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Robert Price Stinketh

By This Time He Stinketh

The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus (1997)

Robert M. Price


He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.

–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if, somehow, so-called Scientific Creationism should come to dominate professional biology, anthropology, paleontology, and geology? It would be an unmitigated disaster, a nightmare, not because a particular hypothesis, unattractive to many of us, would have gained the upper hand, but rather because it would denote a major step backwards in terms of scientific method. Indeed, it would mean the covert or overt control of science by dogma. This much is clear to anyone who is familiar with the axe-grinding character of Creationism’s arguments, its laughably badly hidden agenda, and its completely deductive “methodology.” If we are to take seriously William Lane Craig’s ubiquitous rhetorical appeals to consensus (a logical fallacy, last time I looked), we face an analogous situation today in the guild of supposedly critical New Testament scholarship.

For Dr. Craig would have us believe that the extreme skepticism that once held biblical scholarship hostage to (what he calls) the naturalistic presuppositions of Deism has more recently given way to a general return to confidence in the substantial historical accuracy of the gospels, and especially in the historicity of the empty tomb and the physical resurrection of Jesus. Craig regards such a shift as something of an enlightenment. I doubt he would shun the word for all its historical associations; indeed, he and his cadre of latter-day apologists seem to enjoy gloatingly appropriating the style and accoutrements of the “critical” establishment they think themselves to have displaced. For instance, relishing the opportunity to turn the tables on John Dominic Crossan, Craig confesses himself “puzzled” as to “why a prominent scholar like Crossan would set his face against the consensus of scholarship.” [1] Clearly he enjoys being part of the establishment Sanhedrin, now that, as he perceives, his own Pharisaic party, rather than the skeptical Sadducaic faction, controls it. Note, for instance, how Craig refers as a matter of course to his fellow evangelical apologists R.T. France and Robert Gundry simply as “New Testament critics.” The hands may be the hands of Baur, but the voice is the voice of Warfield.

I suspect that, though Craig indulges in a bit of wishful thinking, playing taps for various critical approaches still quite far from death’s door, he may well be correct that New Testament scholarship is more conservative than it once was. This has more than he admits to do with which denominations can afford to train the most students, hire more faculty, and send more members to the Society of Biblical Literature. But basically, it should surprise no one that the great mainstream of biblical scholars hold views friendly to traditional Christianity, for the simple reason that most biblical scholars are and always have been believing Christians, even if not fundamentalists. It is only the pious arrogance of Craig’s evangelicalism (which denies the name “Christian” to anyone without a personal tete-a-tete with Jesus) that allows him to implicitly depict New Testament scholars as a bunch of newly-chastened skeptics with their tails between their legs. Even Bultmann, a devout Lutheran, was much less skeptical than Baur and Strauss.

But is this trend to neo-conservatism an enlightenment? Rather, I regard it as a prime example of what H.P. Lovecraft bemoaned as the modern failure of nerve in the face of scientific discovery: “someday the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Double Truth or Half Truth?

I will turn to specific arguments below, but first, a look at two fundamental axioms of Craig’s work is in order. The first is what strikes me as a kind of “Double Truth” model. The second is the old red herring attempt to evade the principle of analogy by means of the claim that critics reject miracle stories only because they espouse philosophical naturalism. The second follows from the first. Both commit the fallacy of ad hominem argumentation even while projecting it onto the opponent. Let me note, I have no intention of discounting any of Craig’s arguments in advance by trying to reveal their root. Rather, I shall take what seem to me the important ones each in their own right.

William Lane Craig is an employee of Campus Crusade for Christ. Thus it is no surprise that his is what is today euphemistically called “engaged scholarship.” Dropping the euphemism, one might call him a PR man for Bill Bright and his various agendas. One thing one cannot expect from party hacks and spin doctors is that they should in any whit vary from their party line. When is the last time you heard a pitchman for some product admit that it might not be the best on the market? When have you heard a spokesman for a political candidate admit that his man might be in the wrong, might have wandered from the truth on this or that point? Do you ever expect to hear a Trekkie admit that the episode about the Galileo 7 was a stinker? Heaven and earth might pass away more easily. And still, there is just the outside chance that Craig might have become convinced through his long years of graduate study that Bill Bright has stumbled upon the inerrant truth, that needle in the haystack of competing world views and theories. But I doubt it. I think he has tipped his hand toward the end of the first chapter of his book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, “Faith and Reason: How Do I Know Christianity is True?”[2] There he draws a distinction between knowing Christianity is true and showing it is true.

