse than arguing that an eclipse occurring the very day of the Battle of Pydna, the most decisive victory ofRome overMacedonia, sealing the fate ofGreece for the next thousand years, is so improbable that it must have been a miracle from a god. It may have been a miracle by some definitions, but it was by no means a special act of a god. It is what reasonable people call a coincidence.

Note 1: I am not seeking the epistemic probability of what actually happened, and thus I am not engaging in Bayesian logic here. I am not, for example, ascertaining the relative likelihood of all possible explanations of the evidence (and there are far more than two), but only identifying how unlikely I think one particular explanation is given the relevant evidence and background knowledge (in effect this would form only the numerator of a Bayesian equation, though I arrive there in a roundabout way). For instance, it is often argued without any appeal to Bayes that the odds of life forming by chance are beyond all possibility of actually happening within the given size and age of the universe. This becomes groundless on careful examination (see, for example, my essay A Comprehensive Refutation of all Attempts to Calculate the Improbability of Life, with my forthcoming article in Biology & Philosophy). But the principle is the same: it is argued that an explanation is too improbable even to consider. That is the only argument I am addressing here–not an argument to the best explanation, which is what Bayes quantifies. For more details on how this relates to the definition of a “miracle,” see my discussion of Purtill’s Case for Miracles.

Note 2: I discuss the historical and philosophical issues surrounding ancient miracles in detail in my Review of In Defense of Miracles, and of the credulity of witnesses in “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire.

Note 3: There is evidence in archaeology and in Philo (a 1st century Jewish writer) suggesting there was such a practice, used on occasions like the onset of a major Holy Day, which may or may not have taken place on the day Jesus was removed. For the whole story on the likely treatment of the crucified, see my other essays Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day and Doctors Pronounce Jesus Dead!; see also: Jesus and Jehohanan: An Archaeological Note on Crucifixion.

Note 4: For a more thorough case, see: Richard Carrier, “The Guarded Tomb of Jesus and Daniel in the Lion’s Den: An Argument for the Plausibility of Theft,” Journal of Higher Criticism 8.2 (Fall 2001), pp. 304-18, which I have updated as a chapter in a forthcoming anthology on the resurrection from Prometheus Books.

Note 5: I believe this change could have occurred as a result of any or all of the following possibilities:

How Christianity Could Change from a Spiritual to a Physical Resurrection Belief

(1) Increased rhetorical need to win converts. A physical resurrection is a more concrete and wonderful proof of victory over death, and we have indications that these stories were changed to make them more convincing or impressive, e.g. compare Paul’s three conversion stories in Acts with his own account in Galatians (cf. 3a); also, the late Coptic development of an appearance story for Mark, all the way to John’s Doubting Thomas story (cf. Lecture), the possible fiction of the guarded tomb (cf. 2g), and so on. There is some evidence, too, that more people wanted a resurrection of the flesh, thus making Christianity more popular would require serving the needs of its market.

(2) Confusion by later members over what the original message was. This is likely especially at a distance. Paul shows in his many letters, especially 1 Corinthians, that perversion of doctrine was a going problem even when he was alive. And this is even more likely after the death of the original preachers, and the widespread ruin and confusion caused by the Jewish War in the 60’s AD, resulting in the destruction of the church at its source. Indeed, the fact that the appearance stories are very ambiguous as to whether they were physical or spiritual (as I argue in my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection) could easily be the product of the confusing nature of a message being differently told, and differently heard, by numerous preachers and hearers of the creed. In fact, a belief in the physicality of the resurrection may have been inspired by the Gospel of Mark, whose original version had no appearances but did depict an empty tomb, which may have been a literary invention with a merely symbolic meaning, later misinterpreted as historical and leading to elaborations of physical appearances. This confusion might even be expected, as the result of defensive “hedging,” as Paul declares to be his own strategy: “I am all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9.19-23). This would result in alterations and ambiguities in the story, in an attempt to satisfy all hearers, which would exacerbate confusion over what really happened.

(3) Some doctrinal dispute now lost to us. Lost, that is, due to the victory of one orthodoxy and the suppression of all other views under the title of “heresy.” In other words, the physical resurrection may simply have been one interpretation that won the propaganda war after the church was well under way, and thus only the Gospels favorable to such an interpretation survive. The four gospels were selected in the 160’s by Tatian, and the other books chosen by Irenaeus in the 180’s, yet heresies were being declared even as early as the 140’s (against Marcion, for example). We know there were controversial versions of events that were suppressed before the orthodox canon was chosen (see my essay The New Testament Canon). Most scholars agree there were divisions in the Church from very early on, and even Paul attests to their existence in his letters–yet gives us very little information about his opponents or their views.

(4) The idea was imported through syncretism with other religious beliefs. This is especially likely when the creed mingled in Greek society, where traditions of physical resurrection already existed (cf. Herodotus 4.94-96, Plutarch Moralia 973e-974a, Lucian Philospeudes / Lover of Lies 13 & 26, Origen Contra Celsum 2.55, 3.26, 3.32-33, Diogenes Laertius 8.67-8, Apuleius Metamorphoses 2.28 and Florida 19, 10.11-12, Apollonius Mirabilia 2-6, Pseudo Aristotle De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus 839a, Phlegon De Mirabilibus 1-3; later, Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.45). In fact, there were even Hebrew precedents (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:19-37) and the Christians clearly accepted something like it very early (Mark 5:21-43 [Matt. 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56], Luke 7:11-17, Acts 9:36-43 & 14:19-20, John 11:5-44). Apologists often parrot the false claim that a physical resurrection was “anathema” to the Greek mind, yet the evidence I cite above shows otherwise (and I give a clearer argument with new information in my Main Argument). Moreover, the only evidence Christians offer for this “anathema” theory is Acts 17:30-32, but that passage actually proves that many Greeks were receptive to the idea. The passage tells us that “some of [the Greeks] sneered, but others said ‘we want to hear you again on this subject’…[and] a few became followers of Paul and believed.” Does this look like the idea was “anathema” to the Greek mind? Hardly. Likewise, the distinction between “resurrection” and “resuscitation” did not exist in the Greek or Hebrew languages: the same words meant both. The conceptual distinction was Jewish, inherited long before from their Zoroastrian captors, and would fully explain how the Jews would adopt pagan resuscitation beliefs and transform them into Jewish resurrection beliefs.

Note 6: In addition to this example, Kenneth & Talita Paolini document the desperation to believe that typifies many people, who get involved in cults even today, in their book 400 Years of Imaginary Friends (2000), and then there is the famous analysis of fanatics by Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951).


General Case for Spiritual Resurrection:
Evidence Against Resurrection of the Flesh

I do not believe Jesus survived. Still, the fact that we can cast some doubt on it (see Probability of Survival vs. Miracle) proves that an apparent “resurrection” was not improbable enough to demand a miraculous explanation. On the other hand, if we accept that he died, as I do, then there is an even greater suspicion cast on his actually appearing afterward, “in the flesh” so to speak. My arguments in the following sections do not seek to prove that the appearance accounts, as stated in the texts, can’t be true. Rather, I argue they have ready alternative explanations. Numerous aspects of the stories make more sense when given natural rather than supernatural explanations (e.g. seeing a gardener as Jesus, adding legendary embellishments to the story to sell or attack a particular dogma, etc.), and these natural explanations are credible enough that there is no good reason to resort to miraculous explanations. Ultimately, there are enough fishy details in these accounts to suggest they are not telling us everything.

This chapter presents only some of the evidence convincing me. I present and defend all the evidence known to me, in thorough and scholarly detail, in an extensive chapter entitled “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), edited by Bob Price and Jeff Lowder (pp. 105-232), for which I have also composed a FAQ that covers any remaining ground. I summarized only some of the evidence presented in that book in a public debate at UCLA (below). Readers should be advised that in many ways the content of the following article is out of date, being improved, revised, and superseded by those materials just mentioned.

I. Paul’s Vision: Causes and Motives

The first recorded appearance story (in terms of when it was written, not when it was supposed to have happened) is of the appearance to Paul, and it is clearly a vision. In one account, he does not see Jesus, only a flash of light (9.3-5), and those with him do not see Jesus, but only hear him (Acts 9.7). Paul could have been speaking in another voice, which the others took as Jesus (or which the author of Acts portrays them as taking to be Jesus, since we don’t have their account of it, after all). But the fact that no one, not even Paul, saw Jesus in the flesh makes the point well enough. Most importantly, Paul never says in his letters that he ever saw Jesus in the flesh (he even denies it in Galatians 1). Moreover, this particular encounter in Acts has all the earmarks of something like a seizure-induced hallucination: Paul alone sees a flash of light, collapses, hears voices, and goes blind for a short period. An embolism is sufficient to cause or explain all of this. We can add to this the fact that the earliest manuscripts of the earliest gospel, Mark, do not describe any appearances of Jesus.

Paul gives other accounts of his vision which claim that others saw it, too. Doesn’t this suggest a genuine vision from God? First of all, there is still never any mention of Jesus appearing in the flesh. Rather, all that appears is a light from heaven (phôs ek tou ouranou, 9.3; ek tou ouranou…phôs, 22.6; ouranothen…phôs, 26.13). So even if several saw the light, it can still have a natural explanation, from lightning to a reflection from a distant object, or even a simple ray of sunlight peaking through a cloud, any of which could also have induced a seizure or affected Paul emotionally, causing an hallucination (or inspiration). And since we don’t have the story from any of these other observers, the story could be embellished or fabricated at leisure, for whatever reason. In my opinion, Paul may have seen in Christianity a way to save the Jews from destruction at the hands of the Romans by displacing their messianic motives to rebel, and creating a new Judaism more agreeable to the Gentiles, open to all and thus uniting rather than dividing, and more submissive to outside authority by internalizing and spiritualizing religious faith, eliminating messianic (and violent) emphasis on the Temple, and postponing material and social complaints by referring them to an afterlife. This could have been a deliberate or a subconscious motivator for Paul and others leading the movement. In Paul’s case, guilt at what he had done to good people, and admiration for their moral program and fortitude, may have also played an emotional role.

It is important to consider what this “greater good” was that Paul may have seen in the Christian reform of Judaism. Paul may have seen the clouds gathering on the horizon–the coming Jewish War. The Judaism of Jesus–Jesus was not a heretic, after all, but a proper Jew, and taught a reform of Judaism–offered an ideal solution to what any intelligent man would have seen to be the impending doom of his people and his faith. Violence was certain to bring about the destruction ofJerusalembyRome. The fate two centuries earlier ofCarthage, andCorinth–a place with whose history Paul must have been very familiar–proved that. And the Jewish desire for a savior was becoming militarized. Josephus records the rising violent messianism rising from the twenties all the way to the war in the sixties. Then,Jerusalemwas destroyed. Millions were enslaved or killed. TheTempleTaxwas redirected to Jupiter.

This is why I see in the teachings of Jesus what Paul may have seen: an obvious way for him to save his people and his faith, by teaching a non-violent submission to Rome, a concentration on inner rather than outer expressions of faith, and a displacement of present complaints by promising an accounting after death, and in an apocalypse, and the expansion of the faith beyond racial limits, which was already the secret to the success and acceptance of other Asian religions by Rome, such as that of Cybele and Isis. In doing this, he would succeed in removing those features of other popular messianic movements which were increasingly violent, and overtly divisive and offensive to the occupying power. Moreover, tens of thousands had been killed in riots over the Roman treatment of the Temple, and a reform which would take attention away from that hotbed of violence would have been ideal (note how this destructive focus persists even to this day, as Muslims and Jews kill each other over what is really no more than an old pile of stones).

We also have to consider, as I note, the effects of guilt. Paul persecuted the early followers, but what if he realized this was wrong? Indeed, if he realized, consciously or not, that this new reform was essential to the survival of his people and their faith, the guilt may have been unbearable–yet it could be easily atoned for by conversion, support, and penance in the form of enduring the persecution that he “deserved” (an eye for an eye). This becomes even more likely when we consider that Paul never saw Jesus in the flesh. Since he only saw a light and heard a voice, long after Jesus had died, if his guilt and his realization of the need for this new reform led to an epiphany, a moment of clarity, or even combined with the physical effects of an optical illusion, embolism, or other event, which he interpreted as a vision from God, telling him what his conscience was already coming to realize, then all of this becomes a plausible, realistic, and unsupernatural explanation, which happens to fit the facts fairly well.

