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Debate with Richard Carrier (part 2)

April 02, 2009     Time: 00:35:14
Debate with Richard Carrier (part 2)


Conversation with William Lane Craig. Discussion of William Lane Craig's debate with Richard Carrier at Northwest Missouri State University in March, 2009. Part 2.

Transcript Debate with Richard Carrier (Part 2)

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, we are talking about the debate you had on the resurrection with Richard Carrier. [1]As we said on an earlier podcast, this was an important debate for a lot of reasons. It was anticipated. A lot of people see Richard Carrier as kind of the atheist hero these days. He has a younger following. A lot of people thought if anybody is going to be able to take on William Lane Craig it is going to be Richard Carrier because Richard Carrier has been studying him for years, writing about Bill Craig for years. This is one of those anticipated debates. Let’s get into some of the specifics. What are some important biblical exegesis and some other points that you think are important and that will perhaps be written on later.

Dr. Craig: One of the main arguments that did not get aired adequately in the debate was Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection body and its relationship to the earthly body. Richard’s central argument against the resurrection is that Paul didn’t believe in a physical resurrection body but rather a kind of spiritual body – a body made out of spirit –, and that this body is numerically distinct from the earthly body that dies and is buried. Richard believes that Paul’s doctrine was that the earthly body simply rots away in the grave, and that what God gives to the deceased person is a new, spiritual body unrelated to the body that died. I think that the vast majority of commentators on Paul understand that this is an erroneous reading of 1 Corinthians 15. That, in fact, in 1 Corinthians 15, what Paul is teaching is a transformation of the earthly body or its remains to a spiritual resurrection body.

I wanted to make two points about Richard’s argument here. Well, I did make them in the debate but he didn’t respond unfortunately. The first one is if this is meant to be an argument against the empty tomb, then there is a huge assumption lying just beneath the surface here, namely, that we have no independent evidence for the fact of the empty tomb. Even if Paul believed on theological grounds that Jesus’ tomb wasn’t empty, that proves nothing if you’ve got early, independent evidence that there was an empty tomb. And, in fact, I gave five lines of such evidence. So whatever Paul believed on theological grounds doesn’t do anything to deny the fact of the empty tomb if you have early independent evidence as I claimed of the empty tomb. That was the first point.

The second point is: I think when you do a careful exegesis of Paul’s doctrine in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere in Paul’s letters, you find that Paul most definitely believed that it was the mortal body – the earthly body – which will be transformed and made incorruptible, and immortal, and imperishable, and therefore would be made fit for God’s eternal Kingdom. So he most definitely would have believed in an empty tomb because he believed that it was the remains of the earthly body that would be raised and transformed into this spiritual resurrection body.

Another point, Kevin, that is worth mentioning is that it is not just in 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul talks about the transformation of the earthly body to the resurrection body; he talks about this same thing in his other letters, too. I pointed out in the debate that in Philippians 3:21, Paul says very plainly, “He will change our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body” which shows a transformation of the body to the resurrection body. [2] In Romans 8:10-11, Paul says, “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will make alive your mortal bodies also.” Notice the subject there – the mortal body that will be made alive by he who raised Christ. Then in Romans 8:23 Paul says that “we await adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” So in all of these passages, Paul clearly affirms the transformation of the earthly, mortal body to the resurrection body. Now, Richard didn’t respond in the debate to these three passages. But if you look at his written work where he does respond to these passages you find that the only way he avoids their implication is by mistranslation and distortion of meaning.

For example, the Philippians 3:21 passage where Paul says, “He will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” Richard points out that the verb there is used elsewhere by Josephus to mean an exchange of clothes, as when I change clothes. That doesn’t mean my shirt turns into a new shirt or my trousers into new trousers. It means I exchange them. So he says this is inconclusive in Philippians 3:21. The problem with that sort of exegesis is that, as Richard himself recognizes and as I quoted him, when interpreting words and phrases, context – context – is everything. When Josephus uses the word to indicate a change of clothing, he is very clear. What Josephus says in this passage in The Jewish War is that a certain woman is told (by, I think, David) to put aside her robes that she normally wears and to put on the garments of an ordinary citizen and go visit Ahijah the prophet. And so it says, “And so having changed, she went to visit Ahijah.” Well, obviously, the context there means changed clothes. But in Philippians 3:21, that is not the context. The context is talking about the resurrection, and it says, “He will change our lowly body to be similar to his glorious body.” There the context is one of intrinsic change, not exchange like in clothing.