What, then, should be our approach in apologetics? It should be something like this: “My friend, I know Christianity is true because God’s Spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true. And you can know it, too, because God is knocking at the door of your heart, telling you the same thing. If you are sincerely seeking God, then God will give you assurance that the gospel is true. Now, to try to show you it’s true, I’ll share with you some arguments and evidence that I really find convincing. But should my arguments seem weak and unconvincing to you, that’s my fault, not God’s. It only shows that I’m a poor apologist, not that the gospel is untrue. Whatever you think of my arguments, God still loves you and holds you accountable. I’ll do my best to present good arguments to you. But ultimately you have to deal, not with arguments, but with God himself.” [3]

A little further on he saith, “unbelief is at root a spiritual, not an intellectual, problem. Sometimes an unbeliever will throw up an intellectual smoke screen so that he can avoid personal, existential involvement with the gospel.”[4]

Craig, then, freely admits his conviction arises from purely subjective factors, in no whit different from the teenage Mormon door-knocker who tells you he knows the Book of Mormon was written by ancient Americans because he has a warm, swelling feeling in his stomach when he asks God if it’s true. Certain intellectual questions have to receive certain answers to be consistent with this revivalistic “heart-warming” experience, so Craig knows in advance that, e.g., Strauss and Bultmann must have been wrong. And, like the O.J. Simpson defense team, he will find a way to get from here to there. Craig would repudiate my analogy, but let no one who can read doubt from his words just quoted that, first, his enterprise is completely circular, since it is a subjectivity described arbitrarily in terms of Christian belief (Holy Spirit, etc.) that supposedly grounds Christian belief! And, second, Craig admits the circularity of it.

It almost seems Craig has embraced a variant of the Double Truth theory sometimes ascribed to Averroes, the Aristotelian Islamic philosopher, who showed how one thing might be true if one approached it by the canons of orthodox Islamic theology while something very different might prove true by means of independent philosophical reflection. Can it be that Craig is admitting he holds his faith on purely subjective grounds, but maintaining that he is lucky to discover that the facts, objectively considered, happen to bear out his faith? That, whereas theoretically his faith might not prove true to the facts, in actuality (whew!) it does?

I think he does mean something on this order. But what might first appear to be a double truth appears after all to be a half-truth, for it is obvious from the same quotes that he admits the arguments are ultimately beside the point. If an “unbeliever” doesn’t see the cogency of Craig’s brand of New Testament criticism (the same thing exactly as his apologetics), it can only be because he has some guilty secret to hide and doesn’t want to repent and let Jesus run his life. If one sincerely seeks God, Craig’s arguments will mysteriously start looking pretty good to him, like speaking in tongues as the infallible evidence of the infilling of the divine Spirit.

Craig’s frank expression to his fellow would-be apologists/evangelists is revealing, more so no doubt than he intends: he tells you to say to the unbeliever that you find these arguments “really convincing,” but how can Craig simply take this for granted unless, as I’m sure he does, he knows he is writing to people for whom the cogency of the arguments is a foregone conclusion since they are arguments in behalf of a position his readers are already committed to as an a priori party line?

His is a position that exalts existential decision above rational deliberation, quite ironic in view of his damning Bultmann’s supposedly nefarious existentialism! Rational deliberation by itself is not good enough for Bill Craig and Bill Bright because it can never justify a quick decision such as Campus Crusade’s booklet The Four Spiritual Laws solicits. I do not mean to make sport of Craig by saying this. No, it is important to see that, so to speak, every one of Craig’s scholarly articles on the resurrection implicitly ends with that little decision card for the reader to sign to invite Jesus into his heart as his personal savior. He is not trying to do disinterested historical or exegetical research. He is trying to get folks saved.

Why is this important? His characterization of people who do not accept his apologetical version of the historical Jesus as “unbelievers” who merely cast up smoke screens of insincere cavils functions as a mirror image of his own enterprise. His apparently self-effacing pose, “If my arguments fail to convince, then I must have done a poor job of explaining them” is just a polite way of saying, “You must not have understood me, stupid, or else you’d agree with me.” His incredible claim that the same apologetics would sound better coming from somebody else (so why don’t you go ahead and believe anyway?) just reveals the whole exercise to be a sham. Craig’s apologetic has embraced insincerity as a structural principal. The arguments are offered cynically: “whatever it takes.” If they don’t work, take your pick between brimstone (“God holds you accountable”) and treacle (“God still loves you”).

If Miracles Are Possible, Are Legends Impossible?

Once one sees the circular character of Craig’s enterprise, it begins to make a bit more sense that he would retreat to the old red herring of “naturalistic presuppositions” as a way of doing an end run around the most fundamental postulate of critical historiography. That is, Craig tells us that no one would reject miraculous reports like the resurrection narratives unless already dogmatically committed to Deism or atheism. Since it is in the vested interest of all those unregenerate sinners like Strauss and Schleiermacher to deny miracles, they had no choice but to deny that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Again, this is the most blatant kind of scurrilous mud-slinging, no different from Creationist stump debater Duane Gish charging that “God-denying” evolutionists must want society to become a den of murderers and pornographers.

And it’s also just nonsense, another tricky shell-game on behalf of a higher Truth. I’m not saying Craig is wittingly distorting the truth to win his point. No, it’s worse than that: he is so committed to a dogmatic party line that he cannot see “truth” as meaning anything but that party-line dogma. By definition, his gospel could never prove untrue because he has begun by defining it as the truth. In Craig’s lexicon, you look up “truth” and it says “see ‘gospel’.” To borrow Francis Schaeffer’s terminology, for the apologist “truth” has become merely a “connotation word.” As when liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl said “Jesus has the value of God for us,” Craig might say, “Christianity has the value of Truth for us.” As for William James righteous endeavor was “the moral equivalent of war,” for apologists Christianity is “the moral equivalent of truth.” Only it doesn’t work. For Ritchlianism, Jesus was in fact not God; for James, moral endeavor was in fact not war. Even so, anything that substitutes for the truth may be preferred to the truth, but then it is a lie.