I think it is most likely that the original experience was a real, seizure-induced vision, or a psychosomatic effect produced by guilt, because the author of Acts gives the first account as narrative, but the other two are Paul’s speeches and thus affected by their need to persuade a particular audience. Thus, the second two accounts contradict the first by claiming his attendants saw the light but did not hear the voice (Acts 22.9 vs. 9.7, where they hear the voice but see no one), and the third account is suspiciously elaborated (26.13-19), with important details omitted from the other two accounts: he claims that his attendants fell to the ground in reaction to the light, yet the first account said that they stood (9.7 vs. 26:14) and did not see anything, and in both previous accounts he also says that he, not ‘they’, fell (9:4, 22:7 vs. 26:14), and that the light flashed around him, not ‘them’ (9:3, 22:6 vs. 26:13), and though the light was so bright it blinded him (brighter than the sun: 26:13), for some reason it did not blind them (22:11, 9:8); he also claims in the last speech that God gave full instructions, yet in the other two accounts God says to Paul that he will get these instructions later, from Ananias. But Ananias is not even mentioned in the third account. Is Paul modifying his story for different audiences? Has the story grown over time? Which account are we to believe? They can’t all be true.

The most troubling detail is that Paul claims that he was blinded because of the extreme brightness of the light (9:8, 22.11, 26:13), yet was led for days by his attendants, who could obviously still see. This casts suspicion on his claim that the others saw the light. And since all three accounts are presumably from Paul, he may certainly have altered his memory, or embellished the story to make it more persuasive. Indeed, he might have assumed, or wanted to believe, that the others also saw the light and heard “something” (though obviously they did not hear what he did, since they didn’t understand any voice that he heard) or even fell along with him (which he could not really have observed, being blinded). Since, again, we don’t have their account we cannot know what they actually saw or heard or did. It is likely they neither saw nor heard anything, but respected Paul’s experience as genuine, and might even have told him they thought they might have seen or heard something (and may have stooped to catch him as he fell, which he interpreted as their falling with him).

It is also rather likely that the author of Acts is taking liberties with what Paul actually reported. This suspicion rises in force if we notice that when Paul gives us his own account in his own writings, we get an incompatible story: in particular, no mention of attendants, or Ananias. Indeed, he flatly states that he did not receive the gospel from man, and that excludes Ananias or anyone else (Galatians 1.12); he says there that he ‘returned’ to Damascus right away, but still does not mention Ananias. In fact, he would be contradicting himself if he did, since his point is that he did not speak to any Christians after his vision, until three years later, and then only to Peter and James (Galatians 1.17-20), and did not return to Jerusalem with Barnabas to reveal his conversion and missionary activities to the church until fourteen years after that (Galatians 2.1-2). Nowhere in this account does he mention people being with him during his conversion. No one else is reported to have seen or heard or even been present when Paul had his vision. Since Paul’s own writings are earlier and more authoritative concerning his own life than Acts, which was written by another man almost certainly after Paul had been dead for some years, all the accounts given in Acts are highly suspect, especially any claims that others saw the same light as Paul or heard “something” (that they could not understand).

II. Was There an Early Tradition of Appearances in the Flesh?

Contrary to my argument that there is no evidence in the earliest traditions of any appearances by Jesus in the body that had been buried, it has been suggested that 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 and Mark 14:28 and 16:7 show that Paul and Mark obviously believed in postmortem appearances of Christ of some sort. But I don’t argue against this. When Paul writes about appearances, just as that very passage shows (15.8), he includes his own vision, and makes no special distinction for meeting a restored corpse (he only makes a special distinction for the timing of his vision). I think it is almost certain that many people, such as Stephen (cf. Section IV of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle), had visions. People still do. People had visions of almost every god in antiquity, and still have visions of many gods and beings now, as well as of the deceased, among other bizarre things (cf. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, for the ancient cultural context of this kind of thing). The Markan passages likewise make no clear distinction, and thus could refer to visions, not appearances in the flesh. Acts reports many clear examples of hypnagogic hallucinations and similar phenomena (7:55-56, 10:1-7, 11:5-14, 12:6-11, 16:9-10, 22:17-21; all the gospels, likewise, place the appearances of Jesus very near dawn, exactly when hypnagogia is most common). Moreover, that Jesus claimed he would appear, and that someone else also claimed that he would, does not constitute an actual appearance, though it does explain how the expectation would be stirred. The Markan passage does not tell us whether the author thought there were appearances, or what sort of appearances he thought they might be.

This produces two interesting possibilities:

(1) Without the late addition to Mark, all Mark says is that there was the expectation of an appearance. He does not record an actual appearance. Why would that be? The Christian must explain this. It is not enough to say some ending was lost and then added or replaced, since the manuscripts of Mark are among the earliest we have, and these lack any ending at all. Why would an ending be lost so quickly? And if it was, what did it say? I am inclined to think that Mark ended it there because appearances were a private, personal experience to be related only in secret. The disappearance was enough to represent his victory over death and hence his divinity. An ascension, whether deduced from or associated with a missing body or not, is a standard motif in the deification of mortals in antiquity. The meaning of the resurrection could also have originally been part of a secret doctrine of initiation. Peter’s use of the terminology of a mystery religion suggests this possibility, and John’s description of the Thomas episode behind closed doors also looks like such a ceremony (more on this below), and the obvious confusion in all the gospels as to what actually happened after his death could easily be the result of a once-secret doctrine now being corrupted as bits of it enter public knowledge, or as speculation generates its own answers.

(2) The Markan passages are consistent with the possibility that resurrection into a spiritual body was meant, and the wording even suggests that. The most basic meaning of both passages in Greek is “I will escort you {plural} into Galilee” (proaxô hymas eis tên Galilaian, 14.28) and “he escorts you {plural} into Galilee” (proagei hymas eis tên Galilaian, 16.7). The verb proagô means “to lead forward, or to lead before.” By analogy this verb can mean various other things, including “to go before,” but usually only in the sense of going with, e.g. as in leading a military advance, leading the way in a dark room, etc. The verb can also mean to increase, to produce, to call up an apparition, to persuade, etc., in each case by analogy with the idea of “leading foreward.” Note, for example, the verb as used in 1 Timothy 1.18: “the prophecies previously made concerning you,” literally, “the prophecies having lead the way to you” (tas proagousas epi se prophêteias). Furthermore, even those uses which mean in some sense “going before” are intransitive, i.e. they cannot take an accusative object (cf. The Greek New Testament, 4th revised ed., p. 149). When an accusative object appears (and in both passages it does: the plural pronoun “you” hymas), it must be transitive, and that means it must mean in some sense lead. Why would Jesus (or Mark) choose this verb, instead of a dozen others that actually mean “go before”? It may be idiosyncratic, it may be bad grammar, but it may be that something else was meant than later Christian interpreters thought. That this exact phrase appears twice in the oldest known gospel suggests that it may be a very early proverb associated with Jesus or the disciples’ perception of him, but this also means it is very prone to reinterpretation by later readers, as most Christian doctrine has been. The phrase may have simply meant that his spirit would be upon them and lead them, inspire them, to go toGalilee–where, for instance, there would be a dream or vision concerning him, a concept present throughout Acts and the epistles. Indeed, I believe this is the most likely interpretation.

III. What About the “Hundreds” of Eye Witnesses?

Paul claims there are hundreds of eye witnesses, many alive at the very time of his writing (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Doesn’t that make invention as well as delusion unlikely? Paul, remember, includes himself among the witnesses (15:8). Yet we know that Paul was not an eye-witness. He only saw a light and heard a voice, well after Jesus had already been “taken up.” So this passage cannot mean anything more than that hundreds have seen Jesus in visions, not necessarily in person. The verb “appeared” used several times in this passage is ôphthê (from horaô), which is as vague in Greek as in English. Used in the passive voice, as it is here, it means only “was seen” or “appeared” and frequently means “appeared in a vision” (as in the case of Paul’s vision, cf. Acts 9:17), and could have meant something merely internal and spiritual in the same sense as that of the vision of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 (indeed, this is the only event in the New Testament that corresponds at all with what Paul claims–otherwise, there is no account anywhere of an appearance to hundreds).

Of course, one second-hand report of over 500 unnamed people, being sent to men in Greece (too far from Palestine to have any chance of checking the account), who may have seen a vision no more material than that of Paul himself–a man who all but declares that he is willing to fib, at least a little, to save lives by winning converts (1 Cor. 9:19-27)–is the flimsiest of evidence. And a vague, unconfirmable, hyperbolic assertion is just the sort of claim all men ought to suspect as rhetorical. Note also that Paul does not name any one of these witnesses, except Peter and James (though he does mention “the twelve” even though there were only eleven disciples when Jesus supposedly appeared, according to all the Gospels). These are not new witnesses being reported, but the same ones (or rhetorically invented ones). For all we know, Paul could have been including men who had an experience that was like that of Stephen in his list of witnesses (a martyr whose death he watched), even though we have no reason to believe Stephen was an eyewitness to any appearance of Jesus in the flesh. Paul could also have been reporting hearsay, which I think is most likely–after all, I seriously doubt he interviewed over 500 people, and so should you.

The bottom line is, this does not tell us anything about who saw what. Were there hundreds? What did they see? When exactly? Who were these people? Paul doesn’t say. So we can’t claim to know. See my discussion of hallucination in Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus.

IV. Could the Original Gospel Have Been a Resurrection of a Spiritual Body?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.

All of the above is compounded by the fact that Paul fervently portrays the Resurrection as into a spiritual body, not the rising of a corpse: “the body you sow is not the body that will rise” (1 Corinthians 15:37, kai ho speireis, ou sôma to genêsomenon), for “a natural body is sown, but a spiritual body is raised” (1 Corinthians 15:44, speiretai sôma psychikon, egeiretai sôma pneumatikon, see also 15:50). This does not mean that Jesus was resurrected as a bodiless soul (there is no evidence Paul even believed in such a thing), but that he was resurrected by being given a new body, one not made of flesh or physical matter as we know it, but of some kind of ethereal, spiritual material. Thus, the distinction is not between bodily and nonbodily resurrection, but between a resurrection of a corpse vs. resurrection of a person into a superior body, leaving the corpse behind like a spent shell (or, as Origen called it, the corpse is like the discarded placenta).

Paul ardently insists (Galatians 1:11-24) that he was not taught the gospel by anyone in the flesh (“I did not consult with flesh and blood,” ou prosanethemên sarki kai haimati, 1:16), but by revelation from God (“I did not receive it from a man nor was I taught it, but through a revelation of Jesus the Messiah,” oude gar egô para anthrôpou parelabon auto oute edidachthên alla di’ apokalypseôs Iêsou Christou). The word for “revelation” is apokalypsis, the same word used for the title of the New Testament book of Revelations, and as there and elsewhere it means “manifestation” in a spiritual sense–a vision. (Pseudo-)Peter also argues this quite explicitly: 1 Peter 3:18 declares that Jesus was “put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit” (thanatôtheis men sarki zôopoiêtheis de pneumati), and in 1 Peter 5:1 he curiously omits any mention of an empty tomb or a resurrection in the flesh, even though the context would lead us to expect him to.

Certainly, nowhere in the account given in the Gnostic Acts of Peter is it said that Peter believed Jesus appeared in the flesh after death, but it gives exactly the opposite message. Likewise, the two epistles of Peter also make no mention of a resurrection of a corpse, nor even of an empty tomb for that matter. Indeed, when Peter (if we accept the letter as genuine) argues that he was an eyewitness (epoptê, literally an initiate in the highest rank of a mystery religion, but also meaning spectator) and that his teachings are not “cleverly devised tales” (sesophismenois mythois) he does not mention after-death appearances or the empty tomb, but only the transfiguration, and a voice from heaven heard at that time (2 Peter 1:16-19), which appeared in private to only a few (Peter, James, and John) before Jesus was killed. This is important, for it shows that the Resurrection appearances were not considered important evidence of divinity. Indeed, even if we accept the authenticity of the letters of James, Jude, and John, none of them mention an empty tomb or a resurrection of the flesh either.

