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Farrell Till Horner Till Horner1

Thank you very much. I would like to begin by thanking the local ASSP and, in particular, Jeff Lowder, and the Seattle Bible Science Association for sponsoring the debate and inviting me to participate. I consider it a real privilege to be here at Seattle Pacific University and to be debating Mr. Till on such an important subject as the Resurrection.

Debating can be very hazardous to your health, though. But you should see the other guy. I don’t know if you can see, but I’ve got a mark here on my forehead here. It’s the result of a little swimming accident I had recently. It’s not the mark of the beast, so don’t worry.

Now we’re going to be discussing the historical grounds for believing in the Resurrection. Grounds that I think are quite good. In doing so, though, I would not want to imply that there are not other grounds for believing in the Resurrection, like one’s personal experience of the risen Christ. Now something happened in first century Palestine that has had a remarkable impact on the world. The issue is which hypothesis, for what happened, is best supported by the evidence and best explains the data. It’s a comparison of hypotheses that we have to do tonight. I will present evidence for the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead. Farrell will need to present evidence for some alternative natural hypothesis. In the absence of a more plausible hypothesis, I suggest the Resurrection will be the best explanation for the data.

If it could be shown that the tomb of Jesus was found empty, that he did physically and bodily appear to many people after his death, and that the origin of the Christian faith is inexplicable apart from the Resurrection — then, if there is no plausible natural explanation the fits the data, one could rationally conclude that Jesus rose from the dead. Now in tonight’s debate, I am going to make two basic points: one, there are good reasons to affirm the Resurrection; two, there are not good reasons to deny the Resurrection.

So, first of all, there are good reasons to affirm the Resurrection. Point one under this is the writings about the Resurrection are too early for legend to prevail over the truth. See the Gospel accounts of the appearances are too early to be legendary. The legend theory rests heavily on the premise the Gospels were written after A.D. 70. But even the liberal critic, John A. T. Robinson challenges this late dating as largely the result of scholarly laziness, unexamined presuppositions, and almost willful blindness on the part of the critics.

In fact, there’s a growing number of scholars who would argue for dating Acts, Luke, Mark and Matthew before A.D. 70. One of the reasons is that Acts makes no mention of known historical events which took place between A.D. 60 and 70., such as the destruction of Jerusalem; the persecution of the Christians by Nero; the death of James, one of the leaders of the early Christian movement; and the trial, house arrest in Rome, and death of Paul. Now the best explanation for these significant events going unmentioned in the book of Acts, by Luke, is that they hadn’t yet occurred when Acts was completed. Hence, Acts was written before 62, 64 A.D., and the Gospel of Luke, being part one of Luke’s writings, would have been earlier, possibly 57 to 62 A.D. And most scholars believe that Mark was one of Luke’s sources, so it’s even earlier, somewhere between 45 and 56 A.D.

This pushes the accounts of the appearances of a risen Jesus to within fifteen to thirty-two years after the events, or roughly one generation. First Corinthians, Paul’s writings about the Resurrection, is also too early to be legendary, having been written between 53 or 55 A.D., twenty to twenty-five years after the events. And the important point is that all of these accounts are based on earlier written and oral sources that are dated much closer to the events. You see these sources contain sayings, statements, hymns, that are highly Semitic, or Jewish, and they translate very nicely from Greek, in which they are written, back into Aramaic, the language that Jesus and his disciples likely spoke. That points to a very early, Jerusalem origin to these sayings, within the first few weeks and even years after Christ’s death. There simply was not enough time for the basic set of facts to be replaced by myth or legend.

Secondly, the tomb was empty. There are at least six lines of evidence that support the tomb being empty that first Easter morning. First, we have the origin of the Christian movement in Jerusalem that would have been impossible without the empty tomb. If the tomb still contained the body no one would have believed the disciples’ story about a resurrection. But thousands did believe. So the founding of Christianity in the same city where Jesus was publicly killed and buried demands the tomb was empty.

Second, the written account describing the burial is widely recognized as being historically credible. The inclusion of Joseph of Arimathea as the one who buried Jesus in his own tomb is one of the many reasons most scholars accept the accuracy of the burial story. It’s highly unlikely, you see, that fictitious stories about a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling class, could have been pulled off. The absence of competing burial stories further enhances the credibility of the biblical account of the burial. If the Gospel tradition is just legendary, one would expect to find conflicting traditions, especially in the Jewish literature. Moreover, the burial and empty tomb story are a continuous narrative both grammatically and linguistically, and if the burial account is reliable then the empty tomb is also likely reliable. If the burial account is accurate, then the grave site (that is Joseph’s garden tomb) would have been well-known. And if the grave site was well-known, then the disciples wouldn’t have believed that Jesus had risen unless that tomb was empty. Nor would they have been able to convince so many others in Jerusalem to believe. And you can be sure that if the body had still been in the tomb, the Jewish authorities would have exhumed it and exposed the whole charade. But in fact, even though they had every reason to want to refute Christianity, they never could produce the body of Jesus, inside or outside the tomb.

