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#100 Richard Carrier’s Pre-Debate Comments

March 16, 2009

Dear Dr,Craig,

I hope all is well. Thank you for all you do for Christ. Richard Carrier is saying some negative things about it (which I am sure you are use too) about your upcoming debate with him on March 18th on his website. He says the following.

I'll quote his exact last words on the matter:

[Craig's statement:] "I propose the straightforward 'Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?' The reason I prefer this topic to the historical reliability of the Gospels is because (i) a case for the historicity of Jesus' resurrection does not depend on the Gospels' being generally reliable, and (ii) being narrower in scope, the topic is more manageable in an hour and a half's debate."

I find both (i) and (ii) to be patently false, in fact outright illogical. But if he wants to be illogical, that works for me. I also find curious his use of the word "prefer" for what was in fact a refusal. Make of that what you will.

As to (ii), defending the resurrection requires establishing a number of premises, including the reliability of the Gospel accounts, and the viability of miraculous explanations of ordinary evidence, and the authenticity, meaning, and reliability of passages in the epistles, and so on, and is therefore larger in scope, not narrower. The historical reliability of the Gospels focuses solely on the Gospels and the evidence within them (and from the field of history) as to whether we can trust what they say, which is necessarily narrower in scope than any argument that requires first establishing that we can trust what they say. As to (i), if the Gospels are not generally reliable, then everything they say is under a pall of suspicion, which entails we can't trust what they say about their most contentious claims, and the resurrection is exactly such, therefore it is not logically possible to make "a case for the historicity of Jesus' resurrection" without "the Gospels' being generally reliable" (unless he intends to make that case without ever appealing to the Gospels, which is unlikely).

I say this here as I might not bother making these points in the debate itself, except by simply pointing out why we can't trust what the Gospels say. I've also been asked about this quite a lot already, as apparently Craig was leaking details of our negotiations, so I might as well say here what I've already said to many people in email.

What do you make of these assertions? Thank you


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Dr. craig’s response


I had seen those comments, Jonathan, and I think they're due to a misunderstanding, that's all. When Landon Hedrick at Northwest Missouri State invited us to participate in a debate, Richard stated three topics on which he was willing to debate: (1) Are Moral Facts Evidence of God?, (2) Does God Care About Us?, and (3) Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? He did not want to debate the historicity of Jesus' resurrection without first discussing the last question. Since I thought, for the two reasons stated above, that the historical reliability of the Gospels was a poor topic for debate, I chose his topic on the foundations of morality. In time, however, people expressed such disappointment with this topic that Richard relented and agreed to debate the historicity of Jesus' resurrection on the condition that I would issue a statement that he could quote as to why I declined to debate the historical reliability of the Gospels. (I'm amused at Richard's complaint that I was "leaking" details of our negotiations. When people asked me why we weren't debating the resurrection, I just told them, as I imagine Richard did. I wasn't aware that our "negotiations" were top-secret!)

So I agreed to go with the new topic and issued the statement quoted above. My use of the word "prefer" is meant merely to express my preference among the topics offered me for debate. I was given a choice, and I made one. It was Richard who refused to debate the resurrection until he felt sufficient pressure to do so.

Were my reasons for preferring the topic of the resurrection over the topic of the historical reliability of the Gospels illogical? I think not. With regard to (i), when Richard says, "defending the resurrection requires establishing a number of premises, including the reliability of the Gospel accounts," he needs to add, "with respect to specific events" (unless, as he notes, one plans to make a case for Jesus' resurrection without appeal to the Gospels, as my doctoral mentor Wolfhart Pannenberg in fact does[1]). If you're going to appeal to the Gospels in making your case, then obviously you need to show that the Gospels are reliable with respect to the specific events you are claiming to be historical. But a case for the historicity of the specific events underlying the inference to Jesus' resurrection doesn't depend on establishing the general historical reliability of the Gospels. This truth underlies the historical-critical method. The task of the critical historian is to sift the wheat from the chaff in order to discover the kernels of historical truth contained in a document.

Richard knows this. He writes, "There is no ancient history that is entirely accurate and without lies, distortions, or errors. Every qualified historian today agrees with that. It is a universal principle accepted throughout the professional community that no ancient work is infallible" ("Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?"). Unfortunately, too many Christians and "infidels" alike are under the misimpression that demonstrating an error in the Gospels invalidates their entire testimony, which is absurd. As Richard points out, even the best of ancient historians, such as Tacitus, Polybius, and Arrian, convey false information, and even the work of historians like Herodotus and Seutonius, who don't measure up the high standards of these authors, still provides valuable historical information with respect to specific events.

An illustration with respect to Jesus is the apocryphal Gospels. These generally unreliable documents embody lots of fanciful legends and fabrications. Nonetheless, they also contain historical nuggets, e.g., that Jesus of Nazareth died of Roman crucifixion. In his less radical days (before he came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth never existed), Richard wrote with respect to the Gospels: "Few doubt that Jesus and certain other characters and cultural, geographic, and other details of these texts form a genuine 'historical core' worth mining for data. This is generally not in question" ("William Craig, Herodotus, and Myth Formation"). Indeed, even today Richard would presumably agree with this statement—he just now finds himself among those few extremists. The existence of that historical core does not depend upon the general reliability of the Gospels.