The most decisive case of Paul’s view comes from an analysis of 1 Corinthians 15 (there is even more evidence than I have included here):

  1. Paul makes no distinction between his vision and appearances to the others, apart from when it happened (vv. 8, vs. 1-7). This makes it prima facie reasonable that all the appearances were understood by him to be visions and not literally physical in the sense portrayed by the Gospels of Luke and John.
  2. Paul’s distinction between “perishable” and “imperishable” bodies (vv. 42) is based on a distinction between earthly things and things of heaven (vv. 40, 47-9), and it was common belief in antiquity that the heavenly things were ethereal. Since Paul does not disclaim the common belief, he must be assuming his readers already accept it. This makes it prima facie reasonable that he means the “imperishable body” to be an ethereal one, not a body of flesh.
  3. Paul literally makes this distinction, calling the one a “natural body” (psychikos) and the other a “spiritual body” (pneumatikos), and says that they both coexist in one person (vv. 44), in that first there is a natural body which is then infused with a spiritual one (vv. 46), thus the resurrected body is clearly in his mind something lacking the physical body we know, the body that is conceived in a womb and only later infused with a sprit. He says outright (here and in 2 Cor. 4:16-5:9) that the body we know, the body of flesh, is sown only to die, and only this other, second body, the body of the spirit, rises to new life.
  4. The Christian lexicographer Photius understood psychikos to mean the “animal” part of man (Lexicon, s.v.), as opposed to the higher, spiritual part that was made in the image of God (and God is certainly not a body of flesh), and there is a lot of evidence that Paul meant this as well (cf. Section V).
  5. Paul distinguishes Adam and Jesus in a certain way that supports this: Adam is regarded as being alive in the psychic sense, Jesus as giving life in the pneumatic sense (vv. 45), and Paul relates them as opposites (also vv. 22), so that as Adam was given physical form, beginning the age of sin, Jesus transcended it, ending sin. For Adam was made of dust (crude matter), but the resurrected Jesus was not (vv.47, cf. 48-9).
  6. Paul says point blank that “flesh and blood cannot inherit thekingdomofGod” (vv. 50), because flesh and blood is the mortal, perishable body, and we are resurrected as an imperishable body (ibid.). It is thus plain that he does not believe that the resurrection involved flesh and blood, i.e a physical body in our familiar sense, but a different, ethereal body, like the same sort of body angels have (and according to the Gospels, Jesus said we shall be like angels, cf. Mk. 12:25; Mt. 22:30; Lk. 20:34-36).

We can also note how the entire context of 1 Corinthians 15, especially vv. 33ff., supports this interpretation. Paul is clearly trying to explain what the resurrected body is like, of which Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit, to Christians inCorinthwho want to know. Yet he works entirely from first principles, building a theological, scripturally-based argument. He never once does the obvious: simply quote the witness of the Disciples who saw Jesus’ resurrected body. Yet wouldn’t that make more sense? The only rationale Paul could have for not simply saying “The resurrected body is like this, because Peter saw it, and Thomas handled it,” etc. is that these things did not happen. Rather, just like Paul’s revelation, the original disciples must have seen Christ only in visions, so that appealing to them would add nothing to Paul’s case. Otherwise, why would he ignore this most important proof in defending his position against apparent heretics inCorinth?

We can find further support for such an idea in Philippians 3: this entire chapter is couched within a spurn-the-flesh and glorify-the-spirit theme. Paul has no confidence in the flesh anymore (3:3), and he equates confidence in the flesh with living as a Pharisee (3:4-5) when he was a persecutor (3:6) and not a Christian, and he rejected that law (and thus Pharisaism, by implication from 3:5) when he took to Christ (3:9). Thus, Paul is emphasizing that he is not a Pharisee any more, but a Christian, and has rejected Pharisaic obsessions with the law and with the flesh. This dovetails with the above perfectly: it is feasible that as long as Paul had a hard time accepting a spiritual resurrection, he persecuted the church, but when a vision taught to him that spiritual resurrection was real, he converted.

This answers the common objection that a Pharisee would not have believed a spiritual resurrection, since the Talmud and Mishnah (both Pharisaic texts) tell only of the rising of corpses. Upon converting to Christ, Paul flatly rejected Pharisaic doctrine. This is especially evident in the fact that as a Christian he rejected strict adherence to Jewish laws on diet and circumcision, things no Pharisee could ever have done. It is sometimes said that no Jew would have believed in a spiritual resurrection, but that is not true: it was only the sect of the Pharisees, not the Sadducees or Essenes or myriad other ideological factions among the Jews, which insisted on a resurrection of the flesh (though it is still not clear they all did), and this may explain Paul’s avid persecution of the church, just as his complete rejection of Pharisaism upon conversion could be explained if Christianity rejected the Pharisaic concept of a resurrection of the flesh.

This invites an opportunity to reveal how Evangelical apologists distort the facts and ignore scholarship, using assertion rather than evidence for their views. The entry “Resurrection” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible reveals this quite elegantly. For Robinson, the man who writes the New Testament section of this, uses it as a podium for Evangelical apologetics rather than a presentation of objective scholarship, whereas Gaster, the man who writes the Old Testament section, is the only one who actually cites evidence and reflects the actual state of scholarship. It is evident the editors made no attempt to reconcile the contradictions created by these two halves of the same entry.

For instance, Gaster writes that “There was…some difference of opinion as to whether resurrection was spiritual or corporeal. This divergence comes out especially in the book of Enoch…” etc. He gives several examples. In contrast, Robinson writes that “it would have been inconceivable for a Jew to think of resurrection except in bodily terms,” etc. He gives no evidence outside the New Testament: a Christian, not a Jewish collection of documents, which were selected by only one particular sect of Christians at that. Worse, even this irrelevant “evidence” is extremely conjectural, based on Evangelical and apologetic interpretations of ambiguous statements. Instead, Gaster writes “There was no consensus concerning resurrection among the various Jewish sects which flourished in the days of the Second Commonwealth” and he examines each sect in turn, noting especially the Essene’s spiritualist view, and we know that the Essenes resembled the early Christians more than any other Jewish sect (for example, see Sid Green ‘s From Which Religious Sect Did Jesus Emerge?). This strongly suggests that the Christian sect of Judaism to which Paul converted was more like the Essenes in their views regarding the resurrection. Robinson makes no mention of varying sectarian views among the Jews and doesn’t even seem aware that there were other sects like the Essenes.

While Robinson quotes no scholarship and cites no evidence for his assertion, but merely gives an unjustified sweeping generalization about 1st century Judaism, Gaster writes that:

The view expressed in the [Dead Sea] Scrolls accord in general with those attributed by Josephus (Antiq. XVIII.i.5; War II.viii.11) to the Essenes, with whom, indeed, the Qumran sectaries may be identical…They held that although bodies were perishable, souls endured and mounted upward, the good to the realm of bliss, the evil to be consigned to a place of torment. This view is expressed also in Wisd. Sol. 3:1ff.; 5:16; Jub. 25; while something of the same kind–though without the reference to ultimate judgment–appears in Eccl. 12:7 (‘the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’). The latter statement, it may be added, reproduces to a nicety the Iranian doctrine in the funeral inscription of Antiochus I of Commagene [ruled 69-36 BC in Commagene, a territory at the nape of Turkey and Syria], to the effect that the body will rest in the tomb ‘through immeasurable time,’ after the soul, ‘beloved of God, has been sent to the heavenly throne of Zeus Oromasdes’.

Thus, Gaster produces a wealth of evidence that what seems clearly to be Paul’s view (the flesh rots and only a spiritual body rises to inherit heaven) was in fact the view of many Essenes at the time, and was found in other nearby cultures influencing Judaism: for Zeus Oromasdes is Ahura Mazda, supreme lord of Zoroastrianism, and we know Judaism was infused with Zoroastrian ideas after the diaspora, which brought them into Persian lands; even the return was under Persian power, and Persian influence remained for some time, e.g. a flaming hell is clearly the mark of Zoroastrianism on Jewish thought, since it exists nowhere in the Old Testament, but is found in Judaism after their return from Zoroastrian Persia, which did have such a view. The very idea of resurrection itself was originally Zoroastrian, and borrowed by the Jews later (cf. Diogenes Laertius 1.9). Thus, it was more than possible for a Jew like Paul to imagine that Jesus had risen even if his old body was still in the grave. In contrast to Gaster, who proves his claim with abundant evidence and references, Robinson asserts the exact opposite, that “the notion that a man might be ‘spiritually’ raised while his body lay on in the tomb, would have seemed to the Jew an absurdity.” Robinson offers no evidence or references in support of this claim. Gaster’s article shames Robinson as much as it refutes him, yet they are back to back in the same reference book.

I say a little more in my Main Argument, and for more on why it is likely that Paul originally preached a spiritual resurrection, see David Friedman’s “Does 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 Teach a Physical or a Spiritual Resurrection?.” For rebuttals of some objections to this kind of argument, see my essay “Craig’s Empty Tomb and Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus.” Also important is the next section.

 V. What Do ‘Pneumatikos’ and ‘Psychikos’ Mean?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.

Psychikos
aka “Psyche-like”

 

Pneumatikos
aka “Pneuma-like”

 

Psychê
aka “Living Person”

 

Pneuma
aka “Holy Spirit”

[always something one can lose (Php. 2:30)]

 

[always something ethereal (2 Cor. 5:5)]

The above chart makes the meaning of these Greek words clear: psychikos and pneumatikos are adjectives, meaning something is made of, or is like, or shares the properties of the noun they are derived from, in this case psychê and pneuma respectively. When we look at the nouns, we find that their associations are clear: one is used typically to refer to a living body, hence a body of flesh and blood (a search of the letters of Paul shows this to be his usual use of the word); the other, always to a disembodied spirit. The word sôma, which they modify in 1 Cor. 15:44, means only a distinct thing with volume and location, it does not entail what that thing is made of or what its properties are or where it came from. Paul calls the resurrected a pneumatikos sôma to distinguish this pneuma from “the” Pneuma, or Holy Spirit, which is not a sôma because it is everywhere, whereas a resurrected soul is not everywhere, but has a distinct and localized existence as an individual. Paul clearly means to say that when we are resurrected, we become like the Holy Spirit, and cease to be what we are when we were alive (a living body made of dust), but unlike the Holy Spirit, our spirit is still organized as a new kind of body, more like Casper the Ghost.

It has been noted that Paul’s assertion that the resurrection is spiritual rather than natural, based on 1 Corinthians 15.44, requires that psychikos mean “physical.” This is not quite correct–even with a different sense, the distinction remains. There are six uses of this adjective in the New Testament: some translate 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 as:

The natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone.

From this some conclude that psychikos does not mean ‘physical’ or ‘spatially-extended’ but means ‘under the control of natural desires’. That is correct–but the distinction is between the physical desires which stem from the animal body, the body of flesh (cf. Romans 7), and the spiritual desires that are apart from the body, and need to be freed from it. Hence, only the spirit (we might say “soul”) of man can know his own thoughts, and man’s spirit is the same as God’s spirit (1 Cor. 2:11), which of course is bodiless. That is the distinction made in 1 Cor. 15:45, where Adam, by being given a body–meaning a body of flesh–became a living soul, but Jesus, by dying, became a life-giving spirit. The juxtaposition suggests the addition of a body in the one case, and its subtraction in the other, with instead the addition of a new body: an ethereal one, one that is appropriate to spiritual beings (like angels).

When we read 1 Corinthians 15:44 in context, then, Paul appears to be going to great lengths, using numerous repetitive analogies and dichotomies, to explain a difficult idea of a difference between the spirit tied to a body and a spirit that is free and forms its own, independent body–a body stripped of flesh and blood. This suggests that he is trying to explain something novel, at least to his audience among the Corinthians. The section begins with the question “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” (15:35), and goes on from there, trashing the idea of the corpse being raised, and discussing how there are different kinds of bodies, and answering with a distinction between this kind of life, and that of the spirit. In other words, a contrast between heavenly and earthly matter is the most rational interpretation of what he is arguing here: beginning with vv. 42, “So it will be with the resurrection of the dead: the body that is sown perishable [i.e. all bodies die] is raised imperishable [i.e. the spirit-body is immortal]…it is sown a natural body [i.e. a body bound to an animal substance, a biological body, a body made of earth], it is raised a spiritual body [i.e. a body that is free of all its animal, earthly substance]…the first man was of the dust of the earth [i.e. made of familiar physical substance, the stuff that rots and remains behind as bones and dust], the second man from heaven [i.e. ethereal like all other spiritual beings in heaven]” (cf. also vv. 47-49 where this idea is drummed in further) and then vv. 50: “I tell you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Can there be any doubt what he means here?

