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Richard Carrier Resurrection 3

Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)

Richard Carrier

The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grav The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave

Contains three chapters by Richard Carrier, covering theories in great detail that the body of Jesus was stolen, misplaced, or raised only in the spirit realm.

Now available at Barnes & Noble.com.
On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ Licona vs. Carrier: On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Recorded at UCLA before a crowd of half a thousand. Carrier defends his latest theories of how Christianity began, with slide shows and new evidence from the Bible.

Now available on DVD.


General Case for Spiritual Resurrection:

Evidence Against Resurrection of the Flesh


I do not believe Jesus survived. Still, the fact that we can cast some doubt on it (see Probability of Survival vs. Miracle) proves that an apparent “resurrection” was not improbable enough to demand a miraculous explanation. On the other hand, if we accept that he died, as I do, then there is an even greater suspicion cast on his actually appearing afterward, “in the flesh” so to speak. My arguments in the following sections do not seek to prove that the appearance accounts, as stated in the texts, can’t be true. Rather, I argue they have ready alternative explanations. Numerous aspects of the stories make more sense when given natural rather than supernatural explanations (e.g. seeing a gardener as Jesus, adding legendary embellishments to the story to sell or attack a particular dogma, etc.), and these natural explanations are credible enough that there is no good reason to resort to miraculous explanations. Ultimately, there are enough fishy details in these accounts to suggest they are not telling us everything.

This chapter presents only some of the evidence convincing me. I present and defend all the evidence known to me, in thorough and scholarly detail, in an extensive chapter entitled “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), edited by Bob Price and Jeff Lowder (pp. 105-232), for which I have also composed a FAQ that covers any remaining ground. I summarized only some of the evidence presented in that book in a public debate at UCLA (below). Readers should be advised that in many ways the content of the following article is out of date, being improved, revised, and superseded by those materials just mentioned.


Section Contents

I. Paul’s Vision: Causes and Motives

II. Was There an Early Tradition of Appearances in the Flesh?

III. What About the “Hundreds” of Eye Witnesses?

IV. Could the Original Gospel Have Been a Resurrection of a Spiritual Body?

V. What Do ‘Pneumatikos’ and ‘Psychikos’ Mean?

VI. Does an Empty Tomb Entail the Resurrection of a Corpse?

VII. Appearances in Matthew and the Late Addition to Mark

VIII. Appearances in Luke

IX. Appearances in John

X. What Good are “Anonymous” Eye-Witnesses Anyway?

XI. Was Luke a Learned Man? Would That Even Matter?

XII. Concluding Remarks in Support of the Unreliability of the Gospels


I. Paul’s Vision: Causes and Motives

The first recorded appearance story (in terms of when it was written, not when it was supposed to have happened) is of the appearance to Paul, and it is clearly a vision. In one account, he does not see Jesus, only a flash of light (9.3-5), and those with him do not see Jesus, but only hear him (Acts 9.7). Paul could have been speaking in another voice, which the others took as Jesus (or which the author of Acts portrays them as taking to be Jesus, since we don’t have their account of it, after all). But the fact that no one, not even Paul, saw Jesus in the flesh makes the point well enough. Most importantly, Paul never says in his letters that he ever saw Jesus in the flesh (he even denies it in Galatians 1). Moreover, this particular encounter in Acts has all the earmarks of something like a seizure-induced hallucination: Paul alone sees a flash of light, collapses, hears voices, and goes blind for a short period. An embolism is sufficient to cause or explain all of this. We can add to this the fact that the earliest manuscripts of the earliest gospel, Mark, do not describe any appearances of Jesus.

Paul gives other accounts of his vision which claim that others saw it, too. Doesn’t this suggest a genuine vision from God? First of all, there is still never any mention of Jesus appearing in the flesh. Rather, all that appears is a light from heaven (phôs ek tou ouranou, 9.3; ek tou ouranou…phôs, 22.6; ouranothen…phôs, 26.13). So even if several saw the light, it can still have a natural explanation, from lightning to a reflection from a distant object, or even a simple ray of sunlight peaking through a cloud, any of which could also have induced a seizure or affected Paul emotionally, causing an hallucination (or inspiration). And since we don’t have the story from any of these other observers, the story could be embellished or fabricated at leisure, for whatever reason. In my opinion, Paul may have seen in Christianity a way to save the Jews from destruction at the hands of the Romans by displacing their messianic motives to rebel, and creating a new Judaism more agreeable to the Gentiles, open to all and thus uniting rather than dividing, and more submissive to outside authority by internalizing and spiritualizing religious faith, eliminating messianic (and violent) emphasis on the Temple, and postponing material and social complaints by referring them to an afterlife. This could have been a deliberate or a subconscious motivator for Paul and others leading the movement. In Paul’s case, guilt at what he had done to good people, and admiration for their moral program and fortitude, may have also played an emotional role.

It is important to consider what this “greater good” was that Paul may have seen in the Christian reform of Judaism. Paul may have seen the clouds gathering on the horizon–the coming Jewish War. The Judaism of Jesus–Jesus was not a heretic, after all, but a proper Jew, and taught a reform of Judaism–offered an ideal solution to what any intelligent man would have seen to be the impending doom of his people and his faith. Violence was certain to bring about the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. The fate two centuries earlier of Carthage, and Corinth–a place with whose history Paul must have been very familiar–proved that. And the Jewish desire for a savior was becoming militarized. Josephus records the rising violent messianism rising from the twenties all the way to the war in the sixties. Then, Jerusalem was destroyed. Millions were enslaved or killed. The Temple Tax was redirected to Jupiter.

This is why I see in the teachings of Jesus what Paul may have seen: an obvious way for him to save his people and his faith, by teaching a non-violent submission to Rome, a concentration on inner rather than outer expressions of faith, and a displacement of present complaints by promising an accounting after death, and in an apocalypse, and the expansion of the faith beyond racial limits, which was already the secret to the success and acceptance of other Asian religions by Rome, such as that of Cybele and Isis. In doing this, he would succeed in removing those features of other popular messianic movements which were increasingly violent, and overtly divisive and offensive to the occupying power. Moreover, tens of thousands had been killed in riots over the Roman treatment of the Temple, and a reform which would take attention away from that hotbed of violence would have been ideal (note how this destructive focus persists even to this day, as Muslims and Jews kill each other over what is really no more than an old pile of stones).

We also have to consider, as I note, the effects of guilt. Paul persecuted the early followers, but what if he realized this was wrong? Indeed, if he realized, consciously or not, that this new reform was essential to the survival of his people and their faith, the guilt may have been unbearable–yet it could be easily atoned for by conversion, support, and penance in the form of enduring the persecution that he “deserved” (an eye for an eye). This becomes even more likely when we consider that Paul never saw Jesus in the flesh. Since he only saw a light and heard a voice, long after Jesus had died, if his guilt and his realization of the need for this new reform led to an epiphany, a moment of clarity, or even combined with the physical effects of an optical illusion, embolism, or other event, which he interpreted as a vision from God, telling him what his conscience was already coming to realize, then all of this becomes a plausible, realistic, and unsupernatural explanation, which happens to fit the facts fairly well.

I think it is most likely that the original experience was a real, seizure-induced vision, or a psychosomatic effect produced by guilt, because the author of Acts gives the first account as narrative, but the other two are Paul’s speeches and thus affected by their need to persuade a particular audience. Thus, the second two accounts contradict the first by claiming his attendants saw the light but did not hear the voice (Acts 22.9 vs. 9.7, where they hear the voice but see no one), and the third account is suspiciously elaborated (26.13-19), with important details omitted from the other two accounts: he claims that his attendants fell to the ground in reaction to the light, yet the first account said that they stood (9.7 vs. 26:14) and did not see anything, and in both previous accounts he also says that he, not ‘they’, fell (9:4, 22:7 vs. 26:14), and that the light flashed around him, not ‘them’ (9:3, 22:6 vs. 26:13), and though the light was so bright it blinded him (brighter than the sun: 26:13), for some reason it did not blind them (22:11, 9:8); he also claims in the last speech that God gave full instructions, yet in the other two accounts God says to Paul that he will get these instructions later, from Ananias. But Ananias is not even mentioned in the third account. Is Paul modifying his story for different audiences? Has the story grown over time? Which account are we to believe? They can’t all be true.

The most troubling detail is that Paul claims that he was blinded because of the extreme brightness of the light (9:8, 22.11, 26:13), yet was led for days by his attendants, who could obviously still see. This casts suspicion on his claim that the others saw the light. And since all three accounts are presumably from Paul, he may certainly have altered his memory, or embellished the story to make it more persuasive. Indeed, he might have assumed, or wanted to believe, that the others also saw the light and heard “something” (though obviously they did not hear what he did, since they didn’t understand any voice that he heard) or even fell along with him (which he could not really have observed, being blinded). Since, again, we don’t have their account we cannot know what they actually saw or heard or did. It is likely they neither saw nor heard anything, but respected Paul’s experience as genuine, and might even have told him they thought they might have seen or heard something (and may have stooped to catch him as he fell, which he interpreted as their falling with him).

