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Richard Carrier Improbable Checked

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


13. Would the Facts Be Checked?

13.1 Boiling away the Hyperbole

13.2 Evidence from Acts

13.3 Evidence from Early Apologists

13.4 Conclusion


13.1. Boiling away the Hyperbole

Revisiting an earlier argument, James Holding contends that “Christian claims would have been easy to check out and verify” because everyone in antiquity was such a nosy busybody that everyone would know everything about anything that ever happened. I have already addressed much of this argument in Chapter 7. Here I will limit myself to the more particular claims that (1) people knew everyone’s business and (2) people actually did check the facts. The truth is not that “no one would have cared to find out such things,” but that, regardless of what they cared to do, actual converts (as opposed to those who rejected the faith) did not engage any kind of fact-checking relevant to Holding’s argument.

First, I have no quarrel with the view that privacy was not of great value in antiquity (compared to today), especially in regard to enforcing moral behavior. But when Holding claims “privacy was unknown,” he is easily refuted by the fact that the ancient world was awash with secret initiations, secret doctrines, and secret meetings. If he really thinks you couldn’t keep a secret, or do things in secret, or conspire in secret, he has a truly perverse idea of human nature and human history, and is certainly deviating completely from anything Malina & Neyrey argue. Indeed, Jesus himself advocated secret doctrines and secret behavior (Mark 4:10-11; Matthew 6:4, 6:6, 6:18), and after his death “appeared” only in secret, behind closed doors, or off in the wilderness, away from the prying eyes of outsiders (John 20:19, 20:26; Matthew 28:17; etc.).

Holding also ignores the fact that Malina & Neyrey argue the opposite of what he concludes here. Far from claiming that everyone knew everything, they argue that secrets were of paramount priority in groupthink cultures, far more so than even today, and that outsiders often would not even be told in-group truths, much less personal truths.[1] What Malina & Neyrey mean when they discuss public scrutiny is just that: scrutiny in public of the behavior of others. Though this does mean there was a strong public suspicion of secrecysuch that everyone avoided the appearance of keeping secretsthat only meant secrets were kept even tighter in antiquity than today. The mere fact that you had secrets would often be kept secret. But keeping secrets was still a reality, and an accepted one.

For example, when we look at the cultural values expressed in the Bible we find the opposite of what Holding wants. Rather than it being okay to be a “busybody” and investigate what everyone was doing, it was actually quite immoral to partake in gossipnot only to gossip yourself, but to listen to gossip. Consider these Old Testament pronouncements: “A tattletale exposes secrets, but those of loyal spirit conceal the matter”; “a twisted man sows strife, and a tattletale separates best friends”; “he who covers up a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates even friends”; “he who goes about as a tattletale exposes secrets: therefore, have no fellowship with him who entices with his lips”; “do not disclose a secret to another”; and “where there is no wood, the fire goes out: so where there is no tattletale, strife goes away” (Proverbs 11:13, 16:28, 17:9, 20:19, 25:9, 26:20). And the New Testament shares this scorn for gossiping: “not only do they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not” (1 Timothy 5:13) and “let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s affairs” (1 Peter 4:15: allotriepiskopos = allotrios + episkopos = an overseer of someone else’s affairs). Thus, someone who goes around spying on people is equated with murderers, thieves, and evildoers in general. You were not even to associate with tattlers. And you were expected to shut your mouth and keep secret the affairs of family and friends.

Of course, it is still true that privacy as such was not valued, and the public always kept its eye on what was going on within public view. But the aim of this was only to enforce moral orderit was not curiosity, nor a desire to seek knowledge, much less of everyone’s private affairs. So we have to reduce Holding’s hyperbole once again, and when we boil away the exaggerations, what we have left is this: it is indeed wrong to suppose that “no one would care” about what the Christians were doing (before or after Jesus died), but this does not mean “everyone would know” what the Christians were doing (before or after Jesus died), nor does it have anything to do with going out and fact-checking every amazing claim. So Holding’s evidence here does not justify his conclusion. Rumor would certainly spread (and possibly exaggerate) the public acts of Christians, as of Jesus. But for all those events that only the privileged in-group got to witness, Malina & Neyrey’s thesis actually entails that it is highly improbable the truth would ever be found out by those not admitted to the group.

This leaves us with only one other way to check Holding’s claim: to examine what prospective converts actually did when faced with the amazing claims of Christians, and to see what kind of evidence actually persuaded them. Here I agree with Holding that in antiquity strangers had to validate and verify their status as trustworthybut this in no way entails they did this the same way we do today. And the evidence confirms they did not. Strangers established trust by shows of sincerity, moral propriety, knowledge of cultural lore and custom (e.g. scripture), and good deeds. Anyone who met those criteria would be trustedbecause people believed no one capable of all that would lie.[2] Whether a stranger could still be viewed as mistaken would then depend on the evidence they presented, and that is where Holding’s argument runs into serious trouble, because the standards of evidence most people followed back then where quite unlike those we follow today. This is a point I have already addressed in Chapter 7 and shall examine more specifically in Chapter 17. And below we shall see it in action.

Finally, in his many other books, Bruce Malina explains how Christians often sought converts by first persuading groups they shared associations with (e.g. local Jews) and then leapfrogging from there to other groups who shared associations with that group (e.g. family members of converts, fellow townsmen of converts, etc.).[3] I will discuss this a little more in Chapter 18. But here it is enough to note that Holding seems to assume ancient Christians acted like modern Jehovah’s Witnesses and just went knocking on random doors to cold-sell the faith. That is not what they did. Instead, they mostly relied on groupthink to sell the faith. By first appealing to a group they were already a part of, they were not seen as strangers, but comrades (in respect to whatever relation was being exploited at the time, whether family, race, trade, etc.). Then, once they were accepted into that group locally, that group could then introduce them to their neighbors. So again the Christians were not perceived as complete strangers, but as friends recommended by friends. Though Christians did not always rely on this tactic, it was their most common and important strategy, and it greatly reduced the burden on them to prove their merit and thus win trust.


13.2. Evidence from Acts

I’ve already explained why we can’t trust Acts to be any more reliable than the average histories of the day, which were certainly not paragons of reliability.[4] Even the Histories of Herodotus is superior to Acts as a critical history, and yet quite prone to reporting the ridiculous.[5] We can therefore expect no better from Actsindeed, we have every reason to expect less. But it is the only historical record we have of the early Christian mission, so when we want to examine how and why people converted, Acts is our only useful source. Except where I explain below, I will assume Luke has the basic facts straight about thisthat whatever embellishments he or tradition may have added, there is a genuine record somewhere behind each episode. I may be wrong about that, but as you shall see, even granting that much, the evidence from Acts pretty much kills Holding’s argument.[6]

In effect, Holding claims prospective converts would have fact-checked before believing, or at the very least would have done so after committing to the faith. This is an empirical prediction, which if true should be born out in the evidence: the historical record of Acts should show people behaving exactly as Holding predicts they would. But Acts contains not even a single example of this prediction being fulfilled. Worse, what evidence it does present confirms exactly the opposite. Thus, the empirical evidence completely refutes Holding’s theory. It is falsified decisively, and by his own evidence.

As far as Acts reports, Christian conversions never took place after days of careful research and investigationmuch less weeks or months of correspondence and travel, as would have been required for mostbut immediately, upon the direct witness of a missionary’s words and deeds. Indeed, as we shall see later on below, when we examine those few cases where we can document careful deliberation before conversion (which only appear about a hundred years after the Christian mission began), even these show no sign of the kind of research Holding has in mind.

