An Inquiry into Davis’ Account of the Possibility of Rational Belief and Rational Scepticism in the Resurrection of Jesus
Introduction: Disagreement and the Resurrection of Jesus
In his 1984 article “Is it Possible to Know that Jesus Rose From the Dead?” Professor Stephen T. Davis referred to a paradox facing any philosopher writing about the possibility of knowing the resurrection occurred:
On the one hand, some believers in the resurrection hold that the evidence in its favor is overwhelming…On the other hand, many non-believers in the resurrection hold that the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is perfectly absurd (1984, pp.147-148; see also 1993, p.2).
Davis accounts for this phenomenon by stating that belief or scepticism about the resurrection is not due to a neutral assessment of evidence; rather, people become convicted believers or sceptics via the presuppositions of their metaphysical world view, viz. one of metaphysical naturalism or metaphysical supernaturalism.(1) From the view of the naturalist, the resurrection does seem like a perfectly absurd “prescientific myth”; from the supernaturalist’s perspective, it is by far the best explanation of the evidence (1993, p.20).
If this phenomenon is indeed a paradox, the obvious abundance of human disagreement per se suggests it is a very mundane one. Davis, however, goes on to suggest a more interesting, related phenomenon: namely, that people not only disagree over the resurrection, but can do so with epistemic approval; it is possible for both belief and disbelief in the resurrection to be held rationally, and a mistake to argue that it is either never rational to believe that the resurrection occurred or always rational to think that it did.
In more detail, Davis claims that if someone rationally accepts either supernaturalism or naturalism — and he is sure that each can be so held — then that person may present a most persuasive case appropriate to his world view which not only defends his resurrection-opinion as rational, but can do so against the opposing side’s most persuasive case. The following study will examine Davis’ basic claim — i.e. that both the supernaturalist’s belief and the naturalist’s doubt in the resurrection can be rational given an awareness of the best cases for both sides — which shall hereafter be referred to as DT (i.e. Davis’ thesis).(2)
While this study will use Davis’ defence of mutually rational contrary resurrection-opinions as a starting point, it will go quite a bit further than this to address the possibility of both rational belief and rational doubt concerning the resurrection of Jesus. While Davis presents brief outlines of the most persuasive arguments available to both believers and sceptics (see 1993, pp.15-17), this study will not be restricted to these cases.(3) Foremost, while the most persuasive naturalistic case Davis describes might be typical of naturalistic objections against the resurrection, it is a rather toothless opponent of resurrection-belief; to remedy this shortcoming, I will substitute the controversial position of Christological Mythicism — as presented by Professors Michael Martin and G.A. Wells, hereafter referred to simply as Mythicism — as the naturalist’s best case. Although Mythicism currently may not be taken very seriously, nevertheless it presents a superior argument to that most persuasive naturalistic case presented by Davis; ultimately, I shall argue that it deserves recognition as a serious objection to Christian apologetics.
Unfortunately, Davis has not (to this date) confronted Mythicism directly. On the other hand, Professor Gary Habermas has criticized Mythicism, having specifically argued against both Martin and Wells; he has also developed an extensive apologetic for the resurrection which bears strong resemblance to Davis’ most persuasive case for the resurrection. Therefore, rather than using Davis to defend the resurrection against the Mythicist, I shall primarily focus upon particular segments of Habermas’ “core facts” argument (hereafter referred to as Core Facts).
In sum, this study will set up and evaluate the conflict between Core Facts and Mythicism; subsequently, the metaphysical frameworks of naturalism and supernaturalism will be considered as background to the results of this conflict. These are the terms on which DT will be tested.
I. Davis’ Thesis in More Detail
DT should not be taken to imply that Davis thinks rational resurrection-opinion must necessarily involve awareness of the most persuasive cases for both sides in this debate; but Davis’ thesis is a corollary of his view that rational argument cannot currently show either believers or unbelievers to be outside of their intellectual rights in having the resurrection-opinions that they do (1993, p.1). Even so, while Davis thinks naturalism and supernaturalism produce epistemically unqualified resurrection-opinion in relatively the same way, he argues that they each yield rational resurrection-opinion differently. Although this study is not primarily concerned with Davis’ presentation of the best cases concerning the resurrection, a better understanding of what he takes for the evidential landscape is important for seeing why he supports DT; his analyses of supernaturalism and naturalism will also need to be described. Accordingly, I will quickly outline Davis’ analyses of both metaphysical world views and their respective most persuasive evidential cases, explaining how he thinks each can produce rational resurrection-opinion even in the face of the best points the opposing view can raise.
I.1. Rational Supernaturalistic Resurrection-Opinion
Davis assumes supernaturalists can rationally hold the following beliefs: S1) apart from nature, there exists something else, viz. God; S2) the existence of nature is dependent upon God; S3) God can and does occasionally interrupt nature’s regularity with miracles; S4) these miracles are quite unpredictable and inexplicable from a human point of view (1993, p.18). Davis’ resurrection apologetic assumes these premises can be held rationally; for the duration I will not dispute this assumption.
Of course, if supernaturalism merely suggests a world view involving supernatural entities, then obviously Davis’ version of it is more particularly theistic than that. Davis claims that people typically believe Jesus rose from the dead because this belief “dovetails” with these supernaturalistic assumptions, but given only S1-S4 this is not clearly true: precise philosophical analysis aside, the abundance of theistic supernaturalists who do not share the Christian’s belief in the resurrection — namely, the vast majority of Jews and Muslims — strongly suggests it is unlikely that resurrection-belief is entailed by these premises; these non-Christian supernaturalists also seem to count against much significance being derived from the mere coherence of resurrection-belief with theism.
However, in a note Davis mentions that Christians will accept a further axiom crucial to yielding resurrection-belief: S5) the Christian Bible is in some sense reliable and revelatory (p.18, n.20). Although Davis repeatedly relegates S5 to his notes (see also 1984, p.154), it is clearly as important for producing belief in the resurrection as any of S1-S4; for only this final item gives supernaturalism a distinctively Christian character. As mentioned, theists who accept S1-S4 but are not Christians (i.e. do not accept S5) rarely believe in the resurrection.(4) Therefore, S5 deserves promotion from being a mere aside to the rank of an equal partner with the other tenets of supernaturalism; from this point on, unless otherwise indicated the term “supernaturalist” should be taken to refer to those who rationally accept S1 through S5.
With the addition of S5 to supernaturalism it is much more plausible that the Christian’s resurrection-belief is “dovetailed” by his metaphysics. Still, Davis does not think even S1-S5 are sufficient to produce rational belief in the resurrection. In fact, he charges that nearly two thousand Easters have dulled many Christians’ senses as to just how incredible, extraordinary and shockingly absurd a phenomenon like the resurrection really is. Davis readily admits that all rational persons have overwhelming reason to think that dead people remain dead (p.168), emphasizing that our best information suggests that a resurrection is causally impossible — not simply unique and improbable but “an intellectual scandal” (p.10).
Although Davis and Christians in general nonetheless accept this intellectual scandal, he denies that supernaturalists are unduly credulous persons; they are not, for example, willing to believe any extraordinary claim at the drop of a hat. Pace Hume, Davis suggests that rational people — supernaturalists as well as naturalists — will abide by the following principles of rational thought: 1) expectations of what will happen should be based upon the best available knowledge of what has happened; 2) the less likely of two mutually exclusive alternatives should be rejected; and 3) strong evidence should be had before believing that a miracle has occurred (pp.4-5). Rather than emphatically insisting that naturalists are unduly prejudiced toward miracles such as Jesus’ resurrection — a common charge from resurrection-apologists — Davis admits the supernaturalist will share these rational principles with the naturalist, principles which reflect a strong bias against accepting extraordinary claims of miraculous proportions.
Still, Davis thinks there must be a point at which this bias can be overwhelmed by evidential reasoning and argument. He claims that the specific amount of evidence required to bring about a rational change of mind over an event — E — will depend “…upon the strength of our bias against events like E, the weight of evidence in favor of E, and the possibility and plausible of alternative explanations” (pp.5-6). Specifically concerning the requirements for defending supernaturalistic belief in the resurrection, he writes:
Clearly, anyone who wants to argue in favor of belief in the resurrection of Jesus — as I am doing — must make a powerful case. It must be strong enough to overcome the bias that all rational people share against highly unusual and miraculous events, their commitment to give naturalistic explanations of phenomena whenever possible…I am interested in trying to make a powerful enough case for the resurrection of Jesus as to prove — to any sensible person — that belief in it is rational from a supernaturalist perspective (pp.168-169).(5)
Accordingly, Davis thinks evidence is equally as necessary for rational resurrection-belief as the Christian’s metaphysical presuppositions (i.e. S1-S5). Concerning the nature of the evidence required, Davis is clear about specifically historical evidence; he agrees with Van Harvey that
…it will not do to argue for certain historical events “on faith.” The only rational way to show that a given event occurred is by historical evidence; only historical research — not faith — can establish historical events as certain or even probable ( p.31).He further insists that any important event that did actually occur and could appear in histories of the time should appear in histories of the time (p.26); appropriately, one of the aims of Davis’ 1993 text is to defend resurrection-belief as rational on historical grounds (p.x).(6)
Therefore, one should expect to find some good historical reasons in Davis’ most persuasive case for resurrection-belief, the steps of which are as follows: B1) the New Testament writers are thematically unified around the reality of the resurrection, despite some relatively minor discrepancies in their written accounts; B2) various facts have been “virtually demonstrated” concerning the resurrection, undoubted by any competent biblical, theological or historical scholar (namely, Jesus’ crucifixion; followers of Jesus becoming convinced Jesus had been raised from the dead and subsequently making this conviction central to their proclaimed message; this conviction arising from a state of fear, confusion and dismay); and lastly, B3) the inability of unbelievers to offer an acceptable alternate explanation of these virtually demonstrated facts (pp. 15-16, see also 1984, pp.152-153).
Davis often insists in particular that B3 is crucial for tipping the supernaturalist’s scales of probability in favour of resurrection-belief. Consider the following three passages taken from Davis 1993, noting in particular the emphasised text:
…if a certain event is scientifically inexplicable, seems to some people to have moral and religious significance, and coheres with the views of God and God’s aims that are held by those people, it may very well be rational for them to believe that the event was brought about by God. Indeed, it may be the best explanation, given their background beliefs (p.8 (italics mine)).
…an event should probably be considered a miracle only if no purported explanation of it that crucially omits God is a good explanation (p.10 (italics mine)).
…the evidence in favor of the claim that Jesus was genuinely dead and later genuinely alive is sufficient to render the resurrection belief of Christians rational. This is especially true since those who deny that there was a genuine resurrection seem quite unable to explain what did happen. Further, they seem equally unable to explain why an obscure itinerant rabbi who died a criminal’s death became so quickly (in the eyes of many) the Christ, the savior of the world, the Son of God (p.185 (italics mine)).
According to Davis’ schema, the permissive rationality Christians enjoy regarding the resurrection is heavily dependent upon the assumption that non-believers cannot provide an acceptable alternate explanation of the relevant events. Combined with B1 and B2, Davis argues that this entire case, when viewed against S1-S5, can permit the Christian supernaturalist to rationally believe the resurrection occurred even in the face of the naturalist’s best reasons for doubt.
I.1.a. Faith Versus Reason
Before describing the naturalist’s position à la Davis, an objection to his contention that arguments and reasoning are appropriate for defending or attacking religious faith needs to be considered briefly. Contrary to Davis, it has often been maintained by religious thinkers — academic and otherwise — that issues of evidence and reasoning are inappropriate for genuine religious faith; the true believer, it has been claimed, must maintain his belief to the strongest degree and the sort of evidential hypothesising so characteristic of scientific research is incompatible with sincere religious thought.
While Davis has no intention of trying to justify Christianity so he may then believe it, he insists rational defence of Christian beliefs is necessary given the prevailing sensibility of doubting miraculous claims. Rather than evidential reasoning being inimical to genuine religious faith, Davis thinks it is unfounded beliefs, unjustified commitments, unsound arguments and irrational “leaps of faith” that are so opposed (p.187). For Davis, Christian apologetics properly aim to prevent faith from degenerating into a product dependent upon any of these things.(7)
In fact, the conduct of the apostle commonly dubbed “Doubting Thomas” in Jn.20:19-29 is Davis’ paradigm case of the proper attitude of the supernaturalist toward a miracle claim.(8) While Thomas’ behaviour and attitude is often condemned as inappropriate scepticism and lack of faith — after all, Jesus is made to say in v.29 “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” — Davis disagrees:
Perhaps [Thomas] was more like a hero of faith. He believed when (and not before) there was sufficient evidence to convince him. And that is what I think everyone should do, though of course different people in different situations will require different degrees and amounts of evidence. Requirements less stringent than that make faith into gullibility or credulity (p.175).(9)
Citing “the church”‘s acceptance of the Lukan position that resurrection-appearances ceased with Jesus’ ascension, Davis claims the sort of evidence presented to Thomas is no longer available; instead, apologists for the resurrection must appeal to historical arguments such as those suggested by B1 and B2 if they wish their belief to have rational approval.(10) While he undoubtedly feels there is merit in Christian faith in the resurrection, Davis does not think this can serve as a substitute for evidentially-supported rational resurrection-belief.
I.2. Rational Naturalistic Resurrection-Opinion
Davis claims naturalists typically believe the following four metaphysical propositions: N1) nature alone exists, with no room for a theistic deity such as the Christian god; N2) nature is eternal and uncreated; N3) nature is uniform, possessing no nonnatural events that disrupt nature’s regular continuity; N4) every event is, at least in principle, explicable in terms of nature or natural processes (i.e. by explanatory methods akin to those of the natural sciences) (1993, pp.17-18). Following Davis, I will grant without argument that the naturalist can hold N1-N4 rationally.
Like the supernaturalist, the naturalist will form his resurrection-opinion on the basis of his metaphysical assumptions. However, while S1-S5 “dovetails” resurrection-belief, N1-N4 actually entails that Jesus did not rise from the dead; for the theistic, miraculous context of Jesus’ rising from the dead is formally contradictory with the non-miraculous, atheistic universe implied by N1-N4. As Davis accepts that the naturalist’s metaphysics can be held rationally, he allows that resurrection-doubt — unlike the Christian’s resurrection-belief — can be rational solely by the assumptions of naturalism.(11)
Davis recognizes that if unqualified naturalism is sufficient to permit rational resurrection-doubt, then naturalism itself would have to be philosophically defeated in order for the naturalist’s resurrection-doubt to be overpowered; to effect such a philosophical victory, he suggests the apologist would require a logically valid argument based upon premises which the naturalist could not rationally reject (see p.169). Davis denies that anyone has presented such an airtight case for the resurrection, despite the fact that he believes the naturalist wrong and the Christian correct on this (and other) matter(s); while B1-B3 are sufficient to convince the supernaturalist, this evidence is far too inadequate a proof to meet Davis’ apodictic standards for overwhelming the rational naturalist’s resurrection-doubt.(12)
While he goes on to present the most persuasive naturalistic case against the resurrection, an argument distinct from N1-N4, such is clearly not necessary for the rational naturalist defending his resurrection-doubt. The Christian’s most persuasive case functions as a necessary defence of his resurrection-opinion, but the naturalist’s most persuasive case is redundant on such terms. Rather, the naturalist’s most persuasive case — according to Davis — appears merely to show how the naturalist might specifically respond to the Christian’s most persuasive case.
To see this, consider the steps of the naturalist’s most persuasive case in tandem with the steps of the supernaturalist’s best case. Recall that B1 emphasised the unity of the New Testament writers concerning the resurrection; B2 involved several “undisputed facts” surrounding the resurrection. The first step of the naturalist’s most persuasive case — D1 — responds that the biblical testimony supporting the resurrection is unreliable, written years after the time of the alleged event by unsophisticated, myth-prone people who were concerned with proclaiming statements of faith and furthering Christian ends rather than recording accurate history. According to D2, the evidence for the resurrection is frequently contradictory on the details of the resurrection and the events that followed.
Notably, Davis does not appear to disagree with D1: he confesses that while the New Testament writers were deeply interested in convincing people that Jesus really had risen from the dead (i.e. B1), their main interest lay in proclaiming the resurrection faith; their writings ought not primarily to be classified as examples of scientific history or philosophical theology (p.ix). Nor does he seem to question D2; for consider that when presenting it he asks rhetorically,
How many women visited the tomb? Had the sun risen, or was it still dark? Was there one angel (or young man) or two? Were they inside the tomb or outside? Did the women keep silent or run to tell the disciples? Were the disciples told to stay in Jerusalem or to go to Galilee? Was the resurrected Jesus in physical or spiritual form? Did the ascension occur immediately after the resurrection, or forty days later? (pp.16-17)
Rather than responding to these items, Davis ignores them, instead maintaining that even in the face of D2 a core of undisputed facts can be distilled from the New Testament and other writings (i.e. B2).