Third, the earliest anti-Christian propaganda confirms the tomb was empty. The Jewish religious leaders claimed the disciples stole the body. The fact that they never denied that Jesus’ tomb was empty, but only tried to explain it away, is persuasive evidence that the tomb was in fact empty. Historically this is evidence of the highest quality because it comes from the opponents of Christianity.

Fourth, the fact that Jesus’ tomb was never venerated as a shrine in the first century indicates that it was empty. The custom was to set up a shrine at the site of a holy man’s bones, and there were at least fifty such sites in Palestine at that time. The absence of such a shrine for Jesus suggests the bones weren’t there.

Fifth, the testimony of the Apostle Paul implies the tomb was empty. Writing about A.D. 55, Paul an old Christian saying that Jesus died, was buried, and rose on the third day. Now the idea that a person could be raised from the dead while the body remained in the grave would have been nonsense to Paul’s Jewish mind. The Jewish concept of a resurrection was extremely physical. Paul is clearly assuming an empty tomb here. As W. L. Craig points out, were this not so, then Pauline theology would have taken an entirely different route, trying to explain how resurrection could be possible though the body remained in the grave. Moreover, this saying concerning the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus from which Paul is quoting, is too early to be legendary. Paul would have learned that in his first two years as a convert, or at least no later than A.D. 36 when he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem. Thus this formula is no later than five or six years after the Resurrection. Not enough time for legend to accrue.

Sixth, the burial and empty tomb accounts in the Gospel of Mark are based on a very early source. The High Priest is mentioned in Mark without using the name of the High Priest. Now that implies that Caiaphas, who we know was High Priest at that time, was still High Priest when the story began circulating because if it had been written after Caiaphas’ term of office, his name would have had to have been used to distinguish him from the next High Priest. But since Caiaphas was High Priest from A.D. 18 to 37, this story began circulating no later than A.D. 37, within the first seven years after the events.

Now these six points are many that provide a powerful case for the tomb being empty that first Sunday morning after Jesus’ death. And the move in scholarly circles in recent years has been toward the acceptance of the empty tomb since it is very difficult to dispute on historical grounds.

The historian Michael Grant concludes that the historian cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb. If we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.

Most people who reject the empty tomb do so because of philosophical assumptions such as miracles are impossible. But this type of assumption may simply have to be changed in light of historical fact.

Now the empty tomb by itself did not produce a belief in a resurrected Jesus. For most of the followers, it was Jesus physically appearing to them that led them to conclude "resurrection." So that’s my third point, Jesus physically appeared to many witnesses. The evidence from five independent historical sources indicates that, on eleven separate occasions, various individuals and groups in various locations and circumstances saw Jesus alive after his death. The four Gospels tell us about the appearances to Mary Magdalene, to the women returning from the tomb, to Peter, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the disciples with Thomas absent, the disciples with Thomas present, to the seven disciples at the Lake of Tiberias, to the disciples at the Ascension. Paul, besides repeating the appearances to Peter, the Twelve, and to all the Apostles, probably a larger group of followers, also mentions appearances to James, to Saul (that is, himself), and to over five hundred people at one occasion.

Now, Paul’s accounts of these appearances are likely not legendary because of his listing of this appearance to more than five hundred people. Paul is using the accepted method of his day to prove a historical event, the appeal to witnesses. He specifically states that most of these people are still alive, thereby inviting cross-examination of his witnesses. He would not have done this unless there were real people who would back up his claim.

The Gospel accounts are more likely historical than legendary. First of all, they are too early. Carrying on from what I mentioned earlier in this regard, Professor A. N. Sherwin-White, an eminent historian of Roman times, has studied the rate at which myths were formed in the ancient Near-east. He chides New Testament critics for not recognizing the quality of the New Testament documents compared to the sources that he must work with in Roman and Greek history. He says these sources usually removed from the events that they describe by generations, even centuries. Despite when they were written and the typically biased approach of the writers, he says, historians can confidently reconstruct what actually happened. In stark contrast, Professor Sherwin-White tells us that, for the Gospels to be legendary, more generations would have had to have been needed between the events and the compilation of the Gospels. He’s found that even the span of two full generations, fifty to eighty years, is not enough time for legend to wipe out the hard-core of historical fact. And even the late dating of the Gospels by the critics meets that criterion. The legends about Jesus that the critics are looking for do exist, but they rose in the second century, which is consistent with this two generation time frame discovered by Professor Sherwin-White. That is when all the eyewitnesses had died off. Thus, the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts is highly probable because there just wasn’t enough time for mythical tendencies to creep in and prevail over the historical fact.

