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Richard Carrier Improbable Disproof

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


7. Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?

7.1 General Argument

7.2 The Problem of Differing Research Paradigms

7.3 The Problem of Luke’s Methods as a Historian

7.4 First Example: Luke on Paul’s Trial

7.5 Holding’s Argument Backfires

7.6 Second Example: Luke on Agrippa’s Cause of Death

7.7 Arguing from the Miraculous

7.8 Conclusion

7.9 Summation


7.1. General Argument

That everything gets exaggerated is typical for any story…. All the greatest events are obscurewhile some people accept whatever they hear as beyond doubt, others twist the truth into its opposite, and both errors grow over subsequent generations. — Tacitus

This is true even today. Every story is subject to exaggeration. Many people accept what they hear without investigating the facts, or alter the historical record in various ways and for various reasons. And all these problems only get worse as time goes on. Tacitus knew it. Everyone knows this. So it is hard to believe James Holding would try to deny it.

Tacitus warned us not “to prefer the incredible things that get published and readily accepted, to the truth uncorrupted by marvels.”[1] He knew fabulous falsehoods were readily accepted by enough people to be passed on, recorded, and believed, and this happened often enough to greatly annoy more careful scholars like Tacitus himselfand yet historians today find some of his own reports dubious. How much worse it must have been for those less careful. There is no ancient history that is entirely accurate and without lies, distortions, or errors. Every qualified historian today agrees with that. It is a universal principle accepted throughout the professional community that no ancient work is infallible. Even the most respected and trusted of historiansThucydides, Polybius, Arrianare believed to have reported some false information, especially when it came to private matters witnessed by only a few, and when material was important to an author’s personal or dogmatic biases and presuppositions. And the further any ancient author is from these men in explicit methodology, by that much less are they trusted.[2] To claim otherwise, to claim against the widest consensus of experts in the field of ancient history, that any historical source is without misstatement, is an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence. Holding provides none.

This is not to say that Luke, for example, was a lousy historian. He was certainly better than averagethough, like all other ancient historians, for each detail he was only as reliable as his sources. Moreover, Luke cannot be classed with the best historians of his day because he never engages discussions of sources and methods, whereas they didand that is a major reason why modern historians hold such men as Thucydides and Polybius and Arrian in high esteem: they often discuss where they got their information, how they got their information, and what they did with it. It is their open and candid consciousness of the problems posed by writing a critical history that marks them as especially competent. Even lesser historians (like Xenophon, Plutarch, or Suetonius) occasionally mention or discuss their sources, or acknowledge the existence of conflicting accounts, and yet Luke doesn’t even do that.[3] But despite all that, even if Luke were as reliable as the very best historians of his own day, that would still not be sufficient to carry Holding’s point for the Resurrection.

Holding’s argument here not only requires the highly improbable assumption that Luke is infallible (and not importing any assumptions or dogmatic commitments into his reconstruction of the more private events of his narrative). It also requires that most people in antiquityparticularly actual converts to Christianity in its first hundred yearswere also excellent and studious historians, which is even more improbable. There is certainly no good evidence supporting either assumption. We shall examine them in reverse order.


7.2. The Problem of Differing Research Paradigms

There is a difference between what ancient people could have done (what they plausibly had the means to do) and what they actually did (what the available research paradigms were, and which paradigms were most widely preferred by the relevant social groups). For example, prospective converts in the 1st century couldn’t check newspapers, because they didn’t yet exist.[4] Conversely, though they could have confirmed miraculous powers using double-blinded placebo studies (the means to do this were certainly available), such a research paradigm did not exist and thus was not conceptually available to them. Therefore, we can be certain neither was done. And this makes an enormous impact on how we interpret ancient claims, in comparison with modern claims.

Modern claims have been made in a setting where the technological and practical means to check themmeans available even to the common man, much less a scholar or government officialis a thousand times superior, as are the available research paradigms. Therefore, no analogy with the present day is possible. For example, we now know for a fact that miraculous healing can only be confirmed under double-blinded conditions tested against a comparable placebo, and where accurate medical histories are available for those healed, both before and after the “healing” event. For that very reason we cannot trust ancient claims of “miraculous” healing, since the ancient witnesses did not follow the necessary research protocol to rule out placebo and other effects (including fraud, delusion, and exaggeration).

Even when it came to recording what happened, ancient authors employed very different assumptions about what was plausible or probable, and had very different attitudes about what details were acceptable to invent. For instance, it was often acceptable to make assumptions about what was probable and then draw up a narrative that portrayed those assumed details as if they were observed facts reported in one’s sourcewhereas today good scholars endeavor to make clear the distinction between what our sources say and what we deduce or infer, and we certainly eschew any blurring of the line between dramatic narrative and objective history. Yet that line was routinely blurred in antiquity, even by the best historians of the day. This is exemplified by the fact that Thucydides and all his successors felt at liberty to invent entire speeches, based on limited data in conjunction with assumptions about what they thought was “probable” (and that would depend on their religious, ideological, personal, and philosophical commitments). This would never be tolerated today, and with very good reason. Yet this blurring was accepted even outside the construction of speeches, extending to the addition of dramatic and narrative details (as, for example, in descriptions of battles).[5]

Besides differences between antiquity and today, there were also differences among the ancients themselves. They differed widely in what they wanted to do, what they knew how to do, and what methods they trusted or distrustedjust as there are differences today, as exemplified, for example, by the insider account provided by Karla McLaren of the chasm between the modern skeptical and New Age movements in terms of their preferred research paradigms.[6] McLaren demonstrates two particular facts: first, that the modern New Age community strongly prefers to trust emotion and intuition and to distrust reason, critical thought, and skeptical investigation; and, second, that the same community carries significant emotional hostility toward both skeptics and their methods. Skeptics are regarded as arrogant, obsessed with technicalities, and incapable of seeing the real truth, not only because of their arrogance and obsession, but also because of their prior emotional commitment to the dogmas of science and naturalism, preventing them from seeing the truth. As a result, the New Age movement does not listen to scientists or skeptics regarding the best methods to employ in investigating claims, but discards that advice as coming from an untrustworthy source. So there are strong divisions even today regarding which research paradigm should be applied to judging extraordinary claims.

It was the same in antiquity, and the earliest Christians were clearly more analogous to modern New Agers than modern skeptics (as we shall demonstrate in Chapter 13 and Chapter 17). So to assess the probability of Christianity’s success, we have to know what research paradigm was employed by actual convertsnot that employed by those who rejected Christianity. For the difference between acceptance and rejection may very well have been a result of adopting different strategies of judgment. This is, in fact, what both modern New Agers and ancient Christians blame as the very reason skeptics reject their claimsas we can see, for example, in 1 Corinthians 2: skeptics can’t see the truth because their methods blind them (this and more such passages will be analyzed in Chapter 17). Therefore, Christians did not respect those methods. To the contrary, they regarded them as a handicap that one had to discard in order to be saved. Christianity thus appealed to those who rejected the elite paradigm in favor of something else, something (to their mind) “superior.”

For that reason we cannot rest any argument on what “we” think “they” would have done. Rather, we must examine the evidence for what they actually did. And we have no evidence that any Christian in the first hundred years did anything like what Holding expects, as far as “checking the facts” is concerned. So he cannot claim they did do such things when there is no evidence of it. Moreover, when we look at the evidence of what they actually did do, we find essentially the opposite of what Holding claims (as we shall see in Chapter 13). Again, we must not fall into another hasty generalization here. What Greco-Roman writers did cannot be used as evidence of what all ancient Greeks and Romans did, much less those who became Christians in the first century. For the literate and scholarly elite belonged to a tiny and unrepresentative segment of the population. Even writers (many of whom were hardly skeptical or rigorous investigators) represent less than one thousandth of one percent of the populationroughly 1 in half a million people.[7]

Yet there were many gullible or uncritical writers in antiquity, so it is an even hastier generalization to draw analogies from the most scholarly or skeptical of themespecially since we do not have a single known example of such a person converting to Christianity in its first hundred years. We must look elsewhere for analogies, if we want to draw any reliable conclusions about what those converts did before deciding to commit themselves to the faith. Conversely, though we know for a fact that most people rejected Christianity in its first century, and as far as we can tell all members of the scholarly elite did so, we do not have a single record directly from them as to why. So we cannot simply “assume” they rejected it for petty or insufficient reasons. They may well have rejected Christianity because they checked the facts and found them wanting.

This puts Holding up against a catch-22: either the scholarly elite rejected Christianity because they checked the facts and found them wanting (and therefore Holding’s ultimate conclusion is thereby refuted: the evidence did not hold up under scrutiny), or they rejected Christianity without adequately checking those factsfacts that Holding believes would have been “irrefutable.” Obviously, Holding must assume the latter. He has no choice. But that means he must suppose that among converts, those who had the best means, methods and drive to check historical facts, failed to do so. It then follows a fortiori that everyone else must have done even less to check the facts. And that refutes Holding’s conclusion that converts would have checked the facts and therefore the facts must have held up. Either the evidence didn’t check out, or the evidence wasn’t strong enough to convince the scholarly elite, or those who actually converted did little to check the facts. Holding must choose one. Yet any choice he makes destroys his case.[8]

An analogy can be drawn from ancient astronomy: the real cause of eclipses was well-known and thoroughly understood among the scholarly elite of the Roman period. The Emperor Claudius even had this cause described in a public inscription in order to fend off superstition among the masses. And there are many examples where those in-the-know were able to educate an ignorant public on appropriate occasions. So to discover the true cause of eclipses (lunar and solar) was relatively easy for anyone who cared to ask. Any library, any elite scholar, and at least one known public inscription would have provided the answer. It was as easily ascertained as any specialized historical fact (such as who held a particular office at a particular place and time). Yet a large portion of the populace never bothered to check, but simply continued believing the myth that eclipses were the work of magic or gods.[9]

If that is how a substantial portion of the population actually behaved, Holding cannot maintain Christianity would have hit a brick wall of skepticism. Clearly skepticism against the mythical causes of eclipses was neither widespread nor effective in preventing the success of the mythical explanationdespite the skeptics having very strong evidence on their side. We can expect the same outcome for any other claim, whether supporting Christianity or any other superstition of the age. Yes, there were strong and ardent skeptics. But Christians didn’t win them overat least, we have no evidence of this in Christianity’s first hundred years. Rather, during that period they probably won over people like those who blamed eclipses on magic or gods. Holding certainly cannot prove otherwise.

Ultimately, Holding cannot show that those who converted to Christianity in its first hundred years chose anything like the paradigm of inquiry revealed among the writings of elite scholars, nor provide any evidence that any convert who later adopted and employed such a paradigm remained a Christian. Moreover, there is a positive case against these possibilities, which we will address in Chapter 13 and Chapter 17. But even disregarding that, Holding has not made his case.

But now to the issue of ability. How would potential converts “check” Christianity’s claims, even if they adopted a skeptical research paradigm available at the time?

