Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Response to Gary

     Gary describes himself as a former “devout orthodox (fundamentalist) Christian,” who has rejected the Christian faith and appears to be on a quest to discredit the Christian religion. He recently entered my tiny speck of the blogosphere, insisting that I read his review of his former pastor’s defense of the Lord’s resurrection. He claims that belief in the resurrection lacks any good evidence and is “based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstition, and giant leaps of faith.” I read his review <Link>. Here is my response.
Evaluating the Evidence
     Gary maintains that “the overwhelming majority” of skeptics accept the testimonies of early Christians as valid evidence, although the evidence must be scrutinized “with the caveat that there may well be bias present in their statements.” I agree with this approach and with Gary’s observation that “both sides have a bias, but biases do NOT necessarily invalidate the evidence.”1
     Gary then affirms that he and most other skeptics “view the Bible as a mixture of truths and fiction. The key to understanding the Bible is examining each biblical claim to determine which category it belongs to, and not assuming every claim is true or every claim is false.” The problem here is that no one approaches the biblical record with a completely blank tablet, and one’s deep-seated presuppositions inevitably affect how the scriptures are evaluated. The pendulum swings in both directions. If one has little or no respect for the Bible or has a predisposition against it and examines the text merely to find fault, then the final assessment will almost certainly be negative.2 Would Gary deny this about most, some, or any skeptics?
     It is commendable that he argues for an unbiased, objective analysis of the biblical evidence (I concur!), yet his own approach seems very one-sided. He repeatedly makes the very broad, anecdotal appeal to “the overwhelming majority” of skeptics and biblical scholars, but the only one he actually names is agnostic professor Bart Ehrman. How many scholarly critics are there (past and present), and where does each fit on the liberal-conservative theological spectrum, and who determines the percentage of the ones espousing a particular view? While I don’t know how many of these alleged experts Gary has read or listened to (presumably not all of them), it is apparent that his primary focus is pretty much limited to those who already agree with him. A clear example of this is his contention that “the Epistle of Second Peter is a known work of fraud! No scholar that I know of believes that Peter or any other eyewitness wrote that epistle.” There are numerous scholars that Gary evidently doesn’t “know of” who would disagree (e.g. D. A. Carson, E. M. B. Green, D. Guthrie, D. J. Moo, B. Reicke, etc.). Irrespective of which position one embraces, plethoric “scholars” can be cited for support.
The Biblical Evidence
     The main thrust of Gary’s argument is an attempt to discredit the veracity of the biblical record in general, and eyewitness testimony in particular. But all we have,” Gary assures his readers, “are four accounts written decades later, two of which and maybe three borrow heavily (plagiarize) from the first, by anonymous persons writing in far away lands, whom most scholars do NOT believe were eyewitnesses. Yes, dear Reader, you read that correctly: the majority of New Testament scholars living today do NOT believe that eyewitnesses wrote the four Gospels and the Book of Acts.”
     First of all, the four Gospel accounts are not “all we have.” Secondly, the assertion that “maybe three” of them plagiarize from the first is an allegation that no reputable scholar, to my knowledge, has ever made. That two of the Gospels borrowed from the first is a popular theory among non-conservatives, but this is not universally conceded nor is it proven. In fact, the striking differences among the synoptic accounts argue more readily for literary independence.3 Thirdly, the charge that most scholars deny “that eyewitnesses wrote the four Gospels and the Book of Acts” is not the earthshattering revelation that Gary seems to think it is. No one who is aware of the facts, even among extreme fundamentalists, believes that Luke-Acts and the Gospel of Mark were penned by eyewitnesses. The real issue is whether these two authors were acquainted with eyewitnesses and based their respective reports on eyewitness testimony, and whether the other two Gospel writers themselves were eyewitnesses (see Authorship of the NT Gospels, and Biblical Authorship Part 1).
     Gary has boarded the trendy anti-conservative bandwagon and asserts that the Gospel of Luke “wasn’t written until the 80s at the earliest, so the Book of Acts was probably not written until the last decades of the first century, if not the early second century!” Gary is trying to argue that it’s quite possible that NO ONE was alive at the time of the writing and subsequent distribution of the Book of Acts who had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus!” However, by taking the internal textual evidence at face value rather than relying on subjective literary theory and philosophical presuppositions, Luke’s Gospel would appear to have been completed as early as 59. Attention to the “we” sections in Acts reveals that the author arrived in Jerusalem with Paul in late spring 57 (Acts 20:6, 16; 21:17) and faded out of the picture for a couple of years until autumn 59 when he and Paul departed from Caesarea on the voyage to Rome (Acts 27:1-9). An extended period in Jerusalem would have afforded him the ideal opportunity to gather the necessary information for his “orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4). The historical record of Acts concludes at the end of Paul’s two-year Roman imprisonment, i.e., spring of 62. The most obvious explanation for the abrupt ending is that the historical account had actually reached this point.4 The textual/historical evidence does not support Gary’s unfounded assumption.
