In two short YouTube videos, called “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” the apologist William Lane Craig’s employs a narrator to lay out a summary of Craig’s argument that’s familiar from his many debates with skeptics, to prove that Jesus died and miraculously came back to life. The narrator emphasizes the importance of the resurrection claim to Christians, since only if Jesus came back from the dead, he says, would we be obliged to take seriously Jesus’s claim that he has a special relationship with God.
The irrationality and showmanship of the pair of videos — and of Evangelical defenses of the resurrection story in general — begin with that preliminary claim, since in the New Testament, Jesus is cagey about his identity until the dubious Gospel of John, with its late and elaborate theology that needn’t go back to Jesus, assuming there was an historical Jesus.
In the other canonical Gospels, Jesus suggests he’s the messiah (Mark 14:61–62), and there needn’t have been any resurrection to take seriously that claim, since the messiah was often understood in secular terms of being a political and religious leader of Jews. Likewise, Jesus’ ethics and critique of Pharisaic Judaism don’t require anything miraculous to be intellectually justified.
Of course, Jesus’s claim to have been a messiah and his radical ethics fail on independent grounds, since he didn’t free the Jews or lead them to glory (the Romans crushed Jerusalem a few decades after Jesus’s death and scattered the Jews to the winds, who opted for rabbinic, Pharisaic Judaism instead of Jesus’s subversive, Essenic renunciation of the world, to deal with the loss of their temple).
Moreover, the New Testament justified Jesus’s puritanical, ascetic morality explicitly on the false assumption, rather, that the world was about to end anyway so there was no point in seeking secular compromises to cooperate in living peacefully without God for the long haul.
Contrary to Paul who was the first to declare that the Christian faith is empty unless Jesus was resurrected (1 Cor.15:14), there’s no valid reason for such urgency in seeking to prove the resurrection happened. Christianity is empty for many, many reasons besides the obvious implausibility of the resurrection stories.
It’s telling, though, that from the start Christians have framed the discussion in these terms; indeed, it’s almost as though the empty tomb and resurrection narratives had been crafted not to report the facts, come what may, but to impress and convert nonbelievers. It’s as though the New Testament were mainly religious propaganda rather than a neutral record of historical facts.
Compare this fake necessity to prove Jesus rose from the dead, to a stage magician’s use of an elaborate distraction, such as a lovely assistant who’s dressed in skimpy, eye-catching clothes, so the audience won’t notice the magician’s sleight-of-hand. The Gospel authors (particularly Mark, who invented the empty tomb story) seem to have labored on this showpiece, on the resurrection story that’s meant to silence critics and establish the Christian religion’s authority.
So Craig’s first video evinces false modesty in pretending there’s great risk to Christianity if the resurrection story is disproven, since that story was crafted to be airtight by Mark’s literary freedom to supply enough details to allay at least the doubts of those who are ignorant of sound epistemology and the principles of critical thinking, and who’ve already succumbed to a theistic mindset. The Gospels were written to boost Christians’ faith, not to convince skeptical pagan intellectuals.
In this article and a follow-up one I’ll demolish the two videos’ case for the resurrection, respectively, but notice that no Christian will be convinced of anything I say. The real difference between traditional Christians and skeptics or philosophical naturalists has to do with deep-seated, existential choices of ideals and values, not with anything as pretentious or academic as a philosophical or an historical argument.
1.0 The Empty Tomb Story
The videos are divided into answers to two questions, about the facts that have to be explained and the best explanation of those facts. So the spokesman for Craig will contend that traditional Christianity is the best explanation of the relevant facts. Both videos fail spectacularly, since the alleged facts are bogus or overblown and the appeal to God or to a miracle can explain nothing at all, because those notions are incoherent, vacuous, and obsolete.
But let’s proceed step by step through this morass of confusion and hucksterism. The first video, which I’ll address in this article, presents what it takes to be three facts: the discovery of Jesus’s empty tomb, the appearance of a living Jesus after he died, and the disciples’ belief that Jesus rose from the dead.
The first video’s statement of the supposed facts gets off on the wrong foot by saying the empty tomb story is “reported in no less than six independent sources,” namely 1 Corinthians plus the four Gospels and Acts.
What a whopper! If a Christian apologist today can lie so freely in defense of his or her religious faith, why should we expect the authors of the New Testament to have been obsessed with telling only the unvarnished historical truth?