  • First, travel was too expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous for most people. No one would bother with it who was not already convinced the trip was worth it. Yet skeptics wouldn’t have the motive to engage such risk and expense (and we have no evidence any did), while believers would have little reason to “check” what they no longer doubted (and, again, we have no evidence of anyone in the first century making such a trip in order to “check” evidence, even after converting, much less before).
  • Second, as there was no post office, mail was very impracticalnearly impossible, in fact, unless you knew someone who both knew the person you wanted to correspond with and was traveling there and thus could carry your letter. And even then, few were in the habit of writing back to strangers, and even when they might have, the whole exchange could take several months, given the inordinate length of time required to make the journey and to await the convenience of someone making the trip. Officials would be much easier to reach, but even less likely to respond to someone outside their jurisdiction or on a matter not relevant to their very busy jobs, and the great length of time remained. Accordingly, we have no evidence of any investigative letters being sent by anyone, before or after converting to Christianity, in its first hundred yearsmuch less thousands of such letters, as Holding’s argument requires, since numerous converts are supposed to have done this.
  • Third, access to libraries was greatly limited, and not very useful to a potential Christian anyway. Libraries were rare, hardly comprehensive, and useful only to the highly literate. Government archives would have been off limits to all but permitted officials (see Note 4 again), and would be unlikely to contain any information that would confirm any evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. And libraries open to the public would in turn contain even less along those lines, since Christian books would not appear in them for at least another century, and we have no evidence any other literature mentioned any facts suggesting Jesus really rose from the dead.

That leaves only one other option: asking neighbors and visitors. Which probably meant asking those who had already converted to Christianity, since few others would know any relevant information, much less believe it. Thus, all a doubter probably had to go on was his or her perception of another convert’s sincerity. Such sincerity could be feigned, but even more importantly, testimony could be sincere but based on insufficient evidence, a problem difficult for a doubter to evaluate. The best a skilled doubter could do was engage in a carefully crafted interrogation to explore the actual details known to the reporter, which would not be very welcome (it usually indicated a despised scale of hostilityjust as modern-day New Agers respond to such questioning with near-violent indignation) and somewhat limited in what it could accomplish. And even then, such skills of interrogation were not widely learned, nor is there any evidence of any Christian convert in the first century employing such skills before converting, or after.

As one example, Holding admits “people outside the area of Lystra may not have known enough about what happened in Lystra, or wanted to check it.” Nor would they have the means to check the claimmuch less check all the crucial details. They would have even less ability to check those details in any way we would consider reliable. They would probably just ask other Christians if it was trueand not question how they knew, nor explore whether their means of knowing was sufficiently thorough and accurate. This is how legends and myths arise even today, as stories get passed on without any critical control. We can be sure this phenomenon would be more common back then.

For another example, Holding claims that one would not lie about a “Sanhedrin member, or even a centurion being in your history (even if you don’t name them; there were few enough of each of these that it would not be hard to make a check).” But that is not true. There were actually hundreds of such peopleand if you’ve ever tried interviewing a hundred people, you know this is not an easy taskand that’s already assuming you are physically in their city, and they haven’t died or moved, and they will deign to answer your questions. Thus, it would always be hard to check for anyone outside of Palestine, and Christianity does not appear to have been very successful there (by far most Jews there remained Jewish, even before the Jewish War), at least as compared with its success in the Diaspora. Nor do we have any evidence that the relevant claims (to specific Sanhedrists or centurions being involved in any particularly relevant way) were ever made in Palestine. We only have evidence of such claims being made outside Palestine and, most likely (following the widest consensus of experts), after the destruction of Palestine by war, which made “checking” nearly impossibleand appears to have evaporated any significant Christian presence there anyway. That was the reality, and it does not support Holding’s case.


7.3. The Problem of Luke’s Methods as a Historian

Most of Holding’s points pertain to Luke-Acts, and it is certainly trueas all commentators agreethat this is the only book in the New Testament that actually belongs to the genre of history. Luke alone claims to have written a history (a diagesis…pragmatô, “narrative of events,” Luke 1:1). Luke alone claims to have done the work of a historian for the purpose of establishing an accurate account (Luke 1:2-3). Luke alone employs any of the distinct markers of the historical genre (such as fixing dates, e.g. Luke 3:1). And Luke’s preface consciously mimics those of known histories, and is an important marker of that genrea marker absent from all other Gospels. In contrast, the other Gospels seem to fit the genre of mythic biography, in the specialized sense of a “didactic hagiography,” an instructional account of a holy man, identical to the legends of medieval saints or the sacred biographies of men like Pythagoras or Empedocles. The meaning of such texts could lay more in universal truths communicated symbolically than in particular claims to historical fact as we understand them today.[10]

Whether you agree with that or not, only Luke-Acts bears any definite claim to being a historical account. But was it a reliable account? Colin Hemer has made the most competent attempt to argue that Luke employed the best methods of his own day, i.e. that Luke followed the most reliable research paradigm available to him at the time he wrote (which Hemer tries to argue was the earliest date possible, around 62 A.D.).[11] Hemer’s case rests on essentially two kinds of evidence: external corroboration of historical details in Luke, and evidence that some ancient historians declared and employed very exacting methods. The evidence he presents is generally accurate. But his conclusions do not follow from this evidence.[12] We will only briefly address that fact, since the conclusions of this chapter do not require the assumption that Luke-Acts was any worse in producing a history of events than any other decent historian of his own era. All historians of antiquity were fallible, and those of merely above-average talent (like Luke) were particularly fallible, in comparison with the quality of modern history. And most importantly: no historian can ever be more reliable than his sources. Thus, if Luke trusted an unreliable source for any detail, it would not matter how competent Luke was himself.

The first set of evidence Hemer presents does confirm that Luke possessed good skills and knowledge and thus was a very competent historian when it came to public and general facts. But it does not prove he was a critical historian, since one does not need to be critical to simply look up public records or local histories and use what they say, or to draw on your own or others’ general knowledge of regional details. Nor does this evidence of doing research prove Luke was as reliable when it came to matters that were not general local knowledge or available in public records or historiessuch as private events requiring the skillful interrogation of witnesses and a critical sifting of conflicting claims. Indeed, the fact that Luke (to a very large extent) simply “trusts” the Gospel of Mark (and probably a list of sayings identified as Q, if not the Gospel of Matthew itself) proves that Luke was not doing much “interrogating” of eyewitnesses (and he never says he didas we shall see below), but was simply pulling material from books and traditions that were never even claimed to be history, much less produced by any eyewitness. And even had his sources been written by eyewitnesses, he could not interrogate or cross-examine a book or oral tradition anyway, no matter how skilled he was. And when we consider that evidence, in addition to the fact that Luke shows no awareness of conflicting stories (like the nativity or empty tomb narratives of Matthew), and never makes any effort to show how he chose what evidence to accept or reject, we can rightly say that Luke was probably not a critical historian.

This brings us to Hemer’s second set of evidence. He does demonstrate, and quite rightly, that the best historians of the age employed very discerning methods that allow us to trust them more than most other writers of antiquity. But there were also many lousy historians who did not engage such methods, or who employed them with little skill. Hemer himself proves this, since much of the evidence for the reliability of such historians comes from their criticisms of the sloppy or unreliable methods of other historians. Thus, proving there were good historians does not permit the conclusion that Luke was one of them. Nor does Hemer’s first set of evidence permit such a conclusion, since evidence of exacting research is not evidence of critical research. Moreover, as the renowned biblical commentator C. K. Barrett wisely pointed out in a review of another book attempting the same argument, “It is enough to remark that the reviewer has read a large number of detective stories which were completely correct in their description of legal and police proceduresand pure fiction.”[13]

Hemer’s logic is marked by a rather prominent and important gap. Unlike all the best historians of the day, Luke never names any source (except two documents irrelevant to the divinity of Jesus), and never offers any methodology, nor shows any interest in a critical assessment of any evidence at alleven though it is precisely on such details that modern scholars base their evaluation of ancient historians! It is also notable that, unlike Luke, all ancient historians told us who they were, which alone tells the reader something of their qualifications.[14] And in a few cases (as with Josephus and Appian), ancient historians even listed their specific qualifications as an expert on the events they relate. Luke’s preface is conspicuous for the absence of all this information, and thus looks more like the work of a very uncritical historianthe exact opposite of Hemer’s desired conclusion. A close analysis of Luke’s preface (Luke 1:1-4) carries the point:

Since many took it in hand to bring together a narrative of the events assured among us, according to what they handed down to us who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the story, it is also my pleasure to write to you, most excellent Theophilus, in an organized way, so you may assess the truth of the stories you were told about in person, since I have closely followed everything accurately from the start.

What does Luke actually say here? First of all, he does not say he spoke with any eyewitnesses, or even knew them. Secondly, Luke does not say he did any kind of critical research, but quite the opposite.

As to the first observation: Luke only says the eyewitnesses handed down the information (1:2), not that Luke was the direct recipient of anything from them (nor even that the others were, either, whom Luke says were compiling similar stories)for he writes paredosan hêmin, “handed down to us,” i.e. the present generation of Christians, not Luke specifically. There is no connotation here that Luke interrogated or even knew those witnesses. And it is unlikely that Luke meant to include himself as a “witness” in the “events fulfilled among us” (peplêrophorêmenô en hêmin pragmatôn), since the hêmin logically includes the addressee (Theophilus, per 1:4). In this context, hêmin most likely means “us Christians” as a community or brotherhoodfor the eyewitnesses are the ones who delivered this information “to us” in the next verse (1:2). So the “us” in 1:1 does not mean “those witnesses and me,” but the same thing as the “us” in 1:2every Christian of the present day (Hemer agrees: p. 326). Moreover, Luke does not actually say the events “took place” among us, but that they were “fulfilled” among usliterally “were fully assured” or “were fully satisfied.” This is a crucial distinction readers must not lose sight of: he is talking about events that are asserted (“assured”) among us, and hence is referring to a tradition, not experience.[15]

As to the second observation: Luke says he followed some unnamed and unidentified sources closely and accuratelyin other words all but slavishly. Nothing here connotes any sort of critical judgment by Luke in our sense, much less that he tried to reconstruct the true story himself by sifting and analyzing conflicting documents and accounts. To the contrary, the connotation is quite the opposite. Luke is saying that others have taken it upon themselves to “set in order” the very things the eyewitnesses handed downand “to write” these things down “seemed a good idea to me, too.”[16] And Luke is implying that what he has written down, and what others have brought together from the tradition that was handed down, is a collection of stories (logoi) that Theophilus has already heard about (literally: katêchêthês entails hearing it spoken, not reading it). The reason Luke gives for doing this (writing everything down “in an organized way”) is so Theophilus can “assess the truth” of what he has already heard.[17] That is the point of Luke’s emphasizing the closeness, “accuracy” and thoroughness (“followed everything from the beginning”) of his own account. He means he is not being inventive or sloppy, but is making a precise record of what was handed down (perhaps more precisely than others, though the Greek does not entail such a criticism). That did not require critical historical judgment. In fact, it rules it out: for he is declaring his unwavering commitment to a prior traditionwhich he is “following closely” and “precisely.”[18] His only stated criterion of judgment is what was handed down from the beginningand yet he says nothing at all about how he determined which stories met that criterion and which did not. So we are left with no evidence at all that Luke employed anything we would trust as a reliable critical method.