Take Romans 8:10-11. That says, “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will make alive your mortal body also.” What Richard says there is that that translation is grammatically incorrect. Grammatically, the “also” cannot go with the participle “He who raised Christ Jesus.” He says the “also” doesn’t go with the participle, it goes with the previous verb in the previous sentence where it talks about the indwelling spirit. So this is indicating that right now God’s Spirit will give life to your mortal body. It is not talking about the resurrection. When I checked this out, Kevin, this is simply flat wrong grammatically. You can give numerous examples in Paul of where the word “also” connects with a prior participle. For example, Paul says, “He who sows sparingly, will also reap sparingly. He who sows bountifully, will also reap bountifully.” There the “also” is definitely connecting the word with the previous participle. There are numerous other examples of this sort in Paul’s letters and in other letters in the New Testament. So Richard is just flat wrong there. The conceptual relation between he who raised Christ from the dead and then the verb “make alive” indicating resurrection shows that the “also” there is connecting with the participle. “He who raised Christ will make alive your mortal bodies also.” It is a promise of the resurrection, and Richard’s grammar here is just mistaken.

Finally, the Romans 8:23 passage where Paul says, “We await adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Richard says, “Ah, what that is referring to is the release of our inner resurrection body” which Richard identifies with the inner man, the new man in Christ. He is saying what Paul is saying is that we are awaiting the release of this resurrection spiritual body inside of us which will come out when Christ returns. [3] The problem with that is that that depends upon this absurd thesis that Richard has that no one agrees to that the resurrection body is identical to what Paul calls my inner man and that this is growing inside of you until finally it will come out at the resurrection as a distinct body. And this body, the earthly body, will fall away like a discarded husk. Nobody thinks that Paul believed that. This has more in common with the movie Alien than with Pauline thought. There is no grounds at all for thinking that Paul identified the resurrection body with the inner man or the new man in Christ. So, again, Richard’s attempt to explain away the force of Romans 8:23 is just utterly implausible.

So I think you can see that in order to avoid the force of these passages in every case he has to resort to wresting words out of context, twisting meaning of words, mistranslation. In 1 Corinthians 15, he does the same thing there, Kevin. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul uses the word allasso which means “to change.” This word has the same range of meanings as the English word “change.” Sometimes it means an intrinsic change in a single subject. For example, meeting an old friend you might say, “My, how you’ve changed!” That would be intrinsic change in that subject. But sometimes the word can mean exchange. For example, if I say, “I changed money at the airport.” There we are not talking about an intrinsic change but an exchange. When you get to 1 Corinthians 15, contrary to Richard, Paul never says, “We will change bodies” like an exchange. We will change bodies. Paul doesn’t say that. Rather, what he says is “the trumpet will sound, the dead in Christ will be raised, and we shall be changed.” It is clearly talking about intrinsic change. It makes no sense at all to interpret this as extrinsic change.

Moreover, Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 15 four times verbs that have as their implicit subject the same subject. He says, “It is sown. It is raised. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown in perishability, it is raised in imperishability. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.” The same implicit subject for those contrasts. Richard, to avoid the implication, has to mistranslate the passage. He translates it as, “One is sown, one [that is a different one] is raised.” And that is just a mistranslation of the passage. So, again, in 1 Corinthians 15, you can see that same tendentious mistranslation, misinterpretation, in order to avoid the plain sense of the passage. What I want to say, too, here, Kevin, is this doesn’t require a knowledge of Greek to see this. Any careful reader of an English Bible can see these facts if you will just read Paul as he is meant to be read on the surface.

Kevin Harris: Richard is saying all this from an atheist standpoint, by the way. He doesn’t believe Christianity at all.

Dr. Craig: No.

Kevin Harris: He is only trying to evaluate what Paul believed.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that is right, Kevin. And therefore he can be objective if he only will be. I mean, even a Buddhist or a non-Christian of any stripe ought to be able to read the correspondence of Paul and say, “This is what this man believed. He was crazy! I don’t agree with him. But this is what he believed.” But Richard is so biased against Christianity, he is so intent on refuting Christianity, that it is almost like it blinds him to objectively reading these texts. It is not just Paul. As I studied for this debate, I was just amazed how over and over again Richard can’t seem to read these texts in an objective manner. He distorts what Josephus says. He grossly distorts what the church father Origen believed about the resurrection body and how it comes to be. I mean, his interpretation of Origen is so tendentious and so wrong as to be almost slanderous, frankly, of the church father. The same is true when he comes to reading N. T. Wright, when he reads A. N. Sherwin-White. He just can’t seem to read these authors in an objective prima facie way. He is so blinded by his prejudice against Christianity that he twists and distorts the meaning of these authors. [4] So what I came to see in studying for this debate was that if Richard gives a reference to somebody, you better go check out that reference. You just can’t rely on him to give you an objective, trustworthy interpretation of the sources that he cites.