Finally, D3 actually incorporates B3, qualifying the naturalist’s inability to explain the resurrection-events with probabilistic considerations. D3 asserts that even without a plausible alternate explanation of the known facts (i.e. B2), no matter how probable the resurrection becomes on the basis of these facts — Davis uses 99% as a hypothetical probability to make his point — the probability that men dead for three days stay that way (ie. that there was no resurrection) will be a higher probability, therefore scepticism of the resurrection will be reasonable (pp.16-17; see also 1984, pp.153-154). Shortly after, when stating that everyone interprets experience through philosophical assumptions, Davis charges that naturalists presumably reject the resurrection not because the evidence is weak when seen neutrally, but because naturalism dictates that the evidence must be weak (pp.18-19).
While this seems somewhat unreasonable of the naturalist, elsewhere, Davis depicts D3 more softly, suggesting the naturalist’s scepticism is due more to the quality of the currently available evidence than to any possible evidence whatsoever: in a note he interprets the rational naturalist not as saying “No matter how strong the evidence for the resurrection might be, it will always be outweighed by the principle that ‘the dead stay dead'” but rather “Given the actual strength of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus — even if one looks at it as sympathetically as possible — that evidence is outweighed by the principle that ‘the dead stay dead'” (p.21, n.23). Rather than necessarily rejecting all evidence a priori — e.g. the naturalist who will not be moved by any amount of evidence, as suggested in pp.16-17, 18-19 — Davis says it is entirely possible for the naturalist to examine the actual evidence carefully and objectively and still decide no miracle occurred (p.171).
Seen this way, D1-D3 have some purpose, even if irrelevant to defending rational resurrection-doubt.(13) Primarily, these argumentative points can be used to actively rebut the claim that B1-B3 compel rational resurrection-belief by pointing out weaknesses in the Christian’s overall argument. Given that D1-D3 both: 1) show how a naturalist confronted with the supernaturalist’s best case might respond to each of B1-B3; but 2) are redundant so far as epistemic normativity is concerned; I conclude that D1-D3 serve a primarily descriptive purpose.
I.3. Some Concluding Remarks
DT maintains that contrary rational opinions on the resurrection can be had even given a familiarity with the most persuasive cases both believers and non-believers have to offer. Concerning the naturalist, Davis thinks his rational-doubt can follow simply from his metaphysics; for the supernaturalist, a combination of metaphysical assumptions and evidence is required to overcome both his own biases against the miraculous and the naturalist’s most persuasive objections. Given the extreme intellectual absurdity of belief in miracles, Davis admits that the burden of proof is in some sense on the Christian defending the resurrection (p.185).(14)
Still, the same evidence confronts both naturalist and supernaturalist — notably Davis accepts B1-B3 as well as D1-D3 — and must ultimately be filtered through philosophical perspective. Davis admits that he ultimately advocates basing a decision about this historical issue — to a large extent — on metaphysical grounds (p.186). He thinks naturalistic philosophers have failed to prove that miracles cannot occur and supernaturalistic philosophers have yet to demonstrate the resurrection on naturalistic grounds; accordingly, he judges both world views to be legitimate starting points for historical inquiry and insists that against the appropriate set of background presuppositions, the combined effect of B1-B3 and D1-D3 allows for either rational belief or rational doubt in the resurrection.
While these observations suggest how and why Davis thinks DT can be true, Davis’ best cases are not the focus of this study. Rather than using Davis’ contrary cases which appear almost “tailor-made” to support DT, I hope to invoke something more along the lines of the latest in theological warfare. Accordingly, the following two chapters will introduce cases independent of Davis’ apologetic: namely, Habermas’ Core Facts apologetic and the Mythicist’s argument against the very historicity of Jesus.
II. Supernaturalism’s Best Case: Core Facts
This section will outline the argument that will represent the supernaturalist’s best case for the resurrection: Habermas’ Core Facts. I think some initial justificatory comments are required to defend using Habermas in this manner, specifically focussing on how Habermas and Davis differ to determine whether any differences between them create problems for using Habermas as Davis’ apologetic surrogate. I contend that while there are differences between them, these differences do not create intractable problems. After defending this conclusion, I will briefly discuss the nature of the argument to be used in defence of the resurrection before finally surveying the confidence these two theologians have in this apologetic.
II.1. Differences Between Davis and Habermas:
Foremost, Habermas denies the possibility of something DT requires, namely the possibility of rational belief and scepticism regarding the resurrection; specifically, Habermas maintains that an honest assessment of the facts makes belief in the resurrection the only rational option. Davis has discussed this difference between himself and Habermas, dubbing it one of “soft” vs. “hard” apologetics: As a soft apologist Davis argues — as discussed — that belief in the resurrection can be rational, but that disbelief can also be rational;(15) Habermas, as a hard apologist, denies this.(16)
While Habermas does not use these terms to describe himself, he clearly considers his apologetic approach to be hard rather than soft. Consider that in a response to Davis 1984, Habermas specifically took issue with three of Davis’ major claims: 1) both positions — belief and scepticism — concerning the resurrection can be rational; 2) the historical resurrection can be neither proved nor disproved; and 3) therefore the resurrection cannot be known to have occurred (1985, p.295). The contradictories of these three claims — i.e. both positions on the resurrection cannot be rational; the historical resurrection can be either proved or disproved; the resurrection can be known to have occurred — combined with Habermas’ resurrection-belief strongly suggest a hard apologetic stance.
Accordingly, if there is any danger in using Habermas as DT‘s supernaturalistic champion, it is not that his apologetic may be too weak, rather the opposite; if Habermas’ pro-resurrection argument is as effective as he thinks, this would rebut Davis’ claim that denying the resurrection can be rational, thereby refuting DT. While this is a possibility, I do not think it a serious one. For reasons that will become clear below, I agree with Davis when he describes Habermas’ hard apologetic conclusions as “apologetic bravado”.
A more serious difference between Habermas and Davis concerns the details of the Christian’s best case for the resurrection. While Davis feels B1 is important, Habermas dismisses it, writing
While it may certainly be helpful, the Christian theist does not necessarily need the initial point in Davis’ apologetic, namely the unity of the New Testament Witness. The major point here is that since a case for Jesus’ resurrection is being based solely on facts held in common between believers and skeptics alike…claimed discrepancies or other doubts concerning the gospel texts are rather irrelevant for our purposes. In other words, since our case is based on facts held by virtually all scholars, questions concerning other areas are not crucial at this point (1985, p.296).
Despite Habermas’ reasoning, Davis has remained unconvinced that B1 is superfluous. When responding to Habermas, he maintained that naturalists could effectively use the biblical discrepancies when arguing for resurrection-doubt, ie. D2 (1985, p.303); therefore, fending off scepticism requires challenging this point by emphasizing the unity of the New Testament witnesses.(17)
The main differences between them, then, are rooted in the difference between hard and soft apologetics. Despite this divergence, Habermas’ pro-resurrection apologetic is a fleshed-out version of B2 and B3 (namely that various facts about the resurrection have been “virtually demonstrated” and that sceptics have been unable to plausibly explain these facts away). Habermas omits B1 because, as discussed, he does not think it necessary for his hard apologetic. As Habermas’ argument is being used to stand in for Davis’ soft apologetic, I will not dismiss this aspect of the Christian’s best case for the resurrection. Allowing for this modification, there is no compelling reason Habermas’ apologetics cannot represent Davis’ supernaturalistic best case.
II.2. The Best Case for Supernaturalism: Core Facts:
The entire pro-resurrection case that Habermas has developed over the years is enormous: Habermas’ larger apologetic utilises twelve facts accepted as knowable history by “almost all scholars” (1996, p.161). In Core Facts, Habermas selects merely four of these twelve — “unanimously accepted as historical by virtually all scholars who study this subject, in spite of differences in other areas of their thought” (1984a, p.38) — and asserts that their best explanation is Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. Habermas maintains that Core Facts provides a relatively brief argument that can sufficiently demonstrate the resurrection’s historicity.
As its name implies, Core Facts consists of a number of facts: CF1) Jesus died by crucifixion on the order of Pontius Pilate in first century Palestine;(18) CF2) experiences following the crucifixion convinced Jesus’ disciples that the risen, postmortem Jesus had appeared to them; CF3) these experiences radically changed the character of the disciples; CF4) St. Paul had an experience that he took to be an appearance of the risen, postmortem Jesus (1996, pp.161-167). In accord with B3, Habermas refers to alternate explanations of CF1-CF4 as “naturalistic hypotheses” — although, technically speaking, alternate explanations need not be naturalistic, merely non-resurrection — and insists that none of these can adequately account for these facts. For example, regarding the legend (or myth) hypothesis — i.e. the thesis that the resurrection was not historically real but rather a result of various legends and myths that eventually yielded belief in a historical resurrection(19) — Habermas relies on the eyewitness testimony contained in CF2 and CF4 to disprove this possibility; he provides similar refutations of other traditional naturalistic hypotheses (e.g. the swoon hypothesis, the stolen body hypothesis, the hallucination hypothesis, etc.) on the basis of these facts (e.g. see 1996, pp.164-5).
II.3. Confidence in Core Facts:
Habermas recognizes that Core Facts is not as capable as his larger 12-fact apologetic; nevertheless, he is confident that it is sufficient to its task, emphatically insisting over the years that this be so. As early as 1980 Habermas wrote:
It is this author’s belief that even if we were to use only…these [four] facts, we would still have a sufficient case by which we could demonstrate that this event [ie. the resurrection of Jesus] is probable…These four facts are capable, on a smaller scale, both of disproving the naturalistic theories and of providing key positive evidences for the resurrection (1984a, pp.38-39).
By the time of his famous 1985 debate with Antony Flew, Habermas’ attitude regarding Core Facts had not changed: in the written account of the debate — Habermas 1987 — Habermas wrote, “It is this writer’s conviction that by utilizing only four…accepted facts, a brief but sufficient case can be made for the historicity of the Resurrection” (p.25). Regarding his naturalistic competitors, Habermas went on to say,
…using these four core historical facts, the naturalistic theories can be disproven. (Of course, nothing near an exhaustive set of critiques can be supplied by these facts alone, yet some of the best criticisms do come from this list.)…That it was the disciples and other early witnesses who had these experience likewise rules out legend or mythological theories, because the original teaching concerning the Resurrection is therefore based on the testimony of real eyewitnesses…and not later legends…it has been concluded that the Resurrection can be historically demonstrated even when the minimum number of historical facts are utilized (pp.25-26).
More recently, in 1992 Habermas coauthored a book with J.P. Moreland in which he expanded Core Facts from four to five facts and wrote with his usual bravado,
We will…see how well-established the resurrection is even when the historical evidence presented is only bare bones [viz. CF1-CF4 plus “the resurrection as the very center of early apostolic preaching”]…Therefore, we contend that even this neatly reduced number of demonstrable facts can provide a powerful (though brief) defense of Jesus’ resurrection. These five historical facts are decisive enough to disprove each of the naturalistic theories, and they provide some of the strongest evidences for the actual appearances of the risen Jesus (pp.69-71).
Four years later, Core Facts is back down to four facts; in Habermas 1996 he writes “It is this writer’s conviction that even by utilizing only four of these accepted facts, a sufficient case can be made for the historicity of the resurrection” (p.161). Further on, he writes:
One major advantage of these core facts is that, not only are they critically accepted as knowable history, but they directly concern the nature of the disciples’ experiences. As such, these four historical facts are able, on a lesser scale, to both disprove the naturalistic theories and to provide major positive evidences which relate the probability of Jesus’ literal resurrection (p.164).
Now, it is true that Habermas frequently hedges this confidence by reminding those who may be dissatisfied with his abridged case that they can always turn to the larger apologetic. For example, when commenting on the debate between Habermas and Flew, the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg expressed doubts about the wisdom of a restricted approach like Core Facts (Habermas 1987, p.130); in his response to Pannenberg, Habermas maintained that “…these four [facts] can present a brief but valid argument for the Resurrection”, but also suggested “…that if it is thought that these four are too brief, one only needs to utilize the twelve facts [ie. the full, unabridged apologetic]” (1987, p.155).
Despite this sidestepping, Habermas clearly thinks that his abridged apologetic is up to the task(s) of: demonstrating that the resurrection is probable (1984a); making a brief but sufficient historical demonstration for the resurrection while disproving the naturalistic hypotheses (1987); providing a powerful but brief defence of the resurrection while disproving the naturalistic hypotheses (1992); and supplying a sufficient case for the resurrection (1996). When Pannenberg doubted the strength of Core Facts, Habermas directed him to the larger argument but did nothing to defend himself against Pannenberg’s objections, apparently ignoring them altogether; notably, his post-Pannenberg descriptions of the argument — 1992 and 1996 — are essentially the same as his pre-Pannenberg descriptions. Despite the use of slightly different wording over the years, Habermas’ attitude towards the efficacy of Core Facts appears unchanged.
Of course, Davis’ opinion on the capability of Core Facts also needs examination; for I could not properly use Core Facts as an instantiation of the supernaturalist’s best case if Davis thought poorly of the argument. While there is some disagreement between them over Core Facts, as mentioned Davis’ main problems with Habermas are primarily over the quality of apologetics currently available to theologians and Christians in general, namely whether hard or merely soft apologetics are possible. In his 1985 reply to Habermas, Davis described this difference between their views as …important but not fundamental. He and I both believe that Jesus was genuinely raised from the dead, and both argue that belief in the resurrection is rational. The main difference is that Habermas thinks he can refute naturalism and that accordingly “the resurrection of Jesus is an event which can be known to be an historical fact,” while I have serious doubts about both (p.303).(20)
Further on, Davis agreed with Habermas that
…there are certain facts about the death of Jesus and afterwards that virtually all competent scholars accept; I agree that the nineteenth century rationalistic explanations of the resurrection all collapse of their own weight; and I agree that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the accepted facts (p.305).
Four years later, in a review of Habermas 1987, Davis wrote that he was “delighted to find that the overall case Habermas makes for the resurrection is impressive” (1989, p.229), with two minor points of exception: the first of these is unimportant here, but the second is an objection that Core Facts requires the empty tomb to establish a bodily resurrection (p.230).(21)
From the point of view of establishing Jesus’ resurrection against the Mythicist, however, the difference between a bodily and a spiritual resurrection is trivial: the Mythicist’s counter explanation of the resurrection requires there be no historical Jesus to have been resurrected, bodily or otherwise. Nor does Davis make the empty tomb part of the Christian’s most persuasive case by including it in the facts of B2, and so this disagreement between Davis and Habermas is not an important one to the matter at hand. In conclusion, although their respective apologetics are not identical, the similarities between Habermas and Davis are striking; the main difference between them is expressed in the distinction between soft and hard apologetics, and if B1 is not ignored Core Facts serves as more than a fair representative of DT‘s most persuasive argument for the resurrection.
III. Naturalism’s Best Case: Christological Mythicism
Recall that Davis characterized the naturalist’s most persuasive argumentative case as composed of the following claims: D1) the biblical testimony supporting the resurrection is unreliable, written years after the alleged event by unsophisticated, myth-prone people who were concerned with proclaiming statements of faith and furthering Christian ends rather than recording accurate history; D2) the evidence for the resurrection is frequently contradictory on the details of the resurrection and the events that followed; D3) finally, even without a plausible alternate explanation of the known facts, given the available evidence the probability that dead men stay dead surpasses the probability that the resurrection actually happened.
Notably, in both B3 and D3 Davis assumes the naturalist has no viable counter explanation to the evidence supporting the resurrection; he writes as if the naturalist arguing against the resurrection must rely upon the sheer improbability of the event to make the rational (naturalistic) conclusion “Impossible.” Concerning alternate theories of the nineteenth century rationalists, Davis thinks these all collapse of their own weight. Notably, Davis’ best case for the naturalist mentions such alternate hypotheses solely to say that the naturalist’s best objection — the sheer improbability of the resurrection — can succeed even if the naturalist has no alternate explanation of the evidence. While Davis does admit to the theoretical possibility of such a counter explanation being developed, he clearly does not think that anyone has done so (1985, p.305).(22)
Habermas also has a low regard for naturalistic hypotheses and is convinced that sceptics can neither dismiss the known facts — particularly those used by Core Facts — nor explain them with non-resurrection accounts. Although Habermas insists on a maxim of investigating all the evidence when confronting those who flat-out deny the possibility of miracles such as the resurrection (see, e.g. 1996, pp.58-59), he frequently justifies his opinion of naturalistic hypotheses by repeating that biblical scholars no longer take such theories seriously, then providing copious references to certain biblical scholars. Consider, for example, Habermas’ repeated references to Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown on this topic:
…eminent Roman Catholic theologian Raymond E. Brown gives a list of nineteenth-century theories. Brown asserts not only that these views are not held today, but that they are no longer even respectable. Furthermore, he states that any new revivals of such views should be ignored by serious scholars (1984a, p.32; citing Brown, “The Resurrection and Biblical Criticism”, Commonweal Nov.24, 1967, p.233)
Raymond Brown likewise asserts that twentieth-century critical scholars have rejected these theories, holding that they are no longer respectable. He adds that such contemporary thinkers ignore these alternative views and any popularized renditions of them as well (1987, p.21; citing Brown, see above)
…New Testament scholar Raymond Brown similarly observes that twentieth-century thinkers ignore these alternative views and any new renditions of them as well, even treating them as unrespectable (1992, p.65; citing Brown, see above)
Similarly, Raymond Brown also provides a list of these theories and then concludes: “the criticism of today does not follow the paths taken by criticism in the past. No longer respectable are the crude theories…popular in the last century” (1996, p.63; citing Brown, see above).