The next relevant passage is James 3:14-16 (which can have little to do with what Paul thought, as it was written by a certain James). Literally translated, vv. 15 reads “this wisdom [i.e that which leads to jealousy, etc.] has not come down from above [or ‘from the beginning’ or ‘from more general principles’], but is of the earth [lit. ‘a thing on the ground’], natural, demonic [lit. ‘in the category of divine-spirit-things’ from daimones or ‘demon’–only Christians and Jews regularly used this word in a negative way].” From this passage some conclude that psychikos is referring to origin (‘not from above’), rather than materiality. But even if that is what it means here, this is still consistent with it meaning “tied to the physical” in the main Pauline passage above: the body would then be “not from above,” and thus “of a physical origin,” meaning “linked with the earthly” (made of dust, rather than made of spirit-stuff). James has placed three adjectives in a row: concerning this wisdom he tells us its location (earth), nature (earthly, naturalistic, “animal”), and value (demonic, bad). And these were all, in fact, synonymous in Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotle divided the universe into the ethereal heavens (which could not be material–since, for example, the stars moved in perpetuity and never decayed) and the elemental material world of Earth and its immediate atmosphere, which was the realm of nature or physis. Thus, the natural and the earthly are synonymous in the whole of his physics, and his was the most popularly known. Aristotle also calls physis daemonic in On the Divination of Dreams (463b12-15), since it is the realm in which the worldly spirits, the daimones, resided and acted (as guardians and messengers). In the context of the intellectual culture of the time, James 3:14-16 would most readily be understood as referring to material nature, in opposition to the ethereal and heavenly.

Then comes Jude 19, again not from Paul’s hand, and the date of its writing is unknown (scholars suspect it is at least second generation). Some say psychikos here means only ‘separated from the Spirit,’ rather than having to do with corporeality. Again, I cannot see how this contradicts its additional connotation as “of material flesh” in the main Pauline passage, for if there are two kinds of body, and one is “separated from the spirit” then it must be physical in the sense of being comprised of flesh. It is true that vv. 10 suggests that the whole letter is attacking those who don’t understand the gospel and, bound to the flesh and earthly concerns, pervert it–people who have their mind on things rather than salvation (vv. 20), and are thus stuck in the physical, earthly world (by reason of their attachment to it), lacking contact with the spiritual, heavenly world. Though this includes the meaning “being controlled by one’s nature,” this entails that one is controlled by one’s nature by being preoccupied with the natural world, by being attached to the natural world (one’s animal or earthly “nature”), rather than the heavenly world.

The same analysis follows for pneumatikos. Things of the spirit are divorced from the things of the natural world, and that is why they lead to and are associated with a particular attitude. To Paul, it appears that pneuma is ethereal, celestial, “higher” and “purer” than the earthly flesh, and lacking its traits (such as decay and animal passions), whereas psychê is to Paul like the Aristotelian concept of a physical soul composed of a thin kind of earthly matter (air) that disperses at death, and when alive is driven by animal passions, and subject to perturbation and decay

Besides the above analysis, it is important to know that adjectives can be both substantiative and associative, in different contexts. So even though the adjective has an associative meaning in one place (“having to do with the spirit”), it does not follow that it never has a substantiative meaning (“made of a spiritual substance” or “spiritual” in the sense of composition or existential quality). As an adjective it will naturally change connotation according to context. All adjectives do, in all languages that I know of. For example, associatively, a metallic hue is obviously not (necessarily) made of metal, but, substantively, a metallic car is. And note how in either example the nature of the adjective could be reversed, e.g. if the pigment includes metals or if only the color of the car is being described. And this can be known only from context. Likewise, demonic wisdom may mean evil wisdom or it may mean knowledge of demons, or knowledge from demons, and a psychikos may be a man preoccupied with material things, a man who follows his inborn nature, a man who is made of or bound to his earthly substance, and so on.

Even without a knowledge of Greek one can see how this explains changing meanings in all the passages critics cite. Many of these passages are consistent with a substantiative (sub.) interpretation, others with both a substantive and associative meaning (both), and some with only an associative (ass.) meaning: Rom 1:11-12 (both), 7:14 (sub.; it is contrasted with sarkikos, “made of flesh” or “having to do with flesh,” from sarx, cf. 1 Cor 9.11 in light of the context set at 9.1-7 where the contrast is between spiritual work and physical work, and cf. Rom 15.26-27–all clearly a contrast between “earthly” and “ethereal”),  1 Cor 2:13-16 (both; see above), 3:1-3 (ass., and then sub., i.e. spiritual food contrasted with physical food–clearly a contrast between “earthly” and “ethereal”), 10:3-4 (sub.),  12:1 (sub.), 14:1 (sub.), 14:37 (ass.), 15:44-46 (sub.; note that to read it as ass. requires also believing Paul thinks no one is spiritual until raised from the dead, which contradicts all his other associative uses of the term), Gal 6.1 (ass.), Eph 1:3 (sub.), 5:18-20 (ass.), 6:12 (sub.), Col 1:9-12 (ass.), 3:16 (ass.), 1 Pet 2:5 (both). As one can see, pneumatikos is constantly contrasted with physical, earthly things: physical food, work, flesh, etc. Thus, when psychikos is contrasted with it, he almost certainly has in mind something at least linked to the physical, the earthly, the flesh–as opposed to the ethereal, the celestial, the spirit.

VI. Does an Empty Tomb Entail the Resurrection of a Corpse?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.

In all the gospel accounts, no one sees Jesus rise from the dead. They only observe a missing body, and later are visited. William Lane Craig wisely sidesteps this issue by focusing on this empty tomb, as if that were such a proof of anything–as if no one even in modern times has ever lost track of a body, as if there were no grave robbers, as if thievery by design were so improbable for a group who had a desperate need for some story to keep their movement alive. I do not mean to imply here that Craig never discusses any other evidence (like the appearances), but that he sidesteps the fact that no one saw Jesus rise from the dead, and that the evidence strongly suggests that there may have been no early tradition of appearances in the flesh at all. His arguments, in all his works, dismiss both interpretations at once, by appealing to the empty tomb.

Indeed, I find that Craig often gets himself tangled into a mess by doing this: for example, he argues against theft by saying that “no one but Joseph, those with him,” (like who?) “and the women initially knew exactly where the tomb was. Joseph probably surprised his fellow Sanhedrists by placing the body in his own tomb instead of having it buried in the criminals’ graveyard” (In Defense of Miracles, InterVarsity Press, 1997, p. 259). Yet this is a fact which actually makes theft more likely, and has no effect at all on random grave robbers who might not care who they were stealing. Lest one think stealing a body is odd, any Egyptologist can tell you that dozens of mummies are missing from tombs looted thousands of years ago. Corpses (actually, certain parts of them, like the skull) were used by sorcerers, and these body parts were likely to be a hot item on the black market–and the skull of a sorcerer or holy man would be even more valuable still. As far as the rest, that only Joseph and other followers knew where he was buried makes it even more likely that a switcheroo, an escape, or confusion resulted, as well as a planned theft. Yet Craig ignores this consequence of his own argument (see also my discussion of Craig’s “Empty Tomb” argument).

For if only disciples knew where the body was, how can Craig argue (as he does elsewhere) that the Sanhedrists needed only to go point at the body to refute the claim that it was raised? How would they know where to point? Ever hear of the old switcheroo? By Craig’s own assertion, only Joseph of Arimathea and a few loyal women are certain to have known his burial place. When it came time to point to his empty tomb later on as proof, any empty tomb would do. If, as Craig says, the Sanhedrists would have been surprised at Joseph’s choice, they would not have known about it unless the disciples told them, and that means they could have told them anything, even if only to prevent his body’s defilement or any attempt to extract it and toss it in with criminals. It is also possible that a general plan to deceive was afoot, or that only one or two people arranged this confusion, and that all those disciples we know by name were also duped by this. There are many other problems with his argument, such as that the body, wrapped and inviolate, would be indistinguishable from others in the tomb and untouchable (cf. n. 14 from my essay on the Nazareth Inscription) especially after the burial was formally completed. And since the Gospel was not preached until over forty days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3, 2:1-14), Jewish skeptics would have heard the story too late to have any chance of identifying the body. There is also another possibility: it might not have originally been a theft at all–the body may have simply been legitimately moved, before guards were posted or Mary visited the tomb. I discuss this possibility in my essay Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day.

Finally, it is not so hard to doubt the account of the empty tomb in the first place. Jerusalem was totally sacked and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, so any white lies about whether Jesus was in his tomb, or which tomb he was supposed to be in, could never be checked against the facts after that time, and we have no account in the letters of Paul or Peter that anyone cared to check them before that time–nor in the letters of James, Jude, or John (although their authenticity has been questioned). It is significant that we have no evidence that anyone cared to look. Of all the attacks against the church recorded in Acts, Jews checking the tomb is not once mentioned. Yet what a nice rhetorical coup that story would have been for the Christians! And of all the things actually written before 70 A.D. (that is, most of the epistles) none ever mentions checking the tomb–none even mentions the empty tomb, despite many offerings of other kinds of proof (such as Peter’s witness of the transfiguration), and despite the fact that Paul’s letters are rife with attempts to resolve doctrinal disputes in the early church. Yet a dispute over whether the tomb was actually empty, something we would naturally expect to pop up in distant congregations, like the unruly Corinthians, never appears (for much more on this issue, see my review of Craig).

All this makes perfect sense when we look at Galatians and 1 Corinthians as revealing that Paul does not preach the resurrection of a corpse (cf. Section I, Section IV, etc.), for then he would have no reason to mention or even need an empty tomb to justify himself or his gospel. Even if someone else was teaching the resurrection of a corpse then, the fact is that we have no evidence that checking the tomb was ever raised as an issue except in post-70 A.D. accounts. And even if it was–though the Christian is left to explain why we never hear of it–the fact remains that, given the accounts we have, a body might still not be found, even if (or indeed because) Joseph buried Jesus in a private tomb and informed the disciples of this, of the various possibilities of theft, etc.

McDowell presents at least three arguments in favor of an empty tomb. First, he gives numerous statements about how the empty tomb is mentioned in the Gospels–but that is not much of an argument, since if the tomb story was a later invention it is precisely in the Gospels, which are essentially the hagiography of Christ, that we should expect this legend to appear. Second, he argues that a certain inscription found in or around Nazarethcontains the decree of an early emperor sentencing those who disturb graves to death (1st ed., p. 218, § 10.4A.2B.1C; 2nd ed., pp. 244-5, § 9.6A.2B.1C; cf. also 2nd ed., p. 67, § 3.3A.3B.2C.6D). From this he concludes that the emperor must have heard of the empty tomb, assumed it was theft, and set forth a law to prevent this. However, the evidence does not support him (see The Nazareth Inscription).

Third, McDowell advances the total absence of any veneration of the tomb of Jesus as evidence that it was empty, since no one would venerate an empty tomb. Yet, body or not, the location of the greatest and most important miracle in human history, the very stone slab literally touched by God Almighty himself, could not possibly have been of no significance. To the contrary, this place would certainly have been venerated. It would have been the place believers would most want to see, to touch, in the whole world. Consider the throngs who gather and camp out to see unwashed windows with a vague hint of Christ’s face in them even today, and realize that this is a modern world–in the ancient world, such superstitious passions were even more powerful and prevalent. Therefore, the lack of veneration is incredible–it can most logically be explained by the fact that no one knew where the tomb or body was. If, on the other hand, it was known but no one cared, this would just as easily fit the belief that Jesus was resurrected spiritually–such that the body was simply an empty husk, of no importance in the face of the Great Truth. This fits just as easily (or just as poorly) as the belief that the tomb was empty. It is also possible that the tomb was venerated, but that its location was lost after the Jewish War (66-70 A.D.) and its veneration forgotten to history.

VII. Appearances in Matthew and the Late Addition to Mark

But what about the appearances? In all the gospel accounts of the appearances, there are features of those accounts which cast some doubt on those appearances actually being of Jesus. For example, Matthew 28:17 reports that only “some” people who actually saw Jesus worshipped him, while “others” doubted it was him (hoi…idontes auton prosekynêsan hoi de edistasan, the verb distazô means “to doubt, to be doubtful” and the hoi…hoi construction translates as “some…others…”). Why would some who saw Jesus doubt it was him? The other gospels provide some clues that might explain this, and which also make the appearances of Jesus doubtful in their own right: Jesus did not look like Jesus, but someone else they didn’t recognize.

Mark 16:12 records that Jesus “appeared in a different form.” The verb is phaneroô, and in a passive voice, which means “he was made known, he was revealed” or “he became known, became famous.” The choice of verb suggests, and certainly allows, that it is a vision being described. The phrase en heterai morphêi means “with another appearance” or “in another shape” and this means that, in some way, what appeared to them did not look like Jesus, or else it fell into a different category than the ordinarily physical–and in conjunction with the particular verb above, this also suggests a vision of some kind. This certainly places the event in doubt. It has been claimed that Jesus appearing “in a different form” only means that his body looked different–it could have been radiant, luminous, or something along those lines, or some other glorious change in appearance, and such changes do not necessarily mean that the body is no longer the same one that was buried. But this is taking the evidence much too far, in my opinion. If the body was glowing, for example, this would surely have been remarked upon.

