August 11, 2008
Qualms about the Resurrection of Jesus
Dear Dr. Craig,
I just finished reading your very thoughtful book The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus with the sincere goal that it would resolve my doubts about the resurrection of Jesus, which you rightly insist is the central doctrine of Christianity, without which Christianity unravels. Though raised a Christian, I long ago left the church because of doubts about the historical reliability of the Bible. I am not a member of any religion. Still, I try to keep an open mind and occasionally revisit the Christian doctrine in hopes of finding some way to reconcile my doubts.
Unfortunately, I found that your book failed to address my key doubts regarding the accounts of Jesus' resurrection found in the four gospels.
I'm writing to ask if you would do me the kindness of reviewing the following questions listed below that I have about Jesus' resurrection and offer any clarification that you think might be helpful in resolving these qualms.
Qualm: #1: Matthew 27:51-3 describes the resuscitation of many godly people who exited the cemetery on Good Friday and returned to Jerusalem where they were seen by many people. If true, this event would have stunned all of Jerusalem, unquestionably been documented by numerous sources—gospel as well as non-gospel—and in terms of shock value would have dwarfed even the resurrection of Jesus. Yet nowhere else but in Matthew does anyone substantiate this resurrection-related miracle. Why the lack of substantiation unless it's legendary rather than factual? And if it's legendary, doesn't that call into question the rest of the resurrection story?
Qualm #2: You repeatedly insist in your book that Jesus' resurrection couldn't have been mere legend, because legends can't take root in a culture in a single generation, particularly when eyewitness "authorities" are available to denounce those legends. Yet I can think of many modern legends that have been concocted and have flourished in only one generation. Case in point: the popularly held conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy have sprung up in only one generation, despite hundreds of eyewitness to the event, an actual film of the assassination, and the existence of authorities (the Warren Commission, the news media, law enforcement) striving to preserve the official and credible account that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Other recent, outlandish, but stubbornly persistent legends include: the widespread belief in many Muslim countries that Israel was behind the 9-11 attack and that no Jews were present at the World Trade Center on the day of the attack; the belief in some quarters (most recently mentioned in the news by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Barak Obama) that the government may have created the AIDs virus to target African Americans; widespread reports of UFO-related sightings and encounters in Roswell, New Mexico, and elsewhere; the apocryphal stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq under Saddam Hussein—a "legend" that took a war to disprove. Lastly, the supernatural beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and other religions that quickly sprang up demonstrate that legends can prevail among large communities of believers in only a single generation.
Qualm #3: You state on page 119: "The appearance in Galilee mentioned by Mark is historical. Since this appearance was probably part of Mark's source material, it is very old and therefore no doubt reliable piece of information." As any journalist will attest, information is only as good as its source, and primary sources—straight from the horse's mouth—are generally considered more credible than second- or third-hand sources. Since we don't know the identity of the person who provided Mark with his "old" source material, we have no way of judging its reliability. The fact that it's a secondary rather than primary source makes it less reliable, not more so. Likewise, if Matthew, Luke, and John were authored by actual eyewitness disciples of Jesus, why would they have relied so heavily on other, secondary sources for their information—namely, Q and Mark. As the oldest of the gospels, Mark is closer in time to the actual events than the later gospels. Yet in the oldest and most reliable copies available, the book of Mark ends before any sighting of the resurrected Jesus are described. What's also worrisome is that the resurrection story becomes more and more elaborate in the later Gospels. In the earliest copies of Mark, we see no resurrection of Jesus. In Luke, the resurrected Jesus is eating fish. In John, he's telling his disciples where to fish and serving them breakfast. This smacks to me of legendary embroidery.
Qualm #4: Mark 16:18 provides a way for future believers to confirm the credibility of Jesus' resurrection and the credibility of those who believe it: they will be able to handle snakes safely, drink poison, and heal the sick. When taken literally, snake handling and drinking poison have proven so unreliable as predictive signs of the credibility of the gospel that no one practices them other than a smattering of fanatical churches in Appalachia. What's more, the largest study to date that's examined the efficacy of prayer in healing the sick failed to turn up any clear benefit. Missionary surgeon Paul Brand has also written in Christianity Today that in his many decades of medical practice among lepers he never once witnessed a healing that qualified as a bona fide miracle. If the confirming signs are only to be taken metaphorically, that raises the obvious question, what else in the resurrection story should be taken metaphorically—the resurrection itself perhaps?
