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Debate with The Jesus Seminar

September 20, 2009     Time: 00:19:12
Debate with The Jesus Seminar


Conversation with William Lane Craig.

Transcript Debate with the Jesus Seminar


Kevin Harris: I’m sure you’ve heard of them. They call themselves The Jesus Seminar. But they don’t represent Jesus very well. In fact, after several years in existence, we still don’t think they have a good case. Welcome to Reasonable Faith, conversations with Dr. William Lane Craig. I am Kevin Harris. Today we will discuss a debate Dr. Craig had with a member of The Jesus Seminar on the resurrection of Christ. Let me take a moment to thank you for listening to our podcast. Come back often as we update with new topics, teaching, and information to equip you wherever you are on your journey. Be sure to bookmark and stay tuned at the end of the program. I will give you some more information.

Dr. Craig, you were in Mississippi at Millsaps College for this well-attended debate. [1] This was not your first encounter with The Jesus Seminar.

Dr. Craig: I’ve debated quite a number of folks who have been in The Jesus Seminar, people like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and others. Roy Hoover as one of the principal members of The Jesus Seminar was a person that I wanted to have a debate with and to raise these issues about the historicity of Jesus with.

Kevin Harris: Most people listening to us right now know about The Jesus Seminar. For those who don’t, they are not a group that is representative of the Christian faith in that they deny the vast majority of what Jesus said. They are very critical of the New Testament.

Dr. Craig: Right. They would say over 80% of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are inauthentic, that is to say, not uttered by the historical Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is committed to crafting a new view of who Jesus was that, I think, laypeople would call a liberal view. That would be the way they would characterize it – a liberal view of Jesus, a purely human Jesus who was a good social reformer and teacher, and who was sadly killed but who can be inspiring for us today. It is a sort of humanistic Jesus and a humanistic Christianity that The Jesus Seminar supports.

Kevin Harris: One that would undermine New Testament Christianity.

Dr. Craig: Clearly.

Kevin Harris: So this is an opportunity then to debate these issues. What was the topic of the debate?

Dr. Craig: I don’t remember the exact wording of the topic but it was on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. [2]

Kevin Harris: Hoover is the man who co-edited the infamous Five Gospels which included the Gospel of Thomas. Did the Gospel of Thomas tend to come up?

Dr. Craig: No, actually it didn’t come up much. But that was one reason I wanted to debate Hoover. He was instrumental in this very influential edition of The Five Gospels, as they called it, that Hoover and Robert Funk, the co-founder of The Jesus Seminar, edited. The introduction to this book is especially interesting because it lays out in a very candid and clear way the presuppositions that the members of The Jesus Seminar make when approaching the Gospels. It is very helpful reading for anyone who wants to understand left wing biblical criticism. This introduction makes it quite clear. [3] As one of the co-authors of that, Hoover is an important figure to take on.

Kevin Harris: In his opening speech he told the audience he wasn’t going to argue for a “no” answer to the question on the resurrection, but just offer an alternative reading of the evidence.

Dr. Craig: Right. I thought that was a typical, kind of liberal schmoozy way to do things. “I’m not going to answer ‘no.’ I’m not going to stake out a position here that I will have to defend and give arguments for. I’m just going to give a different reading, a different interpretation.” This is so typical of this kind of soft, mushy kind of way of approaching these questions. Not staking out a claim and giving arguments for it, but just offering a different interpretation.

Kevin Harris: Well, it seems then that he took Paul’s formula in 1 Corinthians 15 and the evidence for the resurrection there as late developing. Paul didn’t explicitly mention the empty tomb and things like that. Looks like he is kind of going for “the resurrection was tacked on later” kind of an approach.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Astonishingly, this is what he thought. His basis would be to try to drive a wedge between what the apostle Paul believed and what the Gospel writers believed and wrote about. His claim is that because Paul’s letters are earlier than the Gospels, they are more trustworthy, they are more reliable. [4] So he argues that Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb of Jesus and therefore that means that the empty tomb is non-historical. It didn’t exist. The empty tomb is a later legend that arose decades after Paul wrote his epistle to the church in Corinth. He didn’t deny the appearances of Jesus after his death. He didn’t deny that these occurred, but on the other hand he never explained what they were in the debate. I assume he would have to say these were hallucinations or some sort of self-induced visions or something. But that was one of his weak points in the debate – he never explained what these appearances were that Paul himself lists in 1 Corinthians 15. Then with regard to the origin of the Christian faith – the third fact to which I always appeal – he denied that the original disciples really did believe that Jesus was risen from the dead. This is astonishing and extremely radical. He thought that the original disciples just thought that Jesus was exalted to God’s right hand so to speak.