And thus it is no wonder that apologists show themselves ready to use every rhetorical trick in the book, since all means are justified by the end of making new converts. Craig at one point needs the Johannine pseudo-character of the Beloved Disciple to be a historical witness of the events, and, as a trump, he says, “If it be said that the evangelist simply invented the figure of the Beloved Disciple, then 21:24 becomes a deliberate falsehood.”[5] But why should the notion of an apologist, in this case an ancient one, resorting to pious fraud surprise anyone? Indeed, after careful acquaintance with the works of evangelical apologists, it is precisely what we should expect.

If the charge that unbelievers are hiding behind a smoke screen is a mirror image of their own strategy of using scholarly argument like smoke and mirrors, a charge I have cited Craig as pretty much admitting, then the “naturalistic presuppositions” business is a specific instance of such childish “I know you are, but what am I?” tactics. Does it take a blanket presupposition for a historian to discount some miracle stories as legendary? No, because, as even Bultmann recognized, there is no problem accepting reports even of extraordinary things that we can still verify as occurring today, like faith healings and exorcisms. However you may wish to account for them, you can go to certain meetings and see scenes somewhat resembling those in the gospels. So it is by no means a matter of rejecting all miracle stories on principle. Biblical critics are not like the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. But a selective, piecemeal, and probabilistic acceptance of miracle stories is not what apologists want. They take umbrage that critics do not wind up accepting any and all biblical miracles. Otherwise how are we to understand the constant refrain that it is inconsistent for critics to strain out the gnat of the virgin birth while swallowing the resurrection?

So if it would not require a blanket principle to reject the historicity of particular miracle stories, we must ask if it would take a blanket principle to require acceptance of all biblical miracle stories. Clearly it would. And that principle cannot be simple supernaturalism, openness to the possibility of miracles. One can believe God capable of anything without believing that he did everything anybody may say he did. One can believe in the possibility of miracles without believing that every reported miracle must in fact have happened. No, the requisite principle is that of biblical inerrancy, the belief that all biblical narratives are historically accurate simply because they appear in the Bible. After all, it will not greatly upset Craig any more than it upset Warfield to deny the historical accuracy of medieval reports of miracles wrought by the Virgin Mary or by the sacramental wafer, much less stories of miracles wrought by Gautama Buddha or Apollonius of Tyana.

“Supernaturalism” is not at all the issue here. The issue is whether the historian is to abdicate his role as a sifter of evidence by accepting the dogma of inerrancy. Does fire become better fire when doused with water? That is what Craig wants, because he is trying to win souls for Bill Bright.

Nor is “naturalism” the issue when the historian employs the principle of analogy. As F.H. Bradley showed in The Presuppositions of Critical History, no historical inference is possible unless the historian assumes a basic analogy of past experience with present.[6] If we do not grant this, nothing will seem amiss in believing reports that A turned into a werewolf or that B changed lead into gold. “Hey, just because we don’t see it happening today doesn’t prove it never did!” One could as easily accept the historicity of Jack and the Beanstalk on the same basis, as long as one’s sole criterion of historical probability is “anything goes!”

If there are Buddhist legends or Pythagorean tales about people walking on water but there is no present-day instance, is the historian to be maligned as a narrow dogmatist and, worse, a moral coward refusing to repent, if he or she judges the report of Jesus walking on the water to be an edifying legend, too?

The historical axiom of analogy does not dogmatize; critical historians are not engaging in metaphysical epistemology as if they could hop into a time machine and pontificate “A didn’t happen! B did!” Again, Craig and his brethren are just projecting. It is they, and not critical historians, who want to be able to point to sure results. Imagine the creed: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in thy heart that God hath probably raised him from the dead, thou shalt most likely be saved.” But who is the joke on here? Historians don’t have creeds. They frame hypotheses. Sure, you can find some hidebound prof, some small-minded, insecure windbag who will not budge from a pet theory because he has too much personally invested in it. But you have no trouble recognizing such a person as a hack, a fake, a bad historian who ought to know better. The last thing you do is to emulate such behavior and make it into an operating principle. But apologists do. Again, it’s projection.

It reduces to this: at the end of Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws booklet, there is a cartoon diagram showing a toy locomotive engine labeled “fact,” pulling a freight car labeled “faith,” followed in turn by a superfluous caboose tagged “feeling.” The new convert is admonished to let faith rest on fact, not to allow faith to waver with feelings. But the outsider (not to mention the ex-insider) must suspect that it is the caboose that is pulling the train, and pulling it backwards. Faith is based “firmly” upon feeling, and certain notions are postulated as “fact” because of the security they afford to the sick soul who seeks a port in the existential storm. Craig’s own essay in the humbly titled online Truth Journal, “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ” opens with the supposed predicament of “modern man,” feeling all alone in a big bad universe.[7] “Against this background of the modern predicament, the traditional Christian hope of the resurrection takes on an even greater brightness and significance. It tells man he is no orphan after all….” Can anyone imagine a genuine work of scholarly research opening with soap-operatic organ music of this kind? No, we find ourselves in a tent revival, even if it is on the mountainside of L’Abri.