Qualm #5: The four gospels conflict about which witnesses were present at the empty tomb. This is a major challenge to the credibility of the gospels, because the discovery of the empty tomb would have been such a shocking event that it ought to have emblazoned itself on the memories of those present, such that no one could have forgotten who was present and who wasn't. If the story is legendary, however, it's understandable why different accounts would have listed different witnesses.
Qualm #6: In the gospels, the eyewitnesses disagree about the number of angels present at the empty tomb—an unforgettable detail that shouldn't have produced conflicting accounts among the eyewitnesses if it were fact rather than legend.
Qualm #7: Matthew 27:62 makes it clear that Jesus' tomb was unguarded during the first night of Jesus' burial—raising the possibility that unknown grave robbers stole the body.
Qualm #8: The gospels differ about the location of Jesus' appearance to the disciples, as well as to the number of disciples present. Matthew 28:16 says that Jesus appeared to the 11 disciples on a mountain en route to Galilee. Luke 24:33-6 says that Jesus appeared to the 11 disciples in Jerusalem. And John 20:24 states that Jesus didn't initially appear to all 11 disciples, because Thomas hadn't been present. These discrepancies raise severe credibility problems.
Qualm #9: You state on page 132 that "…hallucinations, as projections of the mind, can contain nothing new." On what basis do you make this claim? I can think of many real-world counter examples, notably: many people routinely have surreal dreams that diverge dramatically from their normal thoughts and normal lives. And I again cite the visions and other supernatural experiences of the founders of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and other religions as evidence that individuals can experience visions/hallucinations that that bear no similarity to their normal understanding of the world.
Having carefully read your book and compared it with the content of the gospels, I have to conclude that the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection falls short of convincing. In fact, I find the totality of the historical record too scanty and contradictory to draw any conclusion one way or the other. The strongest case to be made for the resurrection of Jesus is in the post-crucifixion behavior of his disciples, who endured great hardship to spread the good news. But the same ardor can also be found among the first-generation followers of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and I'm sure that neither of us would count Smith's encounters with the angel Moroni or the angel's golden tablets (whose existence was attested to by Smith's immediate followers, who signed affidavits swearing that they had seen the tablets firsthand) as anything other than fiction or legend.
Once again, thank you for your time and patience in reading this letter. If you can shed any helpful light on these questions, I'd be most appreciative.
Well, D., there's a lot that needs to be said here! I think the overriding point that needs to be made, however, is that you and I are coming at the evidence with entirely different projects in mind. Like so many raised in conservative Christian churches, your concern is with the reliability of the biblical text. Hence, your remark, "I long ago left the church because of doubts about the historical reliability of the Bible."
When I read this, I thought, "What an odd thing to do!" Why not simply adjust your theology so that the Bible is taken to be a fallible human witness to God's self-revelation in history, or less radically, so that divine inspiration of Scripture doesn't entail biblical inerrancy? Why this "all or nothing" attitude? Why would such relatively minor qualms as yours about the reliability of the Gospel accounts call into question Jesus' deity and resurrection or the existence of God?
I can't help but suspect that the reason is that you had a defective system of theological beliefs. We can think of our theology like a web, with certain beliefs near the center of the web and others further out nearer the perimeter. Too many conservative Christians have the doctrine of biblical inerrancy at or near the center of their web of beliefs, so that if that belief is compromised the whole structure of the web collapses and they lose their Christian faith.
This is quite wrong-headed. At the center of our web of beliefs should be certain essential doctrines like the existence of God and the deity of Christ and then a little further out the doctrine of, say, the atonement, and further out still doctrines like the sacraments and biblical inspiration and its possible corollary biblical inerrancy. If one of the central doctrines is abandoned, then the whole web, indeed, collapses. But if a belief near the circumference is discarded, while that will cause readjustments elsewhere in the web, it won't compromise the structure of the whole. If your qualms were to remain unallayed, then you would be justified at most in giving up a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, but you should not abandon Christ.