Eyewitness Testimony
     Gary reduces the eyewitness testimony to “Paul and a few Galilean peasants,” who allegedly believed a couple of appearance stories “based solely on vivid dreams, trances, and visions.” Is this a fair representation of the facts? Gary provides NO historical evidence for his explanation. 
     Despite the popularity of the Markan priority theory, the Gospels of Mark and John are clearly independent of one another, while Matthew and Luke differ enough from Mark to establish them as independent sources. The book of Acts is replete with recorded testimonies (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:18-20; 5:30-32; 10:39-40). Luke’s Gospel and the Hebrews epistle explicitly claim eyewitness corroboration (Luke 1:1-4; Heb. 2:3-4), while there are first-hand statements in the writings of John (John 19:33-35; 1 John 1:1-3) and the Petrine documents (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:16). And then there’s Paul. 
     In 1 Cor. 15:3-8 (an undisputed Pauline document by the way), the apostle mentions over 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ, most of whom were still alive at the time, and no less than fourteen of the names were known (with additional names in the other accounts) and could be verified. It’s as though he’s challenging his readers to check him out (cf. Acts 26:26). Remember that the New Testament is not merely a single record; it is the compilation of twenty-seven separate documents spanning multiple geographical locations and time periods, representing numerous independent sources that remarkably harmonize.
     While an individual might have “vivid dreams, trances, and visions,” we’re talking about hundreds of people on dozens of occasions over an extended period of time! Jesus was not only seen alive after his crucifixion, he was also communicated with and touched. And then there’s the empty tomb. If the ardent claims of these professed eyewitnesses are false, why didn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities produce the corpse to dispel the crazy rumors and stop the Christian movement in its tracks?
     Gary asks, “Did Paul claim that there was an Empty Tomb?” and concludes that the empty tomb is “a fact NEVER mentioned in any of the writings of Paul! …. Paul never mentions this detail ONCE!” Gary is right if we’re limiting our discussion to these specific words. However, the apostle makes numerous implicit references to the empty tomb with his repeated and adamant allusions to the resurrected Lord (Rom. 1:4; 4:24-25; 6:4-9; 7:4; 8:11, 34; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:1-8, 12-21; 2 Cor. 4:14; 5:15; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; Phil. 3:10; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10; 4:14; 2 Tim. 2:8; cf. Acts 13:30, 33, 34, 37; 17:3, 18, 31, 32; 24:21; 25:19).
How Much Evidence is Needed?
     Gary says that “if scholars could point to the confirmed testimony of even ONE of the original eleven disciples, most skeptics would consider this fantastic, very relevant evidence. But unfortunately we do not have such evidence.” He also cynically requests: “Please provide ONE verified statement by just ONE eyewitness who claims to have seen and touched the walking/talking dead body of Jesus.” 
     The problem with these demands is that no amount of evidence, especially from the Bible, is going to satisfy those who are predisposed to dismissing biblical (supernatural) claims. If secular authors were held to the same critical scrutiny as biblical authors, no one could be certain that anyone in particular wrote or said or did anything. If the historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection, including abundant eyewitness corroboration, is not enough to convince someone, how can he/she be sure about any historical event?
     The bottom line is this: what is one’s standard of proof, and what presuppositions influence the evaluative process? If a person is limited to a strictly naturalistic worldview, then the possibility of God and supernatural occurrences is automatically ruled out from the start. But what if the evidence points beyond the natural world?
Here are the indisputable facts:
o   Jesus of Nazareth was a real person in history.
o   He died in 1st-century Palestine by crucifixion.
o   Numerous individuals and groups adamantly believed that he appeared to them alive.
o   The tomb was empty.
o   The movement quickly spread, and thousands of these early Christians suffered brutal persecution, even tortuous deaths, for their testimony and unrelenting faith.
o   Paul of Tarsus, a violent persecutor of the Jesus followers, became a steadfast believer and proclaimer of the resurrected Jesus.
     The Bible consistently makes historical claims about real people and events in actual places and times, presenting its case for either confirmation or falsification. If Jesus didn’t walk out of the tomb, the biblical record is a lie and “we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Cor. 15:19). If, however, he did conquer death, it is the most significant event in all of human history and it would be foolish to ignore it. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has radically shaped the course of history and countless lives and is as certain as any fact of history can be.
--Kevin L. Moore

