This essay was originally published for the Atlanta Freethought Society in 2000. Reprinted with permission.
3. The Historicity of the Gospels
The Gospels Were Written by Persons Unknown (Not Eyewitnesses)
The Dates of the Gospels
The Gospels are Based on an Unreliable Oral Tradition
The Gospels Have a Theological Bias and an Apologetic Agenda
The Gospels Contain Fictional Forms
The Gospels Are Inconsistent with Each Other
The Gospels Are Inconsistent with Known Facts
There is No Independent Support for Gospels Claims
The Gospels Testify to Things Beyond Belief
This monograph will have an unusual format. It begins with an essay based on the opening arguments of my debate with Dr. William Lane Craig on the subject “Why I am/am not a Christian.” This debate was held at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, on June 15, 1998, before an audience of approximately 4500 (about 4450 of whom supported Dr. Craig). Dr. Craig defended his Christian beliefs, and I gave my reasons for disbelief. At the end of the debate I felt confident that I had defended my view effectively and had rebutted Dr. Craig’s points. The reactions of others who witnessed the debate or viewed the videotape (available from Prestonwood Baptist) encourage me in that conclusion. I would therefore like to present an elaborated and extended version of those arguments as my opening essay.
The remainder of the book will consist of chapters that provide more detailed support for the arguments in the opening essay. In these chapters I extend my critique and rebut anticipated replies and objections from Christian apologists. I also give lengthy quotations from authoritative sources in support of my claims. Parenthetical references in the opening essay will refer the reader to the chapter number where the relevant points are elaborated and supported. This format allows me to open with a succinct case in the mode of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I am not a Christian.” While that essay reflected Russell’s literary brilliance, it has been criticized as superficial and dismissive. The documented corroboration and detailed argument supporting the claims of the opening essay should obviate that criticism.
I would like to thank Ed Buckner and the Freethought Press for inviting me to do this book and all others whose comments and criticisms were offered.
Why I Am Not a Christian
Can belief argue with unbelief or only preach to it? When worldviews clash, is rational debate possible, or only a hostile exchange of epithets and rhetoric? Positions too far apart cannot find enough shared ground even to begin a debate, and there is no question that believers and unbelievers often simply talk past one another. The problem is this: Knowledge claims are never evaluated in a vacuum. When we assess a particular claim, we do so in the light of background knowledge. That is, the credentials of a claim are evaluated by how well it is supported by what we already believe and by our standards of rationality or justification. However, what “we” count as background knowledge or appropriate standards might differ so radically between Christians and non-Christians that rational debate is a practical impossibility.
Generations of Christian apologists have assumed that fruitful communication is possible. They have assumed that enough common ground exists for reasonable debate between belief and nonbelief. I share that assumption. That is, I think that Christians and nonbelievers share enough background beliefs, values, and standards to engage in fruitful debate about the reasonableness of Christian claims (though some of the wilder effusions of creationists and fundamentalists tempt me into doubt).
Christian apologists argue that Christian claims are well grounded vis-à-vis the background knowledge they share with unbelievers and that, therefore, unbelievers should acknowledge Christian truth. My argument is just the opposite, i.e., that given only what we (scientifically and philosophically literate Christians and non-Christians at the beginning of the twenty-first century) share in our background beliefs (about science, history, the Bible, and everything)–and excluding any specifically Christian “revelations”–Christian claims are poorly supported and therefore less reasonable than unbelief. I shall endeavor to appeal only to common sense and to invoke no premises Christian apologists cannot accept, or at least concede.
In this century the Christian religion will become 2000 years old. During those twenty centuries it has not only survived but flourished. Christianity began as a nondescript sect, despised by pagan and Jewish intellectuals (when they bothered to notice it), and subject to sporadic persecution. In the early fourth century the Roman Empire became Christian. By the end of the first millennium, except for a few pagan holdouts in the north and a Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula, Europe had become Christian. Christian missionaries set sail on the voyages of discovery and conquest of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and soon reached every part of the globe. Now a third of the world’s six billion people are at least nominally Christian–and the religion continues to grow rapidly, especially in Asia and Africa.
Christianity has inspired a rich cultural and intellectual tradition. Many of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance masters represent Christian themes. Christian music from Amazing Grace to the Missa Solemnis achieves a beauty and depth seldom reached by other music. The King James Bible is one of the treasures of the English language; its sound resonates in many of the great works of British and American literature. Some of the greatest intellects of the Western world have been Christian theologians and philosophers. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to name only two, are among the handful of thinkers who may be mentioned in the same breath as Plato and Aristotle. Christian charities have alleviated want and brought education and medical care to many needy areas.
Yet Christianity has a Janus-face. As we note, the Christian religion has inspired much of the world’s great art, literature, and music–but many of history’s most horrifying crimes were committed in the name of Christ. Christianity has encouraged scientists to seek to know God by understanding nature, but Christianity has also been the most powerful force of obscurantism. Great pioneers in all fields have suffered–and continue to suffer–the ignorant opposition of priests, preachers, and inquisitors. Christianity has comforted, uplifted, ennobled, and empowered. It has also degraded, persecuted, terrorized, and polarized. Both the highest and purest love and the basest and cruelest fanaticism are legacies of Christianity.
So, on balance, has Christianity been a force for good or ill in human history? Why are we even asking this question? Is not the only relevant question whether Christianity is true? It is an appropriate question because not all defenders of Christianity appeal to its truth. People often defend religion by adducing its allegedly good effects on society. This is a stock claim of right-wing politicians and of the recent plague of “Dr. Lauras”–common scolds and busybodies who have appointed themselves guardians of other people’s morality. To assess such a pragmatic apologetic we need to ask whether Christianity is likely to make us better and happier.
The problems with Christianity begin with the Christian Bible. What are we to make of stories like that of II Kings 2? That chapter relates how the prophet Elisha was approaching the town of Bethel when a group of boys jeered him. Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord and two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the children. I once asked a Christian philosopher about this passage. He bit the bullet and said that God must not permit his holy prophets to be mocked. I concluded that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were not holy prophets since I had often mocked them but had not yet been mauled by she-bears.
Then there is the passage in I Samuel 15 where the prophet Samuel, speaking in the name of the Lord, orders Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites: “Spare no one; put them all to death, men and women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses” (I Samuel 15). What did the Lord have against camels and asses (not to mention babes in arms)? Were the Amalekites so evil, even their infants and animals, that they merited utter extirpation? Scripture is full of such atrocities. Tom Paine spoke truly:
Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon rather than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and for my part, I sincerely detest it as I detest all that is cruel (Paine, 1974, p. 60).
There is nothing to add to this but “amen.”
When confronted by such passages in debate, Dr. Craig has offered two sorts of responses: (a) God has the right to do whatever he wants to humans and (b) that this argument counts only against Biblical literalism, not Christianity per se. I find both replies woefully inadequate. First, it strikes me as monstrous to suggest that God would have the right to do anything whatsoever to us. What would give him that right? Surely not his omnipotence, since might does not make right. Is it the alleged fact that God created us? Suppose I were to create a race of sentient androids, fully as capable of suffering as humans. Would I then have the right to inflict capricious cruelty upon them? If Dr. Craig insists that I would, he must be moving in a moral universe that does not intersect my own.
The second sort of reply raises the question of just how literally we should take the Bible. Dr. Craig and other apologists often want parts of it to be taken very literally indeed (e.g., the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning by women followers of Jesus). Apologists cannot take scripture literally when it is ideologically convenient but as myth, allegory, or symbol when it is not. We need a consistent and independently justified set of interpretive principles. However, even if we do take the horrific passages as myth or metaphor, their spirit is still cruel and vindictive, and they still merit the censure so eloquently expressed by Paine.
The Christian Bible bequeathed a legacy of cruelty; the Church wasted little time in acting on that legacy. Even Christian historians such as Paul Johnson grow eloquent recounting the persecutions, pogroms, crusades, witch-hunts, inquisitions, and religious wars whereby countless persons were burned, butchered, tortured, or thrown into dungeons by God-fearing fanatics (Johnson, 1976). In his recent best-seller Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen traces the long disgraceful record of Christian anti-Semitism (Goldhagen, 1996). The hatred sown in Martin Luther’s rabid anti-Jewish diatribes was reaped at Auschwitz. Forrest G. Wood’s book The Arrogance of Faith details Christian complicity in the genocide of American Indians and the defense of slavery (Wood, 1990). (See Chapter One of this monograph for supporting details.)
But haven’t Christians repented of their past evils and grown into a force for tolerance? Did not Pope John Paul II recently express sorrow for the Catholic Church’s past persecutions? In 1983 (350 years after the occurrence) the Church even repented its treatment of Galileo. Is this not (belated) progress?
Public pronouncements by Christian spokespersons have changed; blatant expressions of intolerance are no longer fashionable. Some Christian activists have glibly mastered the language of inclusiveness and pluralism and have turned such language to their own uses. For example, even radical-right moralists, with nauseating hypocrisy, claim not to despise gay people; they “hate the sin” while “loving the sinner.” Still, one does not have to dig very deep to hit the hard bedrock of bigotry beneath the shifting sands of rhetoric. Religious Right activists, caught with their guard down, are a wonderful revelation. Listen to Pat Robertson talking politics when he thinks the microphone is off or to D. James Kennedy’s sermons to his choir as he spits hatred at anybody who disagrees with him. Recall the head of the Southern Baptist Convention who just a few years ago said that God does not hear the prayers of a Jew, or the more recent Baptists who say that women are unfit to serve as ministers.
When confronted with the “holy horrors” of Christian history, the standard apologetic line is that the perpetrators of such horrors were not acting in the “true spirit of Christ” or according to the “true” Gospel message. This line always rings hollow. It sounds like the strained apologetics of academic Marxists who admit the horrors of the Gulag but who deny that the Soviet Union was a true communist society.
One thing Marx and Jesus definitely had in common was their insistence that what matters is not abstract theory but how a scheme works out in practice. As Jesus said of false prophets “By their fruits shall ye know them (Matthew 7:15).” Communism may sound great on paper, but if every society that attempts to implement it becomes a totalitarian nightmare, so much for Marxist theory. When Poland suffered under General Jaruzelski, the Poles had a bitter joke: “Where does the true socialist society exist? On the moon.” The same may be said of the “true” Christian society. If anyone wonders what a society run by the Robertsons and Falwells would really look like, they should read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986).
Still, someone might object that Christianity should be judged in its pure, revealed form rather than by its admittedly shoddy practice. But the monstrous doctrine of hell is part of that alleged revelation. The greatest Christian teachers exhausted their vast powers of eloquence offering lurid depictions of hell (see Bernstein, 1998). Surely these revolting fantasies are the most misshapen progeny of the human imagination. All the most orthodox divines, Calvinist as well as Catholic, taught that one of the chief joys of heaven is the viewing of the torments of the damned (Johnson, 1976, p. 342). Tertullian cackled with glee as he anticipated seeing pagan philosophers writhing in the flames. Surely Paine was right. Such doctrines have corrupted and brutalized humanity. Cruel dogmas make cruel people. (See Chapter Two for supporting details.)
More fundamentally, the Christian concept of human nature is at odds with the aims of an open, democratic, and pluralistic society. Christianity insists that human nature is depraved, a beast that must be caged. Since humans are evil, they must be controlled by higher authority imposed from above. Christians talk about faith, hope, and love, but obedience is the prime Christian virtue (“There is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey” says the old hymn). Since submission to authority, whether human or divine, is the chief Christian duty, Christianity lends itself naturally to authoritarian political schemes. We should not forget that the Church supported Franco in Spain and King Leopold in the Congo. In short, the City of God does not run on democratic principles.
So, will Christianity improve society? I guess it turns on what we regard as “improving” society. If we want the regimented, authoritarian society of The Handmaid’s Tale, the answer is “yes.” So, when the pundits tell us that religion will improve society, they need to be frank about the fascism they are recommending.
To sum up the argument so far, the Christian Bible if full of atrocities ordered or committed by God. Christianity produced St. Francis, but it also produced Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and the authors of Malleus Malleficarum, the witch-hunter’s handbook. Today’s Religious Right dreams of a golden age when we will truly have one nation under (their) God. History shows that a Holy Inquisition would be more likely than a golden age. Christianity has preached hatred, soaked the earth with blood, and filled the mind with supernatural terrors. It seems clear that my first point is established: A rational, conscientious person may doubt the beneficial effects of Christian preaching and practice. A pragmatic apologetic based on the alleged good effects of Christianity therefore fails.
Of course, many Christians are as appalled by the “holy horrors” of Christian history as I am. Some, such as the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, the Right Reverend Shelby Spong, are strong opponents of fundamentalism. Others, such as the Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have fought the good fight against the theocratic efforts of the Religious Right. Further, there is no doubt that many ordinary people have found strength and inspiration in their Christian faith. So, can there be a sort of Christianity that preserves the good things while getting rid of the bad? I do not know. I do know that, as Voltaire, Paine, Ingersoll, Russell, and others showed, the “old time religion” was often very bad.
We turn now to the central question of this essay: Is Christianity true? St. Paul lays it on the line. In I Corinthians 15:14 Paul states unequivocally “if Christ was not raised, our faith is null and void.” No one can ask for fairer than that. I do not believe that Christ was raised from the dead so I regard the Christian Gospel as null and void.
My argument against the Resurrection is simple:
(1) To be made credible, extraordinary claims must be extraordinarily well supported.
(2) The alleged Resurrection of Jesus is a very extraordinary claim.
(3) The supporting evidence is not good, so we should remain skeptical of the Resurrection.
I regard the first premise as uncontroversial. No rational person believes everything he or she is told. Some things are discounted, even when told with a straight face by persons who are otherwise presumed reliable. Why? Well, there are some things we just regard as too implausible to accept unless we are told by a very reliable source. We can imagine cases where the claim would be so outrageous we would not even believe a most trustworthy person. Suppose that saintly Mother Teresa had told a reporter that she flew to pick up her Nobel Peace Prize, not in an airplane, but simply by flapping her arms. Could the reporter be blamed for not believing in flying nuns, even when told by so respectable and (heretofore) credible a person?
The lesson is that if we rationally regard a claim as extremely implausible, we will rightly demand very strong evidence before we accept it. How should we approach the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? With an open mind, certainly, but as one wag put it, if your mind is too open, your brain will fall out. In other words, being open minded does not mean that we must empty our minds of preconceptions or suspend critical judgment. On the contrary, we can only rationally evaluate a claim in the light of what we already regard as true and reasonable.
Moving to the second premise, how implausible should one initially (i.e., before examining the specific evidence) regard the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? Well, as I note in my opening remarks that depends crucially upon what other beliefs one already has. Perhaps it would be simpler to start by saying why I begin with a high degree of incredulity.
The Resurrection claimed by Christians is a physically impossible event. That is, unaided nature could not have accomplished such an occurrence. It could only have been accomplished by the miraculous intervention of a supernatural being–the God of the Bible in this instance. The previous three sentences do not express my stipulation but my understanding of what Christians are claiming. Now I do not believe in a God who can perform miracles. I have considered what seem to me to be the strongest arguments for the existence of God and have found them wanting (Mackie, 1981; Parsons, 1989; Martin, 1990). Also, the existence of so much apparently gratuitous evil in the world seems to me excellent reason not to believe in an all-powerful, all-good God (Parsons, 1989; Drange, 1998). Therefore, I regard any claim that God has brought about a particular physically impossible event as having a prior probability of close to zero. So, given my background beliefs, I have every right to demand very good, even compelling evidence before I accept the claimed Resurrection.
It would be easy enough for Christians and atheists to draw lines in the sand, take refuge in their own ideological fortresses, and damn the other side to prove them wrong. However, we live in an intellectual milieu already severely balkanized, so it is salutary, for the sake of argument at least, to start with a less extreme position than my thoroughgoing atheism. Further, I have stated my aim to invoke shared assumptions and background knowledge. Here I shall have to depart from that aim a bit.
Michael Martin has recently argued that the Resurrection must be considered initially improbable even by Christians (Martin, 1998, 1999). Christian philosopher Stephen T. Davis strongly disagrees (Davis, 1999). I think Martin is right, but I shall not enter into this dispute here. I shall concede to Davis that the Resurrection need not be initially improbable for Christians. Still, Christians must surely recognize that it is reasonable for non-Christians to be initially quite skeptical of the claimed Resurrection. Insofar as Christian apologists aim to address the beliefs of non-Christians, their arguments must therefore presume the non-Christians’ prior beliefs, not their own. So I shall assume that Christian apologists, for the sake of argument, will grant me premise two.