Secondly, the women, or the fact that women and not male disciples are listed as the first witnesses of the appearances and the empty tomb, lends powerful credibility to the incidents. Women were of such low status in first century Jewish society that their testimony in court was considered worthless. So it would have been purposeless, even counterproductive, to record the incidents in this manner if it were not the way it actually happened.

Third, the Gospels lack legendary embellishment. They were not written in a legendary style of writing. Just read them. The style of the Gospels lack the legendary embellishments of the later writings. C. S. Lewis, one of the great literary experts on ancient myths, commenting on the Gospels, writes, "I’ve been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths, all my life. I know not one of them [the Gospels, that is] is like this."

Fourth, we have demonstrated reliability where there is external verification. And this supports credibility. That is, in 1961 we have the discovery of the inscription referring to Pilate in Caesarea during the time of Tiberius. We have the discovery of an ossuary, a bone box, of a crucified man named Johanon from first century Palestine that confirmed that nails were driven into ankles during crucifixion. 1992 we have the discovery of the burial grounds of Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest. We have the discoveries of the pool of Bethesda; pool of Salome; Jacob’s well; the Gabbatha, or Pavement, where Pilate pronounced judgment on Jesus, and so on. As R. T. France, the New Testament scholar says, "Again and again, where it is possible to check the accounts against hard, eternal data, they are found to ring true. Where no such external check is available, it therefore seems responsible to treat the record as factual rather than imaginary. It’s hard to deny, on historical grounds, that numerous people had experiences that they interpreted as appearances of the risen Jesus."

Now some contend that Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus, though, was a mere vision. And since Paul adds his experience to the list of appearances in 1st Corinthians 15, then they all must have been non-physical visions. But Paul’s experience involved extra-mental phenomena; it did not all happen in the mind of Paul. This is in contrast to the vision that Stephen had in Acts, chapter seven. Stephen’s experience was purely subjective. No one else saw or heard anything. But in Paul’s experience, his companions heard sound and they saw light.

We know that some people were suspicious of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord, so he was adding his experience to the list of other appearances in order to raise his experience up to the level of objectivity that the others were known for, not to drag them down to some non-physical, subjective level.

The Gospel appearances were physical. Every appearance of Jesus in the Gospels is physical. And since the Gospel stories are widely accepted as being independent, from each other that is, these stories about the appearances, this multiple attestation provides strong support for the historical credibility of a physical, bodily Resurrection. This could not have happened if all the appearances were only visions. And since for a Jew the term resurrection meant a physical resurrection of a dead man from a tomb, the early believers must have understood the Resurrection of Jesus as physical. The fact is, both Paul and the Gospels view the resurrection body as both physical and transformed. The resurrected Jesus ate, cooked, invited touch, but also displayed superhuman capabilities in his ability to appear and disappear at will without regard to spatial distances. It was not a body made out of spirit but a body that had been transformed from mortal to immortal.

Moreover, recognition of the risen Jesus prompted worship, Both the women and the disciples knew that this was no mere resuscitation of a corpse. After all, Lazarus’ resuscitation had not evoked worship. Thus the evidence is that Jesus made multiple and various appearances after his death.

Fourth, we have the origin of the Christian movement which is inexplicable apart from a real resurrection. Even the most skeptical of scholars admit to the existence of the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. That is, that’s what the early Christian movement believed. It began based on that belief. Something must have happened to create this belief. Where did it come from? There must be an adequate cause, an adequate explanation. Now the disciples’ Jewish background was not adequate to explain their belief in a resurrected Jesus. In Jewish thinking, the resurrection would take place at the end of the world, and would be a general resurrection of all people, or all the righteous, or all Israel. Nowhere in Jewish thinking was there the concept of a resurrection of one individual in the middle of history.

And examples of people coming back to life in the Old Testament, and Lazarus in the New Testament, are examples of resuscitations, not resurrections. These people were revived only to die again. Jesus’ resurrection, however, was to a new, immortal, imperishable, glorious life, never to die again.

