How Not to Argue Against the Historicity and Resurrection of Jesus

A Critique of Dennis McKinsey's Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy

Jeffery Jay Lowder

Updated: August 9, 2002

 

Dennis McKinsey has made somewhat of a second career for himself out of arguing against the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. The former editor of Biblical Errancy newsletter, McKinsey is the author of a massive book entitled, The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy. Although I am not interested in the inerrancy vs. errancy debate, McKinsey's book contains a chapter on a couple of subjects I do find interesting: the historicity and resurrection of Jesus. I shall focus on McKinsey's treatment of just those two topics in this article.[1]

McKinsey's Objections to the Resurrection

McKinsey presents four objections to the resurrection of Jesus: (1) the Resurrection is insignificant since, according to the Bible, other people rose from the dead before Jesus; (2) the New Testament accounts of the resurrection are contradictory; (3) the Bible rules out the possibility of resurrection; (4) the Resurrection is insignificant when compared to other Biblical events; and (5) an empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances do not prove the Resurrection.[2]

Before I discuss each of McKinsey's objections to the Resurrection, I want to make a couple of observations regarding his general strategy. First, I believe that most of his objections fall into the "So what?" category. That is to say, the majority of his objections could be true and yet the Resurrection could still be the best historical explanation of the evidence. For example, even if other Biblical miracles actually happened, that wouldn't mean the Resurrection never happened. And even if the New Testament accounts were inconsistent on secondary details in the story of the Resurrection, that wouldn't mean the Resurrection never happened. In other words, refuting inerrancy does not refute historicity. We would still need either a refutation of the arguments for the Resurrection or an independent argument against the historicity of the Resurrection. I do not find such argumentation in McKinsey's Encyclopedia.

Second, objections (1) and (3) are inconsistent with one another. It makes no sense at all to say on the one hand that Jesus was just one of many people in the Bible who allegedly rose from the dead, and then yet on the other hand to claim that the Bible rules out the possibility of a resurrection. Obviously, the possibility of a resurrection is not ruled out by texts that say a resurrection actually happened! Perhaps, then, what McKinsey meant to say is that although the Bible contains many stories of people coming back to life, the Bible contains a verse that is inconsistent with those stories by stating that people cannot come back to life. But that would be a different claim than the mistaken notion that the entire Bible rules out a resurrection. Rather than identify an alleged contradiction in Biblical texts, McKinsey has instead made contradictory objections.

But putting these general observations aside, what should we think of McKinsey's individual objections? Let's consider each objection in turn.

(1) Other Biblical stories of coming back to life: As my preceding remarks should make clear, I believe that McKinsey's objection is a non sequitur. McKinsey's objection would be akin to someone objecting to the historicity of John F. Kennedy's assassination by pointing out that newspapers have reported assassinations of other political leaders.[3] Likewise, the fact that the Bible contains other stories of people coming back to life does not in any way undermine the assertion that Jesus allegedly rose from the dead.

But is the resurrection of Jesus insignificant, given the various revivification stories in the Bible? Unlike the other Biblical figures who allegedly came back to life, only Jesus purportedly inhabited a transformed supernatural body. According to the text, this supernatural body was immune to aging, sickness, injury, and even future death. That is clearly a significant difference between Jesus and the other Biblical figures who supposedly came back to life.

(2) Resurrection contradictions: McKinsey argues that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection are contradictory. Unlike the previous objection, I believe this objection is true. (However, I think that critics of inerrancy sometimes overstate the extent of these discrepancies. Some of the alleged discrepancies can be plausibly reconciled without appealing to ad hoc explanations.) But, as my earlier remarks should make clear, I believe that objection (2) is irrelevant to the truth of the Resurrection. From a theological perspective, the Bible does not have to be inerrant in order for the Resurrection to be true. And historically speaking, even if one treats the NT accunts of the Resurrection as historical accounts, the fact that those accounts contradict one another about incidental details provides no direct evidence against the Resurrection itself. Indeed, this is a problem that historians routinely face when assessing historical texts. But historians do not throw out entire groups of documents simply because the documents contradict one another about the incidental details. Instead, historians try to determine the best historical explanation for those disagreements, in an attempt to identify the core historical details. Consider, for example, the gospel accounts of Jesus' burial by Joseph of Arimathea. According to the gospels, who was Joseph? The answer depends on which gospel you consult:

Mark: "a respected member of the council, who was himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God" (15:42)
Matthew: "a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus" (27:57)
Luke: "Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God." (23:50-51)
John: "Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews" (19:38)

If one accepts that Mark is the earliest of the four gospels (as most scholars do), then it becomes pretty clear that the gospels have progressively Christianized Joseph of Arimathea. But no historian would argue, "Jesus was never buried," or, "Joseph never existed," because the gospels increasingly Christianize Joseph. Instead, historians would attempt to explain why this tendency exists. For example, a historian might accept the core detail of Jesus' burial by Joseph of Arimathea, but explain the Christianizing tendency as an attempt to explain why a pious Jew would have given a crucified criminal like Jesus an honorable burial.[4]

Of course, nothing in my above remarks should be construed as suggesting that historians must automatically accept any detail that is considered a 'core' detail in an ancient text. Indeed, despite the fact that ancient texts may agree on a certain core detail, historians may reject the core detail anyway. If, for example, a core detail is itself wildly implausible, then the historian will reject the historicity of that detail. Regarding the resurrection, then, historians do not reject the historicity of the resurrection because of contradictions in the incidental details. Rather, historians should not accept the historicity of the resurrection because the core detail is an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence. The core detail of the resurrection story is that a man who had been dead for two days came back to life. That is certainly an extraordinary claim, but the evidence from the New Testament is hardly the sort of extraordinary evidence that would be required to justify such an extraordinary claim.

Returning to McKiney's dicussion of the resurrection, I am also troubled by the way McKinsey argues for the claim that the accounts are contradictory. All he does is provide a list of alleged contradictions. That's it. He does not discuss the context of the passages at all or, more importantly, attempted harmonizations of his (alleged) discrepancies and why those attempts at harmonization fail. This might be understandable if McKinsey were writing a pamphlet or booklet on Resurrection contradictions. But surely in something as comprehensive as McKinsey's Encyclopedia, we would expect to find at least a discussion of the major strategies for harmonizing the Resurrection accounts and why those strategies fail. Yet McKinsey does not even list a single response to his list of alleged contradictions!

It gets worse. McKinsey quotes John Wenham's book, Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict?, a book which attempts to show that the NT accounts of the resurrection can be reconciled. Yet rather than discuss any of Wenham's answers to McKinsey's alleged contradictions, McKinsey (pp. 92-93) quotes Wenham's quotations of other Christians stating the texts cannot be reconciled. However, McKinsey never mentions that Wenham has written a detailed attempt at harmonization of the accounts (however flawed). This is sloppy. McKinsey should have added a sentence to make it clear that Wenham believes the stories can be reconciled. More importantly, McKinsey should have interacted with Wenham's attempted harmonization!

(3) The Bible on the possibility of a resurrection: In support of his objection, he cites the following verses: Eccl. 3:19-21, 9:5; Job 7:9; Is. 26:14; and 1 Tim. 6:15-16. This is a silly objection. At best, these verses would only prove the Bible is contradictory, not that a resurrection is impossible. (I believe that none of these verses create a bona fide contradiction, but I will leave it to inerrantists to defend that claim.) However, the much more important point is that if God exists, surely he is capable of raising someone from the dead. It appears that McKinsey, in his zeal to refute Biblical inerrancy, has forgotten that Christians don't have to accept inerrancy in order to believe the Resurrection. Also, it seems to me that McKinsey's interpretation of Is. 26:14 is just plain wrong. Is. 26:14 is a reference to the enemies of God; v. 19 goes on to state that the faithful will rise: "Your dead shall live, their corpses' shall rise."