Whatever Habermas’ attitude — whether he fully agrees with Brown or simply cites him to set up a comparison wherein Habermas looks reasonable and open-minded for even bothering to refute these theories — the fact that such hypotheses are no longer taken seriously is not an adequate reason that they should no longer be taken seriously.(23) The Mythicist’s view of Jesus’ resurrection — indeed, Jesus’ entire history — is a serious threat to the standard resurrection-hypothesis, recently advocated by at least two critics of Christian thought, Martin and Wells. Rather than relying on what Davis has broadly formulated as the naturalist’s best case for resurrection-skepticism — it appears that Flew has already used this approach in the debate with Habermas (see Habermas 1987) — I will adopt the approach of Martin and Wells, introducing an alternate explanatory hypothesis that alleges to account for the facts of Core Facts without simply arguing around them.
III.1. Mythicism Briefly Formulated:
In 1988, Wells stated his fundamental thesis as follows:
…the earliest references to the historical Jesus are so vague that it is not necessary to hold that he ever existed; the rise of Christianity can, from the undoubtedly historical antecedents, be explained quite well without him; and reasons can be given to show why, from about AD 80 or 90, Christians began to suppose that he had lived in Palestine about fifty years earlier (p.ix).
In 1991, he briefly states a major strand of this thesis in more detail:
It really is not possible to reconcile the obscure and unrecognized earthly Jesus of the earliest Christian documents with the influential teacher and miracle worker of the gospels. And it will not do to accept the latter and ignore the former. The later, gospel modifications of the earliest ideas of Jesus on record are no more likely to represent any reality than are those ideas themselves. In the earliest documents the Crucifixion is an event, at an unspecified time and place, carried out by unnamed human personages at the instigation of supernatural forces, which ensures the salvation of believers because in the upshot it thwarted these forces which stood between them and God. This gives no basis of plausibility to the later idea that the event had occurred in Jerusalem, involving well-known Jewish and Roman officials, as recently as a few decades before the earliest documents were written (p.102).
Wells grants that the critically established New Testament text is roughly what the original authors of these documents actually wrote (see 1988, pp.7-10), but asks whether these documents give reliable information about Jesus. Wells notes that properly answering this question requires knowledge of a number of things: the types of documents the gospels are; how close in time their testimony is to the events being attested to; and to what extent the statements in the gospels are confirmed by documents written earlier than, or independently of, the gospels (1988, p.10).
Martin, a philosopher, has extrapolated broad historiographical principles from Wells’ thesis, producing an abstract of Wells’ argument of which Wells seems to approve (Martin, p.42).(24) Given the general nature of these principles they could apply to a situation of similar detail, but here they apply specifically to Jesus. In his abstract Martin argues that a person — let’s call him Jon Doe — who is said to have lived at a particular time (T) should be considered legendary rather than historically real if: 1) confirmation of Jon Doe’s historicity at T is lacking in the documents written during or shortly after T; 2) the primary documents that do allege Jon Doe lived at T frequently contradict one another, credit Jon Doe with having done highly improbable things and were written many decades after T by devotees of what were taken as Jon Doe’s teachings; 3) the major elements of Jon Doe’s life can be accounted for in terms of a literary tradition in which these primary documents were written without assuming that Jon Doe must have lived at T.
As principles of historiography these appear at least prima facie valid. Therefore, the important question to ask is whether it is historically accurate to apply these principles to the case of Jesus’ historicity. For example, is Martin’s assessment of the lack of early confirmation of Jesus’ historicity accurate? Were the primary documents supporting the resurrection — the gospels — written decades after Jesus’ lifetime by devoted followers of what were taken to be Jesus’ teachings? Can Jesus’ life be accounted for via a literary tradition — à la Wells, the Jewish Wisdom Literature — without assuming Jesus really lived? Accordingly, those such as Habermas and Davis who will wish to criticize the Mythicist’s hypothesis will need to do one or more of the following: 1) challenge Martin’s historiographical principles;(25) or 2) dispute the similarity between the situation described by Martin’s abstract argument and the evidential situation surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection.(26)
IV. Support for the Core Facts of Core Facts
Before considering the inevitable confrontation between these two most persuasive cases, I will briefly describe some of the evidence marshalled by Habermas in support of the premises of his abridged apologetic. Identifying these supports is extremely important, for apart from sheer authority-approval and appeal to “shared cultural assumptions” this is the real defence for the facts of Core Facts. For the conclusion of Core Facts to follow, Habermas must defend these supports against the Mythicist.(27)
Frequently, Habermas gives the appearance of defending these facts purely upon authoritative grounds, citing numerous scholars who are said to accept one or more of them. He does, however, make positive evidential connections on their behalf. While listing the points Habermas has made over the years defending these four facts alone would be too lengthy a task to perform here, fortunately Habermas has provided an abridged case for at least one of these: he claims that merely examining the ancient non-Christian evidence will sufficiently establish the crucifixion as historical fact.
Habermas has also claimed that CF2 — the experiences which the disciples thought were bodily appearances of a resurrected Jesus — is “the most crucial” of all four (1996, p.163). He further states that chapter 7 of 1996, “Primary Sources: Creeds and Facts”(28) presents
…perhaps our strongest category of evidence, especially for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Admittedly, the amount of material concerning the life and ministry of Jesus before his death [is] not overwhelming. However, when we enter the “passion week” of Jesus’ life prior to his crucifixion and afterwards, the situation changes drastically (p.169).
Relative to providing independent evidence for this second assumption, within the chapter itself he identifies the text of 1 Corinthians 15:3ff as perhaps the single most important creed in the New Testament (p.152).
For pragmatic reasons I will limit my examination of the support for Core Facts to these two facts. The examination of CF1will involve a limited but allegedly sufficient case for its historicity, i.e. the non-Christian evidence. The examination of CF2 will be limited to what is perhaps considered by Habermas to be the best independent corroboration for this fact within his apologetic arsenal. Given Habermas’ confidence in both the non-Christian evidence and 1 Cor.15:3ff, it is not excessively brief to limit the supports considered to these. From this point on, unless otherwise indicated all references to Habermas’ texts should be taken as pertaining to Habermas 1996.
IV.1. The Non-Christian Evidence for the Crucifixion:
Habermas divides the non-Christian evidence for the historical Jesus into six general sources of ancient testimony: ancient historians; government officials; other Jewish sources; other Gentile sources; gnostic sources; and other lost works. Not all of these sources are relevant to establishing CF1 and so again I will be making a selection rather than dealing with every one of Habermas’ points. Of the ancient historians, I will discuss Tacitus and Josephus; of the other Jewish sources, the Talmud and Tol’doth Jeshu; of the relevant other Gentile sources, Lucian and Mara Bar-Serapion; of the relevant other lost works, Phlegon.
Habermas is confident that the evidence provided by these authors and writings sufficiently establishes the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus in first century Palestine. If this is the case, it would follow that the Mythicist would have to seriously consider adopting a new explanation of the evidence for the resurrection. Whether this is so will be considered below in Chapter V, but for now I will simply say a few words about each of the above-mentioned sources, explaining briefly why Habermas thinks that each has something to say toward the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion.
IV.1.a. Ancient Historians:
The Annals of Tacitus (ca. AD 55-120) is a history written around AD 115, covering the period from Augustus’ death (AD 14) to the death of Nero (AD 68). In one of its passages, Tacitus mentions “Christus”:
Christus, from whom the name [“Christians”] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular (p.188; citing Tacitus, 15.44)
From the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. AD 37, 38-97), Habermas finds evidence for CF1 in the Antiquities, noting that this source is earlier in composition than Tacitus’ Annals, dating from around AD 90-95. Josephus’ writings contain two references to Jesus: the second and longer of these is known as Testimonium Flavianum and mentions the crucifixion:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (Wells 1991, p.143; citing Loeb Classical Library, Antiquities 18:3).(29)
While Habermas admits that Christian interpolation is responsible for some of this passage, he thinks there are good reasons to consider most of the text genuinely Josephan. First, he thinks there is no textual evidence against the passage, and “there is very good manuscript evidence for this statement about Jesus” (p.193). Second, “leading scholars on the works of Josephus” have judged this portion of Antiquities to be written in the style of Josephus (ibid). Thirdly, in 1972 Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem released a study on an Arabic manuscript containing a shorter version of the passage; the wording of this Arabic version is different from the traditional text of Testimonium Flavianum and its content is much more plausibly attributed to a Pharisee like Josephus. It reads as follows:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders (Charlesworth, p.95).
Habermas thinks that none of the reasons for rejecting the authenticity of the traditional passage apply to this Arabic text: he agrees with the author of Jesus Within Judaism — James Charlesworth — concerning this Arabic manuscript, whom he cites as saying, “We can now be as certain as historical research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus” (p.195; citing Charlesworth, p.96). From this evidence, Habermas insists that there are good reasons to only modify “questionable words” in the passage (ie. words suspected of Christian modification or interpolation) and attribute the gist of the passage to Josephus. Habermas notes there is nothing prima facie unusual about this text originating from Josephus as he would simply have been repeating what was considered “common knowledge” in his day, i.e. AD 90s (p.196).
IV.1.b. Other Jewish Sources:
Habermas notes the Talmud‘s most reliable information about Jesus would be from its earliest period of compilation, AD 70-200. He finds a quotation from just this period — Sanhedrin 43a:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! (Habermas, p.203; citing The Babylonian Talmud, trans. I. Epstein [London: Soncino, 1935], Vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, p.281).
While there are other references to Jesus in the Talmud, the remainder either do not deal with Jesus’ crucifixion or, as Habermas admits, are from later periods of history and are therefore “…of questionable historical value” (p.204).
Tol’doth Jeshu is an anti-Christian polemic which relates the following about Jesus’ death:
The body was taken down while it was still the eve of the Sabbath…and immediately buried. A gardener, Yehuda, removed the body from the tomb and cast it into a ditch and let the water flow over it. The disciples discovered that the body was not in the tomb and announced to the Queen that Yeshu had been restored to life. The Queen, believing the story, was tempted to put to death the Sages for having killed the Messiah. Indeed, all of the Jews mourned, wept and fasted, until Rabbi Tanchuma, with the help of God, found the body in a garden. The Sages of Israel removed it, tied it to the tail of a horse and paraded it in front of the Queen so that she could see the deception (Hoffmann, pp.52-3).
Habermas reveals that this document was not compiled until the fifth century AD, but also claims that it reflects early Jewish tradition. It is indeed likely that Jews expressed this sort of stolen-body explanation of the resurrection as early as the time in which Matthew was written (see Mt.28:11-15), which Habermas seems to take as suggesting that this text could perhaps date from as early as that time (p.205).
IV.1.c. Other Gentile Sources:
Habermas thinks there are two Gentile sources relevant to the crucifixion: Lucian and Mara Bar-Serapion. Lucian was a second century Greek satirist who spoke derisively of Jesus and Christians; criticizing Christians for being gullible people who approved of charlatans posing as teachers, he wrote that the Christians worshipped a man who was crucified for introducing new teachings into Palestine.
Concerning Mara Bar-Serapion, the British Museum owns the manuscript of a letter from a Syrian by this name, dated “…between the late first and third centuries AD” (p.207). In the letter a father writes from prison to his son, attempting to motivate the younger to emulate wise teachers of the past:
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgement for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teachings of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given (Bruce, p.31).(30)
IV.1.d. Other Lost Works
Born around AD 80, Phlegon was a freedman of Emperor Hadrian. Although none of his original writings remain, we can learn of what he wrote in the writings of others. Origen (ca. AD 185-254) records that
…Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions (p.218; citing Origen, Contra Celsum XIV in the Ante-Nicene Fathers).
And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles (ibid; citing Origen, XXXIII).
According to Habermas, Origen even quotes Phlegon as writing “Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails” (ibid; citing Origen, LIX).
IV.1.e. Concluding Comments on the Evidence for the Crucifixion
This, then, is the ancient non-Christian evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus. Habermas is confident that the evidential force of these letters, fragments, and citations sufficiently demonstrates CF1 as a historical fact. While Habermas would not likely claim indubitable certainty here, his hard apologetic stance suggests he might think that this evidence overwhelms rational doubt of the crucifixion. As it is soft apologetics, though, that are of concern to DT, I will take these items to simply defend the rationality of believing in Jesus’ crucifixion, and not as arguing for the irrationality of doubting the crucifixion.
IV.2. Disciplinary Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus:
As mentioned, Habermas thinks his chapter “Primary Sources: Creeds and Facts” contains the most promising material for establishing the nature of Christian thought in the times before the writing of the New Testament documents. Specifically, Habermas claims the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples are mainly corroborated by early eyewitness testimony contained in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. While the potential range of non-Pauline text in this passage is restricted to vv.3b-7 (given that Paul refers to himself in vv.3a,8), Habermas does not make this point explicitly in his 1996 text, preferring to vaguely designate vv.3ff as “the creed”.(31) The text of vv.3-8 is as follows:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Habermas purports that other creeds serve a similar function (e.g. Luke 24:34; Acts 1:1-11; 2:32; 3:15; 5:30-32; 10:39-43; 13:30-31), but he only quotes the text of the creed in 1 Cor.15, devoting an entire section to it; and he only argues for the creedal status of 1 Cor.15:3ff, simply identifying but not defending the others as creeds. Combined with his calling the creed of 1 Cor.15 “perhaps the most important single creed in the New Testament” (p.152), it is obvious that this creed takes priority in importance above all others within Habermas’ apologetics. Assuming the creed predates Paul, its date of composition would have to be prior to AD 55 — the approximate date of the writing of 1 Cor. — and so it is not difficult to imagine why Habermas might regard it so highly.
Unlike the non-Christian evidence for the crucifixion, Habermas never says explicitly that 1 Cor.15:3ff can sufficiently demonstrate the disciplinary appearances. Nevertheless, his confidence in this item is obviously rather high, as shown when he speculates that 1 Cor.15:3ff is not merely the best evidence for CF2, but “…perhaps the single most powerful argument for Jesus’ resurrection” (1992, p.67). If the creed is perhaps the single best piece of evidence for both the conclusion of Core Facts as well as its most important premise, it seems reasonable, given Habermas’ general apologetics, to interpret it as sufficient to establish CF2. Once again taking DT into consideration, I will consider the apologetic function of this single most importance piece of evidence to be establishing a soft apologetic for CF2, i.e. making it permissively rather than conclusively rational to believe that Jesus’ disciples had experiences which they were convinced were encounters with a post-resurrection Jesus.
V. When Theories Collide:
The proponents of Mythicism and Core Facts are aware of one another: both Martin and Wells have criticized Habermas (see Martin, pp.65-67, 87-97; Wells 1989, pp.22-23, 46-52); Habermas has also attacked both Wells and Martin on the matter of Jesus’ historicity (1996, pp.27-46)(32) and addressed Martin separately on the matter of the resurrection (1993).(33) The present chapter will concern the conflict between Mythicism and Habermas’ apologetics, Core Facts in particular. While Habermas divides his treatment of Mythicism by discussing Martin and Wells separately, much of what he says about them overlaps; Martin bases his Mythicism upon Wells’ presentation of the position, so I will therefore focus my attention on Habermas’ criticisms of Wells.
V.1. Habermas on Wells
Prior to presenting formal objections, Habermas makes some introductory statements, seemingly trying to “poison the well” against Wells:
Very few scholars hold the view that Jesus never lived. This conclusion is generally regarded as a blatant misuse of the available historical data…However, this idea is a persistent one and does appear from time to time. This especially seems to be the case with more popular treatments of the life of Jesus (p.27).
Habermas then examines Wells as an example of such a view, identifying some of his particular writings, namely Wells 1975, 1978 and 1988; he relies almost exclusively on the shorter 1978 article, only twice referring the reader to portions of Wells 1975 and unfortunately never examining Wells 1988 at all.
Frequently, Habermas’ presentation of Wells is not clearly accurate. Consider that at the very beginning of Habermas’ critique he characterizes Wells’ position as being “…that Jesus may be a historical personage, although an obscure one” (pp.27-28). Wells, however, argues that St. Paul and other early Christians thought Jesus was an obscure historical personage; this certainly does not suggest that Wells agrees with St. Paul on the matter. While Wells does not deny the possibility that an obscure earthly Jesus existed — perhaps a few centuries before the common era, e.g. BC 200 — he does not think the evidence can support such speculation.
