Knocking Out the Pillars of the “Minimal Facts” Apologetic

When investigating virtually every other past event outside of the origins of Christianity, professional historians recognize that ancient texts — both Pagan and Christian — are generally incapable of proving paranormal claims about the past. This is due to no special bias against the supernatural, as I explain in my essay “History and the Paranormal,” but would apply equally to natural paranormal claims, such as alien abductions, sasquatch sightings, and so on. The operating principle has to do with ad hoc assumptions and “existing knowledge.” As historiographer C. Behan McCullagh explains in Justifying Historical Descriptions (whose methodology is summarized here), historians cannot make claims with good probability about the past that involve too many unproven, ad hoc assumptions that exceed ordinary background knowledge. One way of identifying this “background knowledge” is through the distinction of the paranormal. A “paranormal” event is defined by the Parapsychological Association (Glossary) as:

“Any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.”

Events like extraterrestrial UFOs abducting humans, or a man resurrecting to life after crucifixion and multiple days of brain death, certainly fit this description. To assume that such events could have occurred in the past, one has to make ad hoc assumptions about kinds of phenomena that have not been scientifically confirmed. For example, in order to claim that a particular alien abduction had historically occurred in the past (especially if the only evidence available is literature, with no testable physical evidence), one must first make general ad hoc assumptions that aliens even exist, visit the earth, and occasionally abduct humans. These are assumptions that historians are unable to verify or investigate (absent the aid of modern scientific evidence), which cannot be assumed as sound premises in historical analysis. The same applies to the resurrection of Jesus. In order to justify the particular claim that Jesus resurrected, one often has to assume a slew of untestable metaphysical assumptions about miracles, divine wills, and other unproven phenomena [1], which cannot be regarded as bona fide historical background knowledge (explained by Bayesian expert Robert Cavin here, slides 325-351).

It should also be noted that I am unaware of any professional Classicist, who has published a book in an academic press or a peer-reviewed journal, that has made the argument that ancient literature can be used to prove miracle claims (even when there are several Pagan miracle claims attested in antiquity). This observation should be applied to the standards of New Testament Studies. Classics and New Testament Studies deal with the same historical period, working with the same languages, and using the same historical methodology. If Classicists are not in the business of seeking to prove miracles using ancient texts, then this provides a good outside model for the limitations of New Testament Studies. Attempting to “prove” (or demonstrate the high probability of) the resurrection of Jesus, therefore, using nothing but ancient literature, is unlike any professional pursuit that I am aware of in the study of ancient history.

Normally historians, at the very least, bracket paranormal claims about the past, particularly those of a supernatural character, as philosophical questions that extend beyond the scope of the historical method. If they did not responsibly limit historical epistemology in this way, as I have discussed before, paranormal events such as witchcraft at Salem in the late 17th century would be fair game for being considered “historical” and we would have far greater evidence to support such miracles than the resurrection of Jesus (for more information about the Salem comparison, see Matt McCormick’s article “The Salem Witch Trials and the Evidence for the Resurrection” in The End of Christianity). We can all see the problems with the former example and yet apologists, who often exercise the same skepticism towards supernatural events outside of their religion (see this example in my exchange with apologist Vincent Torley), consider it an unfair bias to bracket Jesus’ resurrection as a religious, rather than historical, matter.

Simply because the method of history has these restrictions, and is thus incapable of “historically” proving the resurrection, does not entail that one cannot have other reasons for believing in the resurrection. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection is a theological matter does not bother most Christians, as their belief in Christianity is obviously rooted in more than a cold and detached study of history. I have encountered several apologists, however, who have sought evidential justifications when they were trying to convert other people who do not share such theological convictions.

Such apologists, seeking to use the field of ancient history, are eager to slap the label “historical” onto the resurrection. This goal is not really derived from academic concerns, but instead is born primarily out of the desire to evangelize. Once Jesus’ resurrection is considered a “historical fact,” you just have to accept it and apologists can accuse non-believers of being ill-informed or dishonest for not converting to their religion. It was to avoid such non-academic agendas that historians bracketed such religious questions in the first place. I myself was originally content with letting the resurrection be a religious, rather than historical question, but since apologists have fired the first shot in attempting to invade the field of ancient history, targeting lay audiences with a variety of slogans aimed at converting the public, my duty here on Κέλσος is to rebut their arguments.

One such slogan is the so-called “minimal facts” apologetic, spread by apologists such as Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig. Both apologists use different sets of “minimal facts” in order to provide a minimal case for proving just one of Jesus’ miracles: the resurrection.

The strategy behind the “minimal facts” apologetic is based on the fact that apologists realize that there are many problems with defending the historical reliability of the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Therefore, the “minimal facts” approach is to not argue that every claim found in the New Testament is true, but to base the case for Jesus’ resurrection solely on “facts” allegedly agreed upon by a consensus of scholars. Nevertheless, all of these “facts” are ultimately based solely on claims found in the New Testament and Christian literature, and some of them are not even accepted by all scholars [2]. Furthermore, the interpretation of these facts varies drastically between scholars [3].

Professional apologists (who often work as faculty at faith-based universities with doctrinal statements, which contractually require them to support the truth of Christian doctrines) claim that these “facts” cannot be explained through any other cause besides the resurrection of Jesus. They use such rhetoric to attack non-believes for allegedly being “hyper-skeptical” or even “intellectually dishonest” for not converting to their religion [4]. However, a closer analysis will reveal that all of the “minimal facts” can easily be accounted for in purely natural terms, and have likewise been explained by multiple scholars at secular universities without any appeals to miracles. As such, non-believers can accept all of the conclusions of mainstream NT scholarship, and yet still be perfectly rational in doubting the resurrection of Jesus.

