Interpreting Evidence: An Exchange with Christian Apologist JP Holding
While getting my knee x-rayed for a recent injury, I noticed a sign on the wall saying that a radiologist's "interpretation" fee would be added to my bill. I thought it interesting how even photographic evidence involves interpretation and how much more so interpretation plays a role in making sense of Christian origins evidence. A recent discussion with popular Christian internet apologist JP Holding illustrates this point.
The occasion that led to our discussion was JP's review of my book Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? (second edition Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? published 2014) After his review, I approached JP to get a better feel for his opinion on one particular topic that he critiqued. The result was a cordial exchange of ideas.
The topic JP and I discussed was whether or not some of the early Christians at Corinth doubted the reality of Jesus' resurrection and whether or not the Apostle Paul was, in his first letter to the Corinthians, trying to defend the reality of Jesus' resurrection. I say yes on both counts, JP says no. These two questions are important when trying to decide if the empty tomb story in the gospels is fact or fiction, and I'll explain why in a moment.
The verse that our discussion centered on was 1 Corinthians 15:12 in which Paul asks the Corinthians, "How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?" JP argues that the Corinthians here only doubted the future resurrection of believers, not Jesus' resurrection. I argue that they doubted both. Interestingly, even if JP is right on this count, the Corinthians would soon have their doubts about Jesus' resurrection because Paul points out the obvious in the very next verse: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised" (1 Corinthians 15:13). Either way, Paul is forced to defend Jesus' resurrection. The evangelical Expositor's Bible Commentary (EBCOT), Vol. 11, a highly respected source solidly in JP's own camp, agrees:
In one of the reports Paul received concerning what was going on in Corinth, he heard that some were claiming "that there is no resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor 15:12) ... Paul was so deeply concerned about this theological position that he gave an extended discourse in ch. 15 to prove the resurrection of Christ and to set a timetable for the final return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. (Emphasis mine.)
As an aside, the EBCOT also says, "[Paul] is here dealing with a group of Corinthians who are close to denying a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith, namely, the resurrection of Christ." A person "close to denying" Jesus' resurrection is plainly and simply someone who doubts Jesus' resurrection.
Is the EBCOT the final judge on how to properly interpret 1 Corinthians 15? Of course not. But it is an example of an interpretation that is different than JP's. Who then decides the correct interpretation? Ultimately, the individual does. We read source material, study commentary about it, and decide for ourselves. And in this case we try to answer the question: Is Paul writing to some who doubt Jesus' resurrection and, more importantly, is Paul trying to defend Jesus' resurrection in the first part of 1 Corinthians 15? It is an important question because if Paul is trying to defend Jesus' resurrection it is odd that he never mentions a discovered empty tomb. As many scholars have pointed out, Paul's silence suggests that the discovered empty tomb tradition did not yet exist when he was writing two decades after Jesus' death or that Paul knew it was an emerging legend.
JP goes on to argue that the "high-context" society Paul and the Corinthians lived in can account for Paul's silence on the discovered empty tomb. But as JP admits, even in high-context societies "repeat of detail would ... occur if some need were present to repeat." This just leads us back to the question above. If Paul is trying to defend Jesus' resurrection, he definitely has a need to repeat information. And in fact that is exactly what we see Paul do. He repeats the basic community creed that Jesus was raised and that this has been confirmed in the scriptures (1 Cor 15:4). He lists those who Jesus appeared to (1 Cor 15:5-8) which, being an already established Christian community, the Corinthians must have heard about before. Drawing on the authority of these witnesses, Paul then challenges the Corinthians, "Now if Christ is proclaimed [by all of these people] as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Cor 15:12). Paul finishes off by pointing out to the Corinthians the obvious consequences if Jesus did not resurrect--their preaching is useless, their faith is useless, they are false witnesses, they are still in their sins, those dead are lost, and they should be pitied (1 Cor 15:14-19). Given all of the arguments that Paul marshals here in support of Jesus' bodily resurrection (I do think Paul has in mind a "corpse-gone" bodily resurrection belief), it is hard to imagine why Paul does not also mention the fact that Jesus' burial location was discovered empty. Such a discovery would have been a solid piece of objective evidence in favor of Jesus' bodily resurrection and it is the only piece of major evidence missing from Paul's argument. As Dr. Tony Burke said of Jake O'Connell's recent debate attempt to explain Paul's silence on the discovered empty tomb: "It is one of O'Connell's weaknesses that he cannot effectively respond to the silences of the texts. No one can. So, why did he even try?"
JP voiced his disagreement with many other aspects of my book. I appreciate his effort and although I found his other critiques not very persuasive I found them equally illustrative of the different ways that people can interpret evidence. Which brings me back to my main point. Often in complex topics like this there is more than one way to interpret the evidence. There may be a way to interpret the Christian origins evidence such that Jesus resurrected from the dead, and for that I would recommend JP's work, but is that the only way to interpret the evidence? I don't think so and neither do a lot of other people.
For those who do think the only way to interpret the evidence is that Jesus resurrected from the dead, they might want to take a closer look at each point of evidence. A good starting point might be the topic discussed above, and a good person to start with might actually be JP himself. Ask JP how he concludes that none of the Corinthians doubted Jesus' resurrection, how he concludes that Paul was not defending it, and how the scholarly body that lies behind the EBCOT could get it so wrong. If JP's answers don't make sense to you and it does appear to you that the Corinthians doubted Jesus' resurrection, and Paul was defending it, try to come up with a good explanation for why Paul never mentions the discovered empty tomb. If you can't come up with one, you might want to consider the additional reasons critical scholarship thinks the discovered empty tomb tradition is a legend (covered in my book), and you might be led to ask the main question that my book attempts to answer--see back cover: here.
 Romans - Galatians (The Expositor's Bible Commentary), Vol. 11 (ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan, 2008), 247.
 Ibid., 392.
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