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Carrier-O’Connell Debate: Final Assessment by Independent Judges


Welcome to On Paul’s Theory of Resurrection: The Carrier-O’Connell Debate. Richard and Jake agreed to have four independent judges read and assess their debate upon its completion. Below those judges and their assessments will be presented, according to the The Rules We Followed, especially rules (7) and (8). Those judges present their assessments below.

Total Assessment

David Instone-Brewer [assessment]

John P. Dickson [assessment]

Tony Burke [assessment]

Dennis MacDonald [assessment]

Total Assessment

Winner: Jake O’Connell

Average Score: ⌈0.25⌉ = 1

Meet the Judges

David Instone-Brewer:

Dr. Instone-Brewer is a senior research fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House (Cambridge), whose published books include Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible and Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis Before 70 CE.

John P. Dickson:

Dr. Dickson is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University (Sydney), where he teaches Jewish and Christian origins. He is the author of a dozen books, including Mission Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities and Jesus: A Short Life.

Tony Burke:

Dr. Burke is an Assistant Professor at York University (Toronto, Canada), whose work includes the article “Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium,” the entry on “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” in Paul Foster’s The Non-Canonical Gospels, and a forthcoming critical edition of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas for Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum.

Dennis MacDonald:

Dr. MacDonald is Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Claremont School of Theology (California), whose published books include Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? and Acts Of Andrew: Early Christian Apocrypha.

Individual Assessments

David Instone-Brewer:

Winner: No one

Average Score: 0

Much of this debate concerned whether Paul taught that mortal bodies are transformed into resurrected bodies, or that mortal bodies are replaced by resurrected bodies. Both sides were able to show that Paul could be interpreted to agree with them, and in the end the deciding factors were definitions. Does ependyomai mean “to put on [a garment over another],” or “to put on [a garment instead of another]”? Does kataluo mean “to destroy” or “to dismantle”? Does allasso mean “to exchange” or “to transform”? As so often, the context is decisive, and in this case, indecisive.

This impressive debate suggests that Paul was not concerned to make himself unambiguous, either because his meaning was obvious to any reader of the time, or the distinction didn’t concern him. His meaning would be obvious if a reader at the time knew what he would believe. Each debater agreed that their contrary views both existed at the time of Paul, though most evidence comes from soon after—rabbinic Jews mainly followed the resurrected-body view, while Hellenised Jews tended towards a new-body view. Paul puts himself into both camps at different times, so a reader at the time would not be sure which view Paul held.

This leaves us with the conclusion that Paul was unconcerned about whether corpses were lifted out of the ground and transformed, or whether they stayed there and were replaced. This distinction wouldn’t concern early Christians who believed that most of them would live to see the general resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17), but the subject soon became much more important. When corpses rotted, dispersed, and eventually fertilized the food which became other humans, questions arose about whether some bits would belong to more than one resurrected person. As Carrier pointed out, the Fathers asked such questions and Paul didn’t. But as O’Connell pointed out, why should Paul ask such questions?

They also debated about whether the Gospels and Acts contained any historical evidence about Jesus’ resurrection. O’Connell pointed out that this was outside the remit of the debate, but it continued to be a distraction which went nowhere due to lack of room for proper presentation of arguments.

Unfortunately, the original remit of the debate was almost completely ignored. The participants set out to debate whether Paul believed that Jesus’ resurrection body was his transformed corpse or a new entity. Instead they debated about the corpses of believers in general.

Both debaters assumed that Paul regarded Jesus’ resurrection exactly like that of his followers, but this is very questionable because Paul emphasized Jesus’ divine and uberhuman nature. Unlike the Gospels, which present the human “Jesus” or “Son of Man,” Paul consistently uses titles like “Son of God,” “Lord,” “Christ,” and “First Adam.” To say that Jesus was a special case for Paul is an understatement, so to assume that his resurrection is identical to everyone else needs strong justification. Carrier opened with texts which say that Jesus’ resurrection was the start and the guarantee of the general resurrection, but only Romans 6:5 says they are “alike”—though this also says a believer’s baptism and Jesus’ death are “alike.” Other believers don’t appear to crowds after their death (1 Corinthians 15:4-7), or resurrect long before Judgment Day, so why should Paul assume that Jesus gained his new body in the exact same way as others?

Who was the best debater? Carrier had a better style, though both sides had equally weighted arguments. In the end, I have to reluctantly award a zero mark, not because they were equally weighted, but because neither addressed the question of Jesus’ resurrection body, except as a side issue.