As Craig well knows, the four Gospels are not independent of each other, since Matthew and Luke, at least, copy much of Mark, word for word. As Encyclopedia Britannica points out, “more than 90 percent of the content of Mark’s Gospel appears in Matthew’s and more than 50 percent in the Gospel of Luke.” Many scholars also think the author of John was familiar with the Gospel of Mark or at least with the synoptic tradition. Moreover, the author of Luke is also the author of Acts, since Acts is the second part of that author’s narrative; thus, Acts can hardly be independent of Luke or of Mark.
In another short video from his same channel, DrCraigVideos, Craig admits that Matthew and Luke are probably dependent on Mark, but says that the sources of these Gospels may be independent, since Matthew and Luke likely also used the Q source which isn’t found in Mark. But Q is a list of some of Jesus’s wisdom sayings, including a number of parables, the Beatitudes, and the Lord’s Prayer; therefore, Q doesn’t attest to the empty tomb story or to Jesus’s resurrection.
As far as the evidence shows, Matthew and Luke got the empty tomb story from Mark, and even if John’s sources were independent of Mark, John’s historical portrait of Jesus is the most anachronistic and the least reliable.
And as for what may have inspired Mark’s empty tomb story, besides any historical event having to do with Jesus, Robert Price follows John Crossan in suggesting Joshua 10:16–27 as a source. That passage in Joshua merely reverses the order of events in Mark: in Joshua, the stone at the entrance of a tomb is rolled away, the kings emerge alive, and the kings are killed and crucified until sundown. In Mark, Jesus as the King of the Jews is crucified until sundown, then the king dies but emerges from the tomb alive once the stone is rolled away, as Mark implies. (See Price’s The Christ-Myth Theory and its Problems.)
1.1 Does Paul know of an Empty Tomb Tradition?
As for 1 Cor.15:3–4, there’s no reference there to an empty tomb. Paul says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Notice the repeated reference to the events happening “according to the scriptures.” That’s the giveaway that Paul is hardly writing as an objective historian; rather, he’s speaking of spiritual, unearthly events that are supposed to fulfill Jewish scripture.
The reference to the saviour dying for our sins derives from the pagan dying-and-rising-god culture and from Isaiah 53. See, for example, verses 11–12: “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities…For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” That symbolism in turn is a reworking of the Jewish scapegoat ritual set out in Leviticus 16.
Incidentally, the details of the Gospels’ account of Jesus’s crucifixion were also drawn from Isaiah’s suffering servant passages and from Psalms 22 and 69. Mark even gives a shout-out to that psalm by having Jesus quote from it on the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
It’s worth pointing out here, then, that every so-called Jewish prophecy fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament can be turned around and considered a virtual Christian confession that that event in Jesus’s life may be nothing more than an adaptation of the earlier Jewish text, especially when that text isn’t framed as a prophecy. Again, this can be compared to a magic trick, since the Christian authors can whitewash what’s potentially objectionable, by spinning literary fabrication as prophecy fulfillment.
In any case, Paul’s reference to being raised on the third day derives likely from the Septuagint’s version of Ps.16:10: “moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption.”
Once the sacrificial death and resurrection were thereby scripturally established, Paul’s reference to the burial turns out to be just connective tissue in his proclamation. The logical and literary purposes of including the detail that a burial occurred are that it adds suspense to this creedal statement, by confirming the death and thus the miracle of the resurrection, and that it adds weight to the formula of the savior’s being “raised.”
Suppose Paul had said Christ died on a mountaintop and that on the third day he was raised from that lofty position. “Raised from where?” a reader might ask, since the top of a mountain is already pretty high up. But if the corpse is put in the ground, the raising of that corpse has all the more symbolic power, because the body is being raised from the “depths” of death.
The rhetorical purpose of referring to something like the lowness of Jesus’s burial is strengthened in Paul’s longer version of the proclamation (known as the kerygma), in Philippians 2:5–11, in which he presents the Gnostic background of Jesus’s incarnation, found also in the beginning of the Gospel of John.
According to that theology, “Christ Jesus” was once united with God the Father, yet as Paul says in Philippians, Christ “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Thus, Jesus’s incarnation represents a descent from a great height, since he also “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Instead of saying Jesus was buried and resurrected, though, the proclamation in Philippians leaps right to the ascension and to Jesus’s praiseworthiness: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,” so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
If Paul (or his redactors) knew of an historical empty tomb story, that would have been the place to mention it, between talking about the crucifixion and Jesus’s return to Heaven. Apparently, what mattered to Paul wasn’t that which was supposed to have historically happened to a man named Jesus, but the Gnostic theology of the descent into matter and return to glory of a divine being which Paul calls “Christ Jesus.” (“Christos” in Greek means “anointed,” and “Yeshua” in Hebrew and Aramaic means “to rescue or deliver”; thus, “Christ Jesus” means anointed savior.)