Again, how low should we initially assess the likelihood of Jesus’s alleged Resurrection? Let us ask how a non-Christian theist–one who definitely believes in a God who can and has performed miracles–should approach the question of the Resurrection. Let us imagine a conservative but open-minded person who has practiced Judaism throughout his or her life and who now decides, for the first time, to consider the purported evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. With what attitude will such a person approach this study?
Even for such a theist, an initially deep skepticism would be appropriate. Even those who believe in a God who can and has performed miracles will regard any particular miracle claim with skepticism. After all, miracle-claims come a dozen for a dime. Hucksters and hoaxers abound, as do false prophets and false religions. Also, as Hume remarked, humans have a natural love for the marvelous; a glance at the “New Age” or “occult” section of any bookstore confirms this. In a classic essay T.H. Huxley notes that many ancient and medieval documents calmly and matter-of-factly present first-person reports of miracles (Huxley, 1893). We would be credulous indeed if we accepted each of these. So, even theists will regard false miracle reports as vastly outnumbering true ones. Prima facie there is nothing distinguishing Christian miracle stories from those that abound elsewhere.
Further, religious people refrain from jumping out of upper-story windows the same as atheists. A scientist in the laboratory follows the same procedures and expects the same laws to hold whether he or she is religious or not. In general, religious people take the same sorts of precautions and make the same sorts of practical plans as non-religious ones, so clearly they do in fact expect the usual regularities of nature to hold in the overwhelming majority of cases. Hence, they also should be initially deeply skeptical of reports that such regularities have been suspended. After all, when Mary conceived asexually, was not Joseph, presumably a deeply religious person, rightly scandalized–until the angel set him straight (Matthew 1:20)?
So, it is entirely in order for us non-Christians, whether theists or not, to approach the Resurrection claim with a deep degree of initial skepticism. Why should Christian miracle-claims, from the beginning, be regarded any differently from the plethora of other such claims extant in historical records? We have every right to demand very good evidence indeed before we accept the Christian claim. Of course, if we are reasonable, our beliefs will change if we are given such excellent reasons, so let us now turn to the purported evidence.
All of the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus derives from human testimony (the so-called “Shroud” of Turin is a medieval forgery). Now David Hume’s famous argument against miracles in Section X of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding has often been interpreted as claiming that human testimony, in principle, cannot establish a miracle claim. I think in principle it could (in practice difficulties abound, as we shall see), but the burden of proof will be on the person claiming the miracle and the burden will be quite heavy since, as we saw, such evidence must overcome a high degree of initial skepticism.
Does the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus meet this heavy burden of proof? Nearly all of the so-called evidence comes from the four canonical gospels. But let’s be honest. What confidence can we have in documents, (1) authored by persons unknown (with the possible exception of Luke, who admits he was not an eyewitness), (2) written four or more decades after the events they purportedly describe, (3) drawn upon oral traditions, and hence subject to the unreliability of human memory, (4) each with a clear theological bias and apologetic agenda, (5) containing many undeniably fictional literary forms, (6) inconsistent with each other (except where one gospel plagiarizes another), (7) at odds with many known facts, (8) with virtually no support from independent sources, and (9) testifying to events which, in ordinary circumstances, we would regard as unlikely in the extreme? (See Chapter Three for supporting details.)
Allow me to pause to note that the above nine claims are supported by a very broad consensus of Christian New Testament scholars. Each of these claims is old hat for a practitioner of higher critical studies of the gospels.
Professor Craig believes that three main points of evidence support the historical case for the Resurrection of Jesus: The post-mortem appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith. I shall explain why I reject each of these pieces of purported evidence. (See Chapter Four for supporting details.)
The post-mortem appearances: Professor Craig places much emphasis on the formula recited by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul lists various alleged witnesses of the risen Jesus: Cephas (Simon Peter), “the twelve,” over 500 at once, James (Jesus’s brother), all of the apostles, and finally Paul himself. This passage is important because (a) it is very early, (b) it names or refers to numerous alleged witnesses of the risen Jesus, and (c) it gives Paul’s own testimony, the only undisputed first-person report of an encounter with the risen Christ in the entire New Testament.
The early date of the formula is irrelevant. Contrary to a claim frequently made by Professor Craig and other apologists, legends can and do spread almost immediately, despite the opposition of eyewitnesses, and sometimes even with the connivance of eyewitnesses. Consider Elvis and Bigfoot sightings, “Bermuda Triangle” disappearances, alien abductions, crashed saucer stories, and other such goofy legends. Such stories spread quickly, often despite the testimony of eyewitnesses and the efforts of would-be debunkers. Surely people are not more credulous now than they were in the First Century. In short, it is a demonstrated, abundantly documented fact that legends do develop and spread quickly. (See Chapter Five for supporting details.)
Getting back to Paul’s testimony, in this passage he is not arguing with skeptical unbelievers. He says that he is passing on (paradidomi in Greek) a tradition that he has received. Paul is not trying to convince the Corinthians by adducing objective historical evidence, he is reminding them of a tradition which they already accept as authoritative. In fact, Paul was simply re-asserting the kerygma, the basic Christian proclamation that, in accordance with the scriptures, Christ died “for our sins,” rose on the third day, and appeared to various witnesses.
Paul’s formula gives no details as to where, when, or under what circumstances the appearances supposedly occurred. It does not mention the empty tomb; the phrase “was buried” in no way implies independent knowledge of an empty tomb tradition. It gives no place or date for the alleged Resurrection. The Gospels and Acts know nothing of an appearance to 500; surely they would have reported such a remarkable event. Paul does not make clear whether the appearances were physical or visionary–the Greek text is entirely ambiguous on that point. More importantly, we know nothing of the reliability of any of the so-called witnesses. How reliable were Peter or James? How do we know that the “500,” if they really existed, did not suffer a mass hallucination?
But does not the very existence of such a tradition at such an early date imply its historicity? Does not the very fact that the list of witnesses had been definitely formulated before Paul indicate that there must be a kernel of historical truth here? Essentially this is an argumentum ad ignorantiam–an appeal to ignorance. We simply do not and cannot know how that list got formulated. As so often happens with historical investigation, the trail runs cold just at the point of greatest interest. Without begging many questions, apologists cannot assume anything about the nature of the “appearances,” the reliability of the alleged witnesses, the lack of legendary accretion, or anything else that would support the historicity of that tradition.
What then about Paul’s own “eyewitness” testimony? As noted earlier, if we accepted all of the “eyewitness” reports of miracles from old texts, we would be credulous indeed. Is Paul, then, particularly credible? On the contrary, Paul himself states that he was given to ecstatic visions. In II Corinthians 12 Paul tells of being “caught up as far as the third heaven” (verse 2) and not knowing whether he was “in the body or out of it” (verse 2, repeated in verse 3). He reports that when he was “caught up into paradise” (verse 4) that he “heard words so secret that no human lips may repeat them” (verse 4). Clearly, this is an account of a mystical vision. Why not conclude that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ was of a similar kind?
What about the “appearances” to the disciples? All except the most conservative scholars agree that Mark, the oldest gospel, originally ended with verse 16:8 and included no account of appearances to the disciples. As G. A. Wells noted, the appearance stories recounted in the other two synoptics are full of inconsistencies:
Matthew, following hints by Mark, sites in Galilee the one appearance to them that he records: the risen one has instructed the women at the empty tomb to tell the disciples to go to Galilee in order to see him (28:10). They do this, and his appearance to them there concludes the gospel. In Luke, however, he appears to them on Easter day in Jerusalem and nearby on the Emmaus road (eighty miles from Galilee) and tells them to stay in the city “until ye be clothed with power from on high” (24:49; Acts 2:1-4 represents this as happening on Pentecost, some fifty days later). They obey, and were “continually in the temple” (24:53). Luke has very pointedly changed what is said in Mark so as to site these appearances in the city (Wells, 1996, p. 100).
So the synoptics give no coherent account of the post-mortem “appearances.” Apologists often insist that the gospel authors wrote in close consultation with the original eyewitnesses and that this ensures their accuracy. In that case, why are the accounts so inconsistent?
Suppose that, shortly after the crucifixion, one or more of the disciples did experience an “appearance” of the risen Jesus. Why not regard these experiences as hallucinations or visions? Psychologists tell us that hallucinations by normal, non-psychotic persons are much more common than most people think. Often they seem very real. People suffering severe reactive depression and a sense of loss and isolation are especially prone to hallucinations. Given their state of mind after the crucifixion, it would not be surprising if one or more of the disciples experienced a vivid hallucination of Jesus. Biblical scholar Gerd Lüdemann carefully examined the post-Resurrection “appearances” and concluded that they can all be explained as visions (Lüdemann, 1995). (See Chapter Six for supporting details.)
Now for the empty tomb legend: Professor Craig adduces Paul’s testimony in the I Corinthians 15 formula that Jesus was buried as evidence for the empty tomb. Presumably, this phrase shows that Paul, or whoever composed the formula, had knowledge of an independent empty tomb tradition. But reciting such a liturgical formula no more implies knowledge of an empty tomb than singing “John Brown’s Body” implies knowledge of where John Brown is buried. So, Paul’s use of the phrase does not indicate any such knowledge on his part. As for the origination of the phrase, Kee, Young, and Froelich offer a plausible hypothesis: “The minor observation is that he was buried–possibly an apologetic note introduced to attest that Jesus had really died, rather than having merely swooned or disappeared, as enemies of the Christian faith sometimes claimed” (pp. 56-57). So the phrase may have entered the formula as an apologetic aside rather than as a reflection of an empty tomb tradition.
Professor Craig also argues that, had the stories of the empty tomb been fictitious, the prejudices of the day would have dictated that men be portrayed as the discoverers of the empty tomb. But the gospel accounts say that the disciples fled into hiding with Jesus’s arrest. Among the closest followers of Jesus, only the women were left to care for the body. Further, it was customary for women to be involved in the process of preparing bodies for burial (Schroeder and Nelis, 1963, p. 287). Therefore, it is not very surprising that female followers of Jesus would be depicted as discovering the empty tomb. Besides, for the gospel writers, the discovery of the empty tomb was not nearly so important as its subsequent confirmation by the (male) disciples.
More fundamentally, as the Right Rev. Shelby Spong states:
[T]he discovery of an empty tomb would never have issued in an Easter faith. If there had been a tomb, and if that tomb had been found empty, it would have meant only that one more insult had been delivered to the leader of the tiny Jesus movement. The disciples, whoever they were, would have concluded that not even the dead body of this Jesus had been spared degradation. No Easter faith would have resulted from an empty tomb. Therefore such a tradition could not have been primary. It was but a story incorporated later into the narrative (1994, p. 228).
In other words, the empty tomb, by itself and considered apart from the post-mortem “appearances,” would only have been evidence of desecration, not resurrection. It becomes evidence for resurrection only when joined to the appearance claims, and, as we have seen, those are unreliable.
Professor Craig’s third main piece of evidence for the Resurrection is the origin of the Christian faith itself. He argues that the Christian faith in a resurrected Jesus has no precedent in Jewish thought. The Jewish conception of resurrection is a general raising of the dead at the end of time, not the raising to glory of a single individual as an event in history. Further, the Christian idea that the resurrection of the righteous will somehow hinge on the Messiah’s resurrection, was wholly unknown. Professor Craig concludes that these new Christian ideas were so radical that only the actual Resurrection of Jesus can account for so extreme a conceptual shift.
But according to the gospels, Jesus’s ministry contained many heretical elements. In Mark 2 Jesus claims authority for the forgiveness of sins, which elicits a charge of blasphemy from the scribes. In Mark 7 he sets aside the traditional dietary distinctions between clean and unclean foods. In Mark 2:28, he even claims to be sovereign over the Sabbath. Further, Jesus’s preaching was full of apocalyptic content. He famously said “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1). In Mark 8:31 and 10:34 he predicts that the Son of Man will die and rise three days afterward.
Given the heretical and apocalyptic nature of their master’s teachings and the experiences, whatever they were, that convinced them that Jesus had risen, the emergence of radically new concepts in the disciples’ minds hardly seems to require supernatural explanation. For the early Christians, the Resurrection of Jesus was the first eschatological event, an event that ushered in the New Age, the coming of the Kingdom. They believed that they were in the end times. As a standard textbook puts it:
[Christianity] … shared with much of Judaism the hopes for the New Age that God had promised through the prophets and seers. But it differed from the rest of Judaism in one crucial point: It was convinced that the New Age had already begun to dawn. More specifically, it believed that God had acted in Jesus of Nazareth to inaugurate the New Age, and that the community itself was the nucleus of the People of the New Age. The basis for this conviction was the belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead (Kee, Young, and Froelich, pp. 52-53).
In other words, early Christians believed that they were in the end times and that the Resurrection of Jesus was the eschatological event that ushered in the New Age, the coming of the Kingdom. Further, Jesus’s Resurrection was not conceived as an event separate from the general resurrection, but only as the first resurrection, soon to be followed by the others at the time of Christ’s Second Coming. Thus Paul calls Jesus as the “firstfruits of the harvest of the dead” (I Corinthians 15:20). Paul continues: “As in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but each in his own proper place: Christ the firstfruits, and afterwards, at his coming, those who belong to Christ” (I Corinthians 15:22-23).
In all honesty, I simply do not see a gaping, unbridgeable conceptual chasm between belief in a general resurrection at the end of time and the belief that Jesus’s Resurrection was the first event of the coming of the end times. In the presently fashionable lingo, paradigm shifts do occur. If Professor Craig insists that, nonetheless, such a conceptual shift requires supernatural intervention, I simply have to ask: What are his criteria? At what point are concepts so alien that it would require a miracle for someone to shift from one to the other? We need some such guidelines before the discussion can proceed.
In conclusion, I have argued that there are no grounds for regarding Christianity as either good or true. Christian scripture, doctrine, and practice have sanctioned cruelty and made vindictiveness a virtue. The arguments concerning the alleged Resurrection of Jesus cannot bear even a modest burden of proof, much less the fairly heavy one we have placed on them. Throughout I have endeavored to appeal only to premises that Christian apologists can accept or ought to concede. I have nowhere assumed atheism, naturalism, or extreme skepticism. My appeal was to common sense, common knowledge, and scholarly consensus, not to a methodology dictated by Enlightenment ideologies. I therefore take my second point, and the main point of this essay, as now established: Given only shared background knowledge and expected concessions, it is unlikely that the alleged Resurrection of Jesus occurred, and so it is unlikely that Christianity is true.
Chapter One: The Sins of Christianity
This chapter documents my claims about the “holy horrors” perpetrated in the name of Christ. First a quote from Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. of South Carolina, famous for heading the Senate committee that investigated Watergate:
The ugliest chapters in history are those that recount the religious intolerance of the civil and ecclesiastical rulers of the Old World and their puppets during the generations preceding the framing and ratifying of the First Amendment.
These chapters of history reveal the casting of the Christians to the lions in the Coliseum at Rome; the bloody Crusades of the Christians against the Saracens for possession of the shrines hallowed by the footsteps of the Prince of Peace; the use by the papacy of the dungeon and the rack to coerce conformity and of the fiery faggot to exterminate heresy; the unspeakable cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition; the slaughter of the Waldenses in alpine Italy; the jailing and hanging by Protestant kings of English Catholics for abiding with the faith of their fathers; the jailing and hanging by a Catholic queen of English Protestants for reading English Scriptures and praying Protestant prayers; the hunting down and slaying of the Covenanters upon the crags and moors of Scotland for worshipping God according to the dictates of their own consciences; the decimating of the people of the German states in the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants; the massacre of the Huguenots in France; the pogroms and persecutions of the Jews in many lands; the banishing of Baptists and other dissenters by Puritan Massachusetts; the persecution and imprisonment of Quakers by England for refusing to pay tithes to the established church and to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance; the banishing, branding, imprisoning, and whipping of Quakers, and the hanging of the alleged witches at Salem in Puritan Massachusetts, and the hundreds of other atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion.
It is not surprising that Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, was moved more than three hundred years ago to proclaim this tragic truth: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction” (quoted by Peter McWilliams, 1996, p. 125).