John P. Dickson:

Winner: Jake O’Connell

Average Score: 2

Richard Carrier’s contention that Paul taught a two body theory of resurrection (2BT) was admirably argued given the limited evidence in its favor, but the case suffers from some serious difficulties which, for the most part, were highlighted by Jake O’Connell:

  1. Carrier’s literal approach to Paul’s seed-plant metaphor in 1 Corinthians 15 was striking from the opening lines. Metaphors in highly charged rhetorical contexts rarely mean exactly what they say at a surface level. Paul explains in what sense resurrection bodies are ‘new’ in vv. 42-44, as O’Connell stressed. Carrier’s constant reference to this passage as ‘clearly’ teaching 2BT left the impression of protesting too much.
  2. Carrier failed to face the problem of Romans 8:23—the ‘redemption of our body.’ His suggestion that the passage refers to an inner resurrection body is, as O’Connell noted, special pleading. Romans 8 also undermines Carrier’s background assumption that the eschaton for Paul is totally discontinuous with present creation. Carrier seemed evasive at this point.
  3. O’Connell successfully overturned one of Carrier’s most important linguistic arguments—that allasso means ‘exchange,’ not ‘change.’ Lurkers can check Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott for themselves.
  4. O’Connell rightly described as anachronistic Carrier’s repeated citation of Origen as evidence for what Paul meant (150 years earlier). Here the theologian was teaching the historian proper historical method.
  5. Carrier’s insistence that Josephus ‘clearly’ believed in a 2BT was answered by O’Connell. The description is ambiguous, as all scholars agree. Some experts think Josephus might even be describing reincarnation. In any case, in Jewish Wars 2.162ff Josephus is not describing his own view at all, but that of the Pharisees generally. Does Richard Carrier think Palestinian Pharisees taught 2BT?
  6. Carrier’s minor arguments about Acts and the Gospels were adequately answered by O’Connell. In any case, they had little relevance for understanding Paul, and seem to have been added for apologetic purposes.

I judge that O’Connell won the debate by a significant margin (2). I would have awarded him a victory ‘by a large margin’ (3) except for the agreed rule that “even a fallacious argument will be counted as a successful argument if it is not effectively rebutted.” Fallacious arguments (not rebutted) include:

  1. Carrier was adamant that 1BT passages such as Daniel 12:2 ‘always’ insist the dead are raised ‘in the same body’, and that Paul’s neglect to do the same is revealing. A glance at Daniel 12:2 shows otherwise. While the implication of the passage is that dead bodies are reanimated, this is not stated. The same is true of Paul’s teaching.
  2. A surprising historical misunderstanding is present in the statement: “Pilate would be compelled to haul every Christian in and interrogate every possible witness in a massive manhunt for what could only be in his mind an escaped convict.” This misconstrues how prefects exercised authority and, in any case, wrongly assumes the Romans conducted police operations in the provinces. O’Connell answered aspects of Carrier’s scenario, but it is unhistorical from the start.
  3. Carrier stated that Paul knew of Jesus’ resurrection only through ‘revelation’ or ‘scriptural interpretation.’ This is mistaken. Paul also knows the ‘testimony’ of Peter, James, and others.

A final comment: Carrier’s argument seems to be part of a larger project intended to undermine belief in Jesus’ resurrection (clear from the opening paragraph) and, as a result, reads more like apologetics than scholarship. It suffers from the same problems associated with Christian apologetics: overstatement, avoidance of contrary evidence, rhetorical confidence, and a self-referential stance (obvious in the endnotes).

Both scholars (and Internet Infidels) are to be commended for the courteous tone of the debate.

Tony Burke:

Winner: Richard Carrier

Average Score: 1

The issue of Paul’s notion of resurrection is not easy to settle. Is it that the same body is “transformed”? Or is it that a new body, distinct from the earthly body that remains buried, is provided? Both participants admit that many of Paul’s statements about the resurrection are ambiguous; they both focus on one or two that they feel are unambiguous and interpret the others accordingly. Both are able to find interpretive avenues to make these statements fit their respective positions (depending on how literally or figuratively we take Paul’s imagery, or on how we understand his eschatological vision). Thus it is difficult to decide between the two participants’ positions using Paul alone.

Can the solution be found outside of Paul’s writings? O’Connell assumes we must interpret Paul within the context of first-century Jewish notions of the resurrection; Carrier considers Paul to be one of a few writers who disagree with such notions (indeed, perhaps that is why Paul must defend his position). Arguments from silence are produced: Carrier asks why does Paul not use the analogies, scripture references, etc. of Jewish and Christian one-body theory proponents? Why do Paul and the author of Acts say nothing about the empty tomb? The silences are curious indeed, but ultimately insoluble, despite O’Connell’s best efforts. It is one of the strengths of Carrier’s position that he brings the audience’s attention to the implications of the argument: what does Paul’s position on resurrection indicate about the fate of Jesus’ body? And it is one of O’Connell’s weaknesses that he cannot effectively respond to the silences of the texts. No one can. So, why did he even try?