It is also rather likely that the author of Acts is taking liberties with what Paul actually reported. This suspicion rises in force if we notice that when Paul gives us his own account in his own writings, we get an incompatible story: in particular, no mention of attendants, or Ananias. Indeed, he flatly states that he did not receive the gospel from man, and that excludes Ananias or anyone else (Galatians 1.12); he says there that he ‘returned’ to Damascus right away, but still does not mention Ananias. In fact, he would be contradicting himself if he did, since his point is that he did not speak to any Christians after his vision, until three years later, and then only to Peter and James (Galatians 1.17-20), and did not return to Jerusalem with Barnabas to reveal his conversion and missionary activities to the church until fourteen years after that (Galatians 2.1-2). Nowhere in this account does he mention people being with him during his conversion. No one else is reported to have seen or heard or even been present when Paul had his vision. Since Paul’s own writings are earlier and more authoritative concerning his own life than Acts, which was written by another man almost certainly after Paul had been dead for some years, all the accounts given in Acts are highly suspect, especially any claims that others saw the same light as Paul or heard “something” (that they could not understand).


II. Was There an Early Tradition of Appearances in the Flesh?

Contrary to my argument that there is no evidence in the earliest traditions of any appearances by Jesus in the body that had been buried, it has been suggested that 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 and Mark 14:28 and 16:7 show that Paul and Mark obviously believed in postmortem appearances of Christ of some sort. But I don’t argue against this. When Paul writes about appearances, just as that very passage shows (15.8), he includes his own vision, and makes no special distinction for meeting a restored corpse (he only makes a special distinction for the timing of his vision). I think it is almost certain that many people, such as Stephen (cf. Section IV of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle), had visions. People still do. People had visions of almost every god in antiquity, and still have visions of many gods and beings now, as well as of the deceased, among other bizarre things (cf. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, for the ancient cultural context of this kind of thing). The Markan passages likewise make no clear distinction, and thus could refer to visions, not appearances in the flesh. Acts reports many clear examples of hypnagogic hallucinations and similar phenomena (7:55-56, 10:1-7, 11:5-14, 12:6-11, 16:9-10, 22:17-21; all the gospels, likewise, place the appearances of Jesus very near dawn, exactly when hypnagogia is most common). Moreover, that Jesus claimed he would appear, and that someone else also claimed that he would, does not constitute an actual appearance, though it does explain how the expectation would be stirred. The Markan passage does not tell us whether the author thought there were appearances, or what sort of appearances he thought they might be.

This produces two interesting possibilities:

(1) Without the late addition to Mark, all Mark says is that there was the expectation of an appearance. He does not record an actual appearance. Why would that be? The Christian must explain this. It is not enough to say some ending was lost and then added or replaced, since the manuscripts of Mark are among the earliest we have, and these lack any ending at all. Why would an ending be lost so quickly? And if it was, what did it say? I am inclined to think that Mark ended it there because appearances were a private, personal experience to be related only in secret. The disappearance was enough to represent his victory over death and hence his divinity. An ascension, whether deduced from or associated with a missing body or not, is a standard motif in the deification of mortals in antiquity. The meaning of the resurrection could also have originally been part of a secret doctrine of initiation. Peter’s use of the terminology of a mystery religion suggests this possibility, and John’s description of the Thomas episode behind closed doors also looks like such a ceremony (more on this below), and the obvious confusion in all the gospels as to what actually happened after his death could easily be the result of a once-secret doctrine now being corrupted as bits of it enter public knowledge, or as speculation generates its own answers.

(2) The Markan passages are consistent with the possibility that resurrection into a spiritual body was meant, and the wording even suggests that. The most basic meaning of both passages in Greek is “I will escort you {plural} into Galilee” (proaxô hymas eis tên Galilaian, 14.28) and “he escorts you {plural} into Galilee” (proagei hymas eis tên Galilaian, 16.7). The verb proagô means “to lead forward, or to lead before.” By analogy this verb can mean various other things, including “to go before,” but usually only in the sense of going with, e.g. as in leading a military advance, leading the way in a dark room, etc. The verb can also mean to increase, to produce, to call up an apparition, to persuade, etc., in each case by analogy with the idea of “leading foreward.” Note, for example, the verb as used in 1 Timothy 1.18: “the prophecies previously made concerning you,” literally, “the prophecies having lead the way to you” (tas proagousas epi se prophêteias). Furthermore, even those uses which mean in some sense “going before” are intransitive, i.e. they cannot take an accusative object (cf. The Greek New Testament, 4th revised ed., p. 149). When an accusative object appears (and in both passages it does: the plural pronoun “you” hymas), it must be transitive, and that means it must mean in some sense lead. Why would Jesus (or Mark) choose this verb, instead of a dozen others that actually mean “go before”? It may be idiosyncratic, it may be bad grammar, but it may be that something else was meant than later Christian interpreters thought. That this exact phrase appears twice in the oldest known gospel suggests that it may be a very early proverb associated with Jesus or the disciples’ perception of him, but this also means it is very prone to reinterpretation by later readers, as most Christian doctrine has been. The phrase may have simply meant that his spirit would be upon them and lead them, inspire them, to go to Galilee–where, for instance, there would be a dream or vision concerning him, a concept present throughout Acts and the epistles. Indeed, I believe this is the most likely interpretation.


III. What About the “Hundreds” of Eye Witnesses?

Paul claims there are hundreds of eye witnesses, many alive at the very time of his writing (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Doesn’t that make invention as well as delusion unlikely? Paul, remember, includes himself among the witnesses (15:8). Yet we know that Paul was not an eye-witness. He only saw a light and heard a voice, well after Jesus had already been “taken up.” So this passage cannot mean anything more than that hundreds have seen Jesus in visions, not necessarily in person. The verb “appeared” used several times in this passage is ôphthê (from horaô), which is as vague in Greek as in English. Used in the passive voice, as it is here, it means only “was seen” or “appeared” and frequently means “appeared in a vision” (as in the case of Paul’s vision, cf. Acts 9:17), and could have meant something merely internal and spiritual in the same sense as that of the vision of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 (indeed, this is the only event in the New Testament that corresponds at all with what Paul claims–otherwise, there is no account anywhere of an appearance to hundreds).

Of course, one second-hand report of over 500 unnamed people, being sent to men in Greece (too far from Palestine to have any chance of checking the account), who may have seen a vision no more material than that of Paul himself–a man who all but declares that he is willing to fib, at least a little, to save lives by winning converts (1 Cor. 9:19-27)–is the flimsiest of evidence. And a vague, unconfirmable, hyperbolic assertion is just the sort of claim all men ought to suspect as rhetorical. Note also that Paul does not name any one of these witnesses, except Peter and James (though he does mention “the twelve” even though there were only eleven disciples when Jesus supposedly appeared, according to all the Gospels). These are not new witnesses being reported, but the same ones (or rhetorically invented ones). For all we know, Paul could have been including men who had an experience that was like that of Stephen in his list of witnesses (a martyr whose death he watched), even though we have no reason to believe Stephen was an eyewitness to any appearance of Jesus in the flesh. Paul could also have been reporting hearsay, which I think is most likely–after all, I seriously doubt he interviewed over 500 people, and so should you.

The bottom line is, this does not tell us anything about who saw what. Were there hundreds? What did they see? When exactly? Who were these people? Paul doesn’t say. So we can’t claim to know. See my discussion of hallucination in Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus.


IV. Could the Original Gospel Have Been a Resurrection of a Spiritual Body?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.

All of the above is compounded by the fact that Paul fervently portrays the Resurrection as into a spiritual body, not the rising of a corpse: “the body you sow is not the body that will rise” (1 Corinthians 15:37, kai ho speireis, ou sôma to genêsomenon), for “a natural body is sown, but a spiritual body is raised” (1 Corinthians 15:44, speiretai sôma psychikon, egeiretai sôma pneumatikon, see also 15:50). This does not mean that Jesus was resurrected as a bodiless soul (there is no evidence Paul even believed in such a thing), but that he was resurrected by being given a new body, one not made of flesh or physical matter as we know it, but of some kind of ethereal, spiritual material. Thus, the distinction is not between bodily and nonbodily resurrection, but between a resurrection of a corpse vs. resurrection of a person into a superior body, leaving the corpse behind like a spent shell (or, as Origen called it, the corpse is like the discarded placenta).

Paul ardently insists (Galatians 1:11-24) that he was not taught the gospel by anyone in the flesh (“I did not consult with flesh and blood,” ou prosanethemên sarki kai haimati, 1:16), but by revelation from God (“I did not receive it from a man nor was I taught it, but through a revelation of Jesus the Messiah,” oude gar egô para anthrôpou parelabon auto oute edidachthên alla di’ apokalypseôs Iêsou Christou). The word for “revelation” is apokalypsis, the same word used for the title of the New Testament book of Revelations, and as there and elsewhere it means “manifestation” in a spiritual sense–a vision. (Pseudo-)Peter also argues this quite explicitly: 1 Peter 3:18 declares that Jesus was “put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit” (thanatôtheis men sarki zôopoiêtheis de pneumati), and in 1 Peter 5:1 he curiously omits any mention of an empty tomb or a resurrection in the flesh, even though the context would lead us to expect him to.

