It has been a month since my post on Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry. In this post, I’d like to respond to some arguments put forward for and against the Resurrection of Jesus, by Bishop N. T. Wright and Professor Bart Ehrman.
1. Professor Bart Ehrman’s bad argument against the possibility of historically establishing the Resurrection of Jesus
Bart Ehrman, who is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2012 photo by Dan Sears. Approved by Bart D. Ehrman. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Professor Bart Ehrman thinks it is impossible in principle for historians to demonstrate that a miracle probably occurred:
Since historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and the chances of a miracle happening, by definition, are infinitesimally remote, historians can never demonstrate that a miracle probably happened. (Ehrman, B.D., 2008, The New Testament: A historical introduction to the early Christian writings, 4th edn., Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 243–244.)
The problem with this argument is that it fails to distinguish between the prior probability of a miracle (which is indeed very low) and the posterior probability of a miracle, in the light of the documentary evidence for its occurrence (which may be quite high, if the evidence is good). What if the miracle were captured on video, for instance? Indeed, one reader on Ehrman’s blog, Ronald Taska, asked him precisely this question recently, on a post titled, History is not the Past! Proving Jesus’ Resurrection and Other Miracles (July 30, 2018):
What if someone actually had a youtube video demonstrating that someone who had died was now raised from the dead? Would this move the event into the historical? If not, is there any evidence of such an event that would make it considered to be historical?
Sure. You will note that no such thing exists, and for a reason! That’s pretty much the point.
But this response effectively concedes the point I made earlier: that in principle, it would be possible (given enough evidence) for historians to conclude that someone had risen from the dead. Ehrman’s latest argument is that no such compelling evidence exists – and on that point, he and I are in agreement. Nevertheless, I hold that historians could demonstrate that a miracle such as the Resurrection probably happened, if the evidence were of a sufficiently high caliber.
There were no videocameras back in 30 (or 33) A.D. But if (a) the Resurrection had been witnessed by hundreds of literate individuals, who then agreed not to talk among themselves about what they had seen until they had written it down first, thereby ensuring that uncontaminated, independent testimonies were available for future generations to study; and (b) these testimonies had all been written down on the same day as the event that the individuals witnessed; and (c) the testimonies were in substantial agreement as to what the risen Jesus allegedly said and did, as well as when and where, and to whom, then contemporary historians would have to acknowledge that there was good evidence for the Resurrection – evidence that might even persuade some of them to accept the reality of the Resurrection.
While we’re discussing Bayes’ Theorem, I should point out that whereas the antecedent probability of a miracle (based on observations alone) is inversely proportional to the amount of time that has passed without any miracles occurring, the probability that multiple independent witnesses to a miracle are all mistaken decreases geometrically as the number of witnesses increases: for instance, if the probability that a randomly selected witness to an alleged event E is mistaken about what they saw is 1 in 10, then the probability that N such independent witnesses are all mistaken is 1 in 10^N. Thus a sufficient number of independent witnesses to an alleged miracle can always trump a long history of observations during which no miracles occur.
Finally, I should note for the record that even New Atheist thinkers such as Professor Jerry Coyne and author John Loftus have acknowledged that there could be scientific evidence for miracles which would convince even them that God exists and that Christianity is true. That being the case, we cannot exclude the occurrence of supernatural miracles from the domain of history, on an a priori basis.
2. Bishop N. T. Wright’s argument for the Resurrection of Jesus
Right Reverend N. T. (Tom) Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham and currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Image courtesy of Gareth Saunders, Pleonic and Wikipedia.
For those readers wishing to familiarize themselves with the tenor of Dr. Wright’s argument for Jesus’ Resurrection, I would warmly recommend his lecture, Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem, which was originally published in Sewanee Theological Review 41.2, 1998.
For those readers who are disinclined to read long speeches, Dr. Wright also provides an excellent two-minute summary of his reasons for believing in the Resurrection of Jesus, in a talk on Youtube, titled, Historical Resurrection of Christ? NT Wright responds (HD), which I have transcribed here:
The Resurrection of Jesus took everybody by surprise. The disciples weren’t expecting it. They knew perfectly well if you followed someone whom you thought was the Messiah, and he got killed, then that was it. We know of at least a dozen other messianic or prophetic movements within a hundred years either side of Jesus. They routinely ended with the death of the founder. And if the movement wanted to continue, they didn’t say, “Oh, he’s been raised from the dead.” They said, “That’s fine. [There’s] his brother or his cousin, who can carry on his movement.” We can see how those Jewish groups did that.