Indeed, D., on the basis of your qualms you needn't abandon even a strong apologetic case for the historicity of the resurrection! My Doktorvater in Munich Wolfhart Pannenberg has opined that the Gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection are so legendary that they have scarcely a historical kernel in them; yet he stunned German theology by arguing for the historicity of Jesus' post-mortem appearances and empty tomb and, hence, for his resurrection sheerly on historical grounds.
In fact, my own case for Jesus' resurrection would not be touched by most of the qualms you express. I present a two step argument for Jesus' resurrection: first, that there are three facts which any responsible historian who wants to give an account of Jesus must explain, and second, that the Resurrection Hypothesis is the best explanation of those facts. The three facts are very modestly stated:
1. On the Sunday morning after his crucifixion, Jesus' tomb was found empty by a group of his female followers.
2. Various individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death.
3. The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead despite having nearly every predisposition to the contrary.
The strength of my case—which only dawned me afterwards—is that these three facts represent the mainstream judgement of New Testament scholarship today. These are not the exclusive property of evangelical scholars but represent the view held by the wide majority of New Testament critics who have written on the subject.
Now this should be tremendously encouraging to you! Doubts about the historicity of Matt. 27.51-53 or the number of angels at the tomb or the names of the women at the tomb become, if not irrelevant, then at least unimportant with respect to the case for Jesus' resurrection. You can and should be a vibrant Christian despite your qualms.
So the point is, I'm not engaged in the same project that concerns you: I'm not trying to demonstrate the reliability of the Gospel accounts. Rather I'm weighing the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I claim, not to be able to establish the general reliability of the Gospel accounts, but to establish those three specific facts listed above and to show that the best explanation of those facts is the hypothesis "God raised Jesus from the dead." Achievement of that limited goal would neither justify belief in the Gospels' general reliability nor does it require it.
Now let's address some of your specific qualms. They're an interesting mix: qualms # 1, 3, 5, 6, and 8 have to do with the facts of the matter (the first step of my case), whereas qualms #2, 4, 7, and 9 have to do with what is the best explanation of the facts (the second step of my case). So let's look at them in the order of my two steps.
First, the facts of the matter.
Qualm #1 doesn't challenge, even prima facie, any of my three facts. It doesn't even challenge the reliability of the other Gospels. Think about it, D. Suppose Matthew added to Mark's crucifixion narrative the unhistorical story of the resurrection of Old Testament saints. How does that do anything to show Mark's account to be unreliable, not to speak of Luke or John's? It would at most call into question Matthew's credibility.
Or would it? Suppose Matthew didn't mean for this to be taken literally? Suppose it's just part of the apocalyptic imagery typical of Jewish apocalyptic writings, a way of portraying how age-shifting Jesus' death was? Then our problem is that we're taking literary imagery in an inappropriate, literalistic way, and the problem is not with Matthew but with us.
Doesn't that conclusion call into question the rest of Matthew's resurrection account? Not at all! For Matthew attaches this story, not to the account of Jesus' resurrection, but of his crucifixion, which is one of the firmest anchor points of the historical Jesus.
But suppose Matthew did mean for this incident to be taken literally. How do we know it didn't happen? How do we know that certain people in Jerusalem hadn't claimed to have seen appearances of Old Testament saints around the time of Jesus' death? You say, it would have "unquestionably been documented by numerous sources." Really? What sources? Apart from Josephus, what records do we have from that time? And why think that Josephus would bother to mention it? He doesn't even mention Jesus' resurrection appearances, which, we know with certainty, people in Jerusalem had claimed to have experienced. We know from the Gospels themselves how selective they are in what stories they choose to narrate. So any such argument from silence is very tenuous.
Qualm #3 tries perversely to turn a positive feature of Mark's narrative into a negative. Whenever New Testament historians can determine that some Gospel writer is working with an earlier tradition, this enhances rather than detracts from its historical credibility because the window of time for legendary embellishment is closed even more tightly. So if the empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story, this is a huge plus for its historical credibility, as all historical scholars recognize.
As for the other Evangelists, Luke wasn't an eyewitness and even spoke of others who had previously written accounts of Jesus' life. John's Gospel isn't dependent on either Mark or Q. As for Matthew's Gospel, maybe he wasn't one of the Twelve; or maybe he incorporated his notes of Jesus' teaching (Q) into the narrative framework conveniently provided by Mark.