The phrase ephanerôthê en heterai morphêi is simply odd. Why would the author add en heterai morphêi at all? If the body was radiant or luminous or something like that, why not simply say so, just as all gospel authors describe the transfiguration? It seems to me that this phrase is just the sort of confusing description of events that one would expect if the stories had become confused, if by the time this passage was written it was no longer certain what the original story was, because there were stories of both physical and spiritual appearances, and of different kinds, perhaps due to speculation and misinterpretation, or rhetorical hyperbole, or the role of mystery and metaphor, or doctrinal disputes or differences, etc. (cf. Section XI of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). This is why I still call to account passages like this one which are late interpolations. Even though it is an interpolation, it is still suggestive of a spiritual experience, evidence that the story was no longer clear, and thus it reflects an uncertainty about the early tradition. Though the forger of this ending to Mark was probably aiming at the idea of a risen corpse, he may have been using a traditional story of a mystical vision that even he did not understand or wish to alter beyond need. But either way, it is clear that the appearance tradition contained a very early idea that Jesus was not recognized, that the risen Jesus did not look like Jesus, but some stranger, whom disciples only interpreted as being Jesus, Jesus “in another form.”

VIII. Appearances in Luke

Luke 24:16 records that when Jesus appeared to two men, Kleopas and (presumably) Peter (based on 24:13, 18, and 34), they did not recognize him (mê epignônai auton), even after conversing with him, inviting him home, and eating dinner with him. They only conclude that he is Jesus based on his words and behavior (24:31-32). Many translations say that they “recognize” him and then he “vanishes,” as if something magical happened. The Greek is more mundane, saying only autôn de diênoichthêsan hoi ophthalmoi kai epegnôsan auton kai autos aphantos egeneto ap’ autôn, which literally means “their eyes were opened and they recognized him and he became hidden from them.” In other words, they “see Jesus” in the stranger but then quickly lose sight of this “vision.” This could mean the man vanished, or that he merely left, or that they thought he was Jesus for a moment, and this led them to think that he was in fact Jesus. This also suggests that it was not him, but a stranger whom they thought was Jesus. Certainly, there is enough that is odd about this account to place in doubt the belief that Jesus actually appeared to them.

Luke 24:36-50, which portrays a more concrete appearance, looks a lot like the ending added later to the earlier gospel of Mark (and has the same apparent rhetorical usefulness as John’s account of Thomas), and it is possible that this ending did not exist in this form in earlier versions of Luke. It is worth noting that when the accounts are arranged in order of being written, the accounts of Jesus’ appearances become increasingly elaborate: from none at all in the original Mark, to the vague account in Matthew (with the equally vague note that some doubted), to Luke with this proto-Thomas story, then to John with his elaborate Thomas story (see my Main Argument). Even if we accept the record as genuine, though there is no truly compelling reason to do so, this appearance occurs only among the disciples, and only when the above story is being related. This makes possible a group vision arising from religious passion or hysteria (cf. Habermas), or even more likely, the invention of the story by the eleven in order to give their continuation of Jesus’ ministry more authority.

 IX. Appearances in John

Much like Mark and Luke, and as is implied by Matthew, John 20:14 records that Mary, too, “sees Jesus but does not know it is him” (theôrei ton Iêsoun hestôta kai ouk êidei hoti Iêsous estin). The verb theôreô means to “perceive” in a very general sense, including mentally, for it can mean “experience,” “observe,” “look at,” “watch” (a theôros is a spectator, a member of an audience), or “contemplate,” “theorize.” The verb oida means “to know” (by having seen or understood). Some call into question this interpretation of the Greek verb oida, asking how this definition applies to Matthew 2:2. The verb in Matthew 2:2, however, is eidon, not oida. The former does mean “saw,” i.e. in an aorist (past) tense only. It is a defective verb, using horaô for its present tense; oida is its perfect form, but took on its own meaning even before Greek began to be written. The latter, though grammatically and etymologically related, only ever means in one or another sense “to know” (as in Ephesians 5:5, 1 Corinthians 1:11, etc.): “The verb oida is an irregular perfect…which means ‘I have seen (with my mind)’ = ‘I know'” (Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek, revised ed., Oxford University Press, 1991, vol. 2, p. 181); and the compilers of the dictionary of biblical Greek appended to the official research text of The Greek New Testament, 4th revised ed. (1994, p. 123) leave no doubt, “oida: know, understand, perceive, experience, learn, know how, be acquainted with, recognize, acknowledge, remember” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:16), or “pay proper respect to” (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12); and as the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed., Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 483) agrees, in the entry for eidô, “eidon always in sense of see…but pf. oida, in pres. sense, know.” In other words, oida never means “see” (except in a metaphorical sense, e.g. “I see what you mean”).

So the story is as follows: Mary assumes at first that it is the gardener, then she falls into his arms weeping (20:13-17) and takes him to be Jesus, reporting some religious message of his to her later listeners. All of this suggests a vision, or at least that what she saw was not Jesus but some bystander, like the gardener, that she took to be Jesus, and she then imagined the rest or made it up so as to encourage the other mourners with the possibility that their leader was spiritually triumphant. Some of this passage could be redactional, or it may have still been dark outside (Jn 20:1) and that Mary was simply confused (vv. 14-15). The former is hardly a problem for my argument, but the latter does not seem a likely explanation, and redaction actually entails an admission that the story was altered, which increases the chance that other details have been altered, too. But though I believe the possibility that these stories are all or in part works of fiction, I do not want to rely too much on this obvious possibility.

As for the “confusion” account, it is precisely because it does not fit that I quote that passage: Mary would surely have recognized his voice at once (yet she doesn’t, 20:15-16), even if it was pitch dark outside–which it most likely was not: Mark 16:2 and Matthew 28:1 say it was around sunrise, which matches Luke’s claim at 24:1 that it was early in the morning, since the ancients’ reckoned morning (and began counting hours) from sunrise, unlike today. John’s words are prôi skotias eti ousês, literally “in the early (or in the morn), while it was still dark,” but skotia can mean also the gloominess of shadows, and since Mary had no trouble finding the tomb, she and others had no trouble running back and forth to and from the tomb, and all the other accounts clearly state it was around sunrise, it could not have been so dark as to make it difficult to recognize someone. If the author wanted to emphasize that it was truly dark, he would, as Mark does at 1:35, use something like prôi ennucha lian, “in the early, when it was very much night.” I must also add that Mary seeing angels just before this further improves the possibility of delusion, at least as easily as it allows actually seeing angels–even more so if we have good reasons to doubt that there are such things, or to doubt that they were so commonly seen then but not now. Moreover, the other passages of “recognition” suggest and support a tradition of seeing Jesus in other people.

Certainly, it is very odd that she did not know who it was until after he spoke. Above all, why didn’t he accompany her when she went to the others? Why does she only relate the experience to them, when she could have taken Jesus with her? And when doubters rush to the tomb to check her story, all they find is an empty tomb–no Jesus. An empty tomb, let me remind you, that the disciples did not know the location of, apart from whatever directions Mary gave them. All of the details of this account are suspicious and add to the swelling doubt.

John 20:19 records that when Jesus appeared to the others, it is after Mary’s impassioned story, while all are mourning and have locked themselves indoors “in fear of the Jews” (tôn thurôn kekleismenôn…dia ton phobon tôn Ioudaiôn). This is a situation ripe for hallucination (dark place, hopes stirred, fear raging, strong desire for reassurance; see my discussion of hallucination and the Gospel stories), or invention (what goes on behind locked doors to a privileged few, who need to cook up something to save their skins by gaining supporters to protect them from their persecutors, is easily suspect). But above all, the purpose for this appearance–and another, also behind locked doors (to Thomas, 20:26–one wonders if is this actually some kind of an initiation ceremony into an early Christian mystery religion, where “I saw Jesus” becomes a metaphor for something deeper)–is to impart belief to the readers in the truth of the disciple’s teaching (explicitly stated, 20:27-29, 31) and in their authority to teach it (also explicitly stated, 20:21-23). This raises more suspicion against the truth of the account, for the disciples have both the motive (something to teach, the need for spiritual authority to teach it, and the need to gain supporters to help them escape hostile authorities) and the means (goings-on behind locked doors that are only privy to the disciples) to fabricate it. Means, motive, and opportunity. That makes the basis for a solid case. It is certainly a strong enough case for reasonable doubt.

John 21:4 then records that Jesus appeared outside, but on that occasion his own disciples again do not know it is him (ou mentoi êideisan hoi mathêtai hoti Iêsous estin). One disciple, “the one Jesus loved” (êgapa), who was resting on Jesus’ chest during the last supper (13:23 and 21:20), merely says it is Jesus, and Peter swims ashore, presumably to see for sure. But when they all come to eat with this stranger, 21:12 says that “none of them dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’, knowing that he was the lord” (oudeis de etolma tôn mathêtôn exetasai auton su tis ei eidotes hoti ho kyrios estin). Why would they feel the need to ask him who he is, unless it was not obvious to them? The verb tolmaô means “be brave enough to, dare to” and this entails that they were afraid to ask, in other words afraid to gainsay their leader Peter, or Jesus’ unnamed favorite. Perhaps they went along out of compassion for this distraught man, or perhaps they were persuaded by his conviction–for they certainly did not see Jesus, or at least the account does not say so. The verb oida here, again, means to know (by having seen or understood), and so they may have understood the stranger to be Jesus even though it did not appear to be him. Ultimately, the way the passage is written is odd enough to cast great doubt on other interpretations, and confirms what all the accounts share in common: that when Jesus appeared, he looked like someone else, not Jesus.

X. What Good are “Anonymous” Eye-Witnesses Anyway?

Now, this “beloved” disciple is reputedly the source for John’s account (cf. 21:24), though it is highly unusual that the author would not mention his name, and even more unusual that no other Gospel, or any other source, mentions him at all. It has been said that authors often omitted their names from what they wrote, but this is not true for any other complete ancient work that I know of. It is only true for forgeries and fictions–and the gospels. And that casts even greater suspicion on them. All of the Gospels are by unknown authors. From as early as we have anything like titles for them, which were apparently assigned to them several generations after they were written, those titles are given with the Greek phrase “Gospel according to…,” using kata, which ordinarily means that the contents of the books were not written by the person named, but that the person named was used as their source. No other book from antiquity contains such an unusual title, and scholars are unanimous that this must mean no authors were originally identified in the titulature. Rather, the use of “kata” means the authorship was assigned later, meaning the Gospels were originally unsigned. None of the books identify who Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John are, or how we are to know they were the sources used, or who actually did the writing, or who assigned the names, or why.

This is significant: for no ancient work I know of, which claims to be factual and for which we have the complete text, truly went unsigned. Someone has suggested that the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar and the dialogues of Plato went unsigned. As for the Gallic Wars, many modern editions and translations make it seem as though the work is anonymous, particularly since Caesar writes in the 3rd person. But all written manuscripts of De Bello Gallico (including the oldest, the codex Paris Latinus 5763, from the 9th century) begin incipit liber gaii caesaris belli gallici iuliani… (i.e. the “Julian Gallic War” by “Gaius Caesar”), with only minor variations (see Note 1). Thus, it was not anonymous by any means. One should certainly not mistake writing in the 3rd person for “anonymous authorship.”

I have heard some “claim” that many authors did not sign their works, but none of these claims are true. Examples forwarded include Livy, Tacitus, Pausanias, and Plutarch’s biographies. But all have titles that include the author’s name, in all extant manuscripts, as is clearly stated and shown in the Oxfordand Teubner editions of these texts. All mss. of Livy begin T. Livi Ab Urbe Condita…. The sole ms. we have for the first book of the Annals begins Cornelii Taciti Ab Excessu Divi Augusti Annalium… and the sole ms. we have for the first book of the Histories places it as a direct continuation of the sixteenth book of the Annals with the title Decimus Septimus Ab Excessu Divi Augusti… = “the seventeenth” book of the annals. Likewise, the Agricola begins Cornelii Taciti De Vita Iulii Agricolae…, and all mss. contain this material, some only adding additional elements (e.g. “…vita et moribus…”), while the Germania begins Cornelii Taciti De Origine et Situ Germanorum…, and again all mss. contain this, some only adding minor elements. The text of Pausanius begins PAUSANIOU ELLADOS PERIHGHSEWS, “Tour of Greece by Pausanias,” and all mss. agree, with only minor variations, that the biographies of Plutarch begin ARCHAIOLOGIAS PLOUTARCHOU PARALLHLWN…, “History of Parallels by Plutarch.”