Forrest G. Wood put it more concisely:
There are contradictions in every religion; but the missionary quality of Christianity magnifies the consequences of its contradictions. The history of Christianity may be the serene and saintly story of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Virgin Mary, St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., leading nuns and clergymen in nonviolent resistance. But it is also the cruel and bloody story of crusaders and conquistadores, Pope Innocent II and Torquemada, the Salem witch trials and cross-burning Klansmen. “Kill a Commie for Christ!” bumper stickers shouted in the 1950’s (Wood, 1990, p. 26).
Apologists sometimes boast of Christian opposition to slavery. Many of the leading abolitionists were devout Christians. However, many equally devout Christians argued just as vehemently in defense of slavery. Wood, in his book The Arrogance of Faith, documents some of these pro-slavery arguments. As Wood shows, Christian doctrine and scripture were often adduced in support of slavery:
[I]f freedom meant only freedom from sin, then it was fair to raise questions about the definition and use of the word. When Paul told the Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” more than a few slave holding ministers concluded that he was simply pointing out that the only freedom that mattered was freedom in salvation in Christ. Life on this earth was brief and temporary; the hereafter was forever. “The freedom of the Soul for Eternity is infinitely preferable to the greatest freedom of the Body in its outward Condition upon Earth,” Anglican minister Benjamin Fawcett told a group of slaves in 1755. When Christ told the Jews in the temple square “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” they said they could not be set free because they were no one’s slaves. But every sinner, Christ replied, is a slave to sin. “If the son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”
In other words, true freedom came from “the emancipation of the will from the power of sin,” southern Presbyterian James Henley Thornwell argued. Salvation grants freedom from the grip of Satan, not freedom from the secular chains of slavery. Nor was it a lesson used only by southern clergy. Both George Junkin, a prominent Ohio Presbyterian, and C.F.W. Walther, head of the conservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran church, argued publicly that biblical freedom meant only freedom from damnation and that it “could be preserved within the framework of a servant-master relationship.” It was a universal Christian blind spot; when salvation was at issue, it mattered not if one was a slaveholder or abolitionist. Although he was an outspoken critic of slavery, Congregationalist Jedediah Morse insisted that “belief in Christ, which freed men from sin, the worst kind of slavery, was the supreme good, far greater than all temporal blessings.” Since it was the Christian master who kept the bondsman in chains and the Christian minister who defended that bondage, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the problem was Christianity. (Wood, 1990, pp. 75-76).
Contemporary theologians would of course deny that the problem was Christianity per se, and charge that the pro-slavery apologists had twisted Christian doctrine. Notoriously, though, neither the Old or New Testaments contains an outright condemnation of slavery. Parts of the Bible tell us in great detail how we should live, right down to how we should wear our hair. Yet it omits to tell us that owning another human being is wrong. Of course, masters are admonished to treat their slaves well–and slaves are told to obey their masters. Abolitionists felt that slavery was ungodly, but there simply was no unequivocal scriptural support for their view.
What about the famous passage where Paul says that in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, slave or master, male of female? This is a marvelous passage, but as Wood notes, for many Christians this means that others are equal only if they accept Christianity:
Modern churches have done as much as any philanthropic institution in the world to ameliorate hunger, poverty, disease, and ignorance, but the fact remains that most Christians have perceived the African, Indian, or any other nonbeliever as an equal–if they have done so at all–only after he has been converted. It was impossible for a missionary to accept the heathen for what he was and consider him an equal. That would have been real charity (Wood, 1990, p. 29).
A classic work of Victorian scholarship was W.E.H. Lecky’s 1869 work History of European Morals. In this and other works, Lecky again and again showed the pernicious effects of Christian doctrine on morality. Some of his most powerful writing concerned the rise and influence of asceticism in late antiquity. Here is a sample:
There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato. For about two centuries, the hideous maceration of the body was regarded as the highest proof of excellence.
St. Jerome declares, with a thrill of admiration, how he had seen a man, who for thirty years had lived exclusively on a small portion of barley bread and of muddy water; another who lived in a hole and never ate more than five figs for his daily repast; a third who cut his hair only on Easter Sunday, who never washed his clothes, who never changed his tunic till it fell to pieces, who starved himself till his eyes grew dim, and his skin ‘like a pumice stone’ and whose merits, shown by these austerities, Homer himself would be unable to recount. For six months, it is said, St. Macarius of Alexandria slept in a marsh, and exposed his body naked to the stings of venomous flies. He was accustomed to carry about with him eighty pounds of iron. His disciple, St. Eusebius, carried one hundred and fifty pounds of iron, and lived for three years in a dried-up well.
St. Sabinus would only eat corn that had become rotten by remaining for a month in water. St. Besarion spent forty days and nights in the middle of thorn-bushes, and for forty years never lay down when he slept, which last penance was also during fifteen years practiced by St. Pachomius…. The cleanliness of the body was regarded as a pollution of the soul, and the saints who were most admired had become one hideous mass of clotted filth. St. Athanasius relates with enthusiasm how St. Antony, the patriarch of monachism, had never, to extreme old age, been guilty of washing his feet … a famous virgin named Silvia, though she was sixty years old, and though bodily sickness was a consequence of her habits, resolutely refused, on religious principles, to wash any part of her body except her fingers…. An anchorite once imagined that he was mocked by an illusion of the devil, as he saw gliding before him through the desert a naked creature black with filth and years of exposure, and with hair floating to the wind. It was a once beautiful woman, St. Mary of Egypt, who had thus, during forty-seven years, been expiating her sins…. The examples of asceticism I have cited are but a few out of many hundreds, and volumes might be written, and have been written detailing them (Lecky, 1955, Vol. II, pp. 107-113).
Naturally, the ideal of asceticism included a hatred of sex, and, since woman was the temptress whom the Church “fathers” blamed for their own lust, it led to misogyny as well. German scholar Uta Ranke-Heinemann was trained as a Catholic theologian but lost her academic chair when she denied a piece of bizarre nonsense–the Church’s dogma of the biological reality of the virgin birth of Mary. In 1988 she published Eunuchen fur das Himmelreich, translated as Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church. In this powerful work, backed by enormous scholarship, Ranke-Heinemann demonstrates that fear of sexuality and hatred of women were built into the foundations of Christian theology. She notes that Augustine’s attitudes were codified by Aquinas and continue to influence Christianity today:
Women may well have been astonished to know that they were good only for reproduction, and unqualified for anything having to do with mind and intelligence. This idea was formulated by Thomas Aquinas … in connection with Augustine as follows: Woman is simply a help in procreation … and useful in housekeeping. For a man’s intellectual life, she has no significance. Thus Augustine was the brilliant inventor of what Germans call the three K’s (Kinder, Kuche, Kirche–children, kitchen, church), an idea that still has life in it, in fact it continues to be the Catholic hierarchy’s primary theological position on women (Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, p. 88).
Is such sexism today restricted to the desiccated celibates of the Roman Catholic hierarchy? Not at all. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, recently declared that women should submit to the “servant leadership” of their husbands. Even more recently, the Baptists have strongly urged that women not become senior pastors. Pat Robertson gave the fundamentalist view of the role of women: “God has established a pattern. He is the head of man and man is to be the head of woman, and together they are to be the head of children … in the government of the family and the church, men are to be the leaders” (quoted in Nava and Dawidoff, 1994, p. 95).
Baptist apologists were quick to emphasize that husbands, the “servant leaders,” are not to behave in a dictatorial manner but must practice Christ-like agape love. They imply that any woman should be struck dumb with gratitude for the opportunity to submit to such leadership. No matter how you slice it though, Baptist doctrine makes the man the boss. “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche” is still the Southern Baptist ideal of womanhood. What reasons justify such strictures? Baptists offer none, at least none that would make sense to a non-fundamentalist.
For Augustine, sexual pleasure was so horrible that even married couples should endure it only if, both before and during the sex act, they are wholly motivated by the desire for children (Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, p. 92). As he put it with casuistic precision: “What cannot occur without lust should not, however, occur because of lust” (quoted in Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, p. 92). Ranke-Heinemann comments on such doctrine: “It has warped the consciences of many men and women. It has burdened them with hairsplitting nonsense and striven to train them as moral acrobats instead of making them more humane and kinder to their fellow human beings” (Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, quoted on back cover).
Of course, today’s hip, worldly-wise fundamentalist would deny that sexual pleasure is bad but would insist that it must be enjoyed only within the “sacred bond” of heterosexual marriage. Why? Consider spontaneous, joyful, mutually respectful sex between two mature, responsible, but unmarried (gay or straight) people. Why is this a terrible sin? Again, we get no reasonable answer, only dogma. One suspects that something like Augustine’s sex-phobia simmers not too far down in the psyche of many of today’s allegedly enlightened Christians. (See the appendix on C.S. Lewis’s views on sex and marriage.)
Instead of attacking sex per se, today’s churches prefer to persecute sexual minorities, especially gay and lesbian people. Here is what the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention said about homosexuality and gay rights:
The CLC opposes homosexuality, because it is clear in the Bible, God condemns it as a sinful lifestyle harmful to the individual and society. Therefore, the CLC opposes the granting of civil rights normally reserved for immutable characteristics, such as race, to a group based on the members’ sexual behavior…. The CLC proclaims the gospel because the Scriptures declare the Lord Jesus can change homosexuals. To accept homosexuality as an appropriate lifestyle would betray the life-changing sacrifice of Christ and leave homosexuals without hope for a new and eternal life (quoted in Nava and Dawidoff, 1994, p. 98).
Allow me to urge that the Baptists reword their doctrine in more honest language. Here is a suggestion: “We urge continued discrimination against degenerate queers, who are damned to hell unless they abandon their perverted ‘lifestyle.'” There. That gives the Baptist position much more succinctly and clearly and I urge the CLC to adopt this more honest phrasing.
Finally, I quote from Lecky on the often-heard claim that Christianity has promoted peace and discouraged war:
It had been boldly predicted by some of the early Christians that the conversion of the world would lead to the establishment of perpetual peace. In looking back, with our present experience, we are driven to the melancholy conclusion that, instead of diminishing the number of wars, ecclesiastical influence has actually and very seriously increased it. We may look in vain for any period since Constantine, in which the clergy, as a body, exerted themselves to repress the military spirit, or to prevent or abridge a particular war, with an energy at all comparable to that which they displayed in stimulating the fanaticism of the crusaders, in producing the atrocious massacre of the Albigenses, in embittering the religious contests that followed the Reformation…. It is possible–though it would, I imagine, be difficult to prove it–that the mediatorial office, so often exercised by bishops, may sometimes have prevented wars; and it is certain that during the period of the religious wars, so much military spirit existed in Europe that it must necessarily have found a vent, and under no circumstances could the period have been one of perfect peace. But when all these qualifications have be fully admitted, the broad fact will remain, that, with the exception of Mohammedanism, no other religion has done so much to produce war as was done by the religious teachers of Christendom during several centuries. The military fanaticism evoked by the indulgences of the popes, by the exhortations of the pulpit, by the prevailing hatred of misbelievers, has scarcely ever been equaled in its intensity, and it has caused the effusion of oceans of blood, and has been productive of incalculable misery to the world (Lecky, 1955, Vol. II, pp. 254-255).
Still, might not Christians reject as irrelevant most of the examples I adduce in this chapter? Can’t they say that fanaticism belongs to the bad old days and that Christianity has outgrown its earlier intolerance? For instance, the days of fervid self-denial and mortification of the flesh are long gone. Today’s fundamentalist is an enthusiastic hedonist whose conspicuous consumption of worldly goods and pleasure would shame any publican or sinner of Biblical days. Solomon in all his glory never had a Lexus in the garage, a Rolex on the wrist, Italian loafers on the feet, and capped teeth as white as the pearly gates. Where are the ascetics when we need them? But seriously–two doctrines of orthodox Christianity make sure that it will always be intolerant in spirit if not in practice: (a) exclusivism, and (b) the doctrine of hell.
Christianity claims to be the Truth, Truth with a capital “T.” It claims to be the final, complete, exclusive revelation of God to humanity, both necessary and sufficient for salvation. Further, the consequence of willful non-belief is eternal punishment in hell. If orthodox Christianity is the only true doctrine and the consequences of not believing that doctrine are so dire, then Thomas Aquinas was entirely logical in demanding that heretics be “shut off from the world by death.” As Aquinas observed, murderers only destroy the body; heretics lead people away from the true doctrine and thus into eternal perdition. Heresy is therefore much more reprehensible than murder and much more deserving of death.
Most Grand Inquisitors were probably not sadistic brutes. Often they must have been educated, cultivated men who found their tasks distasteful if not repugnant. Yet they were convinced that the agonies they inflicted with the rack, strappado, or stake were nothing compared to the eternal pains of hell. So if torture could redeem even one sinner or burning eradicate one unregenerate heretic, the cost was worth it. Montaigne observed “We rate our conjectures too highly if we burn people alive for them.” Christians have rated their conjectures highly indeed.
Logically, if there is one and only one True Doctrine and hell is the penalty for not believing it, tolerance of anything that leads towards unbelief cannot be a virtue. So Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, feminists, gay activists, atheists, evolutionists, humanists, and any others who teach things contrary to the One True Doctrine, must be opposed. Active intolerance is the only reasonable attitude towards such persons. Pluralistic and multicultural ideals must be energetically opposed.
Let’s face it though: except for a handful of nutty “Christian Reconstructionists” (and those guys are scary), today’s Christians have no stomach for real persecution. The rack and the stake probably will not make a comeback. (You can never be sure, though.) Intolerance today takes more subtle forms.
Allow me to illustrate with a personal experience: In June 2000, at a public high school in the metropolitan Atlanta area, I attended a fundamentalist religious service disguised as a graduation ceremony. The service opened with prayer–not the ritual invocation of a generic deity, but a passionate, emphatically Christian prayer. The principal delivered a sermonette urging students to read the Bible and to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Each graduate was given a copy of the Ten Commandments with his or her diploma. The service ended with another prayer, again explicitly “in Jesus’ name.” I was amazed when the evening did not end with an altar call.
To disguise a fundamentalist religious service as a commencement ceremony and foist it on a captive audience is an exercise in intolerance (not to mention extreme rudeness). The whole purpose of such an in-your-face display is to flaunt the dominance of the majority’s creed and intimidate those otherwise persuaded. What better way to keep unbelievers “in their place?”
So no, Christianity has not gotten tolerant over the years; it has merely gotten smarter. You catch more flies with sugar than salt, and you get more converts with slick rhetoric and high-tech propaganda than you do with dungeon, fire, and sword. Who needs Grand Inquisitors when you have gone on-line and satellites broadcast your message worldwide? So Christian intolerance no longer wears the mask of the Inquisitor; it wears the “aw shucks” grin of Pat Robertson and the oleaginous simper of Jerry Falwell.
Chapter Two: Kreeft and Tacelli on Hell
Of course, I am aware that many modern Christians have cooled the fires of hell, often interpreting hell as purgatorial or even as merely metaphorical. However, more orthodox thinkers argue that rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell is tantamount to the rejection of the entire Christian revelation. For instance, Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics, insist that the exact same grounds for believing that God is love, Biblical revelation, also teaches the reality of hell (Kreeft and Tacelli, 1994, p. 285). So Kreeft and Tacelli throw down the gauntlet to someone like me: either I accept Christianity and the doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell or I reject hell and Christianity, too. If that is my only choice, I reject hell and Christianity, too.
The problem is that when Kreeft and Tacelli come to defending the traditional doctrine, their arguments are woefully weak. They claim that God is not to blame for the pains of hell since hell is freely chosen by those who go there. The obvious rejoinder is that anyone who consciously chooses eternal punishment over eternal joy would have to be insane, and lunatics clearly need treatment, not punishment. The reply of Kreeft and Tacelli is astonishing:
[T]he Christian replies that that is precisely what sin is: insanity, the deliberate refusal of joy and truth…. Perhaps the most shocking teaching in all of Christianity is this: not so much the doctrine of hell as the doctrine of sin. It means the human race is spiritually insane (p. 290).
However, if an act is insane it is not a deliberate choice; this is entailed by the meaning of the words “deliberate” and “insane.” Is the bizarre behavior of the schizophrenic deliberately chosen? Does the paranoiac freely opt to believe that the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission, Jewish bankers, the CIA, and the Martians are persecuting him? Maybe Kreeft and Tacelli intend something different by “insane” and “deliberate” than what those words normally mean, but one hesitates to accuse two distinguished philosophers of such blatant humpty-dumptyism.