Lest His Disciples Say, ‘He Has Risen’

Craig has occasion, in his defense of the empty tomb story, to cross swords with John Dominic Crossan, as I have already noted. One need hardly subscribe to every thesis put forth by Crossan to appreciate that he is an innovative and creative New Testament scholar who marshals his vast learning in an attempt to find out new things from the gospels. Crossan is concerned to advance the state of knowledge. Contrast him with Craig, who uses his own formidable erudition in one vast damage control operation. Every effort of Craig’s is to squelch new theories that threaten to cast doubt on the traditional picture of the storybook Jesus and Christian origins. One feels that Craig would sooner put his efforts elsewhere than putting out fires lit by Bultmann, Strauss, and Crossan. If he had his way, he’d be occupied with something more edifying.

Evangelicals think they’ve got the truth in their back pocket, so they can’t be trying to find what they think they’ve already got. They’re just trying to attack everybody else. Novelty is the devil. They expend great time and effort mastering the skills of Greek and Hebrew exegesis (witness the unparalleled excellence of Dallas Theological Seminary in these areas)–for what? You know how the story’s going to end already! All their efforts at exegesis are the laborings of a mountain to bring forth a mouse. New ways to sling the same old hash. If one of them really comes up with something new theologically, it will result in immediate charges of heresy. The effort is solely to hold the fort against the advance of intellectual history. Evangelical biblical scholarship, like evangelical theology, is just a massive effort to arrest modernity. In precisely the same way, there simply is no Creation Science. It is all just an effort to poke as many holes in evolutionary biology as they can, as if fundamentalism will emerge the victor by default.

That vented, let’s turn to the empty tomb story. As elsewhere, the apologist’s task is one of harmonization of “apparent contradictions,” this time between the empty tomb stories of the gospels on the one hand and the list of resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 on the other. What’s the problem? By the reckoning of most New Testament scholars 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 preserves a list of appearances decades earlier than the writing of Mark’s gospel. And it has nothing to say of the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning by Mary Magdalene and her sisters. From this some draw the inference that the story of the empty tomb is a later addition and thus an unhistorical embellishment. Naturally Craig cannot have this, so he tries to coax from the text of 1 Corinthians what is not there: a Pauline citation of the empty tomb tradition. Before he is done he will be telling us how Paul must have gotten his information about the empty tomb from a visit he himself made there on a visit to Jerusalem! Presumably Craig derived this privileged information the same way Matthew got his “tradition” that the risen Jesus appeared to the women at the tomb, simply by reading it between the lines (in Matthew’s case, the lines of Mark). In the end we actually find Craig saying, “Thus Paul’s acceptance of the empty tomb is strong evidence in favor of its historicity”![8]

All Craig can actually show, and this much is certainly a point well taken, is that, since 1 Corinthians 15:4 does mention Jesus’ burial as the darkness before the dawn of his resurrection, the notion of a vacant tomb would hardly have been alien to the writer’s conception. It would be no surprise to find a mention of an empty tomb in this list, and its lack may simply be because the formulator of the list thought it too obvious to mention. True enough. Where I perceive Craig to be fudging the issue is in his assumption that the only alternative is to envision the formulator of the list believing, as modern liberal theologians do, in a resurrection of a type compatible with an occupied tomb. And if this be ruled out as anachronistic (I agree, it seems far-fetched), then, according to Craig, we are back to the gospel’s empty tomb scenario. But are we?

Craig realizes that he needs to circumscribe the alternatives if he is to make it appear a simple either/or proposition. So he says there are no competing burial traditions. But there is at least one, namely the statement in Acts 13:28-29 that Jesus was buried by the same people who crucified him. In a case like this, one can easily imagine Jesus’ disciples knowing (or surmising) that he had been buried, but not knowing where, or knowing it to be a common grave, e.g., the Valley of Hinnom where Jesus himself had warned habitual adulterers and thieves not to end up, since only those not deemed fit for a decent burial were disposed of there (Mark 9:43-48). If the disciples then beheld him resurrected (or thought they did), there would have been no question of finding “his” tomb, whether empty or occupied. The same would be true if, as implied in John 19:42; 20:15 and the anti-resurrection polemic mentioned by Tertullian (De Spectaculis 30), some held that Jesus had been but temporarily interred in Joseph’s mausoleum for reburial elsewhere after the sabbath was past. “They have taken away my lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” So it’s not as if to assume an empty tomb is to presuppose the empty tomb story of the gospels, i.e., that of a known and vacated tomb one could point to, as Craig wants to do, as an item of evidence.