This apologetic takes a variety of forms [5], but William Craig’s variation used in his debates about the resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most popular. Craig claims that there are “four facts” about Jesus’ resurrection (taken from his website here):

  1. After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
  2. On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
  3. On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
  4. The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

Craig uses the term “facts,” in order to treat these premises as non-negotiable. The reality, however, is that his first two facts are not even accepted by many mainstream scholars. Scholars like Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, for example, doubt the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. For Ehrman’s case against the historicity of Joseph’s tomb, you can consult his blog series “Did the Romans Allow Decent Burials?.” Likewise, Ehrman also doubts the discovery of the empty tomb by women, which he discusses in his blog “The Women and the Empty Tomb.”

Furthermore, even apologists Habermas and Licona (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 69-70) acknowledge that the discovery of an empty tomb is not a “fact” accepted by all scholars, so that Craig’s first two premises cannot be treated as non-negotiable (to see my case against Habermas and Licona’s minimal facts, which are focused more on “facts” derived from Paul’s Epistles rather than the Gospels, see my discussion in footnote 5).

I will explain why many scholars doubt Craig’s first two facts, and then address how the second two can easily be explained through purely naturally explanations.

“Fact” 1: The Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea

This first two “facts” are the most dubious and also the most crucial to the apologist’s argument. The empty tomb is virtually the only piece of evidence that Craig offers that amounts to physical evidence for the resurrection. His facts 3 and 4 amount to nothing more than psychological evidence of what the earliest Christians believed or experienced regarding Jesus’ resurrection.

Furthermore, Craig’s facts 1 and 2 rely solely on information in the Gospels. The Gospels also make up stories about a three hour midday darkness and Herod slaughtering infants in Bethlehem, when such events suit their narrative purposes and theological agendas (discussed further here), but the empty tomb is historical, right? Very unlikely.

As NT scholar Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 155) explains, “As the burial tradition came to be told and retold, it possibly became embellished and made more concrete. Storytellers were apt to add details to stories that were vague, or to give names to people otherwise left nameless in a tradition, or to add named individuals to stories that originally mentioned only nameless individuals or undifferentiated groups of people.”

There are a number of reasons to think that Joseph of Arimathea and his empty tomb are later inventions and embellishments, probably first derived from the author of Mark (or at least a common source between Mark and the other canonical Gospels):