Contrast this with just one example, how Suetonius handles the existence of conflicting accounts of the birth of Caligula (in Gaius 8). Luke shows no such interests, methods, or skills, and presents no such efforts to us, nor names or assesses any sources pertaining to Jesus.[19] And yet Suetonius is notoriously regarded by modern historians as an often-unreliable gossip-monger. Therefore, a fortiori, we have every reason to expect Luke was no better, and probably worse, when it came to critical acumen. Here is the relevant passage, and one can only marvel at how incredibly different from Luke the method of Suetonius is in the writing of history:

Gaius Caesar was born the day before the Kalends of September in the consulship of his father and Gaius Fonteius Capito. Conflicting testimony makes his birthplace uncertain. Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus writes that he was born at Tibur; Pliny the Elder, that he was born among the Treveri, in a village called Ambitarvium above the Confluence. Pliny adds as proof that altars are shown there, inscribed “For the Delivery of Agrippina.” Verses which were in circulation soon after he became emperor indicate that he was begotten in the winter-quarters of the legions: “He who was born in the camp and reared mid the arms of his country, Gave at the outset a sign that he was fated to rule.” I myself find in the Acta Publica that he first saw the light at Antium.

       Gaetulicus is shown to be wrong by Pliny, who says that he told a flattering lie, to add some luster to the fame of a young and vainglorious prince from the city sacred to Hercules; and that he lied with the more assurance because Germanicus really did have a son born to him at Tibur, also called Gaius Caesar, of whose lovable disposition and untimely death I have already spoken. Pliny, on the other hand, has erred in his chronologyfor the historians of Augustus agree that Germanicus was not sent to Germany until the close of his consulship, when Gaius was already born. Moreover, the inscription on the altar adds no strength to Pliny’s view, for Agrippina twice gave birth to daughters in that region, and any childbirth, regardless of sex, is called puerperium, since the men of old called girls puerae, just as they called boys puelli.

       Furthermore, we have a letter written by Augustus to his granddaughter Agrippina, a few months before he died, about the Gaius in question (for no other child of the name was still alive at that time), reading as follows: “Yesterday I arranged with Talarius and Asillius to bring your boy Gaius on the fifteenth day before the Kalends of June, if it be the will of the gods. I send with him besides one of my slaves who is a physician, and I have written Germanicus to keep him if he wishes. Farewell, my own Agrippina, and take care to come in good health to your Germanicus.” I think it is clear enough that Gaius could not have been born in a place to which he was first taken from Rome when he was nearly two years old. This letter also weakens our confidence in the verses, the more so because they are anonymous. We must then accept the only remaining testimony, that of the public record, particularly since Gaius loved Antium as if it were his native soil, always preferring it to all other places of retreat, and even thinking, it is said, of transferring thither the seat and abode of the empire through weariness of Rome.[20]

This is how a critical historian behaves. His methods and critical judgment become transparent and laid out for the reader to see. He namesor at least mentions or describeshis sources. In this particular case, Suetonius identifies Gaetulicus, Pliny the Elder, the Acta Publica, and the letters of Augustus, as well as an anonymous oral tradition and a public inscription at Ambitarvium, all in addition to “the historians of Augustus.” He analyzes the conflicting claims and tells us how he decided on one over the otherindeed, it is already important that he tells us there were conflicting traditions. He lists the evidence and criticizes it. He gives us information about the reliability of his sourcesfor instance, he tells us when a source is anonymous, and admits that is a mark against it, and he tells us what evidence any given author appealed to, and remarks on their possible motives. He quotes documents or sources verbatim. And he is openly attentive to chronological inconsistencies.

Luke does none of these things. He never even mentions method, much less shows his methods to us, or any critical judgment at all. He never names even a single (relevant) source, nor does he give us anything like a useful description of any of his sources, and he certainly never tells us which sources he used for which details of his history. And Luke must surely have known there were conflicting claims, yet he never tells us about them, but instead just narrates his account as if everything were indisputable, never once telling us how or why he chose one version or detail and left out others. For example, though Luke copies Mark, he never tells us he did, much less for which material, and he changes what Mark said in some places. This entails either that Luke is fabricating, or preferring some other source that contradicted Mark. So why don’t we hear of this other source? Or of why Luke preferred it? Likewise, it is impossible to believe that Luke “closely followed everything” and yet had never heard of the alternative nativity account presented in Matthew (unless, of course, Matthew wrote after Luke and made it all up). Moreover, Luke tells us nothing about the relative reliability of his sourcesfor instance, he never identifies what (if anything) came from anonymous sources, nor does he ever show any interest in distinguishing good from bad evidence or certain from uncertain information. For example, why did he trust Mark in the first place? Who wrote it? What sources did its author use? Luke doesn’t say. He never even quotes any history, nor shows much concern for establishing a precise chronology (essentially giving us only a single date in 3:1, which is tied only to John and is thus ambiguous as to any event in the life of Jesus).

All the elements that lead us to trust an ancient historian are missing from Luke. Therefore, Luke cannot be elevated to their level.[21] He may well be an accurate historian. But that does not make him a critical historian. Only content like that of Suetonius above can identify a critical historian from a merely accurate one. Still, the quality of Luke as a historian need not be denied hereon matters that could be publicly checked, he may well have been impeccable. That does not mean his information on private matters transmitted solely by hearsay through an unknown number of intermediaries was as good, or that he did not import his own assumptions when describing details or crafting speeches. Yet all the evidence pertaining to the Resurrection was private, not public, and was the central focus of dogmatic disputesand therefore, of all things, the one detail most prone to distortion by importing the dogmatic assumptions of the author. And this is a crucial distinctionbetween public and private knowledge, and incidental vs. doctrinal dataa distinction Holding does not appear to grasp, as we shall now see from his own prize examples.


7.4. First Example: Luke on Paul’s Trial

The gist of Holding’s argument here is that “the NT is filled with claims of connections to and reports of incidents involving ‘famous people’,” which no one would have allowed had those famous people not really been involved, which in turn somehow entails the other details (the private experiences of converts and disciples) must be as reliable. There are two non sequiturs here: getting the public details right in no way entails the private details are also true (since the skills and methods required in each case are very different), nor could potential converts have really checked the public details anyway. We have addressed both points already from a general perspective. Now we can examine them from a specific example, which is clearly Holding’s prize case, since he launches his entire argument with a quotation from the relevant scene: Paul’s trial before Agrippa.

Right from the start we have grounds for suspicion: Holding avoids calling our attention to the fact that despite all these “connections to and reports of incidents involving famous people,” not a single famous person was a witness to any of the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. To the contrary, that one claim remained private and uncheckable, even by those who might have had the means and desire to “check up” on all those “connections to and reports of incidents involving famous people.” Holding is thus guilty of arguing from a giant red herring. Nor does that red herring lead to any of the other conclusions Holding wants to draw from it. That is the subject of the present section.

Holding’s representative title quote comes from Acts 26:26, where Luke has Paul say at trial before Agrippa: “For the king knows about these things, to whom I am speaking freely. For I don’t believe any of these things are hidden from him, since this has not been done in a corner.” Holding implies that Paul is referring to the Resurrection, but that is clearly not the case (as we shall see). And even if were referring to the Resurrection here, this would not suffice to make Holding’s case. For there was no such thing as a trial transcript for anyone to check to confirm Paul actually said this (the court documents we have recovered for other trials include only brief, formal statements of witnesses, not lengthy speeches). Though we could imagine Luke was there himself or heard all about it from Paul or some other witness, we can’t be sure Luke or his sources are giving us a totally honest or accurate account. Since no one would be able to check exactly what Paul said before Agrippa, Luke or his source could pretty much make up whatever they wanted to.

Already this point is fatal, but we will set it aside. Holding asks, “Did Agrippa execute Paul for these statements? No, and he could not have if it was not true.” I assume this is a typo, and that Holding meant to write “No, and he could not have if it was true,” otherwise I don’t see the argument here. Holding’s point surely is that Paul could not claim “none of these things are hidden” from Agrippa if that was untrue, since Agrippa could execute him for perjury, therefore the evidence must have been so public that Agrippa himself was familiar with it.[22] But what “business” is Paul referring to that was “not done in a corner”? What are these “things” that Agrippa knows about and aren’t hidden from him? Does anything Luke claims Paul asserted at this trial, which Agrippa “knows” is true because it was “not hidden” from him, have anything whatever to do with whether Jesus actually rose from the dead? No. Does Paul’s defense, so far as Luke records it, even contain any historical assertion that would support the historicity of the Resurrection? Again: No.

Take a close look at what Luke actually claims Paul declared to Agrippa at this trial: Paul has long been a devoted Pharisee (26:4-5); he was being accused of merely “hoping” for the fulfillment of scripture (26:6), even though all Jews share the same hope (26:7), which is the hope that God would raise the dead (26:8); Paul persecuted Christians (26:9-11), but then saw a blinding, audible communication from God at noon on the road to Damascus (26:12-18), and he obeyed this god’s commands and preached its message “to repent and turn to God and do works worthy of repentance,” first in Damascus, then Jerusalem, then “all Judaea,” and then to the Gentiles (26:19-20); the Jews seized Paul for preaching this message (26:21), and now he’s on trial, “saying nothing but what both the prophets and Moses said was destined to happen” (26:22). Not a single reference to the resurrection of Jesus. Every single fact here could be true, even provable, yet none are of any relevance to Holding’s argument. And these are the “things” Paul says Agrippa “knows” because they are not “hidden” from him.

Only at the very end of his defense does Paul mention the death and resurrection of the Messiah (26:23), yet only as what “the prophets and Moses said was destined to happen,” not as an observed event. Neither Christ’s death nor resurrection is asserted anywhere in Paul’s defense before Agrippa. Paul never says he is innocent because Jesus really rose, “and here is my evidence that proves it.” No, all he appeals to is a private communication direct from God only to Paul himself affirming that the Savior lived (26:15), and statements from “Moses and the prophets” concerning “whether the messiah was destined to suffer and proclaim” a message of salvation to the worldnot that any Christ has suffered or proclaimed anything.[23] Paul never asserts that, nor claims that such an assertion was anything he preached, or what he was being accused of preaching! His defense asserts only that he was preaching that scripture foretold such a thing and “therefore repent.” That is a brilliantly slick defense: Paul deliberately avoids asserting anything that any reasonable Jew would doubt, and thus avoids giving cause to Agrippa or his accusers to “investigate” the facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, contrary to what Holding implies, this speech actually entails Paul could not prove the resurrection of Jesus (much less offer “irrefutable” evidence of it).

Of course, we might assume Paul believed this “predicted resurrection” was an actual event that was already fulfilled, but he still did not say this to Agrippa, or even that this was a claim he was accused of making. He carefully kept that whole debate out of court. Consequently, the only rebuttal Festus could offer is that Paul had “gone mad” (26:24-25). Festus does not bring in any rebuttal witnesses or challenge any evidence, because no relevant evidence was presented, nor indeed was any controversial evidence mentioned that anyone could have been a witness toexcept Paul. Hence the only thing anyone could accuse him of was insanity. There was no way to prove he was lying about a private vision.