(4) The Resurrection compared to other Biblical events: According to this objection, the Resurrection is insignificant "when compared to other biblical events." Even if this were true, this would not deny the Resurrection actually happened. At the end of the day, we still need either a refutation of apologetic arguments for the Resurrection or an independent argument against the Resurrection. This leads to what I call McKinsey's final objection to the Resurrection.

(5) The implications of an empty tomb and appearances: In the last paragraph of McKinsey's discussion of the Resurrection, he makes a passing comment, which I am treating as a fifth objection. McKinsey quotes apologist Norman Geisler as stating that an empty tomb, either by itself or combined with a series of appearances, does not prove the Resurrection. That's a good point, but that's as far as McKinsey goes. He does not discuss the objection that even if an empty tomb and a series of appearances do not prove the Resurrection, the Resurrection might nevertheless be the best historical explanation, especially if the empty tomb and appearances are combined with the origin of the Christian faith. In fact, McKinsey ignores the origin of the Christian faith altogether. He also does not discuss the historicity of the burial story, the empty tomb, the appearances, the guard at the tomb, or the Jewish polemic. In short, McKinsey provides almost no direct refutation of the specific claims apologists make in defending the Resurrection. Thus, skeptics who want to know how to answer apologetics for the Resurrection will need to consult resources other than McKinsey's Encyclopedia.[5]

McKinsey's Objections to the Historicity of Jesus

McKinsey also discusses another topic of interest to me, namely, the historicity of Jesus and extrabiblical references to Jesus. McKinsey's discussion can be divided into five sections: (1) some introductory remarks and quotations of various Christians who believe the extrabiblical references to Jesus are worthless; (2) Josephus; (3) Tacitus; (4) Suetonius; and (5) Pliny the Younger. I shall assess each section in turn.[6]

(1) Introduction: McKinsey pontificates, "Anyone who has attempted to investigate this question with any degree of objectivity is immediately struck by the absence of extrabiblical information on anyone by the name of Jesus of Nazareth." He then proceeds to quote several Christian writers who apparently agree with his claim. However, McKinsey's approach to the historicity of Jesus leaves much to be desired. First, by focusing solely on alleged extrabiblical references to Jesus, McKinsey has missed the point. The New Testament is our primary source of information about Jesus. If McKinsey believes that the New Testament alone does not provide sufficient evidence for concluding that Jesus existed, then McKinsey needs to provide an argument for that belief. Yet, in stark contrast to other proponents of the mythicist hypothesis like G.A. Wells and Earl Doherty who spend the bulk of their time addressing the New Testament evidence, McKinsey does not discuss the NT evidence for the historicity of Jesus. As I have argued elsewhere, I believe the New Testament alone is prima facie evidence for the historicity of Jesus and therefore there is no need for extrabiblical confirmation.[7]

Second, despite all of the quotations from hostile authorities, McKinsey does not even provide a prima facie case for his sweeping claim because McKinsey does not discuss all of the alleged extrabiblical references to Jesus. Besides the writers McKinsey does discuss, the alleged extrabiblical references to Jesus also include the Talmud, Thallus, Phlegon, Mara Bar-Serapion, Lucian, and Hadrian. So McKinsey's case for his claim that there are no extrabiblical references to Jesus is, at best, incomplete. Even if his objections to Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger were accurate, he would still need to discuss all of the other alleged references to Jesus in order to justify his sweeping claim.