Simply survey all the reports of conversion in Acts. Even assuming Acts is entirely accurate and true, it thoroughly refutes Holding’s argument:

  1. The first time the resurrection of Jesus is ever preached to the public is on the Pentecost, fifty days (almost two months) after Jesus diedso quite some time after any facts could be easily checked. Yet Acts claims “about 3000” were persuaded that day by a mere speech (Acts 2:1-42). Thousands of people, we are told, decided to convert immediately. Not a single one of them checked a single fact. These converts do no other research, make no other inquiry, make no effort at all to interrogate Peter or any other witnesses or check any of the material facts. The authorities are not consulted. No one asks to hear Joseph of Arimathea on the matter, or indeed any other Christian besides Peter. They simply trust what Peter sayswhich is woefully ambiguous and short on details (see below). Thus, Holding’s theory is refuted: no one checked anything. Acts itself says so: all that these converts needed, the only standard of evidence they apparently employed in deciding whether to accept or reject Christianity, was a persuasive speech. Just words. Nothing else. Indeed, they seem more persuaded by Peter’s promise that they will be “forgiven” and “saved” by baptism (2:38-41) than by anything we would call empirical (much less “irrefutable”) evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. We should also note that Peter’s audience was not comprised of stuffy Pharisees or informed Palestinian Jews, but primarily foreign diaspora Jews from all over the world (Acts 2:5 & 2:9-11) and pagan converts (Acts 2:10). Nor does Luke bother to tell us how many of these converts remained in the foldfor all we know, after they checked the facts, or felt the disfavor of the authorities, they left. We have no evidence they didn’t.

  2. The next conversion event mentioned in Acts turns out the same way: “about 2000” more are persuaded immediately by nothing but Peter’s speech (Acts 3:1-4:4). None of these converts did any research or fact-checking either: a single healing is all they needed to see, and all they needed to hear was a speech that appealed to nothing but scripture and Peter’s own word that the disciples “witnessed” the risen Jesus. No details at all are given about what that meant, nor any details that would confirm it as an accurate interpretation of whatever they did see. And aside from Peter, no one else’s testimony is given, nor is any other testimony asked for by anyone before they convert. None of Peter’s claims are checked at all, by any means whatever. So, even if we accept the huge numbers, Holding is refuted all the more: Acts proves that thousands were willing to convert on hardly any evidence at all, and certainly not on any evidence we have good reason to trustand by no means “irrefutable” evidence.

  3. Acts then mentions increasing numbers here and there, but does not say why they were converting or on what evidence, until the next big conversion event comes up: when Philip evangelizes the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-14). Again, his lone, uncorroborated claims and his own healings are sufficient to persuade them. No one does any fact-checking first, of any kind whatever, before converting. No investigations. No interrogations. Nothing. They don’t even ask to hear other witnesses corroborate Philip’s testimony. For no other apostles go there until after converts were made. So again Holding is refuted: people did not check the facts, in any acceptable way at all, before converting. True, more Samaritans in outlying villages are converted later, but we aren’t told how (Acts 8:25).

  4. Then Philip converts a Jewish Ethiopian official through nothing more than a scripture lessonno fact-checking, no questioning, no evidence of any kind is appealed to or requested, no other witnesses sought. The Ethiopian simply converts on the spot (Acts 8:27-39). Again, Holding is refuted.

  5. Then Paul is converted by a vision (Acts 9:1-19), not an encounter with any flesh-and-blood Jesus, nor by any other evidence at all except (perhaps) the ability of Ananias to heal Paul’s hysterical blindness. This is particularly important, because Paul must have had access to all the evidence Holding insists was “irrefutable,” and yet he didn’t convert. None of that evidence, whatever it was, persuaded Paul at all. So it could not possibly have been “irrefutable.” Paul had to see God himself to be convinced! And yet he didn’t really “see” anything objectively empiricalhe did not see the body of Jesus risen from the grave, just a bright light, and a voice no one but he could understand.

  6. Vague mentions follow of Christian numbers increasing, but the next account that tells us anything as to why is the supposed conversion of all the inhabitants of Lydda and Sharon (Acts 9:33-35). What convinces them? Peter heals the paralyzed Aeneas who had been in bed eight years. Then “all who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.” That’s it. No facts are checked about the details of the resurrection of Jesus. No witnesses are questioned, no letters written, no authorities consulted. A single psychosomatic cure is all it took to convert two entire towns. That is not “irrefutable” evidence. It isn’t even evidence, by any modern standard. The exact same scenario unfolds in Joppa: Peter’s healing of Tabitha is all by itself sufficient to get “many to believe in the Lord” (Acts 9:36-42).

  7. Next comes the conversion of the household of Cornelius (who were simply following the head of their householdstandard groupthink behavior), when Cornelius saw a vision of an angel instructing him to follow Peterand all convert instantly right after Peter’s speech (Acts 10:33-46). No fact-checking is conducted by anyonenot even Cornelius, who had men to send to get Peter in Joppa (Acts 10:1-26), yet sent no one to inquire about any of the facts in Jerusalem (neither among the authorities there, nor any neutral witnesses, nor even any Christian witnesses). No letters are written. No interrogations are conducted. Indeed, no one even asks any questions! As soon as Peter walks in the door, Cornelius is already worshipping him. And as soon as Peter gives his sales pitch, everyone in the house is speaking in tongues and praising Jesus. Where is this “irrefutable evidence” Holding keeps talking about? Speeches, visions, and subjective spiritual feelings are all we have hereyet none of these things is a reliable proof of anything, much less that Jesus stepped out of a tomb near Jerusalem.

  8. Acts mentions other conversions at this point outside Palestine, but does not say anything more specific until we hear the story of Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12). Here we have a Roman provincial governor, a senator and proconsulsurely if anyone had the means and education to conduct a thorough investigation before converting, it was himyet he conducts no real investigation at all. He writes no letters to anyone in Jerusalem, whether to friends, colleagues, officials, authorities, or even disciples. He asks for no interrogation of any eyewitnesses. He doesn’t even ask any questions at all about the evidence Jesus rose. He is simply and immediately converted by one single miracle: Paul’s striking his court sorcerer blind. That’s it. “When he saw this, he believed.” That is not even evidence, much less irrefutable evidence, that Jesus rose from the grave. So yet again, Holding’s prediction that surely prospective converts would have checked the facts before believing is refuted even for an educated elite. How much less would uneducated common folk do any kind of fact-checking or inquiry of any respectable kind.

  9. Again, further conversions are mentioned after this, but nothing specific is said as to why they converted, until we get to the conversion of the merchant Lydia (Acts 16:14-15). Did she conduct any investigation? Did she check any facts? Did she even interrogate any witnesses? No. She heard what they said and immediately “God opened her heart” and she converted, and the rest of her household followed her leadexactly as would be expected in a groupthink culture. And all Lydia needed was a single conversation with Paul, whom even Luke admits never saw any empty tomb or the risen flesh of Jesus. Thus, yet again, Holding is refuted: no fact-checking was conducted at all. All it took was a speech. So, too, the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16:22-34), though at least he supposedly got to see the “miracle” of an earthquake that cracked open the jail’s doors and stockswhich (if it happened at all) is not a supernatural event, and proves nothing about the resurrection of Jesus anyway. So again there is no evidence here, much less “irrefutable evidence.” Yet two entire households were converted.

  10. Then Paul converts “some” Jews and “a great multitude” of Judaized pagans in northern Greece by doing nothing more than spending three days (three separate Sabbaths) arguing solely from scripture (Acts 17:1-4). No fact-checking takes place here, either, nor does empirical evidence even come up at all. All Paul does is “reason with them from the scriptures, explaining and pointing out that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead,” and Paul’s word alone was the only evidence he had that this Christ was his Jesus. And that was all it took to win tons of converts, none of whom conducted any further inquiry. In exactly the same way, the Jews at Berea eagerly accepted the gospel simply because they “examined the scriptures daily whether these things were so” and “many of them therefore believed” (Acts 17:10-12). That’s it. Scripture proved it. They needed no empirical evidence as we understand it. No mention is made of them checking or seeking anything that we would count as evidence today.