Even if sin is freely chosen, it is God who decides what the consequences of that choice are. It is God who decides that unrepentant sinfulness must bear the consequence of eternal pain. The obvious objection is that finite and temporal sin, no matter how gross, do not merit infinite and eternal punishment, and so hell contradicts divine justice. Kreeft and Tacelli reply (a) that eternity is not endless time but an entirely different dimension than time, so there is no problem of endless punishment, and (b) that hell’s punishments are eternal but not infinite; there are degrees of joy in heaven and degrees of misery in hell.
Unfortunately, these replies raise far more questions than they answer: If hell is not endless suffering–indeed, if it lasts no time at all–why should we fear it? What would it be like to experience “eternal” as opposed to “endless” suffering? Is eternal suffering worse than endless suffering? If so, the problem of apparent injustice arises again. If Kreeft and Tacelli argue that these questions are out of order since eternal suffering is strictly incomparable with temporal suffering, I begin to wonder about the intelligibility of their concept of hell. The only kind of suffering that I have experienced or can imagine is temporal suffering, so Kreeft and Tacelli’s hell, with its concept of eternal, atemporal punishment, is utterly incomprehensible to me.
Kreeft and Tacelli seem to suspect that they have moved beyond rationality and intelligibility here since they conclude this section with the remark “To refuse to believe [in hell] is to measure God’s thoughts by ours (p. 300).” Allow me at once to plead guilty to “measuring God’s thoughts” by my own! As I see it, I have no other choice. If my intellect and my deepest moral convictions tell me that hell is a monstrous dogma, unworthy of belief by decent human beings, then I can think of no greater sin I could commit than to accept such a doctrine. It is a sad but edifying spectacle to see how intelligent defenders of the indefensible tie themselves in ethical and conceptual knots.
It is easy to see why Kreeft and Tacelli are loath to give up the concept of hell despite the conceptual gerrymandering and ethical contortionism it requires of them. Hell is Christianity’s most powerful instrument of control. Religious instruction ensures that the fear of hell is implanted in the mind in early childhood. When that fear is planted deep enough, the adult cannot entertain honest doubts without catching a whiff of brimstone. Dr. Johnson said “knowledge that one is about to be hanged clears the mind marvelously.” Fear of hell has the opposite effect; rational thinking becomes impossible when that fear is strong.
Remember, you cannot escape hell by being good; for Christians, everybody is bad. No matter how hard you strive to live a virtuous life, if you lack certain beliefs, you go to hell. That is what makes hell such a pernicious doctrine. Hell is the penalty for disagreeing with Christians! It is hard to imagine a more potent tool for propaganda or one more subversive of rational thought. An appeal ad baculum is an attempt to persuade by intimidation or the threat of force. Hell is the ultimate ad baculum: Believe or suffer consequences too horrible to contemplate. In short, the doctrine of hell is Christianity’s campaign of psychological warfare against the human mind.
Chapter Three: Historicity of the Gospels
This chapter gives supporting evidence for the nine claims I make (shown in bold) about the canonical gospels.
It is highly questionable that any of them [the gospels] was written by an eyewitness. Not only did Jesus himself write nothing, but the attribution of the gospels to his disciples did not occur until the late first century at the earliest. The one gospel for which the strongest case can be made that it was written by the man whose name it bears, Luke, acknowledges that its author was not himself an eyewitness of the events he portrays (Luke 1:1-2). (Kee, Young, and Froelich, 1965, p. 55).
As for the author, [of Mark] we do not know who he was. The Mark to whom the gospel is attributed is a legendary figure from the second century (Mack, 1995, p. 153).
As with the other narrative gospels, we do not know anything about the author [of Luke] except what can be inferred from the writing itself. Later in the second century, the work was attributed to Luke, the co-worker of Paul …, just as other anonymous literature from earlier times was attributed to either apostles or their companions in order to validate their truth (Mack, 1995, p. 167).
The articles on the Gospels in the Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993) give the following information on their authorship:
- Matthew: Written by an unknown Jewish Christian of the second generation; probably a resident of Antioch in Syria.
- Mark: Notes confusion in the traditional identification of the author but offers no hypothesis.
- Luke: Possibly written by a resident of Antioch and an occasional companion of the apostle Paul.
- John: Composed and edited in stages by unknown followers of the apostle John, probably residents of Ephesus.
According to the editors of The New English Bible, the identity of the author of John is unknown; it was ascribed to John the son of Zebedee late in the second century (Sandmel, et al., 1976). G.A. Wells comments on John’s claim to be an eyewitness:
That the final chapter 21 of the fourth gospel, where the eyewitness claim occurs, was written by the author of chapters 1-20 is maintained only by the most conservative commentators. The whole of this final chapter comes after a direct address to the reader clearly meant as a solemn conclusion to the gospel…. Just before this solemn end, the risen Jesus has instructed the disciples to go out as missionaries. . . and has given them the Holy Ghost so that they can forgive sins, or withhold such forgiveness. But in the appended chapter that follows, they seem to have forgotten this, and are represented as having returned to their old profession as fishermen in Galilee (Wells, The Jesus Legend, 1996, pp. 87-88).
In sum, the authors of the gospels seem to be at least one generation removed from the original eyewitnesses. They did not reside in Palestine and had no firsthand acquaintance with the events they describe.
Kee, Young, and Froelich (1965, p. 472): Mark (70), Matthew (85-100), Luke (85-100), John (90-110)
Burton L. Mack (1995) : Matthew (late 80s) (p. 161). Luke (around 120) (p. 167), John (90s) (1995, p. 176).
Editors of The New English Bible (Sandmel, et al. 1976): Mark (around 70); Matthew (about 90); Luke (about 90); John (“Shortly before the end of the First Century”).
As the above references show, New Testament scholars agree fairly closely on a rather late date for the writing of the gospels. Mark, generally recognized as the earliest, was seldom dated much before 70, approximately 40 years after the crucifixion. Lately there has been a conservative backlash, an attempt to date the gospels prior to 70. For conservative apologists, the advantage of an early dating are obvious: the gospels, or at least the earliest of them, could have been written by eyewitnesses, thus greatly increasing their credibility. Let us take a look at these conservative arguments.
Pamela Binnings Ewen, a Houston lawyer, has recently (1999) written Faith on Trial. The book is described on the cover as “an attorney analyzes the evidence for the death and Resurrection of Jesus.” She argues for an early date of the composition of the gospels. One argument is that the gospels reflect the circumstances prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by a Roman army in the year 70:
The silence of the Gospels with respect to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is strong circumstantial evidence that they were written before, not after, A.D. 70. The Gospels reflect the social, cultural, and economic background of the period prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Levitical system, not after. They reflect a delicate but still tolerable relationship with Rome, not the hostile servility of a nation enslaved and broken. Logic does not permit a conclusion that the Gospels could have been written after the year A.D. 70 without mention of the Jewish revolt and the resulting destruction of the city, the temple, the Jewish culture, and the new hostility with Rome (Ewen, 1999, p. 39).
She claims further internal evidence of an early date:
[T]he Gospels affirmatively reflect the need to distinguish the new message of Jesus from Jewish law as it existed prior to A.D. 70 on such subjects as fasting, the relationship to the temple, and the requirement of sacrifices, all of which disappeared after the destruction of Jerusalem. John A.T. Robinson, a well-known biblical scholar, has given the example, among others, that the Gospel of Matthew seven times warns against the influence of the Sadducees, a group whose power totally disappeared after the destruction of the temple. The Gospel of Matthew also reflects a continued need to coexist with a Jewish culture that was no longer in existence after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Historians have recognized that after A.D. 70 Christians and Jews separated into two completely different camps, and that fact is reflected in many Jewish and Christian writings. Based on this reasoning, the situation described in the Gospels corresponds to what is known about Christianity in Palestine prior to A.D. 70 (Ewen, 1999, p. 40).
The facts and analysis described above are completely inconsistent with a theory that the Gospels were written at or near the end of the first century or in the early second century. Reason requires a date prior to A.D. 70 for the writing of the four Gospels on that basis alone (Ewen, 1999, p. 40).
Ewen must have an odd idea about what “reason requires.” In my view, reason requires that you at least consider the arguments for the other side before issuing such pronouncements. Generations of New Testament scholarship have produced a very broad consensus that the gospels date from around 70 to as late as the early second century. For instance, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993) dates Mark from 65-70, Matthew from 85-90, Luke around 80-85, and John around 85. Other standard sources are listed above. Ewen dismisses the scholarly consensus with barely a nod to the evidence underlying it.
First, are the gospels silent about the destruction of the Temple? Consider a passage from Mark:
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings.” And Jesus said to him “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down (Mark 13:1-2).”
In verse 14, Jesus warns of a desecration in an unnamed sacred place. However, the parallel passage in Matthew (24:15) specifically identifies the place as the one prophesied by Daniel, i.e., the Temple of Jerusalem. Luke, in his version of these passages, specifically refers to armies surrounding Jerusalem (Luke 21:20; see Kee, Young, and Froelich, 1965, pp. 254-255).
Luke also speaks of Jerusalem as abandoned (13:35) and portrays Jesus as saying of Jerusalem:
For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation (Luke, 19:43-44).
In Matthew 22 a parable is given in which the king sends troops to burn a city whose citizens have spurned his invitation to celebrate his son’s marriage feast (22:7). Matthew seems to be saying that the Jews deserved the destruction of Jerusalem because they rejected God’s son. These passages certainly seem to have been written with the knowledge of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. An account of these passages must be given before we can conclude that the gospels are silent about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Of course, conservative Christians could say that such passages do refer to the destruction of Jerusalem but are a faithful record of prophecies of Jesus which were fulfilled 40 years later. However, this is not Ewen’s claim. She maintains that the gospels make no reference or allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Ewen claims that the gospels reflect the social, cultural, and economic circumstances of the time before the Jewish War (66-70). In fact, the gospels contain many hints that they were written by gentile or Diaspora Jewish Christians after 70 rather than by Jews residing in Palestine before that date. Mark occasionally pauses to explain Jewish words or customs, and his knowledge of Palestinian geography is vague at best. This strongly suggests that Mark was written for a community of gentile Christians living outside of Palestine. As for Matthew:
[T]he author exhibits a theological outlook, command of Greek, and rabbinic training that suggest he was a Jewish Christian of the second rather than the first generation…. Also, Antioch of Syria commends itself as the place where he may have been at home, because the social conditions reflected in his story correspond with those that seem to have prevailed there: the city was Greek-speaking, urban, and prosperous, and had a large population of both Jews and gentiles (Kingsbury, 1993, pp. 502-503).
The author of Luke, whoever he was, indicates in the opening address of his Gospel that he is a latter-day compiler who is putting together traditions coming from the original eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-2). This and the above-noted apparent references to the destruction of Jerusalem pretty definitely mark Luke as composed after 70.
Ewen makes a number of very dubious assumptions. She assumes that the gospel writers, had they written after 70, would not have included material reflecting the cultural or religious situation in Palestine before the Jewish War. However, this is highly questionable. New Testament scholars have long recognized that the gospels draw upon a variety of traditions and sources. The consensus view is that the gospels, written from around 70 on, had access to a variety of oral traditions as well as a written, now lost, “sayings gospel” referred to as “Q” (see Mack, 1993, for a reconstruction of “Q.”). If the gospels drew upon traditions that began to take shape well before the destruction of Jerusalem, it is hardly surprising if they retain something of the flavor and tenor of those earlier times. In particular, if some of the recollected sayings of Jesus were originally directed against the Pharisees and Sadducees, it is not improbable that the gospels would retain that information.
There is no reason to think that the intended audience of the gospels, whether Jewish or gentile, would be wholly unfamiliar with or uninterested in the pre-70 context. The Temple (and the associated Levitical system) played a fundamental role both for Jews in Roman Palestine and in the Diaspora (Tanzer, 1993, p. 395). Further, the idea of the Temple, as an ideal in the minds of the Jewish people, long outlasted its physical presence. Long after the destruction of the Temple, the Mishnah continues to speak as if it were still standing (Tanzer, 1993, p. 395). In general, the destruction of a religiously important site only enhances its symbolic significance for believers.
So it is fair to say that in the decades immediately following 70, the Temple, the Law, and the Levitical system remained prominent concepts in the religion of Diaspora Jews. Therefore, the gospel writers contrast Christianity with those concepts because (a) that is the tradition that they received and are passing on, and (b) those concepts remained familiar and significant for Diaspora Jews after 70. In fact, the attempt by the gospel writers to distance themselves from the Jews, which Ewen herself highlights, is itself strong evidence of a later date for composition of the gospels. Jesus was a Jew. So were the disciples and the earliest converts. However, as the Christian communities became increasing gentile, and as confrontations with the Jews escalated, the anti-Jewish rhetoric became shrill. The harsh, blatantly anti-Semitic diatribes in the gospels show that they were written when the Church had become largely gentile and the schism between Christians and Jews had already grown wide.
The main reason for thinking that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts is that many years of critical scholarship, using the tools of source criticism, have shown the gospels to be re-worked composites of earlier sources and traditions. The overwhelming consensus is that the gospels were not firsthand reports, but products of a fairly lengthy process of accumulation and synthesis of various oral and written sources.
Consider the famous “synoptic problem.” The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, share many passages, down to small details of phrasing, as G. A. Wells notes:
[A]ny synopsis, where parallel passages are set out in adjacent columns, will show that the first three of the four canonical gospels have passages which are identical, down to the same Greek particles. For instance, Matthew’s account, in the material it shares with Mark, is abbreviated and Mark’s 11,078 words are represented by 8555 yet of these 4230 are identical both in form and in sequence…. [T]he enormous number of identical phrases is not to be explained as being due to the community’s good memory of Jesus’s teaching, as more than half of such phrases are in the narrative, not the words of Jesus (Wells, 1996, p. 95).
Clearly, Matthew and Mark are not independent narratives. Any student submitting a paper sharing so much with a published source would immediately be convicted of plagiarism. So Matthew draws upon Mark, or Mark upon Matthew, or both from a common source. Luke also shares large blocks of material with Mark and has some in common with Matthew that is not found in Mark.
The standard solution is to view Mark, itself a synthesis of earlier materials, as a source for both Matthew and Luke, which also have access to their own particular sources. It is also thought that “Q,” the hypothetical sayings gospel, was used by Matthew and Luke, and accounts for materials they share with each other but not with Mark. The upshot is that the synoptics cannot be independent, firsthand witnesses of Jesus’s ministry or Resurrection. This, of course, does not mean that they are wholly unreliable or worthless as sources of historical information, but it does make the identification of a stratum of pristine, original eyewitness testimony very difficult if not impossible.
Of course, Ms. Ewen will have none of this. She argues that each of the gospels is an original and independent witness (Ewen, 1999, pp. 71-83). She contends: “As to the assertion that the Gospels were copied one from the other, a more straightforward response to this challenge is that the similarity among the three Gospels arose out of the fact that they all derived from, or based upon, the same oral teachings of Jesus (Ewen, 1999, p. 73).” However, this simply ignores the point, made above by Wells, that more than half the words identical in form and sequence in Matthew and Mark are in the narrative, not the recorded words of Jesus.
Worse, the original words of Jesus were in Aramaic. Ewen’s claim entails that each synoptic gospel contains an independent Greek translation of those original Aramaic sayings. It is simply absurd to think that three independent translations would agree in wording and sequence to such a degree. To illustrate, consider three different English translations of the same passage from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (lines 442-446):
Now listen while I tell of mortals’ pain, how primitive they were till I fired their wits. I tell you, not from disgust at men, but showing how much they owe me. Before then, they had eyes that blankly gazed, ears hearing empty sound.
What I did for mortals in their misery, hear now. At first mindless, I gave them mind and reason.–What I say is not in censure of mankind, but showing you how all my gifts to them were guided by goodwill. In those days they had eyes, but sight was meaningless; Heard sounds, but could not listen…
…but hear what troubles there were among men, how I found them witless and gave them the use of their wits and made them masters of their minds. I will tell you this, not because I would blame men, but to explain the goodwill of my gift. For men at first had eyes but saw to no purpose; they had ears but did not hear.
That is how translation works: very different phrasing, different sentence structure, shared words different in form and/or sequence. There just is no way to explain the parallels in the synoptics other than collusion or interdependence of some sort.