At most, Festus could have inquired as to why Paul’s unnamed companions fell, or indeed who they even were. But Festus doesn’t even do that. So though Paul says some nameless “those who journeyed with me” fell to the ground with Paul when he saw the vision (26:13-14), they are not there to testify, nor is Agrippa even told who they were, nor does Agrippa even ask to interrogate them, much less actually do so. Nor does Festus. Indeed, Paul carefully avoids saying those with him saw or heard anythingeven though Luke says this on other occasions (Acts 9:3-8 & 22:6-11). That’s a slick move. On the legal record, if Luke has it right, Paul claimed nothing miraculous whatsoever except a personal experience that no one could confirm or refute, even in principle. Paul never says “why” those with him fell (and indeed, Luke says elsewhere that Paul claimed they remained standing: Acts 9:7), thus implying something supernatural yet leaving himself a mundane explanation (if the witnesses were produced, Paul could simply say they dropped down to pick him up). All in all, there isn’t a single thing here that supports the claim that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

So when Paul says of Agrippa that none of “these things” is “hidden from him,” not one of “these things” is the resurrection of Jesus, or any miracle at all. It’s just not anything Paul asserted as a historical fact in this trial. His only reference is that scripture predicted it (26:22-23), hence Paul begins his defense by calling attention to Agrippa’s thorough knowledge of the scriptures (26:3), not to any other evidence or witness. Paul never tells Agrippa that the resurrection of Jesus is something that happened, beyond what God told him privately, nor does Paul make any case proving it did. We certainly have no reason to believe Agrippa ever saw the resurrected Christor even inspected the empty tomb for that matter, or so much as asked about that. Why would he? Paul never mentions it. Or anything else pertaining to the resurrection. And when Paul makes his final appeal, he does not ask Agrippa, “Do you agree the evidence confirms that Jesus rose from the dead?” but instead “Do you believe the prophets?” (26:27). That’s it. Scripture. The facts of the Resurrection aren’t even on trial. They aren’t even an element of Paul’s defense. Agrippa’s ruling is not that Jesus rose from the dead. His ruling is solely this: that Paul violated no law in preaching that scripture predicted the Savior would rise from the dead (26:30-32). Yet even an atheist can agree with that!


7.5. Holding’s Argument Backfires

Even setting aside the fact that Paul’s statement to Agrippa says nothing about the resurrection of Jesus, the trial (as Luke records it) actually refutes Holding’s argument, and by his own reasoning. Agrippa may have been joking when he said “you are quickly persuading me to become a Christian” (26:28), but it is more likely he never said it. Ancient historians often fabricated such details to make a good story. Moreover, Agrippa most likely thought what Paul had defended in the trial was Christianityfor there was no blasphemy in agreeing with the claim that “Moses and the Prophets predicted the suffering and resurrection of the messiah, and therefore repent.” But whatever the case, the record shows Agrippa did not convert. So the fact is, Agrippa was unconvinceddespite having more resources to check the facts than any actual Christian convert ever did. Thus, if the facts were checkable and overwhelming, Agrippa should have converted. That he did not entails the facts either weren’t checkable or weren’t overwhelming. Holding’s case is thereby destroyed.

The same problem arises when we look at Paul. Holding’s argument here makes no sense whatever of why Paul persecuted Christians. Why would he have persecuted them so vehemently if the evidence for the Resurrection was already as extraordinarily good as Holding’s argument requires? Why does Paul only believe after he himself sees a vision of the Christ telling him he is wrong? Why does Paul never mention any other reason for converting? Even in Acts, he never cites any evidence as having convinced him, except his own personal vision (besides the scriptures, of course). He never makes any references to checking the facts of the empty tomb story, or being persuaded by the testimony of other witnessesnot even in Galatians. In fact, in Galatians Paul goes out of his way to deny having done any such thing until, at best, many years after he was already converted. So why did it take a personal visit from God to convince Paul? We cannot say he was loony or stupidfrom his letters we can see Paul clearly was neither. There can be no plausible explanation for his not believing the Christians except the fact that he had no reason to believe them. Which entails there was no evidence that could be checked at all, or what could be checked was inconclusive to any reasonable man like Paul.

And Paul was not alone: Israel in general was hard to convert, as Paul himself admits in Romans 11:25-31, and there is no reliable evidence the Church was actually all that successful in Palestine in the first century. We will discuss this in Chapter 18, but for now it is enough to note that Judaea, much less Jerusalem or Galilee, did not become Christian to any notable degree. That pretty much entails the evidence for the Resurrection was not irrefutablenot by a long shot. Nor was even a single elite scholar of the first century persuaded to convert.[24] Had they been, the history of Christianity would have been very different. Its literary tradition would have begun under the pen of famous names and great men, instead of obscure unknowns (like Paul) outside (or subservient to) the main avenues of power and influence. Vast monetary resources would have been wielded in its support from the beginning, which means (as it did for all other schools and cults that won the support of the wealthy) inscriptions professing the Gospel all over the Empire, perhaps even audiences and correspondences with the Emperor. Instead, the Christians couldn’t even persuade the local elite in Jerusalem, much less anyone higher up the ladder. Not a single member of the Sanhedrin was persuaded (despite the fact that they were in the best position of anyone to collect and assess Holding’s alleged “irrefutable” evidence), nor anyone of the local decurion class at all, i.e. “councilmen,” Jews of sufficient social standing to have a right to local political power.[25] The evidence, therefore, could not have been “irrefutable.”

Ultimately, since Paul was only convinced by actually “seeing” God himself, it is probable that this is exactly what convinced the original Christians, too (it is, after all, apart from scripture, the only evidence Paul says convinced anyone, as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). After that, it was solely a question of trust. Because there was no way to ‘check’ Paul’s or anyone else’s claim to have seen God. All you had was his word. You either accepted it like Agrippa, or rejected it like Festus, depending on your presuppositions about visions from God or your assessment of the sincerity of the witness. Because when it came to visions, ancient peopleseven those with excellent educations and every resource imaginable, even judges sitting at trialdidn’t seem to bother with checking facts the way Holding has in mind. As even Acts tells it, neither Agrippa nor Festus even thought to interrogate Paul or other witnesses about his vision.

Likewise, when Pliny the Younger heard that Curtius Rufus had seen a vision of a goddess, he asked only whether it was a hallucination or a real encounter with the divine. The possibility that the story was made up never even enters his mind, nor does he engage any effort at all to check. Nor, apparently, did the historian Tacitus. On another occasion, one of Pliny the Younger’s freedmen, and then one of his slaves, was “attacked” by ghosts who cut their hair as they slept, which Pliny took as an omenit never occurred to him, apparently, to interrogate his staff to locate what was obviously a bedtime prankster.[26] If Pliny could be this gullible and slipshod in his investigations when it came to “apparitions,” so could anyone lower down the social and educational ladder. Pliny simply trusted such witnesses. So would Christian converts.


7.6. Second Example: Luke on Agrippa’s Cause of Death

“The point is,” Holding argues, “the presence of those of greater social standing and notice, and the claims attached to them” because “it is impossible that Christianity thrived and survived without having its ducks in a row in this regard.” We have already seen what’s wrong with this argument. It simply doesn’t hold water. Nor is it even relevant to whether Jesus rose from the deadsince none of these “ducks” have anything to do with that. Everything we have said so far can now be summarized by examining Holding’s second ‘star’ example: the claim that Herod Agrippa “was eaten by worms” as Luke reports in Acts 12:20-23.

Holding claims that “copies of Acts circulated in the area and were accessible to the public” so “had Luke reported falsely, Christianity would have been dismissed as a fraud and would not have ‘caught on’ as a religion.” Even if that were true, it is irrelevantgetting such a detail right in no way entails or even implies getting right the details of Christ’s resurrection, since the evidence is categorically different in each case: public records vs. private oral tradition, and incidental color vs. doctrinally crucial detail. But Holding’s claim isn’t true anyway.

First, how Herod Agrippa the Elder died was not so open to investigation. Apart from all the general difficulties noted earlier, there were no death certificates, and most people had no access to anyone who might know the truth (a common Christian does not just walk up to a Jewish king and ask whether his dad died of worms). In fact, it is likely no one knew: there was no coroner, and no such thing as an autopsy (by the Roman period, autopsies were in fact illegalsince they desecrated the bodywhich is why Galen had to use apes to study human anatomy). Josephus merely reports that Agrippa died of stomach pains, and we know Josephus employed royal memoirs and records. That the cause of death was “worms” would be a plausible inference, which no one could prove or refute, not even Agrippa’s son. Indeed, death by “worms” was curiously so common for tyrants (including Antiochus IV, Sulla, Herod, Agrippa I, and Galerius) that historians are rightly skeptical of its historicity.[27] But even if the cause of death had somehow been confirmed, the only way Luke could know of it is by rumor or consulting published histories, neither of which would lend any credence to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. So this whole issue is a red herring.

Second, “copies of Acts” did not “circulate” until long after the elder Agrippa died, after the Jewish War had completely destroyed the region, and most relevant witnesses were dead or sold off into slavery. Thus, it would have been exceedingly difficult for anyone to “check” this claim, and there is no evidence anyone ever did. In fact, most expert commentators agree: regardless of when Acts was written, it was not circulated to any notable degree until the mid-second century, and therefore would not have come to anyone’s attention who would have cause to dispute the claimmuch less Agrippa’s son (who probably died before 93 A.D.).[28] Thus, when Holding argues that “Luke probably would have been jailed and/or executed by Agrippa’s son, Herod Agrippa II” if Luke had lied about his father’s cause of death, Holding must presume Luke made this claim in his son’s presence or in any public manner likely to come to his attention in his lifetime, yet we have no evidence Luke did. Indeed, Holding’s point here rests on a veritable mountain of blind speculations. For example, I am unaware of any evidence of anyone ever being executed for misreporting a cause of death (it is unclear how one would even prove such a claim false, since there would be no relevant evidence remaining). It is already a huge stretch to suppose Agrippa would be so incensed at such a trivial claim as to trump up some charge of treason to justify an execution, even supposing he ever heard the claimwhich entails the improbable assumption that he was busy reading every book anyone ever wrote in his lifetime, or that he had a team of lackeys eager to report trivial errors concerning the record of his father. And to make matters worse, Acts went unsigned. So how would Agrippa know whom to accuse?

Not only does Holding get the facts of the matter wrong, but his entire argument is a non sequitur:

First, Christianity had already “caught on” as a religion long before Acts was even written, as Acts itself attests. The success of Christianity could not have been impaired by dishonesty in a book it had never relied on to sell the faith, which would not come to the attention even of most Christians until a century after the origin of the Church. So by the time any Christians used Acts in such a way, we are well into the second century, so far away from the events being reported that checking them would have been impossible. Nor would having a bogus book be a liabilityfor bogus histories of Christian “acts” sprouted like grass in that century, yet did nothing to arrest its success. If someone found a book in error on any detail, a Christian could simply disclaim the book and appeal to his own witness of the Holy Spirit, or argue the claim in question was merely symbolic or allegorical, or simply point out the obvious: that making a few mistakes as to the details does not discredit an entire story, much less a story whose truth has nothing whatever to do with those details. But this is moot anyway. As far as we can see, the actual evidence Christians used to win converts in the first century never included their own books, much less historical texts like Luke-Acts.