What’s important to Paul isn’t the burial, but the descent-and-vindication “V” pattern, as Robert Funk points out in Honest to Jesus. The reference to “burial” in 1 Corinthians is only a device for establishing the nadir of Christ’s journey, one for which “death on a cross” substitutes in Philippians.
(The Nicene Creed is a more complete expression of the V structure, since it’s explicit about the “true God” Christ’s coming down from Heaven, being buried, and his rising from the tomb and ascent to Heaven.)
There is, then, likely only a single source of the empty tomb story, the Gospel of Mark, or at most two, including the very unreliable Gospel of John. That makes for a much weaker case for the resurrection’s historicity. I should add that the relative unanimity of the New Testament writings on the broad issues, such as on Jesus’s death and resurrection was itself fabricated, since the canon was assembled in the fourth century with that objective in mind, to weed out the Christian writings that had unsuitable theologies.
The video says that the earlier the source, the higher the historian’s confidence in the text’s claims. 1 Corinthians is the earliest source cited by Craig’s videos, and like all of Paul’s epistles, this one emphasizes theology over history to such an extent that Paul is strangely silent in many places on what was supposed to have been a movement recently led by an actual man. At any rate, Paul’s meager reference to “buried” can be explained away.
The next earliest source is Mark, which was written in the 70s CE, a full four decades after the events in question supposedly took place. That’s forty years for oral traditions to distort any historical origin of Christianity, which is plenty of time. After all, as social creatures we evolved to gossip about each other’s social status, and it’s the compulsion to gossip (as modeled in the Broken Telephone game) that can take you over time from “Lisa is a young lady who fell in a ditch” to “Lisa is shady and she’s in hell because she’s a witch.”
1.2 Female Witnesses
Next, the video says, “the Gospels indicate that it was women who first discovered that Jesus’s body was missing,” which Christian apologists think is significant because “in that culture, a woman’s testimony was considered next to worthless.” This is based on the patriarchal Pharisaic law (halakhah), which says women are usually ineligible to testify in court.
This is a red herring, though, since the Gospels weren’t intended to be court documents. As Richard Carrier points out, the standards of historical accounts, let alone of religious propaganda need hardly be conflated with those of legal proceedings. Further, why should the early Christians have been concerned with what’s acceptable under Pharisaic law, considering that Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt.22:33)? As Carrier says, “thumbing their noses at the corrupt Pharisees and their oppressive laws was exactly the Christian strategy for winning recruits from like-minded Jews among the disgruntled masses.”
Indeed, early Christians borrowed much of their lifestyle from the radical communal sect of the Essenes who likewise rejected Temple-based Judaism because of its compromises with the Roman oppressors. At a graveyard in Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found and where some Essenes likely lived, archeologists dug up many skeletons of women and children — which suggests those fringe Jews might have viewed women as largely equal to men in light of what the Essenes thought was the imminent end of the world. The Gnostics likewise weren’t as patriarchal as the Pharisaic sticklers. But Craig’s video is content to speak in monolithic terms of “that culture,” as though Judaism weren’t fractured in first-century Palestine.
In any case, Carrier also suggests a literary reason why Mark in particular deploys women as the first disciples at the tomb. The reason was to illustrate in secretive, esoteric fashion the entire message of the Markan narrative that the first will be last and the last will be first. According to the New Testament, Jesus came to shake up society and to condemn the winners who exploited and ruled over the losers, because God prefers the latter for their “spiritual poverty,” that is, for their lack of corruption owing to their lack of earthly power.
Thus, if women were treated lesser than men in the male-dominated ancient world, Jesus came to elevate women, such as the prostitute Mary Magdalene. Likewise, he preached mainly to Jews who were politically lower than the Romans. Women, then, had the honour of staying true to Jesus when all the male disciples had fled, in Mark — until those women, too, broke down out of fear and failed Jesus.
After all, according to Mark, a mysterious young man at the tomb who was dressed in white told the women to spread the good news to the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Alas, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (16:8), which is how Mark properly ends.
That indicates another literary, doctrinal motif in Mark (as opposed to any interest in history), which is to present the disciples as foolish and blind to Jesus’s greatness and to the truth of his inner message, because Jesus had allegedly kept those as secrets for the few who had ears to hear. For Mark, both the male and the female disciples had to fail Jesus in the end, to explain why Jesus wasn’t more widely hailed as the messiah while he’d lived.