Habermas next states “[Wells] even asserts the possibility that Jesus never existed at all, but that New Testament authors patterned his story after the ancient mystery religions” (p.28). Both clauses in this sentence are problematic: describing Wells as asserting the possibility that Jesus never existed is an understatement, for Wells clearly argues that Jesus’ nonexistence best explains the available evidence; also, Wells’ thesis has relied less on connections to ancient pagan mystery religions since the publication of his first book on Christian origins, Wells 1971. Consider that in Wells 1988, the author appraised three criticisms against Wells 1971 as “substantially just”, the second of these being that
…[Wells 1971] gave too much attention to (and was not entirely accurate in its representation of) the pagan background of earliest Christianity, thus neglecting some of the Jewish factors in the origin of this undoubtedly Jewish sect (p.ix).
Wells admits his writing of Wells 1975 benefited from this and other criticisms, the penultimate chapter of this book being titled “The Pagan and Jewish Background” (italics mine). In Wells 1988, Wells spends seven pages discussing Paul and the Jewish Wisdom Literature, in which he states:
These earliest Christians were Jews. Early Christian documents accept the God of Israel, the Old Testament, Jewish apocalyptic and angelology, and Jewish ideas about the Messiah. A non-Jewish origin for a sect which embraced all this is out of the question. Hence the Jewish, rather than the pagan, religious background is likely to be of prime importance in explaining the conviction of the earliest Christians that, at some unspecified time past, a redeemer named Jesus had been obscurely crucified (pp.37-38).
Notably, there is no such specific treatment of the pagan influences on Christianity in this book (although Wells does refer the reader to the above-mentioned chapter of Wells 1975). Although he thinks pagan ideas were important to the development of early Christianity, Wells clearly emphasizes Jewish inspiration over the influence of pagan mystery religions. Even Wells 1978, the source Habermas relies upon almost exclusively, clearly emphasizes Jewish Wisdom influences on early Christianity. Ironically, while Wells 1971 is the actual offender regarding improperly focussing upon pagan influences, Habermas neither refers to nor acknowledges this text. Although Habermas does mention that Wells thinks besides “…the mystery religions, Jewish wisdom concepts helped to inspire the early picture of Jesus” (p.29), the substance of his criticisms against Wells never specifically addresses Jewish affects on early Christianity.
These problems aside, Habermas does follow the broad gist of Wells’ position, correctly noting that the chronology of the New Testament documents is crucially important to Wells’ thesis. Habermas also recognizes that Mythicism depends upon a disparity between the Christology of early and later Christian documents to yield the possibility of concluding that belief in a historical first-century Jesus emerged out of a previous Christian tradition that lacked this belief.
V.1.a. Historical Methodology
Taken in reverse order, Habermas’ first of four(34) main criticisms against Wells is an accusation that Wells lacks appreciation for normal historical methodology. He refers to his own appendix on historiography (Appendix 1) in this regard, but his reasons for doing so are rather mysterious. The contents of this appendix are roughly as follows: an introduction to a preliminary notion of history as the recording of actual events in time; a critique of those who question the amount of objective knowledge the study of history can provide; and an overview of the method of historical investigation. In all of this, there is no reference — veiled or explicit — to either Wells or Mythicism; furthermore, there is nothing in this appendix that Wells obviously violates.
Fortunately, Habermas goes on to borrow a more substantive argument from the historian Michael Grant:
…if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned (p.36, citing Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review,pp.199-200).
While this is possibly the most promising option available to Habermas’ grief with Mythicism, the point needs serious development before it can be used effectively. Perhaps it is tempting to worry that Wells’ historical scepticism of Jesus opens the floodgates of historical-doubt on a mass of historical personages, but such fear a priori assumes we should not question the historicity of any such persons. More significantly, Grant’s argument assumes that Wells’ historical principles are outside of the realm of propriety and that if they were applied to historically acceptable figures then these figures would improperly be classified as legendary, too.
Unfortunately, I have seen no fleshed-out attempts to show that principles of Wells’ Mythicism lead to historical disaster; the closest I have seen to such an attempt are charges such as Grant’s, namely that if such sceptical conclusions are allowed we must fear similar conclusions elsewhere in unwanted places. I suspect it is easy to conclude intuitively that taking Wells seriously leads straight to denying that, say, Socrates, Plato, or maybe Abraham Lincoln were historical persons, but this line of reasoning requires substantial argument to elevate it beyond the realm of mere “gut-reaction.”(35) In the face of serious criticism, Jesus’ historicity cannot be defended adequately merely by a sense of “historical sacredness” surrounding commonly accepted historical persons; nor can Mythicism be overrun by a completely undefended conviction that its principles, if applied consistently, would also deny the reality of other historically acceptable persons.
In sum, Habermas says nothing substantial about Wells’ historical principles — a very odd omission considering that Habermas titles this main criticism of Wells “Historical Methodology”. It is again ironic that Habermas does not seem aware of Wells 1971, for this text contains a chapter entitled “Criteria of Historicity” (pp.204-222); perhaps an awareness of the points made in this chapter would have provided Habermas with something meaningful to say on Wells’ historiography. I must conclude that: 1) disagreeing with Wells’ historical conclusions and nesting this disagreement inside a discussion of historical methodology is not an effective way to challenge Wells’ historical methodology; and 2) more work is needed to show that the Mythicist’s principles are improper historical methodology.
V.1.b. The Dating of the Gospels
As Habermas notes, the chronology of the books of the New Testament is fundamental to Wells’ thesis. The gospels are found at the beginning of the New Testament and contain the fullest, most colourful accounts of Jesus’s life. Wells states the majority of scholars date these books somewhere between the commencement of the Jewish War with Rome in AD 66 and the end of the first century (see Wells 1989, pp.5-6). He personally dates the Gospel of Mark at least after AD 70, probably as late as AD 90; he dates the remaining three gospels between the writing of Markand AD 110, with the Gospel of John being the last written (see Wells 1996, p.xxi; see also Wells 1988 pp.10-11, chapters 4 and 5).(36)
Habermas objects that Wells dates the gospels too late, asserting such dates “…may have been popular in the nineteenth century, but are abandoned today by the vast majority of critical scholars, and for good reason” (p.35).(37) According to Habermas, most critical scholars date Mark about AD 65-70, Matthew and Luke about AD 80-90, John at AD 90-100. Habermas and Wells roughly agree, then, on the contemporary scholarly consensus on this matter; while Habermas apparently accepts this consensus, Wells thinks it skewed a little too early. Whatever the case, as Habermas admits “…the issue here is not a battle of how many scholars hold these positions, but the reasons behind their views” (p.36).
Strangely, despite this stated concern for evidential reasons behind dating the gospels, Habermas does not think it within the scope of his 1996 book to address this issue in depth. Unfortunately, he chooses the opposite extreme, hardly looking at all.(38) Other than noting the dates preferred by the bulk of scholars, Habermas does very little to substantiate his disagreement with Wells: he refers in a note to Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction and identifies Guthrie as one of a vast number of scholars who disagrees with Wells; he also mentions that the historian Michael Grant disagrees with Wells, referring to Grant’s Jesus: An Historian’s Review.
Such tactics, however, do nothing to support his position; for Wells can simply employ the identical strategy in reverse, citing scholars who agree with his dates and disagree with Habermas. Habermas’ admission that the issue is not to be settled merely by referring to scholarly authority is surprising considering that this appears to be his favoured way of settling this issue. As a field of inquiry, New Testament study commonly exhibits widely diverging opinions, making it extremely difficult to see how particular dates for the gospels can be credibly defended simply by selectively referring to the conclusions but not the reasoning of particular New Testament scholars.
Beyond these ineffectual comments, Habermas only says concerning this matter that Wells’ explanation of how the early church unanimously chose Pilate as the agent of Jesus’ execution is questionable. If this comment is intended to suggest an early date for the writing of the gospels then it is itself quite questionable; it is not clear that the gospels’ choice of Pilate as Jesus’ nominal executioner can only be explained given early dates for the gospels.(39) Habermas has neither shown nor argued otherwise.
Further, it is by no means obvious that Wells’ dating of the gospels is as deviant as Habermas suggests. Wells’ dating is not too far from the range of dates accepted by the scholarly community and — more importantly — he actually defends his preferred dates; Habermas, on the other hand, has not seriously defended his preference for the earlier range of “scholarly condoned dates”, and has done nothing to attack Wells’ reasons for holding the other end of that spectrum.
Fortunately, none of my criticisms of Core Facts require a Wellsian dating of the gospels; for Martin’s abstract of Mythicism is compatible with the gospel-dates favoured by Habermas, given that placing the earliest gospel at AD 65-70 still makes these documents later in first-century Christian tradition than the genuine and pseudepigraphical Pauline epistles, i.e. the earliest writings contained in the New Testament. Consequently, this issue does not require further exploration.
V.1.c. Ancient Mystery Religions Cannot Explain Christianity
As mentioned, Habermas’ focus upon Wells’ references to pagan influences on early Christianity is misplaced. Wells 1996 yet again reinforces this point:
[In Wells 1971] I argued that the pagan mystery religions greatly influenced the earliest Christian thinking about a supernatural redeemer. By the time I wrote [Wells 1975] I had realized that Jewish antecedents must have been of greater importance. The earliest Christians were Jews, and early Christian documents accept the God of Israel, the Old Testament…Jewish apocalyptic and angelology, and Jewish ideas about the Messiah. I was able to show that what is known as the Jewish Wisdom literature could well have supplied Paul and other early Christian writers with the conviction that a supernatural personage had come to earth, only to be humiliated there, and had then returned to heaven (p.xxv).
Consequently, Habermas repeatedly attacks a straw-man when criticizing Wells for relying upon Christian parallels with pagan mystery religions. While Wells does refer to the pagan mystery religions, his use of them is so overshadowed by his dependence upon Jewish Wisdom Literature that Habermas’ comments on pagan mystery religions, as they stand, do not threaten Wells’ thesis.(40)
V.1.d. Early Christian Interest:
Habermas speculates his most important criticism against Wells is that “…the earliest books of the New Testament exhibit sufficient interest in the life of the historical Jesus, especially his death and resurrection” (p.29). As well, Habermas insists these early New Testament documents record eyewitness testimony to the facts of Jesus’ life.
I must point out that Wells does not dispute that early Christians were interested in the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather doubting whether the early Christians believed this death and resurrection had happened in the manner described in much later Christian documents. Fortunately, Habermas exhibits some awareness of this point when he characterises Martin’s formulation of Mythicism: Wells and Martin do not deny that there are some details about Jesus in these early sources. But the issue concerns whether the New Testament writers knew more than a minimal amount of data about Jesus and whether they even knew that he lived during the time traditionally assigned to him (p.38).
Accordingly, the evidence Habermas finds in the early Christian writings must show interest in the details of Jesus’ life in a way that shows that Jesus must have been a relatively recent historical person of the sort described in the gospels. He thinks that this sort of evidence lies in accounts of eyewitness testimony to the historical Jesus. Recall that such accounts formed two of the premises of Core Facts — namely, the appearances of the postmortem Jesus to both his earthly disciples (CF2) and to St. Paul (CF4) — used by Habermas to refute the legend hypothesis against the resurrection (see II.2).
Not surprisingly, Habermas depends upon 1 Corinthians 15:3ff, the main creedal evidence he used to defend CF2 (see IV.2) for reports of the death, burial, resurrection and postmortem appearances of Jesus. For Habermas, the creed links the historical Jesus and the central Christian message of the gospel through eyewitnesses who testified to Jesus’ appearances; he insists these appearances began three days after Jesus’ death. St. Paul, an undisputed historical figure from the middle of the first century AD, claims to have met these witnesses, apparently vindicating his theology by noting the agreement between his own views and these eyewitness testimonial accounts.
Habermas concludes, “It is crucially important that this information is very close to the actual events, and therefore cannot be dismissed as late material or as hearsay evidence” (p.30). Certainly, Mythicism would face a serious anomaly if it were true that this creed established a link between a mid-first century biblical author like Paul and eyewitnesses of a historical Jesus of the sort described by the gospels (namely, a Jesus who lived in Palestine, was crucified by Roman authorities on the order of Pontius Pilate, proclaimed messianic pretensions, irritated the local rabbis, etc.). If Paul had indeed contacted such eyewitnesses of a historical Jesus, it would be difficult to imagine, as Wells maintains, that Paul did not think that Jesus was “…a teacher or miracle-worker, nor active in Galilee, but…[rather] a supernatural personage who had come briefly to earth as a Jew descended from David, had lived obscurely and been crucified in [unspecified] circumstances” (Wells 1996, p.xxiii). While Mythicism has the resources to respond to this objection, this criticism of Wells overlaps with Habermas’ defence of CF2 and so will be addressed in V.2, where Mythicism’s ability to undercut the supports for Core Facts will be considered.
V.1.e. Habermas on Wells: Concluding Remarks
All but one of Habermas’ specific criticisms against Wells have been disarmed. To briefly recapitulate, while Habermas suggests an interesting avenue via historical methodology, he does not substantiate this criticism sufficiently to make it more than an interesting suggestion. Similarly shallow is his reasoning that earlier dates for the gospels (ie. dates earlier than Wells accepts) will vindicate the reliability of the gospels; Habermas does little to either defend such earlier dates or to show that earlier dates would establish such reliability.(41) Nor does one gain confidence that Habermas has taken much time to familiarize himself with Wells’ writings given his repeated chastising of Wells for depending upon pagan influences when Wells clearly emphasizes Jewish sources.
The only point which remains to be undermined is Habermas’ claim of evidence for early Christian interest in a Jesus like the one described in the gospels. Ultimately, this depends upon points also supporting his defence of Core Facts. Accordingly, it is time to examine the Mythicist’s response to Core Facts.
V.2. The Mythicist Response
A quick refresher of Mythicism is in order. Consider the following passage taken from Wells 1996:
…Jesus is not depicted uniformly throughout the twenty-seven books of the New Testament…and the portraits of him in the four canonical gospels are certainly open to question. The gospels make him a teacher and miracle-worker in Palestine when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, that is, some time between AD. 26 and 36, but were written fifty or more years later. They are generally admitted not to be the earliest extant Christian documents. The earliest are those among the letters ascribed to Paul which are genuinely his…They include the four major epistles (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians) and several others, all written by AD. 60–at any rate before Jerusalem began to suffer during the war with Rome which began in AD. 66 and culminated in Jerusalem’s capture and destruction in AD. 70; for Paul mentions current dealings he is having with a Christian community there, which was obviously still untroubled by any such upheavals. The gospels, on the other hand, were written later, but before the end of the first century, and in some of them there are clear indications that the war with Rome was already a thing of the past at their time of writing. Paul never suggests that Jesus had been a teacher or miracle-worker, nor active in Galilee, but portrays him as a supernatural personage who had come briefly to earth as a Jew descended from David, had lived obscurely and been crucified in circumstances which Paul never specifies, but which he does not seem to regard as recent. There is no suggestion that he was a near-contemporary who died at Jerusalem under Pilate. It is not only Paul who depicts Jesus in this way. Other epistles, not by him, but also early, also show no knowledge of Jesus as he is portrayed in the gospels (pp.xxii-xxiii)
This disparity in the New Testament documents provides Wells with his greatest cause for doubting Jesus’ existence; in particular, the abundance of detail in the later texts lacked by the earlier sources seems best explained as legendary embellishment. Rather than reading the more developed specifics of the later New Testament documents back into the earlier, less detailed texts, Wells suggests these two major stages of New Testament Christology reflect radically different ideas of who Jesus actually was.(42) He argues that it is only the later layer of Christian tradition and writings which present Jesus as a historical miracle-worker of early first century Palestine; the early Christians were neither aware of nor interested in such a person namely because there had been no historical Jesus of the sort presented in the later Christian writings.
Recall Martin’s abstract version of this argument, which he summarizes as follows:
The primary historical sources for an existence claim about an individual become doubtful if they are contradictory, report events that are intrinsically improbable, and are based on clearly biased writers who wrote long after the individual was supposed to have died and this claim is not independently confirmed either by other writers both biased and unbiased who wrote earlier than the primary source. Such doubts increase when the major aspect of this individual’s life can be accounted for without making any existence assumption, that is by supposing that the individual’s life and existence is a myth (p.43).