Second, and this bears repeating, whether Agrippa died of worms has nothing to do with the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. For instance, Paul’s personal and direct testimony to having seen God himself would not have been undermined one bit by some other Christian getting caught lying about Agrippa dying of worms. This point carries for every other element of Luke-Acts, the only book in the New Testament that claims to be a history and that actually follows the markers of that genre (as explained above). The success of Christianity would not have been hindered at all by trivial lies there. At the very worst, if the book were exposed as full of lies, Christians simply would have abandoned itas they did countless other bogus Acta.

On the other hand, it would be a rhetorical advantage to fill a book about private, unconfirmable experiences, with public facts that were demonstrably true. Indeed, the very fact that Holding himself is impressed and persuaded by this, even though it has no bearing at all on the truth of the Resurrection itself, proves the point: it would be easier to sell a private resurrection claim by packaging it with a hundred public truths that actually had nothing to do with it. And as we just saw above, when the issue came to trial, Paul did not even try to present any evidence, much less public evidence, or claim any of the Resurrection details as related by Luke in his Gospel. Apart from scripture, Paul appeals solely to private revelations from God (in both Acts and Galatians), which no one could confirm or refuteand, accordingly, no one did.

In the end, all these observations completely undermine the force of Holding’s argument. He says “Christianity was highly vulnerable to inspection and disproof on innumerable pointsany one of which, had it failed to prove out, would have snowballed into further doubt.” Perhaps this would happen if anyone actually bothered to look for and actually succeeded in finding definitive proof that any such claim was false, and fellow Christians did not then disavow the book, or convince them the passage was meant to be allegory or symbolic, or that such trivial errors did not matter to the central claim of the Gospel. But already that’s a whole slew of suppositions, for which we have no evidence. And even if we grant those assumptions, this would only explain why most people rejected Christianity, as in fact most people did. It would not prove that the few who converted did so because they checked all the facts and found them sterling. Moreover, every one of these checkable facts could well have been sterlingthat tells us nothing about whether the private, uncheckable evidence for the Resurrection was sterling, too.


7.7. Arguing from the Miraculous

Beyond historical trivia in Acts, Holding extends his argument by referring to a few public “miracles” reported in the Gospels, in particular: “an earthquake, a darkness at midday, the temple curtain torn in two” and “healings of illnesses and dysfunctions, even reversals of death, in highly public places.” We will set aside “healings” and “reversals of death” since many pagans claimed similar phenomena, and there are many possible natural causes for them anyway. So even if these accounts are true, they do not prove Christianity true.[29] The sole exception on record is perhaps the “healing” of a severed ear, so I will add that to Holding’s list. I am leaving out the rest of Holding’s trivia, such as whether Jesus was executed or buried by Joseph, or received a public reception at Jerusalem, since all of that could be true even if the Resurrection wasn’t.

Of Holding’s examples, only two can truly be called “public”: the earthquake and the noonday darkness, which somehow only Christians ever noticedindeed, some of them even missed it. The Gospel of John mentions neither, nor does either Mark or Luke mention any earthquake (Matthew is alone in making this claim: he even claims there were two earthquakes a day apart: Matthew 27:51-54 & 28:2), so the sources do not agree there were such events. Second, even if we trusted the account (and we have no good reason to), neither event is supernatural. A solar eclipse on Passover, much less of three-hour duration, would be supernatural. However, only Luke uses the technical term for “eclipse” (Luke 23:44-45), which could only be an inferencefor there is no way Luke could confirm it was an “eclipse of the sun” rather than something else. And the other Gospels, including the earliest, only say “darkness” (Mark 15:33; Matthew 27:45), which could be produced by inclement weather.[30] Likewise, the fact that Matthew says there were two earthquakes lends support to a theory of natural cause (since aftershocks are common). Third, neither an earthquake nor an extended darkness proves the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, and so they are essentially irrelevant to the truth of Christianity, even if we could prove they happenedand we can’t.

But set all that aside. How would someone at the end of the first century (and even by that time we can’t show the Gospels were at all widely known, even by Christians themselves) check the claim that there were earthquakes in Jerusalem in some unidentified year more than two generations ago? The Jewish War would have eliminated most if not all witnesses, and those who survived would be unlikely to have lived long enough to be available, even supposing someone could find them to ask (or even bothered to try, and we have no evidence anyone did).[31] Merely “failing” to find the earthquakes mentioned in other sources would not “prove” Matthew a liar. And even then, Matthew never claims to be writing history anywayso a missionary could declare the earthquake symbolic, and thus avoid the whole issue.

The same problems and response were available for the noonday darkness. By the time the Gospels came to be circulated (we first hear about them in the early second century), the ability to “check” even these highly public claims was unavailable. Its mere absence from other sources would not “prove” it false. And, of course, as far as we know, everyone who engaged any exhaustive effort to research these claims may have found them false and rejected Christianityand only those who didn’t check, believed. Holding cannot assume otherwise, nor can he prove otherwise. All the same could be said of Matthew’s uncorroborated claim that “many” unnamed corpses of holy men rose and appeared to “many” unnamed witnesses (Matthew 27:52-53, mentioned in no other Gospel). That has nothing to do with whether Jesus rose and appeared to anyone. And it would be impossible to check Matthew’s claim anyway. The reader isn’t told whom to askso he couldn’t even find, much less interrogate, everyone who was in Jerusalem at the time. This is especially true given that most of them would already be dead or would have visited from unknown cities and nations. It isn’t even clear which Passover it was.

Then there is the semipublic miracle of Jesus restoring the severed ear of an unnamed slave of the high priest sometime in the 30’s A.D. First, “healed” (iaomai) is ambiguous enough that it could have meant simply ‘stopped the bleeding and pain’ (which the human body often does naturally), in which case there is nothing supernatural hereand such an interpretation would be an easy escape for Luke’s defenders if the claim were challenged. But Luke probably had something magical in mind. However, he is alone in recording this (Luke 22:51). It is not mentioned in any other account (Matthew 26:51), including the earliest version of the story (Mark 14:47) and the most detailed version of the story (John 18:10), even though all accounts mention the ear being severed, and John even claims to know the name of the slave whose ear was lost. So by modern standards, the claim that Jesus healed the ear is probably apocryphal. And, of course, it is again irrelevant. That Jesus could heal severed ears does not imply he rose from the dead.

Finally, if we regard Luke as the most thorough and diligent in researching the factsindeed, the only author even claiming anything like thisthen we must conclude there was probably no earthquake or hoard of zombies. For this means Luke either found no such claims, despite his thorough research, or he excluded them from his narrative because he found them false. Either way, their absence from Luke’s account entails they probably did not happen. Then, for the darkness and torn curtain, we know Luke’s source: the Gospel of Mark. Yet Mark was probably writing a symbolic allegory, not historyor at the very least, we cannot establish otherwise. That eliminates all of Holding’s miracles. Even the healed ear would be a perfect example of how ancient historians used probability as a criterion: since Luke would believe the greatest and most compassionate healer would not leave a severed ear untreated, he would believe Mark must have been remiss in excluding the fact that Jesus healed it. Therefore, Luke would believe that healing the ear was probably what happened, and so he would be justified in including it in the narrative. That sort of judgment, blurring the line between inference and sourced fact, was a widely accepted practice in ancient historiography.

But, again, set all that aside. How would someone at the end of the first century check Luke’s claim? The high priest in question was long dead, and Luke does not tell the reader the name of the slave, or who among those present checked to confirm the ear was actually severed, much less actually restored. So whom would you ask? What would they tell you? And how would you find that person, fifty or sixty years (and a devastating war) after the fact? And who would go through all that effort? There is no record of anyone even trying, much less succeeding at it. As far as we know, Luke felt far enough from the events to get away with embellishing Mark’s unmiraculous story, knowing it would be very unlikely his fib would be found out by then, or Luke simply assumed Jesus would heal the ear. And, of course, as far as we know, everyone who did engage the exhaustive effort to research Luke’s claim found it false and rejected Christianity for that very reason. Holding cannot assume otherwise, nor can he prove otherwise.

That leaves only one more miracle on Holding’s list: the torn veil (Mark 15:38; Matthew 27:51; Luke 23:45; John makes no mention of it). That is, again, of no relevance to whether Jesus rose. It was also highly symbolic, so a Christian need not have regarded it as history. But even if one did, it would be impossible to check. Only the high priest and another priest sitting the Office of the Veil attended that veil at any given time, which was replaced due to wear at least twice a year.[32] Therefore, there could only have been at most two witnesses to the veil suddenly tearing in two at Passover, both of whom would have been long dead by the time the claim was circulated. Of course, had it actually happened, we might expect the whole priesthood to hear about it, and thence the rumor might spread and be passed down to subsequent generations. But a Christian could just as easily expect the two witnesses to cover it up, just as Matthew claims the Jews tried to cover up the resurrection of Jesuswhich means even if a Christian found a living witness, he could dismiss their denial of this miracle as coming from yet another lying Jew. Either way, if it didn’t happen, by the time the claim was circulated, there would be no way at all to prove it hadn’t.

All of Holding’s appeals to the availability of witnesses ignore the relevant facts above. He claims “there were also built in ‘fact checkers’ stationed around the Empire who could say something about all the claims central to Jerusalem and Judaeathe Diaspora Jews.” But due to age and war, by the time the Gospel claims were circulated at all widely, few if any living Jews would have been in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Obviously, had the public “miracles” actually happened, later generations might have heard of them as the tales were passed down (though even then it would be a chore to find someone who had such a connectionnot everyone is a comprehensive library of oral lore). But if the claims were made upand that is, after all, the only hypothesis in questionhow would they be “refuted”? An aspiring Christian could ask a hundred Diaspora Jews in a dozen different cities, but all these Jews could tell them is that they had not heard any such storiesand that would not prove such things didn’t happen. That is a far cry from having “built in fact checkers.”

Another example is Holding’s strangely contradictory argument that the public “miracles” took place before “attendant crowds numbering in the millions” and yet this is counted as taking place “in a small city and culture where word would spread fast.” Since when do “crowds numbering in the millions” count as a “small” community? Indeed, doesn’t rumor and misinformation travel just as fast? Holding apparently did not think about the logistics of this situation. First, such huge numbers actually make investigating a rumor all but impossible, since finding witnesses would be like finding a needle in a haystackall the more so since most would be gone after the festival, to destinations unknown. Second, the same fact would make stopping a rumor all but impossiblesuch enormous crowds would be beyond anyone’s control, and the rapid spread throughout them of any tale would far outrun any individual who might want to deny it. And then, only days later, the rumor would be carried off to countless foreign cities. No one could clean up such a mess. Finally, how could “millions” witness a localized event anyway? This would be impossible even in a theater designed to allow large numbers of people to see the same stage or arena, since the largest such venues in antiquity never exceeded more than 80,000 spectatorsand even then, how well would they be able to see any particular event? Not well enough to be sure of any miraculous details.