Jeffery Jay Lowder offers a similar nonhistorical reason why Mark would put women at the empty tomb, which was to deal with a much greater embarrassment to the church than the witnesses’ female gender, namely why there was no empty tomb story for forty years before the Gospel of Mark! Mark’s explanation is that the women disobeyed the man in white, who might have been an angel, and told no one about the empty tomb because they were afraid.
In a patriarchal culture, a prejudiced person could believe that women might stay permanently silent out of fear, because they were the weaker sex. At least, that was the flimsy reasoning available to Mark. So how would Mark have learned about the empty tomb, assuming he had an interest in writing history? This is the same Gospel that includes Jesus’s prayer at Gethsemane while going on to say that the disciples whom Jesus asked to keep watch over him had been asleep while he’d been praying and thus had failed in their duty, which added to Mark’s theme of the blind disciples. And this happened three times, according to Mark (14:34–41). So how did Mark know what Jesus prayed, since there were no witnesses?
The obvious answer is that the Gospel of Mark wasn’t intended as an historical record, so you weren’t supposed to read Mark’s stories with such a critical eye. To do so would be like judging a children’s cartoon as though it were an opera. The very first verse of Mark announces that the author isn’t trying to be impartial or neutral: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…”
Yet another reason for female mourners would be to reflect a theme from the myths of the dying-and-rising gods that were central to the Greco-Roman Mystery religions. Tammuz or Adonis, for example, is gored by a wild boar and dies in Aphrodite’s arms as she weeps for him. (Aphrodite is associated with flowers because she caused anemones to grow where Adonis’s blood fell as she wept.) When Baal dies in his conflict with Mot, his sister Anat finds his body and mourns for him. When Osiris is killed by Set, the women Isis and Nephthys are the ones who mourn for him and who find his body.
The reason for the pagan association of mourning women with the dead body of the resurrecting god is apparent from the original meaning of those myths, which had to do with fertility, vegetation, and the changing seasons, so that the women represented the earth and the feminine aspect of life’s rejuvenation. That is, the human mother who carries a child in her belly and gives birth stood for the earth’s capacity to support life by renewing itself in the changing seasons from year to year.
That association is clear from Ovid’s description of how the earth mourned for the body of Orpheus: “The birds, lamenting, cried for you, Orpheus; the crowd of wild creatures; the hard flints; the trees that often gathered to your song, shedding their leaves, mourned you with bared crowns. They say the rivers, also, were swollen with their own tears, and the naiads and dryads, with dishevelled hair, put on sombre clothes.”
In that myth, the women are the Maenads (female followers of Dionysus) who kill Orpheus instead of finding his body, because in preferring men to women, he rejected the natural form of life’s renewal.
1.3 Did the Jewish Authorities concede the Tomb was Empty?
Moving on to Craig’s next bit of speciousness, the video says that confidence in the empty tomb story is increased due to the Jewish authorities’ response to that story, which was that Jesus’s followers stole the body. According to Craig’s video, this means the authorities conceded the tomb was empty.
The video alludes here to Matt.28:11–15, according to which the Jewish priests and elders paid the Roman soldiers to spread the lie that “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we [the soldiers] were asleep.” For that reason, says Matthew, “this story is still told among the Jews to this day.”
Now this is the same Matthew that piles anti-Judaism onto Mark, as in the scene of Jesus before Pilate. According to Mark, the crowd shouts, “Crucify him,” and Pilate does so to satisfy the crowd (15:14–15). But in Matthew, the blood libel becomes deafening: ‘“I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he [Pilate] said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”’ (27:24–25). So that’s Matthew’s attitude towards Judaism, but we’re supposed to take the author of Matthew’s word on how the Jewish authorities really would have reacted to the news of Jesus’s empty tomb? Craig’s appeal to Matthew’s poisonous scapegoating of Jews is grotesque.
But suppose that passage in Matthew does indicate that Jews reacted to Christianity by saying that Jesus’s followers stole the body. Does that mean Jews conceded that the tomb was empty as a matter of fact? Obviously not, since the Jews could just as easily have been offering that response for the sake of argument, as in, “Alright, Mr. Christian, even if I grant your ludicrous assumptions that there was an historical Jesus and that he performed miracles and that he was crucified and buried in a tomb, how do you know his followers didn’t just steal the body to make it look like he’d been resurrected?”
1.4 The Consensus of NT Scholars
The first video’s final support for the alleged fact of the empty tomb is its quotation of a New Testament scholar as saying that, “Most scholars, by far, hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.”