Earlier in the twentieth century, it was common for scholars to suggest that the disciples borrowed the concept of Jesus’ resurrection from Pagan sources. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that experts no longer consider this position tenable. Any similarities are far outweighed by the differences. The alleged parallels are spurious, the legends are not about historical personages, they’re just symbols for the seasons. There’s no case of a mythical deity who rose from the dead prior to the late second century.

Moreover, there is no causal link between these Pagan myths and the Jews. There was very little influence from the Pagan religions in first century Palestine. The historian Michael Grant summarizes the scholarly opinion; he said, "Judaism was a milieu to its doctrines of the deaths and rebirths of mythical gods seems so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its myths is very hard to credit.

We also have the transformation of the followers, skeptics, and enemies of Jesus that is inexplicable apart from a real resurrection. The disciples were defeated, devastated, discouraged after the Crucifixion. They thought that their glorious three years with Jesus had come to a bitter and final end. But something changed them from being frightened and discouraged to being bold, courageous, and outspoken. Peter, who denied he even knew Jesus, stood up a few weeks later in downtown Jerusalem proclaiming Jesus was Lord and had risen from the grave. There must be sufficient explanation for the dramatic changes in these peoples’ lives.

And it wasn’t just followers, but skeptics and enemies were transformed. James and Jesus’ other brothers did not believe Jesus was Lord during his lifetime. They later believed, and James not only believed but he became the leader of the Jerusalem Christian movement and even died a martyr’s death in A.D. 62.

Saul of Tarsus was the chief persecutor of the early Christians. He hated the Christian "heresy" even to the point of killing in order to stop it. But something happened that changed him from Saul, the number one persecutor, to Paul, the number propagator of Christianity. He was totally transformed. He gave up the prestige and the comforts of being a respected Rabbi and took on the life of a traveling missionary who experienced incredible suffering. Something incredible must have happened to change this man. There must be sufficient cause to explain both the origin of the belief in the Resurrection and the amazing transformation of frightened followers, skeptics, and enemies.

There seems to be no plausible explanation that fits the facts apart from the explanation the earliest Christians have given. That is that Jesus physically rose from the grave and appeared to these people. These events are inexplicable apart from the Resurrection. Thus the faith of the early Christians did not manufacture facts, rather the events of Easter gave rise to the faith of the early Christians.

Fifth, the Resurrection is the best explanation of the data. The evidence shows that the tomb was indeed found empty and that Jesus physically appeared to different people on numerous occasions and in a variety of places after his death. Furthermore, the very origin of the Christian faith and the transformation of followers, skeptics, and enemies is inexplicable apart from a resurrection. There is no probably, natural explanation fro any one of these three, independently established points, let alone one that explains all three of them together.

The Resurrection hypothesis, however, explains all three without distorting the facts. Together, these three facts point powerfully to the same unavoidable conclusion that Jesus did physically and bodily rise from the dead. A rational person can hardly be blamed for believing in the Resurrection. If one denies this conclusion, he’s rationally obligated to provide a more plausible explanation that fits the facts.

So my second contention, now, is that there are no good reasons to deny the Resurrection. I’ll only be able to touch on this briefly and come back to it during the rebuttal. First of all, an a priori dismissal of miracles is illegitimate. One cannot rule out the Resurrection because of a prior assumption that miracles are impossible. When a skeptic proposes that the Resurrection counts are legendary because they describe something miraculous, the naturalistic presupposition has become part of the argumentation for the hypothesis, and the argument is just circular. As long as it’s even possible that God exists, miracles are possible. What one should do, then, is try to honestly answer the question: What does the evidence suggest is the most plausible explanation for the data?

As the philosopher W. L. Craig remarks, "That miracles are possible is neutral ground between the opposing claims that miracles are necessary and miracles are impossible." And then he adds, "Once one gives up the prejudice against miracles, it’s hard to deny that the Resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the facts."

Secondly, the alleged contradictions can be harmonized and they show a lack of collusion. Many people reject the esurrection of Jesus because they think the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection are hopelessly contradictory. But a recent work by John Wenham shows them to be complimentary, not contradictory. By paying careful attention to detail and clues in the accounts, Wenham has provided an extremely reasonable, plausible harmonizing of the superficial differences. And, as many scholars have pointed out, James G. D. Dunn is one example, the confusion between the different accounts in the Gospels does not appear to have been contrived. The conflict of testimony is more a mark of the sincerity of those from whom the testimony was derived than a mark against their veracity.