Much of Ms. Ewen’s case relies on what John Dominic Crossan calls “the mystique of oral memory,” the supposition that the original hearers of Jesus would have been especially careful to memorize his exact words and pass them on verbatim. According to Ewen, many of the shared passages are best explained by the allegedly meticulous habits of memorization characteristic of cultures emphasizing the oral transmission of religious teachings (Ewen, 1999, p. 73). Crossan demonstrates that such a view is simply at odds with our scientific knowledge of the nature of memory and our anthropological knowledge of how preliterate groups preserve oral traditions. This issue takes us to the next sub-section.
This literature [the Gospels] was oral before it was written and began with the memories of those who knew Jesus personally. Their memories and teachings were passed on as oral tradition for some forty years or so before achieving written form for the first time in a self-conscious literary work, so far as we know, in the Gospel of Mark, within a few years of 70 A.D. But oral tradition is by definition unstable, notoriously open to mythical, legendary, and fictional embellishment. We know that by the forties of the first century traditions already existed which we would now label orthodox and traditions coming to be recognized as heretical–teachings about what Jesus said and meant that even then were being called (though in a different vocabulary) “fictional” (Helms, 1988, p. 12; emphasis added).
If, as Ms. Ewen and other apologists insist, the gospels contain a pure, pristine Christian message, preserved against corruption by the flawless memories of the original eyewitnesses, scholars should be able to identify that message in the texts. Instead, scholars find a welter of oral traditions, varying from place to place. It is highly doubtful that all early Christian communities even proclaimed a unified kerygma, i.e., the basic proclamation that Christ died for our sins and rose again on the third day. As one standard textbook puts it: “It is not possible to identify even a short list of specific themes or beliefs that are expressed in all forms of the kerygma preserved in the New Testament…. The content of the kerygmatic statements varies with each writer and often with the occasion. (Kee, Young, Froelich, 1965, p. 58).” In short, the idea that there once existed a single, pure form of the Christian proclamation, untainted by myth and legend, is itself a myth.
Crossan on the nature of memory:
[M]emory is creatively reproductive rather than accurately recollective…. [O]rality is structural rather than syntactical. Apart from short items that are retained magically, ritually, or metrically verbatim, it remembers gist, outline, and interaction of elements rather than detail, particular, and precision of sequence. “Even in cultures which know and depend on writing but retain a living contact with pristine orality, that is, retain a high oral residue, ritual utterance itself is often not typically verbatim,” as Walter Ong noted. “The early Christian Church remembered, in pretextual, oral form, even in their textualized rituals [words of the last supper], and even at those very points where she was commanded to remember most assiduously”…. That is a very striking example: the words of eucharistic institution from the Last Supper are not cited word-for-word the same within the New Testament itself (Crossan, 1998, pp. 54-55).
Experiments have shown that simply repeating a false statement over and over leads people to believe that it is true. Likewise, when we repeatedly think or talk abut a past experience, we tend to become increasingly confident that we are recalling it accurately. Sometimes we are accurate when we recount frequently discussed experiences. But we are also likely to feel more confident about frequently rehearsed experiences that we remember inaccurately. Retrieving an experience repeatedly can make us feel certain that we are correct when we are plainly wrong. The tenuous correlation between a person’s accuracy and confidence is especially relevant to eyewitness testimony. Witnesses who rehearse their testimony again and again in interviews with police officers and attorneys may become extremely confident about what they say–even when they are incorrect. This consequence of rehearsal is especially important because numerous studies have shown that juries are powerfully influenced by confident eyewitnesses (Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory, p. 111; quoted in Crossan, 1998, p. 59; emphasis added).
I do not suggest that we never remember anything correctly. That would be absurd. Neither do I suggest that memory is but another name for imagination, or that we make it all up under the influence of suggestion and society. That would also be absurd. But [numerous cited cases have served] …. to mitigate the serene complacency of common sense about memory and, second, to warn us that, while we do certainly remember, we remember by a reconstructive process. That reconstructive process mixes recollected facts from an actual happening with ones seen, heard, or imagined from similar happenings. That reconstructive process recalls gist rather than detail, core rather than periphery–and somebody must then decide which is which. (In an eyewitness identification of a murderer, for example, is a beard gist or detail, core or periphery?) That reconstructive process often claims equal accuracy and veracity for what we actually recall and for what we creatively invent (Crossan, 1998, p. 67).
Even more significantly, Crossan recounts studies of illiterate Balkan singers of epics (Crossan, 1998, pp. 69-78). These studies show that, in the absence of a written text serving as an absolute criterion of accuracy, the oral transmission of epics is a creative performance rather than a verbatim recounting. With the exception of certain formulaic phrases, each singer delivers a different version of the epic, with very different details and embellishments. Even the same singer will give different versions at different times. Of course, there are mnemonists who can perform the trick of memorizing written texts word-for-word. However, the very concept of a verbatim reproduction is a concept of literate societies, not ones in which oral traditions prevail. The oral traditions of illiterate peasants–like the original witnesses of the ministry and words of Jesus–preserve gist or essence with many differences in precise wording.
Ewen thinks that the apostle Matthew, traditionally identified as a tax-collector, would have been literate and must have had the ability to write shorthand. She speculates that Matthew could thus have recorded Jesus’s exact words (Ewen, 1999, p. 74). This speculation is precisely that–a speculation. Her evidence for the apostolic authorship of the Gospel of Matthew is extremely weak. For instance, she cites the confusing report by Papias, supposedly writing around 130, that names “Matthew” as compiling sayings in the “Hebrew dialect.”
First, we do not have Papias’s claim firsthand; he is quoted by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in a fourth century work. Second, the quote implies that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, a view rejected by nearly all scholars. Further, Papias’s association of the name “Matthew” with gospel writings may have been based on nothing more than the fact that the disciple Matthew is mentioned twice in the Gospel (Overman, 1993, p. 502). Ewen seems to think that Papias, whoever he was (we have none of his writings), would have conducted a rigorous examination of the authorship of the Gospel in the manner of a modern critical scholar or historian (see her treatment on pp. 54-56 of her book). Needless to say, there is no basis for such an expectation.
It is important to remember also that there were a number of early Christian communities, often in conflict and each with its own favored interpretation of Christ’s message. One way to promote one’s own preferred gospel was to attribute it to apostolic authorship. The attribution of anonymous works to historical figures was a very common practice in Greco-Roman times (Mack, 1995, p. 7). Once a gospel became widely accepted, the manuscript tradition of adding an attributive superscript, e.g., “According to Matthew,” would have been hard to repudiate, no matter how tenuous the original association.
Ewen also stakes a great deal on Carsten Thiede’s highly questionable redating of the Magdalen fragments, three tiny papyrus fragments of Matthew 26, to the mid-first century. Burton L. Mack points out the weakness of Thiede’s claims and comments:
[T]he mass of detailed scholarship on the origins and history of early Christian movements and their writings has been swept aside in the eager pursuit of a chimera. From a critical scholar’s point of view, Thiede’s proposal is an example of just how desperate the Christian imagination can become in the quest for the literal facticity of the Christian Gospels (Mack, 1995, pp. 9-10).
At a common sense level it just is hard to see how anybody could mistake the Gospel of Matthew for firsthand testimony. The Gospel does not claim to be written by an eyewitness, and certainly not one named Matthew (Kee, Young, and Froelich, 1965, p. 274). It is a consciously crafted narrative composed from a well-thought-out theological perspective and with a clear apologetic agenda (see below). Matthew is clearly an interpretation, based on long reflection, of previously given materials, not a presentation of raw data or unembellished eyewitness reports.
Finally, Kee, Young, and Froelich make an excellent point:
For the task of interpreting the will of God, first century Jews and Christians considered the living word of oral communication preferable to the preparation of a written record. As long as there were first-hand witnesses of the event of Jesus’ ministry, who could report personally on what he did and said, the living word was a preferred vehicle for communicating the Gospel (Kee, Young, and Froelich, 1965, p. 252).
In short, written records of Jesus’s words or ministry were simply not needed or wanted until the end of the apostolic age with the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in 64. The writing of Gospels was a task for second-generation Christians.
The upshot is that, contrary to the claims of Ewen and other apologists, the word-for-word similarities of the synoptic Gospels are very unlikely to be due to the verbatim recollection of the original eyewitnesses. Oral traditions simply do not form that way. Rather, those precise parallels are much more likely due to common use of written sources. Hence, the synoptic gospels are not independent eyewitness accounts but textually interdependent syntheses of earlier oral traditions.
[I]t must be acknowledged … that they [the gospels] cannot be considered nonpartisan reports about Jesus. They are in the truest sense of the term propaganda literature. If one had to provide a single statement of purpose that would suit all four of the gospels he could probably not find a better one than the explanation given by the author of the Gospel of John: “These were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). (Kee, Young, and Froelich, 1965 p. 55).
As we have learned, the gospels do not claim to be (and in fact ought not to be) classified as attempts at writing biographies. The intention of the Gospel is to flesh out the kerygma–to show that the power of God that brings men of faith a foretaste of the life of the Age to Come was already at work in the ministry of Jesus…. There was no interest in preserving archives of Christian origins for posterity, since it was still believed that the present age was very soon coming to an end. The writer was concerned rather to meet the needs of the Church–that is, to provide Christian preachers and teachers, as well as interested inquirers into the faith, with a document that would show forth in Jesus’ words and works the redemptive meaning that faith discerned in him (Kee, Young, and Froelich, 1965, pp. 252-253).
[The gospels] can no longer be read as direct accounts of what happened, but rather as vehicles for proclamation. Such was their original intention (Reginald H. Fuller, 1971, p. 172).
The gospels are clearly not biography in the modern sense:
First, it must be acknowledged that neither the gospels nor any other source provides us with the kind or quantity of information about Jesus that would make possible the preparation of a biography. A serious modern biography tries to understand a man not only against the background of the times in which he lived, but in the light of the specific personal and psychological forces which helped to shape his decisions and to affect his response to the challenges and opportunities that confronted him. No such materials are available to us for preparing a psychological study of Jesus. We cannot determine with any certainty the order of events that are reported by the tradition, apart from the obvious fact that his baptism by John the Baptist came toward the beginning of his public career and the Crucifixion came at the end. It is impossible, therefore, to trace with any confidence a pattern of development or change in the life or thought of Jesus–another factor which would be indispensable in writing a biography (Kee, Young, and Froelich, 1965, p. 59).
Each of the four canonical Gospels is religious proclamation in the form of a largely fictional narrative. Christians have never been reluctant to write fiction about Jesus, and we must remember that our four canonical Gospels are only the cream of a large and varied literature. We still possess, in whole or in part, such works as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and such anonymous gospels as those according to the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Ebionites, and so on. Jesus is the subject of a large–in fact, still growing–body of literature, often unorthodox or pure fantasy, cast in the form of fictional narrative and discourse (Helms, 1988, pp. 11-12).
And many [miracles] … are narrated according to a stereotyped form. Kasemann … notes that miracles of healing include such motifs as: i. the insistence on the long duration of the illness and the previous unsuccessful striving after a cure (for example Mark 5:25-26, apropos of the woman with a issue of blood); ii. an action which demonstrates the success of the healing (as when Peter’s mother-in-law, cured of her fever by Jesus, is immediately able to wait upon him, Mark 1:31) or the astonished cry of witnesses, which serves the same end–or both, as when the paralytic takes up his bed and walks, to the astonishment of all (Mark 2:12). Nineham … instances as a close pagan parallel, Lucian’s story that “Midas himself, taking up the bed on which he had been lying, went off into the country.” And Kasemann … observes that “the adaptation of pagan motifs becomes particularly obvious when the woman with the issue of blood is healed through the mere grasping of the virtue-laden garment of Jesus, or healing power is ascribed in the setting of Acts to Peter’s shadow or Paul’s handkerchief” (Wells, 1996, p. 66).
[A]ll the death scenes were constructed to show Jesus dying the model death and so “in fulfillment” of Scripture…. [T]he scenes have a religious and moral purpose disguised as a historical one; we are, with these scenes, in the literary realm known as fiction, in which narratives exist less to describe the past than to affect the present. In De Quincy’s phrase, “the Gospels are not so much literature of knowledge as literature of power” (Helms, 1988, pp. 15-16).
A careful study of the four gospels in comparison with each other will show that there is little agreement among the gospel writers as to the order in which Jesus said and did what is reported of him. John depicts him as cleansing the Temple at the outset of his public ministry; in the other three gospels, the incident occurs at the end of his career. Sayings placed at the opening of his teaching ministry by Luke are located toward the end of it by Matthew. The nearest we can come to an outline of Jesus’ public life is the one offered by Mark and followed with some modifications by Matthew and Luke. John goes his own way in complete independence of the other three gospels. But Mark’s outline is not really much help, since a close analysis of Mark shows that the framework is contributed by Mark himself, and was not part of the tradition he received. Almost all the chronological and geographical references in Mark are vague or even artificial in nature. The tradition reached Mark in the form of independent story or saying units; Mark arranged them on his own narrative line. As someone has expressed it, Mark began his gospel writing with only a heap of unstrung pearls (Kee, Young, and Froelich, 1965, p. 59).
A striking discrepancy concerns the accounts in the synoptics of Jesus’s resurrection appearances to his disciples. Matthew, following hints by Mark, sites in Galilee the one appearance to them that he records: the risen one has instructed the women at the empty tomb to tell the disciples to go to Galilee in order to see him (28:10). They do this, and his appearance to them there concludes the gospel. In Luke, however, he appears to them on Easter day in Jerusalem and nearby on the Emmaus road eighty miles from Galilee) and tells them to stay in the city “until ye be clothed with power from on high” (24:49). Acts 2:1-4 represents this as happening at Pentecost, some fifty days later). They obey, and were “continually in the temple” (24:53). Luke has very pointedly changed what is said in Mark so as to site these appearances in the city. (Luke omits Mark 14:28), “after I am raised up I will go before you into Galilee”; and he replaces Mark 16:7, “he goeth before you into Galilee” with a message which deletes any such suggestion.
[J.W.] Montgomery harmonized the accounts by arguing that the risen Jesus could have moved from Galilee to Jerusalem in a series of appearances spread, according to Acts 1:3, over forty days. This hypothesis does not reconcile the movements of the disciples–immediately to Galilee in Matthew, and not beyond Jerusalem and its environs in Luke. All the forty-day appearances of Acts are sited in Jerusalem (1:4). Nor does Montgomery’s proposal account for Luke’s deliberate alteration of the Marcan material, effected so as to bring it into line with a theological principle of great importance to him, namely that Christianity had not broken lightly or readily from its Jewish foundation: It is for this that he insists that it was “beginning from Jerusalem” that the Christian mission went forward to “all the nations” (Luke 24:47), so that the disciples tarried there and did not return to Galilee (Wells, 1996, pp. 100-101).
On reconciling John with the synoptics:
[J.W.] Montgomery’s position is that, unless it is possible to point to actual contradictions between John and the synoptics, they can be regarded as complementing each other. From this premise we should have to suppose that–as E.P. Sanders puts it apropos of the discrepancies in the teachings–“Jesus spent his short ministry teaching in two such completely different ways, conveying such different contents, and that there were simply two traditions, each going back to Jesus, one transmitting 50 per cent of what he said and another one the other 50 per cent, with almost no overlaps.” Hence, he adds, scholars have almost unanimously concluded that the fourth gospel “represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them” (Historical Jesus, pp. 70-71). (Wells, 1996, pp. 103-104).
On the inconsistency between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies:
Only one conclusion can be drawn from this discrepancy between the two supposed genealogies: both Matthew and Luke are determined to trace Jesus’s descent from King David. Indeed, they have to do so in order to maintain that he was the Messiah predicted by the Jewish prophets. But, it is quite clear that they had no evidence of the actual descent, so each simply invented a lineage to link him with Zerubbabel and thus with King David.
Needless to say, this problem of the irreconcilability of the two lineages has not gone unnoticed. So desperate did some Christian commentators become that they resorted to the claim that the two genealogies were not meant to be the same. Matthew’s family tree, they maintained, is that of Joseph, while Luke’s is that of Mary. In this way it was presumably hoped not only to solve the problem of the irreconcilable differences between the two genealogies but also to invest Mary as well as Joseph with Davidic ancestry. Unfortunately for them, however, the texts themselves are only too clear. Luke’s genealogy does not mention Mary’s name at any point but makes it quite plain that this is Joseph’s lineage (3:23) (Arnheim, 1984, p, 16).