Here we reach two related issues of interest to Craig. First, trading on the idea of a known tomb that should have been occupied but wasn’t, Craig hauls out the old argument that if the tomb had not been demonstrably empty the authorities could have silenced the apostles’ preaching by the simple expedient of producing the body. “Here’s your resurrected savior! Take a whiff!” But this is absurd: the only estimate the New Testament gives as to how long after Jesus’ death the disciples went public with their preaching is a full fifty days later on Pentecost! After seven weeks, I submit, it would have been moot to produce the remains of Jesus. Does Craig picture the Sanhedrin using modern forensics? Identifying the rotting carcass of Jesus by dental records? In fact, one might even take the seven-week gap to denote that the disciples were shrewd enough to wait till such disconfirmation had become impossible.

Second, Craig appeals to the fact that there is no known tradition of Jesus’ (occupied) grave being venerated as a site of holy pilgrimage. We might expect that there would be if the empty tomb tradition were later. Good point. But on the other hand, a moment’s thought will reveal that once the empty tomb story eventually gained acceptance, the visitation of an occupied tomb would have been suppressed by Christian authorities, much as King Josiah shut down local shrines that functioned as rivals to Solomon’s Temple. (Here and everywhere Craig simply presupposes a naive picture of the gospels as straightforward records of reporting, without tendential bias.)

The imagination of the apologist is essentially midrashic. It attempts to harmonize contradictions between texts by embellishing those texts, rewriting them by rereading them. In this manner, for instance, the discrepant accounts of Peter’s denials are “reconciled” by redrawing the scene as one in which Peter denies his lord not merely three but six, eight or nine times, each evangelist “selecting” three of these for God knows what possible reason. Similarly, the Synoptics have Simon carry Jesus’ cross, while John has Jesus himself carry it. No gospel has Jesus carry it for a while, then drop it, and Simon pick it up for him. Mark has both thieves mock Jesus; Luke has one mock him, the other defend him. No gospel has one thief stop mocking and start defending. These composite scenarios, which we see replayed every Easter in all the Jesus movies on TV, are the products of harmonizing midrash.

This midrashic imagination follows closely in the footsteps of ancient scribal midrash which, e.g., postulated Adam’s first wife, the feminist hussy Lilith who left Adam to be replaced by the Stepford Wife Eve, all in order to harmonize Genesis One (simultaneous creation of woman and man) with Genesis Two (woman created after man). And from Deuteronomy’s statement that no one knew Moses’ burial place, something scarcely conceivable to the Moses-worshipping Torah reader, ancient scribes inferred that no tomb was known and visited because none existed! Moses must have been assumed bodily into heaven without dying like Elijah and Enoch! Craig is drawing the same midrashic inference in the case of Jesus: no known tomb veneration –> no corpse!

Craig tries to make the Markan empty tomb tale a piece of sober, contemporary history. It is harder to say which part of his attempt is the farther fetched. We are told that the story is unvarnished history since it betrays no signs of theological Tendenz. No theological coloring? In a story told to attest the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead? What else is it? Isn’t it all varnish? Formica, instead of wood? Charles Talbert has no trouble adducing abundant parallels from Hellenistic hero biographies in which the assumptions into heaven of Romulus, Hercules, Empedocles, Apollonius (and let’s not forget Elijah and Enoch) are inferred from the utter failure of searchers to find any vestige of their bones, bodies, or clothing.[9] Talbert concludes that a resurrection appearance, though not incompatible with such an “empty tomb” type episode, would by no means be needful. The ancient reader would know what Mark was driving at: God had raised the vanished Jesus from the dead. This is a prime bit of form-criticism on the part of Talbert (no God-hating atheist, by the way, but a Southern Baptist, if it makes any difference): it shows precisely that the form of the story is dictated by the theological function of the story. Contra Craig, it is theological through and through. Can anyone miss the irony that Craig, who values the story as nothing but a piece of apologetical fodder, can profess to see it as a bit of neutral history?

Craig thinks the story not only objective reporting but even headline news. He borrows from Rudolf Pesch the absurd notion that the very vagueness of the story lends it specificity! The pre-Markan passion story (assuming, as apologists like to do, that there was one) does not mention the name of “the high priest” as Caiaphas, and “This implies (nearly necessitates, according to Pesch) that Caiaphas was still the high priest when the pre-Markan passion story was being told, since then there would have been no need to mention his name.” [10] The idea is that a historical reference to the past would have named the priest, just as a historian will refer to “King Henry VIII,” not just to “the king.” A check of any history book will make it clear what any reader knows already. Sometimes it’s one way, sometimes another. It means nothing. Besides, Caiaphas’ name may just as well be missing because the story-teller had only the vaguest idea of the circumstances and didn’t know who was the high priest at the time. Craig’s fondness for the empty tomb is of a piece with his predilection for empty arguments, such as Paul’s mute witness to the empty tomb and the evidential value of a vague story.

The most astonishing assertion Craig makes regarding the empty tomb story of Mark is that concerning the silence of the women in Mark 16:8. “The silence of the women was surely meant to be just temporary, otherwise the account itself could not be part of the pre-Markan passion story.”[11] Up to this point Craig has argued that the empty tomb story must have been a continuation of the pre-Markan passion, not a separate pericope, because it has so much thematic continuity with the preceding. And yet here a gross discontinuity is smoothed over in the name of the assumption that the tomb tale formed part of the pre-Markan passion.