This one did it differently. They had James the brother of Jesus as this great leader in the early Church. Nobody said James was the Messiah. They said Jesus was the Messiah. [Objection] “Why? He’s dead. They got him. Didn’t you realize? They crucified him.” – [Response] No. He was raised from the dead.
The only way you can explain why Christianity began, and why it took the very precise shape it was, is – let’s say it cautiously – first, they really did believe he was bodily raised from the dead. And then if you take the second question and say, “Why would they believe that?”, you can go through all the theories – that they found themselves forgiven, that they had a fresh sense of the presence of God, that this was cognitive dissonance, et cetera – and you bring all those theories to the actual facts that we know, on the ground in the first century, they just don’t fit. The only way you can explain the rise of the early Christian belief that Jesus was raised is that there really was an empty tomb, they really did meet Jesus alive again in a transformed body, and the thing makes sense.
Of course, when I wrote a big book on this, my philosophy tutor from Oxford, who was an atheist, read it, and he said, “Great book. You really make the argument,” he said. “I simply choose to believe that there must be some other explanation, even though I don’t know what it was.” I said, “Fine. That’s as far as I can take you. I can’t bully you into saying, ‘Therefore you must believe,’ because to do that requires a change of world view. But once you change the world view and say, ‘Maybe there really is a Creator God, and maybe this Creator God really is sorting out this sad old world at last, then everything else makes sense, in a way that it doesn’t with any other possibility.” (Bolding and square brackets mine – VJT.)
(a) Does the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ Resurrection require an explanation?
Image courtesy of Brady at thelycaeum.wordpress.com.
Dr. Wright is implicitly appealing here to an ideological version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which basically says that things don’t happen (or exist) without an explanation. When applied to ideas and beliefs, the principle entails that ideas – and especially new, startling ideas, such as the first-century Christian belief that Jesus was raised from the dead before everyone else – also require an explanation for their appearance. And when the ideas in question have a huge impact on history – as Christianity did – then the demand for an adequate explanation of how they arose becomes all the more urgent.
But there is a spoilsport move that the skeptic can make here, and that is to say that ideas can arise for no particular reason at all. (We might describe this as the “null hypothesis.”) Sometimes, an idea may arise because of a minor random event – a brain glitch occurring in some individual, or a chance meeting, or one person mishearing what another person says, or something of that sort. And if we allow that an idea can arise in this way, then it would be a mistake to think that ideas which have a big impact on history are an exception. Random events (or more precisely, events with insignificant, imperceptible and unidentifiable causes) can change the course of history, and have done so. Who is to say that the sudden appearance of Christian belief in Jesus’ Resurrection in the first century isn’t one of those random events?
Or as Wright himself puts it in a quite different context: “some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, Fortress Press, first edition, 2003, p. 636).
Of course, there will be many readers who find the spoilsport’s “no reason” null hypothesis rather unsatisfying, so for their benefit, I now propose to examine Rev. Wright’s additional arguments for the Resurrection. Before I do, I’d like to point out that even if there turned out to be an identifiable reason for the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ Resurrection, it would be a mistake to infer that just because the effect it produced was great (a religion with over two billion adherents worldwide), the cause must also be something great. Sometimes big effects turn out to have small causes (think of avalanches, or for that matter, the shot that triggered World War I). For all we know, belief in the Resurrection may turn out to have been caused by something small and fairly insignificant.
(b) For first-century Jews, did “resurrection” necessarily entail an empty grave?
The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. Image courtesy of Phillip Benshmuel and Wikipedia.