Certainly, nowhere in the account given in the Gnostic Acts of Peter is it said that Peter believed Jesus appeared in the flesh after death, but it gives exactly the opposite message. Likewise, the two epistles of Peter also make no mention of a resurrection of a corpse, nor even of an empty tomb for that matter. Indeed, when Peter (if we accept the letter as genuine) argues that he was an eyewitness (epoptê, literally an initiate in the highest rank of a mystery religion, but also meaning spectator) and that his teachings are not “cleverly devised tales” (sesophismenois mythois) he does not mention after-death appearances or the empty tomb, but only the transfiguration, and a voice from heaven heard at that time (2 Peter 1:16-19), which appeared in private to only a few (Peter, James, and John) before Jesus was killed. This is important, for it shows that the Resurrection appearances were not considered important evidence of divinity. Indeed, even if we accept the authenticity of the letters of James, Jude, and John, none of them mention an empty tomb or a resurrection of the flesh either.

The most decisive case of Paul’s view comes from an analysis of 1 Corinthians 15 (there is even more evidence than I have included here):

  1. Paul makes no distinction between his vision and appearances to the others, apart from when it happened (vv. 8, vs. 1-7). This makes it prima facie reasonable that all the appearances were understood by him to be visions and not literally physical in the sense portrayed by the Gospels of Luke and John.
  2. Paul’s distinction between “perishable” and “imperishable” bodies (vv. 42) is based on a distinction between earthly things and things of heaven (vv. 40, 47-9), and it was common belief in antiquity that the heavenly things were ethereal. Since Paul does not disclaim the common belief, he must be assuming his readers already accept it. This makes it prima facie reasonable that he means the “imperishable body” to be an ethereal one, not a body of flesh.
  3. Paul literally makes this distinction, calling the one a “natural body” (psychikos) and the other a “spiritual body” (pneumatikos), and says that they both coexist in one person (vv. 44), in that first there is a natural body which is then infused with a spiritual one (vv. 46), thus the resurrected body is clearly in his mind something lacking the physical body we know, the body that is conceived in a womb and only later infused with a sprit. He says outright (here and in 2 Cor. 4:16-5:9) that the body we know, the body of flesh, is sown only to die, and only this other, second body, the body of the spirit, rises to new life.
  4. The Christian lexicographer Photius understood psychikos to mean the “animal” part of man (Lexicon, s.v.), as opposed to the higher, spiritual part that was made in the image of God (and God is certainly not a body of flesh), and there is a lot of evidence that Paul meant this as well (cf. Section V).
  5. Paul distinguishes Adam and Jesus in a certain way that supports this: Adam is regarded as being alive in the psychic sense, Jesus as giving life in the pneumatic sense (vv. 45), and Paul relates them as opposites (also vv. 22), so that as Adam was given physical form, beginning the age of sin, Jesus transcended it, ending sin. For Adam was made of dust (crude matter), but the resurrected Jesus was not (vv.47, cf. 48-9).
  6. Paul says point blank that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (vv. 50), because flesh and blood is the mortal, perishable body, and we are resurrected as an imperishable body (ibid.). It is thus plain that he does not believe that the resurrection involved flesh and blood, i.e a physical body in our familiar sense, but a different, ethereal body, like the same sort of body angels have (and according to the Gospels, Jesus said we shall be like angels, cf. Mk. 12:25; Mt. 22:30; Lk. 20:34-36).

We can also note how the entire context of 1 Corinthians 15, especially vv. 33ff., supports this interpretation. Paul is clearly trying to explain what the resurrected body is like, of which Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit, to Christians in Corinth who want to know. Yet he works entirely from first principles, building a theological, scripturally-based argument. He never once does the obvious: simply quote the witness of the Disciples who saw Jesus’ resurrected body. Yet wouldn’t that make more sense? The only rationale Paul could have for not simply saying “The resurrected body is like this, because Peter saw it, and Thomas handled it,” etc. is that these things did not happen. Rather, just like Paul’s revelation, the original disciples must have seen Christ only in visions, so that appealing to them would add nothing to Paul’s case. Otherwise, why would he ignore this most important proof in defending his position against apparent heretics in Corinth?

We can find further support for such an idea in Philippians 3: this entire chapter is couched within a spurn-the-flesh and glorify-the-spirit theme. Paul has no confidence in the flesh anymore (3:3), and he equates confidence in the flesh with living as a Pharisee (3:4-5) when he was a persecutor (3:6) and not a Christian, and he rejected that law (and thus Pharisaism, by implication from 3:5) when he took to Christ (3:9). Thus, Paul is emphasizing that he is not a Pharisee any more, but a Christian, and has rejected Pharisaic obsessions with the law and with the flesh. This dovetails with the above perfectly: it is feasible that as long as Paul had a hard time accepting a spiritual resurrection, he persecuted the church, but when a vision taught to him that spiritual resurrection was real, he converted.

This answers the common objection that a Pharisee would not have believed a spiritual resurrection, since the Talmud and Mishnah (both Pharisaic texts) tell only of the rising of corpses. Upon converting to Christ, Paul flatly rejected Pharisaic doctrine. This is especially evident in the fact that as a Christian he rejected strict adherence to Jewish laws on diet and circumcision, things no Pharisee could ever have done. It is sometimes said that no Jew would have believed in a spiritual resurrection, but that is not true: it was only the sect of the Pharisees, not the Sadducees or Essenes or myriad other ideological factions among the Jews, which insisted on a resurrection of the flesh (though it is still not clear they all did), and this may explain Paul’s avid persecution of the church, just as his complete rejection of Pharisaism upon conversion could be explained if Christianity rejected the Pharisaic concept of a resurrection of the flesh.

This invites an opportunity to reveal how Evangelical apologists distort the facts and ignore scholarship, using assertion rather than evidence for their views. The entry “Resurrection” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible reveals this quite elegantly. For Robinson, the man who writes the New Testament section of this, uses it as a podium for Evangelical apologetics rather than a presentation of objective scholarship, whereas Gaster, the man who writes the Old Testament section, is the only one who actually cites evidence and reflects the actual state of scholarship. It is evident the editors made no attempt to reconcile the contradictions created by these two halves of the same entry.

For instance, Gaster writes that “There was…some difference of opinion as to whether resurrection was spiritual or corporeal. This divergence comes out especially in the book of Enoch…” etc. He gives several examples. In contrast, Robinson writes that “it would have been inconceivable for a Jew to think of resurrection except in bodily terms,” etc. He gives no evidence outside the New Testament: a Christian, not a Jewish collection of documents, which were selected by only one particular sect of Christians at that. Worse, even this irrelevant “evidence” is extremely conjectural, based on Evangelical and apologetic interpretations of ambiguous statements. Instead, Gaster writes “There was no consensus concerning resurrection among the various Jewish sects which flourished in the days of the Second Commonwealth” and he examines each sect in turn, noting especially the Essene’s spiritualist view, and we know that the Essenes resembled the early Christians more than any other Jewish sect (for example, see Sid Green ‘s From Which Religious Sect Did Jesus Emerge?). This strongly suggests that the Christian sect of Judaism to which Paul converted was more like the Essenes in their views regarding the resurrection. Robinson makes no mention of varying sectarian views among the Jews and doesn’t even seem aware that there were other sects like the Essenes.

While Robinson quotes no scholarship and cites no evidence for his assertion, but merely gives an unjustified sweeping generalization about 1st century Judaism, Gaster writes that:

The view expressed in the [Dead Sea] Scrolls accord in general with those attributed by Josephus (Antiq. XVIII.i.5; War II.viii.11) to the Essenes, with whom, indeed, the Qumran sectaries may be identical…They held that although bodies were perishable, souls endured and mounted upward, the good to the realm of bliss, the evil to be consigned to a place of torment. This view is expressed also in Wisd. Sol. 3:1ff.; 5:16; Jub. 25; while something of the same kind–though without the reference to ultimate judgment–appears in Eccl. 12:7 (‘the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’). The latter statement, it may be added, reproduces to a nicety the Iranian doctrine in the funeral inscription of Antiochus I of Commagene [ruled 69-36 BC in Commagene, a territory at the nape of Turkey and Syria], to the effect that the body will rest in the tomb ‘through immeasurable time,’ after the soul, ‘beloved of God, has been sent to the heavenly throne of Zeus Oromasdes’.

