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#143 Contemporary Scholarship and Jesus’ Resurrection

January 11, 2010

Dear Dr. Craig:

Your argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on his burial, the empty tomb, his subsequent appearances, and the ensuing transformation of his followers has renewed my hope of coming to have faith in Christ. I hope you can help me in two ways towards fully embracing your argument:

(1) As I am not a New Testament scholar, I feel unable to *thoroughly* assess all of the arguments for and against your four premises personally (although your writings and the books on your debates are very helpful). Therefore I must give consideration to the prevalent view of the mainstream of scholars regarding the premises. I'm encouraged by your assertions that most in the mainstream accept them and by those assertions' not having been denied in the debates I've read, but I feel the need for positive corroboration from one or more neutral or opposition sources. Would you please point me towards any such corroboration(s), including if possible relatively recent ones?

(2) Assuming acceptance of your premises by most mainstream scholars: I agree with your statement that it is "stupefying" that most of those same scholars do not infer the resurrection from those premises, especially since I know you've been stating the argument for at least 25 years. But for me, as someone who has not yet arrived at belief himself, that stupefying fact is an obstacle: I need to account for it.

I realize that the explanation for some of these scholars' skepticism is that they have succumbed to naturalism, and it's evident that some scholars simply like being skeptics. However, it's difficult for me to believe that there aren't other, more formidable reasons that so many people who have chosen to intensively study the New Testament and who accept the four premises nevertheless reject the New Testament's crucial event.

Are there other reasons for this, whether counterarguments or less direct reasons? If so, would you please state them in their strongest form?--I want to confront the strongest challenges to belief *before* becoming a believer, not be ambushed by them afterwards!

By the way, a possible silver-lining way of looking at this troubling situation of many scholars' accepting the premises but remaining skeptics: the premises are so strong that even many skeptics accept them! (I'm sure you've made this point somewhere.)

In gratitude for how far you've brought me and
optimism that you can bring me further still,


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Dr. craig’s response


I'm so glad to hear that you're investigating Jesus with an open heart and mind, Lee!

One of the things that surprised me most in doing my doctoral work in Munich on the historicity of Jesus' resurrection was the dawning realization that most historical Jesus scholars who have written on the subject agree that (1) Jesus' burial by Joseph of Arimathea, (2) the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb by some of his female followers, (3) the post-mortem appearances of Jesus to various individuals and groups, and (4) the original disciples' coming sincerely to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead despite their strong predisposition to the contrary are historical. I know the literature and assure you that what I have reported is correct.

One way to corroborate my assessment of current scholarship is simply to provide lists of the names of prominent scholars who hold to these facts. I have provided such lists in my published work. Another way is to cite other eminent scholars who make the same judgement. This I have done as well.

Take Jesus' burial and empty tomb. These are both part of Mark's source for the story of Jesus' passion. According to Mark Allen Powell, the chair of the Historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature, "The dominant view is that the passion narratives are early and based on eyewitness testimony" (Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68 [2000]: 171). Specifically, with respect to the burial, Kendall and O'Collins note Bultmann, Fitzmeyer, Porter, Gnilka, Hooker, "and many other biblical scholars" who recognize a historically reliable core in the account of Jesus' burial by Joseph of Arimathea. They observe that "every now and then" the burial story is dismissed as unhistorical, for instance by John Dominic Crossan; but notwithstanding, "The standard recent commentators on Mark (Ernst, Gnilka, Haenchen, Harrington, Hooker, Pesch, Schweizer, etc.) . . . do not invest him with the kind of creativity needed to invent the burial story. . ." (Daniel Kendall and Gerald O'Collins, "Did Joseph of Arimathea Exist?" Biblica 75 [1994]: 240). In personal conversations with O'Collins and the renowned New Testament scholar Raymond Brown, both confirmed my judgement that only a small minority of scholars who have published on the subject would deny the historicity of Jesus' interment by Joseph of Arimathea. Similarly with respect to the empty tomb, already by the late 1970s Jacob Kremer, an Austrian specialist in the resurrection, was able to report, "By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb" (Die Osterevangelien--Geschichten um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977), 49-50). The role of women in discovering that the tomb was empty has been especially persuasive to scholars. According to Raymund Schwager, "it has recently become usual to assess positively the women's role at the death of Jesus and on Easter morning," in contrast to the legend hypothesis (Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche [1993]: 436). As for the post-mortem appearances and the disciples' coming to believe that Jesus was risen, well, no one doubts those facts. For as Paula Frederickson (no conservative!) says, "The disciples' conviction that they had seen the Risen Christ . . . [is] historical bedrock, facts known past doubting" (Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Vintage, 1999], 264).