  1. There is an overwhelming precedent for such literary inventions elsewhere in the Gospels: Part of the tunnel vision of most apologetic arguments is that by zooming in on a single episode, attempting to prove a kernel of historical truth, they often ignore the context surrounding the event. Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb is first described in Mark 15. What else happens in Mark 15?
    • Well, for starters, the chapter begins (15:6-11) with an uncorroborated custom where the Romans allegedly released a condemned criminal named Barabbas during the Passover festival. Beyond the fact that no other ancient source mentions this custom, the story is probably myth. Inventing such a custom would strongly parallel the Yom Kippur sacrifice where one sacrificial victim was released. What does “Barabbas” mean? “Son of the Father.” Is it any small coincidence that a military insurrectionist, standing in for a military Messiah figure, is pitted against Jesus, an apocalyptic Messiah, who is the real Son of the Father? Hardly, the character makes far more sense as an allegorical invention to show how the Jews preferred military insurrection and paid the price during the Jewish War of 66-73 CE, after turning down the true Messiah. The author of Mark (or whatever source he found this claim in) most likely made up this character and event out of whole cloth (discussed further here).
    • What happens next? A three hour darkness at noon covers all the land during Jesus’ crucifixion (15:33). Despite there being hundreds of astrologers in the Roman Empire, there is not a single corroboration of this event by any non-Christian author [6]. Nevertheless, inventing such a detail would allow the author of Mark to make allusions to multiple OT verses about the day of the Lord being a day of darkness (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15). This miracle is in some ways more fantastic than Jesus’ resurrection, and still the author of Mark (or his source) made it up out of whole cloth.
    • Then when Jesus dies, the massive curtain of the Jewish Temple is torn in twain (15:38). Despite both Philo of Alexandria and the Jewish historian Josephus recording events that pertained to the Jewish Temple around this exact time period, neither is aware of this important event. Yet, after all of these examples, I am supposed to approach the empty tomb story from the assumption that it is historical? When, just as in the other examples, the empty tomb conveniently serves Mark’s theological purposes?
  2. No clear independent attestation: Perhaps if Joseph’s empty tomb were corroborated independently, then there might be evidence that the author of Mark did not invent it. Note, however, that this does not imply by itself that the tomb must be historical. Independent attestation is a commonly misunderstood criterion by apologists. When a claim is independently attested by multiple sources that only means that it goes back to an earlier source. It does not entail that it goes back to an actual historical event. Nevertheless, there is no clear independent attestation of Joseph’s empty tomb. Although Matthew, Luke, and John likewise mention Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb, they are all substantially influenced by the Markan narrative (80% of Mark’s verses are reproduced in Matthew, 65% in Luke, and while John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the earliest gospel, there are still clear parallels and adaptations between the texts, as shown by Louis A. Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel). Accordingly, Crossan (pgs. 138-145) in The Passion in Mark argues that all of the post-Markan references to the empty tomb can be shown to derive from Mark and are thus not independently attested. Furthermore, even if some the later gospels, such as John, were independent of Mark, they could have still derived the story of Joseph of Arimathea from a common source shared between Mark and the other canonical Gospels. In contrast, the Apocryphon of James (5.17) instead records that Jesus was dishonorably buried in a sand pit. Likewise, Cameron (pg. 13o) in Sayings in the Apocryphon of James argues that the sayings tradition preserved in this document might be independent of the canonical Gospels. If so, this may suggest that when a text was independent of the Gospel sources, it was unaware of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, since this story could have been invented solely by these sources.
  3. No clear pre-Markan source: The Gospels, unlike the authors of historical prose, never name where they derive their sources [7]. Accordingly, the author of Mark does not cite any source for which he derived the tomb story, and Crossan (The Passion in Mark, pg. 136) argues that speculative attempts to derive a pre-Markan source based on thematic, stylistic, lexical, and redactional studies “have been far from successful.” Accordingly, there is no clear pre-Markan tradition to bar the possibility that the author of Mark invented the story. Furthermore, even if there was a pre-Markan source for the empty tomb (such as a pre-Markan Passion Narrative), that does not necessarily entail that it goes back to an historical event, as Mark’s source may likewise have invented it.
  4. A strong theological motive to invent the empty tomb: The motives for inventing this story are clear. The author of Mark (or a common source) most likely wanted to demonstrate that Jesus had physically resurrected in the same body in which he had died, so he created an empty tomb. This invention would serve as a redaction on previous resurrection traditions (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15) that do not mention any empty burial place being discovered. As NT scholar Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 168) explains about the strong theological motives for inventing the empty tomb (whether it was invented by the author of Mark or a common source): “There are lots of reasons for someone wanting to invent the story that Jesus was buried in a known tomb and that it was discovered empty (whoever would have discovered it). And the most important is that the discovery of the empty tomb is central to the claim that Jesus was resurrected. If there was no empty tomb, Jesus was not physically raised.” As such, it is not hard at all to see why such a story appeared in the later Gospels. The Gospels also make up tons of other theologically convenient episodes about Jesus, such as the conflicting and obviously invented narratives of Jesus’ birth between Matthew and Luke, when it suits their narrative purposes. If you can make up a story at the beginning of a gospel, you can make one up at the end.
    • Likewise, as Richard Carrier argues (pgs. 105-232) in “The Spiritual Body and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, the earliest Christians may have been divided over multiple views about the nature of the resurrection. Some Christians may have believed in a “two body” hypothesis, in which Jesus received a new body in heaven after his resurrection, leaving the physical shell of his earthly body behind (implying no empty burial place). Other Christians, however, would have held to a “one body” hypothesis, in which the same body that had died rose from the dead. The author of Mark, who likely believed in a “one body” resurrection, could clarify that the resurrection took place in the same body by having an empty tomb left behind, with no body inside (it should be noted that Carrier also argues that Mark may have used the scene of the empty tomb as a literary symbol for the new heavenly body, which would also imply the non-historicity of the tomb itself). Accordingly, the author had a strong motive to invent the tomb, just as he invented other episodes and characters in his Gospel.
  5. Joseph of Arimathea as a perfect allegorical candidate: Apologetic attempts to defend Joseph of Arimathea’s historicity have been far from successful:
    • There is no such person attested outside of the New Testament and Arimathea has not been archaeologically confirmed as a real city. Various modern guesses have been postulated for a historical location of Arimathea, some identifying the city as another name for Ramathaim-Zophim in Ephraim, others with Ramlah in Dan or Ramah in Benjamin. As explained by NT scholar Roy Hoover (“A Contest Between Orthodoxy & Veracity,” pg. 133), however: “[T]he location of Arimathea has not (yet) been identified with any assurance; the various ‘possible’ locations are nothing more than pious guesses or conjectures undocumented by any textual or archeological evidence.” Furthermore, this Joseph shows up out of nowhere in the Gospels, conveniently provides a narrative role for retrieving Jesus’ body, and then buries it in a tomb that conveniently ends Mark’s narrative with being found empty. (Strangely, Joseph is never questioned in the Gospels or Acts for the whereabouts of Jesus’ body, despite this being a matter that he would have been suspect in.)
    • Typical apologetic arguments for Joseph’s historicity allege that it would be unlikely that the author of Mark invented this character, since he is identified as a member of the Sanhedrin group that voted to condemn Jesus. Nevertheless, the authors of both Matthew and Luke saw a problem with this, and accordingly Matthew (27:57) changes Joseph to just being a “rich man” in order to exclude this detail, and Luke (23:50-51) solves the problem by changing the story to claim that Joseph voted against the execution.
    • Furthermore, the Greek title for a council member was ευσχημων βουλευτης, which could also be a pun to mean “one who makes good decisions,” in order to explain Joseph’s respect for Jesus’ body. Likewise, while Arimathea has never been confirmed archaeologically, the name would be a perfect stand-in epithet for Joseph’s role as a “best disciple” rescuing Jesus. As historian Richard Carrier notes, the name Αριμαθαια can be formed by the Greek prefix αρι- (“best”) and μαθη, μαθησις, μαθημα, μαθητης (“teaching/disciple”) with the addition of the suffix -αια as a standard indicator of place. Hence, Joseph, who rescued Jesus’ corpse after the other disciples had fled, came from a place that literally means “Best Disciple Town.” Historical coincidence?
    • Another possibility, which Roger Aus argues in The Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus, and the Death, Burial, and Translation of Moses in Judaic Tradition (pgs. 162-165), is that the name “Arimathea” may be based on the site of Moses’ burial. In Deuteronomy 34:5-6 Moses died in the land of Moab, in the valley opposite of Beth Peor. Traditionally, this is the same site as Mount Nebo, “the top of Pisgah.” There are four instances in the Hebrew Bible where it refers to the slopes of Pisgah (Deut. 3:17; Deut. 4:49; Josh. 3:23; Josh. 13:20). As Aus argues: “The Aramaic noun רמא in the singular means ‘hight’ … In light of the above evidence I suggest that the early, Aramaic-speaking, Palestinian Jewish Christian who first formulated the narrative of Jesus’ burial borrowed the term (Joseph of) ‘Arimathea’ from Judaic tradition available to him on the site of the death and burial of Israel’s first redeemer, Moses. It was the top of ‘Pisgah,’ in Aramaic the plural רמתא, ‘Ramatha,’ ‘the heights.’ It was also the same form employed for the top of ‘Pisgah’ at the end of the Song of the Well in Num. 21:20. As noted above, early Judaic tradition maintained that the well followed the Israelites to the site of Moses’ death and burial, that is, the Pisgah of Deut. 34:1 (with v 6). The author of Jesus’ burial probably himself added an initial aleph, often done to place names … The Aramaic ארמתא was then basically correctly translated into the Greek as Αριμαθαια.”
    • Why name the character “Joseph”? While it may not be possible to always determine how an allegorical character’s name is chosen, there are nevertheless plausible literary interpretations that can make sense of the name “Joseph” as an allegorical invention. One possibility is that Joseph of Arimathea is designed to parallel the role of Joseph the Patriarch in Genesis 50:4-5, who asks the Pharaoh for permission to bury his father’s body in a cave tomb. Another possibility has been advanced by NT scholar Dennis MacDonald, who argues in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (pgs. 154-161) that Joseph of Arimathea is similar to Homeric motifs that he identifies elsewhere in the Gospels, where Jesus and other characters parallel and surpass the actions of Homeric heroes. MacDonald shows how Joseph of Arimathea’s role is very similar to that of Priam’s in book 24 of the Iliad. Priam, the father of Hector, dares to journey to Achilles’ camp to plead for the body of Hector. What is the name of Jesus’ father again? Joseph. And here a figure with the same name paralleling a father figure performs the same action (in fact, Joseph of Arimathea is even identified as Jesus’ uncle in some later traditions)? Historical coincidence? It is hard to know, and not all scholars accept MacDonald’s interpretation (for my own review of MacDonald’s mimesis criticism, see here), but nevertheless plausible interpretations such as these leave fully open the possibility that the name “Joseph” could have been invented for literary, rather than historical, purposes.
    • Furthermore, having a rich man perform Jesus’ burial draws a parallel to Isaiah 53:9, in which the “Suffering Servant” described in the passage is likewise buried in the tomb of a rich man (other literary adaptations from Isaiah 53 are discussed below). Also, is it really that strange that a member of the Sanhedrin would later turn out to be sympathetic to Jesus in Mark? Scholars have long recognized that a prominent theme in the Gospel of Mark is reversal of expectation and unlikely characters being the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. For example, a Roman centurion is the first to recognize Jesus as the Son of God following his crucifixion in Mark 15:39. What?! Not only a Gentile, but an occupying Roman, is the first to recognize Jesus as the Son of God after the crucifixion? And yet a Jewish member of the Sanhedrin could not possibly see the error of his council’s ways and bestow Jesus with an honorable burial as part of a literary episode? This would be so awkward that Mark could not possibly have invented it? When Joseph’s character and narrative role are analyzed fully, there is ample literary justification for how such a character and his tomb could have been inventions of the author of Mark (or a common source), just like the other stories and characters that are made up elsewhere in the Gospels when it suits their narrative purposes.
    • As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 155) summarizes: “In the story of Joseph of Arimathea we may have … an instance of … what was originally a vague statement that the unnamed Jewish leaders buried Jesus becom[ing] a story of one leader in particular, who is named, doing so.”