Thus, Gaster produces a wealth of evidence that what seems clearly to be Paul’s view (the flesh rots and only a spiritual body rises to inherit heaven) was in fact the view of many Essenes at the time, and was found in other nearby cultures influencing Judaism: for Zeus Oromasdes is Ahura Mazda, supreme lord of Zoroastrianism, and we know Judaism was infused with Zoroastrian ideas after the diaspora, which brought them into Persian lands; even the return was under Persian power, and Persian influence remained for some time, e.g. a flaming hell is clearly the mark of Zoroastrianism on Jewish thought, since it exists nowhere in the Old Testament, but is found in Judaism after their return from Zoroastrian Persia, which did have such a view. The very idea of resurrection itself was originally Zoroastrian, and borrowed by the Jews later (cf. Diogenes Laertius 1.9). Thus, it was more than possible for a Jew like Paul to imagine that Jesus had risen even if his old body was still in the grave. In contrast to Gaster, who proves his claim with abundant evidence and references, Robinson asserts the exact opposite, that “the notion that a man might be ‘spiritually’ raised while his body lay on in the tomb, would have seemed to the Jew an absurdity.” Robinson offers no evidence or references in support of this claim. Gaster’s article shames Robinson as much as it refutes him, yet they are back to back in the same reference book.

I say a little more in my Main Argument, and for more on why it is likely that Paul originally preached a spiritual resurrection, see David Friedman’s “Does 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 Teach a Physical or a Spiritual Resurrection?.” For rebuttals of some objections to this kind of argument, see my essay “Craig’s Empty Tomb and Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus.” Also important is the next section.


V. What Do ‘Pneumatikos’ and ‘Psychikos’ Mean?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.


aka “Psyche-like”

aka “Pneuma-like”

aka “Living Person”

aka “Holy Spirit”
[always something one can lose (Php. 2:30)]
[always something ethereal (2 Cor. 5:5)]

The above chart makes the meaning of these Greek words clear: psychikos and pneumatikos are adjectives, meaning something is made of, or is like, or shares the properties of the noun they are derived from, in this case psychê and pneuma respectively. When we look at the nouns, we find that their associations are clear: one is used typically to refer to a living body, hence a body of flesh and blood (a search of the letters of Paul shows this to be his usual use of the word); the other, always to a disembodied spirit. The word sôma, which they modify in 1 Cor. 15:44, means only a distinct thing with volume and location, it does not entail what that thing is made of or what its properties are or where it came from. Paul calls the resurrected a pneumatikos sôma to distinguish this pneuma from “the” Pneuma, or Holy Spirit, which is not a sôma because it is everywhere, whereas a resurrected soul is not everywhere, but has a distinct and localized existence as an individual. Paul clearly means to say that when we are resurrected, we become like the Holy Spirit, and cease to be what we are when we were alive (a living body made of dust), but unlike the Holy Spirit, our spirit is still organized as a new kind of body, more like Casper the Ghost.

It has been noted that Paul’s assertion that the resurrection is spiritual rather than natural, based on 1 Corinthians 15.44, requires that psychikos mean “physical.” This is not quite correct–even with a different sense, the distinction remains. There are six uses of this adjective in the New Testament: some translate 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 as:

The natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone.

From this some conclude that psychikos does not mean ‘physical’ or ‘spatially-extended’ but means ‘under the control of natural desires’. That is correct–but the distinction is between the physical desires which stem from the animal body, the body of flesh (cf. Romans 7), and the spiritual desires that are apart from the body, and need to be freed from it. Hence, only the spirit (we might say “soul”) of man can know his own thoughts, and man’s spirit is the same as God’s spirit (1 Cor. 2:11), which of course is bodiless. That is the distinction made in 1 Cor. 15:45, where Adam, by being given a body–meaning a body of flesh–became a living soul, but Jesus, by dying, became a life-giving spirit. The juxtaposition suggests the addition of a body in the one case, and its subtraction in the other, with instead the addition of a new body: an ethereal one, one that is appropriate to spiritual beings (like angels).

When we read 1 Corinthians 15:44 in context, then, Paul appears to be going to great lengths, using numerous repetitive analogies and dichotomies, to explain a difficult idea of a difference between the spirit tied to a body and a spirit that is free and forms its own, independent body–a body stripped of flesh and blood. This suggests that he is trying to explain something novel, at least to his audience among the Corinthians. The section begins with the question “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” (15:35), and goes on from there, trashing the idea of the corpse being raised, and discussing how there are different kinds of bodies, and answering with a distinction between this kind of life, and that of the spirit. In other words, a contrast between heavenly and earthly matter is the most rational interpretation of what he is arguing here: beginning with vv. 42, “So it will be with the resurrection of the dead: the body that is sown perishable [i.e. all bodies die] is raised imperishable [i.e. the spirit-body is immortal]…it is sown a natural body [i.e. a body bound to an animal substance, a biological body, a body made of earth], it is raised a spiritual body [i.e. a body that is free of all its animal, earthly substance]…the first man was of the dust of the earth [i.e. made of familiar physical substance, the stuff that rots and remains behind as bones and dust], the second man from heaven [i.e. ethereal like all other spiritual beings in heaven]” (cf. also vv. 47-49 where this idea is drummed in further) and then vv. 50: “I tell you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Can there be any doubt what he means here?

The next relevant passage is James 3:14-16 (which can have little to do with what Paul thought, as it was written by a certain James). Literally translated, vv. 15 reads “this wisdom [i.e that which leads to jealousy, etc.] has not come down from above [or ‘from the beginning’ or ‘from more general principles’], but is of the earth [lit. ‘a thing on the ground’], natural, demonic [lit. ‘in the category of divine-spirit-things’ from daimones or ‘demon’–only Christians and Jews regularly used this word in a negative way].” From this passage some conclude that psychikos is referring to origin (‘not from above’), rather than materiality. But even if that is what it means here, this is still consistent with it meaning “tied to the physical” in the main Pauline passage above: the body would then be “not from above,” and thus “of a physical origin,” meaning “linked with the earthly” (made of dust, rather than made of spirit-stuff). James has placed three adjectives in a row: concerning this wisdom he tells us its location (earth), nature (earthly, naturalistic, “animal”), and value (demonic, bad). And these were all, in fact, synonymous in Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotle divided the universe into the ethereal heavens (which could not be material–since, for example, the stars moved in perpetuity and never decayed) and the elemental material world of Earth and its immediate atmosphere, which was the realm of nature or physis. Thus, the natural and the earthly are synonymous in the whole of his physics, and his was the most popularly known. Aristotle also calls physis daemonic in On the Divination of Dreams (463b12-15), since it is the realm in which the worldly spirits, the daimones, resided and acted (as guardians and messengers). In the context of the intellectual culture of the time, James 3:14-16 would most readily be understood as referring to material nature, in opposition to the ethereal and heavenly.

Then comes Jude 19, again not from Paul’s hand, and the date of its writing is unknown (scholars suspect it is at least second generation). Some say psychikos here means only ‘separated from the Spirit,’ rather than having to do with corporeality. Again, I cannot see how this contradicts its additional connotation as “of material flesh” in the main Pauline passage, for if there are two kinds of body, and one is “separated from the spirit” then it must be physical in the sense of being comprised of flesh. It is true that vv. 10 suggests that the whole letter is attacking those who don’t understand the gospel and, bound to the flesh and earthly concerns, pervert it–people who have their mind on things rather than salvation (vv. 20), and are thus stuck in the physical, earthly world (by reason of their attachment to it), lacking contact with the spiritual, heavenly world. Though this includes the meaning “being controlled by one’s nature,” this entails that one is controlled by one’s nature by being preoccupied with the natural world, by being attached to the natural world (one’s animal or earthly “nature”), rather than the heavenly world.

The same analysis follows for pneumatikos. Things of the spirit are divorced from the things of the natural world, and that is why they lead to and are associated with a particular attitude. To Paul, it appears that pneuma is ethereal, celestial, “higher” and “purer” than the earthly flesh, and lacking its traits (such as decay and animal passions), whereas psychê is to Paul like the Aristotelian concept of a physical soul composed of a thin kind of earthly matter (air) that disperses at death, and when alive is driven by animal passions, and subject to perturbation and decay

Besides the above analysis, it is important to know that adjectives can be both substantiative and associative, in different contexts. So even though the adjective has an associative meaning in one place (“having to do with the spirit”), it does not follow that it never has a substantiative meaning (“made of a spiritual substance” or “spiritual” in the sense of composition or existential quality). As an adjective it will naturally change connotation according to context. All adjectives do, in all languages that I know of. For example, associatively, a metallic hue is obviously not (necessarily) made of metal, but, substantively, a metallic car is. And note how in either example the nature of the adjective could be reversed, e.g. if the pigment includes metals or if only the color of the car is being described. And this can be known only from context. Likewise, demonic wisdom may mean evil wisdom or it may mean knowledge of demons, or knowledge from demons, and a psychikos may be a man preoccupied with material things, a man who follows his inborn nature, a man who is made of or bound to his earthly substance, and so on.