It's also not hard to find what you call "neutral" or "opposition" scholars who accept these four facts. Some of those already mentioned above fit that description.

As examples of neutral scholars, take Pinchas Lapide and Geza Vermes, who are Jewish scholars who defend the historicity of these four facts. Vermes writes, "When every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that . . . the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb" (Jesus the Jew, p. 41).

As an example of an opposition scholar, take Bart Ehrman, who writes,

The resurrection of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith. Unfortunately, it also is a tradition about Jesus that historians have difficulty dealing with. As I said, there are a couple of things that we can say for certain about Jesus after his death. We can say with relative certainty, for example, that he was buried. I say with relative certainty because historians do have some questions about the traditions of Jesus' burial. . . .

Some scholars have argued that it's more plausible that in fact Jesus was placed in a common burial plot, which sometimes happened, or was, as many other crucified people, simply left to be eaten by scavenging animals (which also happened commonly for crucified persons in the Roman Empire). [Ehrman is referring here to radical critics like John Dominic Crossan, whose scepticism about the historicity of the burial has been widely rejected, as mentioned above. Ehrman will now reject it, too.—WmLC] But the accounts are fairly unanimous in saying (the earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying) that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it's relatively reliable that that's what happened.

We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later. This is attested in all of our gospel sources, early and late, and so it appears to be a historical datum. As so I think we can say that after Jesus' death, with some (probably with some) certainty, that he was buried, possibly by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and that three days later he appeared not to have been in his tomb (Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: "Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus" [The Teaching Company, 2003].)

Perhaps the most objective evidence for the current lay of the land in New Testament scholarship concerning these four facts would be a bibliographical survey of the relevant literature. Such a survey has, in fact, been conducted by Gary Habermas ("Experience of the Risen Jesus: The Foundational Historical Issue in the Early Proclamation of the Resurrection," Dialog 45 (2006): 288–97). In a survey of over 2,200 publications on the resurrection in English, French, and German since 1975, Habermas found that 75% of the scholars surveyed accepted the historicity of the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb. Belief in the disciples' experiencing post-mortem appearances of Jesus is virtually universal.

So in answer to your first question, Lee, I think you can be confident that my characterization of contemporary New Testament scholarship with respect to these facts is not off target.

That leads to your second question. Why, as Ehrman says, is the resurrection then "a tradition about Jesus that historians have difficulty dealing with?" Ehrman is explicit about the answer: the miraculous character of the resurrection is an obstacle to many historians. Ehrman gives two reasons for this. First is an argument against the identification of miracles inspired by the 18th century sceptical philosopher David Hume. The alleged problem is that by definition a miracle is extraordinarily improbable and so can never be established by historical evidence. The second is the historian's commitment to methodological naturalism: he has no access to supernatural entities and so must confine his explanations to purely natural causes. Ehrman emphasizes that these obstacles do not falsify the resurrection or imply that it did not really happen. They simply serve to block the historian from appealing to the resurrection as an explanation of the four facts mentioned above.

In my debate with Ehrman as well as in the third edition of Reasonable Faith, I explain why Hume's reasoning is demonstrably fallacious and why a historian's commitment to methodological naturalism does not prevent us from inferring that the resurrection is the best explanation of the facts, even if the professional historian qua historian is debarred from doing so.

I don't know if Ehrman speaks for the majority of critics who accept the four facts but remain agnostic about the resurrection, but I suspect that his reasons are fairly typical. John Meier and Dale Allison do offer different reasons for non-commitment, which I have discussed elsewhere (Scholarly Articles: Historical Jesus). The point is that scepticism about Jesus' resurrection rests mainly, not on historical, but on philosophical considerations which fall outside the area of expertise of New Testament scholars.

- William Lane Craig