The appeal to the consensus of NT scholars is dubious, because as refreshing and enlightening as the historical-critical method has been over the last few centuries, compared to medieval study of Christianity’s origin which was purely dogmatic, the fact is that many so-called NT scholars are Christians. Some are also skeptics or committed critics of Christianity, such as Burton Mack, Robert Price, and Bart Ehrman.
It’s hard for Western historians to be neutral about Christianity, because it’s politically incorrect to denigrate Christian traditions in Western societies, especially in the United States. If you’re going to criticize Christianity as an historian in the US, you’re going to be demonized, so you have little incentive to take a moderate position on the matter. There isn’t much middle ground, then, between the extreme interpretations of the New Testament, even in scholarly circles.
For example, there are entire American colleges that are explicitly Evangelical in orientation, such as Biola (where Craig has a faculty position), Azusa Pacific, and Liberty University. These colleges often require their faculty members to commit to doctrinal statements of faith. Should the weight of these “scholars’ ” crypto-apologetics be added to the scales in determining the consensus of scholarly opinion about Christianity’s origin?
This consensus can be broken down, roughly, into the conservative and liberal wings. The former is literalistic and even inerrantist about the Bible, while the latter is skeptical and naturalistic. The Jesus Seminar, for example, consisted in part of fifty liberal historians who rejected the empty tomb story as Mark’s invention. The conservative “scholars” tend to be inconsistent in their application of scientific principles to their interpretation of Christianity. Thus, if the majority of NT scholars happen to accept the empty tomb story as historical, that will be because the conservatives bias the consensus towards a faith-based conclusion.
What’s dubious, then, is to speak scientistically of the “consensus of NT scholars,” as though this field of historical research were as scientific as the hard sciences. True, the study of the Bible is much more critical and objective than it was for most of its two millennia, because critical methods only began to be used in that study after the rise of modern science. But history is still a soft science at best, especially in the case of a controversial area such as the foundations of Christianity.
See also Richard Carrier’s refutation of Gary Habermas’s bogus study that lies behind Craig’s claim about the consensus of scholars on the empty tomb. The study was based on a survey of published articles on the matter, which means it draws on a biased sample, since lots of historians might regard the empty tomb story as so obviously ahistorical that it’s not even worth discussing in print.
2.0 The Appearances of a Risen Jesus
The video shifts to the second alleged fact that needs to be explained, namely to the risen Jesus’s appearance to the disciples. The video points out that Paul provides a list of witnesses, in 1 Cor.15:3–8. These include Peter, James, Paul, the other disciples and apostles, and even five hundred Christians who saw the risen Jesus at the same time, according to Paul.
The video is sloppy at this point, though, since it offers as its second piece of evidence “the appearances” themselves, whereas what we have at this late date, many times removed from the alleged events is of course only the early claims of those appearances. Paul’s representations of what others saw are hearsay.
As to what Paul says he saw, he goes into detail in 1 Cor.15 where he says that in the case of resurrection, the corpse or “natural body” will be transformed into a “spiritual body” or a “heavenly body,” since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” But “just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” This suggests that the risen Jesus was a spiritual body, not a body of flesh and blood. Presumably, Jesus’s corpse would have been transformed in the tomb.
What, then, is a spiritual body supposed to be? No one knows. We can surmise that for Paul this type of body isn’t a purely immaterial ghost or a purely material resuscitated corpse, but a hybrid of the two. This fits with the Gospel accounts of the appearances, since the disciples don’t easily recognize the risen Jesus and he could magically appear and disappear, as he must have done to have ascended to Heaven. (Presumably, the cloud from Acts 1:9 which Luke says Jesus used for heavenly transport could go only so high and wouldn’t help much in outer space.)
The context of Paul’s discussion of the resurrected body in 1 Corinthians is important, because there he’s attempting to silence the Corinthians’ doubts about resurrection. The problem is that there’s no obvious third option for making sense of the idea of resurrection, besides ghosts and resuscitated corpses. Paul gestures towards a third option with his hybrid, seemingly-incoherent idea of a spiritual body. After all, how can something be both material and immaterial?
(This concedes too much to the concept of a purely immaterial ghost, though, since there would be no seeing such an invisible being. If a ghost were literally just a light, that would make the ghost physical and natural. Thus, even a ghost is an incoherent “spiritual body,” a hybrid between a real and a fake or magical body. Movies often exploit that incoherence by showing ghosts as sufficiently immaterial for bullets to pass through them, but material enough to be visible and to float conveniently above the floor.)