Even without a knowledge of Greek one can see how this explains changing meanings in all the passages critics cite. Many of these passages are consistent with a substantiative (sub.) interpretation, others with both a substantive and associative meaning (both), and some with only an associative (ass.) meaning: Rom 1:11-12 (both), 7:14 (sub.; it is contrasted with sarkikos, “made of flesh” or “having to do with flesh,” from sarx, cf. 1 Cor 9.11 in light of the context set at 9.1-7 where the contrast is between spiritual work and physical work, and cf. Rom 15.26-27–all clearly a contrast between “earthly” and “ethereal”),  1 Cor 2:13-16 (both; see above), 3:1-3 (ass., and then sub., i.e. spiritual food contrasted with physical food–clearly a contrast between “earthly” and “ethereal”), 10:3-4 (sub.),  12:1 (sub.), 14:1 (sub.), 14:37 (ass.), 15:44-46 (sub.; note that to read it as ass. requires also believing Paul thinks no one is spiritual until raised from the dead, which contradicts all his other associative uses of the term), Gal 6.1 (ass.), Eph 1:3 (sub.), 5:18-20 (ass.), 6:12 (sub.), Col 1:9-12 (ass.), 3:16 (ass.), 1 Pet 2:5 (both). As one can see, pneumatikos is constantly contrasted with physical, earthly things: physical food, work, flesh, etc. Thus, when psychikos is contrasted with it, he almost certainly has in mind something at least linked to the physical, the earthly, the flesh–as opposed to the ethereal, the celestial, the spirit.


VI. Does an Empty Tomb Entail the Resurrection of a Corpse?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.

In all the gospel accounts, no one sees Jesus rise from the dead. They only observe a missing body, and later are visited. William Lane Craig wisely sidesteps this issue by focusing on this empty tomb, as if that were such a proof of anything–as if no one even in modern times has ever lost track of a body, as if there were no grave robbers, as if thievery by design were so improbable for a group who had a desperate need for some story to keep their movement alive. I do not mean to imply here that Craig never discusses any other evidence (like the appearances), but that he sidesteps the fact that no one saw Jesus rise from the dead, and that the evidence strongly suggests that there may have been no early tradition of appearances in the flesh at all. His arguments, in all his works, dismiss both interpretations at once, by appealing to the empty tomb.

Indeed, I find that Craig often gets himself tangled into a mess by doing this: for example, he argues against theft by saying that “no one but Joseph, those with him,” (like who?) “and the women initially knew exactly where the tomb was. Joseph probably surprised his fellow Sanhedrists by placing the body in his own tomb instead of having it buried in the criminals’ graveyard” (In Defense of Miracles, InterVarsity Press, 1997, p. 259). Yet this is a fact which actually makes theft more likely, and has no effect at all on random grave robbers who might not care who they were stealing. Lest one think stealing a body is odd, any Egyptologist can tell you that dozens of mummies are missing from tombs looted thousands of years ago. Corpses (actually, certain parts of them, like the skull) were used by sorcerers, and these body parts were likely to be a hot item on the black market–and the skull of a sorcerer or holy man would be even more valuable still. As far as the rest, that only Joseph and other followers knew where he was buried makes it even more likely that a switcheroo, an escape, or confusion resulted, as well as a planned theft. Yet Craig ignores this consequence of his own argument (see also my discussion of Craig’s “Empty Tomb” argument).

For if only disciples knew where the body was, how can Craig argue (as he does elsewhere) that the Sanhedrists needed only to go point at the body to refute the claim that it was raised? How would they know where to point? Ever hear of the old switcheroo? By Craig’s own assertion, only Joseph of Arimathea and a few loyal women are certain to have known his burial place. When it came time to point to his empty tomb later on as proof, any empty tomb would do. If, as Craig says, the Sanhedrists would have been surprised at Joseph’s choice, they would not have known about it unless the disciples told them, and that means they could have told them anything, even if only to prevent his body’s defilement or any attempt to extract it and toss it in with criminals. It is also possible that a general plan to deceive was afoot, or that only one or two people arranged this confusion, and that all those disciples we know by name were also duped by this. There are many other problems with his argument, such as that the body, wrapped and inviolate, would be indistinguishable from others in the tomb and untouchable (cf. n. 14 from my essay on the Nazareth Inscription) especially after the burial was formally completed. And since the Gospel was not preached until over forty days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3, 2:1-14), Jewish skeptics would have heard the story too late to have any chance of identifying the body. There is also another possibility: it might not have originally been a theft at all–the body may have simply been legitimately moved, before guards were posted or Mary visited the tomb. I discuss this possibility in my essay Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day.

Finally, it is not so hard to doubt the account of the empty tomb in the first place. Jerusalem was totally sacked and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, so any white lies about whether Jesus was in his tomb, or which tomb he was supposed to be in, could never be checked against the facts after that time, and we have no account in the letters of Paul or Peter that anyone cared to check them before that time–nor in the letters of James, Jude, or John (although their authenticity has been questioned). It is significant that we have no evidence that anyone cared to look. Of all the attacks against the church recorded in Acts, Jews checking the tomb is not once mentioned. Yet what a nice rhetorical coup that story would have been for the Christians! And of all the things actually written before 70 A.D. (that is, most of the epistles) none ever mentions checking the tomb–none even mentions the empty tomb, despite many offerings of other kinds of proof (such as Peter’s witness of the transfiguration), and despite the fact that Paul’s letters are rife with attempts to resolve doctrinal disputes in the early church. Yet a dispute over whether the tomb was actually empty, something we would naturally expect to pop up in distant congregations, like the unruly Corinthians, never appears (for much more on this issue, see my review of Craig).

All this makes perfect sense when we look at Galatians and 1 Corinthians as revealing that Paul does not preach the resurrection of a corpse (cf. Section I, Section IV, etc.), for then he would have no reason to mention or even need an empty tomb to justify himself or his gospel. Even if someone else was teaching the resurrection of a corpse then, the fact is that we have no evidence that checking the tomb was ever raised as an issue except in post-70 A.D. accounts. And even if it was–though the Christian is left to explain why we never hear of it–the fact remains that, given the accounts we have, a body might still not be found, even if (or indeed because) Joseph buried Jesus in a private tomb and informed the disciples of this, of the various possibilities of theft, etc.

McDowell presents at least three arguments in favor of an empty tomb. First, he gives numerous statements about how the empty tomb is mentioned in the Gospels–but that is not much of an argument, since if the tomb story was a later invention it is precisely in the Gospels, which are essentially the hagiography of Christ, that we should expect this legend to appear. Second, he argues that a certain inscription found in or around Nazareth contains the decree of an early emperor sentencing those who disturb graves to death (1st ed., p. 218, § 10.4A.2B.1C; 2nd ed., pp. 244-5, § 9.6A.2B.1C; cf. also 2nd ed., p. 67, § 3.3A.3B.2C.6D). From this he concludes that the emperor must have heard of the empty tomb, assumed it was theft, and set forth a law to prevent this. However, the evidence does not support him (see The Nazareth Inscription).

Third, McDowell advances the total absence of any veneration of the tomb of Jesus as evidence that it was empty, since no one would venerate an empty tomb. Yet, body or not, the location of the greatest and most important miracle in human history, the very stone slab literally touched by God Almighty himself, could not possibly have been of no significance. To the contrary, this place would certainly have been venerated. It would have been the place believers would most want to see, to touch, in the whole world. Consider the throngs who gather and camp out to see unwashed windows with a vague hint of Christ’s face in them even today, and realize that this is a modern world–in the ancient world, such superstitious passions were even more powerful and prevalent. Therefore, the lack of veneration is incredible–it can most logically be explained by the fact that no one knew where the tomb or body was. If, on the other hand, it was known but no one cared, this would just as easily fit the belief that Jesus was resurrected spiritually–such that the body was simply an empty husk, of no importance in the face of the Great Truth. This fits just as easily (or just as poorly) as the belief that the tomb was empty. It is also possible that the tomb was venerated, but that its location was lost after the Jewish War (66-70 A.D.) and its veneration forgotten to history.


VII. Appearances in Matthew and the Late Addition to Mark

But what about the appearances? In all the gospel accounts of the appearances, there are features of those accounts which cast some doubt on those appearances actually being of Jesus. For example, Matthew 28:17 reports that only “some” people who actually saw Jesus worshipped him, while “others” doubted it was him (hoi…idontes auton prosekynêsan hoi de edistasan, the verb distazô means “to doubt, to be doubtful” and the hoi…hoi construction translates as “some…others…”). Why would some who saw Jesus doubt it was him? The other gospels provide some clues that might explain this, and which also make the appearances of Jesus doubtful in their own right: Jesus did not look like Jesus, but someone else they didn’t recognize.

Mark 16:12 records that Jesus “appeared in a different form.” The verb is phaneroô, and in a passive voice, which means “he was made known, he was revealed” or “he became known, became famous.” The choice of verb suggests, and certainly allows, that it is a vision being described. The phrase en heterai morphêi means “with another appearance” or “in another shape” and this means that, in some way, what appeared to them did not look like Jesus, or else it fell into a different category than the ordinarily physical–and in conjunction with the particular verb above, this also suggests a vision of some kind. This certainly places the event in doubt. It has been claimed that Jesus appearing “in a different form” only means that his body looked different–it could have been radiant, luminous, or something along those lines, or some other glorious change in appearance, and such changes do not necessarily mean that the body is no longer the same one that was buried. But this is taking the evidence much too far, in my opinion. If the body was glowing, for example, this would surely have been remarked upon.