  11. More conversions are then mentioned, but not enough details are given, until the last passage in Acts (28:16-31). There, all Paul does is “persuade them about Jesus” by citing “the law of Moses and the prophets.” No other evidence or testimony is mentioned at all, and yet in just one day of scripture lessons “some believed” on that very day. There is no investigation, no interrogation of witnesses, no letters written or received. We are not told they have any other information better than that. And certainly if, as Acts claims, they converted on the very same day Paul spoke to them, and, as Acts implies, all Paul spoke to them about was scripture, we can conclude that none of these converts from among the Roman Jews did anything we would call “fact-checking” before believing.

That’s it. Never once does Acts report anyone checking any facts pertinent to the Resurrection before converting. To claim they did such checking, but that Acts simply doesn’t say so (not even once), is circular reasoning: there is no evidence they did, therefore Holding cannot claim they did and then use that mere assertion as “evidence” for the Resurrection. Indeed, Acts rules out any such tactic, since Acts says again and again that conversions are won on the very same day the gospel is preachedthere are rarely any delays of days, weeks, or months, as would be required for evidence to be gathered, witnesses sought out and questioned, and letters exchanged. And even when any such duration is mentioned, there is still no indication that any such efforts were engaged in that time. None at all. So the facts, even from his own sources, fail to support Holding, and actually do a fair job of refuting him.

Indeed, we have the same conclusion from the other direction: for in Acts the only occasions where any kind of inquiry is conducted are the many trials, and the debates at Athens. And yet on none of those occasions was any convert won, except a “few” only at Athensfar, far away from Jerusalemand we find no mention there that these converts conducted any sort of inquiry beyond simply interrogating Paul, who wasn’t even an eyewitness of the risen body of Jesus or the empty tomb. Nor does the account of Athens say Paul ever referred to anything we would consider empirical evidence, much less “irrefutable” evidence. So even if Holding is right that “Christian claims would have been easy to check out and verify,” his own evidence, the book of Acts even exactly as it is written, proves quite soundly that no such checking or verifying ever took place. Maybe those who rejected Christian claims checked the facts. But as far as Acts reveals, converts never did. Even at our most charitable, it is still an irrefutable fact that Acts provides no evidence whatever that such checking or verifying preceded, or even followed, any conversion. And Acts contains the only evidence to be had on this point. So Holding has no ground to stand on when he claims that converts checked and verified the facts.

To the contrary, Acts shows that converts were won not by giving each one a complete dossier on all the evidence and witnesses proving Jesus rose from the grave, complete with home addresses and signed affidavits and transcribed depositions. Not even close. All that was needed was the same three-point sales pitch: “scripture says Jesus would rise, our ability to prophecy, heal, and speak in tongues proves we’re not lying, and our leaders say they saw Jesusin some sense or other, they never specify details, but you can trust us!” That would not fly today. Scripture is hopelessly ambiguous, and can be used to prove anythingespecially if you cherry-pick the information you want and ignore all the rest, and put your own spin on it all, exactly as the earliest Christian missionaries did. And the miracles Christian missionaries performed were the same kinds of things pagan holy men could pull off, too. Today we know there are natural causes of such phenomena. Had we been there, we would have been able to gather the information needed to “test” whether these were genuinely miraculous in any sensebut now all that information is lost, so we have no way left to check. And it is simply not possible for us now to “check” the nature, much less the origin (natural, demonic, or divine), of private visions to a privileged handful of religious zealots. Yet, back then, that was all the information one needed to immediately convert hundreds if not thousands of people all over the Roman Empire. Clearly these were not critical thinkers, by any standard, much less a modern one. And there is certainly nothing here we can call “irrefutable evidence.”

The only sorts of evidence Acts directly mentions as convincing anyone (none of which we can count as “evidence” that Jesus rose from the grave) are scripture and visions, current miracles, and the exemplary moral life of the Christians themselves, which won them the “favor of all the people” and convinced many to join (e.g. Acts 2:44-47 & 4:32-37). We already explained in Chapter 6 and Chapter 10.3 that in groupthink societies the moral success of a community is synonymous with divine sanction for that community and its message, and thus such moral devotion would have been decisive evidence to people of those days that the Christians were telling the truth when they said they saw Jesus or that God told them Jesus lives. Of course, we know today this is a non sequitur. But it was potent logic back then. Likewise, we are frequently told of the success of appeals to scripture in winning converts. For example, in Acts 17:1-4, Paul “reasoned with them from the scriptures, explaining and citing passages that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead,” and in Acts 18:24-28, Apollos “powerfully refuted the Jews” by “demonstrating from the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” Sure, clever exegesis could persuade ancient Jews, but it does not impress an objective investigator today.

As for the miracles, none of them was truly miraculousat least, we cannot confirm they were, since all the data we would need to test for such a conclusion is not preserved (as explained throughout Chapter 7). The miracles that won converts (apart from the vague art of “speaking in tongues”) were predominately exorcism and the healing of the “blind and lame” (and on one or two occasions the causing of blindness), events which we know today can be natural phenomena. Not only were exactly the same miracles routinely performed by pagan gods and sorcerers, but blindness and paralysis are the most typical psychosomatic phenomena and thus the most likely to respond to purely psychological treatment (i.e. “faith”).[7]

Of course, the implied realities of exorcism we have very good reason to doubt, since despite centuries of research, medical science has failed to uncover any evidence that such a thing as demonic possession even exists. Once again, it probably denoted a psychological condition that could be corrected by a culturally acceptable psychological “treatment.” And on the matter of healing, we also have good reason to doubt, since even according to Acts none of the healings that won converts actually regenerated any observable lesion or wound: all the conditions healed had no visible signs of medical trauma or disease apart from the behavior of the afflicted, who merely claim (and may really have believed) they were unable to see or move, or suffered from some other ailment they perceived as a disease. But again we have no evidence on record that this was any more than a psychological condition. No lost limbs are restored, no victim of swordplay is brought back to life, no open wounds are sealed up before anyone’s eyes, no withered corpses revived.

But all this is diversion anyway, since the moral decency of Christians, the prescience of scripture, and the ability of disciples to “work miracles” is irrelevant to us. None of this is evidence that Jesus walked out of a tomb. Yet in Acts, these three “proofs” are the only empirical evidence that persuades people to believe Jesus did that. The only other evidence used at all is the unverifiable word of the disciples that they alone “saw” Jesuswhich for all we can know, amounted to nothing more than what Paul or Stephen meant when they said they “saw” Jesus: namely, a “vision from Heaven.”[8] Look at all the trials and public speeches documented in Acts: not a single one appeals to any confirmable piece of empirical evidence, much less anything “irrefutable.”

Seriously. Look at what was actually said to the public or the authorities. In Acts 2:14-40 we have Peter’s first, and longest, public presentation of the case. Yet his argument consists entirely of irrelevant appeals to their private, unverifiable claim to have “seen” Jesus in some unspecified sense, to an obscure exegesis of the Psalms, and to various other “miracles” that actually have no bearing on whether Jesus rose. That’s it. According to Peter’s exegesis of scripture, a descendent of David had to rise from the dead (Acts 2:24-31 & 2:34-36), and Jesus must have been that descendent simply because “we” saw him, though (conveniently) “you” only get to see us speaking in tongues (Acts 2:32-33). He tacks on as a final flourish a typical ad baculum fallacy that they’d better believe or they’re doomed (Acts 2:38-40). That is a feeble argument. Yet (supposedly) it wins thousands of instant converts.