(2) Josephus: The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus referred to Jesus twice in his writings, but McKinsey disputes the authenticity of both references. I shall consider each reference in turn:

(a) The Testimonium Flavianum: Testimonium Flavianum means literally "Testimony of Flavius" and refers to Antiquities 18.3.3 §63-64:

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

Since this passage is by far the most-quoted extrabiblical reference to Jesus, McKinsey discusses it at some length. Indeed, he provides a whopping nineteen objections to its authenticity! Unfortunately, McKinsey does not even seem to be aware of the fact that many scholars believe the original text contained an authentic reference to Jesus but was later embellished by Christian copyists.[8] (I have italicized above the sections widely regarded as interpolations.) But if the original passage contained only the non-italicized text, then it becomes quite easy to explain why the passage was not widely quoted during early Christian history. In its "pure" form, the passage would have only proved that Jesus existed, not that he performed miracles, rose from the dead, etc. Since there is no evidence that anyone in the first few centuries actually doubted the existence of Jesus, there is no reason we should expect to find quotations of the Testimonium Flavianum in early literature. Finally, McKinsey provides his readers with no indication at all about how his opponents would respond to his objections,[9] and why those responses are inaccurate. Again, McKinsey does not provide the sort of detailed discussion I expected to find in an Encyclopedia.

(b) The references to James as the brother of Jesus: Josephus described how the high priest Ananus took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus in 62 CE to organize a mob to stone James. Josephus mentions Jesus in this passage. However, McKinsey claims that this passage was a forgery. McKinsey argues (i) as a Jew, Josephus would not have written, "who was called Christ"; (ii) "who was called" Christ should actually be interpreted as the "so-called" Christ; (iii) it is doubtful that Josephus believed James was the physical brother of Jesus; and (iv) many Christian scholars believe the passage is an interpolation. Against (i) and (ii), it should be noted the phrase, "who was called Christ," is too noncommittal to have been inserted by a Christian interpolator. If this passage were a Christian forgery, it is surprising that we find the words "who was called Christ" instead of, "who was Christ." (iii) is inconclusive. Even if Josephus did not believe James was the physical brother of Jesus, that would not mean the passage is an interpolation. And as for (iv), I have much more confidence in the assessment of Josephan scholar Louis Feldman who noted that the authenticity of this passage "has been almost universally acknowledged."[10] While there is occasionally a scholar who denies the authenticity of the passage, they are very much in the minority.

(3) Tacitus: McKinsey presents sixteen objections against the use of Tacitus' Annals XV.44 as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. In the interest of space, I will group his sixteen objections into three main categories: (i) the passage may be an interpolation; (ii) the passage may not refer to Jesus; and (iii) Tacitus probably did not have independent evidence about Jesus. However, I believe that McKinsey's objections are of greatly varied quality. Concerning (i), scholars accept the passage as authentic since it is present in every extant manuscript of the Annals, the passage has a clear anti-Christian tone, the scapegoat motif, the Latin style, and the integration of the passage with the story. Thus, scholarly debate surrounding this passage has been mainly concerned with Tacitus' sources and not with its authenticity. (ii) is just silly. McKinsey suggests that the passage may refer to worshippers of the sun god Serapis. However, the passage clearly states that Christus was "the founder of the name" Christian and was "put to death by Pontius Pilate." There is only one person who fits that description, and that person is NOT Serapis. McKinsey's third group of objections are the only plausible objections in the bunch. As I have argued elsewhere,[11] in the context of the passage, it is unclear that Tacitus would have even thought to investigate whether "Christus" actually existed, given that Tacitus called Christianity a "pernicious superstition." At any rate, it is clear that Tacitus did mention Jesus in his writings, though there is no evidence that Tacitus had independent evidence of Jesus' existence.

(4) Suetonius: McKinsey gives three objections against the Suetonius passage: (i) the passage refers to "Chrestus" instead of "Christus"; (ii) "Christus" is merely the Greek-Latin translation of Messiah and so could refer to anyone; and (iii) "Chrestus" was another name for the Egyptian god Serapis. I agree with (i) and (ii): the identity of "Chrestus" is just too uncertain for this passage to count as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. As for (iii), McKinsey provides no reference to a primary source.