The phrase ephanerôthê en heterai morphêi is simply odd. Why would the author add en heterai morphêi at all? If the body was radiant or luminous or something like that, why not simply say so, just as all gospel authors describe the transfiguration? It seems to me that this phrase is just the sort of confusing description of events that one would expect if the stories had become confused, if by the time this passage was written it was no longer certain what the original story was, because there were stories of both physical and spiritual appearances, and of different kinds, perhaps due to speculation and misinterpretation, or rhetorical hyperbole, or the role of mystery and metaphor, or doctrinal disputes or differences, etc. (cf. Section XI of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). This is why I still call to account passages like this one which are late interpolations. Even though it is an interpolation, it is still suggestive of a spiritual experience, evidence that the story was no longer clear, and thus it reflects an uncertainty about the early tradition. Though the forger of this ending to Mark was probably aiming at the idea of a risen corpse, he may have been using a traditional story of a mystical vision that even he did not understand or wish to alter beyond need. But either way, it is clear that the appearance tradition contained a very early idea that Jesus was not recognized, that the risen Jesus did not look like Jesus, but some stranger, whom disciples only interpreted as being Jesus, Jesus “in another form.”


VIII. Appearances in Luke

Luke 24:16 records that when Jesus appeared to two men, Kleopas and (presumably) Peter (based on 24:13, 18, and 34), they did not recognize him (mê epignônai auton), even after conversing with him, inviting him home, and eating dinner with him. They only conclude that he is Jesus based on his words and behavior (24:31-32). Many translations say that they “recognize” him and then he “vanishes,” as if something magical happened. The Greek is more mundane, saying only autôn de diênoichthêsan hoi ophthalmoi kai epegnôsan auton kai autos aphantos egeneto ap’ autôn, which literally means “their eyes were opened and they recognized him and he became hidden from them.” In other words, they “see Jesus” in the stranger but then quickly lose sight of this “vision.” This could mean the man vanished, or that he merely left, or that they thought he was Jesus for a moment, and this led them to think that he was in fact Jesus. This also suggests that it was not him, but a stranger whom they thought was Jesus. Certainly, there is enough that is odd about this account to place in doubt the belief that Jesus actually appeared to them.

Luke 24:36-50, which portrays a more concrete appearance, looks a lot like the ending added later to the earlier gospel of Mark (and has the same apparent rhetorical usefulness as John’s account of Thomas), and it is possible that this ending did not exist in this form in earlier versions of Luke. It is worth noting that when the accounts are arranged in order of being written, the accounts of Jesus’ appearances become increasingly elaborate: from none at all in the original Mark, to the vague account in Matthew (with the equally vague note that some doubted), to Luke with this proto-Thomas story, then to John with his elaborate Thomas story (see my Main Argument). Even if we accept the record as genuine, though there is no truly compelling reason to do so, this appearance occurs only among the disciples, and only when the above story is being related. This makes possible a group vision arising from religious passion or hysteria (cf. Habermas), or even more likely, the invention of the story by the eleven in order to give their continuation of Jesus’ ministry more authority.


IX. Appearances in John

Much like Mark and Luke, and as is implied by Matthew, John 20:14 records that Mary, too, “sees Jesus but does not know it is him” (theôrei ton Iêsoun hestôta kai ouk êidei hoti Iêsous estin). The verb theôreô means to “perceive” in a very general sense, including mentally, for it can mean “experience,” “observe,” “look at,” “watch” (a theôros is a spectator, a member of an audience), or “contemplate,” “theorize.” The verb oida means “to know” (by having seen or understood). Some call into question this interpretation of the Greek verb oida, asking how this definition applies to Matthew 2:2. The verb in Matthew 2:2, however, is eidon, not oida. The former does mean “saw,” i.e. in an aorist (past) tense only. It is a defective verb, using horaô for its present tense; oida is its perfect form, but took on its own meaning even before Greek began to be written. The latter, though grammatically and etymologically related, only ever means in one or another sense “to know” (as in Ephesians 5:5, 1 Corinthians 1:11, etc.): “The verb oida is an irregular perfect…which means ‘I have seen (with my mind)’ = ‘I know'” (Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek, revised ed., Oxford University Press, 1991, vol. 2, p. 181); and the compilers of the dictionary of biblical Greek appended to the official research text of The Greek New Testament, 4th revised ed. (1994, p. 123) leave no doubt, “oida: know, understand, perceive, experience, learn, know how, be acquainted with, recognize, acknowledge, remember” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:16), or “pay proper respect to” (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12); and as the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed., Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 483) agrees, in the entry for eidô, “eidon always in sense of see…but pf. oida, in pres. sense, know.” In other words, oida never means “see” (except in a metaphorical sense, e.g. “I see what you mean”).

So the story is as follows: Mary assumes at first that it is the gardener, then she falls into his arms weeping (20:13-17) and takes him to be Jesus, reporting some religious message of his to her later listeners. All of this suggests a vision, or at least that what she saw was not Jesus but some bystander, like the gardener, that she took to be Jesus, and she then imagined the rest or made it up so as to encourage the other mourners with the possibility that their leader was spiritually triumphant. Some of this passage could be redactional, or it may have still been dark outside (Jn 20:1) and that Mary was simply confused (vv. 14-15). The former is hardly a problem for my argument, but the latter does not seem a likely explanation, and redaction actually entails an admission that the story was altered, which increases the chance that other details have been altered, too. But though I believe the possibility that these stories are all or in part works of fiction, I do not want to rely too much on this obvious possibility.

As for the “confusion” account, it is precisely because it does not fit that I quote that passage: Mary would surely have recognized his voice at once (yet she doesn’t, 20:15-16), even if it was pitch dark outside–which it most likely was not: Mark 16:2 and Matthew 28:1 say it was around sunrise, which matches Luke’s claim at 24:1 that it was early in the morning, since the ancients’ reckoned morning (and began counting hours) from sunrise, unlike today. John’s words are prôi skotias eti ousês, literally “in the early (or in the morn), while it was still dark,” but skotia can mean also the gloominess of shadows, and since Mary had no trouble finding the tomb, she and others had no trouble running back and forth to and from the tomb, and all the other accounts clearly state it was around sunrise, it could not have been so dark as to make it difficult to recognize someone. If the author wanted to emphasize that it was truly dark, he would, as Mark does at 1:35, use something like prôi ennucha lian, “in the early, when it was very much night.” I must also add that Mary seeing angels just before this further improves the possibility of delusion, at least as easily as it allows actually seeing angels–even more so if we have good reasons to doubt that there are such things, or to doubt that they were so commonly seen then but not now. Moreover, the other passages of “recognition” suggest and support a tradition of seeing Jesus in other people.

Certainly, it is very odd that she did not know who it was until after he spoke. Above all, why didn’t he accompany her when she went to the others? Why does she only relate the experience to them, when she could have taken Jesus with her? And when doubters rush to the tomb to check her story, all they find is an empty tomb–no Jesus. An empty tomb, let me remind you, that the disciples did not know the location of, apart from whatever directions Mary gave them. All of the details of this account are suspicious and add to the swelling doubt.

John 20:19 records that when Jesus appeared to the others, it is after Mary’s impassioned story, while all are mourning and have locked themselves indoors “in fear of the Jews” (tôn thurôn kekleismenôn…dia ton phobon tôn Ioudaiôn). This is a situation ripe for hallucination (dark place, hopes stirred, fear raging, strong desire for reassurance; see my discussion of hallucination and the Gospel stories), or invention (what goes on behind locked doors to a privileged few, who need to cook up something to save their skins by gaining supporters to protect them from their persecutors, is easily suspect). But above all, the purpose for this appearance–and another, also behind locked doors (to Thomas, 20:26–one wonders if is this actually some kind of an initiation ceremony into an early Christian mystery religion, where “I saw Jesus” becomes a metaphor for something deeper)–is to impart belief to the readers in the truth of the disciple’s teaching (explicitly stated, 20:27-29, 31) and in their authority to teach it (also explicitly stated, 20:21-23). This raises more suspicion against the truth of the account, for the disciples have both the motive (something to teach, the need for spiritual authority to teach it, and the need to gain supporters to help them escape hostile authorities) and the means (goings-on behind locked doors that are only privy to the disciples) to fabricate it. Means, motive, and opportunity. That makes the basis for a solid case. It is certainly a strong enough case for reasonable doubt.

John 21:4 then records that Jesus appeared outside, but on that occasion his own disciples again do not know it is him (ou mentoi êideisan hoi mathêtai hoti Iêsous estin). One disciple, “the one Jesus loved” (êgapa), who was resting on Jesus’ chest during the last supper (13:23 and 21:20), merely says it is Jesus, and Peter swims ashore, presumably to see for sure. But when they all come to eat with this stranger, 21:12 says that “none of them dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’, knowing that he was the lord” (oudeis de etolma tôn mathêtôn exetasai auton su tis ei eidotes hoti ho kyrios estin). Why would they feel the need to ask him who he is, unless it was not obvious to them? The verb tolmaô means “be brave enough to, dare to” and this entails that they were afraid to ask, in other words afraid to gainsay their leader Peter, or Jesus’ unnamed favorite. Perhaps they went along out of compassion for this distraught man, or perhaps they were persuaded by his conviction–for they certainly did not see Jesus, or at least the account does not say so. The verb oida here, again, means to know (by having seen or understood), and so they may have understood the stranger to be Jesus even though it did not appear to be him. Ultimately, the way the passage is written is odd enough to cast great doubt on other interpretations, and confirms what all the accounts share in common: that when Jesus appeared, he looked like someone else, not Jesus.