I think this is unfortunately because, as you say, many young people reading his work will see it bristling with these footnotes, heavily documented, it looks so impressive. And he speaks with such confidence that you can really be taken in, unless you take the trouble to go look up the references and read them yourself. Then a very, very different picture begins to emerge.

So you are quite right. He is an atheist and doesn’t believe what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 15 but nevertheless he ought to be able to give us an objective interpretation of what Paul thought. I don’t think he does that. Instead, I think he seriously misconstrues Paul. He resorts to mistranslation, to wresting words out of context, to distortion of meaning in order to put through his very idiosyncratic interpretation of Paul.

Kevin Harris: Richard is trained as an historian but he seems to be influenced by a book that was written awhile back about a comparison of the Gospel of Mark and the Homeric epic. It seems that he sees everything through the lens of ancient writers only parroting other works that they were familiar with and copying them. Do you see that at all? Is this a poor historical method? Just because there are similarities . . .

Dr. Craig: Oh, yes, I think this is right, Kevin. He is very much, as you say, in sympathy with the views of this MacDonald that says that the passion narrative, indeed the whole Gospel of Mark, is built on and constructed out of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. And scarcely anybody thinks that it correct. It is so fantastic.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, the book was interesting but it certainly wasn’t received as far as I’ve been able to see.

Dr. Craig: No, what MacDonald has to do is, as you say, find any kind of little parallel. Like in the Iliad, Hector is slain by his enemies, he is mourned by women, and then he is given a burial. And this is supposed to be the source of Mark’s crucifixion and burial narrative for Jesus. Well, you can find those kinds of parallels to virtually anything. In fact, in a sense, Richard shows this himself because he’ll try to show that there are parallels with the Iliad and the Odyssey, but there are also parallels with the story of Jacob removing the stone from the well to water the camels. But there are also parallels to the story of Daniel in the lion’s den where the stone is rolled away from the lion’s den. But there are also parallels to the Orphic mystery religions where the initiates go into the underworld after death. The very abundance of parallels actually undermines his case because it shows you can find parallels to anything. That doesn’t prove literary dependence.

Kevin Harris: That is why I worry about that method because it seems like you just can’t know any history. Everything is just an amalgamation of a bunch of floating stories and you can put whatever interpretation you want.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. It is untestable. You can’t falsify it. Because if you say, “Look at these differences between, say, the Iliad and the Gospels,” what they will say is, “Ah, but that is actually evidence for dependence because it shows how Mark changed the Homeric narrative so as to conceal its dependence. So the similarities are taken as evidence of literary dependence, and then the differences are taken also as evidence of literary dependence. So it becomes utterly unfalsifiable and vacuous. Therefore, this is a terrible method of literary interpretation.

Kevin Harris: We should really do our best to determine what the original author intended. I see a move away from that in young historians putting in their own revisionism. Is that postmodern?

Dr. Craig: That’s a good question of whether this is a reflection of postmodernist historiography. But as I said in the debate, it is a good hermeneutical principle that before you try to read between the lines, you ought to learn how to read the lines themselves. I don’t think that Richard has learned to do that yet in interpreting, for example, the Gospel of Mark.

And just one more point if I might make it. One of the most important turns in the last half century in New Testament historical Jesus scholarship is what has been called the Jewish reclamation of Jesus. That is to say, in contrast to earlier scholarship in the late 19th and early 20th century, contemporary scholars have come to understand that the proper interpretive framework for Jesus of Nazareth is not Greco-Roman pagan mythology. [5] It is first century Palestinian Judaism. Jesus was a Jew. This is the culture and the background against which Jesus is to be properly understood. Richard just hasn’t appreciated or appropriated this Jewish reclamation of Jesus. He is still intent on interpreting Jesus against a pagan mythological background rather than against first century Palestinian Judaism. This may be a reflection of the fact that his area of expertise that he did his doctorate in is Greco-Roman ancient history. So naturally he wants to find that as relevant to the Gospels. But in so doing, I think he just fundamentally misunderstands the Jewishness of Jesus and the Gospels.

Kevin Harris: Bill, am I correct to assess that one of the arguments from Richard Carrier was hallucination theory?