A key premise in Wright’s case for the Resurrection is his claim that for first-century Jews, the term “resurrection” referred to a dead body being raised from the grave, and that was not an event that happened to individuals in isolation, but rather, to the entire people of God, at the end of time. Thus the belief that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” where “no torment will ever touch them” (Wisdom 3:1) was commonplace in first-century Judaism, but it was only at the end of time that they would “shine forth,” “govern nations and rule over peoples” (Wisdom 3:7-8). On this point, a particularly telling episode is the story in Acts 12, of the apostle Peter (who had been in prison awaiting death at the hands of King Herod) miraculously escaping from jail and going to visit the disciple John Mark and his family in Jerusalem. A servant girl named Rhoda goes to answer the door. When she breathlessly announces to everyone that Peter is standing at the door, their initial reaction is one of incredulity: “You are out of your mind.” When she keeps insisting that it is Peter, they then suggest it is the spirit of Peter that has appeared to her: “It must be his angel.” Finally, they realize that it really is Peter. The point here is that nobody even thought of calling Peter’s ghost a resurrected being; and nobody in the early Christian community ever called Jesus a ghost or an angel, either. One conclusion which Wright draws from this episode in his lecture, Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem, is that the “hallucination hypothesis,” which proposes the grief-stricken disciples came to believe Jesus had risen from the dead because they had a post-mortem vision of him, is a totally inadequate explanation for belief in Jesus’ Resurrection, within the context of first-century Judaism:
As we see from the story of Rhoda in Acts 12, first-century Jews knew about post-mortem visitations from recently deceased friends, and they already had language systems for speaking of such phenomena. “It must be his angel,” they said, when they thought they were having a visit of just this sort from Peter. They did not say that Peter had been raised from the dead. To put it another way, if we had been members of that group in Acts 12, and if we had been made aware of a recently executed Peter as a ghostly or spiritual presence with us, we would have concluded, certainly, that Peter was now alive with God. But we still also would have thought that we would have to claim his corpse for burial the next day, and we still would have believed that it remained for him actually to be raised, along with the rest of God’s people, at the last day. (Bolding mine – VJT.)
Summing up, Wright concludes that any theory that the body of Jesus remained in the tomb flies in the face of first-century-history:
What we find, rather, is the universal early Christian claim that Jesus had gone, as it were, through death and out the other side, that he was not just in some intermediate state or wine disembodied existence, but that his body had been transformed in a way for which they, his followers, had been quite unprepared, but with which they had had to come to terms.
Professor Maurice Casey (1942-2014), former Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the Department of Theology at the University of Nottingham, takes issue with Wright’s arguments in his acclaimed work, Jesus of Nazareth: An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching (T&T Clark International, 2010). Casey cites the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where the rich man (who is now suffering the torments of Hell) asks father Abraham if he could at least send Lazarus (who is being consoled in Heaven) to warn his five brothers of the suffering that awaits them. However, Abraham rebuffs his request: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31, ESV). Casey’s comment is a telling one: “Thus Jesus envisages in story mode a person going to heaven after death without leaving his tomb empty, being sent to five people, and this being described as ‘rising from the dead’” (2010, pp. 468-469).
Casey also draws upon the Biblical examples of Enoch and Elijah (who were both taken up to Heaven without dying), to illustrate his point that for Jews living in the first century A.D., “believing that God had taken someone straight to his throne after their death did not entail that an empty tomb was left behind on earth” (2010, p. 470). Some Jewish rabbis also believed that Moses did not actually die, but went straight up to Heaven, and continues to minister up there. Finally, he notes that Jesus himself remarked that when people rise from the dead, they are “like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25, ESV). For Casey, that suggests that “there is no particular need to imagine that their tombs would be empty” (2010, p. 468).
Interestingly, Casey is prepared to grant that Jesus predicted his own resurrection, and he conjectures that the original prediction was a saying in which he predicted that he would rise again after three days. However, Casey observes that the Aramaic word for “rise” in this saying would have been a general term “which could refer to what we might call either resurrection or immortality” (2010, p. 471).
The tactic of conservative commentators in recent years, notably N.T. Wright, has been to attempt to restrict the meaning of “resurrection” to a bodily resurrection from a physical grave. But as Casey demonstrates, this very conveniently and arbitrarily limits the great diversity of early Jewish beliefs in how a righteous man or woman would “awaken” into eternal life (pp. 466-468)… When we add the great diversity of other Second Temple notions of the afterlife, Casey is right to conclude:
The stories of the Resurrection appearances in the New Testament fall within the range of what was believed to be possible in Second Temple Judaism. (p. 490)
I can claim no expertise on the subject of Second Temple Judaism. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Wright has the better of the argument here. To my mind, Casey’s best illustrations of resurrection without an empty grave were those of Enoch and Elijah, but as Wright has pointed out in response, neither of these men died:
The whole point of resurrection, by contrast, is that someone first dies and is then given new life… The tradition quoted in 1 Cor. 15.4 is precisely about someone who was well and truly dead and who, on the third day, was well and truly alive again. As far as Paul was concerned, this did indeed mean … that ‘resurrection’ had split into two: Jesus first, others later. Had anyone been able to come back at Paul and say ‘but Paul, you know there are three or four people at least who are already resurrected’, I do not think he would have written 1 Corinthians 15 in the way he did.