As for Plato’s works, they are all fictional dialogues, or forgeries (depending on how you interpret them). For example, the Apology of Socrates is written in 1st person and is portrayed as dictated to Plato by Socrates himself, a matter that is doubted, but possible. But at any rate its content is still attributed to either its real or pseudonymous author (Socrates). On the other hand, all of Plato’s dialogues traditionally begin with the Euthyphro, which in turn begins “Euthyphro, or On Holiness, a tentative work, in the artifice of a dialogue of Euthyphro and Socrates” where “in the artifice of” is peirastikos, meaning “mask” or “fictional pretense.” Thus, Plato outright admits to this work being fiction, not fact. So it is irrelevant that he does not put his name to it.

There were certainly many anonymous works of fiction. There are also works for which the inscription, sometimes along with the beginning of the work, is lost, leaving us to guess at the author, as is the case with certain rare works of Sophocles. For example, someone suggested that the works of Suetonius are unsigned, but this only proves my point. The first several pages of his collected lives are lost. The Twelve Ceasars begins abruptly at the death of Caesar’s father, when Caesar himself was already fifteen years old. Had we those missing pages, we can be quite confident that the titulature would include Suetonius’ name. His Lives of Eminent Men likewise only survives in fragments. But the gospels claim to be fact, and they are complete, yet they are all unsigned, making their anonymity effectively unique and therefore suspicious.

Some have pointed out that other Christian works, like the letters of Clement of Rome, are unsigned. However, offering another work of dubious authorship and authenticity only proves my point again. Indeed, the idea of the unsigned letter, just like the unsigned biography, is a peculiar feature of Christian writing–in all the other collections of letters that survive, the letters or their collection are signed (and the genuine letters of Paul fit this tradition). Of course, we may be too quick to judge in the case of Clement, since only one manuscript of his letters exists, and that manuscript–a Bible–plainly attributes the letters to Clement in its table of contents, so the erasure of the title and its removal to the front of the codex may have been an act of scribal license, or the outcome of carelessly extracting the letters from a larger collection now lost, and thus does not mean the letter originally went unsigned. Of course, none of these possibilities instills much confidence, and for all we know the attribution was conjectural. We certainly don’t know if the letter is genuine. So anonymity throws as much doubt on the authority of Clement as on the Gospels, and we have little reason to trust such sources.

XI. Was Luke a Learned Man? Would That Even Matter?

“What you can’t dispute,” a critic wrote to me some time ago, “is that the book of Luke was written by a learned man, a physician and historian. If Luke had written a ‘secular’ history book, nobody would dispute his accounts.” That isn’t true (see below). It is also important to note that whoever wrote Acts was not a critical historian, nor were they necessarily “learned” (more on that below, too). We know of no critical history of Christianity until centuries after the fact. The first true “historian” of Christianity is Eusebius, writing in the 4th century (the Christian Julius Africanus wrote a chronicle in the 3rd century, but that is not a critical history either; nothing else survives).

Luke’s being a doctor is also merely a supposition. It can certainly be disputed. The physician companion of Paul may not be the author of Acts or the gospel attributed to him. We have no evidence, in fact, that he was. It was merely presumed by others, a century later. Luke doesn’t sign either book, much less tell us his profession. His accounts are less fabulous, and thus show signs of an educated seriousness lacking in the other gospels, but these works display no details that would require him to have had an actual medical education. So we cannot know if he was a doctor.

One might argue that there is then no basis for disputing the notion that the author of Luke was a doctor, but if it were sensible to believe everything that we have “no basis for disputing” we would have a lot of very odd beliefs. Why, by that reasoning, Alexander the Great was a sausage seller and an acrobat, and a magician on Wednesdays. But we have positive reasons to doubt that Luke, the author, was Paul’s companion, “Luke the doctor.” First of all, Luke the author tells us the wrong stories about Paul’s conversion, and gets many of Paul’s ethical opinions wrong. His companion would not likely have made such mistakes. Luke also explains insanity as the product of demons, a very unmedical opinion of the matter, certainly showing that Luke was not a member of any of the schools of medicine with rational views about the world. Thus, if Luke was a doctor, he was not a scientific one even by ancient standards, and therefore no more reliable a witness to fact than any other superstitious man of his age. For instance, compare how two doctors report the miracles of Vespasian in Tacitus (Histories, 4.81). Nothing like that is in Luke or Acts.

It has also been lamely argued that if all we are left with is tradition, that will have to do until proof becomes available. But by that reasoning, Jesus wrote a letter to the King of Persia. For we have that letter: it is in Eusebius’ history of the church, the same place where both Lukes are proclaimed the same. If you doubt the veracity of Eusebius in offering a letter as actually written by Jesus (and he displays absolutely no doubt of its authenticity), then you must be prepared to doubt the veracity of his other claims to tradition, including the equation of the two Lukes.

Not that all this matters. Doctors could be just as superstitious as anyone else in antiquity, even employ magic in their healing practices (consider the medical writings of Theophrastus). And we are not told which school of medicine Paul’s companion belonged to. Nor did being “learned” make one less gullible or more reliable. Herodian, a learned historian of the Roman Empire, is notoriously unreliable. Pliny the Elder reports a lot of marvels as facts, and he was one of the most learned men in antiquity. Certainly the gospel author was educated. He could write very well, better that every other NT author. And no more than 2% of the population at the time could claim that. But was he “learned”? The only men whom we feel qualified to call learned are those who cite or quote many other ancient authorities–the definition of being learned is, after all, having read many authorities. Plutarch and Pliny were learned. I see not even a single piece of ancient source material even mentioned in Luke. So he does not qualify as learned–at least not on what we have of his work. And Luke proves a serious lack of academic skill in one respect that has already been noted: he appears to have not read Paul’s letters–also a good reason to reject the claim that he was Paul’s companion. He seems ignorant of many of Paul’s theological positions, including his views on justification. And many other details, such as his account in Acts of Paul’s conversion and travels, contradict many of Paul’s own accounts (such as in Galatians). Moreover, Luke seems to have drawn details from Josephus, but in doing so screwed them up (see my essay Luke and Josephus). None of this fits a “learned” man.

One final word about “secular” history is necessary. It amazes me how Christians think us historians are all gullible dupes who “never” dispute anything an ancient historian writes. Indeed, I know of no ancient author, of any genre or subject, whom any modern historian completely trusts–and that even includes the most meticulous of them all: Polybius and Thucydides. The first thing we are taught as historians is not to trust any source. We are taught to find ulterior motives, weaknesses of evidence, the tendency to embellish and regard rumor and myth as fact, the attraction of amazing tales over sober reality (an attraction more than once explicitly stated, in even serious historians like Tacitus), as well as literary features such as redaction, propaganda, and agenda. And all these distortions find their way into all ancient sources, secular or otherwise.

Physical evidence is also essential to the reliability of many historical claims. Yet we have none to support the miracles of Jesus, but plenty to “support” the healing miracles of Asclepius. Certainly, if amazing recoveries happened in the temples of a pagan god, there can be nothing divine about the same thing happening in the presence of a Jewish holy man. So, too, for literary evidence. If we can be told about giant ants by Herodotus, who treats this tall tale as if it were true, then the tall tale of the zombies in Matthew should not surprise us either. The same things can be said of every aspect of the gospel accounts, in Luke or otherwise. Even treating them as purely secular history, they remain just as dubious as other secular histories of the time.

I have been asked if physical evidence is really all that important, and the answer is often yes. If there is a reason to doubt the reality of a person, it is generally doubted without physical evidence. Historians doubted the existence of Alexander of Abonuteichos, an account of whom we only hear in Lucian, until we recovered evidence corroborating Lucian’s account: coins and statues. Many of the people attested in early books of Livy are still dismissed as inventions simply because there is no physical evidence. Likewise the Historia Augusta is divided into “reliable” and “unreliable” halves, based on the observation that after a certain point the people it refers to are not attested anywhere else, whereas in the first half we have coins, inscriptions, and papyri confirming their existence (on the use of evidence in establishing the historicity of persons and events, see my Main Argument).

However, I do not dispute the existence of a man called Jesus. Nor do I think even physical evidence is a guarantee of truth. It is possible that “Jesus” was invented.[2] But there were many men named Jesus, many of whom preachers of religious reform, so his existence is plausible. What is in doubt is whether the miracles and other claims about Jesus are true. And whereas we have physical inscriptions of the miracles of Asclepius, we have none for Jesus, so that his miracles are even more doubtful than those of Asclepius (or have natural explanations, cf. my discussion elsewhere of historiography). And although he is claimed to have had wealthy supporters (Joseph of Arimathea), by whom he was supposedly believed to be the divine savior of all mankind–the most important person ever to have lived, God Incarnate–somehow no inscriptions of any kind were ever commissioned. But we have the Gospel of Epicurus on stone, commissioned by Diogenes of Oenoanda. He obviously cared more about his savior’s message than Joseph did about that of Jesus. What does that tell you?

See my review of In Defense of Miracles for a much more thorough discussion of this issue, especially my comparison of Julius Caesar with Jesus (the same material is used in my Main Argument), where I refute absurd claims such as that made by Edwin Gordon Selwyn: “The fact that Christ rose from the dead on the third day in full continuity of body and soul–that fact seems as secure as historical evidence can make it” (cited by Josh McDowell, 1st ed., § 10.3A.2B, p. 190). That is simply false.

XII. Concluding Remarks in Support of the Unreliability of the Gospels

There are many other details in the gospels which impugn their reliability, including:

  • …the fact that Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to before 4 BC (the year Herod the Great died), whereas Luke dates it to 6 AD (the year of the first census under Quirinius)–see my essay on Luke and Quirinius.
  • …the fact that Matthew records a horde of zombies descending onJerusalemafter the death of Jesus.
  • …the blatant and repetitive account of demon possession as an explanation for insanity.
  • …the fact that none of the miracles of healing in the record defy natural causes (no missing limbs are ever regrown, no one is resurrected from ashes, cf. historiography).
  • …the fact that Mark has modeled his stories after similar tales in Homer (see my review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) and material in Psalms 22-24, and so on.
  • …the false claim that a solar eclipse took place at the death of Jesus (cf. my essay on Thallus).

The list could go on. But besides all that, I have already shown with more than enough evidence that the Resurrection as Miracle From God is unbelievable, even improbable, and that is sufficient grounds to reject the Christian faith. All the other reasons one could add to this also add to the crushing weight of conviction that Christianity is an old superstition, dusty with time, outdated, outmoded, and better replaced by a new world view. The best discussion of the evidential value of the New Testament can be found in an excellent article by Richard Packham, which also soundly refutes claims that the evidence is on par with that required to prove a case in court, a claim made by Edward Clarke, as cited by McDowell (1st ed., § 10.3A.2B, p. 190; cf. also 2nd ed., § 9.5A.2B). McDowell also cites the argument (1st ed., p. 220, § 4A.1B.2C) that details of the story are so vivid they must be eye-witness accounts, yet this completely forgets that fiction is also vivid, and that fiction specifically aims to add such vivid details, whereas history, even eye-witness history, does not usually dwell on such things in a narrative, without reflection or qualification or the identification of sources–and even when it does it is almost always adding fictional details to spice up a real story, as was very often the practice in the ancient world. Thus, these details do not add any merit to the Gospels. For the real markers of merit, see the historical sections (4a through 4e) of my review of In Defense of Miracles.

Still, there are those who think Christianity itself is so unique and thus so improbable that it must be inspired by God. In particular, some have claimed that the idea of a personal rather than a general resurrection, as well as of a “crucified messiah” would have been rather absurd to people in the time of Jesus. But crucified deities were not absurd to the Sumerians, who worshipped the crucified Innana (cf. Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 3rd. revised ed., 1981, pp. 154ff.). The Greeks had Prometheus, who suffered a similar fate, and the very popular religion of Cybele had Attis, a castrated deity whose male priests castrated themselves in their god’s honor. Clearly absurdity was no barrier to devotion. So what is really absurd is to look at all of human history and still think it is a reasonable argument that because something is absurd or distasteful, no one will do it. It is even more absurd when the thing in question is saddled inside a very attractive, pleasing, and useful package. Who cares if your god was crucified, so long as you will live forever by believing it? Fear of death is a far more serious motivator than distaste for absurdity, and a man who has been persuaded that if he loses his body his soul will live forever, he will be happy to die for any number of absurd ideas, as history has proven.