X. What Good are “Anonymous” Eye-Witnesses Anyway?

Now, this “beloved” disciple is reputedly the source for John’s account (cf. 21:24), though it is highly unusual that the author would not mention his name, and even more unusual that no other Gospel, or any other source, mentions him at all. It has been said that authors often omitted their names from what they wrote, but this is not true for any other complete ancient work that I know of. It is only true for forgeries and fictions–and the gospels. And that casts even greater suspicion on them. All of the Gospels are by unknown authors. From as early as we have anything like titles for them, which were apparently assigned to them several generations after they were written, those titles are given with the Greek phrase “Gospel according to…,” using kata, which ordinarily means that the contents of the books were not written by the person named, but that the person named was used as their source. No other book from antiquity contains such an unusual title, and scholars are unanimous that this must mean no authors were originally identified in the titulature. Rather, the use of “kata” means the authorship was assigned later, meaning the Gospels were originally unsigned. None of the books identify who Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John are, or how we are to know they were the sources used, or who actually did the writing, or who assigned the names, or why.

This is significant: for no ancient work I know of, which claims to be factual and for which we have the complete text, truly went unsigned. Someone has suggested that the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar and the dialogues of Plato went unsigned. As for the Gallic Wars, many modern editions and translations make it seem as though the work is anonymous, particularly since Caesar writes in the 3rd person. But all written manuscripts of De Bello Gallico (including the oldest, the codex Paris Latinus 5763, from the 9th century) begin incipit liber gaii caesaris belli gallici iuliani… (i.e. the “Julian Gallic War” by “Gaius Caesar”), with only minor variations (see Note 1). Thus, it was not anonymous by any means. One should certainly not mistake writing in the 3rd person for “anonymous authorship.”

I have heard some “claim” that many authors did not sign their works, but none of these claims are true. Examples forwarded include Livy, Tacitus, Pausanias, and Plutarch’s biographies. But all have titles that include the author’s name, in all extant manuscripts, as is clearly stated and shown in the Oxford and Teubner editions of these texts. All mss. of Livy begin T. Livi Ab Urbe Condita…. The sole ms. we have for the first book of the Annals begins Cornelii Taciti Ab Excessu Divi Augusti Annalium… and the sole ms. we have for the first book of the Histories places it as a direct continuation of the sixteenth book of the Annals with the title Decimus Septimus Ab Excessu Divi Augusti… = “the seventeenth” book of the annals. Likewise, the Agricola begins Cornelii Taciti De Vita Iulii Agricolae…, and all mss. contain this material, some only adding additional elements (e.g. “…vita et moribus…”), while the Germania begins Cornelii Taciti De Origine et Situ Germanorum…, and again all mss. contain this, some only adding minor elements. The text of Pausanius begins PAUSANIOU ELLADOS PERIHGHSEWS, “Tour of Greece by Pausanias,” and all mss. agree, with only minor variations, that the biographies of Plutarch begin ARCHAIOLOGIAS PLOUTARCHOU PARALLHLWN…, “History of Parallels by Plutarch.”

As for Plato’s works, they are all fictional dialogues, or forgeries (depending on how you interpret them). For example, the Apology of Socrates is written in 1st person and is portrayed as dictated to Plato by Socrates himself, a matter that is doubted, but possible. But at any rate its content is still attributed to either its real or pseudonymous author (Socrates). On the other hand, all of Plato’s dialogues traditionally begin with the Euthyphro, which in turn begins “Euthyphro, or On Holiness, a tentative work, in the artifice of a dialogue of Euthyphro and Socrates” where “in the artifice of” is peirastikos, meaning “mask” or “fictional pretense.” Thus, Plato outright admits to this work being fiction, not fact. So it is irrelevant that he does not put his name to it.

There were certainly many anonymous works of fiction. There are also works for which the inscription, sometimes along with the beginning of the work, is lost, leaving us to guess at the author, as is the case with certain rare works of Sophocles. For example, someone suggested that the works of Suetonius are unsigned, but this only proves my point. The first several pages of his collected lives are lost. The Twelve Ceasars begins abruptly at the death of Caesar’s father, when Caesar himself was already fifteen years old. Had we those missing pages, we can be quite confident that the titulature would include Suetonius’ name. His Lives of Eminent Men likewise only survives in fragments. But the gospels claim to be fact, and they are complete, yet they are all unsigned, making their anonymity effectively unique and therefore suspicious.

Some have pointed out that other Christian works, like the letters of Clement of Rome, are unsigned. However, offering another work of dubious authorship and authenticity only proves my point again. Indeed, the idea of the unsigned letter, just like the unsigned biography, is a peculiar feature of Christian writing–in all the other collections of letters that survive, the letters or their collection are signed (and the genuine letters of Paul fit this tradition). Of course, we may be too quick to judge in the case of Clement, since only one manuscript of his letters exists, and that manuscript–a Bible–plainly attributes the letters to Clement in its table of contents, so the erasure of the title and its removal to the front of the codex may have been an act of scribal license, or the outcome of carelessly extracting the letters from a larger collection now lost, and thus does not mean the letter originally went unsigned. Of course, none of these possibilities instills much confidence, and for all we know the attribution was conjectural. We certainly don’t know if the letter is genuine. So anonymity throws as much doubt on the authority of Clement as on the Gospels, and we have little reason to trust such sources.


XI. Was Luke a Learned Man? Would That Even Matter?

“What you can’t dispute,” a critic wrote to me some time ago, “is that the book of Luke was written by a learned man, a physician and historian. If Luke had written a ‘secular’ history book, nobody would dispute his accounts.” That isn’t true (see below). It is also important to note that whoever wrote Acts was not a critical historian, nor were they necessarily “learned” (more on that below, too). We know of no critical history of Christianity until centuries after the fact. The first true “historian” of Christianity is Eusebius, writing in the 4th century (the Christian Julius Africanus wrote a chronicle in the 3rd century, but that is not a critical history either; nothing else survives).

Luke’s being a doctor is also merely a supposition. It can certainly be disputed. The physician companion of Paul may not be the author of Acts or the gospel attributed to him. We have no evidence, in fact, that he was. It was merely presumed by others, a century later. Luke doesn’t sign either book, much less tell us his profession. His accounts are less fabulous, and thus show signs of an educated seriousness lacking in the other gospels, but these works display no details that would require him to have had an actual medical education. So we cannot know if he was a doctor.

One might argue that there is then no basis for disputing the notion that the author of Luke was a doctor, but if it were sensible to believe everything that we have “no basis for disputing” we would have a lot of very odd beliefs. Why, by that reasoning, Alexander the Great was a sausage seller and an acrobat, and a magician on Wednesdays. But we have positive reasons to doubt that Luke, the author, was Paul’s companion, “Luke the doctor.” First of all, Luke the author tells us the wrong stories about Paul’s conversion, and gets many of Paul’s ethical opinions wrong. His companion would not likely have made such mistakes. Luke also explains insanity as the product of demons, a very unmedical opinion of the matter, certainly showing that Luke was not a member of any of the schools of medicine with rational views about the world. Thus, if Luke was a doctor, he was not a scientific one even by ancient standards, and therefore no more reliable a witness to fact than any other superstitious man of his age. For instance, compare how two doctors report the miracles of Vespasian in Tacitus (Histories, 4.81). Nothing like that is in Luke or Acts.

It has also been lamely argued that if all we are left with is tradition, that will have to do until proof becomes available. But by that reasoning, Jesus wrote a letter to the King of Persia. For we have that letter: it is in Eusebius’ history of the church, the same place where both Lukes are proclaimed the same. If you doubt the veracity of Eusebius in offering a letter as actually written by Jesus (and he displays absolutely no doubt of its authenticity), then you must be prepared to doubt the veracity of his other claims to tradition, including the equation of the two Lukes.

Not that all this matters. Doctors could be just as superstitious as anyone else in antiquity, even employ magic in their healing practices (consider the medical writings of Theophrastus). And we are not told which school of medicine Paul’s companion belonged to. Nor did being “learned” make one less gullible or more reliable. Herodian, a learned historian of the Roman Empire, is notoriously unreliable. Pliny the Elder reports a lot of marvels as facts, and he was one of the most learned men in antiquity. Certainly the gospel author was educated. He could write very well, better that every other NT author. And no more than 2% of the population at the time could claim that. But was he “learned”? The only men whom we feel qualified to call learned are those who cite or quote many other ancient authorities–the definition of being learned is, after all, having read many authorities. Plutarch and Pliny were learned. I see not even a single piece of ancient source material even mentioned in Luke. So he does not qualify as learned–at least not on what we have of his work. And Luke proves a serious lack of academic skill in one respect that has already been noted: he appears to have not read Paul’s letters–also a good reason to reject the claim that he was Paul’s companion. He seems ignorant of many of Paul’s theological positions, including his views on justification. And many other details, such as his account in Acts of Paul’s conversion and travels, contradict many of Paul’s own accounts (such as in Galatians). Moreover, Luke seems to have drawn details from Josephus, but in doing so screwed them up (see my essay Luke and Josephus). None of this fits a “learned” man.