Wright’s point here is a valid one; nevertheless, it would be interesting to know whether first-century Jews believed that Enoch and Elijah needed to be given new and transformed bodies at the end of time, or whether they already possessed such bodies in Heaven. In any case, the key point is that their graves were not to be found on Earth.
As for the parable in Luke 16, which refers to Lazarus rising from the dead, we need to bear in mind that it was only a story, and that the situation it described involving Lazarus was a hypothetical one, so no positive conclusions can be drawn from it, regarding how resurrection was envisaged in Second Temple Judaism.
Judaism in the first century was a broadminded faith, but resurrection was nonetheless envisaged as a collective event which happened not to this or that person, but to God’s people, and which heralded the dawn of a new age. The Christian belief that a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, had been raised from the dead before everyone else, “the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep,” was therefore a theological novelty which would probably have startled first-century Jews. On this point, I think Wright is largely correct.
(c) Wright’s Achilles’ heel?
Statue of Dying Achilles at the Corfu Achilleion. Sculptor: Ernst Herter, 1884. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
But what of Wright’s rhetorical argument for the Resurrection?
If we are to think in first-century Jewish terms, it is impossible to conceive what sort of religious or spiritual experience someone could have that would make them say that the kingdom of God had arrived when it clearly had not, that a crucified leader was the Messiah when he obviously was not, or that the resurrection occurred last month when it obviously did not. (Bolding mine – VJT.)
Wright’s problem lies in the passage I have highlighted: his argument proves too much. What he is saying is that no experience, however strong, could have generated belief in Jesus’ Resurrection. Belief in the empty tomb was also necessary. Take away the historical grounds for belief in the empty tomb, and Wright’s case for the Resurrection collapses.
(d) Wright’s apologetic argument for the empty tomb
Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena (1835) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. Image courtesy of Alex Bakharev and Wikipedia.
A common argument put forward by Resurrection apologists (including Wright himself) is that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ empty tomb being discovered by a group of women on Easter Sunday morning must be genuinely historical, as no first-century Jew would have invented them as witnesses to the empty tomb: in those days, a woman’s word had no legal standing in court. Here is how N. T. Wright formulates the argument, in connection with the Gospel accounts that Mary Magdalene was the first to meet and greet the risen Jesus:
And who is it that carries this stupendous message, this primal announcement of new creation, this heraldic proclamation of the king of kings and his imminent enthronement? It is Mary from Magdala… But the real shock is not Mary’s character. It is her gender. This is perhaps the most astonishing thing about the resurrection narratives, granted the universal beliefs of the time in the unreliability of women in a lawcourt or almost anywhere else. It is one of the things which absolutely guarantees that the early Christians did not invent these stories. They would never, ever, ever have invented the idea that it was a woman – a woman with a known background of emotional instability, but the main point is that it was a woman – to whom had been entrusted the earth-shattering message that Jesus was alive again, that he was on the way to being enthroned as Lord of the World, and that – this is the significance of the emphatic ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God’ – he was opening to his followers, as a result of his victory over death itself, that same intimacy with the Father of all that he had enjoyed throughout his earthly life. It is Mary: not Peter, not John, not James the brother of the Lord, but Mary, who becomes the apostle to the apostles, the primary Christian witness, the first Christian evangelist. This is so striking, so unexpected, so embarrassing to some early Christians – Origen had to refute pagan sneers on this very point – that it cannot be accidental.
Professor Bart Ehrman makes some telling points in response to this argument, in his blog article, Women at the Tomb (April 4, 2014). In a nutshell: the story of women discovering Jesus’ empty tomb was never intended to convince skeptics, but rather, to strengthen the faith of fellow Christians; and second, all the men had supposedly fled the scene anyway, in Mark’s account, leaving only women to discover that the body was missing:
The first thing to point out is that we are not talking about a Jewish court of law in which witnesses are being called to testify. We’re talking about oral traditions about the man Jesus. But who would invent women as witnesses to the empty tomb? Well, for openers, maybe women would. We have good reasons for thinking that women were particularly well represented in the early Christian communities… It does not take a great deal of imagination to think that female storytellers indicated that women were the first to believe, after finding that his tomb was empty.
Moreover, this claim that it was specifically women who found the empty tomb makes the best sense of the realities of history. Preparing bodies for burial was commonly the work of women, not men. And so why wouldn’t the stories tell of women who went to prepare the body? …
In addition, our earliest sources are quite clear that the male disciples fled the scene and were not present for Jesus’ crucifixion. As I stated earlier, this may well be historical, that the disciples in fear of their own lives not only went into hiding, but fled town in order to avoid arrest. Where would they go? Presumably back home, to Galilee. That was over a hundred miles and would have taken at least a week on foot. If the men had scattered, or returned home, who was left in the tradition to go to the tomb?