Apologists do try to see in Peter’s speech an appeal to the empty tomb in Acts 2:29, but this requires supposing that Luke here, suddenly, for no reason, became ignorant of all his otherwise apparent education in the principles of rhetoric. For by the standards of speech-making in antiquity, if you had evidence like an empty tomb, you would use it explicitly and directly to potent rhetorical effectexactly as Luke does when he has Peter repeatedly remind the audience of the evidence they have been witness to (e.g. Acts 2:22 & 2:33). Even when he refers to what only insiders got to see, he does not include finding an empty tomb. Indeed, the absence of any appeal to the evidence of an empty tomb in Peter’s speech lends merit to this speech deriving from an authentic tradition, especially when the rather un-Lukan distortion of the Septuagint (and related scribal interpolations) that clumsily introduce the word “flesh” into the speech are discarded as bogus, as rightly they should be.[9]

Otherwise, the pattern remains the same throughout Acts. For example:

  1. Acts 3:12-26: Peter again uses an irrelevant miracle (the healing of a man “lame from his mother’s womb”) to sell belief in the raising of Jesus. Again, he says only “we” are witnesses to the Resurrection (3:15), and that is the only evidence he has to offer, besides more irrelevant miracles (3:16) and scripture (3:18, 3:21-24). Indeed, Peter concedes there is no other evidence, for he says his audience until then was “acting in ignorance” of the evidence (3:17). Finally, yet again, an ad baculum fallacy closes his argument: belief is sold as a way to be “cleansed of sin” and thus saved (3:19-20, 3:25-26) and thereby avoid destruction (3:23). There is no irrefutable evidence here.

  2. Acts 5:29-32: This time Peter argues at trial that God rose Jesus from the dead. Yet again his only evidence is that the Holy Spirit inspires the Church and he himself saw God “raise him up” and “exalt him to his right hand” (without any explanation of what that means he actually saw). That’s it. That’s all he has to offer in his defense. There is no “Hey, you guys know the tomb was empty, how do you explain that!?” or “Hey, guys, I touched his body and ate with him, so there can be no doubt it was him!” or “Look, there were dozens of us who all saw him at the same time!” or anything like that at all. Surely in a trial for his life Peter would want to make the best defense. So if he had “irrefutable” evidence to appeal to, where is it? In fact, why does Peter suddenly clam up about the amazing miracles and events of Jesus’ life and death the moment he’s under oath? Alarm bells should be ringing.

  3. Acts 7: Now Stephen is on trial, and he is asked by the prosecutor if the charges are true (7:1), at which Stephen’s lengthy defense speech ensues. Yet never once does he use the Resurrection as an argument, or present any evidence or testimony to that. Thus, once again, when under oath, at trial, Christians suddenly clam up about this supposedly “irrefutable” evidence Holding keeps claiming they had. All Stephen does is recite scripture (7:2-47). He then says God “does not dwell in what is made by hands” (7:48-50) as the sole logic behind his denouncing the Temple cult. Then he compares Christians to the revered prophets of old (7:51-52). And finally he says his accusers have failed to follow their own law (7:53), which was the main moral argument of Christianity, and the reason it found a followingbecause the charge was widely perceived to be true (as explained in Chapter 10). But never once in Stephen’s speech does he offer any evidence whatever that Jesus rose from the dead. At most he cites scripture as “proof.” That’s it. Nothing else. No witnesses. No material evidence. No appeals to empty tombs or Doubting Thomases. Nothing. Ultimately, he concludes with the only real “evidence” Christians apparently had: he himself has a private, unverifiable vision of Christ enthroned in Heaven, right there in court, which no one else sees (7:54-56). Sorry, that simply doesn’t cut it.

  4. Acts 10:33-43: Peter preaches in public now to Gentiles (who are already Jewish sympathizers or kin, friends, or servants of sympathizers). Peter says they all know about the ministry of Jesus starting with his baptism by John, they all know “how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power” and how he “did good and healed all who were oppressed by the Devil,” but then he says only “we” (the disciples) are “witnesses of all the things he did.” When he finally gets to something relevant to Holding’s argument, note the curious way Peter puts his case: “God raised Jesus up on the third day and allowed that he should become visible not to all the people, but only to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God,” meaning “we who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Thus, Peter makes a specific point of the fact that he has no evidence at all except his word: no one else saw anything, indeed God didn’t even let anyone else see anything, much less all this eating and drinking. And there is, again, no mention at all of an empty tomb. Finally, as usual, Peter includes an appeal to scripture, declaring it is “all the prophets” who “bear witness” that those who believe in Jesus gain forgiveness of sins. Once again, in this speech we fail to find any of this “irrefutable evidence” Holding insists Peter had.

  5. Acts 13:17-41: Paul begins his ministry in a synagogue. What is his case? He summarizes the history of Israel on up to David, and claims the promised “savior” was Jesus. He appeals to the assertions of John the Baptist. But that’s it. Rather than presenting “irrefutable” evidence, Paul essentially concedes he has nothing of the kind, for “those who live in Jerusalem and their leaders” do not “recognize Jesus,” nor the scriptures that prove who he was. Though Paul makes a point of noting that Jesus was buried “in a tomb” before God raised him, Paul makes no appeal to any evidence or witness to that tomb being empty. All he says is, quite ambiguously, that “for many days he appeared” to his disciples. He engages some exegesis of scripture, but presents no more evidence. Paul even tries to shame them into believing by quoting Habakkuk 1:5. Yet after all this, the only evidence Paul ever presents that Jesus “didn’t decay” is that he appeared. Period. And no one can verify that, since only a few specially chosen people got to see thisand Paul doesn’t even explain exactly what it was they claimed to see. As usual, he makes no relevant distinction between these appearances and his own witness of Jesus in a vision from Heaven.

  6. Acts 23:1-10: Now Paul is on trial. His defense consists solely of insisting he was simply a law-abiding citizen “on trial for the hope of the resurrection of the dead” which many of his accusers also shared. Consequently, some of the jurors find him innocent, from the quite reasonable argument that “suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” That’s it. The only reason they do not condemn him is that they cannot refute his claim to have seen a private vision. We can agree. Nor is there any way, for them or us, to confirm it either, or anything about it, including its true content or cause. But there remains no mention here of any other evidence on his side. The jurors just had to take Paul’s word for it. Curious how Paul does not introduce any witnesses or material evidence to support his caseonce again, all this “irrefutable” evidence Holding insists he had is nowhere to be found, even when Paul is on trial for his very life and dignity!

  7. Acts 24:10-26:32: Paul again has a chance to defend himself in several trials and hearings over two years. And yet once again, when under oath, Paul always clams up about any of this supposedly “irrefutable” evidence Holding claims he had. Paul’s defense can be summed up quite simply as: all Jews hope for the resurrection as he does, so why is he on trial? The only charge mentioned is that “he teaches the resurrection of the dead,” which he insists they also teach. There is no direct mention of the resurrection of Jesuseither as any part of the charge against him, or as any element at all of his defense. Even when he is specifically asked to explain “faith in Christ Jesus,” all he teaches them is “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come.” He makes no mention of empty tombs or even a risen Jesus. Only years later is there any mention of the issue being an esoteric religious squabble over “Jesus, who was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive,” which is quite ambiguous as to what that means. Festus says outright that he does not know how to investigate the charge (25:20) and has nothing relevant to tell Caesar about it (25:26)a funny thing to say, if there were all these incredible “facts” that he could “check,” as Holding insists. Ultimately, through all this, Paul’s only evidence at trial that Jesus was still “alive” is a private, unverifiable “vision from Heaven” (26:19) and a divine voice claiming to be Jesus. That’s it. That’s all Paul has to offer, and that’s all Agrippa needs to hear to acquit him. Paul would have been free had he not appealed to Caesar. No other investigation is conducted, no other evidence is even mentioned.[10]

We’ve just skimmed all the major speeches in Acts, even official trial defenses under oath, many recorded at substantial length, and not one iota of “irrefutable” evidence is mentioned. The same can be said of all the other trials and speeches. That pretty much refutes Holding’s contention that there was such evidence to be had. If amazing evidence of any sort existed, surely we would have it mentioned in these sections of Acts. But we find none.