The “winner” in this debate is Carrier, though by only a small margin (1). Neither writer has convinced me of his position on Paul’s view of the resurrection (or better, Paul’s statements are shown to be hopelessly ambiguous). But at the end of the debate, Carrier’s questions about the empty tomb linger on. O’Connell counters with several possible explanations (Paul had little space to devote to such issues; the Romans couldn’t persecute the Christians for grave robbery because they would not be able to identify which Christians took the body; etc.), but none of them are convincing. Indeed, he tends to minimize the issue of the empty tomb, whereas Carrier keeps it central to the debate, beginning both his opening and closing statements with the topic. Carrier is also a more assertive writer, peppering his position with such declarations as “weak evidence never trumps strong,” and “my arguments stand.” In comparison, O’Connell’s concluding list of examples of Carrier’s “poor exegesis” reads like sour grapes. Again, O’Connell would have fared better had he confronted the arguments from silence with the appropriate agnosticism (“we simply do not know”), rather than countering Carrier’s speculation with even weaker speculation.

Dennis MacDonald:

Winner: No one

Average Score: 0

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to my brothers, Jake Harris O’Connell and Richard Carrier, grace to you and peace. I give thanks that you invited me to evaluate your controversy about my “theory of resurrection,” for it is clear that you both are intelligent, articulate, and attentive to detail. I am writing to you in English thanks to Dennis MacDonald.

I was astonished at how quickly both of you departed from some of the recognized standards for the study of my letters. For example, I don’t know who wrote the letter to the Colossians to which you both appeal; it was not I. I surely could not have agreed with Colossians 2:11-15 and the statement that believers in Jesus “were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands in the putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ” (2:11). But I can see why Carrier would like the idea of “putting off the body of flesh,” and why O’Connell would like the notion of the continuity of the body before and after baptism.

I found even more astonishing that both of you appealed to the Acts of the Apostles, which I had not read until MacDonald showed me a copy. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely nothing in Acts 1-3 that is historical, and I find the entire idea of an ascension of Jesus’ body, together with “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:40), quite ludicrous. After all, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Carrier’s arguments from Acts fall far short of the mark, but so do the responses of O’Connell.

I also found it remarkable that O’Connell approached to Gospels—more books that I now have read thanks to MacDonald—about what happened to Jesus’ tomb. I read these accounts with baffled amusement. In my day, no one had heard of Jesus’ empty tomb. I surely never did. Don’t you think that if I had I would have mentioned it in my second letter to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians] to oppose those who denied that Jesus’ body had been raised? The best I could do was to appeal to reports of visions of the risen Christ, including my own, but as any reader of Homeric epic would recognize, one can see even disembodied souls. My challenge was to interpret these visions as visions of transformed bodies. I was pleased to read in these Gospels about Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene; I wonder why I had never heard about them before.

As an aside, I should say that I have heard of some followers of Jesus in Palestine who denied that the risen Jesus appeared to anyone; indeed, they preferred to speak of Jesus’ disappearance—like Enoch, Moses, or Elijah—and eventual return as the Son of Man [i.e., Q]. I prefer the tradition related to Peter and James that Jesus appeared to the Twelve and hundreds of others.

Now let me get to the crux—pun intended—of the nature of resurrection body. Here, it seems to me, that again, Carrier and O’Connell would have been benefited by another tenet of good scholarship on my letters: the reconstruction of the thinking of my opponents. The Corinthians really had me painted into a corner. They and I agreed that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” but they, influenced as they were by Philo via Apollos, took this to mean that God raised only the soul, not the body; therefore; any appearance of Jesus to his followers was one of his risen soul.

How I wish I had thought of the idea of an empty tomb! I could have appealed to it as evidence of his risen body. Instead, I had to argue from the Jewish apocalyptic idea of the general resurrection of the dead. So my challenge was this: how to make sense of a resurrection body that did not consist of “flesh and blood.” (I assume that Jesus’ fleshly body rotted in a Palestine tomb.)

In order to make this case I fished about for metaphors that would speak of bodily transformation. Some of these metaphors emphasized discontinuity—say, different types of heavenly bodies, leaving one house to inhabit another, removing one garment and donning another. Other transformative metaphors, however, emphasized organic continuity—such as a seed becoming a plant or putting one garment on top of another. So I can see why Carrier thought that I spoke of two different bodies, and why O’Connell thought that I spoke of the metamorphosis of a single body. In my day, the debate was not about one body or two, but whether it made any sense to say that the soul after death was somatic in any way at all.

After I wrote 1 Corinthians, the dispute did not subside, so I addressed it again in 2 Corinthians, where one still sees the unresolved tensions in my metaphors. The same ambiguity appears in Romans 8:9-13, which we need not discuss any further. I just wish that both of you had dealt more with theories about metaphor and less about enthymemes.

Finally, brethren, I declare the debate a tie (scored = 0), though my sympathies generally favor Carrier. I found disappointing his arguments from Acts and his meat cleaver treatment of messy metaphors. But more objectionable was O’Connell’s use of both Acts and the Gospels as historical records, and his general lack of attention to ancient anthropological dualism (e.g., Platonism). In the end, I found both of their contributions to be brilliant, energetic, and often enlightening, but neither overwhelmingly compelling. I greet you, as does my scribe, Dennis. Grace and peace.

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