Dr. Craig: Yes, he would, with broad strokes, indicate that he thought that the early Christian church was steeped in hallucinations and visions, and that therefore these resurrection appearances – which he admits occurred – were merely hallucinations. So he calls Paul a happy schizoid and refers to Mary as psychotic and thinks that that serves to explain everything.

Kevin Harris: I can see the strategy of trying to deny the empty tomb and show that the tomb wasn’t empty and that the rotting body of Jesus was in the tomb because hallucinations don’t explain the empty tomb.

Dr. Craig: That is one of the problems with the hallucination hypothesis. It only tries to explain the appearances, but it says nothing about the other facts that I mentioned like the empty tomb and the very origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. One of the points I made in the debate was that hallucinations are explanatorily inadequate to explain why the disciples would come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. Even if we concede that the disciples had hallucinations of Jesus, as N. T. Wright points out, in the ancient world visions of the deceased were not taken as evidence that they were alive. They were taken as evidence that they were dead, and you were seeing visions of the dead person. Moreover, if the disciples had seen visions of Jesus exalted in heaven where Jews believed the righteous dead went to be (in Abraham’s bosom), that would only have led to their belief that God has assumed him into heaven. That is a very different category in Jewish thinking than resurrection from the dead, which is the coming back to life in the spacetime realm. That would only take place at the end of the world, in the general resurrection. So even given hallucinations, we can give them that, it is explanatorily inadequate, and it is also too narrow in its explanatory scope.

Kevin Harris: The hallucination theory is nothing new. 19Th century it was around. Is there anything new to add to this?

Dr. Craig: The only thing that I think is interesting, maybe that is somewhat new, is study of bereavement visions. It seems that people who have recently lost a loved one are much more prone to seeing visions of their lost husband or their wife or something of that sort soon after the funeral. This is apparently a more common phenomenon than one might think. So the claim is that perhaps this is what the disciples experienced – these sort of bereavement visions of Jesus. There, again, I think that it is pointless to argue, “Well, how probable is that that they would have such visions.” I think, rather, the point to make is the one that I did: that even granted that, this doesn’t have the explanatory power to explain the origin of the belief in the resurrection nor does it have the explanatory scope to explain all of the evidence. I also think that it is implausible in that the diversity of the resurrection appearances far outstrips anything in the psychological case books about visions of the dead in that Jesus appeared not just to individuals, but to groups of people, not just to one person but to many people, not at one circumstance or locale but many circumstances and locales, not just to people who were believers in Jesus but even to unbelievers and enemies. That kind of diversity makes the hallucination hypothesis, I think, stretched beyond credibility.

Kevin Harris: Am I right, Bill, that there is material about bereavement hallucinations and hallucinations in general that hallucinations don’t tend to have a lot of transformative power. [6] Upon reflection, you can say, “Well, you know, I think . . .” Especially if there is a sword to your throat, or especially if you are going to give up God’s religion that you were raised with, and die for it. You kind of have a tendency to say, “You know what? I think I might have been hallucinating.”

Dr. Craig: Right. These folks who see a widow who sees her husband or these other sorts of bereavement visions, they don’t come to believe that the person is still alive. They don’t go to the cemetery to see if somehow the grave is now empty and exhume the casket. They recognize they are seeing their loved one in the afterlife. So these don’t have, as you say, this transformative power that clearly occurred in the lives of these early disciples, which changed them so radically from cowering people to bold proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection; where they were ready to give their very lives for the fact that God had raised him from the dead right there in Jerusalem where everyone knew where Jesus’ corpse had been interred.

Kevin Harris: I have to bring this up. One of Richard Carrier’s points has gotten a lot of buzz in the blogosphere and that is that he said Barabbas was a mythical character. The person they released instead of Jesus in the Gospels is a myth because his name means “Son of the Father.”

Dr. Craig: Bar-Abbas.

Kevin Harris: What is up with that?

Dr. Craig: In the first place, it is irrelevant because that is not one of the four facts on which I predicate the resurrection of Jesus. Even if that were an element added to the Markan narrative that is non-historical, it wouldn’t affect my case at all. It is very important for listeners to understand that a case for the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t depend on the infallibility of the historical records. As Richard himself recognizes, every historical document, no matter how reliable, is going to contain distortions, errors, contradictions, mythical elements, fictional elements. That doesn’t mean that, therefore, the rest of it is untrustworthy. So even if one dismissed Barabbas as unhistorical it wouldn’t affect my case in the least.