In the end, all of Holding’s predictions are contradicted or fail to pan out, even when we look at his own evidencethe only evidence there is for the early Christian mission: the book of Acts. For example, Holding claims “the empty tomb would be checked.” Yet we have not a single example in Acts of any convert ever checking this fact, before converting or after. We don’t even have one single example of any convert asking for evidence there was an empty tomb. The story Luke tells in his gospel has at least a few disciples checking, but this evidence is curious for its absence all throughout Acts. Instead, from both the Epistles and Acts it is clear the empty tomb was never used as evidence, nor ever questioned by anyone. Thus, Holding’s prediction fails. In a similar fashion, Holding claims “Matthew’s story of resurrected saints would be checked out.” Yet there is no evidence in Luke that this event even happened, nor any evidence in Acts that anyone ever checked it in any way whatsoever, or even so much as asked anyone for testimony on the matter. In fact, there is no evidence anyone had even heard of such a claim until long after Paul’s death. So, again, Holding’s claim fails to find any support in the evidence we have.

Likewise, Holding claims “Lazarus would be sought out for questioning.” Yet there is no evidence at all that anyone did this, either. Indeed, a real Lazarus is only ever mentioned in one document: the Gospel of John, by all accounts the latest and last of the Gospels. So as far as Holding can actually prove, the story didn’t even exist until long after the facts could be checked. More troubling for Holding’s case is the fact that Luke is the only other author to mention anyone named Lazarus, yet only as a fictional person in a parable (Luke 16:20-31), which mentions his resurrection only hypothetically. In fact, as Luke presents it, the entire point of the Lazarus parable was that scripture is the only evidence people will have that the Gospel is true. This confirms what we have said above against Holding’s assertions to the contrary. The parable even ends with the moral that, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even if Lazarus rises from the dead.” Thus, Luke’s story specifically denies that the resurrection of Lazarus would even be accepted as evidence, even had it happenedand its entire point is to defend the fact that the only evidence prospective converts will ever have is scripture. Yet as we observed in Chapter 7, Luke is, if anyone is, the most reliable recorder of the Jesus tradition, such that if he does not include an actual record of Lazarus rising (but only a hypothetical parable of such), then probably that was the truth, and John’s elaboration is the fiction. After all, Luke supposedly followed all the stories exactlyso if there was a story of Lazarus actually being raised, we can conclude that Luke probably found it false (and the same goes for Matthew’s zombies).

In Chapter 17 we shall see that the Epistles confirm our conclusions here. For the scant evidence the Epistles offer regarding how converts were actually persuaded offers no support at all to Holding’s hypothesis, but abundant support for quite the opposite. We find empirical fact-checking is practically despised, and replaced instead with scriptural exegesis and appeals to miracles and visions, none of which can be verified as anything but natural phenomena. In the Epistles we find no references to any relevant empirical evidence being checked at all, much less examples of the application of critical reason and inquiry upon that evidence. We can only conclude that Holding’s argument is at best without foundation, and at worst complete poppycock.


13.3. Evidence from Early Apologists

That sums up the only relevant sources we have for the Christian mission in its first hundred years, and we found no support for Holding’s thesis, and much to contradict it. Once we go beyond that time frame, we are way beyond the reasonable possibility of converts checking (much less confirming) the relevant facts in the way Holding has in mind. Even so, surely the most educated and inquisitive converts would still have done their best at doing all this historical fact-checking Holding insists they did. And we can certainly say that in the 2nd century A.D. Christianity finally started attracting bona fide elite scholarsnot many, mind you, but at least some, and by their very nature they left us highly articulate accounts of their reasons for converting. Yet when we look at the first generation of these men, the first elite scholars to join the fold and believe, we still fail to find evidence of Holding’s thesis. Once again, what we find is quite the opposite. The first four elite scholars we know became Christians, all before the year 150 A.D., are Justin, Athenagoras, Aristides, and Tatian. All wrote lengthy treatises that survey their reasons for converting. Yet we look in vain for even one single example of “fact-checking” the resurrection claim in any respectable sense.

Justin appeals almost exclusively to scripturehis entire apology virtually rests on the single argument “scripture says so, therefore it is true.” Occasionally he makes references to some vague Gospel tradition, but never once mentions ever checking the claims in that tradition against objective, independent sources. Never once does he discuss determining who the Gospel authors were or even where they got their information, much less make any effort to determine whether their claims were true. He never mentions speaking to anyone at allno descendants or colleagues of any witnesses (hostile, neutral, or friendly) to any element of the Christian story. The closest he comes to citing any sources at all are one casual reference to the census returns under Quirinius, and a confident citation of the Acts of Pilate as a reliable authority. The latter is an infamous forgery, and the fact that he trusts this document reflects very poorly on Justin’s competence to “check the facts” as Holding would want. And the former source tells us nothing as to whether Jesus rose from the deador anything supernatural at all.[11]

Justin makes it quite clear that if scripture “said” it, he believed it was trueperiod. He needed no further checking as far as we can tell. As Justin says, “this should now be obvious to youthat whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed” and therefore take precedence over all other beliefs. End of argument. In fact, for all we really know, every single thing Justin believed about Jesus he learned from scripture, not historical investigation. As he says himself:

So in these books of the prophets we found Jesus our Christ foretold as coming, born of a virgin, growing up to man’s estate, and healing every disease and every sickness, and raising the dead, and being hated, and unrecognized, and crucified, and dying, and rising again, and ascending into Heaven, and both being, and being called, the Son of God. We find it also predicted that certain persons should be sent by Him into every nation to publish these things, and that even among the Gentiles men should believe in Him. And He was predicted before He appeared, first 5000 years before, and again 3000, then 2000, then 1000, and yet again 800; for in the succession of generations prophets after prophets arose.[12]

This reveals that he could find everything he believed in scripture, and that he accepted as a fundamental methodological principle that everything found in scripture was true. And he was serious. You can read Justin’s two apologies back to front and never once find any other methodological principle or source of his faith. That’s it: that is the sum of his “fact-checking.” The Bible Says It, Therefore I Believe It. If this is how a highly educated elite could come to convertand it clearly wasthen we have no hope at all for the uneducated masses employing any more effective principle of inquiry. Holding’s theory is utterly smashed.

This is confirmed when we read Justin’s own autobiographical account of his conversion. He tells us he actively studied every philosophy, and reports with regret either that faith in God was devalued by the philosophical schools, or they demanded money, or they required him to study the sciences, a demand he openly regards with anti-intellectual scorn. Clearly this was no critical thinker nor any admirer of careful empirical inquiry. He ends up a Platonist only because it agrees with his fundamental (and ultimately unexplained) assumption of a mystical, nonempirical approach to knowledge. And then from there he “thought” his way to Christianity, after conversing either with himself or an actual Christian elder. If we read between the lines, Justin is telling us he chose Christianity because it was the only philosophy that placed God first, taught its doctrines for free, and didn’t require any research or advanced study. He adds, as the final blow that converted him, the fact that Christianity was based on the oldest and thus most venerable of prophetic books.[13] At no point in his own account of conversion is evidence ever mentioned. And none of his reasons for convertingnot even a single oneis rational or valid, whether logically or empirically. “Fact-checking” appears nowhere in Justin’s list of methods or arguments. It played no demonstrable role in his conversion at all. And there is no reason to believe other Christians, from the very beginning, would not have converted for the same illogical reasons as Justin.