Why doesn’t Paul say that the corpse transforms into a ghost or that the “resurrected” spirit leaves the body to rot and appears only in dreams or hallucinations? In The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels provides the sociopolitical answer, which is that the quasimaterial nature of the resurrected body limits the appearances to a finite number of fortunate individuals, as needed to secure the authority of an emerging religious institution.
This was the problem with Gnosticism, since Gnostics were more philosophical about the goals of Christianity: instead of imposing a stripped-down creed in the Catholic manner, these Christians respected the subjective nature of spiritual visions. But the more ghost-like the risen Jesus is, the freer he is to inspire anyone at any time, in which case the Christian institutions lose their exclusive hold on divine revelation.
The crucial part of Paul’s “list of witnesses,” then, is the phrase “last of all,” where he finishes the list by saying, “and last of all he appeared to me also.” Paul needs to close the door on further appearances of the risen Jesus. The doctrine of Jesus’s assent to Heaven helps to terminate that period of Christian development, but a ghostly Jesus would have no trouble returning from Heaven to Earth. Were that to happen, Paul would lose his privileged position for settling disputes between budding Christians.
The number of witnesses of the risen Jesus must be small to unify Christianity. (Lay Christians settle for the presence of the Holy Spirit and perhaps for Jesus’s symbolic or metaphysical presence in the Eucharist ceremony.) A ghostly Jesus would be too liberal in revealing itself to Christians, making for unresolvable conflicts between the necessarily subjective interpretations of the visions’ meaning. But a rescusitated corpse would be too natural and wouldn’t inspire faith in God or in a higher reality, which would likewise undermine the Christian institution.
Paul’s compromise offers the best of both worlds, namely just enough supernatural freedom of the resurrected Jesus to awe the followers, but not so much as to undermine the leaders of the Christian communities. A spiritual body would be semi-ghostly and thus miraculous, but also semi-physical and thus limited in its abilities. The latter limitations are played up in the Gospel accounts where the risen Jesus eats and allows Thomas to touch his wounds. Above all, the embodied nature of the risen Jesus explains why Paul’s list of witnesses has an ending.
2.1 The Problem of the Synoptic Gospels
At any rate, the video repeats its flagrant lie that the “various resurrection appearances of Jesus are independently confirmed,” while citing the four Gospels (see the 3:03 mark of the first video). Again, Mark is probably the only independent source that elaborates on the supposed history of those appearances. At best, there are two such sources (Mark and John), not four.
Indeed, the discovery of and solution to the problem of the synoptic Gospels is perhaps the best evidence that the study of the New Testament has acquired some scientific status. You can get a sense of the lack of independence of Mark, Matthew, and Luke by consulting a synopsis which presents the comparable passages side by side in columns so you can see the word-for-word repetitions and the editorial alterations.
Compare, for example, the story of the healing of the withered hand in Mark 3:1–6, Matt.12:9–14, and Luke 6:6–11, and notice the identical line in Mark and Matthew, “so that they might accuse him,” whereas Luke rewords Mark slightly to read, “so that they might find an accusation against him.” There are hundreds of such repetitions.
Or return to the accounts of Jesus before Pilate, where Mark evidently implies to the other Gospel authors that Pilate erred in making Romans culpable for Jesus’s death, along with the Jewish leaders, by saying Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, which suggests he might have been in league with the Jewish rabble (15:15). Matthew sees the danger in that phrasing and softens it to exculpate the Romans and scapegoat the Jews (who still rejected Christianity in Matthew’s time): ‘When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it.”’
There’s no reference in Mark to Pilate’s washing of his hands or to his declaration of his innocence of the matter — as though Pilate would have been sympathetic to Jesus, which is patently ahistorical — but Matthew adds such details to leave no room for ambiguity, for fear of the Roman Empire that had recently destroyed the Jewish homeland. Luke and John are even more obsequious to the Romans, in having Pilate declare multiple times that he’s innocent of Jesus’s crucifixion, that he doesn’t want to go ahead with the crucifixion, or even that Jesus was more than a man.
3.0 The Disciples’ Belief in the Resurrection
The video proceeds to the third alleged fact, which is that Jesus’s followers were terrified Jews who nonetheless maintained that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. The video alleges that as Jews, Jesus’s followers “had no concept of a messiah who would be executed by his enemies, much less come back to life.”
The account of the Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls deflates that contention. Although the authors of those scrolls distinguished between the Teacher and the messiah who would usher in God’s judgment of the world, the entire theology of the Jews at Qumran was unconventional.