Matthew and Luke make the same three major claims about Jesus’ birth: that it was a virgin birth, that it took place in Bethlehem, and that Jesus was of Davidic descent. But the evidence to back up these claims is quite different in the two accounts. In Luke, the annunciation of the birth is made to Mary; in Matthew it is made to Joseph. Matthew has Joseph and Mary marry; Luke does not. Both offer genealogies to prove Jesus’s Davidic lineage, but there are more differences than similarities, especially in the names of the ancestors nearest in time to Jesus, notably Joseph’s own father. Luke uses an elaborate story about a Roman census to explain the presence of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem; Matthew gives the impression that they lived there permanently.
Then … Matthew recounts stories of a star, three wise men, and a massacre, while all Luke offers are a few simple shepherds inspired by angelic visions. In addition, where Matthew has Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s death edict (2:13-14),Luke has them stay in Bethlehem for forty days and then return to Nazareth via Jerusalem (Luke 2:21-39). When Matthew brings them to Nazareth, it is (in keeping with his version of the birth story though at variance with all the other Gospels) as though they now go there for the first time (Matt 2:19-23) (Arnheim, 1984, p. 30).
Luke’s nativity story demonstrably false:
One little snag, though, is that the Roman census would not have affected Nazareth in any case, as Galilee was not under Roman rule but had its own ruler, the “tetrarch” Herod Antipas, son of King Herod.
But that is not the only problem connected with the census. Luke is obviously very anxious for us to accept his story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, so he gives us a lot of detail in explaining it. He actually goes so far as to specify the name of the Roman governor under whom the census was held: Cyrenius. There certainly was a governor of that name (or Quirinius, to put it in its proper Latin form) and, what is more, he is known from Roman sources to have held a census. But the mention of him by Luke in connection with the birth of Jesus creates more problems than it solves. Above all, there is the problem of date. Quirinius certainly conducted a census–but at a time when Jesus would have been ten years old. As it happens, Quirinius’ census can be precisely dated by means of the very detailed account given by the historian Josephus. According to him, Quirinius was sent to conduct his census shortly after Judea had been annexed by Rome, which occurred in the year 6 or 7 of the current era. This census was obviously intended to be an initial “stock-taking” now that Judea was to be governed directly by Roman officials…
Aided by an inscription describing an unnamed Roman military official, apologists have rushed to suggest that perhaps Quirinius had an earlier–and totally unrecorded–tour of duty in the area and that the anonymous official was none other than himself in this role, conveniently dating to the time of Jesus’ birth. Besides the total lack of evidence for jumping to so improbable a conclusion, there is another little snag: the generally accepted date of Jesus’ birth was at a time when Rome had no jurisdiction either in Bethlehem or in Nazareth, so there could have been no census to coincide with Jesus’s birth…. This is because Jesus was born during the lifetime of King Herod “the Great.” Herod died in 4 B.C.E. (Arnheim, 1984, pp 10-11).
Luke clearly is not a historian and evidently is not above spinning a tale or two to accomplish his propagandistic purposes.
Burton Mack comments on Mark’s passion narrative:
The usual approach to Mark’s so-called passion narrative has been to regard it as a historical account of what really happened, but then to fret about features of it that are difficult to accept. The list of improbable features is quite long and includes such things as the trial by night, which would have been illegal; the basis for the charge of blasphemy, which is very unclear if not completely trumped up; the failure of the witnesses to agree, which would have called for a mistrial; the right of the Sanhedrin to charge with death, a sanction that they probably did not have at the time; the insinuation of crucifixion taking place on Passover, which would have been an outrage; Jesus’ anticipation of his death as a covenant sacrifice, which might be all right for a bacchic god, but hardly for the historical Jesus; the disciples falling asleep in the midst of it all; Pilate’s having Jesus executed as the “king of the Jews” without a good reason to consider him so; the high priests (in the plural!) joining in the mocking; and so on. The better approach is to recognize the whole story as Mark’s fiction written forty years after Jesus’ time in the wake of the Roman-Jewish war. If we first read Josephus’ account of the war, we can see that Mark’s retrospective on Jesus in Jerusalem would not have sounded a bit far-fetched (Mack, 1995, p. 158).
[P]agan sources do not confirm the resurrection. As has already been noted, Tacitus, in one well-known passage in his Annals (15:44), reported that Pontius Pilate ordered the execution of Jesus. However, there is good reason to suppose that this passage, if not a later Christian interpolation, was written nearly ninety years after the alleged death of Jesus and was based not on independent historical research but on information provided by Christians of the second century. In any case, even if one takes this passage as providing independent historical evidence, it would only provide evidence of Jesus’ death, not his resurrection.
Other pagan writers such as Suetonius and Pliny the Younger provide no support for the Resurrection of Jesus since they make no mention of it. However, Thallus, in a work now lost but referred to by Africanus in the third century, is alleged to have said that Jesus’ death was accompanied by an earthquake and an unusual darkness that he, Thallus, according to Africanus, wrongly attributed to an eclipse of the sun. However … it is unclear when Thallus wrote his history or how reliable Africanus’s account of Thallus is. Some scholars believe that Thallus wrote as late as the second century and consequently could have obtained his ideas from Christian opinion of his time. Clearly, then, Thallus cannot be used to support the Christian account of the Resurrection (Martin, 1991, p. 86).
Non-Christian evidence is too late to give any independent support to the gospels. When Tacitus wrote (about AD 120) that “Christ” was executed under Pontius Pilate, he was merely repeating what Christians were by then saying…. The other pagan writer commonly adduced is Suetonius who wrote also around AD 120, that Claudius (who reigned AD 41-54) expelled Jews from Rome because “they constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.” Many commentators think that, by “Chrestus,” Suetonius really meant “Christus” (the Messiah); and Watson has convincingly argued that the disorder to which Suetonius here refers was caused by controversy between orthodox Jews and Jewish Christians at Rome about the truth or falsehood of Christianity. No more about the “historical” Jesus need have been included in this Christianity of Claudius’s day than what extent Christian writers (Paul and others) were saying on the subject before the gospels became established much later in the first century; and that, as we saw … does not confirm the gospels’ portrayals of Jesus…
Rabbinic references to Jesus are entirely dependent on Christian claims, as both Christian and Jewish scholars have conceded (Wells, 1989 p. 20).
Gadarene (or Gerasene) swine (Matthew 8:28-32; Mark 5:1-13). The withering of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-20). Feeding of 5000 (or 4000), Mark 6:35-44, and Mark 8:1-9, etc. The gospels are full of miraculous tales that, in any other context, would be taken to completely destroy the author’s credibility. What would we think of an alleged witness who swears that he saw Ms. Smith commit the murder and then abscond quickly on her broomstick? Why not regard reports of walking on water or raising the dead in the same light? Religious people often employ a curious doublethink here that permits them to treat reverently stories that, encountered anywhere else, would get very short shrift.
Chapter Four: Craig’s Case for the Resurrection
This chapter responds to specific claims made in Craig’s case for the Resurrection. Craig’s claims are given in the headings and sub-headings (in bold), and my rebuttal follows.
i) Paul’s list of witnesses in I Corinthians 15 is reliable:
Paul reports many eyewitnesses to Jesus postresurrection appearances: Cephas, the twelve, more than five hundred brethren, James, the disciples, himself…. How seriously should we take these reports? First, we have no reason to suppose that these eyewitnesses, including Paul himself, are reliable or trustworthy. Moreover, we have no information about how Paul got his information about the eyewitness reports of others. Were they reported to him directly? Were they passed on by third parties to Paul? If they were, were the intermediate sources reliable? Unlike the Gospel stories we have no details of Jesus’ appearances to the eyewitnesses. For example did Jesus appear in bodily form or were the appearances [visionary]?… The reliability of Paul’s sources would certainly be impugned if these stories were not confirmed by an independent source (Martin, 1991, p. 83).
Not only is Paul apparently unaware of the resurrection narratives recorded in the Gospels, but his own list of appearances is irreconcilable with those of the evangelists written later. Paul has it that the first appearance of the risen Lord was to Cephas (he always calls Peter by his Aramaic name, and apparently knows no stories about him in Greek). The Gospels describe no initial resurrection appearance to Peter (some women, the number varying from three to two to one, see him first), though Luke says that Peter did see him. According to the equally irreconcilable accounts in the Gospels, the first appearance was to Mary Magdala alone (John) or to Mary Magdala and the other Mary (Matthew), or to Mary Magdala, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James (Luke). Again, Paul declares that the second resurrection appearance was to the “twelve,” whereas both Matthew and Luke stress that the appearance before the disciples was to the “eleven,” Judas being dead. Either Paul did not know the story about the defection and suicide of Judas Iscariot or else the “twelve” meant something different to him (Helms, 1988, pp. 130-131).
ii) Paul’s “eyewitness” testimony is credible:
Paul’s claim to have encountered the risen Jesus (I Corinthians, 15:3-9 is especially important because it is very early and it is a first-person report (the only undisputed first-hand report of an encounter with the risen Jesus in the Bible). However, it is unclear whether Paul is claiming to have physically witnessed the risen Christ or whether it was a vision. The Greek text is ambiguous. Apologists have claimed that the Greek verb horao employed by Paul in verses 5-8 always refers to physical sight and not visions. However, Paul himself, in Colossians 2:18, uses the same verb to denigrate false visions. Also, as Reginald Fuller says: “The appearances [in I Corinthians 15:5-8] are characterized by the verb ophthe [the aorist passive form of horao] literally ‘was seen’ … but when used with the dative, ‘appeared.'” Fuller notes that this verb is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) to describe theophanies and the appearance of angels. He comments on the angelic appearances:
The emphasis rests on the revelatory initiative of the angel of God, who desires to make himself manifest, not upon the experience of the recipient. Thus the question as to how they see, whether with the physical eye or with the eye of the mind or the spirit, is left undetermined and unemphasized; it lies entirely outside the horizon of interest (Fuller, 1971, p. 30).
Further, if the encounter of Paul with the risen Jesus was the famous “road to Damascus” experience (Acts 22:6-11), this is clearly a vision. Those traveling with Paul saw no one, heard no voice, and were not blinded by the light as he was. John K. Naland offers several possible explanations of such an experience:
It is possible that Paul suffered from an organic disease such as epilepsy, which would account for his collapse and the visions. (Paul might have been referring to this malady when he wrote that ‘a thorn was given me in the flesh … to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me.’) Or perhaps the heat and exertion of a walking journey under the midday sun in the Middle East could have led to a heat stroke…. In any event, Paul’s physical collapse was only the outward manifestation of a crucial emotional collapse and rebirth that turned the persecutor of Christianity into its greatest missionary (Naland, 1988, p.15).
Craig insists that Paul does make a distinction between the appearances of the risen Jesus, which are physical, and visions of him which, though veridical and caused by God, occur purely within the mind (Craig, 1994, p. 286). Craig says that this distinction is “conceptual (if not linguistic),” which seems to concede that Paul’s language is ambiguous and therefore the distinction is not explicit (p. 286). Where, then, is the evidence for this conceptual distinction? I’m afraid I just can’t find it in Craig’s argument here.
Craig contends that Paul conceived of the resurrected body as a physical body (Craig, 1994, pp. 285-286). That is, for Paul, saying that Jesus’s resurrected body is “spiritual” means only that it is “dominated or oriented towards the spiritual,” in the same sense that a (nonresurrected) person can be called “spiritual.” G. A. Wells strongly disagrees with Craig’s interpretation:
Paul…. in a context where he was discussing Jesus’s resurrection, [declared] that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 15:50). He believed that the dead are raised not in a physical body, but “in glory” (verses 42-43), and with their lowly bodies changed to be like Jesus’s “glorious” one (Philippians 3:21)…. Paul never suggests that Jesus tarried on earth after his resurrection, and never places any interval between his rising and his being at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34; Colossians 3:1; Thessalonians 1:10). He seems to have assumed that the risen Jesus ascended into heaven immediately, with a body of radiance; and so he will naturally have supposed that the subsequent appearances he lists were made by a descent from heaven (Wells, 1996, pp. 56-58).
Paul’s own words show that Craig simply misunderstands the whole purpose of the passage:
If there is such a thing as an animal body, there is also a spiritual body. It is in this sense that Scripture says “The first man, Adam, became an animate being,” whereas the last Adam has become a life-giving spirit. Observe, the spiritual does not come first; the animal body comes first, and then the spiritual. The first man was made “of the dust of the earth”: the second man is from heaven (I Corinthians 15:44-47).
The plain emphasis of the passage is on the reiterated distinction between the animal and the spiritual or the earthly and the heavenly. Paul’s aim is to address the doubts of the Corinthians about bodily resurrection. As the commentators in the Oxford Study Edition of The New English Bible put it:
The Corinthians seem to have balked at the idea of bodily resurrection. Paul agrees that the flesh has no part in the kingdom (v. 50), arguing that there are many kinds of bodies and that Christians will receive bodies made not of flesh, but of spirit (Sandmel, et al., 1976, p. 217).
Clearly, in such a context it is most implausible to suggest that Paul only meant by “spiritual” a body “dominated by or oriented towards the Spirit.” Had he only meant that the resurrected body was “spiritual” in that weak sense, he would have failed even to address the Corinthians’ concerns and made inexplicable his reiterated emphatic contrasts.
Even if Craig is right that Paul conceived of Jesus’s body as in some sense physical, this is beside the point. The question is whether Paul conceived the appearances as an encounter with a physical body, detected by ordinary senses, or whether it was a vision of a heavenly being. Again, there simply is nothing in Paul’s language to show that this distinction was significant for him at all. As Fuller points out, the whole emphasis of such passages rests on the revelatory initiative of the divine being, not the experience of the recipient. Whether these epiphanies were detected with the physical eye or the eye of the mind or spirit was simply of no concern (Fuller, 1971, p. 30).
Craig next argues that all of the gospel appearances were physical and bodily:
If none of the appearances were originally bodily appearances, then it is very strange that we have a completely unanimous testimony in the gospels that all of them were physical with no trace of the supposed original non-physical appearances (Craig, 1994, p. 287).
However, this argument overlooks a crucial fact: Mark, the earliest gospel, ends with no account of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all (scholars agree that the original text of Mark ended at 16:8 and that 16:9-20 were added by a later writer). Thus, in the earliest gospel account, there is no tradition of appearances. This strongly implies that the stories of physical appearances were inventions of later gospel writers, perhaps based on earlier traditions of visionary appearances, in response to the anti-Christian polemic of the day. That polemic charged that Christian accounts of the Resurrection were mere ghost stories.
Further, some delusory mental states, such as hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations, are extremely vivid and lifelike. Consider the recent, widespread phenomenon of “alien abductions.” Without exception those who have had these experiences emphasize how “real” they were–not dream-like or hallucinatory at all. They are convinced that real, physical aliens took them aboard real, physical spacecraft. In fact, throughout history, people have had bizarre experiences of witches, angels, demons, fairies, etc., that seemed very “real” to them.
If the gospels were written early, under the scrutiny of accurate and honest eyewitnesses, why do they differ in so many crucial details (see above)? What could be more crucial than the testimony concerning Jesus’s passion and resurrection? Yet these accounts diverge widely in the Gospels. In fact, the Gospels contradict each other on many points and can only be reconciled by the most outrageously ad hoc and implausible scenarios. For instance, sayings placed by Luke at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry are placed by Matthew at the end. Worse, John places the cleansing of the Temple at the outset of Jesus’s ministry. The synoptics place it at the end. The only way to reconcile these is by the desperate means of postulating two cleansings! G. A. Wells sums up:
Conservative apologists admit what they call “apparent discrepancies” in the [gospel] evidence for the Resurrection, but point out that certain cardinal facts are independent of them: all the accounts agree, for instance, that Jesus was crucified and subsequently raised. But this amount of agreement is frequently found in stories admittedly mythical. Historians agree that Wilhelm Tell is a legendary figure, but there are chronicles enough telling discrepant stories of how he founded the Swiss Confederation ….the conservative position implies that [concerning a street accident], although those who claim to be witnesses disagree even as to where it happened, and although there are no injured people, damaged vehicles, or indeed any evidence apart from their discordant testimony, we are nevertheless to believe that an accident did occur (G. A. Wells, 1989, pp. 26-27).