As I’ve said again and again, above all things it is scripture that wins Justin over. He spends most of his time arguing from that, and that alone. In fact, the very reason his dialogue is a debate between Christianity and Judaismnot paganismis the fact that pagans can boast no oracles so ancient as the Bible, and therefore Judaism is the only alternative even worth considering. The Bible’s antiquity, and nothing else, is logically sufficient in Justin’s eyes to secure its absolute authority (hence see again Chapter 4). The closest Justin ever comes to citing anything like empirical evidence in support of Christianity is when he argues from the present efficacy of Christian exorcism and other dubious miracle-working (already discussed above). And yet even here we find only a maddeningly superstitious line of reasoning:

It is also manifest to all, that we who believe in Him pray to be kept by Him from strange, wicked and deceitful spirits, as the word of prophecy, personating one of those who believe in Him, figuratively declares. For we do continually beseech God by Jesus Christ to preserve us from the demons which are hostile to the worship of God, and whom we of old time served, in order that, after our conversion by Him to God, we may be blameless. For we call Him Helper and Redeemer, the power of whose name even the demons do fear; and at this day, when they are exorcised in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified under Pontius Pilate, governor of Judaea, they are overcome. And thus it is manifest to all, that His Father has given Him so great power, by virtue of which demons are subdued to His name, and to the dispensation of His suffering.

[From such power each Christian also receives] gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God…. Accordingly, we who have received gifts from Christ, who has ascended up on high, prove from the words of prophecy that you, “the wise in yourselves, and the men of understanding in your own eyes,” are foolish, and honor God and His Christ by lip only.[14]

The “wise” and the “men of understanding” are common epithets for philosophers, scientists, and scholars. Thus, all learning, all research, and all science is foolish. Only the Bible is worth our attention. That’s Justin’s message. And that Christians have correctly interpreted the Bible is proven by the mere fact that they can exorcise demons, heal, and prophesythe only “gifts” he lists that could ever be imagined as supernatural (and yet, as we discussed above, cannot be proven anything of the kind). But even the fact that Christians are gifted with ordinary human strength, talent, zeal, and inspiration Justin sees as “proof” that Christianity is true. That’s how bankrupt his logic is. His reasons for believing make no logical sense. Yet they are reasons so compelling to him that they stir him to passionate and unshakable belief. And Justin was not some rare nutjob. He is representative of the early Christian mindset. These were the sorts of people who were becoming Christians, not the Lucians, Ciceros, or Plinys of the world. As far as we can tell, those people who actually believed in genuine fact-checking stayed clear.

We find little different in any of the other elite scholars on our list. Consider Athenagoras: once again, no mention, anywhere in his works, of fact-checking (or even what we would consider empirical evidence) that Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, in the summary he gives of his reasons for becoming a Christian, we find only this illogical line of argument:

The unity of the Deity is confessed by almost all, even against their will, when they come to treat of the first principles of the universe, and we in our turn likewise assert that He who arranged this universe is God…[and] we are able to demonstrate what we apprehend and justly believe, namely that there is one God, with proofs and reason accordant with truth. For poets and philosophers, as to other subjects so also to this, have applied themselves in the way of conjecture, moved, by reason of their affinity with an inspiration from God, each one by his own soul, to try whether he could find out and apprehend the truth. But they have not been found competent fully to apprehend it, because they thought fit to learn, not from God concerning God, but each one from himself. Hence they came each to his own conclusion respecting God, and matter, and forms, and the world. But we have for witnesses of the things we apprehend and believe, prophets, men who have pronounced concerning God and the things of God, guided by the Spirit of God. And you too will admit, excelling all others as you do in intelligence and in piety towards the true God, that it would be irrational for us to give heed to mere human opinions, and cease to believe in the Spirit from God, who moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments.[15]

Translation: Screw you, all you academic lunkheads, and screw all your logic and science and scholarship. We have the Law and the Prophets. Everything else is obvious. End of argument. Like Justin, Athenagoras is persuaded Christianity is true simply because scripture persuades him. He never once mentions any historical evidence playing any role at all in confirming the truth of Christian doctrines. Instead, Athenagoras operates on the following assumptions: God must exist and logically must be one, therefore only prophets who attest to God’s unity are guided by the spirit of God and thus can attest to his plans, and therefore such inspired prophets know the truth while independent thinkers and scientists do not. All that remains, then, is to figure out whose prophets are real prophetsand in that contest, once we limit the field to monotheists (as logic alone dictates we must), the oldest always wins. And it also helps, as it did for Justin, that Christians are purportedly paragons of moral virtue. From these assumptions, Athenagoras can declare not only belief, but the outright irrationality of not believing what the Bible saysin fact, it is irrational to ignore the Bible and “give heed to mere human opinions.” In other words, except where they support or agree with the Bible, science, philosophy, and reason are for suckers. The Bible is the ultimate sourcebook worthy of our trust.

Athenagoras never elaborates as much as Justin does as to why he believes what he does about Jesus, but when he does, the only evidence he cites is “scripture says so” (e.g. § 10). Does this sound like someone who “fact-checked” before believing? What facts did he check? Where does he discuss such investigations? Or even the principles that would guide such an investigation? Indeed, in his Treatise on the Resurrection (cf. 1-2) Athenagoras actually argues at length that one must have a sound theory of method and truth before deciding what to believe. But then he presents his theory as simply this: logically God exists, therefore everything not impossible for God nor contrary to his will should be believed. That’s it. Actual fact-checking or research never comes up, beyond simply repeating what they’ve heard or read. Evidence, as we would accept it, is barely relevant. If God can and should raise people from the dead (cf. 12-15), he will. End of argument. Such bizarre, illogical reasoning bewilders us today, but was common then. Indeed, we have every reason to believe it typified the Christian convert in antiquity (as we shall see in Chapter 17).

Just like Athenagoras, Aristides only argues from bare logic, and the moral caliber of Christian life, that Christians alone must have the truth. He never refers to any other evidence, apart from an unidentified “gospel” handed down attesting to God’s incarnation, death, and ascension to Heaven. Aristides is convinced by nothing else than these three things. I’m not kidding. Like Justin, he surveyed all the alternatives and found them illogical, and he observed the Christian lifestyle and found it godly. Then he read the Gospels and was convinced. Those are the only pieces of evidence he offers to his audience, which was supposed to be a Roman Emperor (either Hadrian or Antoninus). Never once does he mention checking the facts. Never once does he say, as Holding imagines, “You know, I looked into these crazy Christian claimsasked around, checked documents and suchand to my surprise their stories are all true!” To the contrary, that kind of reasoning appears utterly alien to Aristides. Logic and moral stature are sufficient to convince him, and are all he deems worthy of mentioning when attempting to prove his religion truefor that is all he drones on about chapter after chapter. He does appeal to the Gospels as a source, but he is completely credulous as to their contenthe declares that simply from reading them he was fully assured of their truth.[16] So much for Holding’s theory that he would check the facts in them first!