These Jews (who were probably Essenes) were communal ascetics who rejected civilized life, because they believed the world was about to end in divine judgment of all who avoid a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism. Moreover, according to one of the scrolls, there will be two messiahs, one priestly and an interpreter of the Law who takes over from the Teacher of Righteousness, and the other princely, who will conquer the enemies of God in the End Time (CD 7:15–20).
Still, regardless of their unorthodox labels, these marginalized Jews revered the Teacher of Righteousness as a savior whom “God raised” to guide Jews “in the way of His heart (CD 1:9–11) and who was divinely inspired to interpret the Torah and especially the prophets, since the Teacher’s role was to prepare Jews for the End of Days. The Teacher of Righteousness was the one “[in whose heart] God set [understanding] that he might interpret all the words of His servants the Prophets, through whom He foretold all that would happen to his people and [His land]” (1QpHab 2:5–10). Thus indirectly, the Teacher was revered as a prophet.
This is important because the Dead Sea Scrolls recount also how the Teacher was persecuted and attacked by an evil figure whom the scrolls call the “Wicked Priest.” One scroll says the Wicked Priest “pursued the Teacher of Righteousness to the house of his exile that he might confuse him with his venomous fury” (1QpHab 11, 3–8). The scroll also speaks of “the Wicked Priest whom God delivered into the hands of his enemies because of the iniquity committed against the Teacher of Righteousness and the men of his Council, that he might be humbled by means of a destroying scourge, in bitterness of soul, because he had done wickedly to His elect” (1QpHab 9:8–12).
There’s even a cryptic passage that may indicate the Essenes who kept the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran expected the Teacher to be resurrected just before the final days: the passage says ordinary Jewish interpreters of the Law “shall reach nothing beside them until there will arise the teacher of righteousness in the end of the days” (CD 6:10–11).
The fact is that Jews in Jesus’s period were fractured, since they were under pressure from Roman culture and they eventually faced the crisis of the loss of Jerusalem. The Jews were split on many doctrinal questions, between the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. Christianity began as just one more Jewish sect which itself was divided in its early period between the Nazoreans, Ebionites, Gnostics, Marcionites, and so on.
Given all of this religious diversity, it’s not surprising that some Jews would have been open to rethinking their aggressive expectations of the messiah, to softening or spiritualizing those expectations, especially since many Jewish leaders had been executed by Rome and since Rome destroyed Jerusalem and put down the bar Kokhba revolt, thus ending the chance for Jews’ military defeat of their conquerors.
3.1 Jewish Expectations of Resurrection
Next, the video stresses that Jews anticipated only a universal resurrection at the end of human history, not an individual one within history.
This is an audacious claim, not just because of the theological diversity and the drastic shift in political fortunes of late-first-century Jews, but because Jesus’s resurrection wasn’t supposed to have been an event within history. The New Testament indicates multiple times that the early Christians shared with the Essenes the expectation that the world was about to end and that the divine Day of Judgment was at hand (see Mark 1:15, Matt.4:17, 24:34; 1 Thess.4:14–17). The Christians’ writing at length about Jesus’s life, death and resurrection coincided with the upheaval in Jerusalem and with the need for Jews to redefine their religious identity.
Clearly, Jesus’s prophesy that the Day of Judgment would happen within the lifetime of his disciples was erroneous, and history marched on for two thousand more years and counting. Thus, in hindsight an Evangelical Christian can turn lemons into lemonade and remark on how strange Jesus’s special resurrection seems — even though Jesus was supposed to have raised Lazarus from the dead, too, and Matthew says many saints came forth from their tombs when Jesus died, and entered Jerusalem and appeared to many (27:52–53). That latter mass resurrection was surely meant to suggest that the End of Days and the universal resurrection were upon the initial audience of the Gospel of Matthew.
In the hands of Evangelical salesmen, the failure of the New Testament itself becomes a proof of its miraculous nature: Jesus’s resurrection was supposed to represent the beginning of the end and thus to have been a catalyst precisely for the universal resurrection and the End Time. That never happened, so two thousand years later, Christians can say with an abundance of chutzpah, “See the proof of Jesus’s resurrection and divinity: Jews wouldn’t have tolerated the notion of a special resurrection in the middle of history, occurring centuries before any universal resurrection.”
Well, the Christians did tolerate that notion because that’s the lemon they were left by the earliest Christians’ failed prophecies. There’s no reason to think the latter Christians were less shamelessly casuistic than William Lane Craig, and that’s what accounts for their easy reconciliation with facts that would have been disastrous for Christianity in a wholly rational world.