So “fact 1” is hardly an established fact at all. This does not mean that Jesus’ body had to stay up on the cross, but as Crossan (The Passion in Mark, pg. 152) observes, “It is most probable that Jesus was buried by the same inimical forces that had crucified him and that on Easter Sunday morning those who knew the site did not care and those who cared did not know the site.” Thus, Jesus’ burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is hardly a historical “fact,” quite possibly a literary myth, and does not require any circumstantial explanation from the historian [8].

“Fact” 2: The Women at the Empty Tomb

It need not be said that if the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was a literary invention, then it was probably not “historically” found empty. Accordingly, addressing the first “fact” in this apologetic likewise casts doubt on the second about women finding Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb empty.

The skeptic need not stop there, however. Apologetic efforts to defend the historicity of the women at the tomb primarily stress how women in 1st century CE Palestine were not considered reliable courtroom witnesses, and accordingly the author of Mark would not have invented this story because of the criterion of embarrassment. But there are many problems with this argument. For starters, this claim is factually wrong. Jeffery Lowder (pgs. 283-285) has shown in The Empty Tomb that women were allowed to serve as witnesses in court on rare occasions. But furthermore, the women are not presented as courtroom witnesses! We are not talking about a Palestinian legal document, but a Hellenistic prose novel influenced by previous Hellenistic literary motifs. Women being associated with burial rites was a common tradition in previous Greek literature. Anyone who has read Sophocles’ Antigone can see this easily. And likewise in Mark there are plausible literary reasons for women going to care for Jesus’ body.

But furthermore, if one really wants to believe that the women would be considered unreliable witnesses, and thus could not have been invented, part of their role in Mark is actually as unreliable witnesses! What happens at the original ending of Mark? The women run away and don’t tell anybody because they are too afraid. Why have this bizarre ending to the Gospel? Bart Ehrman (“The Women and the Empty Tomb”) has suggested that the reason why the women are specifically said to have told nobody about the empty tomb is because it would be a perfect explanation for why Mark’s readers had not heard the story before. If there really was no such tradition of an empty tomb prior to Mark, and the author invented the story for literary/theological purposes, how could he explain to his audience why they had never heard the story before? Because the women, unreliable witnesses that they were, ran away in fear and told no one! Hence why the story was just now being heard.

While it may be difficult to pin down the exact motive for why the author of Mark would specifically choose Mary the mother of James, Mardy Magdalene, and Salome as the three women who find Jesus’ empty tomb, there are nevertheless multiple possibilities for how this scene could be invented. For example, following from the previous Homeric motif of a father figure requesting a son’s burial, MacDonald (pgs. 154-161) has argued in his chapter “Rescued Corpses” that the women in Mark who find the tomb could plausibly be designed to parallel the women who anoint Hector’s body in Iliad 24. In the Iliad, Hecuba (Hector’s mother), Andromache (Hector’s wife), and Helen (promiscuous beauty) care for his body. In Mark, Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene (Jesus’ most intimate female disciple), and Salome (known for promiscuity) go to anoint Jesus’ body. Again, historical coincidence or yet another literary motif like the several above?

We cannot fully know why the author of Mark chose to write what he did, and scholars have proposed a variety of different interpretations for understanding the ending of Mark. However, analyses such as MacDonald’s show that it would hardly be improbable for the author to have invented the scene for literary purposes, since there are many plausible literary motives for inventing such a scene. Accordingly, when apologists argue that women discovering the empty tomb must be a historical event because of the criterion of embarrassment, they are exercising hyper-skepticism towards a wide range of literary motives, and are likewise needlessly reading the scene as the literal description of an actual event.