And that is precisely the problem: at most a few hundred could have been witness to any specific event, and very few of them would be capable of any reliable observation. But how do you locate a few, much less a few hundred, unnamed people in an itinerant crowd of millions who attended an event in some unspecified year five or six decades ago? Only earthquakes and darkness would be observed by all, and we’ve already examined the problems there. But there is something odd about that, too: if God had no trouble covering all Judaea with a miraculous darkness (and Holding must assume it was miraculous, or else it has no relevance to Christianity being true), how could God have had any scruple against having the risen Jesus appear to all Judaea? Isn’t it peculiar that the only event that makes Christianity true was private and available only to a privileged few, while the only events that were at all public had little to do with Christianity being true, and even then were only “reported” generations later, only by Christians, and after a devastating war (not to mention the Neronian persecution) had eliminated just about any chance of checking the facts? Doesn’t that look like a human rather than a divine hand at work in history?

Since it is relevant to Holding’s opening quotation and prize example, we must note in the end that Paul includes none of the miracles examined above as among “those things” he says Agrippa knows aboutbut only “those things” Paul actually offers in his defense (see First Example: Luke on Paul’s Trial above). Notably, Paul does not include the empty tomb in his defense, either. Though this was not miraculous in and of itself, certainly the Christians would have benefited from having a prominent witness to corroborate it. Yet no one is ever said to have observed the tomb empty except a handful of Christians and liars (Matthew 28:11-15). Indeed, it is most remarkable that the Christians associate the burial with a “famous” man (well, at least a prominent man), yet that same man is conveniently not around to confirm the tomb was empty. The Christians thus avoid linking even Joseph of Arimathea to any resurrection evidence, since he never turns up in Acts as a witness for or against the Christian claim. So even that “fact” remained thoroughly private, and (once the story began to circulate with the Gospels) far beyond anyone’s ability to “check.”


7.8. Conclusion

Holding claims that “you start a religion by linking to obscure and nameless people,” but it is unclear to me why anyone would have to do that. Is Holding presuming the only alternative is that the Christians made everything up? Why? The only claim at issue is whether Jesus rose from the dead, since that is the only claim that distinguished Christianity from every other sect of the Jews. Even supposing the Christians fabricated everything (and I see no need to suppose thatwe can reject the resurrection claim without rejecting every other claim they made), why would they make up a bunch of momentous events in a small unknown, unnamed hovel featuring unknown, unnamed yokels? Wouldn’t a prestigious location and cast of characters be more momentous, more awesome, more persuasive?

All Holding has to say against this is that it would have been more risky. But that’s true only if the “famous” details had anything to do with proving Jesus rose from the deadyet none did. And even granting Holding’s “domino” theory, the only “risk” then would be preventing the recruitment of wealthy, highly-skilled scholars or legal magistrates who had the time and desire to check the facts in meticulous detailyet there is no evidence any such people were recruited in that first century.[33] We also have no evidence that anyone who converted in that period did so after checking even a single historical claim made in Luke-Actsmuch less all of them. We don’t even have any clear evidence that they could. Moreover, even if a document or claim was refuted, Christians could simply have resorted to the claim that it was really allegory or not representative of what “honest” Christians say. So where is the risk? The Christians did not have to make up any of these “famous” details, because none related to their claim that Jesus rose from the dead; and even had they made some things up, there is no evidence any actual converts ever checked to find out, or even could have. Maybe those who rejected Christianity could havebut that lends no comfort to Holding’s thesis.

The bottom line is, we can deny the Resurrection without denying all these claims about famous people, since no events connected to such people have any bearing on whether the Resurrection was true. Not even the darkness, earthquake, or miraculous curtain-ripping. Even if you believe those things happenedbased on the unsupported assumption that (a) many converts could and did check, and then (b) they actually confirmed these events, and (c) they did so on evidence we ourselves would consider sufficiently reliablenone of these events even implies Jesus rose from the dead. So including famous people and events in the story was perfectly safe. Even assuming every such reference is entirely true, this does not tell us whether the Resurrection itself is true. That remained a private claim impossible for anyone to confirm or refute, no matter how capable or diligent.

Of course, the first Christians could be offered as an exception, since they would have access to evidence no one else would have, but it is notoriously difficult to identify with confidence what the first Christians really believed, or why, since we only have the testimony of later Christians. Even Paul, close as he is to the first witnesses, does little to confirm many of the most contested claims of the later Gospels, such as the empty tomb, or that Christ rose in a body of flesh, or that Christ was seen flying up into heaven, and so on. And even with regard to the “ancillary” claimsassociating the story of early Christianity with so many “famous” peoplewe have no evidence any of those claims were circulating before the Jewish War (after which, checking such facts would have been all but impossible, or moot). Nor is there any reason to suppose Christians needed to make any of these claims upbeing ancillary, such claims could tell the straight truth, since they had nothing whatever to do with whether their essential claim was true (that Jesus rose from the dead); and being public, even a mediocre scholar could get such facts right, and still not get anywhere near the real truth behind the private and uncheckable evidence of the Resurrection.

Therefore, even if the Christians “had their ducks in a row” regarding all these famous connections, since none of those famous connections bore any relevance to the resurrection of Jesus, such a row of ducks would offer no support to that claim. So even if potential converts could check these facts, that does not even imply they could “confirm,” to any reliable standard, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (never mind that we have no clear evidence anyone did, or even cared to, two points we shall examine in Chapter 13 and Chapter 17, respectively).


7.9. Summation

Holding has presented no evidence that any Christian convert did any fact-checking before converting, or even would have done so. And for many of his own examples, Holding has not even made an adequate case that they could have. That there were people in antiquity who could and would is moot, since we have no evidence any such people converted. Holding has presented no evidence that any “checkable” claims involving famous people and events were employed to win converts before the end of the first century (as opposed to purely private claims that could only be trusted on one’s word). Nor has Holding presented any evidence that the Gospels (much less Acts) were widely known at all, even by Christians, before the second century, a contingency his argument nevertheless requires. Holding has also presented no evidence that Luke and other authors did not add false, exaggerated, or unconfirmed hearsay to texts that otherwise contained well-researched public facts. Yet all the actual evidence of resurrection consists of unconfirmable hearsay alone. Even if every public, checkable claim in the New Testament was entirely true, it cannot be concluded that the private, uncheckable claims were as well. Therefore, we cannot conclude from any of this that evidence of Christ’s resurrection was “irrefutable.”


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[1] All quotes taken from Tacitus, Annals 3.44, 3.19, and 4.11.

[2] For the fact that this is the standard consensus view, and a justified view, see: Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995); Charles Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (1983); John Marincola, Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (1997); Averil Cameron, ed. History As Text: The Writing of Ancient History (1990); Bruno Gentili & Giovanni Cerri, History and Biography in Ancient Thought (1988).

[3] See scholarship in the previous note, as well as Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians (1970). A good survey of scholarship on ancient historiography is also presented by Colin Hemer, “Ancient Historiography,” The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (1990): pp. 63-100. Hemer’s use of this evidence for Luke-Acts is addressed later on in the present chapter.

[4] The closest approximations were the Acta Diurna (or Acta Publica) and the Acta Senatus, which only reported official events at Rome (court rulings, debates, etc.), and only under the direction of the Roman government (i.e. they involved nothing like “journalism,” since the ancient world lacked any such thing as journalists or even police detectives, in the modern sense). The Diurna were probably painted on whitewashed wooden boards from day to dayin Rome, and possibly each provincial capitaland probably also kept on papyrus in official archives (to which few would have been allowed accessa necessary precaution against the fraudulent theft, destruction, or alteration of government records). Publication of the Senatus was forbidden under the Empire (it was made available only to Senators). See “Acta,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996): p. 10 (and the sources there cited).

       Though I am unaware of evidence for “provincial diurna,” it is possible there was such a thing. If there was, certain details could be found in them, such as the appointment of Pilate to Judaea. But after the daily posting, only allowed members of the government would have been able to check, and only in a capital city housing a government archive (and Roman archives in Palestine might not have survived the Jewish War). Moreover, it is highly improbable the trial or sentence of anyone like Jesus or Paul would be mentioned even in a provincial Diurna, since there is no evidence the Romans even could have included the thousands of trials involving men of middle or low status (publication of which would have been prohibitively expensive given the technology of the day, and probably beneath the contempt of even the local elite), nor any evidence that they did. And these records would almost certainly never have mentioned anything to do with the Resurrection. At any rate, there is no evidence such documents contained any relevant data, or that any Christian convert in the first hundred years (including Luke) had access to any public Acta. So, too, for all other government documents (such as actual trial records).

[5] The scholarship in Note 2 discusses this whole issue in detail, but the locus classicus for understanding speechmaking in ancient histories is still F. W. Wallbank, “Speeches in Greek Historians,” J. L. Myres Memorial Lecture No. 3 (1965). Wallbank concludes that the most reliable speech-preserver in antiquity is Polybius, and yet even he “shows perhaps less critical judgment than we are entitled to expect” and “there is no evidence that Polybius’ protest” against other historians taking greater liberties “had much effect in changing the current attitude towards writing history” in subsequent centuries (p. 18). Many scholars likewise find much to distrust in Thucydides’ account, for example, of the Melian Dialogue (in book 5).

       Thucydides famously described his own method thus (1.22.1; tr. from Wallbank, but emphasis added): “my practice has been to make the speakers say what in my opinion was demanded of them by the various occasionsor what in my opinion they had to say on the various occasionsof course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what was really said,” insofar as he knew (he preceded this remark by mentioning the general nature of his sources). Few historians were as strict, and it became a fashion soon after to disregard any interest in finding out what was actually said, and instead compose speeches to serve only the rhetorical or aesthetic interests of the author (the fact that some authors attacked this practice only proves how common it was). A nice summary of this point, with bibliography, and specifically assessing the speeches in Acts, is provided by F. F. Bruce, “The Speeches in Acts,” The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (1990): pp. 34-40. (Note that the example Bruce cites from Tacitus in p. 35, n. 4, can present no analogy, since by the nature of the case Tacitus was working from a physical inscription of the speech officially produced by the emperor being paraphrased and still available to Tacitusa situation Luke, for example, could never have enjoyed.)

[6] Karla McLaren, “Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures.” Skeptical Inquirer 28.3 (May/June 2004): pp. 47-52.

[7] We know the names of at most three thousand authorswhether their writings survive or notover the course of a thousand years (from roughly 500 B.C. to A.D. 500). Yet in that time, the population remained steady between 60 and 120 million (throughout the territory encompassed by the Roman Empire at its height), and given the average life expectancy of less than 50 years, there would have been a complete turn-over of the population approximately every half a century, for a total of about 1 or 2 billion people. Therefore: 1000 years / 50 years = 20 average lifespans, and 60 to 120 million lives x 20 lifespans = 1.2 to 2.4 billion lives lived; then, 1.2 to 2.4 billion total lives / 3,000 writers’ lives = 400,000 to 800,000 people per known writer.