Interestingly, much of Habermas’ apologetic has involved resisting points either very similar or identical to these. Notably, he has emphasized that because Core Facts (as well as the expanded argument) can sufficiently demonstrate Jesus’ resurrection, biblical contradictions are irrelevant. He has vigorously attacked rejections of the resurrection that rely exclusively on a priori probabilistic considerations (see pp.58-59). He insists the gospels were written fairly early and reflect the testimony of eyewitnesses contemporary to Jesus, thereby closing the gap between the gospels and both the early texts and the alleged events themselves. He also maintains there is much independent confirmation of Jesus’ existence, both from non-devotees (e.g. Tacitus, Josephus, Phlegon, etc.) and devotees (e.g. 1 Cor.15:3ff). As for the notion that major aspects of Jesus’ life can be accounted for without assuming his existence, he has denied that Jesus can be explained as a myth via pagan parallels and repeats that there is eyewitness testimony to refute any such suggestion.
Regarding what Davis considered to be the naturalist’s most persuasive argument, while Mythicism incorporates D1 and D2 into its case, Wells’ position is clearly too sophisticated to be reduced to these simplistic objections. The Mythicist primarily notes an evolving Jesus that develops in historical character as one progresses chronologically through the New Testament, an observation not captured by D1 and D2. Concerning D3 — which Davis thought was the naturalist’s best point and Habermas regarded as typical of naturalistic thought — the Mythicist obviously has no need of the concession that the evidence for the resurrection cannot be explained by alternate hypotheses. This aspect of the premise aside, D3 had two interpretations: one in which the current evidence for the resurrection was seen as insufficient to overcome the initial improbability of such an occurrence; and one in which no amount of evidence could overcome reasonable a priori doubt of the miraculous. The former interpretation is more in line with Mythicism’s willingness to confront the evidence and reflects Mythicism’s prima facie compatibility with broadly supernaturalistic assumptions (i.e. S1-S4); the Mythicist objects to the evidence for the resurrection that there is, not any possible configuration of evidence whatsoever.
V.2.a. Mythicism on the Crucifixion
According to Habermas, the crucifixion could be sufficiently demonstrated as historical fact by relying solely on the non-Christian evidence. In terms of Martin’s abstract of Mythicism’s reasoning this would constitute independent evidence for Jesus’ historicity provided by non-devotees; but Martin argued that such evidence is useful only if earlier in time than the primary documents requiring independent confirmation (ie. the gospels). The point of this stipulation is easy to see: these documents need independent confirmation largely because of their temporal removal from the events they describe; evidence that is not earlier than these documents can therefore be equally suspicious. Further, if the evidence is actually later than the documents needing corroboration, this evidence may itself be influenced (contaminated) by the primary documents, making it dependent rather than independent testimony. Without compelling mitigating reason, testimony from one source (N) cannot corroborate another source (G) if the reason for questioning the latter source (G) also applies to the first (N); in this case, late dates for both corroborator and corroboratee prima facie undermine the ability of the one to corroborate the other.
In detailing Habermas’ sufficient case for the crucifixion, I noted his references to two ancient historians, two Jewish sources, two Gentile sources, and one lost work. Although various interesting criticisms could be made against each of these, the simplest way to undercut these evidences is to note their dates of composition in relation to the dates of the sources they are being used to confirm. In other words, when were they written in relation to the gospels?
Ironically, if Habermas’ view of the gospel dates is taken — ie. Mark at AD 65-70, Matthew and Luke at AD 80-90, John at AD 90-100 — then none of these non-Christian documents provide testimony that is temporally prior to the writing of the first three gospels, many not being written until well after all four canonical gospels had been composed. Consider that the ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus were born respectively in the late AD 30s and AD 55, neither writing their relevant documents (ie. Antiquities and Annals) before AD 90. Consequently, these ancient historians cannot independently confirm the gospel accounts of Jesus.
Tol’doth Jeshu was not compiled until the fifth century AD, making its use even more questionable. Habermas tries to mitigate this difficulty, arguing this anti-Christian polemic reflects early Jewish tradition; the tradition he has in mind is contained in Matthew, which records that after the resurrection Jewish leaders disputed its authenticity by accusing the disciples of stealing the body (see Mt.28:11-15). It is not clear how much earlier than Matthew this tradition goes — notably, it is not a concern of any of the remaining three gospels. Furthermore, the existence of this “stolen body” tradition suggests neither that the tradition behind Tol’doth Jeshu dates from that time, nor that this Matthewan tradition is sufficiently prior to the writing of the first gospel, Mark, to enable it to operate as corroboration of Jesus’ crucifixion under orthodox circumstances.
Lucian, as a second-century satirist (ca.117-180) also provides no independent confirmation of Jesus’ crucifixion; and Phlegon, although born earlier then Lucian at AD 80, is still far too late to provide independent confirmation of anything the gospels assert about Jesus’ earthly career in first century Palestine.(43)
The remaining two non-Christian sources considered — a reference from the Talmud and Mara bar Serapion’s letter — are interesting cases. Habermas suggests the former dates between AD 70-200, while he says the latter dates from between late first and third century AD. Notably, he gives no indication of precisely when these documents were written, but if his dates for the gospels are accepted then these documents cannot independently confirm CF1, either.
However, if the gospels are dated later than Habermas allows then these two sources could possibly predate all four gospels. For example, if Wells’ gospel-dates were accepted, then given the low range of dates for both the Talmudic passage and Mara bar Serapion’s letter, they might precede the writing of the primary Christian documents. Granting that dating these texts prior to the gospels (e.g. AD 70) would provide some hope for defenders of a historical Jesus — while keeping in mind that AD 70 is still four decades after the events being attested to — then ironically these two non-Christian references are useful to Habermas’ case only if gospel-dates similar to Wells’ are accepted.
V.2.a.1. Mara bar Serapion
Recall the following letter from a Syrian prisoner to his son:
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgement for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teachings of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given (Bruce, p.31). Apparently, Habermas determines the low-end date of this passage by suggesting the text refers to and therefore follows the Jewish revolt. Habermas’ source for this information, F.F. Bruce, is somewhat more informative: Bruce places the letter at some “indeterminate” time later than AD 73, also apparently reasoning that it must follow the Jewish revolt (p.30); in a note he also dates the manuscript preserving the letter as 7th century and the letter itself at second or third century (p.32, n.21).
Unfortunately, Habermas never makes clear why he allows for a late first century date when Bruce reveals in this note that the letter dates from between second and third century. Bruce may have chosen his words poorly when writing that the text of the letter dates from an indeterminate date beyond AD 73 only to later provide a somewhat more determinate temporal range beyond that particular date. The confusion over this presentation could have led Habermas to date the letter as possibly late first century; for other than citing Bruce he provides no reason to think the letter dates that early. Given the evidence provided by both Bruce and Habermas, dating the letter closer to AD 73 than the second century is excessively generous.
There are further reasons for dating this letter later than first century. The letter expresses the view that Jesus merely lived on in his teachings, a position that was commonplace in the writings of Lucian and other second century writers who compared Jesus to other philosophers and sages of antiquity. If Mara bar Serapion was in fact influenced by the writings of Lucian and other later critics of Christianity, his letter would necessarily date from at least mid-second century and could not provide independent testimony of the crucifixion.
Additionally, the letter evidences post-AD 70 Christian influence: it suggests the Jews rather than the Romans were responsible for Jesus’ death and it views the destruction of Jerusalem as God’s punishment of the Jews for killing Jesus. According to Wells, after the fall of the temple in AD 70 it was not until a later stage of Christian tradition development that the Jews were specifically blamed for the death of Jesus.(44)
Interestingly, Bruce points out that this letter’s writer possessed very inaccurate information about Samos and Athens. However, he does not draw the conclusion that the entire passage might be therefore doubtful and Habermas actively resists this inference, writing:
As Bruce notes, some of Mara Bar-Serapion’s material concerning Athens and Samos is quite inaccurate. Yet the statements about Jesus do not appear to be flawed and thus add to our extra-New Testament data about him (p.208).
That Mara Bar Serapion’s statements appear unflawed is a very odd claim for Habermas to make, considering that the letter says Jesus lived on in his teachings, conspicuously saying nothing about a resurrection or other miraculous events. Whatever the case, Habermas apparently misunderstands Bruce when he allows the letter to be dated as early as late first century AD. Particularly given the evident influences of late sources — both Christian and pagan — Bruce’s later dating of second or third century for the letter is the dating Habermas should have followed. Of course, this finding disallows the use of this letter to properly provide independent confirmation of the gospel accounts of CF1.
V.2.a.2. The Talmud
Habermas attributes the following passage to an early layer of compilation — the Tannaitic period, AD 70-200 — within the Talmud:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! (Habermas, p.203; citing The Babylonian Talmud, trans. I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1935), Vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, p.281).(45)
In order for this Talmudic passage to be useful to Habermas’ non-Christian case for the crucifixion, its testimony must be dated significantly prior to the gospels and confirm the details of CF1. Interestingly, few of the specific details described in Sanhedrin 43a are recorded in any New Testament documents, most in fact being inconsistent with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. Notably, the gospels make no mention of stoning nor even the threat of stoning and clearly portray Jesus as dying of crucifixion;(46) the gospels give the Romans a major role in the crucifixion drama, while Sanhedrin 43a suggests instead that the Jews were solely responsible for the execution; Sanhedrin 43a suggests Jesus was imprisoned for forty days waiting for someone to testify on his behalf, another detail inconsistent with the gospel narratives.
Further, both Martin and Wells point out that in the few places where Jesus is discussed in the Talmud he is often assigned to a time distant from early first century. Martin notes the Talmud contains references to Yeshu ben Pantera, “…a magician whose mother’s name was Mary Magdala and who was crucified in BC 126”, and to Yeshu the Nazarene who lived during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, ruler of Palestine from 104 to 79 BC (p.50). Wells points out that when rabbinic documents do begin mentioning Jesus they assign him to times varying by as much as two hundred years (1996, p.46).
These difficulties aside, this text needs an early date for Habermas’ purposes; but both he and Bruce only say the passage originates from a historic period which spanned from AD 70-200, giving no argument for any particular time within this range. The mere fact that Sanhedrin 43a comes from the Tannaitic period is not a compelling reason for dating it at a time convenient for Habermas’ apologetics, i.e. close to the low end of the period’s range. Hinging the historical crucifixion of Jesus upon such a vague dating for this text would be akin to claiming that because a tradition developed in the twentieth century, a conclusion which may follow if this tradition dated from before AD 1910 could be supported. Notably, on the basis of a survey by J. Klausner — Jesus of Nazareth, trans. H. Danby, 1925 — Wells asserts that rabbinic references to Jesus come no earlier than early second century, suggesting the effective temporal range of this passage should be restricted to AD 100-200.
However, even granting Habermas a date of AD 70 for this reference leaves unexplained why there are no earlier Jewish references; if Jesus did live and die in early first century Palestine, there is an inexplicable gap spanning at least forty years in the records of a nation of scribes concerning the life and existence of a Messianic pretender whom they allegedly arranged to have killed. Wells astutely notes that
…If Jesus’ fame had in fact “gone through all Syria” in the late 20s or early 30s (Mt.4:24), and if he had experienced the kind of repeated altercations with Jewish orthodoxy alleged in the gospels, the absence of earlier references becomes very hard to explain (1996, p.46). At best, the gap between rabbinic references to Jesus and the alleged time of Jesus life and interaction with orthodox Jewry is forty years, and wishful thinking cannot establish this best case scenario.(47) Given the deviations from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Talmud’s imprecision on when Jesus lived and the likely post-first century dating of Sanhedrin 43a, this text appears to have little worth as non-Christian corroboration of CF1. Wells concludes while Jewish traditions about Jesus are clearly rich and detailed, they contain no independent reference to a historical Jesus.
V.2.a.3. Concluding Remarks on the Crucifixion
At least one conclusion which can be drawn from this discussion of non-Christian sources is that Habermas is far too eager to label an argumentative case sufficient when it is not.(48) If it were possible to demonstrate Jesus’ historical crucifixion as per orthodox Christian belief merely on evidence such as this, the standards of historical acceptability would have to be low indeed. By using only these sources to make his case, Habermas leaves unexplained a huge gap from which there is no non-Christian testimony; while this is a very suspicious absence on Habermas’ view of Jesus’ biography, it is the expected result on the Mythicist’s assumptions. That this is the sort of case Habermas thinks sufficient to achieve his ends gives good reason for scepticism concerning the often-touted “sufficiency” of his other arguments (viz. Core Facts). Perhaps the best advice Habermas could take would be that already implied by Pannenberg: namely, that it is not a terribly good idea to place the stamp of “sufficient” upon intentionally restricted arguments of the sort involved here (see Habermas 1987, p.130). As presented by Habermas, the non-Christian case for Jesus’ crucifixion must be considered a failure.
V.2.b. Creedal Evidence for Postresurrection Appearances
Core Facts purports to demonstrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead given that this hypothesis best explains CF1-CF4. The integrity of this argument, then, depends upon the legitimacy of these assumptions. In the previous section, I undermined the worth of a limited but allegedly sufficient case for Jesus’ crucifixion, casting some doubt on both the historicity of this fact and Core Facts itself.
Of course, Habermas’ abridged apologetic can easily survive this objection; for the failure of the non-Christian case for the crucifixion does not obviously show that Core Facts fails in general. Unless one erroneous application of “sufficient” implies that all others are suspect, Habermas can insist the crucifixion needs to be more thoroughly criticized before he must admit any serious problems with this apologetic.(49) Even granting my criticisms of the non-Christian case for the crucifixion are sound, other resources available to Habermas remain to be considered: a case based on such resources could possibly succeed if the insufficiency of the non-Christian case for the crucifixion does not itself completely undermine the crucifixion’s historicity.(50)
In order for Mythicism to have a significant impact upon Core Facts, a more serious victory needs to be scored. Recall that Habermas has stated CF2 — Jesus’ disciples thinking they were appeared to by a resurrected Jesus — is perhaps the most important ingredient in Core Facts (see Section IV; Habermas 1996, p.163). While Habermas defends this point with numerous evidences, he considers one of the strongest to be contained within Christian creeds, 1 Cor.15:3ff in particular:
The importance of the creed in 1 Corinthians can hardly be overestimated. No longer can it be charged that there is no demonstrable early, eyewitness testimony for the resurrection or for the other most important tenets of Christianity, for this creed provides just such evidential data concerning the facts of the gospel, which are the very center of the Christian faith. It links the events themselves with those who actually participated in space and time. As such, this creed yields a strong factual basis for Christianity through the early eyewitness reports of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus…(p.157).
Habermas notes that Paul agrees with these eyewitnesses about the resurrection, taking Gal.1:18-19 to show that Paul probably received the creed from the apostolic witnesses themselves and Gal.2:1-10 to mean that Paul had “checked out this message with the apostles” (p.156). This creed also fuelled Habermas’ attack against Wells; for contrary to Mythicism, Habermas insisted that the earliest books of the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor.) show interest in a historical Jesus, even preserving eyewitness testimony to such a figure. Assuming that Paul considered the eyewitnesses he met to be contemporaries of an earthly Jesus, the evidential thrust of 1 Cor.15:3ff is that it presents some of the early eyewitness testimony of those who had seen both the risen and earthly Jesus.
Of course, Wells does not deny that Paul thought the postmortem appearances of Jesus happened recently, nor even that Paul met some of the recipients of these experiences; rather, he denies that Paul thought Jesus’ death and resurrection happened recently. It is crucial to note that the Mythicist’s position is not harmed by merely granting that pre-Pauline Christian tradition espoused recent postresurrection appearances of Jesus. Unless the apologist can connect the creed with a historical Jesus living around early first century AD, 1 Cor.15:3ff presents no difficulties for the Mythicist even if all of 1 Cor.15:3b-7 (ie. the maximum possible pre-Pauline material within 1 Cor.15:3ff, given that vv.3a,8 are considered original to Paul) were a pre-Pauline passage dating back to the AD 30s.(51) Such a connection is also required if the creed is to support CF2; for without a link to Jesus’ earthly existence, Habermas cannot defensibly claim that the recipients of these appearances — recent or otherwise — were Jesus’ earthly followers. Accordingly, only if these appearances were to Jesus’ earthly contemporaries (e.g. Jesus’ disciples) can the creed be used to refute the Mythicist.
V.2.b.1. Does 1 Cor.15:3ff Evidence a Historical Jesus?
Habermas contends 1 Cor.15:3ff establishes that Jesus’ disciples thought they saw a risen Jesus. When considering how to defend the facts of the New Testament creeds, Habermas considers two approaches: 1) validate the NT documents as reliable sources and then argue to the trustworthiness of the creeds; or 2) provide independent evidence for the trustworthiness of the creeds. Habermas has set out to accomplish the latter, writing that
…because of this particular goal, we will endeavor to provide special evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus by referring to what is perhaps the most important single creed in the New Testament [ie. 1 Cor.15:3ff] (p.152).
In terms of Martin’s abstract, this is a worthwhile endeavour; for working to provide early evidence from Jesus’ devotees to confirm the Jesus of orthodoxy satisfies one of Martin’s criteria for rational belief in a historical person.