However, even the variant descriptions of the empty tomb’s discovery between the Gospels show that none of their authors can be describing a single, literal event. All of the Gospels tweak the role call of women — adding or subtracting various characters to suite their own narrative purposes — so that we do not even have a consistent set of witnesses. Mark 16:1-8 has three women (Mary the mother of James, Mardy Magdalene, and Salome) find the tomb already open, with the stone rolled away, and inside they find a young man dressed in white robs. Matthew 28:1-7 has two woman (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary) arrive when the tomb is still sealed, when an angel comes down from heaven with an earthquake, who roles away the tombstone and shows that Jesus is no longer inside. Luke 24:1-10 has more than three women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women) arrive when the tomb is already opened, but when they enter nobody is inside, and instead two men outside the tomb approach them from behind. John 20:11-18 simply cuts to the chase and has one woman (Mary Magdalene) see Jesus himself in person. None of these stories are consistent in the details. 

All of these variant depictions and discrepancies show that it is far more probable that the story of women discovering the empty tomb is literary, and not historical, in character, and accordingly all of the Gospels retell the legend in their own way. The inconsistency in who the women ever were and what they even saw adds further doubt to the historicity of this episode.

Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that “fact two” of the argument is a fact at all, and it is probably another legendary element of the Gospels. As such, this is no circumstance here that needs to be explained by the historian.

“Fact” 3: Post-Mortem Sightings of Jesus

So, without the empty tomb, what then caused people to believe in Jesus’ resurrection? “Fact three” of this apologetic is poorly worded, but this one does have a kernel of historical truth. I don’t think any skeptic denies that the early Christians claimed to have experiences of Jesus risen from the dead. But this is not at all something difficult to explain. Post-mortem sightings were common rumors in antiquity. For example, both the emperor Nero and Apollonius of Tyana likewise had stories circulating about post-mortem appearances of them not long after their deaths. Heck, such hysteria is still common today, with Elvis Presley, the Russian princess Anastasia, and Michael Jackson all having rumors circulating within a few years and decades following their deaths about post-mortem appearances indicating that they were still alive. We don’t trust such stories when they appear in the news today, yet we are expected to trust ancient literature from two millennia ago?

Where do we read about these post-mortem sightings of Jesus anyways? From eyewitnesses? None who knew Jesus. The Gospels are anonymous hagiographies (see my article “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels” for problems with the Gospels’ authorship), written half a century later, that, as I have shown above, are packed with legendary elements and fabrications.

We do not even know when Jesus’ disciples would have originally “seen” him and what they would have experienced. As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 175) explains:

“If it is true that the disciples fled from Jerusalem to Galilee when Jesus was arrested, and that it was there that some of them ‘saw’ him, they could not have seen him the Sunday morning after his death. If they fled on Friday, they would not have been able to travel on Saturday, the Sabbath; and since it was about 120 miles from Jerusalem to Capernaum, their former home base, it would have taken a week at least for them to get there on foot. Maybe some of them, or one of them, had a vision of Jesus in Galilee soon after he was crucified — possibly the following week? The week after that? The next month? We simply don’t have sources of information available that make this kind of judgement possible.”

Do we have anything better? Well, we do have the apostle Paul, who wasn’t an eyewitness of Jesus, but who claims to have had a vision of him. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) elsewhere claims that he was once raptured up to “third heaven” in a experience that is very similar to the ones told by crazed street preacher Clarence “Bro” Cope, who likewise claims to have been raptured to heaven twice and to have had Jesus appear to him. Are we to trust these kinds of claims in the ancient past when we do not believe the types of people who make them today?

Paul’s testimony is useful, however, since Paul is writing only a couple decades after Jesus and he claims to have known Peter and other eyewitnesses of Jesus. What does Paul relate in 1 Corinthians 15? Nothing about an empty tomb being discovered by women. Instead, Paul relates a creed (1 Cor. 15:3-7), which is the earliest known tradition about the resurrection (dating to 2-5 years after Jesus’ death). However, the creed does not corroborate the later claims in the Gospels. The creed only states that Jesus died, rose from the dead (there is no discussion of what it looked like, nor mention of a discovered empty burial place), and then ωφθη (“appeared”) to Peter, then “the Twelve” (wasn’t Judas dead?), and then other unnamed persons (I discuss problems with this creed in more detail here).

Such information is very sparse and can be explained in terms of later rumors, private visions, or group spiritual experiences. Both Christian scholar Dale Allison in Resurrecting Jesus and Bart Ehrman in How Jesus Became God discuss how “bereavement visions” of the dead are not uncommon among people who have lost close family and friends. Such could have been the case when Jesus was crucified and separated from his disciples, who then may have had bereaved visions of him. Likewise, “visions of esteemed religious figures” are not uncommon among religious cultures with a high degree of belief in the supernatural. In fact, auditory and visual hallucinations of dead or non-existent persons is even common today. Studies from psychologists Slade and Bentall in Sensory Deception: a Scientific Analysis of Hallucination (pgs. 68-78) have found that 1/10 people have experienced a brief auditory or visual hallucination of a dead person, where visual is the more common. In some of these instances, people have long hallucinations and even conversations with the dead person. Slade and Bentall also found that such hallucinations are more common in cultures that have more widespread supernatural beliefs. For example, their research found that approximately 40% of the natives of Hawaii had experienced such hallucinations, owing to widespread supernatural beliefs in their culture. The Jews of the 1st century CE were also living in a time and region deeply imbued with supernatural beliefs, which could have easily caused similar experiences.

Such research shows that it would hardly be miraculous for the early Christians to have had experiences in which they believed that Jesus had appeared to them. Such experiences are not unheard of today, whereas physical resurrections from brain death have never been demonstrated. As such, visions and subjective experiences are far more probable. See Keith Parsons’ article “Kreeft and Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory” for a refutation of apologetic arguments claiming that such reports about appearances could not have natural explanations.