Craig the apologist calls on his midrashic skills again, just as Matthew, Luke, and the author of the Markan Appendix (really, Appendices) did when they came to the same dead end, as it seemed to them. All alike simply ignored Mark’s statement that the women disobeyed the young man’s charge and had them inform the disciples, just as they were bidden. Craig ignores it, too. He is a harmonizer. He cannot bring himself to entertain the thought that Mark might have wanted to say something quite different from his redactors. Before silencing Mark by making his silent women speak, we might ask after the implications of the strange and abrupt ending, and it is not far to seek. Isn’t it obvious that the claim that the women “said nothing to anyone for they were afraid” functions to explain to the reader why nothing of this had been heard of before? In other words, it is a late tradition after all, and not just because 1 Corinthians 15 lacks it. No, read in its own right, it just sounds like a rationalization, cut from the same cloth as Mark 9:9, where we read that, what do you know, Elijah did come just as the scribes say he must have if Jesus is to be accepted as the messiah. So why didn’t anyone know it? Uh… because he told them to keep quiet about it till later; yeah, that’s the ticket.

Before leaving the empty tomb story, I cannot resist a comparison suggested by the story and the apologists’ handling of it. In Matthew’s highly embroidered version of Mark, he has the enemies of Jesus warn Pilate that, if given the chance, those tricky disciples of Jesus would steal his body and then claim he rose from the dead. Whether or not they did, and it is not impossible, I cannot help seeing an analogy to the self-styled disciples of Jesus like William Lane Craig whose tortuous attempts to establish an empty tomb and a risen Jesus do seem to smack of priestcraft and subterfuge.

No Spirit Has Flesh

Many New Testament scholars have observed that the conception of the resurrection body implied in 1 Corinthians 15 clashes so violently with that presupposed in the gospels that the latter must be dismissed as secondary embellishments, especially as 1 Corinthians predates the gospels. Craig takes exception. The whole trend of his argument seems to me to belie the point he is ostensibly trying to make, namely that any differences between the two traditions do not imply that 1 Corinthians allows only sightings, subjective visions, while the gospels depict more fulsome encounters replete with dialogue, gestures, touching, and eating. Nothing in 1 Corinthians 15 rules out such scenes, he says. But surely the very urgency of the matter shows that Craig would feel himself at a great loss if he had to cut loose all those juicy gospel resurrection stories to be left with the skimpy list of terse notes in 1 Corinthians 15. By itself, 1 Corinthians 15 just wouldn’t mean much. He wants the appearances of 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 to be read as if they had in parentheses after them “See Luke 24; Matthew 28; John 21.”

Of course Craig is muchly mistaken in thinking that this clash between 1 Corinthians and the gospels is the main reason New Testament critics dismiss the gospel Easter narratives as unhistorical. There are many reasons, including the gross contradictions of detail between them (scarcely less serious than those between the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke), the clear evidence of redactional creation and embellishment, etc. Suffice it to say Craig once again tries to oversimplify the problem, so that by solving the part of it he treats (if he does solve it), he can afford to ignore the rest of the problem.

Craig spends a lot of time in his essay “The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” addressing details of 1 Corinthians 15 and the history of its interpretation in a reasonable and credible way.[12] I have no quarrel with his rejection of Bultmann’s existentializing reading of swma as “selfhood,” when it must mean body in a substantial sense. (But, ironically, we will see below that Craig is unwilling to let sarx mean simply “flesh”!) My problem comes when Craig starts trying to harmonize the flesh-versus-spirit contradiction between Luke 24:39 and 1 Corinthians 15:50. Put simply, both Luke and 1 Corinthians pose the alternative of “spirit versus flesh” as possible modes of the risen Jesus, but whereas Luke has Jesus say, “No spirit has flesh and bones as you see me having,” 1 Corinthians says “Flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (15:50) and “the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (15:45).

There are two major steps in his argument. First Craig must try to empty the term “spiritual body” (predicated of the risen Jesus) of any connotation suggesting a body composed of a luminous angelic substance, i.e., something wholly different from flesh. If this is what 1 Corinthians meant, it would indeed imply a rather different picture than that, e.g., of John 20:27, where Jesus, like LBJ, shows off livid scars. He focuses on the contrast between “psychical body” and “spiritual body,” showing, quite properly, that the former ought to be taken as “natural body,” not “physical body.” Thus the contrast between “natural” and “spiritual” body would not in and of itself have to mean the latter is immaterial. True, I guess, but then what else would it mean? Craig sounds like an old-time rationalist when he appeals to the “natural”/”spiritual” opposition back in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, which seems to intend a moral comparison, to define the contrast in 1 Corinthians 15. He winds up with “spiritual body” meaning on the one hand “a body dominated, directed by the Holy Spirit,” and on the other, tautologically equivalent to “a supernatural, i.e., a resurrected, body.” But in either case, please, a physical body.

But can Paul have imagined that Jesus’s body during his earthly life was not already dominated and directed by the Holy Spirit? Ours, maybe, but his? One cannot ignore the parallel being drawn between Jesus and the resurrected believer throughout the chapter. And to say that “it is raised a spiritual body” means only “it is raised” is a piece of harmonizing sleight-of-hand like that which would understand Mark 13:30 to mean “Whichever generation is alive at the time these things happen will see these things happen.”