Finally, Professor Ehrman proposes a reason why Mark may have invented the story (although he does not personally believe that Mark did so):
Let me give just one. Mark makes a special point throughout his narrative that the male disciples never do understand who Jesus is. Despite all his miracles, despite all his teachings, despite everything they see him do and say, they never do get it. And so at the end of the Gospel, who is it who learns that Jesus has not stayed dead but has been raised? It is the women. Not the male disciples. The women never tell. As a result, the male disciples never do come to understand. That is all consistent with Mark’s view.
Again, I’m not saying that I think Mark invented the story. But if we can imagine very easily a reason for Mark to have invented it, it is no leap at all to think that one or more of his predecessors may also have had reasons for doing so. [Bolding mine – VJT.]
The argument is not really logical from the outset, because it argues from a very modernist false dichotomy that either the story is literally true, or somebody has intentionally fabricated the story. But there are many other options for the development of this tradition and its inclusion in Mark, most of which would be more probable and in accord with ancient Jewish beliefs. Not the least of these alternative options is that a woman or group of women, who were followers of Jesus during his lifetime, experienced a vision of an empty tomb after his death, which they interpreted as proof of his resurrection to Heaven, and this tradition was told and retold until included and adapted in Mark’s Gospel. So as there are a number of different ways which such a story could develop in earliest Christianity, not just according to the modern and fundamentalist divide of truth versus legendary fabrication… [Bolding mine – VJT.]
I have to say I find Dr. Galbraith’s hypothesis of a vision of the empty tomb rather far-fetched; nevertheless, his rejection of the dichotomy underlying the apologetic argument for the empty tomb is a welcome one. I’ll examine another proposal for how belief in Jesus’ resurrection originated, in section (g) below.
(e) The burial of Jesus
Wall mosaic of entombment of Jesus at Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Image courtesy of AntanO and Wikipedia.
The point where N. T. Wright’s argument is most vulnerable (or so it seems to me) lies in its problematic claim that the disciples’ belief in the Resurrection hinged on their discovery of the empty tomb. The problem here, as I see it, is that from a historian’s standpoint, the empty tomb is a very shaky pillar on which to base the case for the Resurrection. Here’s why. (Note: The points listed below can be found in a comment I made, over at Peaceful Science, which I have altered only slightly.)
Let me make it more concrete, by focusing on the burial of Jesus. There are five possibilities:
(1) Jesus didn’t get a proper burial at all. Pilate never handed over the body; it was just dumped in a pit, along with those of other crucified criminals. (This is Professor Bart Ehrman’s thesis, and he backs it up by arguing that we have no historical record of a person executed as a political criminal [as Jesus was] being disposed of in any other way.)
(2) Jesus’ body was handed over to the Jewish chief priests and leaders (including Joseph of Arimathea), who gave him a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave. No family members were present, and there were no mourners.
(3) Jesus’ body was handed over to the Jewish chief priests and leaders (including Joseph of Arimathea), who wanted to give him a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave, but ran out of time before the Jewish Sabbath, so they placed his body in someone’s family tomb, as a temporary measure, planning to bury it later on. Once again, no family members were present, and there were no mourners.
(4) Pilate handed Jesus’ body over to a private individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in opposition to the wishes of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own rock tomb. Because it was a family tomb, there would have been other bodies inside the tomb as well.
(5) Pilate handed Jesus’ body over to a private individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in opposition to the wishes of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own rock tomb. Because it was a new tomb, there were no other bodies inside the tomb as well.
As I argued in my post, Michael Alter’s bombshell demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection [see here and here], on purely historical grounds, 1 is the most likely scenario; 2 is nevertheless quite possible, as is 3; 4 is altogether unlikely; while 5 is extremely unlikely. But here’s the thing: Christian Resurrection apologetics is all about trying to demonstrate scenario 5, which is the least likely scenario. Without scenario 5, the argument for the empty tomb falls flat. For if scenarios 1 or 2 are true then there was no tomb, and if 3 or 4 are true, then there was a tomb, but it wasn’t empty: there were other bodies inside as well. Alter’s book points out this fact, as well as many others.
Now ask yourself: do you really think the evidence for scenario 5 is strong enough to make the empty tomb “more probable than not”?