Habermas provides the following explanations of how the creed evidences a historical Jesus:
[1 Cor.15:3ff] links the historical life of Jesus, and the central Christian message of the gospel, in particular (vv.3-4), with those eyewitnesses who testified to his resurrection appearances, beginning on the third day after his death (vv.5-7) (p.30 (italics mine)).
Later on, he claims that
…using only the Pauline epistles…there is no shortage of data showing that Paul knew Jesus was an earlier contemporary…Jesus died and was raised, appearing to his followers just three days later (1 Cor.15:3ff). Those eyewitnesses who saw him afterwards included Peter, Jesus’ disciples, 500 believers, most of whom were still alive, James, and the apostles…Paul…was contemporary with these apostolic witnesses (15:9-11, 14-15) (p.39 (italics mine)).
Notice that Habermas clearly thinks the resurrection appearances began on the third day following Jesus’ death. He contends that “The best explanation for the phrase ‘the third day’ (1 Cor.15:3-4) is that Paul had temporal interests in mind, and that these witnesses began to see Jesus three days after he was raised from the dead” (p.31). The actual text of 1 Cor.15:3ff, however, is not so clear in making this point. Consider closely the text of vv.3-5:
3. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
4. that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
5. and that he appeared to Cephas…
While it seems clear that Paul thought Jesus rose from the dead three days after being killed, 1 Cor.15:4-5 lacks any indication of how much time Paul thinks passed between the resurrection and the first listed appearance to Cephas.(52) Apropos of Habermas’ interpretation, Wells writes:
Many commentators…suppose that Paul here [ie. 1 Cor.15:3ff] implies that not only these appearances, but also the crucifixion and resurrection were recent, and that “some of the witnesses of the resurrection” were still alive when he wrote. In fact, however, although he places the resurrection three days after the death, he does not indicate when the death occurred. It is only the appearances that he says are recent, and someone who sees a ghost does not necessarily suppose that it is the wraith of a recently deceased person (1996, p.57).
He adds to this train of thought in another text:
It is our familiarity with the gospels–later documents representing later developments in the tradition–that leads us to assume that Paul supposed the appearances to have followed rapidly after the crucifixion and resurrection, and to have been vouchsafed to men who had been companions of a historical Jesus (1988, p.43).
Further cause to doubt that Paul thought the appearances of Jesus quickly followed his crucifixion is the fact that his Christology completely lacks reference to a saviour who is resurrected and then remains on earth for a time to meet at length with earthly followers before ascending into heaven. Wells observes that when Paul discusses Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent seating at the right hand of God, he never places any interval between these events. Contrary to the postresurrection events described in the gospels, Paul seems to have assumed that the risen Jesus ascended to heaven immediately; therefore, he will naturally have supposed that the subsequent appearances he lists were made by a descent from heaven, as was his own appearance experience (assuming some sort of harmonization of the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles can be trusted, see Acts 9:3ff; Acts 22:9).
Habermas provides other reasons to suggest that Paul thought the resurrection appearances shortly followed the resurrection, but these too beg the question in his favour. For example, when arguing for the ability of the creed to evidence a historical Jesus, Habermas frequently assumes that Jesus was crucified around AD 30; therefore, it is reasoned, if the creed was written earlier than Paul’s text (AD 50s), it is less than twenty-five years from this final event in the life of the historical Jesus. Concerning the precise dating of the creed, Habermas informs his reader that “It is very popular to date this creed in the mid AD 30s” and “numerous critical scholars date [the creed] from three to eight years after Jesus’ crucifixion” (p.154 (italics mine)). Habermas also provides a speculative scenario explaining how Paul received the creed from the leaders of the Jerusalem church; notably, this scenario begins by assuming Jesus’ crucifixion in AD 30 and he concludes that if the creed was written a few years after the crucifixion, then the independent beliefs that composed the formalized creed would then date back to the “actual events” (p.155).
Recall, however, that Habermas insisted that he could derive his desired conclusions from the creed independently of assuming the reliability of the New Testament text; if deliberately handicapped to non-New Testament sources, it is unclear upon what he bases the assumption that Jesus was crucified around AD 30. I have already shown the non-Christian sources cannot reliably show that Jesus was crucified in this or any other time; further, the criterion used to undermine the non-Christian case for the crucifixion — date of composition — similarly undermines Habermas’ Christian non-New Testament sources, the earliest of which is written around AD 95 (see pp.229-242).
The only non-New Testament sources remaining to Habermas of those considered in Habermas 1996 — a text “…largely concerned with pre- and non-biblical evidence for…the life, death and resurrection of Jesus” (p.10) — are archaeological sources and Christian creeds such as 1 Cor.15:3ff. The former, however, are insufficient to independently show Jesus’ crucifixion (see pp.171-186); and if 1 Cor.15:3ff cannot establish Jesus’ historical existence, the situation does not appear hopeful for creeds less capable than this “most important” of creedal evidences.
Certainly, if Paul thought these postresurrection witnesses were contemporary to a historical Jesus, and himself contemporary to these witnesses, then Habermas could establish, among other things, that Paul thought Jesus lived fairly recently. Habermas argues that Paul was contemporary to some of these witnesses, having met Cephas and James, but if, as is commonly charged, James was the brother of Jesus then it is the connection with James that is most interesting for establishing that Paul thought Jesus was a recent historical personage. While Paul does not indicate any familial relationship between Jesus and James in the creed in question, elsewhere in his letter to the church at Galatia he wrote: “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Gal.1:18-19).
The question, then, is whether Paul thought he had met — and was therefore contemporary with — one of Jesus’ siblings, therefore necessitating Jesus’ recent historical existence. While this point is not technically part of Habermas’ creedal defence of CF2, it is both related to the defence of the creed and itself an independent evidence for a historical Jesus. Therefore, in the context of the Mythicist’s counter-hypothesis of the resurrection, whether Paul thought Jesus had an earthly brother named James whom he had met needs to be addressed.
V.2.b.2. “James the Lord’s brother” (Gal.1:19)
Unfortunately, Habermas does not take very seriously the suggestion that Paul did not think the James mentioned in Gal.1:19 was Jesus’ familial brother; while he addresses both Wells and Martin on this matter, he treats them both dismissively. Notably, Habermas describes Wells’ views on James with the following single sentence:
…Wells actually suggests, in describing James as the Lord’s brother, that Paul is referring not to an actual brother (in the sense of a blood relation) but to a group of individuals in the early church called the brethren of the Lord! (p.32).(53)
He then goes on to criticize Wells’ conclusion without indicating any awareness of the points Wells uses to defend his position.
Habermas’ treatment of Martin is somewhat more detailed, indirectly exhibiting some minimal understanding of one of the reasons used by Wells (borrowed by Martin) to deny that Paul thought James was Jesus’ kin:
Repeating what he terms the “plausible” suggestion of Wells, Martin postulates that, since there were factions in the early church who favored Paul, Apollos, or Peter,(54) “there may well have been one at Jerusalem called the brethren of the Lord, who would have had no more personal experience of Jesus than Paul himself” [Martin, p.55]. Later, Martin confidently asserts that “it is dubious that ‘James the Lord’s brother’ means ‘James, Jesus’ brother'” [Martin, p.92]. Thus, James would have been the member of a Christian faction called “the brethren of the Lord” that had no physical, familial relation to Jesus! (pp.40-41).
Habermas’ counterpoints against Martin and Wells on this matter are identical and his disagreement with Wells concerning James is limited to four objections: Wells does not provide the normal understanding of Paul’s references to James; the gospels, regardless of their dating, agree that Jesus had siblings; Josephus wrote of James, the brother of Jesus in Antiquities; finally, there is no manuscript evidence supporting Wells’ case.
The merit of these criticisms, however, is dubious. That Wells presents a “…far from normal way of understanding Paul” (p.32) merely repeats the obvious fact that Mythicism is not conventional; this objection, however, can only undermine Wells if parroting the theological status quo is a sufficient defence of this status quo — it is not. That all four gospels freely speak of Jesus’ brothers as siblings, contrary to Habermas, means nothing if this agreement is a product of later, theologically motivated tradition not found in the earlier Christian documents (see Wells 1988, pp.170ff). Assuming that Josephus wrote that James was the brother of Jesus around AD 90, this can hardly be thought to independently establish a blood relationship between Jesus and historical persons that Paul met.(55) Finally, merely stating that there is no ancient evidence to support the Mythicist’s position on James is not a sufficiently developed counter to the arguments Wells has presented against a blood relationship between James and Jesus. Nevertheless, on the basis of these points Habermas concludes: “One gets the distinct impression in reading the dubious interpretations of Wells and Martin that the point is not to fairly explain Paul’s meaning, but to say anything in order to avoid the clear meaning of the texts” (p.41).
Habermas’ use of the ad hominem aside, Wells admits that Gal.1:19 is one of the few instances where the evidence prima facie supports a historical Jesus — he calls it, in fact, one of the most striking examples of such a case. Paul does claim personal acquaintance with James, and Wells admits
…that this interpretation of Paul’s words [ie. that James and Jesus were kin] does seem the immediate and obvious one. Here, then, is a case where what seems to be the plain sense of a text does not support me. It has to be weighed against other texts where my theory makes better sense of the evidence. If the only reasonable interpretation of what Paul says implies that James and Jesus were physical brothers, then this passage would weigh very heavily indeed against my view of Christian origins (p.167).
Of course, if this prima facie support were decisive merely for the reason that it was prima facie support, other instances where the prima facie appearances opposed Habermas’ position would be similarly decisive for the contrary view. Not surprisingly, Wells does not think the plausibility of James’ kinship with Jesus extends beyond the prima facie, rather arguing that an investigation that goes beyond Gal.1:19 undermines viewing James this way.
Beginning with the only one of Wells’ points that Habermas alludes to, consider 1 Cor.1:11-13, where Paul complains of Christian factions at Corinth:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Wells notes the fact that a religious party naming itself after say, Cephas, does not necessarily mean its members had any contact with Cephas personally, but only that they had adopted some views that were identified with Cephas; likewise, a party “of Christ” does not indicate any more personal acquaintance with an earthly Jesus than had by Paul (i.e. no personal acquaintance). Wells continues:
Now if there was a Corinthian group called “those of the Christ,” there could also have been a Jerusalem one called “the brethren of the Lord,” who would not necessarily have had any more personal experience of Jesus than Paul himself. And James, as “the brother of the Lord,” could have been the leader of the group (p.168). Wells notes it was common in ancient times to use the term “brother” to signify something other than blood-kinship and that the term “brother” could in Paul’s day mean “principle servant” (1988, p.168; citing Brandon, S.G.F. The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, 1951, p.20 n and refs.). Significantly, the phrase used in Gal.1:19 is “James the brother of the Lord”, not “James the brother of Jesus” nor “James, Jesus’ brother”. Of these three possibilities, the first phrasing is the most suggestive of a religious fraternity; notably, those phrases most suggestive of blood-kinship are not used by Paul to describe any relationship between another person and Jesus.
Contrary to Habermas’ suggestion, without relying on traditions exhibited within later Christian documents it cannot simply be assumed that the “clear meaning of the texts” is that Paul’s references to brothers of Jesus (e.g. James), are references to Jesus’ earthly kin; while taking Gal.1:19 in isolation might suggest such a relationship, a deeper look undermines this assumption. Of course, it is true that all three synoptic gospels attribute blood-brothers to Jesus, but while Mark names one of these as James and Matthew accepts and repeats this relationship, Luke-Acts conspicuously does not suggest any such kinship between James and Jesus. In fact, the closest Acts comes to naming James as the brother of Jesus is in Acts 12:17, when Peter asks that a message of the risen Lord be passed along to “James and to the brethren”; by Acts 15 this James functions as the leader of the Jerusalem community (i.e. the James of Gal.1:19) but its text never suggests that this James is Jesus’ sibling. Wells suggests that if the James that Paul met in Jerusalem was actually a brother of Jesus, the author of Acts surely would have said so when presenting a full account of their meeting, an account notably missing from any Pauline writings.
Additionally, when the gospels Matthew and John describe the similar circumstances of Jesus confronting Mary(s)(56) shortly after his resurrection, they both portray Jesus referring to his disciples as his brethren (see Mt.28:8-10; Jn.20:17). Textual analysis strongly suggests the author of John was not directly familiar with Mark, thereby ruling out the possibility that John, the latest gospel, took its information from Mark, the earliest gospel. Given the strong similarity between the two accounts, it appears that both authors relied upon a common tradition for their different accounts of this postresurrection appearance — accounts which are suspiciously never mention by Paul — therefore indicating a somewhat pre-gospel tradition in which Jesus’ followers are referred to as his brethren.
In sum, other than the vague references in Paul’s writings to “James the brother of the Lord” and other “brothers of the Lord” (see 1 Cor.9:5), there are no early details of Jesus’ earthly family life, let alone the idea that the James who led the Jerusalem church was a part of that family. If Jesus had lived and died around AD 30 with the family relations attributed to him in some later Christian documents, it is mysterious why the only early indications of such a family are found in two passages (i.e. Gal.1:19 and 1 Cor.9:5) which can be taken to suggest religious fraternity as well as familial kinship.
In accord with the Mythicist’s hypothesis, only in some of the later Christian documents do concerted efforts to portray Jesus as having an earthly family appear, but motivations more theological than historical can account for these depictions, notably the desire to combat Docetism — i.e. the heretical view that the historical Jesus was totally divine and only appeared as human. Wells concludes that while Galatians and Acts do not require James to be viewed as Jesus’ kin, such would be an easy and natural inference for someone trying to harmonize these texts with Mark and Matthew.
V.2.b.3. Concluding Remarks on Habermas’ Creedal Case
It appears that the creed of 1 Cor.15:3ff is useful for Habermas’ needs only if he is allowed to beg some questions, using the creed to confirm what he has already assumed, namely a historical Jesus. Whether the creed is pre- or post-Pauline will also have a marked effect on its possibilities for Christian apologetics, but this concern aside, the creed does not connect Paul with a contemporary earthly Jesus, rather providing a link with earthly Christians, like himself, who had claimed or were claimed to have had experiences of a postresurrection Jesus.
Wells points out that the apologists’ case is not helped by the fact that Paul, in his statement about the appearances, is reciting an early Christian creed. That the earliest extant mention of the resurrection occurs in a formula handed down from even earlier Christians is readily explicable if the event is in fact unhistorical (1989 p.37), but rather mysterious on the orthodox view presumed by Core Facts. It is of interest that while Paul does not geographically fix the post-resurrection appearances, the gospels assign them to varying inconsistent locales; these major discrepancies concerning a matter of the greatest importance to early Christianity suggest the later appearance stories are legends created to build upon and legitimate the earlier appearance-list. Accordingly, Paul’s list of appearances seems best explained as developing tradition: earliest Christians simply asserted that Christ died and was raised, embodying these convictions in preaching formulas such as “The Lord is risen”. The next stage was to provide the idea of appearances, then descriptions of appearances, then finally descriptions of the resurrection itself such as that found in the non-canonical Gospel of Peter. 1 Cor.15:3ff is unable to establish that Jesus appeared to his earthly followers, therefore being unable to establish CF2.
VI. Concluding Remarks: Return to DT and the Possibility of Rational Resurrection-Belief and Resurrection-Doubt
On its barest interpretation, DT claims that both belief in and scepticism of the resurrection can be rational given an awareness of the most persuasive argumentative cases for both sides in the resurrection-debate; consequently, the truth or falsity of DT will depend on the exact nature of these cases. According to Davis’ presentation, rational belief in the resurrection of Jesus — a necessary component of DT — follows from five metaphysical premises simply granted as rational (S1-S5) and three evidential considerations (B1-B3); for the naturalist, rational doubt in the resurrection — also a necessary component of DT — follows merely from four metaphysical premises simply granted as rational (N1-N4). Given that the most persuasive cases of neither naturalist nor supernaturalist are able to compel a rational change of opinion for those in the contrary camp, Davis thinks DT is true.
However, the current study is not primarily concerned with Davis’ presentation of the most persuasive cases. My interest is not in determining whether DT follows from the evidential-scenario that Davis prefers (i.e. B1-B3 and D1-D3); rather, I want to see if incorporating the conflict between Mythicism and Core Facts casts some doubt on the truth of DT. While Davis’ scenario sets up a conflict that appears very congenial to DT — notably, D1-D3 are epistemically redundant and serve only to describe precisely how it is that the naturalist might most persuasively rebut the Christian’s apologetic for the resurrection — the conflict between Habermas, Martin and Wells does not appear so agreeable to Davis’ thesis.
VI.1. Evaluating the Conflict
DT would be refuted if either naturalism or supernaturalism could not defend their respective rational resurrection-opinions in light of the conflict between both most persuasive cases. Recall that even on Davis’ view of the resurrection-debate, naturalism had an epistemic edge over supernaturalism: naturalism could justify its position on the resurrection without reference to non-metaphysical arguments like D1-D3; on the other hand, supernaturalism had to fight an uphill battle against the burden of proof, defending its conclusions against a universal rational bias against miraculous events. Therefore, on Davis’ religious epistemology naturalism could only fail to uphold its half of DT if the supernaturalist’s most persuasive case could somehow overwhelm not only the naturalist’s most persuasive case but also his metaphysical presumptions.