Craig makes an interesting observation once he gets to 1 Corinthians 15:47, “The first man is from the earth, of dust; the second man is from heaven.” He notes: “There is something conspicuously missing in this parallel… the first Adam is from the earth, made of dust; the second Adam is from heaven, but made of–? Clearly Paul recoils from saying the second Adam is made of heavenly substance.”[13] Is that so clear? When the point at issue is explicitly, “How are the dead raised? With what sort of body do they come?” I am not sure Paul means to recoil from the seemingly inevitable implication of what, after all, is his own parallel!

It seemingly does not occur to Craig to take seriously history-of-religions parallels (since, I’m sure, he would tell us that everyone in his circles finds them passe) such as Richard Reitzenstein adduced to paint a very plausible backdrop of Mystery Religion mysticism according to which initiation/baptism begins the formation of an inner dwxa body or pneuma body which will finally supplant the outworn physical/natural body in the hour of eschatological salvation. It’s not like this is the only place where the conceptuality or the terminology occurs, and elsewhere it does seem to imply some kind of angelic body (reminiscent of the adamantine vajra body of Buddhist mysticism).

If he doesn’t quite manage to evacuate “spiritual body” of its implied connotation of “body of spirit,” Craig’s attempt to deny that the word “flesh” (sarx) really means flesh is downright comical. Just as Bultmann wanted swma to mean something other than “body” for the sake of his theology, Craig desperately wants sarx in 1 Corinthians 15:50 (“Flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God”) to mean something other than “flesh” for the sake of his apologetics. He wants Paul to have been talking about a resurrected Jesus with a body of flesh, just one no longer subject to death, like Superman, so he does not want 1 Corinthians 15:50 to mean that the risen Jesus lacked a body of flesh. So having turned spirit to flesh in the case of the spiritual body, he will now turn flesh into spirit.

How does Craig accomplish this exegetical alchemy? He cites various Old Testament passages which show how the phrase “flesh and blood” was often used as synecdoche (part for the whole) for “mortality.” So when Paul says “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” he need mean no more than “mortality shall not inherit immortality,” which, come to think of it, is exactly what he does say in the second half of the parallel: “neither shall the corruptible inherit the incorruptible.” He need not mean, Craig wants us to believe, that a man with a body of flesh could not inherit the eternal kingdom.

Was Craig absent on the day they explained what synecdoche is? If you use a part to stand for the whole, then what’s true of the whole must be true of the part. That’s the whole point. If you cry, “All hands on deck!” You expect all crew members to be present in their entirety. Just because you don’t mean they are to place only their hands on the deck, a la Kilroy, doesn’t mean you exempt them from bringing their hands along with the rest of their anatomy! In other words, why would anyone ever use “flesh and blood” to stand for “mortality” in the first place unless he had in mind the obvious connection that flesh is always corruptible? We die because we are flesh, and flesh wears out, gets sick and dies, as Prince Siddhartha learned the hard way! “All flesh is grass,” says Isaiah 40:6. Craig seems to think that since a metonym means more than the literal referent, it can as easily mean the very opposite of the literal referent. Or that the literal referent can be exempt from the very implication being drawn from it and for the sake of which it was invoked! It is simply absurd for Craig to suggest that one might say “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God” meanwhile supposing that someone who had in fact inherited that kingdom did so while wearing a body of flesh!

Such great emphasis does he place on this harmonization that in an evangelical-sponsored conference called “Christianity Challenges the University” (Dallas, 1985), while all other presenters, myself included, were told, once we arrived, to cut our prepared papers in half, to fifteen minutes, Craig was given the keynote slot to expound at length on this apologetical “breakthrough.” But, alas, the contradiction stands, despite Craig’s efforts.

Admittedly, the notion of a “spiritual body” is a tough nut to crack. I judge it a member of the same species of theological equivocation that includes the trinity and the hypostatic union of natures. It is an oxymoron, oil and water held together by fiat, a pair of cheeks so that the enterprising theologian may turn the other whenever the one is smitten. It is Paul’s all-purpose answer both to the Gnostics who scoff at a fleshly resurrection and to the literalists who dislike equally the prospect of disembodied “nakedness” (2 Corinthians 5:4) and that of entering into life maimed (Mark 9:43). But that is ever the way with apologetics. It is the art and science of covering one’s butt, or one’s doctrine’s butt. For one does not want to be found naked (2 Corinthians 5:4).

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

We have reached the point where Craig asks us unconvinced unbelievers to blame him, not the unassailable truth of his position. One certainly cannot call Craig a poor workman who blames his tools. No, he says the tools are fine; it must be the workman that is to blame. But this, too, is a dodge. The problem is with the tools. Craig cannot do the job because they cannot do the job. The job, in fact, cannot be done. How can we, and how does he, “know” Christianity is true if he cannot “show” it is true? For Craig to ask us to accept such a faith would be like a vacuum salesman demonstrating his product in your living room; when the machine fails to suck up any dust, he asks you not to think ill of the vacuum; it’s just that he, the salesman, can’t get straight how to operate it properly. But he tells you that you ought to buy it anyway! You would be a fool to buy it, and the salesman would have shown that, whatever reason he has for selling the useless vacuum, it cannot be because he has any reason to think it a superior product. Maybe somebody’s just paying him to sell it. Or maybe his dad sold the same vacuums, and he’s inherited the brand loyalty.