Yes, Mark's Gospel either ended at 16.8 or the original ending has been lost. If lost, the original ending may well have related a resurrection appearance story in Galilee like Matthew's. If v.8 is the original ending, Mark has prefigured the appearance in Galilee by means of the angel's prophecy. Again, nothing in my case hangs on the details of the appearance narratives. Ironically, the physical nature of the resurrection appearances is, as you yourself note, independently attested by Luke and John and so can't be dismissed as their editorial embroidery. As I argue in The Son Rises, the Gospels and Paul are one in thinking of the resurrection body of Christ as physical.
Qualm #5 overlooks the fact that the name of Mary Magdalene is connected with the discovery of the empty tomb in all four Gospels and so is multiply and independently attested. The evidence is consistent with her being accompanied by a group of women, different ones of whom are mentioned in different Gospels. Minimally, then, we can say Mary and others were there. The Evangelists' giving selectively some of the others' names or even getting them wrong doesn't imply that no one was there at all (see my illustration in the next point). Remember, too, that the discovery of the tomb by women is one of the most persuasive elements of the narrative, since a legendary account would have made male disciples discover the tomb. (The fact that you ignore this point, argued in The Son Rises, to quibble about the women's names worries me.)
Qualm #6 is again an utter triviality that only someone worried about biblical inerrancy would be concerned with. Such discrepancies are commonplace in historical accounts. For example, my friend Mike Licona likes to point out that among the survivors of the Titanic, it was disputed by the eyewitnesses whether the ship broke in two before it sank. You would think that this would be something so dramatic that no eyewitness could get it wrong! It wasn't until the ship was actually discovered that the truth was learned (it did indeed, break in two). Can you imagine disputing the sinking of the Titanic because the eyewitnesses disagreed on this aspect of the story?
Qualm #8 is groundless, as you should know from The Son Rises. The resurrection appearances can be placed unproblematically in sequence according to the disciples' festival pilgrimages to Passover and Unleavened Bread (Jerusalem), back to Galilee, and to Pentecost (Jerusalem).
In sum, D., historical Jesus scholars are aware of all these points and have not been convinced by them that the three facts upon which I base my case are therefore unhistorical. Why should you think so?
Second, the best explanation of these facts.
Qualm #2 is based on a confusion of legends with lies. Legends are the outgrowth of a period of oral transmission of a tradition until the original facts have been lost. As Richard Bauckham points out in his recent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, in the case of the Gospels we shouldn't even speak of oral tradition, but rather of oral history, because the original eyewitnesses and fount of the tradition were still about to correct any departures from the tradition! But lies, such as all the cases you mention, can arise immediately, being deliberate fabrications. It only needs to be added that no scholar takes the disciples' belief in the resurrection of Jesus to be a deliberate fabrication. (See Reasonable Faith for detailed arguments.)
Qualm #4 is inconsistent with qualm #3, which rightly points out that Mk. 16.18 is a spurious later addition to the Gospel. (D., the longer I write, the more doubtful I'm becoming of your sincerity or, at least, objectivity. How could #4 really be a qualm for you when you recognize that the passage is not authentic?)
Qualm #7 is fatuous, since I don't even assume that there was a guard at the tomb. My case proceeds as though the tomb were unguarded and argues against the theft hypothesis on other grounds (The Son Rises, pp. 86-87).
Qualm #9 is easily answered once we understand that a hallucination is a projection of the percipient's own mind. Therefore it cannot contain anything not already in the mind. Now certainly these elements can be mixed together in bizarre ways. But the overriding point here—and a very powerful one—is that if the disciples were to hallucinate visions of Jesus, they would have projected visions of Jesus exalted in heaven, where the righteous dead went after death. They would then have proclaimed triumphantly Jesus' ascension or translation into heaven, not his resurrection, which went solidly contrary to Jewish beliefs. This is not to mention all the other objections I raise to the Hallucination Hypothesis, which ought to overcome your qualm about this single point.
Your final point is flawed as well: it's not the ardor of the disciples which shows the veracity of what they believe—Muslims are arduous, too, after all—rather it is the fact that they came to believe something radically contrary to their Jewish beliefs, namely, that Messiah had been executed by his enemies and raised by God from the dead as an act of history. That amazing fact cries out for explanation, along with the emptiness of Jesus' tomb and the multiplicity of his post-mortem appearances. What better explanation is there than the one the disciples gave?