Finally, we have Tatian, who gives us a direct and complete account of his conversion that simply says it all:

Wherefore, having seen pagan activities, and moreover also having been admitted to the mysteries, and having everywhere examined the religious rites performed by the effeminate and the emotional, and having found among the Romans their Latiarian Jupiter delighting in human gore and the blood of slaughtered men, and Artemis not far from the great city sanctioning acts of the same kind, and one demon here and another there instigating to the perpetration of evilretiring by myself, I sought how I might be able to discover the truth. And, while I was giving my most earnest attention to the matter, I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings, too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors. And I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centered in one Being. And, my soul being taught of God, I discern that the former class of writings lead to condemnation, but that these put an end to the slavery that is in the world, and rescue us from a multiplicity of rulers and ten thousand tyrants, while they give us, not indeed what we had not before received, but what we had received but were prevented by error from retaining.[17]

That’s it. No fact-checking. No empirical research. No asking around. He converted simply because he found other religions morally repugnant and illogical, was impressed by the antiquity of the Bible, found the Christians to be the most moral followers of that most ancient text, and therefore concluded that they had the right interpretation of the most authoritative bookauthoritative for no other reason than “our philosophy is older than the systems of the Greeks” (§ 31) and is the most morally attractive (e.g. § 32). End of story. Nowhere in his entire treatise does he ever once mention investigating anything, even though he devotes chapter after chapter to detailed proofs of the antiquity of the Bible and the moral superiority of Christians. In fact, nowhere does the issue of “evidence” ever arise for him at alloutside the “evidence” within scripture, and of the antiquity of scripture, and of the current moral superiority of Christians. Not only does Tatian show no interest at all in checking the facts concerning the resurrection of Jesus, but spends a lot of ink arguing that philosophy and scholarship are a stupid waste of time.[18] Once again, this appears to be the typical mindset of the early Christian converts. These are not the fact-checkers of antiquity. These are the morally self-righteous despisers of scholarship, who zealously embrace Christianity for wholly illogical reasons (at least by empirical standards).

Those four men were the most educated Christians before the later 2nd century A.D. Before them were only lesser lights, none of whom, as far as we can tell, conducted anything like the research into philosophical systems and alternatives that Tatian, Aristides, Athenagoras, and Justin conducted. Yet these four men, the first on record to make a complete survey of the alternatives, to actually attend the schools, never conducted any research into the claims of the Gospels. They simply believed what they were told. As long as what they were told was told them by men of moral stature and conformed to what was “predicted” in the oldest available oracles of God, they believed it. No other investigation was required. No other investigation mattered.

This same unempirical attitude is confirmed by one other man of letters: Papias, who did not (as far as we know) achieve the level of study of the other four, but did at least conduct something that could loosely be called research. From surviving quotes (and one can rightly wonder why the original books were not preserved), Papias tells us that as a Christian himself he asked around. He could find no witnesses still living, but spoke with several people who knew them. Still, he simply believed whatever he was told. He never “checked” if what he was told was true by any means we would regard as credible today. Indeed, he tells us his criteria, and they have no proper connection with empirical standards:

I shall not hesitate to put down, along with my interpretations, whatever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and carefully stored up in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who appealed to the commandments given by the Lord to faith and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, anyone who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayingswhat Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples, which Aristion and the presbyter John now say as disciples of the Lord. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.[19]

He says his criterion was not “whose statements checked out against documentary evidence and the testimony of neutral witnesses” or any such thing. Indeed, he rejects books and documents as not even worth his time. Rather, his criteria were simply: those who didn’t blabber too much to be suspicious must be telling the truth, so long as what they said agreed with accepted dogma. Neither of those criteria are logically or empirically valid, yet they are his only criteria. And he took them seriously. So even though he “questioned carefully” those who had things to say (though only ever Christians, never Jews or other neutral parties), he never went any further than thathe never even asked how he could confirm what they said was true. And there is no evidence he ever made any such effort. No wonder he related patently absurd traditions as if they were true, bringing the Christian scholar Eusebius to conclude that Papias was a man of “very little intelligence.” Yet he was clearly among the most educated of the early Christiansa member of that elite few who actually could and did write books.[20] If this is how other converts examined Christianityand as far as the evidence suggests, it isthen Holding cannot maintain any convert “checked the facts” in any reliable way. The evidence simply does not support such a claim.


13.4. Conclusion

We have shown that the ancient world was not “a society where nothing escaped notice,” but in fact a society where secrets were expected to be kept, and where a man’s word was trusted without empirical evidence so long as he proved himself a man of knowledge and virtue. Holding claims that the ancient obsession with spying on everyone to make sure they conformed to moral custom also meant there was “every reason to suppose that people hearing the Gospel message would check against the facts,” but we have shown this was not true. It is, indeed, a non sequitursince to spy on what people do in public to enforce moral behavior is categorically different from researching the evidence behind the factual claims people make. These are entirely different activities, with entirely different motives and methods behind them.

As we have seen, the evidence even from Acts and from the first elite scholars to join the faith shows that no such research was ever done, by anyone, before convertingnor is there any clear example of such research being engaged after converting. Indeed, the one fact Holding observesthe social obsession with moral proprietyleads more to the opposite conclusion: those who demonstrated themselves to be morally just were perceived as honest and trustworthy, and as a result their word could be sufficient to persuade. In a later section Holding says that “whenever we go back to the key texts for evidence of why they persisted in such an improbable and dangerous belief they answer: it is because Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.” But that was their belief, not the evidence offered for that belief. Yes, many persisted in believing this against all manner of threats and difficulties, but there is no evidence this confidence was the product of careful empirical researchand plenty of evidence it was the product of irrational, superstitious thinking.

In contrast to all of the evidence we have assembled above, what does Holding offer? Nothing relevant at all. For example, he completely misses the difference between scriptural and empirical evidence when he argues that “if the Pharisees checked Jesus on things like handwashing and grain picking” then “how much more would things like a claimed resurrection have been looked at!” But none of these examples pertain to researching claims or checking empirical evidence. Jesus does not provide the Pharisees with empirical evidence supporting his views on washing and gleaning. He simply argues from scripture and tradition. Thus, if we accept Holding’s own analogy, anyone convinced by Jesus on washing and gleaning would be convinced he rose on the same evidence: scripture. And as we have seen, that is clearly the evidence that counted most. At the same time, when Holding appeals to the fact that “large crowds gathered around Jesus each time he so much as sneezed,” this tells us nothing about what they did to test the claim of the Resurrectionwhich conveniently none of them saw, despite the fact that they otherwise “gathered around Jesus each time he so much as sneezed.” When he sneezed… but not when he rose from the dead? Maybe the crowds had their priorities all out of whack. More likely, Holding is just spouting another non sequitur. When it comes to the Resurrection, all we can establish from the Epistles and Acts, and the earliest elite scholars, was that converts required no other evidence but scripture, and the words and deeds of the apostles. Of those in the same period whom we know had any higher standards than that, none became Christians.


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[1] I already demonstrated this in Chapter 10. But see also Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (2003): pp. 366-68 (“Gossip”), 402-403 (“Secrecy”).

[2] This point is made, e.g., in Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (2001): pp. 40-42.

[3] For his most relevant books, see Note 3 in Chapter 10. This same point is made by DeSilva, another of Holding’s own favorites.

[4] In The Problem of Luke’s Methods as a Historian in Chapter 7.

[5] Unlike Luke, Herodotus often mentions his sources or methods (e.g. 2.123; 1.5, 4.195), or even names his sources (e.g. 1.20-21, 2.29, 4.14, 4.29, 5.86-87, 6.53-54, 8.55, 8.65), or gives different accounts of the same event (e.g. 1.3-5, 2.20-27, 5.86-87, 6.53-54, 7.148-152), and often expresses a healthy skepticism (e.g. 2.45, 3.16, 4.25, 4.31, 4.42, 4.95-96, 4.105, 5.86, 7.152). Yet Herodotus reports without a hint of doubt that, just a generation or two before he wrote, the temple of Delphi magically defended itself with animated armaments, lightning bolts, and collapsing cliffs; the sacred olive tree of Athens, which had been burned by the Persians, grew a new shoot an arm’s length in a single day; a miraculous flood-tide wiped out an entire Persian contingent after they desecrated an image of Poseidon; a horse gave birth to a rabbit; and the Chersonesians witnessed a mass resurrection of cooked fish (8.37-38, 8.55, 8.129, 7.57, and 9.120, respectively).