(5) Pliny The Younger: Around 111 or 112 CE, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians. That letter is found in his Epistles, X.96. McKinsey discusses this letter in his Encyclopedia. Again, I found the quality of McKinsey's objections to this passage to vary greatly. Among the weakest of his objections are those which suggest that the letter was not really written by Pliny the Younger. For example, McKinsey states (p. 107) that "the letter is found in only one ancient copy of Pliny the Younger," but he does not provide any references for his assertion. More importantly, McKinsey does not specify how many manuscripts of Pliny's Epistles lack the letter and how many of those manuscripts are complete. It would be one thing if we had 50 manuscripts of Pliny's Epistles, all 50 mss. included book 10, and yet only 1 ms. contains the letter about the Christians. However, the situation is quite different from that. As it turns out, all of the other manuscripts contain only books 1-9, but not any portion of book 10. Instead of researching the textual tradition and discovering that book 10 is missing from all mss. except one, it appears that McKinsey simply assumed that the letter was missing from mss. that included book 10.

McKinsey also writes, the passage "was first quoted by Tertullian and the age immediately preceding Tertullian was notorious for Christian forgeries" (p. 107). True, but historians don't dismiss the authenticity of a passage simply because it was produced in an age known for forgeries. McKinsey continues, "For these and other reasons this correspondence was declared by experts to be spurious even at the time of its first publication in the sixteenth century." I do not know who McKinsey's "experts" are since McKinsey never provides a single reference to their work. What I do know is that Pliny also stated in his letter that many people had renounced Christianity years before Pliny's interrogation. That is hardly the sort of information one would expect to find in a Christian forgery. I believe the most important point with respect to Pliny's letter is McKinsey's third objection, that "the passage proves nothing in regard to the existence of Jesus. It only affirms the existence of Christians."

Conclusion

Although McKinsey occasionally raises some good points concerning the Resurrection and the extrabiblical references to Jesus, they are often hidden within many more objections that are either irrelevant, fallacious, inconclusive, or some combination of the above. Moreover, there are many important issues related to the historicity of Jesus and the Resurrection, which McKinsey ignores. Although McKinsey discusses the historicity of Jesus, he ignores many of the extrabiblical references and more importantly the New Testament evidence itself. Likewise, McKinsey's treatment of the Resurrection is horribly incomplete: he does not assess the historicity of the burial story, the empty tomb, the guard, the Jewish polemic, the appearances, etc. With all due respect to McKinsey, it appears he does not understand the basic principles of historiography. Given these shortcomings in the sections on the historicity and resurrection of Jesus, I can't help but wonder what deficiencies exist in the rest of McKinsey's Encyclopedia. I do not recommend skeptics rely on McKinsey's scholarship without first independently verifying his claims in a reliable source. And I hope that in the future Prometheus Books has a bona fide Bible scholar or historian review submissions in Biblical criticism before accepting a manuscript for publication.[12]

Notes

[1] C. Dennis McKinsey, The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1995), pp. 89-108.

[2] McKinsey 1995, pp. 90-95.

[3] I owe this example to Rob Berry.

[4] I discuss the burial story in detail in my "Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig" The Journal of Higher Criticism, forthcoming, available electronically at (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html>, 2001), spotted June 14, 2001.

[5] See Lowder 2001; Peter Kirby, "The Historicity of the Empty Tomb Evaluated" <URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/peter_kirby/tomb/>, 2001), spotted June 14, 2001; Richard Carrier, "Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/>, 2000), spotted June 14, 2001; idem, "Review of In Defense of Miracles" (<http://www.infidels.or/library/modern/richard_carrier/indef/>, 1999), spotted June 14, 2001.

[6] McKinsey 1995, pp. 99-107.

[7] Jeffery Jay Lowder, "Independent Confirmation and the Historicity of Jesus" (<http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/indconf.html>, 1997), spotted June 14, 2001.

[8] Jeffery Jay Lowder, "McDowell's Evidence for Jesus -- Is It Reliable?" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/chap5.html#josephus>, 2000), spotted June 14, 2001.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Louis H. Feldman, "Josephus" Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, pp. 990-1.

[11] Lowder 2000, <URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/chap5.html#tacitus>, spotted June 14, 2001.

[12] I am grateful to Mark Vuletic, Rick Carrier, and Rob Berry for helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay.

Top