Personally, I’m inclined to favor scenario 3, as it would explain the Gospel traditions about Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb. However, I certainly wouldn’t consider scenario 3 historically probable; at most, I’d say it’s possible. But it’s certainly far more probable than scenario 5, which is the least probable scenario of all.
Given the weakness of the historical case for the empty tomb, any argument which appeals to this alleged occurrence in an attempt to provide intellectual support for belief in the Resurrection is doomed to fail, for it is based on a foundation of sand.
(f) Did all the Apostles believe Jesus had risen from the dead, and were Jesus’ apparitions bereavement visions?
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio. 1601-1602. Oil on canvas. Sanssouci Gallery. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Bishop Wright, like many Christian apologists, assumes that Jesus’ disciples all came to believe in the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, after the events of Easter. However, an interesting point raised by Maurice Casey in his biography, Jesus of Nazareth, is that even some of Jesus’ own Apostles (“the Eleven,” as Luke calls them) appear to have doubted the reality of the apparitions of the risen Jesus. Matthew 28:17 acknowledges this fact, when it declares: “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (ESV). Casey perceptively comments:
This is a point which we would never have guessed if we only had the tradition transmitted by St. Paul, and it must be true for two reasons. One is that most of the Eleven do not turn up in the early Church at all. That is why Matthew could not leave this point out. The second reason follows ineluctably: this is not something which the early Church would make up out of nothing. It must reflect the lack of faith in the Resurrection by some of the Eleven… Matthew can have transmitted it only if was desperately unforgettable…
The only way of understanding this is that Matthew has rewritten the [Pauline] tradition of the appearance which he received, or has invented Jesus’ speech because the tradition did not tell him that Jesus made a speech, and perhaps did not tell him that Jesus appeared to the Eleven all at once. We must take these two points together. First, some of the Eleven did not believe in Jesus’ Resurrection, and did not play any significant role in the early Church as Jesus is supposed to have commanded. That is what made ‘some doubted’ unforgettable. Secondly, we do not have accurate accounts of genuine appearances of the risen Jesus because these were not helpful enough for the needs of the churches. That is a strong argument against the genuineness of the Resurrection narratives in the Gospels (2010, pp. 480-481. Square brackets mine – VJT.)
That being the case, one might ask: if even some of the Apostles had doubts, then why should we still believe in Jesus’ Resurrection, in the twenty-first century?
Later in the same chapter, Casey draws on research compiled by Dale C. Allison Jr. in his book, Resurrecting Jesus (Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement S, T&T Clark International, 2005), regarding studies conducted around the world of bereaved people’s post-mortem apparitions of their spouses and of people making contact with the dead. Casey sees striking parallels with the Resurrection narratives in the Gospels – one of them being the fact that these post-mortem apparitions can actually “create doubt in some percipients.” He goes on to argue that St. Paul does not explicitly state that Jesus appeared to the Twelve at the same time, and he speculates that perhaps only three of the original twelve apostles came to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection, after having apparitions of him:
Summarizing reports as well as verified experiences, so a situation analogous to the Gospel narratives as well as the tradition in 1 Cor. 15.3-7, Allison concludes, among other points, that there are numerous reports of apparitions in which departed people ‘are both seen and heard’, though ‘they tend to say little’; ‘are now seen by one person and later by another’; ‘are seen by more than one percipient at the same time’; ‘are sometimes seen by some but not all present‘; ‘create doubt in some percipients‘; ‘give guidance and make requests or issue imperatives’; ‘are overwhelmingly real and indeed seemingly solid‘; ‘appear and disappear in unusual and abrupt ways’; ‘are not perceived as apparitional at the beginning of the experience’; and ‘are seen less and less as more and more time follows their death’…
…[A]part from Paul’s vision on the Damascus Road, the Resurrection appearances were seen by bereaved people. Moreover, since Second Temple Judaism was a visionary culture, bereaved followers of Jesus, especially Simeon the Rock, were doubly liable to have experiences of the presence of Jesus after his death…
Another major point is that when bereaved people do have experiences of dead people who speak to them, as they sometimes do, they make extremely short speeches…
…Paul says that Jesus appeared to over 500 brethren ‘at once’, but does not say this of the Twelve. Moreover, we have seen, especially from the work of Allison, that while there are reports of corporate visions, we do not have cross-cultural evidence of appearances of recently dead people to as many as 11 bereaved people at once, in such a form that we can reasonably apply them to these Eleven. This brings us to the crucial evidence of Matthew: ‘some doubted‘ (Mt. 28.17). We would never guess that from the early tradition handed on by Paul. It must reflect the fact that some of the Twelve did not believe that they saw the risen Jesus, whereas others, including the inner circle of three, Peter, Jacob and John, all of whom played leading roles in the Jerusalem church, did see visions which they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus… If several of them doubted, that would explain why they took no part in the early Church, and why Matthew could not omit ‘some doubted’ from his largely triumphal report.