It is not even clear that Paul believed that Jesus had physically resurrected in the same body in which he had died, rather than that his spirit had ascended to heaven to be clothed in a new heavenly body [9]. Paul instead only reports that Jesus ωφθη (“appeared to”) him and the original disciples. This is the passive form of the verb οραω (“to see”), which very often means “to be seen in visions” (see here a list of ancient inscriptions describing celestial visions of the god Aesculapius that use the exact same vocabulary). Paul elsewhere describes his own visions of Jesus in no physical terms at all (e.g. Paul only says in Galatians 1:15-16 that god αποκαλυψαι τον υιον “revealed his son” to him, and in 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul says that he εορακα “has seen” the Lord, where “seen” refers to Paul’s vision of Jesus and does not include any physical descriptions). Paul likewise uses the same or similar vocabulary to describe the early disciples’ post-mortem experiences of Jesus. Accordingly, the early post-mortem sightings of Jesus are only based on vague vocabulary and descriptions which could be purely rooted in visions or spiritual experiences. Paul says nothing about the disciples or himself seeing Jesus face to face.

Likewise, the earliest Christian belief in the resurrection was probably that Jesus, upon resurrecting, had been raised to heaven, and that the visions of Jesus were from heaven. Thus, the first Christians likely neither claimed nor believed that they had seen Jesus literally in an earthly setting. As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pgs. 205-206) explains about the disciples’ earliest beliefs:

“They believed that Jesus had come back from the dead — but he was not still living among them as one of them. He was nowhere to be found. He did not resume his teaching activities in the hills of Galilee … The disciples, knowing that Jesus was raised that he was no longer among them, concluded that he had been exalted to heaven. When Jesus came back to life, it was not merely that his body had been reanimated. God had taken Jesus up to himself in the heavenly realm, to be with him … This is why the disciples told the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances the way they did. Jesus did not resume his earthly body. He had a heavenly body. When he appeared to his disciples, in the earliest traditions, he appeared from heaven.”

Heavenly visions and the vague vocabulary of “appearances” that Paul relates in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 are not circumstances that are hard to explain in terms of psychologically internal visionary experiences or hallucinations. Thus, it is not hard to see how belief in the resurrection and such post-mortem appearances could have emerged due to purely natural and non-miraculous causes [10]. The fact that the Gospels do not even agree upon a literal geographical setting in which Jesus’ post-mortem appearances first occurred (The Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20 claims that the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples was in Galilee, whereas Luke 24:13-49 and John 19:19-29 claim that Jesus first appeared to them in Jerusalem) illustrates how these stories about post-mortem appearances cannot even point to a unified historical sequence of events.

Stories, of course, change over time, which is why the later Gospel accounts describe the post-mortem appearances of Jesus in different ways and in more physical terms. Consider a diachronic analysis of how the resurrection stories developed over time:

  • Paul (c. 50’s CE), the earliest source, has no empty tomb and just “appearances” of Jesus.
  • Mark (c. 70’s CE), half a century after Jesus’ death, then has an empty tomb.
  • Matthew (c. 80’s CE), after Mark, then has Jesus appear to his disciples in Galilee.
  • Luke (c. 90’s CE), even later, instead has Jesus appear to his disciple in Jerusalem (a different story than Matthew’s), and likewise this Jesus can teleport and is not at first recognizable to his followers.
  • Finally, John (c. 90-100’s CE) has Thomas be able to touch Jesus’ wounds.
  • If you go even later into the Gospel of Peter (2nd century CE), Jesus emerges as a giant from the tomb with giant angels accompanying him (verses 39-40).

As is clear, the proverbial fish gets bigger and bigger over time, exactly as one would expect from a legendary development that started with early visions, spiritual experiences, or hallucinations of Jesus, and then grew into later hagiographies about the disciples physically interacting with their resurrected Messiah in an earthly setting [11].

The fish gets bigger

When it comes to cataloging the individual and group appearances, they can be summarized as follows (the list below is adapted from chapter 5 of William Craig’s book Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?):

  • Peter/Cephas (who is listed first in Paul, even though women are the first to see Jesus in the Gospels)
  • The Disciples (possibly “the Twelve” in Paul, but eleven in the Gospels and Acts)
  • The Five Hundred (a completely unknown group, as I explain here)
  • James (whose experience is discussed further in footnote 5)
  • The Other Apostles (a vaguely characterized group that probably included other early Christians)
  • Paul (whose experience is likewise discussed further in footnote 5)
  • The Women at the Tomb (whose contradictory experiences are discussed in section 2 above)
  • The Appearances in the Gospel/Acts (which can include a variety of different kinds of experiences, including Jesus being unrecognizable to his followers, as in Luke 24:16, or appearing in celestial visions, as in Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-9; 26:13-14)

What is important to stress about these different appearances is that it need not be assumed that they happened independently of each other. Peter could have had a bereavement vision of Jesus, for example, which he then told the other disciples about, triggering them to have similar experiences. Likewise, Paul had already heard of the Christians before his experience, which means that his vision was not a completely unprovoked event. Other appearances could have easily been fabricated. Many (all?) of the appearances in the Gospels were likely invented by their authors (or their sources), and it is noteworthy that, while the Gospels are fairly consistent in depicting the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus, they diverge considerably in the resurrection accounts (with Matthew placing the appearance to the disciples in Galilee, for example, whereas Luke and John place it in Jerusalem).

It is also important to note that claiming to have seen or experienced Jesus in his resurrected state was important for establishing leadership and congregation in the early church. As the Jesus Seminar (The Acts of Jesus, pgs. 484, 485, 492) explains:

“Reports of appearances to various people in the early Christian community had political consequences. The recipient of an appearance had received the special endorsement of the source of all authority, Jesus of Nazareth, and was therefore entitled to respect and power.”