3.2 The Curse of Crucifixion
The video points out that Jews would have been reluctant to follow Jesus also because Jews believed crucifixion was abhorrent to God and that those who suffer that punishment were accursed (see Deut.21:22–23 and 11QTemple Scroll 64:6–13).
Even if we concede that all Jews agreed there was such a curse, once again Christians would have had the theological resources to explain away that unpleasant fact, regardless of whether Christianity’s founding narrative was historical. Suppose an ancient Jewish critic of Christianity said to a Christian, “Some savior and messiah you have! Jesus died on the cross, according to you, so far from being God, Jesus was cursed by God!”
Without being able to prove the historical accuracy of any of Christianity’s foundational claims, an average Christian reader of any of the four canonical Gospels could still have appealed to the reformative contents of the Christian message and replied:
“Cursed according to the old ways of the Law maybe, but Jesus came to start a new covenant with God. Jesus taught that in this corrupt world, the last shall be first before God. Thus, Jesus appeared to be the lowest of the low, but that was only for those who didn’t have eyes to see how God works in our midst. Jesus was actually at one with the highest of the high, and that’s precisely because he appeared in so lowly a state while on earth, coming as he did to aid oppressed Jews and women, the poor and the sick, and who was indeed executed by Rome.
“See, though, where the old ways of legalistic Judaism have brought us, to the very destruction of Jerusalem! See where the ritual sacrifices have led us, to the loss of the Temple! Jesus explained how we need a spiritualized version of Judaism, one that’s open to everyone and that’s about changing our mindset rather than following the letter of the law and missing out on its divine intention.”
3.3 Early Christian Martyrs
Finally, the video says the early Christian’s belief in the resurrection was all the more impressive, since “not one recanted” when faced with death and persecution. Moreover, Paul and James who were themselves persecutors of Christians or skeptical converted to Christianity. There must, then, have been a “powerful transformative experience” to account for the early Christian movement, as the video quotes one NT scholar as saying.
But as Richard Carrier points out,
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.
The video’s point about “not one” disciple recanting is just another lie. Peter recanted three times, according to Mark 14:66–72 and reconverted only when it was safe to do so. According to the nonsensical Acts of Peter, Peter was executed for turning the concubines away from some powerful Romans, so renouncing Christianity wouldn’t have saved him (33–34). And according to Acts, Paul goes to great lengths to evade the Jewish plots to kill him instead of martyring himself (9:23–29).
But there’s no need to wade further into the details of apocryphal accounts, since it’s evidently possible to die for a claim that’s actually mistaken, perhaps even asinine, even though the martyr believes the claim is the deepest truth. Look no further than the members of cults who have committed suicide for their cause or the millions of Muslim soldiers who’ve died in battle, believing they were doing Allah’s will.
The Evangelical Christian doesn’t assign to any such non-Christian deaths the least trace of supernatural power, so it’s special pleading to assume that even if there were Christian eyewitnesses to Jesus’s resurrection who died specifically in defense of the historical accuracy of the resurrection story, their deaths alone in the history of foolish ways people have died helps demonstrate the truth of their beliefs, as opposed to the mere existence of those beliefs.
Indeed, the gall behind this line of argument overflows, since many heretics, Jews, and Wiccans died at the hands of the Christian Church, meaning they were tried and convicted explicitly on the grounds that they had the wrong beliefs which they refused to recant. Yet the Evangelical Christian declines to credit those “villains” as martyrs who proved the truth of their demonic, anti-Christian doctrines!
Moreover, there needn’t be a miraculous reason why someone changes her mind about how she ought to live. It’s hard and perhaps even impossible to have a fully consistent worldview, since our very brain is divided against itself. We have faculties of reason, emotion, and instinct, roughly speaking, and they pull us in different directions. Thus we suffer from cognitive dissonance when the incoherence of our beliefs, ideals, and plans comes to the fore. We’re faced then with a tipping point or a crossroads when we may have to alter our life course or be unable to live with ourselves.
Alternatively, we may lack a conscience or have no respect for intellectual integrity, in which case we may change course for mere sociopolitical reasons, because we’re bored or we want to take advantage of certain opportunities for self-advancement, such as by exploiting other people’s weaknesses.
Such psychological explanations are all anyone needs to make sense of the conversion of Paul or James, the fallacies of Christian apologists notwithstanding.
4.0 Onwards to Part Two
So much for the first video’s outline of the sacred trio of facts that are supposed to point the way to the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. These facts seem rather less impressive when gone over with a modicum of objectivity. All of this will come to a head in Part Two, where I’ll sort through the balderdash of the second video and explain why it’s foolish to accept the story of Jesus’s resurrection as historical.