(2010, pp. 491-492, 494-495. Bolding mine – VJT.)
Turning to the apparition to the 500 recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 (but curiously, not in the Gospels), Casey argues that it is “paradoxically not as improbable as an appearance to the Eleven all at once” (2010, p. 495). Citing reports of apparitions of the Virgin Mary to large numbers of people, including the 1968-1969 sightings at St. Mary’s Coptic Church in Zeitoun, Egypt, which was witnessed by tens of thousands, including both Muslims and Christians, but at which the Virgin Mary did not speak, Casey suggests that “some of more than 500 followers of Jesus thought they saw something on a given occasion, that the dominant interpretation was that it was Jesus, but that he said nothing,” which is why the Gospel writers chose to ignore it.
The case assembled by Professor Maurice Casey is certainly a plausible one, but that does not make it probable. Its chief weakness is that it hangs by a thread: the entire argument rests upon a tendentious reading of Matthew 28:17. According to Casey, the phrase, “but some doubted,” can only mean that some of the apostles did not believe that they saw the risen Jesus. Casey is also forced to dismiss the accounts of the apostles’ doubts being successfully quelled by Jesus in Luke’s and John’s Gospels as an attempt to water down the uncomfortable truth acknowledged by Matthew in his earlier Gospel. Referring to the story of Doubting Thomas in John’s Gospel, which culminates in Thomas’ confession of Jesus’ divinity, Casey writes: “Like Luke’s comment that the disciples ‘did not believe from joy and were amazed’ (Lk. 24.41), this resolution of the story of Doubting Thomas also neutralizes the once central fact that ‘others doubted’ (Mt. 28.17)” (2010, p. 486).
Theologian Tim Chaffey undercuts Casey’s appeal to Matthew 28:17 to support his claim that some of the Twelve Apostles were disbelievers in Jesus’ Resurrection, by pointing out that the Greek word for “doubt” probably did not mean “unbelief.” Chaffey elaborates in his article, “But Some Doubted”: Studying an Intriguing Response to the Resurrection of Jesus (Midwest Apologetics, February 16, 2013):
The doubt exhibited here is not unbelief, but more like hesitation, which is what the Greek word distazo implies (see BDAG, p. 252). This is not the typical word for doubt used in the New Testament (diakrino). In fact, it is only used in one other time (Matthew 14:31, see below for explanation). Instead of refusing to believe what they were seeing, like some have said, the disciples were amazed. The concept here is somewhat comparable to our modern statements like “It’s too good to be true,” or “Pinch me, I’m dreaming.”…
The point is that the disciples were overcome with emotion when Jesus appeared to them in Galilee, and some of them were unsure how to react.
It seems to me that Chaffey makes a valid point here. I should note in passing that Luke refers to the Twelve Apostles in Acts 2, where Peter stands up with the Eleven (including Matthias, who has replaced Judas Iscariot) on Pentecost Sunday. Later, in Acts 6, 11 and 15, “the apostles” (a term which may well include the Twelve) in conjunction with the elders, make key decisions which determine both the character and destiny of the early Church. Thus although we hear of only what Peter, James and John did in the early Church, it would be a mistake to infer the absence of the other apostles, in my opinion. It could be that Luke wasn’t terribly interested in what they did: after chapter 15, his focus is entirely on St. Paul.
Nevertheless, Casey’s argument seems particularly persuasive when he adduces parallels between the bereavement visions of people who have lost a loved one and the appearances of the risen Jesus – in particular, the fact that departed people (a) may be both seen and heard, but say very little when they do talk; (b) may be seen by more than one percipient at the same time, but are sometimes not seen by everyone present, creating doubt in some percipients; (c) look very real, but appear and disappear in highly unusual and abrupt ways; and (d) are seen less and less frequently as time passes by. All of these points have parallels in the Gospel narratives.
However, we still need to answer Wright’s central argument: none of these bereavement visions (which were quite common in first-century Judaism) ever generated the belief that the deceased person had been raised from the dead. So what made the apparitions of the risen Jesus so different? Why did the apostles conclude that he was not only alive with God, but also resurrected from the dead?
(g) Prophecy: the missing jigsaw ingredient?