[1] William Lane Craig, “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?”, Jesus Under Fire (edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 141- 176.

Corey Washington made essentially the same point during his oral debate on the existence of God with Craig. In response, Craig wrote the following annotation for the transcript of the debate:

In light of Dr. Washington’s comments in his opening speech about my quoting “people who have a lot of sophisticated abbreviations after their names,” perhaps a word should be said here at the beginning about the nature of evidence. In addition to logical argument, “the sort of evidence that you might think under certain circumstances could be admitted into a court of law,” in Dr. Washington’s words, includes testimonial evidence. Although, as Dr. Washington rightly says, “we should never believe in a position because somebody famous holds it,” nevertheless, as Wesley Salmon points out,

“there are correct uses of authority and well as incorrect ones. It would be a sophomoric mistake to suppose that every appeal to authority is illegitimate, for the proper use of authority plays in indispensable role in the accumulation and application of knowledge” (Wesley C. Salmon, Logic, Foundations of Philosophy Series [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963], p. 63).

Salmon goes on to explain that in order to count as evidence, the testimony must be from an honest and reliable authority on a matter in the person’s field of expertise. “The appeal to a reliable authority is legitimate, for the testimony of a reliable authority is evidence for the conclusion” (Ibid., p. 64). Thus, while a Hollywood starlet’s endorsement of a commercial product does not count as evidence, still the expert testimony of a DNA specialist concerning blood found at the scene of a crime does. When I quote recognized authorities like Hilbert, Page, Jeremias, and others concerning matters in their respective fields of expertise, this does count as expert testimony and, hence, evidence for the fact in question.

It is telling that Craig wants to justify his use of the appeal to consensus. And in doing so, he appeals to a false analogy. In a court of Law, or in the certtification of doctors, lawyers, etc., we may have to go with the verdict of the majority since we have not the leisure to master the subject ourselves. This, in turn, is because we do not have all the time in the world before we must return a verdict, choose a surgeon, etc. We have to make a choice, and the voice of the consensus tips the balance. But it only seems to us that we must take the word of the mass in biblical discussions if we think that here, too, the decision is a matter of practical, even life-or-death choice, and this is not the case in an intellectual consideration of complex issues. But this again reflects Craig’s not-so-hidden agenda: he is winning souls, not arguing ideas. “You might get killed on the way home from the stadium tonight, and then you’d enter a Christless eternity! So be convinced of the historical resurrection here and now–get it settled tonight, won’t you? If you came with a bus, they’ll wait on you.”

Besides, what is the poor layperson to do when authorities differ? Then one must either flip a coin (intellectually dishonest), take the easiest route of going along with one’s predilections (also dishonest) or trying to inform oneself to the degree that one can evaluate the authorities, and by then the appeal to consensus is out the window anyway. Craig is ostensibly trying to get the reader to consider the issues for himself, which is why he explains what he perceives to be the cogency of this or that argument. But it sticks out like a sore thumb when he falls back to the consensus ploy. And this he does at a crucial point: on the issue of who bears the burden of proof on highly controversial issues like whether someone came back from the dead. When he does this in his more summary apologetical presentations, appeal to consensus even harks back to medieval Catholic “implicit faith” which Calvin rightly ridiculed: you need not trouble your heads over this complicated theology. Just leave it to us experts.

Finally, let me point out once again that most New Testament scholars are Christian believers, whether of a conservative or liberal stripe. I don’t mean they have to pretend to believe in the resurrection, etc., because they know where their bread is buttered. No, I mean that they are functioning within a plausibility structure where the validity of the Christian faith is taken for granted, and the open questions are open only so wide. Even Bultmann and his disciples (all of whom are more conservative than he was) were self-consciously working as Protestant churchmen. (See “Dr. Craig’s Opening Arguments,” The Craig-Washington Debate [1995] at http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/washdeba-craig1.html)

[2] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994).

[3] Craig 1994, p. 48.

[4] Craig 1994, pp. 49-50.

[5] Craig, “The Empty Tomb,” Gospel Perspectives II: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels (ed. R.T. France and David Wenham, Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), p. 188.

[6] F. H. Bradley, The Presuppositions of Critical History (ed. Lionel Rubinoff, Ontario: Dons Mills, 1968).

[7] William Lane Craig, “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ” Truth Journal 1995 (http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth22.html”).

[8] Craig 1980a p. 190.

[9] Charles Talbert, What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

[10] Craig 1980a, p. 191.

[11] Craig 1980a, p. 187.

[12] William Lane Craig, “The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, ” Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels, (ed. R.T. France and David Wenham, Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 47-74.

[13] Craig 1980b, p. 59.

“By This Time He Stinketh” is copyright © 1997 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright ©1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.

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