       For population and lifespan estimates, see T. G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society (1992), esp. “Frier’s Life Table for the Roman Empire,” p. 144 (cf. Note 31). See also: Bruce Frier, Landlords and Tenants in Imperial Rome (1980); Ansley Coale, Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations, 2nd ed. (1983); and Roger Bagnall & Bruce Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt (1994).

       As to the number of authors in that period, the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae contains every extant Greek author within that date range, numbering 1,384. This number includes authors known only in quotations or fragments, and most of those known only by name. It is well-known that the number of Latin authors in that period is much smaller than for Greek, so more than doubling the TLG number to 3,000 is without doubt a huge over-estimate.

[8] I hope not, but I fear Holding might resort to a known slander among Christian intellectuals today and claim that, then as now, all unbelievers (including Jews) are moral reprobates who willfully ignore evidence that they really know is sufficient, in order to avoid the “moral” consequences of belief. Such bigotry has no place in a serious historical inquiry. Holding cannot know there were any such secret psychological motives for ancient Jews and non-Christians (there is no good evidence of this even for modern Jews and non-Christians), and therefore to claim such is not a historical argument, but a mere dogma. On the facts as we know them, there is no reason to suppose any great division in moral values or sincerity between converts and doubters regarding appropriate responses to “irrefutable” evidence.

[9] I discuss this case in detail in my Columbia University Master’s Thesis: Richard Carrier, “Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire” (1998), available in PDF format.

       However, the main passages from ancient texts that relate to all the claims made here include: Seneca, Natural Questions 7.1.2 and 7.25.3, Phaedra 788-94, Hercules Oetaeus 523-27, On Benefits 5.6.4; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 2.54 and 25.10 (w. 2.53, 2.43); Statius, Thebaid 6.685-88; Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.207-09 and 12.262-64, 14.365-68, Amores 1.8.12-14, Heroides 6.85-86; Lucan, Pharsalia 6.499-506; Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom (Moralia 145c-d), Nicias 23.1-3, Aemilius Paulus 17.7-11; Lucian, Lover of Lies 14; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 37; Marcus Manilius, Astronomica 1.226; Apuleius, Metamorphosis 1.3.1, 1.8.4; Apollonius, Argonautica 4.57-67; Aristophanes, Clouds 749-52; Plato, Gorgias 513a (cf. also: Papyri Magicae Graecae §34); Cicero, On the Republic 1.23; Livy, From the Founding of the City 44.38.5-9; Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander 4.10.1-7; Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 8.11, 11.1; Tacitus, Annals 1.28; Cassius Dio, Roman History 60.26.1; Frontinus, Stratagems 1.12.8.

[10] “Of all the NT writers, Luke is the only one who merits the title ‘historian’,” F. F. Bruce, “Luke as a Historian,” The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (1990): p. 27 (and cf. pp. 27-34, and pp. 35-46). On the genre of the other Gospels, the decisive work is Charles Talbert, What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (1977).

       But even without Talbert’s exhaustive analysis, it is apparent to anyone that none of the other Gospels employ the markers of historical genre that Luke does: none declare any purpose or method, or show any historical consciousness like that of Luke 1:1-4; none attempt to fix the date of any events in the way Luke does in 3:1; etc. Instead, John begins exactly like a treatise on theology (in fact consciously mimicking Genesis), not at all like any history (John 1:1-14), and Mark and Matthew do not declare their books to be anything that meant “history,” but an Evangelion (Mark 1:1) or a Genesis (Matthew 1:1). The latter means “Origin” or “Beginning” and the phrase Matthew uses consciously mimics Genesis 2:4 & 5:1, establishing this from the start as a work of theology, not “history” in Luke’s sense. The former, in contrast, means “Good Tidings” or (literally) “Good Message,” and Mark identifies immediately what he means: the “Good Message” is the scriptural message of the “Messenger” (Mark 1:2), which was already known from the Bible long before Jesus was even famous, much less risen from the dead (Mark 1:14-15; hence 1 Corinthians 15:3-4), and therefore the ‘Evangelion’ itself is not a set of historical facts per se, but the articulation of a cosmic or salvific meaning.

[11] Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (1990); cf. also Colin Hemer, “Luke the Historian,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 60 (1977-1978): pp. 28-51. The claims of the latter (and other published work by Hemer) are more reserved than the claims of the former, which in fact was never finished and only completed and published posthumously (see the foreword, pp. vii-viii). This presents a problem, since (speaking as a writer and historian myself) it is often the case that an author’s conclusions become more reserved and careful in the final edit before publication (sometimes they even change), and therefore the book we have does not necessarily represent precisely what Hemer’s actual conclusions would have been. But judging from his previous works, it is certain the book at least approximates his final conclusions, even if we can’t hold a dead man to the precise wording he never officially approved for publication. Even so, the book as published is still full of great reserve and abundant qualification, and does not assert conclusions so much as assert their plausibility.

[12] This view is shared by the book’s expert reviewers, who all praise Hemer’s scholarship and the great value of his book in organizing and presenting a lot of valuable evidence, but who also share the same relevant criticisms, in particular:

       In The Journal of Theological Studies (41.1, April 1991: pp. 227-30), John Lentz says “although promising to deliver a balanced study Hemer is, in this author’s opinion, too uncritical of the difficult historical problems,” including the fact that, “unfortunately, not all ancient historians were as exacting as Lucian or Polybius” and so proving the exacting methods of a Lucian or a Polybius is not sufficiently relevant to Hemer’s argument. Lentz also observes that when it comes to Hemer’s attempt to make Luke’s narrative fit the letters of Paul, he “leaves as many questions as answers” and “his argument is so filled with the phrases ‘might be’ and ‘seems feasible'” that what we have is not history, but conjecture. Even Hemer’s attempt to claim Luke interrogated witnesses, Lentz notes, “is interesting speculation but seems out of place in this otherwise carefully argued work.” Likewise, Hemer’s “insistence that Luke completed Acts during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome in 62 is not proved.” Lentz also says Hemer relies too much on A. N. Sherwin-White without addressing the subsequent scholarship that criticized Sherwin-White’s work: including A. H. M. Jones, who once sided with Sherwin-White, but upon examination of the evidence changed his mind, and other “material that is more recent than Jones seems to argue against Sherwin-White” as well.

       The same conclusions (of praise and criticism) are reached by another specialist in the Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (1990): pp. 726-29. There, Christopher Matthews says Hemer’s argument “does not emerge with any logical necessity” from the evidence he presents, much of which is “singularly unremarkable” or even “import[s] observations that already assume the historicity of the narrative.” Matthews also objects that Hemer’s entire argument largely ignores “the possible impact of theological concerns on the composition” (a view shared by Lentz) while in general Hemer’s arguments are “at times hopelessly encumbered with dubious suppositions.”

[13] C. K. Barrett, review of The Trial of St. Paul, in The Journal of Theological Studies 41.1, April 1991: pp. 230-31.

[14] See, for example, my discussion of “What Good are ‘Anonymous’ Eye-Witnesses Anyway?” and “Was Luke a Learned Man? Would That Even Matter?” in Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (5th ed., 2004).

[15] For plêrophoreô as “fully assured” rather than “completed,” see plêrophoreô in Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon (and compare Romans 4:21, 14:5; Colossians 2:2, 4:12; and its nominal cognate in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 and Hebrews 6:11, 10:22). The verb in 2 Timothy 4:5 & 4:17 does not mean “completed” but “satisfied”; there is not even a single case in the Bible where this verb means “completed” as in “happened,” and I am not aware of any cases outside the Bible, either. (Though if anyone thinks they have found one, please let me know.) And for kathôs as “according to what” (i.e. “according as” or “according to how”) instead of the usual (and ambiguous) translation “even as,” see the entry in the previously cited lexicon on kathôs and its synonym katha, which is the word’s primary meaning.

[16] The verb anatassô means “bring back together” and thus “rehearse” or “recount,” which can mean orally or in writing. That Luke says “me, too” might imply some of the accounts he is referring to were written (and we know for a fact at least one of them was: the Gospel according to Mark), but he might simply mean that organizing and relating the stories was a good idea he shared. Either way, Luke clearly intends to put himself in the company of these unnamed others. He is not criticizing them.

[17] The verb epigignôskô means literally “to look upon, witness, observe,” and by extension to “recognize” or “take notice of” (and by further extension: “find out about,” “discover”). It does not mean “to know” as is often translated. But it often means, when coupled with peri (as it is here), “come to a judgment about,” hence “judge the truth about the stories you heard” (cf. epigignôskô in the Greek-English lexicon cited earlier). I use the more ambiguous “assess” to reflect the actual ambiguity in the Greek: Luke is either asking Theophilus to “take notice of” or “look over” the truth of the stories, or “to make a judgment” about it, or both.

[18] Some scholars (whom Hemer cites but does not commit to, cf. op. cit. pp. 98-99, 322-28) take the key words here out of context in an attempt to change their meaning in Luke. For example, some cite Josephus, Against Apion 1.53. But the context does not support the conclusion that the same two words in Luke mean doing critical research.

       The adverb akribôs literally means “sharply” and thus by extension “precisely,” “exactly,” or “strictly.” By itself it only means “accurately” in those connotationsnot in the English sense of analyzing disparate evidence and figuring out the truth. For example, it is the antonym of haplôs (“loosely”) and typô (“roughly” or “in outline”). See the lexicon entry on akribês. Therefore, the fact that good historians demand an akribôs investigation only means they expect it not to be sloppy or rough, but exact. For example, in the above passage Josephus includes ‘accurately’ following the Old Testament scriptures as an example of doing akribôs history, and in general his point is that you must follow the evidence and sources exactingly. He is not referring to critical analysis. Moreover, while Josephus does discuss sound methods here, Luke does not, and just because Josephus demanded a good method in order to be akribôs, it does not follow that Luke did as well. Rather, in the context of Luke’s use of the word, it refers to following the handed-down stories with precision, which is like Josephus following the handed-down stories of the Old Testament with precision.

       The other key word is the verb parakoloutheô, which literally means “follow closely” and has no connotation of critical analysis or interrogation (cf. the parakoloutheô entry). For example, when Josephus uses the word in the above passage, he forms the phrase “having been close to what happened” (i.e. “having followed the events” and thus being one who himself “knows”). But this is understood only from the context, where he distinguishes that from asking others who “know.” In contrast, when Luke uses the word, the context makes such a reading impossiblesince Luke was not close to “everything from the beginning” but is one of the “us” to whom everything was “handed down” by those who were. And unlike Josephus, Luke makes no distinction between asking those who know (he never even mentions doing such a thing at all) and being one who knows (and he never says he was such a person, and even implies he was not). Therefore, how Josephus used the word cannot help us understand Luke’s use of the word, because the precise context is different. And whereas Josephus tells us his underlying assumptions about method, Luke does notthus we cannot assume Luke shared similar assumptions.