But I would say that actually we have good grounds for believing that it was part of Roman legal administration of the provinces to listen to what was called acclamatio populi or the acclaim of the people. They would allow this sometimes to determine verdicts. There is a case in AD 85 in Egypt where the governor released a prisoner who was supposed to be scourged because of the acclimation of the people. Although that man wasn’t a murderer and insurrectionist as Barabbas was, nevertheless, it could very well be the case that in the extraordinary circumstance of Jesus that Pilate was willing to let Barabbas go in the place of Jesus because he knew that a riot was about to take place. These Jewish leaders were fomenting a riot in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, and this could have gotten wholly out of hand, and so he was willing to let Barabbas go. As for the symbolic meaning of the name of Barabbas, I don’t see why his parents couldn’t have given him a name that was charged with symbolic significance. Why think that had to be Mark’s invention? Why couldn’t this be the real name of a Jewish man. So I don’t think you could just say something looks symbolic, therefore, it is unhistorical.

The conclusions to which this can lead can be absurd, Kevin. In the debate with Carrier, one of the people from the audience asked during the Q&A, “Dr. Carrier, you think that Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross was just a symbol, but Mark says his sons Alexander and Rufus were there with him. Isn’t that a historical reminiscence as most scholars think?” Carrier said, “No, I don’t think so. I think Alexander is the symbol of Alexander the Great, and Rufus was a symbol for this Socratic philosopher with a similar name. I can’t prove this, but that is my speculation.” So, you see, just all controls are lost where anything goes; you know, Alexander the Great and the Socratic philosopher are symbolized here in the passion narrative. It is just haywire hermeneutics, I think.

Kevin Harris: I see another strategy here, Bill. It seems that many skeptics of the Christian faith – activist atheists, Secular Web, Internet Infidels – are keying on (and rightly so) the Christian’s love and dependence upon the Bible, the Gospels, the New Testament. If they can erode your confidence in that then they can take away the rest of it, take away and show Christianity is false. [7] So it is a good strategy. At the same time, what I see here that we often try to do as defenders of the faith and presenters of the Gospel, and that is to just show a minimalist backed apologetic and then if we get those facts straight, that will actually build our confidence in the rest of the Scriptures.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that is right. Actually, this was a point made by the Greco-Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White with regard to the Gospels. He says whenever Jesus or the Book of Acts move into the orbit of public knowledge then he says the external confirmation from ancient sources in history begins. You can confirm the accuracy of these documents. He says that gives you confidence then when the Gospels are talking about things that are not publicly verifiable; that these same authors are still reliable when it comes to that. So having bracketed the question, say, of Barabbas, you show that the Gospels are very reliable with respect to these central facts that we can verify, and that will then give you confidence that when you go back to Barabbas again that, although we don’t have any other external confirmation of the existence of Barabbas, we are dealing with a reliable, trustworthy author and no good reason to deny what he does say about the release of Barabbas.

Kevin Harris: Can we expect maybe an article from you; an assessment of this?

Dr. Craig: I have been thinking about it because there is so much material I had that I had prepared for this debate that I was unable to use. For example, I would love to engage Richard with respect to his interpretation of the church father Origen. When I looked at what Origen has to say about the resurrection, I thought he had so seriously distorted him as to almost be libelous with regard to Origen’s views. So I would perhaps welcome the opportunity to put some of this material out there on, for example, what did Origen believe about the resurrection body and how it came to be? I think it is very clear he believed in a transformation of the remains of the earthly body that meant that the tomb was empty when Jesus rose again, despite Richard’s, I think, misinterpreting Origen. So, we’ll see.

Kevin Harris: This is not a grudge match. It is good to have competitions, good to have a debate. It is good to get in there. But this issue is so important that we want to look past our heroes and try to get at the truth. I am saying that because there are a lot of people listening to this podcast right now who are just angry. They are angry about how effective the historical evidence is for the resurrection and they just don’t want it to be true. I am just being honest. There is an emotional component that I am trying to address here. There are also those who are listening who genuinely have good questions and they want to know the good historical evidence. How do we assess arguments and evidence and truth when we have a favorite dog in the fight?

Dr. Craig: Hmm. I think for one thing, you really can’t take people’s word for it. I think that is especially the case with Richard. You’ve got to check out the references. You need to look them up yourself and see if, in fact, what is being said is accurate. I think when you do that, in this case you are going to find that he consistently misrepresents and distorts his sources when you look at both sides of the issue and try to dispassionately weigh them. I really do believe, Kevin, that the evidence stands on its own merit if you will just look at it objectively. It is not about people. It is not about Richard Carrier or Bill Craig. It is about the evidence, and the evidence speaks for itself if you are just willing to look at it with an open mind and open heart. [8]