As to the “uniqueness” argument, that is also an absurd statement in light of fact. Based on the exact same reasoning, we should doubt that there has ever been a major religious innovation in all of human history. But until you can explain away Mormonism, Buddhism, Isidism, Islam, Transcendental Meditation, Taoism, Shintoism, the Korean Chondogyo (whose leader was also executed, yet the creed is going strong), and all other major religious innovations–which always, by definition, have included unique ideas–there will never be a more absurd argument than “they wouldn’t invent something much unlike anything they had been exposed to.” This argument is further flawed by the fact that the authors of Christianity were exposed to a lot more than just Judaism, and just as the Jews adopted a unique concept of Hell and Resurrection by combining ideas from Persians and Greeks, it would be an easy thing to adopt from Greek individualism and theories of the soul (including Pythagorean reincarnation) the natural conclusion that if there can be a general resurrection in the flesh, there may instead be an individual resurrection of the spirit, with its own superior body. Indeed, I have yet to see any attribute of Christianity that could not have been assembled from ideas already existing in the cultures that surrounded it. By all reasonable accounts, Christianity is a product of human history, not the product of a god.

Note 1: The “minor variations” include: incipiunt libri gaii caesaris belli gallici iuliani… appears in a marginal note in the codex Parisinus Latinus (which merely converts the singular to a plural to suit conversion of the books from scroll to codex format), and in later commentaries–which also convert the adjective iuliani to a noun, moving it back to join the name as iulii, which was clearly a scribal attempt to improve the text and not the original form, for the other version, by omitting the nomen, is less expected, and scribes did not correct texts to make them stranger, but more in line with expectation. When the text was typeset for the first printed edition in 1477, the title was changed to Iuli Caesaris commentariorum de bello gallico… and the abbreviation for Gaius (“C.”) was added in the following century, and this is how the standard Oxford critical edition reconstructs the text, being the most familiar to educators, but the original beginnings are supplied in the apparatus beneath. One old manuscript (codex Amstelodamensis 81) misattributes the text to Suetonius, clearly an error.

Note 2: For an assessment of the best case, see: Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity” (2002).


Rebutting Lesser Arguments

Many devout believers will take issue with what I have said so far in the essays listed in the table above. So far, they have yet to give any good reason to actually come to a different conclusion. But some really bad arguments keep cropping up again and again, so often that they deserve rebuttal here.

The following three sections elaborate on this central point: I. The Two Lamest Arguments Ever Made; II. “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?“; and III. The Fact of Changed Lives.

I. The Two Lamest Arguments Ever Made

“You are wrong because the Bible is infallible.” Yes, this is a direct quote from a critic of the original version of this essay, and he was not alone. This is the lamest argument in the universe, but it has been made so many times I must say something about it here. To claim the Bible infallible is to say the Bible is true because the Bible is true. This is circular reasoning, a non-argument. If you wish to call a book infallible which claims the main character was born both before 4 BC (when Herod was king: Matt. 2:1) and in 6 AD (when there were no kings and the Romans took over: Luke 2:1-3, see my essay The Date of the Nativity in Luke), or that Darius was the son of Xerxes (Daniel 9.1: Xerxes is the Greek for Ahasuerus, which is Hebrew for Xerxes)–when in fact he was the father of Xerxes (and son of Hystaspes, see elsewhere my Note on Daniel)–then I can only offer an invitation for you to step into the real world, and hope you accept.

McDowell advances fulfilled prophecies as a proof of the resurrection (1st ed., § 10.2A; 2nd ed., § 9.4A.1B-2B), but this fails as an argument, since the predictions can too easily have been invented after the fact, or even, for instance, inspired dreams or visions of Jesus that were interpreted as a confirmation (see the principles discussed in my review of Newman). This does not mean miracles and prophecies are impossible, but it does mean that, in all actual cases I am familiar with, we cannot know if they happened. Usually, just as Herodotus reporting the existence of giant ants is dismissed for the sole reason that it is implausible, so we must dismiss men walking on water. Lacking any reason to grant them more merit than none, this is the only sensible response. But for the specific reasons to discount most miracle stories, see my Main Argument, as well as my discussion of Purtill and the rest of my Review of In Defense of Miracles.

Indeed, the Bible fails, on one occasion or another, every check against plausibility, and thus cannot be infallible. Not only does it fail by proposing absurd miracle accounts such as hoardes of zombies walking in Jerusalem, three-hour-long eclipses, and massive rock-splitting earthquakes, which are attested nowhere else despite their awesome scale (Matthew 27:45-53, cf. Thallus), or the attribution of insanity to possession by spirits, and the recording of demons entering and drowing a herd of pigs (Luke 8:26-33), but also by recording events as factual that neither the author nor any friendly source could ever have witnessed (such as secret conversations of Jews and officials: Matt. 27:62-65; 28:11-15), and claims that do not fit the known facts, such as when Jesus was born or the succession of Persian kings (mentioned above). In the end, the Bible is very fallible, and to believe otherwise is to cling to a blind faith indeed (see the Secular Web’s section on Biblical Errancy). A man who believes without thinking is no kin or kindred of mine, and he will have to excuse me for being inexorably different of mind and spirit in the profoundest of ways.

The second lamest argument ever made is the wicked threat: “There will be a ‘time’,” one thoughtful would-be savior of mine wrote, “when we will all have all the ‘evidence’ we need to prove our beliefs correct or wrong. By then it may be too late.” This was the kindest way it was put by dozens of Christians. “I will dance with glee in Heaven as you roast in Hell!” said another. It surprises me that for all this man’s devotion and sincerity, he somehow missed the most important lesson any man can learn: threats are the hallmark of a wicked creed. A God who would create a hell, or allow any good person to fall there by mere error, would be a wicked god by definition, and anyone who admired such a god would be just as wicked, and therefore those Christians who admire such are truly frightening. They have taken evil and called it good, under the banner of self-righteousness, and by this they justify the most horrible ideas and wishes–and then have the gall to pretend they believe in love.

II. “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?”

The claim is often made that Jesus must have been God–or else he was a liar or a lunatic; and since both can be dismissed on the evidence, as he was the greatest moral teacher and behaved like a sane man, therefore he was God. Josh McDowell devotes his seventh chapter to this argument (in both editions). Though this does not bear directly on the resurrection, it does relate indirectly. So I briefly address it here. First, this argument has already been well-criticised by others: see Lord, Liar or Lunatic? by James Still, The Trilemma– Lord, Liar Or Lunatic? by Jim Perry, and A False Trilemma by Robert Price.

My own observations are these: First, there is a fourth possibility that this “trilemma” fails to consider–simply being mistaken. The real choices are, “lord, liar, lunatic, or fallible human.” Second, it is questionable whether Jesus was so great a moral teacher, as moral teachers go. See my essay on Musonius Rufus, for example, and our section on the Character of Jesus. It is also questionable that Jesus actually claimed to be God. See, for instance, Thomas Sheehan’s book The First Coming. Moreover, Jesus’ claims to be God even as represented in the Gospels are not very clear in their meaning, and it is neither certain what Jesus himself meant nor what his audience thought he meant, or recorded him as saying (see, for instance, questions raised by the Jesus Seminar).

However, even if we can wade through those difficulties (and I don’t believe we can), the fact that such a claim was outrageous, unusual, and unique would not prevent Jesus from being honestly mistaken about it. Besides the fact that many kings claimed this very same thing without a blush in Jesus’ day, the reasons for Jesus’ own belief could have been perfectly convincing to him even if he was occasionally doubtful. For instance, seeing the placebo effects of his charisma on the sick and “possessed,” reading and interpreting signs and prophecies in a certain way, and being told by others he was almost divine in his teachings or actions, and being treated by his followers as if he were divine, even if it was never outright said that he was God, it is easy to see how he could be misled in that day and time into a seemingly rational belief that he was God made manifest as an ordinary human for a particular purpose.

This is all the more so since we know for a fact that many individuals were claiming to be, or were proclaimed to be, messiahs of one form or another in Jesus’ day (Josephus recounts several), and everyone in Judaea was looking for just this sort of thing: God made manifest to liberate Israel–physically or spiritually (see Note 1). The Danielic prophecy was likely on everyone’s mind, since Josephus and Suetonius report that the Jews were expecting a messiah to appear in these very decades. Thus, heightened expectation, eager seeking by the troubled masses, and widespread superstition (cf. Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire) would all make the situation ripe for a case of mistaken identity. It would also have made it hard for anyone to doubt him–so long as his divinity remained proven by his successful preaching, his bold behavior, his high-minded message, and his healings and exorcisms, who could question it? Even a skeptic could not have presented any evidence against it, since demands for proof were met with warnings that God is not to be tested (e.g. cf. Luke 4:12, 11:29, etc.), the time is not yet right, he was on Earth for a different purpose (to be abused and rejected as the prophets predicted, and to suffer and die as a sin-sacrifice on behalf of mankind as the prophets foretold) and so on (cf. Mark 6:4-5)–which would not have to be tricks, but could be sincerely-believed ‘wisdom’. We see some examples of doubters in the Gospels. What could they do? Nothing.

Finally, the issue of insanity is not as, for example, someone like C.S. Lewis represents it. It is quite possible to be delusional or even psychotic and otherwise behave with perfectly rationality, even exhibit the creativity and insight of a genius. That it does not follow that delusional people are “mentally unstable” is well known: a delusional person, with or without a schizotypal personality, can behave very rationally and ordinary in every other respect apart from their mistaken beliefs or experiences: as Claridge McCreery writes in “A Study of Hallucination in Normal Subjects” (Personality and Individual Differences 2:5; November, 1996; pp. 739-747), many a psychotic has been found to be “a relatively well-adjusted person who is functional despite, and in some cases even because of, his or her anomalous perceptual experiences” (see also my discussion of hallucination elsewhere).

It is also all too easy for devout believers to overlook or misinterpret even disturbing signs, if there still happened to be any, and thus such details could easily have failed to be recorded, or been given a different spin (of the latter, Jesus’ treatment of the fig tree, and his conversation with the Devil in the desert, are just two possible examples of madness reinterpreted as genius). But consider also that having such visions and voices do not require one to be insane: hypnagogic hallucinations are an ordinary occurrence for everyone, and it has been observed that visions in antiquity were most common in the early afternoon, the time all Mediterranean cultures enjoyed a post-meal siesta, and they become extremely likely after prolonged periods of fasting or sleep deprivation (such as going 40 days and 40 nights with little food or sleep in a mesmerizing desert landscape). Any manner of delusions could arise from such experiences.

So is “Jesus really was God” the best explanation of the evidence? Not even remotely. We have six lines of doubt: we do not really know what he said; we do not really know what people at that time thought he said; we do not know whether Jesus was merely mistaken or deluded (which are problems faced by sane people as well as the insane); we do not have an unbiased, unsuperstitious account of his behavior or thoughts; and we do not really know what he actually did, and indeed are not even clear exactly why he was executed or on what pretext. To top it all off, none of his teachings or behaviors or “miracles” are at all suggestive of being acts of God (see my Review of In Defense of Miracles). And this is before we even interject the very real possibilities that he was insane, or that he did lie, since there is no real, reliable evidence to refute these possibilities: psychotics can live otherwise normal, even inspired lives, and there are countless pious and well-meaning reasons for lying (for the greater good–Christianity could have been seen as good for Israel even if it was secretly untrue, as I discussed earlier regarding Paul).

To top it all off, consider a parallel: Alexander the Great thought he was the Son of God. Was he a liar? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he was, his intentions might have been good: to keep the peace in a newly subjugated empire, where the people expected their kings to be divine as an assurance that all was well. Was he insane? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he was, he accomplished great things nonetheless, such as only a man both rational and wise could have achieved. But the possibility remains that he was genuinely mistaken. For the Oracle at Siwah had proclaimed the story of his divine patrinomy, and his mother saw no reason to deny the honor to her son (and every reason to see the honor she would receive as a result). He had certainly performed godlike deeds and may have truly believed only a son of a god could have been so successful so quickly. For a man in his position, in his culture, this would not be a remarkable conclusion, but would make a great deal of sense, to him and others. Jesus could have been in an essentially identical situation–after all, unlike all the Roman triumphators, no one records that Jesus had a man behind him constantly whispering in his ear, “Remember thou art mortal.”