One final word about “secular” history is necessary. It amazes me how Christians think us historians are all gullible dupes who “never” dispute anything an ancient historian writes. Indeed, I know of no ancient author, of any genre or subject, whom any modern historian completely trusts–and that even includes the most meticulous of them all: Polybius and Thucydides. The first thing we are taught as historians is not to trust any source. We are taught to find ulterior motives, weaknesses of evidence, the tendency to embellish and regard rumor and myth as fact, the attraction of amazing tales over sober reality (an attraction more than once explicitly stated, in even serious historians like Tacitus), as well as literary features such as redaction, propaganda, and agenda. And all these distortions find their way into all ancient sources, secular or otherwise.

Physical evidence is also essential to the reliability of many historical claims. Yet we have none to support the miracles of Jesus, but plenty to “support” the healing miracles of Asclepius. Certainly, if amazing recoveries happened in the temples of a pagan god, there can be nothing divine about the same thing happening in the presence of a Jewish holy man. So, too, for literary evidence. If we can be told about giant ants by Herodotus, who treats this tall tale as if it were true, then the tall tale of the zombies in Matthew should not surprise us either. The same things can be said of every aspect of the gospel accounts, in Luke or otherwise. Even treating them as purely secular history, they remain just as dubious as other secular histories of the time.

I have been asked if physical evidence is really all that important, and the answer is often yes. If there is a reason to doubt the reality of a person, it is generally doubted without physical evidence. Historians doubted the existence of Alexander of Abonuteichos, an account of whom we only hear in Lucian, until we recovered evidence corroborating Lucian’s account: coins and statues. Many of the people attested in early books of Livy are still dismissed as inventions simply because there is no physical evidence. Likewise the Historia Augusta is divided into “reliable” and “unreliable” halves, based on the observation that after a certain point the people it refers to are not attested anywhere else, whereas in the first half we have coins, inscriptions, and papyri confirming their existence (on the use of evidence in establishing the historicity of persons and events, see my Main Argument).

However, I do not dispute the existence of a man called Jesus. Nor do I think even physical evidence is a guarantee of truth. It is possible that “Jesus” was invented.[2] But there were many men named Jesus, many of whom preachers of religious reform, so his existence is plausible. What is in doubt is whether the miracles and other claims about Jesus are true. And whereas we have physical inscriptions of the miracles of Asclepius, we have none for Jesus, so that his miracles are even more doubtful than those of Asclepius (or have natural explanations, cf. my discussion elsewhere of historiography). And although he is claimed to have had wealthy supporters (Joseph of Arimathea), by whom he was supposedly believed to be the divine savior of all mankind–the most important person ever to have lived, God Incarnate–somehow no inscriptions of any kind were ever commissioned. But we have the Gospel of Epicurus on stone, commissioned by Diogenes of Oenoanda. He obviously cared more about his savior’s message than Joseph did about that of Jesus. What does that tell you?

See my review of In Defense of Miracles for a much more thorough discussion of this issue, especially my comparison of Julius Caesar with Jesus (the same material is used in my Main Argument), where I refute absurd claims such as that made by Edwin Gordon Selwyn: “The fact that Christ rose from the dead on the third day in full continuity of body and soul–that fact seems as secure as historical evidence can make it” (cited by Josh McDowell, 1st ed., § 10.3A.2B, p. 190). That is simply false.


XII. Concluding Remarks in Support of the Unreliability of the Gospels

There are many other details in the gospels which impugn their reliability, including:

  • …the fact that Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to before 4 BC (the year Herod the Great died), whereas Luke dates it to 6 AD (the year of the first census under Quirinius)–see my essay on Luke and Quirinius.
  • …the fact that Matthew records a horde of zombies descending on Jerusalem after the death of Jesus.
  • …the blatant and repetitive account of demon possession as an explanation for insanity.
  • …the fact that none of the miracles of healing in the record defy natural causes (no missing limbs are ever regrown, no one is resurrected from ashes, cf. historiography).
  • …the fact that Mark has modeled his stories after similar tales in Homer (see my review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) and material in Psalms 22-24, and so on.
  • …the false claim that a solar eclipse took place at the death of Jesus (cf. my essay on Thallus).

The list could go on. But besides all that, I have already shown with more than enough evidence that the Resurrection as Miracle From God is unbelievable, even improbable, and that is sufficient grounds to reject the Christian faith. All the other reasons one could add to this also add to the crushing weight of conviction that Christianity is an old superstition, dusty with time, outdated, outmoded, and better replaced by a new world view. The best discussion of the evidential value of the New Testament can be found in an excellent article by Richard Packham, which also soundly refutes claims that the evidence is on par with that required to prove a case in court, a claim made by Edward Clarke, as cited by McDowell (1st ed., § 10.3A.2B, p. 190; cf. also 2nd ed., § 9.5A.2B). McDowell also cites the argument (1st ed., p. 220, § 4A.1B.2C) that details of the story are so vivid they must be eye-witness accounts, yet this completely forgets that fiction is also vivid, and that fiction specifically aims to add such vivid details, whereas history, even eye-witness history, does not usually dwell on such things in a narrative, without reflection or qualification or the identification of sources–and even when it does it is almost always adding fictional details to spice up a real story, as was very often the practice in the ancient world. Thus, these details do not add any merit to the Gospels. For the real markers of merit, see the historical sections (4a through 4e) of my review of In Defense of Miracles.

Still, there are those who think Christianity itself is so unique and thus so improbable that it must be inspired by God. In particular, some have claimed that the idea of a personal rather than a general resurrection, as well as of a “crucified messiah” would have been rather absurd to people in the time of Jesus. But crucified deities were not absurd to the Sumerians, who worshipped the crucified Innana (cf. Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 3rd. revised ed., 1981, pp. 154ff.). The Greeks had Prometheus, who suffered a similar fate, and the very popular religion of Cybele had Attis, a castrated deity whose male priests castrated themselves in their god’s honor. Clearly absurdity was no barrier to devotion. So what is really absurd is to look at all of human history and still think it is a reasonable argument that because something is absurd or distasteful, no one will do it. It is even more absurd when the thing in question is saddled inside a very attractive, pleasing, and useful package. Who cares if your god was crucified, so long as you will live forever by believing it? Fear of death is a far more serious motivator than distaste for absurdity, and a man who has been persuaded that if he loses his body his soul will live forever, he will be happy to die for any number of absurd ideas, as history has proven.

As to the “uniqueness” argument, that is also an absurd statement in light of fact. Based on the exact same reasoning, we should doubt that there has ever been a major religious innovation in all of human history. But until you can explain away Mormonism, Buddhism, Isidism, Islam, Transcendental Meditation, Taoism, Shintoism, the Korean Chondogyo (whose leader was also executed, yet the creed is going strong), and all other major religious innovations–which always, by definition, have included unique ideas–there will never be a more absurd argument than “they wouldn’t invent something much unlike anything they had been exposed to.” This argument is further flawed by the fact that the authors of Christianity were exposed to a lot more than just Judaism, and just as the Jews adopted a unique concept of Hell and Resurrection by combining ideas from Persians and Greeks, it would be an easy thing to adopt from Greek individualism and theories of the soul (including Pythagorean reincarnation) the natural conclusion that if there can be a general resurrection in the flesh, there may instead be an individual resurrection of the spirit, with its own superior body. Indeed, I have yet to see any attribute of Christianity that could not have been assembled from ideas already existing in the cultures that surrounded it. By all reasonable accounts, Christianity is a product of human history, not the product of a god.


Back to the Probability of Survival vs. Miracle

On to Rebutting Lesser Arguments

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Note 1: The “minor variations” include: incipiunt libri gaii caesaris belli gallici iuliani… appears in a marginal note in the codex Parisinus Latinus (which merely converts the singular to a plural to suit conversion of the books from scroll to codex format), and in later commentaries–which also convert the adjective iuliani to a noun, moving it back to join the name as iulii, which was clearly a scribal attempt to improve the text and not the original form, for the other version, by omitting the nomen, is less expected, and scribes did not correct texts to make them stranger, but more in line with expectation. When the text was typeset for the first printed edition in 1477, the title was changed to Iuli Caesaris commentariorum de bello gallico… and the abbreviation for Gaius (“C.”) was added in the following century, and this is how the standard Oxford critical edition reconstructs the text, being the most familiar to educators, but the original beginnings are supplied in the apparatus beneath. One old manuscript (codex Amstelodamensis 81) misattributes the text to Suetonius, clearly an error.

Note 2: For an assessment of the best case, see: Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity” (2002).

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