A combination of visionary experiences or hallucinations, word of mouth, designation of church authority, estimates of the size of the early congregation, and legendary development can account, therefore, for the traditions of the appearances listed above. We also have to bare in mind our sources. Paul, the earliest source, is highly vague, and does not specify that Peter or “the Twelve” saw Jesus, face to face, in an earthly setting. The Gospels and Acts appear to have discrepancies with this narrative, in that there were only eleven disciples when Jesus allegedly appeared to his followers. It also need not be assumed that all of the experiences were identical. Whatever Peter “saw” could have been quite different than what the five hundred “saw,” for example. Regarding this latter group, scholar Stephen Patterson (The God of Jesus, pg. 236) points out:

“It is not inconceivable that an early Christian group might have interpreted an ecstatic worship experience as an appearance of the risen Jesus.”

As noted above, the story grew in the telling. It is hardly a detailed or straightforward account of factual historical events. As such, the “fact” of the post-mortem sightings of Jesus hardly requires a miracle to explain.

“Fact” 4: The Rise of Belief in the Resurrection

Apologists would have us throw out Occam’s Razor in explaining how belief in Jesus’ resurrection could emerge in 1st century CE Palestine. The typical argument goes that the Jews of this time did not expect a crucified and resurrected Messiah, so that something miraculous must have occurred to reverse the expectation of a small group of Jews who believed that such a thing had happened. It is true that most Jews believed that the Messiah would be a great king or a judge, and not a crucified criminal. Likewise, the early Christians had to cherry pick certain biblical verses out of context, such as those pertaining to Isaiah 53’s “Suffering Servant,” in order to provide so-called “prophecies” for this suffering view of the Messiah, even though the actual verses that Christians appealed to say nothing about the Jewish Messiah in context [12]. But do we really need a miracle to explain how a radical new view could emerge?

As NT scholar Bart Ehrman put it (in his debate with William Craig):

“The one thing we know about the Christians after the death of Jesus is that they turned to their scriptures to try and make sense of it. They had believed Jesus was the Messiah, but then he got crucified, and so he couldn’t be the Messiah. No Jew, prior to Christianity, thought that the Messiah was to be crucified. The Messiah was to be a great warrior or a great king or a great judge. He was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not somebody who’s squashed by the enemy like a mosquito. How could Jesus, the Messiah, have been killed as a common criminal? Christians turned to their scriptures to try and understand it, and they found passages that refer to the Righteous One of God’s suffering death. But in these passages, such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and Psalm 69, the one who is punished or who is killed is also vindicated by God. Christians came to believe their scriptures that Jesus was the Righteous One and that God must have vindicated him. And so Christians came to think of Jesus as one who, even though he had been crucified, came to be exalted to heaven, much as Elijah and Enoch had in the Hebrew scriptures. How can he be Jesus the Messiah though, if he’s been exalted to heaven? Well, Jesus must be coming back soon to establish the kingdom. He wasn’t an earthly Messiah; he’s a spiritual Messiah. That’s why the early Christians thought the end was coming right away in their own lifetime.”

The ancient Jews and the people around the wider Mediterranean did not have carbon copy beliefs. There were all sorts of strange religions and new beliefs floating around the region at the time. Often times new religions are started by deviating from previous expectations towards new and radical ones, just as Ehrman describes. This certainly has a higher probability for explaining the origins of Christianity than a miraculous resurrection.

But a radical new belief in the resurrection need not even be unlikely. Kris Komarnitsky in “The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins” has argued that cognitive dissonance theory might best explain the early Christians’ belief in the resurrection. This theory observes that among religious groups and cults, when something occurs that violates the adherents’ previous expectations and beliefs, rather than abandon their cherished religious beliefs, they instead invent new and radical ad hoc assumptions to rationalize the alarming information. Cognitive dissonance may explain why the Christian were inclined to believe that Jesus had resurrected after the crucifixion.

When their Messiah was crucified, the earliest Christians, instead of abandoning their faith, where able to preserve it through the assumption that Jesus had been raised from the dead and the expectation that he would soon return. Perhaps Jesus had only temporarily died!” “Maybe he will return soon from Heaven and avenge his death!” Such rationalizations could have easily triggered some cult members to start having visionary experiences or hallucinations of Jesus. They could then tell others, who would then have a prior expectation that could trigger similar visions, or who would simply convince themselves through placebo effects, or who would simply go along with the group. After all, even the Gospel of Matthew (28:17) describes the first post-mortem appearance of Jesus to his disciples in Galilee with the following qualifier: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

As a result of these early experiences, a new rumor could start circulating claiming that Jesus was raised from the dead as the “first fruits of the resurrection.” The cult could then regain its confidence with a new expectation: “Soon all the saints will resurrect!” “Soon Jesus will return in this very generation!” (cf. Mark 13:28-30; 1 John 2:18) tick tock tick tock … “Okay, well maybe we have to wait for a couple new signs, but then he will return, even if later than we expected!” (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4) tick tock tick tockAnd so every generation of Christians expecting an apocalyptic return has had its expectations reversed, and yet believers have continually made new ad hoc assumptions to rationalize a worldview that has consistently and repeatedly failed to deliver (see Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World).

Accordingly, the belief in the resurrection, and the subsequent legendary developments about physical interactions with Jesus, can all be explained naturally as the result of cognitive dissonance reduction rationalizing how Jesus could have been crucified, but still be the Messiah. Think that this would be unlikely? Consider an even more extraordinary example: In the 17th century, many Jews believed that the charismatic figure Sabbatai Zevi was finally the God of Abraham’s chosen Messiah. How did he turn out? Much, much worse than being crucified, he actually converted to Islam when in danger and under pressure. The Messiah converted to Islam? Surely this was entirely, entirely alien to all previous messianic expectations. So everyone realized that Zevi wasn’t the Messiah, right? Nope. Instead, many of his followers invented post hoc assumptions that the Messiah was “supposed” to convert to Islam to destroy the enemy religion from within. In fact, there are still Jews today who believe Zevi was the Messiah. If this movement could survive in much worse circumstances, surely Jesus’ followers could have come to believe in the resurrection and Jesus’ imminent return as a way of rationalizing his disgraceful crucifixion with his messianism.