In fact, when you think about it, it is viciously circular and therefore illogical to require establishing a document's general reliability in order to establish its reliability with respect to some specific event. For how else could one demonstrate a document's general reliability except by demonstrating its reliability on a good number of specific events? Suppose we were to discover some ancient historical document previously unknown, and we want to know if it is reliable in the events it reports. In order to establish its general historical reliability we'd have to show that it is reliable on the various specifics that it reports. Requiring that we first establish its general reliability would land us in a "Which came first? The chicken or the egg?" scenario. Clearly, the specifics come first, from which general reliability is inferred.

So when Richard warns, "if the Gospels are not generally reliable, then everything they say is under a pall of suspicion, which entails we can't trust what they say about their most contentious claims, and the resurrection is exactly such," there are a number of confusions here.

First, to say that a case for Jesus' resurrection does not depend on first establishing the general reliability of the Gospels is not to say that the Gospels are, in fact, generally unreliable! That is an obvious non sequitur. It's just to say that one needn't establish a document's general reliability before establishing that that document reliably records some specific event.

Second, even the general unreliability of a document doesn't entail that we can't trust what it says about some specific event, unless by "trust" Richard is implying some sort of criterionless acceptance of the document's assertions. That sort of trust is not at issue here. New Testament historians have developed quite a number of so-called criteria of authenticity for discerning the historical about Jesus, such as multiple attestation, dissimilarity to Christian teaching, linguistic Semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.[2] These criteria do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular event or saying of Jesus and provide evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus' life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same criteria are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur'an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the criteria do not depend on any such presupposition. Richard might defend his above statement by emphasizing the word "contentious." But then his statement becomes trivial: obviously, historically speaking, we can't trust assertions in a generally unreliable document if they fail the criteria. The question is, do specific assertions meet the criteria?

Take, for example, the crucifixion of Jesus. Wholly apart from the general historical reliability of the Gospels, this specific fact about Jesus of Nazareth is recognized as so firmly established as to be indisputable. Indeed, the eminent historical Jesus scholar John Meier regards it as so certain that it becomes itself one of the criteria of authenticity for judging the historicity of other events of Jesus' life. Meier's confidence in the historicity of Jesus' crucifixion has nothing to do with general historical reliability of the Gospels. Rather he explains,

For two obvious reasons practically no one would deny the fact that Jesus was executed by crucifixion: (1) This central event is reported or alluded to not only by the vast majority of New Testament authors but also by Josephus and Tacitus . . . . (2) Such an embarrassing event created a major obstacle to converting Jews and Gentiles alike. . . that the church struggled to overcome. . . .[3]

The first point is an application of the criterion of multiple attestation and the second of the criterion of embarrassment. It's clear that Meier does not accept the crucifixion because the Gospels have been shown to generally historically reliable. Anybody who thinks that New Testament historians presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels only reveals his naivete about how New Testament criticism operates.

Third, Richard misleads when he says that the resurrection is one of those contentious events. For, as I have emphasized (see Question of the Week # 98), the facts underlying the inference to Jesus' resurrection, such as the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances, are not contentious but belong to the historical core recognized by the wide majority of New Testament historians today. I realize that this is hard for those of you in the "infidel" crowd to fathom, but it's true. It is you who are swimming against the current of scholarship; I am comfortably within the mainstream. Whether one is then willing to affirm Jesus' resurrection as the best explanation of the facts is apt to depend more on one's openness to a supernaturalist worldview than on historical considerations.

As for point (ii), a discussion of the reliability of the Gospels in general rather than of some specific events recorded in them is obviously broader in scope. Why should we get bogged down in a debate over the historicity of the birth narratives or the date of the Last Supper and so on, when nothing about Jesus' resurrection hangs on the reliability of those reports? As a topic for debate, the general reliability of the Gospels would be so broad as to be unmanageable. Imagine having to discuss the general reliability of not just one Gospel, or even of the Synoptics, but of all four! It's far better to focus on the historical reliability of the Gospels with respect to certain specific events relative to Jesus' resurrection.

  • [1]

     Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man , trans. L. L. Wilkins and D. Priebe, (London: SCM Press, 1968), pp. 88-106.

  • [2]

    For helpful discussions, see Robert H. Stein, "The Criteria for Authenticity," in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R.T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63; Craig A. Evans, "Authenticity Criteria in Life of Jesus Research," Christian Scholar's Review 19 (1989): 6-31.

  • [3]

    John Meier, "The Circle of the Twelve: Did It Exist during Jesus' Public Ministry?" Journal of Biblical Literature 116/4 (1997): 664-5.

- William Lane Craig