I will leave the rest of my points under the second contention until the end and just summarize with this. Since we have shown that the evidence supports that the tomb was found empty, that Jesus did appear to many people after his death, and that the origin of the Christian movement cannot be adequately explained apart from a historical Resurrection, and since there is no plausible, naturalistic explanation that fits the facts, then we are amply justified in concluding that Jesus did bodily rise from the dead.

What’s the significance of this? As Wolfhart Panenburg said, "The Resurrection can only be understood as the divine vindication of the man the Jews had rejected as a blasphemer."

Cross-examination, Farrell Till

Till: Mr. Horner, I’ve prepared some questions that I think can be answered very briefly. I’ll make you a promise: if you’ll be as brief as you can, I will be as brief as I can. First I wan to ask you, are you a Bible inerrantist? I think you know what that means, but for the benefit of those in the audience who might not know, I mean: do you believe that the Bible is totally, completely free of errors?

Horner: I believe that, but it’s important to point out that it is not a necessary assumption fro tonight’s debate or the conclusion that the Resurrection took place. I can sum it up in one sentence: I do not believe in the Resurrection because I believe in inerrancy, I believe in inerrancy because I believe in the Resurrection.

Till: O.K., I understand that. I was just trying to establish if your are an inerrantist. Do you believe that an angel delivered to Joseph Smith golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written in an ancient Egyptian script?

Horner: No, because there’s good reasons to doubt the integrity of the beginnings of the Mormon Church and Joseph Smith and the early followers, and that evidence has become more and more public in the last ten, fifteen years causing a lot of problems within the Mormon Church.

Till: O.K., I’ll have some comments to make on that later on in my speech, but I want to get in as many questions as I can to get a feeling for where you stand on certain issues. Do you believe any of the reports of those who say that they have seen Elvis Presley alive after his death as publicized?

Horner: No, and for you to bring that up I just find is a little bit ridiculous, because we all know that the whole Elvis suggestion is funny because no one really believes it. We find reports about that in the Star, the National Enquirer. Nobody takes that seriously.

Till: O.K., would you believe that Elvis Presley was alive if someone told you that he had appeared to five hundred people at one time?

Horner: If there was some reason to believe that maybe there was something to that, one would have to check out the evidence. I mean, I couldn’t answer "yes" or "no" without doing that.

Till: You are telling me that you would take the time check out the evidence if five hundred people reportedly saw Elvis Presley?

Horner: Well, if there were some suggestion that made me think that those reports could be trusted, and there were no good reasons to doubt the integrity of those reports, I would have to check it out before I could draw a final conclusion. I would be initially skeptical like everyone else, which would be reasonable, but I couldn’t draw a final conclusion unless I had an a priori dismissal of miracles, but that’s intellectually dishonest, so I couldn’t do that.

Till: O.K., in "Wars of the Jews," the Jewish Historian, Josephus, reported that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, that people saw chariots in the clouds and armored soldiers in the clouds surrounding the city. Do you believe that that happened?

Horner: I don’t know. I haven’t checked into that one and I don’t know.

Till: In the same chapter — by the way, if anyone wants to check this, this is in book six, chapter five, section three — in the same chapter, Josephus reported the a heifer being led to the altar in the Temple gave birth to a lamb. Do you believe that that happened?

Horner: I don’t know; I haven’t checked into it.

Till: Well, why don’t you believe these things because they’re reported in a book that was written about the time that …

Horner: I haven’t heard about them until just now.

Till: Well, will you check on it then and let me know what you believe about it if you’ve never heard that before?

Horner: I’ll check your stories …

Till: You’re serious? You’ve never heard that before?

Horner: No, I haven’t checked into it.

Till: Well, read book six, chapter five, and you’ll see that Josephus reported several miracles, astounding miracles that presumably happened.

Horner: I would require good evidence to believe it. At this point I haven’t made that investigation so I can’t draw a conclusion.

Till: O.K., the Roman historian, Suetonius, in "The Twelve Caesars," reported that when the Roman officials were arguing over where they were going to cremate the body of Julius Caesar, that two divine forms came down with torches and set fire to the pyre, and so he was cremated there. Do you believe that that happened?

Horner: Same response, Farrell. I don’t know where this is leading.

Till: Well, I have the book over here and I can — Michael Grant, by the way, translated this version that I have and you’ve been quoting him and so I’m assuming you would say it’s an accurate translation. If you want to see it, it’s over here on my desk — and these were things that were written about that time, so I just wonder why you are questioning these …

Horner: Well, I don’t question them. I haven’t heard of them until now. And I would be willing to analyze them. It would probably be true to say that you dismiss them without even checking them. Which seems to be the more reasonable approach?

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