[6] We will not concern ourselves with those who became believers before Jesus died, since that tells us nothing about the strength of evidence for his resurrection, and it is the latter that Holding claims to be “irrefutable.”

[7] Observe: Acts 2:43, 3:1-11, 4:30-31, 5:1-16, 6:8, 8:7-13, 13:11-12, 14:3, 19:11-12, etc. The standard reference on psychosomatic conditions throughout history is Edward Shorter, From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era (1992). A good discussion is also available in Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987): pp. 327-29. And for more on this point, see also Richard Carrier, “Beckwith on Historiography” in Review of In Defense of Miracles (1999).

[8] Acts 26:19 (cf. Acts 9:3-9, 22:6-11, 26:13-19; Galatians 1:11-12 & 1:15-16) & Acts 7:54-60.

[9] As far as we can tell, the actual speech Peter gave probably appealed only to a vision, not an empty tomb (as I argue elsewhere: Richard Carrier, “General Case for Spiritual Resurrection” in Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story, 6th ed., 2006). For the references here to “flesh” are apparent interpolationsadded to the speech by later scribes, or by Luke himself, who would have “assumed” Peter would say such things (and that was exactly the accepted standard of speech reporting among ancient historians: cf. Note 5 of Chapter 7). There is at least enough evidence to cast sufficient doubt on the authenticity of this material:

       (1) Luke can only get Peter’s scriptural argument to prove a resurrection of the flesh by making Peter butcher the text of the Septuagint, which would surely have made him the laughing stock of his Jewish audience, for they would know very well he was wrong about what their sacred text actually said. So it is highly improbable that Peter ever attempted such an argument, and even more improbable that it would succeed in persuading anyone in his audience. Therefore, this part of the speech is probably fiction. In particular, as is his usual practice, Luke has Peter correctly quote the Septuagint text of Psalms 16:10 in Acts 2:26-27yet then Luke has Peter alter the text completely in Acts 2:31, changing a verse originally about “the holy one’s soul” (psychê) into a verse about his “flesh” (sarx), a verbal deception no educated Jew would have bought.

       (2) As a clear proof of concept, this very section of Acts is rife with known scribal interpolations in extant manuscripts, proving not only that scribes were willing to doctor the text to add a reference to flesh, but that they actually attempted such doctoring. For example, “God swore to raise the Christ in the flesh” was added to Acts 2:30 in numerous manuscriptsand that is obviously bogus, since the Septuagint text in question includes no such promise from God. Indeed, some manuscripts added merely “swore to raise the Christ” without the reference to flesh. Either way, textual critics are unanimous that the original work probably included neither phrase.

       (3) Just like the known forgeries in Acts 2:30, in Acts 2:31 the phrase hê sarx autou (“his flesh”) can be cut straight out of the text without harm to the sense, and in fact such a removal restores the original meaning of the actual Septuagint text, and also restores the original parallel structure of Peter’s speech: the sentence “that he was neither abandoned to Hades nor saw destruction” uses the same subject for two verbs, whereas inserting “his flesh” changes the subject from “he” to “flesh” and thus breaks the parallel structure of the sentence.

       The fact that Peter would not butcher scripture this way in a public appeal to Jews, the fact that we can easily restore the correct sense by striking the suspect phrase exactly where it stands, and the fact that we have proof that later scribes were willing and eager to add references to the flesh here, all together make it more probable than not that Peter did not say such a thing. Therefore, more probably than not, the original speech of Peter made no reference to a resurrection of the flesh, and thus no reference to an empty tomb. That leaves only a reference to visions, as implied in 2:17. Further confirming this conclusion: had it been Peter’s intent to argue that Jesus rose in the flesh, as evidence he would surely offer his own testimony that the tomb was empty and the risen body had been touched and handled and dined with them for many weeks. But these details are conspicuously absent from Peter’s speech.

[10] For more on this trial before Agrippa, see First Example: Luke on Paul’s Trial in Chapter 7.

[11] Apart, of course, from his uncritical reliance on the Gospels (Apology 1.66; Dialogue of Justin and Trypho the Jew 100-107). Justin Martyr cites the census records and the Acts of Pilate in Apology 1.34 &. 1.35, respectively.

       That a man named Jesus would be born in Bethlehem under Quirinius is not remarkable, even supposing this could indeed be confirmed. Archaeological evidence suggests the name of Jesus was so common that around 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 Jews had that name, and between 1 in 79 and 1 in 312 had that name as well as a father named Joseph (see Richard Carrier, “The Bonebox of James: Is It Physical Evidence of the Historicity of Jesus?,” 2002). In any given year, between 4% and 10% of any town’s population would consist of newborn babies (see sources cited at Note 31 in Chapter 7). Bethlehem was significant enough to have a population of at least 500-1000, for a total of 20-50 babies in any given year. This number increases enormously if, as Luke claims, everyone born at Bethlehem had to register there, even if they lived elsewhere. But ignoring that, the available estimates produce odds between 6% and 47% of a Joseph with baby Jesus in Bethlehem in any given year, simply by chance. In fact, odds are there would be one such pairing in Bethlehem every 2 to 16 years. That’s far from remarkable.

       But Justin doesn’t say he checked the records himself anyway. He doesn’t say where these records were kept or how he could gain access to protected government documentsand there is no plausible reason to believe he could (Romans kept most government information secret, and surely did not allow citizens, much less suspected rebels, the opportunity to doctor or destroy official records: see Note 4 in Chapter 7 and Note 9.35 in Richard Carrier, “The Date of the Nativity in Luke,” 4th ed., 2001). Rather, since Justin is writing to an emperor, he was probably assuming this tradition was a fact (his information appears to derive solely from Luke), and therefore the emperorwho certainly did have access to government recordscould confirm it. There is no evidence anyone ever actually checked these records, much less confirmed the claim.

[12] Justin Martyr, Apology 1.31 (previous quote from 1.23). Note that the “letters” appended to the end of this apology are generally agreed to be forgeries, possibly not even the work of Justin.

[13] Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin and Trypho the Jew 2 (conversion: 3-8; the venerability of scripture convinces him: 7-8).

[14] Ibid. 30 & 39, respectively (on Judaism being the only plausible competitor to Christianity: 8-9).

[15] Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 7 (scripture is his only source of “evidence”: cf. 9-10). My argument here should not be mistaken as proposing that Athenagoras never cares to study contemporary scientific knowledge or use it when it suits him, but that Athenagoras does not appeal to empirical evidence as a reason he came to believe Jesus rose from the dead (nor does he conduct any scientific or historical investigation himself, but simply repeats general scholastic knowledge).

[16] Cf. e.g. Aristides, Apology 2 & 16. There is an extended Greek “quotation” of Aristides in a work of later Christian fiction, which extensively “adds” to the complete Syriac translation of the original speech. Scholars conclude the Greek extract is not a trustworthy version of the actual speech. On this and Aristides in general, see the scholarly introduction to “The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher,” by D. M. Kay in vol. 10 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

[17] Tatian, Address to the Greeks 29.

[18] Ibid. 1-3 & 25-26 (and he knows this because he studied it all, e.g. § 35, the only kind of “research” he appears to have conducted, which is completely irrelevant to whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or anything else claimed in the New Testament).

[19] This comes the from introduction to Papias, The Sayings of the Lord Explained, as quoted in Eusebius, History of the Church 3.39.3-4. Eusebius rightly concludes (ibid. § 1-2 & 5-7) that Aristion and the presbyter John were not witnesses, but students of witnesses, and thus disciples only by pedigree.

[20] Ibid. 3.39.13. In 3.39.11, Papias reasserts that oral tradition was the only source he had or trusted. For an example of his gullibility, Papias apparently reported with confidence that “Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety. For once his body had swollen to such an extent that he could not pass even where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by a chariot, so that his bowels gushed out” (as quoted by Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.33.4).

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