(i) The gospel burial stories support the empty tomb:
Acts 13:29 states simply that Jesus was buried by those Jews who had asked Pilate to execute him, i.e., representatives of the Sanhedrin. Their motivation would hardly have been charity; rabble-rousing blasphemers and troublemakers deserved no such consideration. In their eyes Jesus was a criminal who had been executed in the most shameful possible way. The burial was done to prevent the pollution of the Sabbath by the public exposure of the corpse (as John 19:31 attests). There is no reason to think that Jesus’s body was treated any differently than any other executed criminal’s–probably unceremoniously dumped in a common grave. The next verse (Acts 13:30) is “But God raised him from the dead.” So the tradition recorded by the Acts author contrasts the dishonor of Jesus’s burial with the glory of his resurrection.
The gospels, on the other hand, tell a charming story about Joseph of Arimathea and how he gave Jesus’s body a decent burial. However, this story contradicts the tradition, preserved in Mark and Luke, of women going to the tomb on the Easter morning for the purpose of anointing the corpse. This story presupposes that the body had been dishonorably buried, i.e., without the proper rites and ceremonies. Had Joseph of Arimathea buried the body honorably in accordance with Jewish custom, as the gospel burial pericopes imply (and as John states outright, 19:40), there would have been no reason for the women to undertake such a task. Such considerations lead noted NT scholar Reginald Fuller to argue that the bare-bones Acts account is an older stratum than the gospel elaborations and that the tales about Joseph of Arimathea were pious legends invented by Christians ashamed at the disciples’ failure to treat Jesus’s body more honorably (Fuller, 1971, pp. 54-56).
Craig claims that Joseph of Arimathea was a real person:
It seems very unlikely that Christian tradition would invent a story of Jesus’ honorable burial by his enemies, or even that it could invent Joseph of Arimathea, give him a name, place him on the Sanhedrin, and say the was responsible for Jesus’ burial if this were not true. The members of the Sanhedrin were too well-known to allow either fictitious persons to be placed on it or false stories to be spread about one it its actual members’ being responsible for Jesus’ burial. Therefore, it seems very likely that Joseph was the actual, historical person who buried Jesus in the tomb (Craig, 1994, p. 273).
On the contrary, we can watch the Joseph of Arimathea legend grow in the gospels. In Mark (15:43), the earliest source, he is just a “respected member of the Council, a man who looked forward to the kingdom of God.” In Luke (23:51) he is described as “a member of the Council, a good, upright man, who had dissented from their policy and the action they had taken.” In Matthew (27:57) he has become “a man of means, … [who] had himself become a disciple of Jesus.” In John (19:38) he is described as “a disciple of Jesus, but a secret disciple for fear of the Jews…” Thus in the gospels Joseph goes from a good and pious Jew, to one who actively dissented from the Sanhedrin’s policy, to an actual follower of Jesus, to a secret disciple. Clearly, we have a growing legend, one that can be explained by the early Christians’ embarrassment at the failure of the disciples to properly care for Jesus’s body. Further, legends often name actual historical persons. The legends surrounding the 1947 “saucer crash” at Roswell, New Mexico, name many actual historical persons.
As Gerd Lüdemann notes, the burial itself is represented in increasingly positive tones:
Whereas Mark merely says that it was a rock tomb, the parallels not only presuppose this but also know that it was Joseph’s own tomb (Matthew 27:60) … (John 20:15) and Gospel of Peter 6:24 even locate it in the garden, which is a distinction…. Finally, Matthew (27:60), Luke (23:53) and John (19:41ff) describe the tomb as new; this is a mark of honour for Jesus and also excludes the possibility that Jesus was put, for example, in a criminal’s grave (Lüdemann, 1995, p. 21).
Clearly, the gospel writers have created an elaborate legend of Jesus’s honorable burial to mitigate early Christians’ shame at what in all likelihood was the dishonorable fate of Jesus’s corpse.
Apologists claim that the formula of Paul and the gospel records of resurrection “on the third day” are best explained by the discovery of the empty tomb on the third day. However, Paul says in I Corinthians 15:3-4 that Christ was raised in accordance with the scriptures. The three-day expectation came from a misinterpretation of an OT passage (Hosea 6:2): “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” Also, in Matthew 12:40, Jesus ties in the prediction of his resurrection after three days to the three days and nights Jonah spent in the fish’s belly. Of course, Jesus probably never said this. Matthew attributed it to him because he was desperate to find any OT verses that seemed to prophesy Jesus’s career.
(ii) Paul’s I Corinthians testimony supports the empty tomb:
There has been much discussion about the place and function of the statement “he was buried” within the kerygmatic formula. Should it be taken closely with the previous statement “he died,” as in the common phrase, “he died and was buried?” If so, its function would be to underline the conclusive reality of Jesus’s death. Or should it on the other hand be taken closely with the following statement “he was raised?” In this case its function would be to imply the empty tomb.
Now it must be noted that the phrase “he was buried” occurs within its own hoti clause and must be taken therefore as an independent statement standing on its own and summarizing an earlier form of the burial pericope found in a later and developed form in Mark 15:42-46…. it cannot be used to imply a knowledge by Paul or by the pre-Pauline tradition of the story of the empty tomb (Fuller, 1971, pp. 15-16).
In short, trying to get support for the empty tomb from Paul’s meager formula is truly an exercise in trying to get blood from a turnip–no matter how hard you squeeze it just won’t come out.
(iii) The empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story and is therefore very old:
According to Fuller, the oldest empty tomb tradition seems to be the bare statement that Mary Magdalene discovered an empty tomb (Fuller, 1971, p. 56). Jesus is said to have cast seven devils out of Mary Magdalene. This hardly implies a stable or reliable personality. Clearly, the testimony of one quite possibly deranged individual is a very slender reed on which to base anything.
The gospel writers are aware of the weakness of Mary’s testimony because they embellish the story by depicting the disciples as initially skeptical until they confirmed her report. Of course, whether the disciples really did check Mary’s story–and, if so, when and how carefully–are all matters of speculation.
(iv) The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes an empty tomb:
It is clear that Matthew and the other gospel writers were responding to Jewish polemics of their day, i.e., 55-60 years after the crucifixion. By the time Matthew was written, ca. 85-90, any Jewish memory of the details of Jesus’s burial were certainly long forgotten. There is no reason for thinking that the Jews by that time really were aware of where Jesus’s tomb had been and that it had been found empty. Why not interpret the Jewish polemic as conceding, purely for the sake of argument, that there was an empty tomb? I.e., they said “If there was in fact an empty tomb, as you guys say, how do we know the disciples didn’t steal the body away?” Matthew responds by making up his story about the Roman guard (a story found only in Matthew). To the argument that experiences of the risen Jesus were mere ghost stories, Luke (24:39-43) has the risen Jesus invite the disciples to touch him, showing he is not a wraith. Also, he eats a piece of fish, as no ghost would. These later additions to the primitive Markan account were probably fabrications created by the later evangelists to answer the critics of their day.
(v) The Church could never have gotten started without belief in Jesus’s resurrection:
The actual occurrence of the Resurrection is not the best explanation for the fact it was believed. We have by now a very thorough understanding of how belief in paranormal phenomena can become firmly entrenched even though no such phenomena occurred. The article “Hallucinations” in the Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd ed., says that 1/8 to 2/3 of the normal population experiences waking hallucinations (Hall, 1994, pp. 101-102). Causes of hallucinations in normal persons include social isolation, rejection, and severe reactive depression. The disciples were very likely to be experiencing a strong sense of rejection, isolation, and depression after the execution of Jesus. It is not at all unlikely that more than one of them experienced vivid hallucinations of Jesus.
People greatly underestimate the influence of hallucinations on history:
Caesar is said to have taken orders from “voices” to invade countries. Drusus was said to have been deterred from crossing the Elbe by the sudden appearance of a woman of supernatural size. Atilla’s march on Rome was checked by the vision of an old man in priest’s raiment, who threatened his life with a drawn sword…. Constantine fought a battle in the year 312 because of hallucinations and was converted to Christianity by “voices”…. Mohammed had auditory and visual hallucinations … which were used by him in his calling as a prophet … the Christian emperor Charlemagne was thought to be directly inspired by the angels (F.H. Johnson, 1978, pp. 12-13).
Recent studies of perception and memory and the psychology of anomalous experience show that miracle reports are very likely in many circumstances where no miracle has occurred. Human perception is not passive; we are not biological camcorders. Rather, perception is complex, much prone to error, and easily influenced by background beliefs and expectations. In other words, we often “see” what we expect to see, want to see, or fervently hope to see rather than what is actually there. Predispositions bias our observations–this is one of the best-established principles of psychology. We all know that second or third hand accounts are unreliable–mere “hearsay evidence.” But any good trial lawyer or stage magician will tell you just how fallible eyewitnesses can be.
Likewise, psychologists have shown that memory is not a passive recorder but highly susceptible to influence by circumstance, bias, and suggestion. We also know that sane, rational people sometimes suffer extraordinary delusions that convince them that they have been abducted by aliens, seen ghosts, or witnessed miracles. It follows that even an honest, educated, and rational person who claims to have seen a miracle can easily have misperceived or misremembered.
Chapter Five: Legend
“Legend” is defined by American Heritage Dictionary as “An unverified story, handed down from earlier times, esp. one popularly believed to be historical.” How early can legends develop? As the expression “a legend in his own time” implies, not much time at all has to pass. In fact, there are numerous instances of legends that have grown around historical events just since World War II. Consider the legend of Flight Nineteen–the dive bombers that disappeared in the so-called Bermuda Triangle in December 1945. By the 1970s a whole literature of legends had grown up around this incident, despite the strenuous opposition of debunkers. Or consider the millions of people who believe that space aliens crashed in New Mexico in July 1947; in this case some of the witnesses helped to spread the legend of a saucer crash.
It is easy to show that legends can and do arise and spread within a few decades of a remarkable person’s death, despite the opposition of eyewitnesses. Consider the famous “Darwin Legend.” Charles Darwin died on April 19, 1882. Almost immediately stories began to circulate suggesting that Darwin, the agnostic and author of the godless theory of evolution, had repudiated his theories and confessed his faith in a dramatic deathbed conversion. With meticulous scholarship, historian James Moore has shown how quickly these false stories spread (Moore, 1994). His research shows that one week after Darwin’s burial a Welsh minister preached a sermon claiming that Darwin had confessed his faith on his deathbed (pp. 113-114).
By 1887, five years after Darwin’s death, a reporter with the Toronto Mail contacted T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s close friend and ally, and reported that a local evangelical minister had claimed that on his deathbed Darwin “whined for a minister and renouncing evolution, sought safety in the blood of the Saviour.” Huxley consulted with Darwin’s son Francis, who was present at his father’s death, and responded to the Toronto reporter that the story was utterly false (pp. 115-117). However, despite the repeated efforts of the Darwin family to squelch the story, it continued to spread.
In 1915, thirty-three years after Darwin’s death, probably less than the time between Jesus’s crucifixion and the writing of the earliest canonical gospel, one “Lady Hope” published an account of her interview with Darwin six months before his death (pp. 91-97). In this anecdote she falsely claimed that Darwin appeared to regret his theory of evolution and professed faith in Christ. Moore records that Lady Hope’s story swept through the evangelical magazines “like wildfire” (p. 99).
Of course, the story grew in the telling. Inflammatory tracts appeared with titles like “Darwin on His Deathbed” and “Darwin’s Last Hours.” As Moore records, hardly anyone bothered to check these stories with the Darwin family. When they did, the stories were denounced in no uncertain terms. As late as the 1930s Leonard Darwin, the last of the Darwin children, continued to assail Lady Hope’s account as a “hallucination,” a “lie,” an “absurd fiction,” and “purely fictitious.” Yet the story continued to spread. Thus legends can proliferate in a few years’ time despite the stringent opposition of the eyewitnesses.
Chapter Six: Kreeft and Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory
The indefatigable Kreeft and Tacelli offer thirteen (!) arguments against the claim that the appearances of Jesus could have been hallucinations. Methinks they protest too much. I give (in bold) and rebut each of their objections:
(1) There were too many witnesses. Hallucinations are private, individual, subjective. Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples minus Thomas, to the two disciples at Emmaus, to the fishermen on the shore, to James (his “brother” or cousin), and even to five hundred people at once…. Even three different witnesses are enough for a kind of psychological trigonometry; over five hundred is about as public as you can wish. And Paul says in this passage (v. 6) that most of the five hundred are alive, inviting any reader to check the truth of the story … he could never have done this and gotten away with it, given the power, resources, and numbers of his enemies, if it were not true (pp. 186-187).
There are so many things wrong here it is hard to know where to begin. Hallucinations are not always private. As far back as 1852, when Charles Mackay published his Memoirs of Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, it was known that people in crowds are often more susceptible to visual or auditory delusions than they are individually. Mass hallucinations are extremely well documented phenomena. In 1914, British newspapers were flooded with reports of the “Angels of Mons,” supposedly seen in the sky leading the troops against the godless Huns. The simultaneous hallucinations by several witnesses at the Salem witch trials are too well known to merit further comment.
Most importantly, mass delusions may be directly witnessed as they occur. When, a few years ago, a woman in Conyers, Georgia, began to claim regular visitations from the Virgin Mary, tens of thousands of the faithful would gather monthly to hear the banal “revelations.” While the Virgin was allegedly making her disclosures many of those attending claimed to witness remarkable things, such as the sun spinning and dancing in the sky. A personal friend, Rebecca Long, President of Georgia Skeptics, set up a telescope with a solar filter, and demonstrated–to anyone who cared to look–that the sun was not spinning or dancing. Still, hundreds around her continued to claim to witness a miracle.
We noted earlier that neither the gospels nor Acts specifically mentions an appearance to 500, as they certainly would have if their authors had known about it. Their silence makes the story deeply doubtful. As for Paul’s statement that many of the 500 were still alive, and so their testimony could be checked, this claim was made in a letter to the Corinthians (i.e., in Greece). How many of the Corinthian Christians would have had the means or the disposition to travel to Palestine to track down the witnesses (more than 20 years after the supposed event) and check the story? Paul was making a pretty safe claim.
Kreeft and Tacelli (hereafter “K & T”), like almost all apologists, repeatedly beg the question by assuming the 100 percent truth of Biblical reports (at least, when it is convenient for them to do so). There is no reason whatsoever to think that every claimed appearance of Jesus actually took place. In fact, as noted earlier, the numerous inconsistencies in the appearance stories, and the fact that the original text of Mark mentions no appearances, casts many of these stories in doubt. It is perfectly reasonable for skeptics to regard all the appearance stories as legendary accretions, but if we do concede that some of the disciples experienced an “appearance,” there is no reason they could not have been hallucinations or visions.
(2) The witnesses were qualified. They were simple, honest, moral people, who had firsthand knowledge of the facts (p. 187).
The disciples were simple, honest, and moral, eh? Why then do the gospels so often portray them as unbelieving, disloyal idiots? Jesus constantly rails against their incomprehension and lack of faith. They are depicted by Mark as so dense that they witness a miraculous feeding of 5000 in chapter six and 4000 in chapter eight and are scolded by Jesus because they are still worrying (verses 14-21) about how to get bread! When Jesus was arrested, the disciples decided that discretion was the better part of valor. In short, they denied him or ran into hiding. According to the gospels, only the women followers had enough courage to attempt to honor the body of Jesus.
Supposing that the disciples were decent, honest people, why does this make them unsusceptible to hallucinations? Decent, honest people have been having delusions and hallucinations for thousands of years and interpreting those experiences as real. It is not at all unlikely that several of the disciples experienced vivid postmortem visions of Jesus and that this was the basis of the appearance stories.
(3) The five hundred saw Christ together, at the same time and place. This is even more remarkable than five hundred private “hallucinations” at different times and places of the same Jesus. Five hundred separate Elvis sightings may be dismissed, but if five hundred simple fishermen in Maine saw, touched and talked with him at once, in the same town, that would be a different matter (p. 187).
Sometimes apologists say things that are so strange that it makes me doubt my faith that we have enough rational principles in common to have a fruitful dialogue. This is one of those occasions. If 500 Maine fisherman claimed to have seen, touched, and talked to Elvis, I would say they were fooled by one pretty darn good Elvis impersonator. As for the “500” mentioned by Paul, Paul says nothing about them touching or talking to Jesus, and, as noted earlier, the word for “appeared” used by Paul is ambiguous with respect to physical or visionary “seeing.” How did Jesus supposedly appear to this crowd so that they would all recognize him? Did each person in the crowd know Jesus personally, so they could reliably identify him? Did each person get close enough for a good look? Unfortunately, Paul is silent on these issues. He just does not tell us enough about the “appearance” to draw any conclusions about its trustworthiness.