Kevin Harris: He wasn’t resurrected, it was just a change in his status.

Dr. Craig: That’s right. It wasn’t a change in the corpse, it was just a change in the status of Jesus – the way he ought to be regarded. So the original disciples did not really believe that Jesus was risen from the dead, but they used the Jewish language of being risen from the dead to express this change in Jesus’ status contrary to the universal meaning of these words. Then it was later on that these words then became interpreted literally to mean that he is actually risen from the dead. That was really a stretch for which he gave no argument; but again, he was just wanting to give a different reading.

Kevin Harris: The Jesus Seminar is really defunct now. I don’t think they are still organized.

Dr. Craig: I do think they continue to hold meetings. I am on their mailing list and I get notifications from time to time that they are having a meeting in a church. What they seem to be doing is holding little seminars in liberal churches around the country. So they will come and visit the First United Methodist church in some town and they will give a little seminar in that, propounding their views of Jesus. But they are not making the big splash that they did initially.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, that is what I’m asking. Are they still influential?

Dr. Craig: Well, they never were influential in the academy. But even on the popular level now, I think you are right, they are a phenomenon whose day is past.

Kevin Harris: This debate then really gave students an opportunity to hear what the biblical evidence is and how to assess the biblical evidence. When he went to 1 Corinthians 15 and talked about the resurrection being later and so forth, that is going to neglect other early testimony like in Mark and other Gospel sources that are early as well.

Dr. Craig: Right, I pointed out that Mark had sources that he used in writing his Gospel, and these sources go back just as early as the sources that Paul relied upon in 1 Corinthians 15. The passion story of Jesus, which probably ended with the burial and empty tomb account. I also pointed out that from Paul’s not mentioning the empty tomb in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, you cannot infer that therefore there was no empty tomb. It wouldn’t fit into the formula that Paul gives. Paul gives a four line formula and the subject of each line is Christ: Christ died, was buried, rose, and appeared. The empty tomb is not something that Christ did. So it wouldn’t fit in there. What Paul does say is that he was buried and he was raised on the third day. No first century Jew reading those lines would wonder, “But was his body still in the grave?” Any first century Jew reading those lines “he was buried and he was raised on the third day” would automatically understand that the tomb was left empty. So although Paul doesn’t say that the tomb was empty, he certainly implies it, and, as a Pharisee who had a very physical understanding of the resurrection, would have believed it. So I think that his argument from silence that he tries to use from Paul is just completely spurious as well as the fact that we have other very early sources – five or so of them – that mention the empty tomb.

Kevin Harris: 1 Corinthians is an early account as well.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it is. Extremely early. And that makes it difficult to explain away the appearances, for example. You’ve got to deal with them and he never did give us an account of what he thought these appearances were. [5]

Kevin Harris: Lean toward visions perhaps?

Dr. Craig: He’d have to. It seems to me that once you deny that these were veridical experiences of the risen Jesus, you basically have to say they were psychological and can be explained in some way as a result of mental projection or some sort of hallucination. I suppose theoretically you could say they were just lies – that is what the old conspiracy theorist said. But nobody believes that anymore. It is evident when you read the pages of the New Testament that these people really believed this and were ready to die for it. Therefore, you’ve got to explain it away psychologically if you deny that these were real appearances of Christ.

Kevin Harris: Help us understand again what’s going on in 1 Corinthians 15 as far as the fact that there is a creed there that Paul is relaying that was handed on to him. It has kind of got that rhythm to it.

Dr. Craig: Oh, very much so.

Kevin Harris: Distinctive of a creed?

Dr. Craig: Well, I don’t know if I would call it a creed but certainly an oral tradition that he is handing on. And he says as much. He says at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, “For I delivered to you what I also received.” Those are the standard rabbinical terms for the passing on of sacred tradition. So he himself says these are the traditions that I passed on to you that I received and have taught you. Then, as you say, this rhythm begins: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas then to the Twelve. Each line begins in Greek with the words “And that” or “Christ” and then after that “and that . . . and that . . . and that” marking out each one of the lines as having equal weight and importance.