III. The Fact of Changed Lives

What does the power of belief have to do with that belief being true? As Josh McDowell puts it (1st ed., p. 228, § 10.4A.3B.3C;cf. also 2nd ed., § 9.6A.4B.1-3C):

The established psychological fact of changed lives…is a credible reason for believing in the resurrection. It is subjective evidence bearing witness to the objective fact that Jesus Christ arose on the third day. For only a risen Christ could have such transforming power in a person’s life.

Besides the obvious objection that an idea believed to be true has the same effect on someone’s life whether it is really true or false, there is an arrogant presumption here: that no one but Christians are profoundly changed by conversion to a profound belief. I have heard enough first-hand tales of converts to Buddhism, Islam, Ba’hai, even Atheism (see Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker), to know that McDowell is engaging in snobbish elitism here.

Any belief system that involves a radical break with past belief toward a positive acceptance of new hope or wisdom will have a powerful transformative effect on a person, whether their new belief is true or not. I myself “converted” from an all-but-areligious childhood to Taoism, and its effect on me was certainly profound. Am I so ignorant of the world that I would actually claim that “only the true Tao could have such a transforming power in a person’s life”? No. I am more honest than that, and more aware of the ways of the world. I was overcome by the genius and beauty of a belief, and the hope and wisdom it granted in a shining moment of revelation. But after long examination I found it was not the correct world view, that there were flaws only visible to careful study. The same thing can and has happened to a great many Christians, and I offer Dan Barker as only one famous example. Does that prove that Christianity, like Taoism, however beautiful and good, is nevertheless false? No. Nor does the contrary evidence of transformation prove it is true. Truth and falsehood are not ascertained by measuring belief, but by measuring evidence. The most relevant thing I have written on this matter is Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?.

 


What Can We Infer from the Present about the Past? (2006)

In “Do No Miracles Today Imply None in the Past? A Critique of Richard Carrier’s Methodology,” Amy Sayers responds to an argument in my collection of essays “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” (6th ed., 2006). In particular, she responds to the argument I summarize under “No Miracles Today Implies None Then” (part II of the chapter “General Case for Insufficiency: The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory“).

First, Sayers claims that an “argument of analogy between present and past cannot work in the negative sense,” yet all negative propositions entail positive propositions, and vice versa, eliminating the merit of any such distinction.[1] For example, I can say “if all the events I observe or know about today have natural causes, then as far as I know all events had natural causes then,” which is a positive analogy (and she grants such analogies in principle can be valid), and yet this analogy logically entails the concurrent analogy that if there are no miracles today, then probably there were none then. So her argument is illogical from the start.

Moreover, the notion that negative analogies are invalid is also unfounded. Clearly we can argue, for example, “sail-powered ships cannot travel a hundred miles per hour today, therefore they probably couldn’t then” as a basis for concluding that a sailboat could not have circumnavigatedAfricain a day. Likewise, we can argue that “the earth is not flat today, so probably it was not flat then” as a basis for concluding that tales of people falling off the edge of the earth are not true, or that “human beings cannot breathe in outer space today, therefore they couldn’t then” as a basis for concluding that Lucian’s report of taking an open-decked sailboat to the moon cannot be true. Obviously, negative analogies are valid and we use them all the time. Sayers is simply wrong to claim otherwise.

Sayers gets this wrong because she commits the fallacy of false generalization: she presents one invalid negative analogy and argues from this that all negative analogies are invalid. But, in fact, the one example she gives would be invalid even if it were a positive analogy. She selects the invalid argument “there are no dinosaurs today, therefore there were none then,” but this argument is not invalid because it is negative–for the positive analogy “there is paper money today, therefore there was paper money then” is also invalid for exactly the same reason: both arguments ignore relevant facts. As Sayers herself points out, “we have evidence that dinosaurs once existed” and “we have reasonable theories explaining why they don’t any longer,” and similar observations hold regarding paper money. Sayers claims that this shifts the burden of evidence, but that has nothing to do with whether negative analogies are valid arguments. Rather, all it has to do with is when analogies are valid, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.

Consequently, Sayers completely misconstrues the argument from analogy when she presents her own deductive syllogism, which is an incorrect formulation of the argument. An argument from analogy proceeds from observations of relative probability, and is not about what actually is the case, but what we are warranted in believing. This is a crucial distinction. For example, we know for a fact that people fabricate stories of the fabulous[2], but we do not know that anyone could plant the vast, worldwide geological evidence of the past existence and extinction of dinosaurs (much less that anyone has actually done this). Essential to this observation is that we proceed from what we know, not from what we don’t know. Just because we don’t know of anyone who could plant all the evidence for dinosaurs does not mean no such person exists. It is a fact that all that evidence could be planted and no one would know about it. But we don’t know that this is the case, and since we can only proceed on what we know, we are not warranted in believing that the evidence was planted. And because we otherwise do have good explanations of the evidence, we are warranted in believing it was not planted–until such time as we discover new evidence that justifies changing our mind about this.

That is why the dinosaurs analogy does not compare to the miracles analogy. We can only argue from what we know, and all we know is that (1) miracles don’t happen around us and (2) miracle stories are often false. In other words, though it may indeed be the case that miracles once happened, or are happening now, we do not know that this is the case, whereas we do know that miracle stories are often false, and that no such things are happening around us. And the bottom line is that we can only proceed from what we know. So until we know something different, it is entirely valid to reason that past miracle stories are probably not true, by analogy from the present. In no way does it matter whether that analogy is negative or positive.

However, Sayers is correct to object to the blind use of this argument as an excuse to ignore evidence, and I think that is the point Sayers actually wanted to make. For it is indeed possible to have evidence of past miracles that is as strong as the evidence for past dinosaurs, and in such a case we could not argue from analogy against the past existence of miracles. I have always maintained this position.[3] So I think what Sayers really means to argue is that an argument from analogy (negative or otherwise) only works when there is not a greater weight of evidence to the contrary. For example, we could find extensive archaeological evidence that Lucian in fact did travel to the moon: astronauts could find “Lucian was here” scrawled on the moon in ancient Greek, Lucian’s house could be dug up and found full of lunar rocks, abundant and reliable eyewitness testimony could be on record of his flight, and so on. In the same fashion, it is possible to acquire convincing evidence of miracles in past history, and I argue this very point in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005).

But then Sayers goes too far when she misconstrues the often-heard premise “there is no evidence of miracles today” as meaning something other than “there is insufficient evidence to warrant my believing there are any genuine miracles today.” She is close to getting it right, but not quite. There may indeed be evidence available to someone else that is sufficient to warrant them believing in genuine miracles, but until the atheist is provided with that evidence, he can only reason from what he himself knows. So if there is no evidence of miracles today that is sufficient to warrant his believing there are any genuine miracles, then he can argue from that premise. To refute his argument is simple: provide the evidence that his premise is false. But beyond that contingency, Sayers cannot claim it is invalid to adopt that premise.

For instance, there could be evidence of Lucian’s trip to the moon that Sayers doesn’t know about, and she certainly hasn’t exhausted all possible research on the matter, not even what she is capable of. Nevertheless, Sayers could still rightly conclude that Lucian made no such trip based on the fact that we have no evidence today that such a trip was possible given the resources available to him. Her conclusion would be that, given what she knows at the present time, she is not warranted in believing Lucian went to the moon. But she would probably express this as simply “Lucian didn’t go to the moon,” leaving it as understood what she actually means by this. So, too, for those who argue by analogy against miracles.

This brings us to her specific discussion of my presentation of the argument, where she commits all the same errors. Right from the start, she incorrectly formulates my argument as the following deductive syllogism:

  1. If dead people are not resurrected today, they were not resurrected in the past.
  2. Dead people stay dead today.
  3. There is no evidence that a God exists who would or could perform a miracle that interferes with the dead’s state of staying dead.
  4. Therefore, Jesus, who died “back then,” stayed dead, too.

This is not at all how my argument proceeds. A correct formulation of my argument would look something like this:

  1. If I have insufficient evidence to believe miracles like resurrections happen today, and if I do not have better evidence for miracles in the past than I have for their absence in the present, then I have insufficient evidence to believe miracles like resurrections happened in the past.
  2. I have insufficient evidence to believe miracles like resurrections happen today and I do not have better evidence for miracles in the past than I have for their absence in the present.
  3. Therefore, I have insufficient evidence to believe miracles like resurrections happened in the past.

This argument is valid and sound, and its conclusion would logically encompass all particular cases like Jesus.

Clearly, Sayers has gotten my argument wrong in many ways. She mistakes assertions about what I am warranted in believing with assertions about what is the case apart from what I know. Indeed, contrary to her allegation, in the relevant essay I explicitly deny that I need evidence of resurrections specifically, and instead seek evidence of any comparable agent or phenomena that would make resurrections both possible and more likely than other explanations of the same evidence.[4] Sayers also gets wrong what I said about God: I did not mean “there is no evidence that a God exists who would or could perform a miracle” as if there could never be, but rather that I myself, at the present time, have no evidence that there is such an agent. Obviously, if I get some such evidence, then I might very well change my mind about the resurrection, or the miracles of Asclepius, Mohammed, or Krishna, or any number of other past miracle claims. Sayers also gets wrong what I said about God: I did not say that “there is no evidence that a God exists who would or could perform a miracle.” Rather, I said that I myself had no evidence that there is such an agent. Maybe someone else has that evidence, or maybe there is some such evidence out there waiting to be found, but until I have it, I can only reason from what I know. And from what I know, when I ask myself “Which is more likely: that God stopped parting seas and raising the dead, or that these stories are, for various historical reasons, fictions?” I am compelled by what I know to conclude that the latter is more likely. I could be wrong. But until someone proves me wrong, I cannot warrant believing otherwise. That is my argument. And Sayers says nothing against it.

As I conclude in the relevant essay, “we do not believe stories that come to us second-hand which contradict our direct experience, because each fact [the second hand story, and our own direct experience] presents us with two possible realities, the only evidence of one is a story, the only evidence of the other is direct observation.” We know stories are more often mistaken or untrue than our direct experience, and our direct experience provides no support for these sorts of stories. If our direct experience instead provided some support, then we would have an argument from analogy that would support rather than count against the case for past miracles. But since our direct experience produces the opposite information, it produces the opposite support–and that is where things will remain until such time as our experience changes.

But that isn’t the only way to overcome the argument. For we also know of conditions when stories and other evidence are less often mistaken or untrue than our direct experience, so we can also construct an argument from analogy in support of a past miracle whenever those same conditions obtain. The most common example is the heliocentric theory, which flatly contradicts direct perception since the Sun “obviously” moves while the Earth sits still. Though anyone can directly perceive all the facts that entail the truth of the heliocentric theory (and many a scientist and enthusiast has done so), by far most people only know the facts supporting the theory through testimony (of experts, teachers, TV shows, authors, etc.). Thus, it is clearly reasonable for testimony to overcome direct experience when that testimony is sufficiently overwhelming. But the amount, quality, and degree of testimony required for this reversal is vastly greater than what we have for any miracle claim in history, and thus there is no parallel.

But there could be. If we only had the same scale of testimonial evidence, in quantity, scope, and reliability, for any miracle claim, then that claim would be as believable as any other amazing but credible story. Hence I agree we could still overcome the inference against miracles with a substantial quantity of evidence from the past, as long as it was sufficient to justify concluding that our present direct experience is abnormal. As in my example above, we could indeed prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Lucian went to the moon, or we could at least raise adequate suspicions that dinosaur bones were planted. But as my other chapters demonstrate in “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story,” and as my concluding point about Thomas emphasizes in “No Miracles Today Implies None Then,” we do not have that kind of evidence from the past, certainly not in the case of any miracle claim.

In conclusion, Sayers ends with an argument that some skeptics are irrational, which is certainly true. But that has no bearing on what would persuade me, and therefore it can have no bearing on anything I have argued. Nor can it pertain to any other reasonable person. How I would respond to irrational people is not relevant to whether I believe the evidence is sufficient to convince a rational person. The fact remains that I don’t. And Sayers has not said anything that justifies changing my mind about that.


[1] See my essay “Proving a Negative” (1999).

[2] Fabulous stories are fabricated for many different reasons, including honest mistakes, innocent exaggerations, symbolic exposition, and even outright deception or delusion.

[3] See my most complete discussion of the subject of miracles in “Review of In Defense of Miracles” (1999). Note that I disagree with interpreters of Hume who think it is logically impossible to have sufficient testimony to accept any miracle, largely because Hume did not define “miracle” correctly.

[4] The proper formula for the argument from analogy is Bayes’ theorem, which is too complex to explain here. But for an informal treatment, see my Digression on Method in “Why I Am Not A Christian” (2006) and The Problem of Uncertainty in “Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False?” (2006).

 

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