[19] Even outside the subject of Jesus, Luke only identifies and quotes two sources, neither of which contain anything relevant to the life, resurrection, or divinity of Jesus: an essentially anonymous church decree (Acts 15:23-29) and a government letter by Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26-30, which oddly doesn’t even name Paul). And there are significant disagreements in the manuscripts as to the contents of both: dogmatic alterations were made to the decree (esp. to 15:24 and 15:29), and (among other things) the words “a certain Jesus” were added to verse 29 of the letter of Lysias in later manuscripts, thus “inventing” an official Roman reference to Jesus.

[20] From the translation of Rolfe and Arkenberg available on Fordham University’s website.

[21] And as we’ve noted, unlike other historians of his day, Luke never even tells us who he is. And unlike all good historians of the day, who often say when they were eyewitnesses or mention who they got details from when they weren’t eyewitnesses, Luke never says he so much as knew even Paul, much less traveled with him. Such a conjecture arose only a century later, probably from the fact that in three places involving journeys at sea the narrative of Acts speaks in the first person plural (“we”). Maybe that does mean the narrator (or his source) was with Paul on those journeysbut we are not told this, nor told who the narrator was, or what his relationship was to Paul. And commentators can’t agree on what to make of all this (since there are also arguments weighing against Luke being a companion of Paul).

       There is an additional problem: there are two significantly different versions of Acts, a Western version and an Eastern version, both equally ancient, and both show signs of editing by later scribes. Indeed, the Western text is nearly 10% longer, and “the early witnesses for the text of Acts diverge more than those of any other New Testament writing” (John Polhill, Acts: The New American Commentary 1992: p. 39). So it is possible that some historical details (including precise terminology), as well as material of crucial dogmatic importance (e.g. data pertaining to the nature of Christ’s resurrection), were added by someone other than the original author. This manuscript evidence is so problematic that it has led some scholars to argue that Luke wrote two versions of Acts, or that he never finished it, and only left disorganized or incomplete notes that later scribes, eventually in two separate traditions, put together into a coherent and polished form. Whatever the case, all these problems make our position even worse with regard to asserting the reliability of the received version of Luke-Acts.

       For all the above details, see Ernst Haenchen, “The Text of Acts,” The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (1971): pp. 50ff. On Luke not likely being a companion of Paul, see: pp. 88-89, 112-16, 726-32 of Haenchen; Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 2nd ed. (1972): pp. xxxiv-xxxv, xxxix-xl, 127, 215; C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (1998); F. F. Bruce, “The Text of Acts,” The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (1990): pp. 69ff.; and the very excellent, extensive, and persuasive discussion of W. A. Strange, The Problem of the Text of Acts (1992). Barrett writes that “the differences and problems … are more than sufficient to cast doubt on the identification of our author with a Pauline traveling companion” (p. xliv). He notably adds: “Luke’s use of technical vocabulary suggests, if anything, that he was not a doctor but a sailor” (p. xlv). Likewise, note Haenchen’s opinion (on p. 85) that “the ‘we'” in certain passages “has been inserted in order to lend the narrative of the voyage the appearance of a fellow traveler’s account” and “was in fact used here as a stylistic device.”

[22] I am not sure Agrippa had the authority to execute a Roman citizen (whether for perjury or anything else), much less someone who had already filed an appeal. But I will assume so for the sake of argument.

[23] Paul says ei pathêtos ho Christos ei prôtos ex anastaseôs nekrôn phôs mellei kataggellein (26:23) in indirect discourse, as what Moses and the prophets “said” was “going to happen” (elalêsan mellontôn ginesthai, 26:22), i.e. “whether the Messiah was subject to suffering, whether first from a resurrection from the dead he was going to proclaim a light…” That Paul is deliberately shy about asserting anything beyond what scripture says is clear from the carefully chosen words here: the particle ei is “used … to express a wish … usually either in conditions, if, or in indirect questions, whether” (cf. the ei lexicon entry). And mellei means “about to happen,” “going to happen,” “is intended to happen,” or “is destined to happen,” always looking forward to a future time, even if only the immediate future (cf. mellô in the lexicon). Thus, Paul expresses the resurrection of Christ to Agrippa as a wish for the future attested in scripture, not as an actual event of the recent past.

[24] Aristides, Athenagoras, Tatian, and Justin Martyr (early 2nd century) are the first elite scholars to convert on recordhence anything like academic Christian literature (where deliberation regarding the truth of Christianity is significantly transparent as to both methods and sources) begins only with them and no sooner, and does not reach high levels of critical skill (comparable to that of elite skeptics) until Clement of Alexandria and Origen (late 2nd & early 3rd century). Justin and Aristides converted between 120 and 140 (hence roughly a hundred years after Christianity began), and are the first converts known to have engaged a careful examination of the available options before converting (as we shall discuss in Chapter 17). See Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987), pp. 305-07.

[25] On the “decurion” class, see the entry for decuriones in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996): pp. 437-38. On the implausible argument that all of these people willfully ignored the evidence, see Note 8.

       There are, of course, the dubious legends of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea each being a “disciple” (Joseph “secretly” in John 19:38, perhaps openly in Matthew 27:57, but merely a “seeker” in Mark 15:43 & Luke 23:50-51), but neither was converted by evidence of a resurrection and there is no evidence either remained a convert after the disciples claimed Jesus rose (since both men are conspicuously absent from Acts). On Nicodemus, see the discussion in Chapter 2. As for Joseph, even supposing he was a real person, it is unclear what his status was supposed to be. John doesn’t say. Matthew only says he was “rich” (yet a “rich man” was supposed to attend the Messiah at his burial: Isaiah 53:9). Mark says he was a councilman (bouleutês) of good reputation “who was also seeking the Kingdom of God himself.” Luke alone can be taken as alleging he was a member of the Sanhedrin (the council of Jerusalem), but it would be unusual for a citizen of Arimathea to sit on the council of another city, and Luke does not actually say he did (only that he did not agree with their decision). Therefore, if he was a bouleutês, he was probably a member of the council of Arimathea. Still, that would at least make him a member of the decurion class.

       However, like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea is utterly unheard of outside the Gospels, which is impossible: had any such person really converted (and the Gospels do not agree he did), his financial and political influence would have been central to the history of Christianityand could not have failed to be a prominent theme in Acts, for example. This plus the fact that Joseph is not a convert in the earliest Gospel account is sufficient to conclude that he probably did not convert. And even if he had, he clearly converted before having any evidence of Christ’s resurrection, and therefore his conversion can prove nothing about that. At most, he could perhaps have later attested to the empty tomb, though he inexplicably vanishes before it is even discovered, never to appear againand we have no evidence anyone, Jew or Christian, ever found him or sought him out to check his testimony.

       Indeed, Holding’s own argument backfires here again. For why would Luke leave Joseph out of Acts, unless Luke felt he could not get away with falsely claiming Joseph remained a believer? Ditto for Nicodemus, who doesn’t even make it into Luke’s Gospel, despite Luke claiming to have followed every tradition carefully. Thus, for all we know, Joseph knew the tomb wasn’t empty, and there is no way Luke could include that detail in his record. Stuck between a damning witness and telling a lie, according to Holding’s own logic, omission would be the only option left. If he was a real person, there is no other plausible reason for Joseph to have evaporated from Christian history. For even if he never converted, his role in proving or refuting the empty tomb would be a vital element of early Church history. Therefore, Holding’s own logic leaves us with the conclusion that, if he existed, Joseph probably knew there was no evidence that Jesus rose.

       For more on Joseph’s role in the burial of Jesus, see Richard Carrier, “Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day” (2002).

[26] Pliny the Younger to his friend Licinius Sura, Letters 7.27.1-3 & 12-14; Tacitus, Annals 11.21.

[27] Thomas Africa, “Worms and the Death of Kings: A Cautionary Note on Disease and History,” Classical Antiquity 1 (1982): pp. 1-17. And see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 19.346-50.

[28] See “Iulius Agrippa II, Marcus,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996): p. 779. As for Acts, only “its circulation in the churches from the second half of the second century onward is amply attested” (F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. [1990]: pp. 11-12). Acts “remained in obscurity until published relatively late in the second century” since “the evidence suggests that Acts only emerged into public use after the mid-[second]-century” as “before that point there appears to have been no published and widely known version of Acts” (W. A. Strange, The Problem of the Text of Acts [1992], p. 182). One scholar even speculates “that the manuscript had to be kept secret for a considerable period of time” (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [1998], p. 63). I personally believe Acts wasn’t even written until after Agrippa’s death (see Richard Carrier, “Luke and Josephus,” 2000), but that’s debatable.

[29] See The Problem of Differing Research Paradigms above for my discussion of miraculous healing (and relevant discussion in Chapter 13). There are plausible psychosomatic explanations for all the NT healing narratives (except one I will address): see Richard Carrier, “Beckwith on Historiography,” which is Section 4a of my Review of “In Defense of Miracles” (1999). See also discussion of pagan healing miracles in Richard Carrier, “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels” (1997). On pagan “reversals of death,” see Richard Carrier, “V. How Do We Know He was Dead?,” in Chapter 2 of Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (5th ed., 2004) and the relevant examples in Chapter 3 of the present work.

[30] The darkness is almost certainly a symbolic invention and not derived from any real event anyway. See my discussion in Richard Carrier, “Thallus: An Analysis” (1999).

[31] In the ancient world, the average life expectancy (for anyone who survived to age 15) was 46 years, while fewer than 1 in 20 would live to 70, and fewer than 1 in 200 would live to 85. Any witness, who survived the war and was at least fifteen years old by 35 A.D. (and thus could recall events of previous years with any kind of reliability), would probably be dead before 75 A.D. (having only a 34% chance of survival, even without an intervening war and persecution), and would almost certainly be dead by 100 A.D. (with only a 1.5% chance of survival, and that’s again without an intervening war and persecution, which would have reduced the probability of survival a great deal more). See “Estimated Life Expectancy in the Ancient World,” adapted from “Frier’s Life Table for the Roman Empire” (see Note 7). Likewise, Josephus himself says 20 years is enough time for witnesses to no longer be available to rebut a story (Life 360; cf. Jewish War 1.15 & Against Apion 1.55).

[32] Mishnah, Yoma 5.1, Middot 1.1h, and various sections in Sheqalim. It is remotely possible (though it cannot be proven) that the veil would have been visible to crowds of pilgrims, depending on how the temple interior was constructed. But if that were the case, so remarkable an event would have been widely reported and would probably have appeared in the pre-war miracles that Josephus lists (Josephus, Jewish War 6.288), if not elsewhere besides (like the Talmud). And since it does not, we cannot claim to know the event was widely witnessed. However, I think it is very unlikely the inner veil was visible in this way, since it appears to have been concealed from the public behind two walls and an outer veil (see one Schematic Plan of the Temple and the description by Josephus, Jewish War 5.184-227, and the Temple of Herod entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia Online).

[33] For example, even the proconsul Sergius was converted (according to Acts) without any investigation of the facts of Christ’s resurrection: see Chapter 13.

Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.

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