While Habermas, as a hard apologist, might have thought that this could be done, Davis did not; the repeated failure of Habermas to either effectively criticise Mythicism or defend crucial premises of Core Facts suggests his hopes of defeating N1-N4 through his resurrection-apologetic are premature. Against the background of the conflict described in Chapter V as well as Davis’ accepting the relative ease with which naturalists can defend their doubt, the possibility of rational resurrection-doubt seems a foregone conclusion.
VI.1.a. Rational Belief in the Resurrection
Supernaturalism’s half of DT required a successful soft apologetic for the resurrection, an argument that could withstand the analogue of a hard apologetic from the naturalist’s camp. Mythicism provides just such a naturalistic analogue, and so the question to ask is whether the soft apologetic provided by Core Facts can survive as soft apologetic in the face of its conflict with the Mythicist.
The results of this conflict can be divided into two major areas: 1) Habermas’ defence of resurrection-belief; and 2) the Mythicist’s defence against Habermas. Concerning the latter, Habermas consistently failed to undermine Mythicism as an explanatory alternative to the orthodox Christian view of Jesus’ resurrection; his criticisms tended to be superficial and were unable to serve as serious objections to Mythicism taken seriously.
Regarding the defence of the resurrection, I examined two claims Habermas used to undergird his abridged apologetic: H1) the historical crucifixion could be demonstrated on the non-Christian evidence alone; and H2) the most important fact of his abridged apologetic — the appearances of a postmortem Jesus to his earthly disciples — is strongly supported by 1 Cor.15:3ff. H1) was not established: independent testimony defending the crucifixion should properly originate from close to the time of the event being attested to; Habermas failed to show that any non-Christian sources predated AD 70. It appears most likely that his earliest such reference to the crucifixion is no earlier than AD 90, even later if Testimonium Flavianum is entirely interpolated material. As for H2), Habermas failed to show that the evidential value of this testimony, even granting its priority to Paul, was sufficient to establish that a resurrected Jesus confronted companions and associates of the historical, earthly Jesus. While the creed of 1 Cor.15:3ff might be taken to show that contemporaries of Paul claimed to have had appearances of a risen Jesus, it does not sufficiently establish that the recipients of these appearances had had any contact with the earthly incarnation of Christ.
In accord with the dictum to not seek greater certainty in an inquiry than is appropriate to the subject at hand, I cannot see that anything follows necessarily from these findings. Nonetheless, with regard to Habermas’ stance as a hard apologist, it seems incredible to suggest that a thinker who incorporated these two ineffective cases into his overall apologetic — one of them being among his very best items of evidence — could somehow compel non-believers to assent to the resurrection on pain of irrationality. While it is broadly logically possible — i.e. not necessarily false — that the remainder of Core Facts could succeed as hard apologetic, my examination justifies strong doubt in such a possibility. It is true that this suspicion is underdetermined by the evidence, but critical scrutiny of Habermas’ apologetics does not inspire one with confidence in his ability to provide a case — abridged or not — that can overwhelm the rationality of dissenting views in the face of all objections, particularly those raised by the Mythicist.
Of course, Habermas’ Core Facts was being used to stand in for a soft apologetic, and so its merit as soft apologetic needs to be considered. In DT‘s favour, the mere fact that soft apologetics are far less ambitious than hard apologetics makes their success initially more plausible. Still, in the face of Mythicism a soft apologetic based crucially upon either of H1) or H2) would also appear insufficient to defend rational resurrection-belief. Taking Mythicism as an analogue of a hard apologetic, the version of DT that interests me needs a soft apologetic that can specifically withstand this alternative to the standard resurrection-hypothesis; while Habermas failed to successfully undercut Mythicism, Davis has yet to try. Given that Davis both approved of and strongly resembled Habermas’ apologetics, Mythicism’s rather one-sided victory over Core Facts should properly have consequences upon Davis’ view of the apologetic landscape.
VI.2. Revising Davis’ Apologetic Landscape
Foremost, on Davis’ evidential-scenario for the resurrection both the naturalist and supernaturalist grant that the naturalist cannot plausibly explain particular facts surrounding the resurrection (e.g. the crucifixion). Given Mythicism’s performance in this study, without a serious rebuttal of Mythicism neither naturalist nor supernaturalist should endorse this point.
That aside, each most persuasive case still requires individual modification. Consider the naturalist’s best evidential case à la Davis: D1) the biblical testimony is unreliable, written years after the events by unsophisticated, myth-prone people who were more interested in promulgating faith than recording history; D2) the New Testament accounts of the resurrection and following events are frequently contradictory; D3) the probability of a dead man coming back to life is so small that doubt is justified in the face of the (currently available) evidence.
Notably, Mythicism does not deny any of these premises and can subsume them into its more intricate position. For example, Wells does not merely object that the New Testament presents contradictory testimony written years after the events being attested to; rather, the Mythicist emphasises a developing picture of Jesus that evolves in historical detail and complexity as the New Testament documents are examined chronologically. The earliest stage is almost entirely lacking in historical context and the ultimate implication is that the earlier Christian texts were not inspired by the sort of historical Jesus only evidenced in the later writings. As for D3, Mythicism needn’t rely on any such broadly formulated probabilistic objection to criticise Core Facts; while Wells’ thesis could be combined with probabilistic considerations of a naturalistic or even simply non-Christian sort, it is quite able to undercut Core Facts without such reasoning.
Turning to the supernaturalist’s most persuasive case, after removing the contention that nonbelievers have no alternate hypothesis with which to explain the evidence supporting the resurrection, two points remain: B1) the biblical writers unanimously agree that Jesus rose from the dead, despite some minor discrepancies in their written accounts; B2) certain undeniable facts suggest the resurrection as their best explanation. Significantly, Mythicism seriously undercuts both of these: concerning the first, while the salvific death and resurrection of Christ is central to the New Testament, the unity of this theme does not extend to unity of the historical details surrounding the alleged events. It must be noted that this is more than a simple accusation of contradiction; for the observation that the historical details surrounding Jesus’ life develop chronologically suggests legendary embellishment over fallibly recorded human memories of real historical events. In light of the nature of the biblical accounts of the resurrection — not merely slightly diverging but noticeably evolving — B1 does not appear to greatly support belief in the resurrection.
As for B2, similarly to Habermas Davis believes that the facts surrounding the resurrection are “…not denied by any competent biblical, theological, or historical scholar” (1993, p.15). In the face of Mythicism, however, this confidence deserves serious scrutiny; while Jesus’ crucifixion, for example, may frequently be undenied, it is not undeniable. Ultimately, Habermas fails to overcome the Mythicist’s objections: he failed to rebut the claim that the historical details of the crucifixion cannot be evidenced in writings closer to the alleged time of Jesus’ execution than AD 70 or later; he was unable to wring a historical Jesus out of his best defence for CF2, one of these undoubted facts. Therefore, some serious substantiation is required to get very much argumentative milage out of B2; if Habermas’ case is at all indicative of defences of a historical Jesus, things do not look promising for the success of such apologetics.
Accordingly, the conflict between B1 and B2 on the one hand and Mythicism on the other does not look favourable to DT. While naturalism’s half of the thesis appears highly defensible, supernaturalism’s side is much more questionable; specifically, it is not at all clear that the supernaturalist who rationally believes S1-S5 but is aware of Mythicism as well as B1 and B2 can, without further mitigating evidence, maintain that his belief in the resurrection of Jesus is rational.(57) While my findings on the conflict between Mythicism and Core Facts are not immune to rebuttal, some sort of rebuttal must be involved for the Christian who wants his resurrection-belief to be rational on the terms of DT. If the apologetic landscape does not improve from the state at which I have assessed it, DT fails.
VI.3. Some Final Epistemic Considerations
By way of finale, I would like to briefly discuss some epistemic considerations that will clarify the meaning of “rationality” that concerns DT. Foremost there is the distinction found within discussions of epistemic normativity between internalism and externalism. Louis Pojman, in his introductory text on the theory of knowledge, defines the essential difference between these two schools as being that the former involves the marshalling of reasons or evidential justification for defending beliefs — or being able to provide such reasons — while the latter does not (pp.332-333). For a more detailed description of this epistemic distinction consider C.A.J. Coady’s characterisation:
The internalist tradition insists on the knower having an insight into the justification of his or her belief which is such as to show him or her the connection between that belief and reality. The externalist is dismissive of such hopes and views the crucial element making for knowledge as the obtaining of a special relation between the subject’s true belief and the state of affairs making it true. This relation, variously understood as reliability, causal connection from the state of affairs to the belief, or counterfactual tracking, makes for knowledge whether the subject has some insight into its nature and existence or not (p.17).
While it is common to adopt an exclusively internalist or externalist posture, these extremes can lead to counterintuitive conclusions. For example, insisting on strict, unwavering internalism seems to invite examples that internalism appears unable to account for plausibly, such as my belief of what I had for breakfast this morning or whether I am currently listening to music. Consider that everyday life is rife with beliefs that we consider completely justified yet which are obviously not held for evidential or argumentative reasons, e.g. beliefs based on memory, testimony or direct sensual perception. I believe that I had a muffin for breakfast and that I am currently listening to some music not because I can or have reasoned to such conclusions but because such beliefs appear to be epistemic givens, subject to undercutting but prima facie justified merely by the circumstances by which they are formed.
On the other hand, insisting exclusively on externalist considerations seems to make reasoning and evidential considerations irrelevant or, at best, of secondary importance to knowledge. While this may be appropriate for some defences of belief, more theoretical investigations seem best served by an internalistic rather than externalistic model. Granted, we all are likely to require externalistic justifications for many of our beliefs on many matters: but it seems plausible to suggest that highly theoretical beliefs justified (externally) by testimony receive their merit from the epistemic worth of the source that informs their beliefs; in the case of theoretical beliefs this chain of testimony-transfer ultimately will need to be founded on internalistic grounds. Unlike the “rank and file”, the upper authoritative echelons of testimony-justification-transfer will be unable to rely exclusively on externalistic considerations; rather, they will have to earn their position in the higher epistemological ranks through an internalistic model of justification.
Rather than deny the possibility of an externalistic defence of resurrection-belief, however, I will point out that the way in which Davis defended DT was decidedly internalistic. Not only did he disavow accepting historical beliefs completely on faith, he made it quite clear that the Christian’s defence of resurrection-belief against opposing views involved providing reasons and evidence. Davis’ most persuasive cases are decidedly evidentialist-internalist in their structure; while I would not argue that Davis disapproves of externalist defences of resurrection-belief, such do not seem to be a concern to the soft apologetics he uses to defend DT. An entirely different discussion would be required to adequately treat DT on externalist terms and given Davis’ approach to this subject such a discussion seems superfluous.(58)
There is, however, a further epistemic distinction drawn by Davis that might suggest another route for satisfying rational resurrection-belief. In his 1978 text on religious epistemology, Davis differentiates between public and private evidence:
Reasons for belief that are public are reasons that are objective (to use an admittedly ambiguous word). That is, they are open to the awareness and inspection of anyone who is interested enough to consider them, and they are transpersonal in their appeal…Private reasons for belief, then, are subjective. They are (at times, e.g. in ineffable experiences) open only to the awareness and scrutiny of the given individual to whom they are private, and are not necessarily convincing to anyone else (and should not convince anyone else) (pp.26-28).(59)
Parallel with the internalist/externalist distinction, Davis’ defence of the resurrection is decidedly public rather than private in its evidential considerations. Moreover, Davis’ criterion for the proper use of private evidence for answering an evidence-question (e.g. whether the historical evidence suggests that Jesus rose from the dead) was that the public evidence surrounding the matter under investigation was ambiguous and inconclusive. Now, perhaps in terms of Davis’ original cases it appeared that the public evidence on the resurrection was indecisive; however, adding Mythicism to the evidential landscape clearly calls for defending resurrection-belief via evidence of the public kind.
In sum, although “rationality” has subtleties such as those suggested by the distinctions between internalism and externalism, private and public evidence, Davis’ apologetic is clearly concerned with clearly internalistic justification involving public over private evidence. It should therefore be kept in mind that that is the reading of rationality being used by DT. In light of the conflict between Core Facts and Mythicism, this is also the reading of “rationality” that DT fails upon.
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Pojman, Louis P. What Can We Know? An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Wadsworth Publishing
Company: United States of America). 1995.
The Jesus of the Early Christians (Pemberton: London). 1971.
Did Jesus Exist? (Pemberton: London). 1975.
“Was Jesus Crucified Under Pontius Pilate? Did He Even Live at All?” The Humanist, V.38(1),
The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Prometheus Books: New York). 1988.
Who Was Jesus? (Open Court: Illinois). 1989.
Belief and Make-Believe (Open Court: Illinois). 1991.
The Jesus Legend (Open Court: Illinois). 1996.
1. See Sections I.1 and I.2 for Davis’ analyses of these world views. In brief, supernaturalists grant the existence of supernatural entities, while naturalists do not.
2. Concerning the distinction between a corpse being resurrected into a supernatural being rather than being revived back to natural (as opposed to supernatural) life, I will accept the less stringent criterion of revival and for the duration of this study will interpret “resurrection” in this way (see Cavin 1995).
3. Ironically, in a debate over the historicity of the resurrection between Habermas and the famous English atheist, Antony Flew, which took place one year after Davis’ initial statement of DT, the positions taken were approximations of Davis’ most persuasive cases. Two panels of judges — one of professional debate judges, the other of philosophers — decided that Habermas’ Christian position overwhelmed Flew’s atheistic stance (the philosophers voted 4-0, with one draw, while the debaters voted 3-2, see Habermas 1987, pp.xiii-xv). For a negative but fair criticism of Flew’s performance, see Davis 1989.
4. For a notable Jewish exception to this generalization, see Pinchas Lapide ‘s The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, 1983. While Lapide thinks Jesus rose from the dead, he maintains Jewish theism, accounting for the resurrection on distinctly non-Christian terms.
5. While Davis does suggest that the evidence exists which can compel rational supernaturalists to accept the resurrection, his main purpose in Davis 1993 is simply to argue that resurrection-belief is rational — permissively rather than compulsively — from a supernaturalistic perspective (see p.19, particularly n.21).
6. Specifically, Davis plans to defend the resurrection on philosophical, theological and historical grounds. I doubt that it is proper that these things be completely separated when dealing with this issue, but nonetheless it is important to emphasise the historical element in Davis’ apologetic.
7. For a detailed defence of the propriety of argument for religious faith, see Michael C. Banner, The Justification of Science and the Rationality of Religious Belief, (Oxford University Press: New York), 1990, particularly chapters 4 and 5.
8. The relevant details of Jn.20:19-29 are this: the risen Jesus had appeared to the apostles other than Thomas, showing them his wounds; Thomas expressed doubts upon being told of Jesus’ resurrection and not until he was granted his own post-resurrection appearance — complete with poking at Jesus’ wounds with his own hands — was he convinced that Jesus had indeed risen.
9. While Davis appears to be disagreeing with the written words of Jesus on this issue, he is not a biblical-literalist and so cannot be held to insisting that each and every word of the Christian Bible is literally reliable and true. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Davis, when arguing against reductive theories of the resurrection, wrote the following:
In general, it is never easy to prove that when people say one thing, they really (for some arcane reason) mean something else…It seems an exercise in exegetical legerdemain to claim that the New Testament writers did not really mean what they plainly said…” (p.40).
Accordingly, I do not think his advocacy of an attitude toward the resurrection based on Thomas’ conduct in Jn.20:19-29 can involve stretching the meaning of v.29 to fit Davis’ apologetic enterprise.
10. Unfortunately, Davis does not identify this Lukan passage and I am not enough of a New Testament scholar to know it offhand. Its identity, however, is not crucial to my argument.
11. Earlier I stipulated that the resurrection was being interpreted merely as revivification. I should clarify that the revivification at issue here is one brought about by a supernatural, miraculous process.
12. Concerning B2 Davis specifically admits that its suggested facts are “too skimpy” to compel conversion on pain of irrationality (p.169).
13. I do not think it can be argued successfully that this argument is necessarily redundant because it is simply entailed by N1-N4. While D1 and D2 may be taken as evidence confirming the naturalist’s metaphysics, given N1-N4 it is by no means required that these points be true. Granted, there is perhaps a stronger apparent connection between N3 and D3, but there is nothing logically incompatible between N4 and, say, plentiful naturalistic revivals of corpses from death; N3 bars the miraculous, not the possible fantastic advance of medical science.
14. If this were not the case, Davis’ contention that the Christian, but not the naturalist, must provide historical evidence to justify his views as rational would be quite mysterious.