     2 See The Bible in Perspective.
     4 See The Dating of Luke-Acts and Why It Matters; also The Authorship of Luke-Acts. Among the ancients (from Herodotus 420 BC to Marcellinus AD 395), eyewitness testimony was regarded as the most reliable historical source (D. E. Aune,  NT Literary Environment 81).

     While Paul is not providing an exhaustive list in 1 Corinthian 15:3-8, most critical scholars believe he is reiterating an early creedal formula that goes back to the original disciples. Paul specifically mentions fourteen eyewitnesses plus over 500 more. The Gospels-Acts reveal at least seven additional eyewitnesses (unless Nathanael = Bartholomew). Twenty of these are named in the biblical record: eleven of the original apostles, James the Lord’s brother, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, Salome, Joanna, Nathanael (?), Joseph Barsabas Justus, and Matthias. Of the 500+ eyewitnesses, Paul affirms that most of them were still alive at the time and their testimony could therefore be verified (cf. Acts 26:26). Moreover, the first documented eyewitnesses were women (Mark 16:1-8), which is inconceivable if the story were invented, seeing that a woman's testimony in the first-century Greco-Roman world was not legally admissible. If the bodily resurrection of Jesus could so easily be discredited, why was it the central doctrine of the Christian faith and how did it spawn a worldwide movement?

Addendum #2:
     Which is the most likely explanation of the New Testament’s consistent claim of Christ’s resurrection? (1) Conspiracy theories (e.g. the body was stolen) do not reasonably explain the unrelenting faith of the post-resurrection disciples. (2) Hallucination theories do not account for the empty tomb or for the numerous claims of eyewitness sightings at different times and places. (3) Swoon theories (Jesus didn’t really die on the cross) are contrary to any known historical account of Roman crucifixion – no known survivors! (4) Myth theories do not reasonably account for any of the evidence. (5) Jesus having risen from the dead accounts for all the evidence: he was confirmed dead, the tomb in which his corpse was buried was later found empty, and numerous eyewitnesses were convinced they saw and interacted with Jesus afterwards, willing to suffer and die for their testimony.

Addendum #3:

     Hallucinations, as projections of a person's mind, do not explain why multiple persons on multiple occasions initially failed to recognize Jesus (Luke 24:13-32; John 20:11-18; 21:4-12), a fact that does not bolster the story if it were not true. In each account Jesus is eventually recognized through personal interaction.

Related Posts: Challenging Anti-Conservative Presuppositions Part 1Authorship of 2 PeterChronology of Christ's Death & Resurrection 

Related articles: Lee Strobel's How Easter Killed My Faith in Atheism, The Babylon Bee's Millions Worldwide Cling to Faith, J. W. Wallace's Review of Explanations, Donnie DeBord's Non-Negotiable

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  1. You've deleted my comments? Why? Is your faith that shaky that it cannot withstand my inspection and criticism?

    1. Gary, you are mistaken on two counts. I have not deleted any of your comments (yet), and my faith is unaffected by your inspection and criticism. You actually submitted your previous comments on my 26 June 2016 post entitled “Chronology of Paul’s Writings,” to which I’ve responded. The mistake is yours, not mine. Furthermore, I’ve been out of town with my family, and I don’t sit behind my computer 24/7 to immediately approve and respond to every comment received. This is a hobby, so I get to it as time permits. Finally, as I’ve already warned, if you can’t be more reasonable and civil, I have no intention of providing you a platform for your antagonistic and belittling rhetoric. It is my prayer that you open up to the teachings and influence of Jesus Christ and your attitude and tone (and life and destiny) are thereby transformed. To God be the glory.

  2. Dear Kevin,

    The majority of NT scholars, including NT Wright, now say that the Gospels were most likely NOT written by eyewitnesses:


    1. Gary, your extremely one-sided, heavily biased agenda is propped up by cherry-picked sources in an attempt to make your case seem sturdier than it really is. From where have your cherry-picked sources gotten their information? It's all anecdotal -- "majority," "mainstream," "consensus"?? Can we be more specific? Where are the documented surveys or statistics or criteria upon which these assertions are based? Has someone collated all the views of all biblical scholars (past and present) and published the results somewhere that can be verified? Do "majority" and "mainstream" essentially refer to whoever agrees with the views of agnostics and theological liberals? Even though these assertions are unsubstantiated, what do they prove any way? If the majority of biblical scholars in the past affirmed a position contrary to yours, was it right or wrong? If the majority of biblical scholars in the future were to affirm a position contrary to yours, would it be right or wrong? What does an alleged majority opinion actually prove? N.T. Wright says he doesn't know who wrote the Gospels but concedes the possibility that eyewitnesses were involved. Nevertheless, the affirmation you're making is nonsensical. Even though I've mentioned this in a previous response, I'll repeat it here. No one (even among conservatives) believes the Gospels of Mark and Luke were written by eyewitness, so what you're claiming is not the earth-shattering revelation you seem to think it is. Despite N.T. Wright's uncertainties, he still believes that eyewitness accounts stand behind all the Gospel records. But even if he believed otherwise, so what? I could cite a plethora of reputable biblical scholars who disagree with you and the sources you've cherry picked. Would this be enough to convince you? The biblical and historical evidence speaks for itself. My admonition to you is to be more open minded. Be skeptical of your skepticism. Stop limiting your research to left-wing theologians who help justify your unbelief. Give a fair hearing to the other side of the discussion. You've got everything to gain and nothing to lose.