Scroll of the Psalms. Early Christian preachers often appealed to the Psalms, when attempting to persuade people that Jesus’ Resurrection had been prophesied in Scripture. Image courtesy of Pete Unseth and Wikipedia.
Towards the end of his chapter on the Resurrection in his work, Jesus of Nazareth, Professor Casey suggests that Biblical prophecy, coupled with Jesus’ own prediction that he would rise again, played a vital role in generating belief in Jesus’ Resurrection, among his disciples:
The following conclusions may therefore be drawn. Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind. He was probably buried in a common criminals’ tomb, where his body rotted in a normal way. He had however predicted his Resurrection in terms which did not imply bodily resurrection or belief in an empty tomb. After his death, his bereaved followers, including Simeon the Rock and some other members of the Twelve, as well as Jesus’ brother Jacob, had visions of him, which they interpreted as Resurrection appearances. They studied the Scriptures and found in them proofs of his Resurrection. The passages which they studied included Psalms 41 and 118, as Jesus had taught them, and Psalms 15 and 110, which, as far as we know, they studied themselves. (2010, pp. 497-498. Bolding mine – VJT.)
In a nutshell: according to Casey, what made the bereavement apparitions of Jesus so unique, and what led the disciples to conclude their Master had risen from the dead, was their reading of Scripture, which Jesus had prepared them for by predicting his own Resurrection and by teaching his disciples to read key passages in the Bible as prophecies of this momentous event. That was what set the bereavement apparitions of Jesus to his disciples apart from the bereavement apparitions of other dearly loved people: because the disciples believed these apparitions had been prophesied in the Bible, they came to interpret them as the appearances of a man who had been raised from the dead. (The appearance to St. Paul was a later and separate event, but St. Paul himself described it as a vision in Acts 26:19.)
Could Casey be right? Is this how belief in the Resurrection got started? On the one hand, I think Casey makes a strong case that belief in the empty tomb was not what triggered the disciples’ belief in the Resurrection, and that the parallels between post-mortem apparitions and the Resurrection appearances are stronger than Bishop Wright would have us believe. On the other hand, I find his proposal that Jesus somehow conditioned his disciples into (a) having post-mortem apparitions of him, and (b) interpreting these experiences as appearances of the risen Jesus, who was now sitting at the right hand of God, to be a little fanciful. There are too many “ifs” in Casey’s speculative reconstruction: he has to assume that there was no appearance of Jesus to all of the Twelve at once, that many (probably most) of the Twelve didn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead, that Jesus’ post-mortem messages to his apostles were short and sweet, and that Jesus’ Biblically based teaching that he would rise again was powerful enough to generate apparitions of him among the twelve apostles. Taken together, that’s a highly speculative hypothesis. And Wright’s point that in Second Temple Judaism, resurrection was generally understood to be a collective event involving all of God’s people, remains a valid one.
At this point, I imagine the skeptic will retort that however improbable Casey’s hypothesis may be, the Resurrection of Jesus was still more improbable. But we have seen in Part 1 above that the skeptic’s retort is based on a misuse of probability theory. The question we need to address is: given the fact (acknowledged by Casey) that “some of the first followers of Jesus had genuine visions of him after his death, and that they interpreted these as appearances of the risen Lord” (2010, p. 498), what is the best explanation of this fact? Unfortunately, N. T. Wright’s vigorous argument that only the Resurrection can explain the Easter apparitions founders on the difficulty of establishing, or even defending, the empty tomb (which is essential to his case) on historical grounds. But whatever the truth about Jesus’s burial may turn out to be, a person who was deeply impressed by the character and teaching of Jesus, by the stubborn insistence of his disciples that he had risen from the dead as “the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep,” and by the transformative effect of Christianity upon the Roman world, might legitimately come to regard Jesus as God’s chosen Anointed One, whom He raised from the dead. There is no good way of establishing the Resurrection, but it remains a tenable reading of the evidence, and one which explains a lot. Or as Casey himself puts it: “In other words, the historical evidence is in no way inconsistent with the belief of the first disciples, and of many modern Christians, that God raised Jesus from the dead, and granted visions of the risen Jesus to the first disciples, and to St. Paul on the Damascus Road” (2010, p. 498). Coming from an unbeliever, that’s a very gentlemanly thing to say.
In my next post, I’ll respond to some arguments from readers over at Professor Joshua Swamidass’s Peaceful Science blog, alleging that I misused probability theory in my September 2018 post, Michael Alter’s bombshell demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection. And now, over to my readers.