Kevin Harris: It is grammatically unnecessary to say “and that . . . and that . . . and that.”

Dr. Craig: Yes, and in English, in fact, most translations leave those words out though they are there in Greek. It is as if he were saying “First, second, third, fourth.” He is listing them, the lines of this formula that he delivers. This formula is filled with non-Pauline characteristics. That is to say, stylistic traits that are not characteristic of Paul’s writing elsewhere. It has Aramaic qualities to it, in fact. This suggests that this is, in fact, an early tradition that Paul received just as he said that goes right back to the earliest church in Jerusalem.

Kevin Harris: Then Paul adds his own name at the end of that.

Dr. Craig: At the end he says, “Last of all as to one untimely born, Christ appeared also to me.” That undoubtedly is, as you say, a comment added by Paul to the traditions that he has received.

Kevin Harris: Bill, so often the criticism is that oral tradition and an oral culture is just not reliable. Look at us today – we can’t remember our own phone number. Kind of a thing like that. Do they have a point there?

Dr. Craig: No, not at all. In fact, the contrast with us is telling because we live in a non-oral culture in which we don’t need to memorize and retain facts and information because we live in a literary culture and can have records of things. But in an oral culture like the first century in Israel, the ability to memorize and faithfully pass on large tracts of sacred tradition was a highly prized and highly developed skill that was taught to children.

Kevin Harris: They had to!

Dr. Craig: Yes, they did. It wasn’t an option!

Kevin Harris: They didn’t have an internet. Or email.

Dr. Craig: They couldn’t even write, probably, many of these folks. So they would, in the home, in the synagogue, and in the school, children would be taught the ability to memorize oral tradition and to pass it on faithfully. So this gives us really actually great confidence when we come into contact with oral traditions about Jesus that are not the words of the evangelists themselves, or Paul himself, but represent the oral traditions that they have received. We are in contact with very ancient material that goes right back to the first years after Jesus and those who heard him.

Kevin Harris: I understand that some scholars say that oral tradition right there in 1 Corinthians 15 could be within 5 years of the crucifixion.

Dr. Craig: Oh, that is what virtually everybody thinks – that it goes back to within 5 years. Some I’ve seen, like Jimmy Dunn, as esteemed historical Jesus scholar from England, thinks that it goes back to within perhaps 18 months of the crucifixion of Jesus, that it is so old. [6] So that is very early tradition, mentions the appearances, and also mentions belief in his resurrection. It shows that this is not a later theological development that Paul originated, much less somebody else, but goes right back to the earliest belief of the disciples. As I said, the word resurrection always meant the raising up of the dead person in the tomb. The remains of the dead man, particularly the bones, were the object of resurrection in Jewish belief. It never meant anything else in Jewish or pagan literature. So Hoover’s idea that they simply used this language but they didn’t really mean it, I think is just completely wrong. And we know it is wrong by looking at Paul’s lengthy discussion in 1 Corinthians of the nature of the resurrection body. If they weren’t talking about the body, Paul wouldn’t be concerned to go into this lengthy discussion of what the body is going to be like and how it is different from the earthly body, and how it is the resurrection of the earthly body. He says again and again in 1 Corinthians (using the analogy of a seed being planted in the ground) “it is sown in corruption, it is raised in immortality. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.” Again and again the analogy of the seed shows that the resurrection body is the product of God’s act upon the earthly body that has been interred in the ground or in the tomb and that God then raises. So Hoover’s view, I think, is just desperate to think that these earliest disciples used the language of resurrection but they didn’t mean by it what it has always meant and that nobody ever bothered to correct them but instead this misuse because universal in the early Christian church.

Kevin Harris: Do you recall any of the students reaction to this exchange? Questions that came out of it?

Dr. Craig: My impressions, Kevin, was that most of the students or people who came to this debate were Christians. Unfortunately, a debate on a topic like the resurrection of Jesus is too religious to attract many non-believers. Anything that is about Jesus just scares non-believing students away. So I think most of the students that came were already Christians and they posed some good questions but nothing that really stood out in my memory. My main interest in this debate was having the chance to meet with Hoover on the debating field to have a debate on these issues and to get a DVD – a recording – of this debate for posterity so that people can watch it and see how well one of these typical liberal New Testament critics stands up to a case for the resurrection of Jesus. [7]