(4) Hallucinations usually last a few seconds or minutes; rarely hours. This one hung around for forty days (Acts 1:3) (p. 187).
There is no reason to think that Jesus was literally physically present for a continuous forty-day period. The “40-day” motif is repeated in both the OT and the NT: It rained for 40 days and nights in Noah’s flood, Moses was on the mountain 40 days and nights, Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, etc. The author of Acts was using the 40-day formula to indicate that for a limited time after Jesus’s crucifixion he “presented himself” to a number of the apostles. The nature of these appearances and “proofs” is left quite vague, and the wording hints that they were sporadic visitations rather than a continuous presence.
(5) Hallucinations usually happen only once, except to the insane. This one returned many times, to ordinary people (p. 187).
This claim is backed by no references to the psychological literature on hallucinations. How do K & T know that normal people don’t get more than one hallucination, especially when they are undergoing enormously stressful or onerous circumstances?
(6) Hallucinations come from within, from what we already know, at least unconsciously. This one said and did surprising and unexpected things … like a real person and unlike a dream (p. 187).
Maybe K & T have really boring dreams. In my dreams people say and do lots of unusual things. Who knows what surprises lurk in the unconscious? Where is Freud now that we need him?
Aside to the reader: You have probably noticed by now that K & T’s objections to the hallucination theory are pretty thin and that my tone is becoming increasingly contemptuous. Be warned that the remaining objections do not improve and neither does my tone.
(7) Not only did the disciples not expect this, they didn’t even believe it at first–neither Peter, nor the women, nor Thomas, nor the eleven. They thought he was a ghost; he had to eat something to prove he was not (p. 187).
By the time the gospels were written, they had to address the anti-Christian polemics of their enemies. The Jews charged that the Christians were telling a ghost story when they talked about the resurrected Jesus. In response, Christians made up the stories about him eating and being touched by Thomas. Enemies also accused them of gullibility, so they reacted by depicting the disciples as initially skeptical of the empty tomb reports. It is a very common rhetorical device used by True Believers in anything (UFO’s, monsters, the occult) to claim that they started out as skeptics and were convinced by overwhelming evidence.
By the way, it is very odd that the gospels depict the disciples as skeptical of the Resurrection. After all, the disciples had supposedly seen Jesus raise others from the dead, walk on water, turn water into wine, cast out demons, cure the sick, the lame, and the blind, feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and appear in glistening raiment with Moses and Elijah while a divine voice boomed “This is my beloved son…” By this time it should have been clear even to the slowest disciple that Jesus was a supernatural being possessed of awesome miraculous powers. After all that it would surely be a pretty simple trick to come back from the dead. So something is out of place here. Either the disciples, dumb as they were, could not have been so skeptical of the resurrection, or they had not witnessed the miracles they allegedly did. Either way, the credibility of the gospels is undermined.
Most crucially, K & T ignore the fact that a powerful vision experienced by one or more disciples could have overcome the initial skepticism. Reginald Fuller, perhaps the leading authority on the resurrection narratives, says that the post-resurrection appearances should be regarded as “visions” rather than “hallucinations” (Fuller, 1993, p. 648). A hallucination may be silly or trivial. A vision, while it may certainly involve auditory or visual elements, also conveys a profound sense of epiphany. According to Fuller, due to the ineffable nature of the experiences, the early community asserted that God had raised Jesus but did not tell appearance stories (Fuller, 1993, p. 648). The appearance stories entered the tradition when later Christians tried to express in earthly terms what was originally indescribable (Fuller, 1993, p. 648).
(8) Hallucinations do not eat. The resurrected Christ did, on at least two occasions.
(9) The disciples touched him.
(10) They also spoke with him, and he spoke back. Figments of your imagination do not hold profound, extended conversations with you, unless you have the kind of mental disorder that isolates you (p. 187).
Again, one looks in vain for references to the psychological literature that document the claim that sane people cannot hallucinate someone touching them or dining or conversing with them. Further, the people who had these experiences, the disciples, wrote nothing so far as we know. These strange experiences, whatever they were, were recorded years later, shaped by the creative and imaginative processes of individual and collective memory, and then incorporated into self-conscious literary narratives (the gospels).
The earliest appearance account, Paul’s testimony in Corinthians, is a bare formula, a kerygmatic assertion wholly lacking in detail. Only much later, with the writing of Matthew and Luke, do we find fleshed-out appearance narratives with details of time, place, and circumstance. In their worked-out gospel forms, these stories are tailored to address the doubts and polemics of non-Christians of the late first century. Thus for Paul and the earliest Christians it was not important to distinguish between a visionary and a physical encounter with the risen Christ. Only later, in response to anti-Christian polemics, did it become important to emphasize that the appearances were physical and not visionary. Clearly, the appearance stories grew in the telling, and the telling may well have obscured their original nature.
(11) The apostles could not have believed in the “hallucination” if Jesus’ corpse had still been in the tomb. This is a very simple and telling point; for if it was a hallucination, where was the corpse? They would have checked for it; if it was there, they would not have believed (pp. 187-188).
The logic of this argument seems a bit hard to grasp. I shall set it out semi-formally as I understand it:
If the appearances were visionary or hallucinatory, Jesus’s body would still have been in the tomb (premise).
If the body had still been in the tomb, the disciples would have seen it there (premise).
If the disciples had seen the body in the tomb, they would not have believed that Jesus had risen (premise).
The disciples did believe that Jesus had risen (premise).
The disciples did not see the body in the tomb (from 3 and 4, by modus tollens).
The body was not still in the tomb (2 and 5, by modus tollens).
Therefore, the appearances were not visionary or hallucinatory (1 and 6, by modus tollens).
The first premise assumes that Jesus’s body was placed in a tomb, but this is doubtful. The honorable burial of a crucified person was possible; bodies were sometimes released to relatives as an act of mercy (Crossan, 1995, p. 167). However, such clemency was rare. Of the thousands of persons crucified in the Jerusalem area in the first century, only one crucified body has been found preserved in an ossuary (Crossan, 1995, p. 168). Marianne Sawicki gives the most probable explanation of the paucity of remains of victims of crucifixion:
The Gospel stories mention a gentle enshrouding, a magnanimous laying out, and a loving tombside vigil … but a limed pit is more probable…. Lime eats the body quickly and hygienically. Therefore we find virtually no skeletal remains of the thousands crucified outside Jerusalem in the first century (Sawicki, quoted in Crossan, 1998, p. xxvii).
Assuming that Jesus’s body was placed in a known tomb, by the time the disciples would have checked, and we don’t know when that would have been, any number of things could have happened to the corpse. Maybe Joseph of Arimathea had second thoughts about placing the body of an executed miscreant in his own tomb. So, as soon as the Sabbath is over, he sent servants to remove Jesus’s body to another site. Any number of such scenarios can be generated to account for the missing body.
The second premise assumes that the disciples knew where Jesus was buried, but this is doubtful. The disciples ran into hiding with Jesus’s arrest. If they thought they knew where Jesus was buried, they had to depend on the reports of one or more women who supposedly saw the burial site. As noted earlier, that report might not have been reliable. The second premise also assumes that the disciples would have checked for the body had they known the site. Even this is not clear. Grave desecration was a serious crime, and the disciples were in plenty of trouble already.
It is essential not to project onto the disciples the mind-set of a modern critical historian. Whatever state of mind the disciples were in following the “appearance” experiences, it certainly was not a spirit of critical, much less skeptical, inquiry. The ineffable quality and psychologically overwhelming nature of these experiences would have left little room for doubt and no motivation for rigorous investigation. There was only one task: to go forth and proclaim the Good News of the Risen Christ. Rigorous empirical scrutiny is the last thing on the mind of one in the grip of a powerful vision.
(12) If the apostles had hallucinated and then spread their hallucinogenic [sic] story, the Jews would have stopped it by producing the body (p. 188).
After Jesus’s crucifixion, the disciples absconded, probably all the way back to Galilee. If any remained in Jerusalem, they went underground. How long they remained in hiding is unclear. Eventually, emboldened by the “appearances,” whatever they were, the disciples returned to the streets and the Temple, proclaiming the risen Christ. By this time, even if only a few months after the crucifixion, the body of Jesus, even if the Jewish authorities could recover it, would have been in an advanced state of decay. Had the authorities produced the badly decomposed body of a crucified man, the disciples would simply have denied that it was Jesus’s.
(13) A hallucination would explain only the post-resurrection appearances; it would not explain the empty tomb, the rolled-away stone, or the inability to produce the corpse. No theory can explain all these data except a real resurrection (p. 188).
Only real ET’s in real extraterrestrial spacecraft would explain all the claimed phenomena associated with UFO’s. Strange lights in the sky, vivid abduction experiences, cattle mutilations, and hosts of other weird phenomena are most economically explained by postulating real flying saucers piloted by real aliens. Otherwise, separate accounts would have to be given for each of these things, and this would be a less simple explanation.
In fact, just about everything K & T have said about the “appearances” of Jesus could be said about the various “close encounters” with ET’s. Large numbers of people, far more than 500, have witnessed UFO’s on given occasions. People “abducted” by aliens reported that their captors did all sorts of things we don’t normally think of hallucinations as doing. Maybe hallucinations don’t usually eat or converse, but neither do they insert anal probes or levitate people through the air. The ET’s are often reported to materialize through solid walls, just like the resurrected Jesus. Many of the people who have had “close encounters” claim not to have wanted such experiences or expected them. Many were former UFO skeptics. “Contactees” are usually simple, honest, moral (and sane) persons who have nothing to gain by reporting these phenomena.
Further, K & T try to saddle the skeptic with the burden of explaining every detail of every appearance story (the stone rolled away, etc.) in terms of hallucinations. There is no reason the skeptic should accept such a burden for the simple reason that skeptics do not have to accept the appearance stories as 100 percent accurate. Apologists are constantly assuming as “data” what skeptics rightly regard as hearsay. I conclude that it is perfectly reasonable and rational for skeptics to regard all of the genuine postmortem “appearances” of Jesus as visions.
Appendix: C.S. Lewis on Sex Outside of Marriage
Perhaps the most respected, surely the most read, Christian apologist is C. S. Lewis. I remember hearing twenty years ago that his books had sold more than 50 million copies. Now it must be closer to 100 million. One of Lewis’s virtues as an apologist for Christianity is that he does not flinch from stating and defending even the most unpopular and difficult items of doctrine. Here is no milk-and-water, secularized, liberalized version of pop-Christianity but old-time religion presented without compromise.
With respect to the Christian demands concerning sexual morality he is admirably frank and succinct:
Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it: the old Christian rule is, “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence” (Lewis, 1943, p. 75).
Lewis admits that this rule is contrary to our sexual feelings, but he thinks it is our sexual feelings that are wrong, not the rule (more on this below).
But just why is it wrong, always and everywhere, to have sex outside of lifelong, completely faithful (heterosexual) marriage? The closest Lewis comes to giving an answer is this:
The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and a wife are to be regarded as a single organism–for that is what the words “one flesh” would be in modern English. And Christians believe that when He said this He was not expressing a sentiment but stating a fact–just as one is stating a fact when one says that a lock and its key are one mechanism, or that a violin and a bow are one musical instrument. The inventor of the human machine was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again (Lewis, 1943, p. 81).
Besides apparently implying that chewing gum is a sin, there are a number of puzzling things about this passage. For a writer celebrated for his lucidity, Lewis is not terribly clear here. What does it mean to say (more than metaphorically) that man and wife are “one flesh” or that male and female are a “single mechanism” designed to make up a “total union?” How total is that total union supposed to be? Absolutely total? In that case, it sounds like marriage as defined by Ambrose Bierce: “The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.” What about those who do not or cannot marry? Must they conceive of themselves as somehow incomplete, less than whole persons?
Interpreting Lewis’s words charitably, I take him to mean that in the Christian ideal of marriage, the partners not only share a bed but all the duties and responsibilities that come with having a home and family. They share the work, the discipline and nurturing of the children, the management of finances, the planning for the future, and all of the thousand-and-one nitty gritty details that make up domestic life. They not only share the fantasy of moonlight and roses, but the reality of daylight, dishes, and diaper changes.
Now I regard marriage so described as admirable. Further, I regard adultery as very bad under nearly all circumstances. Let’s call two people “unmarried” if they are not married to each other or to anybody else. Why is it always and everywhere bad (indeed, a “monstrosity”) for two such unmarried persons to have sex? The answer Lewis gives is that sex is “intended” to go along with the “total union” and not to be enjoyed in isolation from all the commitments and responsibilities that make up a marriage.
How or by whom “intended?” Intended by God? If this is Lewis’s meaning, it is, of course, completely question begging if addressed to nonbelievers. When people as smart as Lewis beg the question so blatantly, something funny is going on. Usually such persons have such strong feelings about their views that they think the truth will be manifest once clearly articulated. It hardly even occurs to them that someone might really have completely different intuitions.
My intuition is that, in general, there is nothing wrong with responsible, mutually respectful sex between two unmarried adult people. From Augustine to Lewis, the Christian view has been that sex is bad unless it is motivated by or incorporated into some “higher” purpose (e.g., having babies or achieving a “total union”). In my view, sexual pleasure does not need to be included in anything else or justified by any “higher” aim or purpose; it is good per se. Of course, there are many prudential considerations about when or where or with whom it is wise to have sex, but to say that an action is unwise is not the same as saying it is wrong.
Exercising charity once again, I put a naturalistic interpretation on Lewis’s talk of intentions. I take him as meaning that sex between unmarried persons is in some sense unnatural. It is an attempt to separate into parts what by nature is an organic unity. The human organism is “designed” (by evolution, let’s say) to have sex only with a permanent partner.
It is hard to see how Lewis could argue this. Some animals do mate for life and apparently desire only their mates. Clearly, if humans were genetically programmed this way, it would be unnatural to have sex with any but one’s permanent partner. But humans just do not seem wired that way. Men and women are often, apparently spontaneously and “naturally” (whatever that means with respect to human beings), sexually aroused by persons with whom they would not want to spend their lives. Is such desire unnatural?
As mentioned above, Lewis does think that our present sexual feelings are distorted and unnatural. The evidence he gives is that some men like to watch striptease (p. 75). He argues, by analogy, that surely something would be wrong if an audience cheered and hooted as a plate of food was slowly revealed to contain a mutton chop. I think the implied point is that it is odd to enjoy the tantalizing sight of food without being allowed to immediately proceed to satisfy the appetite.
The most this proves is that the sexual appetite is not exactly like hunger for food. Sexual arousal itself can be pleasurable, even if not immediately gratified. For those who are not the ideological heirs of Augustine, it is hard to see anything perverse in this. In fact, if anything, it seems to me that the shoe is on the other foot, i.e., that it would be unnatural for a healthy, heterosexual man not to be pleasantly aroused by striptease (I’m sure Lewis would attribute this statement to my own depravity).
Besides, though knee-slapping funny, the analogy does not hold. Many people enjoy watching food being prepared on cooking shows and looking at the pictures of food in magazines. If there is nothing wrong with this, then, using Lewis’s own analogy, there is nothing wrong with looking at striptease or Playboy centerfolds. (I’m sure Lewis would still disapprove, however.)
Allow me to emphasize that I do not disdain marriage. On the contrary, I think a marriage in which partners share life’s burdens and joys, as described above, is entirely admirable. But it is not for everybody. Some people, due to a variety of circumstances, cannot have traditional marriages. Others, for perfectly good reasons, for at least a part of their adult lives, choose not to get married. Does this mean that such persons are to do without sex so long as they cannot or do not get married? To insist that they must would require a lot of justification, and I do not see that Lewis or any other apologist has provided it.
As I see it, the bottom line is this: if two responsible, unmarried adults decide to have sex, it just is not anybody else’s business–not C. S. Lewis’s, not Dr. Laura’s, not God’s. Minding thy neighbor’s business has long been a prime preoccupation of Christians, despite the salutary warnings from their religion’s founder about removing the beam from one’s own eye before noticing the speck in another’s.
I conclude with a quote from Bertrand Russell’s classic Marriage and Morals:
The Christian view that all intercourse outside marriage is immoral was … based upon the view that all sexual intercourse, even within marriage, is regrettable. A view of this sort, which goes against biological facts, can only be regarded by sane people as a morbid aberration. The fact that it is embedded in Christian ethics has made Christianity throughout its whole history a force tending towards mental disorders and unwholesome views of life (Russell, 1929, p. 48).
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Copyright ©2000 Keith Parsons. This electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.