15. Obviously Davis does not think the same person may hold both views — rationally or otherwise — simultaneously.
16. I am using these titles of “hard” and “soft” apologetics in a restricted sense, here, i.e. in the limited context of resurrection-apologetics.
17. While Davis admitted that the discrepancies could be ignored if a deductive case could be made for the resurrection, as previously discussed he does not think this has been done. Habermas does not think his case is demonstrably certain on the basis of incontrovertible evidence, i.e. “apodictically certain”, but he does think it sufficient — viz. “demonstrated by historical standards” — to make the first point of the supernaturalist’s best case unnecessary for successful apologetics (see Habermas 1985, pp.295-296).
18. Habermas simply calls this point “the crucifixion”, but he clearly has these contextual points in mind when arguing for Core Facts or any of its components. I have included the context so as to reinforce the exact nature of what it is that Habermas must show when arguing for the crucifixion.
19. This should not to be mistaken with Christological Mythicism, which considers not only the resurrection of Jesus, but his very existence, to be mythical.
20. Davis suggests that Habermas dismisses naturalism too lightly, exaggerating the deductive validity of his argument (which Davis assumes Habermas requires for a successful hard apologetic) and over simply responds to the naturalistic rejection of miracles.
21. Notably, Davis himself presents an apologetic similar to Habermas’ four-facts Core Facts — a six-fact apologetic that includes reference to Jesus’ empty tomb — which Davis thinks is more than sufficient to enable rational belief in the resurrection when combined with supernaturalistic assumptions (1993, pp.180-181).
22. Davis does mention one recent attempt at naturalistic hypothesis, Schonfield’s The Passover Plot. While Davis describes this book as “bold and entertaining”, he does not think it sufficiently threatening to warrant more than a brief mention (1993, p.16, n.18). He also cites George Eldon Ladd’s I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1975), pp.132-42 as an extended critique of rationalistic counter explanations of the resurrection.
23. I should point out that I have not obtained the Brown article from Commonweal, and so am taking my information here exclusively from Habermas.
24. In Wells 1991 (p.268, n.9), the author mentions in a footnote that many of his theologian critics misunderstand him: he cites Alvar Ellegard, “Jesus, Paul, and Early Christianity”, Lychnos, pp.1-47 (1990) and Martin, on the other hand, as two non-theologians who give a just account of his views. Were Wells to have disapproved of Martin’s abstract, certainly he would have said so here.
25. For example, they might wish to claim that independent confirmation of Jesus’ historicity at T in documents written around T is unnecessary; or perhaps independent confirmation of Jesus’ historicity at T can come from documents written by non-devotees as long as a century later than T. I do not agree with either of these claims, but merely provide them as examples. Nor does it appear likely that Davis would accept such a principle, given that he has argued that important historical events that could be recorded in histories of their times should appear in the histories of their times (1993, p.26).
26. For example, it could be claimed that there is independent confirmation of Jesus’ historicity at T in documents written around T.
27. Whether the conclusion does follow given CF1-CF4, of course, is another question entirely.
28. By “creeds”, Habermas means early Christian verbal expressions of Christian thought that the New Testamentwriters later recorded; he considers this material to be therefore extra-biblical.
29. I have chosen to use Wells’ presentation of Testimonium Flavianum rather than Habermas’ as the latter only provides the following expurgated Josephan text:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats…He was (the) Christ…he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him (p.192).
30. Presumably, Habermas’ version of this text is copied incorrectly from Bruce, stating that Socrates lived on in a stature of Hera and not mentioning Pythagoras’ posthumous fate at all (see Habermas, p.208).
31. He comes closer to specifying the potential range of creedal material in Habermas 1987 when he says in response to challenge from Flew that “…some scholars take the creed as being Chapter 15, verses 3 to 7, but some take the creed as being only verses 3 to 5” (p.85).
32. His comments on Wells in this text seem derived mostly from Habermas 1984, pp.31-36.
33. When I asked Professor Habermas for a transcript of this source — a lecture presented to the Evangelical Theological Society — he mentioned that the bulk of what he said in 1993 could be found in his 1996 text. While significant portions of the spoken lecture are not in the written text, regarding Jesus’ historicity Habermas 1996 covers all this material nearly verbatim.
34. Habermas 1996 actually divides his main objections into five major points, although the first two can easily be combined into one, reducing the count of total objections to four. In Habermas 1984 he appears to make the identical synthesis, presenting only four main objections against Wells (see 1984 pp.32-36). I do not think his later decision to expand the objections from four to five clarifies his position.
35. While recently explaining the Mythicist’s position to someone, I was immediately asked in a pleasant but challenging tone whether I doubted the existence of Mohammed. For Wells’ explanation as to why Mohammed can reasonably be thought a historical person, see 1971, pp.204-211.
36. In chapter four of his 1988 text Wells proposes to date the Gospel of Mark by what it says about persecution and other references in its apocalypse, Mark 13: briefly, Wells argues that the sort of Christian-persecution described in Mark was only sporadic until about AD 90, and the anxiety of Mark 13 makes more sense with a date of composition closer to AD 90 than AD 70.
37. Interestingly, when criticizing Wells for relying too heavily upon pagan parallels to Christianity Habermas also suggested that this dependence was “…a popular thesis late last century, but has been dismissed today by the majority of researchers, and for good reasons” (p.33). The observant reader will notice the similarity in wording between these two dismissals.
Also of interest here is a point made in Wells 1996 within a section entitled “Guidelines for Hostile Writing and Illustrations of Their Use.” In this section Wells describes a variety of cheap manoeuvres used by some of his critics over the years: the third of these is to “Affix distasteful labels to [the person with whom you disagree, ie. Wells], suggesting his adherence to discredited philosophical or other modes” (p.5). Habermas’ repeated identification of strands of Wells’ thesis with discredited arguments of the previous century seems to exemplify this tactic.
38. This is not an omission unique to Habermas 1996. Throughout the years he has appeared confident that other writers have performed this task, and consistently defends his dating of these documents by referring to their conclusions, but not their reasoning.
39. Notably, none of the documents that Wells classifies as early — and which Habermas accepts as predating the gospels — mention Pilate at all, rather blaming the rulers of the age for Jesus’ death. Apart from Mark, the first Christian writers to link Jesus with Pilate were the author of 1Timothy and Ignatius of Antioch: the latter, while on his way to martyrdom around AD 110, wrote an anti-Docetist letter which connects Pilate with Jesus (according to Duling and Perrin, “Modern critics place the period of Ignatius’ letter writing some time between 105 and 135 C.E., probably earlier rather than later” (p.332)); 1 Timothy is one of the pseudepigraphical Pastoral letters, which Duling and Perrin place in the second century AD. According to Raymond E. Brown’s recent (1997) Introduction to the New Testament, those who argue that the Pastorals such as 1 Timothy are pseudepigraphical date them at either AD 80-90, early 2nd century or the last third of that century (p.663). Reasons for doubting Paul wrote the Pastorals include unPauline style and vocabulary; Brown declares that the external evidence slightly favours a date of composition prior to AD 125 and that “…about 80 to 90 percent of modern scholars would agree that the Pastorals were written after Paul’s lifetime, and of those the majority would accept the period between 80 and 100 as the most plausible context for their composition” (p.668). Whatever the precise datings of these documents, it seems reasonably safe to say that neither Ignatius nor the author of 1 Timothy wrote their relevant documents much earlier, if at all, than AD 100. Given the failure of earlier texts to link Jesus with Pilate, it must be wondered why the gospels’ unanimous identification of Pilate as a common culprit indicates that the gospels are close to that culprit’s lifetime.
40. Habermas also makes a general criticism against attributing the origins of orthodox Christian belief to non-Christian sources. While this criticism can apply to both Jewish and pagan traditions, it is essentially the repetition of the claim that there is eyewitness testimony providing historical grounds for some orthodox Christian beliefs contained in 1 Cor.15:3ff. The merit of this claim will be decided in the next section of this chapter, V.2.
41. Notably, there are reasons independent of date that undermine the testimonial reliability of such documents. Consider that the earliest gospel — Mark — is anonymous, written by someone neither Jewish nor familiar with Palestinian geography. Nor was this earliest gospel written for a Jewish audience, as revealed when the author labouriously explains Jewish practices to his readers. Further, some of the sayings Mark attributes to Jesus were obviously not spoken by a historical Palestinian Jesus, such as when Jesus rules that a woman who divorces her husband and remarries commits adultery (Mk.10:12); such an utterance would be meaningless in Palestine where only men could obtain a divorce, but not so meaningless to a later Gentile Christian community in which women could also obtain divorces. Another passage that creates problems for Mark is 7:1-23, where Jesus bases an argument against the Pharisees on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (see Wells 1988, pp.10-15).
42. Wells actually identifies four distinct divisions of New Testament views on the historical person of Jesus (see 1978, p.24), but a rough partition can be made between those texts written prior to the Jewish Revolt and resulting destruction of Jerusalem (the early texts) and those which came after (the later texts).
43. Interestingly, none of the non-Christian sources that I omitted examining (ie. those sources irrelevant to evidencing the crucifixion) manage to pass this criterion, either. By Habermas’ reckoning, the closest case might be Thallus, whom he suggests wrote concerning Jesus’ earthly career in AD 52; however, he admits the case for this dating is so poorly established that Wells’ doubts about Thallus’ usefulness in this regard are “fair” (p.197). This is understatement on Habermas’ part; for Habermas takes his dating of Thallus from F.F. Bruce, who admits his identification of the alleged Christ-evidencing Thallus with a Thallus mentioned by Josephus to have lived in Tiberius’ time around AD 52 is “doubtful” (Bruce, p.30 n.19).
Further, Wells questions whether Josephus even mentions Thallus at all, noting that the Josephan manuscript in question must be modified to yield Thallus’ name:
The unamended reading is given in the Loeb translation and translated there as “there was in addition a certain man of Samaritan origin”…All that Josephus says of this person is that he once loaned a large sum of money to Agrippa; and so, even if the emendation is correct, it is hazardous to identify him with Thallus the historian (1996, p.44).
Finally, there is no extant copy of any document written by Thallus which refers to Jesus. The connection, if any, between Thallus and Jesus comes from Julius Africanus, a third century Christian, who wrote concerning the darkness at the crucifixion that “Thallus says — wrongly it seems to me — that this darkness was an eclipse of the sun” (Wells 1989, p.23). Consequently, even if this Thallus were to have been a writer during AD 52 who referred to a solar eclipse, this cannot be taken seriously as an early independent reference to a historical Jesus.
44. After the destruction of Jerusalem when belief in a historical Jesus of early first century seriously began to develop, it took some time for the dominant view to shift from blaming the Romans to blaming the Jews. Wells notes that examining the gospels in chronological order reveals that Pilate is increasingly exculpated and the Jews increasingly blamed as the text progresses from Mark to John (1975, p.64).
45. Bruce informs his reader that after AD 70, the Sanhedrin reconstituted as a supreme court for organizing Jewish religious law; their work, called the Mishnah, was completed around AD 200. The completed Mishnah itself became an object of study, and a body of commentary developed; the commentary became known as the Gemeras and the Gemeras and Mishnah together comprise the Talmud. Traditions from the Tannaitic period (AD 70-200), called baraithoth, were also preserved in the Gemeras. Bruce identifies Sanhedrin 43a as a baraitha (singular of baraithoth): therefore, Sanhedrin 43a is a tradition originating from between AD 70-200, recorded in a commentary that was begun around AD 200 and completed centuries later (pp.54-55).
46. According to Bruce, in Jewish law bodies were in certain cases hanged after stoning (p.57, n.8), thereby explaining Sanhedrin 43a’s reference to both stoning and hanging. Habermas ignores this information, preferring to speculate as follows:
It is interesting that there is no explanation as to why Jesus was crucified (“hanged”) when stoning was the prescribed punishment. It is likely that the Roman involvement provided the “change of plans,” without specifically being mentioned here (p.204).
Unfortunately, this explanation appears to be nothing more than an attempt to harmonize the Talmudic passage with the orthodox Christian view that Jesus was crucified under Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Considering the overall disharmony between the rabbinic references to Jesus and the New Testament accounts, this manoeuvre does not appear appropriate.
47. Considering Grant’s previously mentioned implication that Wells wields a double standard against Jesus that would not be used with other historical personages (see V.1.a), it might be interesting to analyse the Jewish historical record of Sabbatai Sevi, the seventeenth century Jewish Messianic figure, to note the results of any such comparison.
48. It is of interest here that in Wells 1989 the author argues that Habermas is a good example of an apologist who exaggerates the significance of non-Christian evidences which are thought to pertain to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life (p.22ff).
49. Alternately, Habermas could either argue that some of his non-Christian sources are earlier than I have claimed, or that such sources can be used as independent confirmation of the gospels despite the late dates of their writing. There is some cause to suspect Habermas might take this latter route: after all, within his sufficient non-Christian case for the crucifixion he includes sources that he admits date from mid-to-late second century (see pp.208-215). His gospel dating, therefore, suggests that he thinks acceptable independent confirmation can follow the sources to be confirmed by close to a century or more, although he never defends such an assumption explicitly and Wells would not easily grant such a point. I have briefly argued for the necessity of temporal priority in independent confirmation-documents (see V.2.a), and presently assume this principle prima facie legitimate.
50. In other words, perhaps these other resources can establish the crucifixion provided that the very lack of an adequate non-Christian case for Jesus’ crucifixion does not constitute a serious, unanswerable anomaly for belief in Jesus’ historical crucifixion. I think this avenue of investigation has some possibilities, but will not explore it here.
51. Wells himself accepts that vv.3b-4 are a pre-Pauline creed. Robert Price, however, has recently presented a brave argument that vv.3-11 are a later, post-Pauline interpolation (“Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 As a Post-Pauline Interpolation”, The Journal of Higher Criticism, V.2(2), 1995). Interestingly, Habermas provides a number of reasons for considering some vague unspecified portion of 1 Cor.15:3ff as non-Pauline (and he infers therefore pre-Pauline): one of these reasons, if correct, indicates that Paul’s own account of his own encounter with a risen Jesus (v.8) utilizes non-Pauline language (see pp.153-154). While it is very implausible that Paul would have recorded someone else’s account of his own encounter with Jesus, it is not so strange that an interpolator would describe Paul’s encounter with Jesus in non-Pauline language.
52. Some will no doubt be tempted to argue that Paul must have had a relatively brief period of time in mind when, after proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection, he states “…and that he appeared to…” and continues on with a list of appearances, some if not all of which are clearly to Paul’s contemporaries. Yet, consider vv.5-8:
5. and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
6. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
7. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
8. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Even on Habermas’ view, this last appearance occurred some years after Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, Habermas takes this inference from text outside of 1 Cor.15:3ff, for such an assumption cannot be made from merely examining vv.5-8. Accordingly, if the context of vv.5-8 does not specifically suggest how long after the resurrection this appearance occurred — save that it came last — it is not clear why the earlier appearances should be considered close to the events of vv.3b-4 without independent corroboration.
53. Unfortunately, Habermas does not identify from where he takes his information; the 1978 article which he seems to rely on so heavily for his information about Wells mentions the matter of James’ relationship with Jesus only to note that it had been treated in Wells 1971 and Wells 1975. 1988 devotes an entire chapter to the subject of Jesus’ alleged earthly family (chapter 8).
54. For whatever reason, Habermas neglects to mention an important point emphasized by both Martin and Wells, namely that in addition to factions favouring Paul, Apollos and Peter there was also a Christ-faction at Corinth.
55. Some scholars have viewed the Josephan statement, “the brother of Jesus, him called Christ”, as interpolated. Wells sees in these words the character of a brief marginal gloss, later incorporated innocently into the text. He suggests Josephus probably wrote of the death of a Jewish Jerusalem leader called James, and a Christian reader thought the reference must be to James the brother of the Lord who, according to Christian tradition, led the Jerusalem Church about the time in question. This reader would have, necessarily, had access to most if not all of the gospels and if he had noted in the margin “James = the brother of Jesus, him called Christ” based upon Mt.1:16 — “Jesus, him called Christ” — then a later copying could have incorporated this into the text. Wells argues this is precisely the way in which other interpolations were generated (1975, p.11).
56. According to Matthew it was Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (28:1); John mentions only Mary Magdalene (20:11ff).
57. It might be suggested that the rational presumption of S5 — rather vaguely conceived by Davis — contains elements that enable B1 and B2 to sufficiently rebut Mythicism. By way of quick response, I suggest that an interpretation of S5 that was sufficient, if granted as rational, to enable B1 and B2 to overcome the Mythicist’s objections would very quickly have its rational status called into question by the Mythicist.
58. For an interesting presentation of an externalist defence of resurrection-belief, see C. Stephen Evans’ The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith (Oxford University Press: New York), 1996.
59. Interestingly, Davis’ autobiographical comments suggest his faith is primarily defended with private evidence (see “Passing the Baton”, Philosophers Who Believe, ed. Clark, Kelly, pp.105-125).