Komarnitsky likewise discusses cognitive dissonance reduction in the case of the messianic figure Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who gained a worldwide following in the 1990’s among a sect of Hasidic Jews called the Lubavitch. Schneerson was widely expected by his followers to be the Jewish Messiah who would usher in the end times redemption. The problem is, however, that Schneerson died of a stroke on June 12, 1994. Did this stop his followers from believing that he was the Messiah? Nope. Instead, the movement rationalized that Schneerson would soon return from the dead to usher in the final redemption. As Simon Dein of Durham University — an expert on Schneerson, author of “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch,” and an endorser of Komarnitsky’s cognitive dissonance hypothesis — points out:

“[The] Lubavitch are not a group of fanatics … They are sane people trying to reason their way through the facts and in the pursuit of understanding … Like many groups whose messianic expectations fail to materialize, resort is made to eschatological hermeneutics to explain and reinforce messianic ideology … [Schneerson’s] illness and subsequent death posed cognitive challenges for his followers. They made two predictions that were empirically disconfirmed: that he would recover from the illness and that he would usher in the Redemption. In accordance with cognitive dissonance theory … they appealed to a number of post hoc rationalizations to allay the dissonance.”

Interesting enough, when I visited Safed, Israel in the summer of 2012, I saw many pictures of Schneerson put up by Jews who still regard Rabbi Schneerson as their Messiah. If such movements can persevere today in the face of disconfirming evidence, the Christians of the 1st century CE could have easily done the same.

Furthermore, thinking that their Messiah had only temporarily suffered, but would soon return in an apocalypse, is not even that odd of a new development. Historical Jesus studies have found that Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic prophet teaching that a new “Kingdom of God” would soon come about through divine intervention, but that the righteous for the present would have to endure hardships and wait for their future reward. Sure, if Jesus had been a military Messiah, then faith in him probably would have dissipated following his crucifixion. But Jesus was talking about suffering followed by divine intervention in the first place. Is it really that hard to create an post hoc assumption that Jesus had only been crucified because of temporary suffering, but that he would be returning soon as the agent carrying out the divine intervention they were awaiting? Not at all. Of course, this divine intervention never happened, but it does explain how belief in Jesus’ resurrection could have emerged through cognitive dissonance, visions, and hallucinations, followed by later legendary tales of a physically resurrected Messiah interacting with his followers.

Accordingly, “fact 4,” when analyzed in greater depth and put into context, is not difficult at all to explain in natural terms. Christianity emerged as a new religion that developed as the result of new ideas, visions, experiences, evangelizing, legendary development, and the eventual writing of sacred scripture (which included numerous forgeries, authorial inventions, and deliberate falsehoods), just like many other religions on the planet.


There are many other answers to this apologetic than the one I have provided above. Jeffery Lowder has written an extensive article providing a plausible explanation for how, even if the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was historical, its emptiness can still be explained through a temporary burial — in which Jesus’ body had been taken down to abide by the regulations of the Sabbath, and was only temporarily put in Joseph’s tomb for storage — only to later be reburied in a criminal graveyard before the third day. Hence when this temporary tomb was found empty, this may have caused people to believe in a resurrection, but still have had a purely natural explanation. Richard Carrier also explores the possibility of grave robbery explaining the discovery of an empty tomb in his “Plausibility of Theft FAQ.” Carrier has also written another article even exploring the probability of the Swoon Theory — which is the hypothesis that Jesus only fainted on the cross, was mistaken for dead, and put in a tomb, but later awoke and escaped. Carrier acknowledges that the likelihood of this explanation is extremely small, but he still estimates that the probability of Jesus surviving is greater than that of a Royal Flush in Poker. Royal Flushes have been show to happen, whereas a miraculous resurrection has never been reliably documented.

I could think of other possible explanations all day: Maybe two of Jesus’ followers apart from the disciples could have attempted to rescue his body from the tomb, gotten caught after they had removed it, been killed, and then all three bodies were hastily buried in an unmarked grave, where they quickly decomposed and within a couple days could no longer be identified. Maybe the soldiers allegedly guarding the tomb were annoyed at having such a ridiculous assignment, got drunk, and then played a practical joke and throwing the body in a ditch to see if people would believe Jesus had resurrected [13].

I could go on all day thinking of more probable explanations than a miraculous resurrection. As I explain in my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles,” any of these scenarios would be more probable than a miraculous resurrection. Furthermore, one does not have to favor any particular pet theory. Instead, the combined probability of all of the natural hypotheses, whether it be the explanation that I laid out above (which I think is most probable), or another natural hypothesis (such as Lowder’s temporary burial hypothesis), in their combined weight far outweigh the possibility of a supernatural resurrection. So, even if we can’t be completely sure about what sequence of events took place, we can reasonably be confident that something natural or non-paranormal occurred.

Of course, skeptics do not need to “explain” these so-called “facts” to apologists to justify not being Christian. There are all sorts of religions around the world that make miraculous claims, and yet outsiders (including Christian apologists) are not required to provide a detailed case against each. I think that such stories, including Jesus’ resurrection, can be reasonably dismissed due to their simple implausibility alone. I only provide this analysis due to my interest in the field of ancient Mediterranean history, which is being attacked by apologists seeking to spread a religious agenda.

Someone doesn’t have to be a historian, however, to not believe in Christianity. Consider an even more remarkable set of facts to explain than an empty tomb: A couple of years ago there was a whale found on grassland in East Yorkshire that was 800 yards inland from the shore (there are rumors of a pot of petunias being found alongside it).

whaleHow does one explain that? Experts have theorized that maybe a tide carried the whale into a salt marsh that gradually moved the mammoth creature 800 yards inland before receding. Seems extraordinary, but do I need a miracle to explain this? Even without the tide, there would still be other possible explanations. Maybe an eccentric billionaire airlifted the poor creature as a practical joke. Who knows. The point is that I don’t need to resort to “God clicked his ruby heels and teleported the whale there” to explain an odd event happening. Likewise, I do not need to explain a religious legend about a resurrected Messiah by assuming that an even more fantastical Palestinian deity raised him from the dead. Any natural explanation would be more plausible.

The ironic thing about apologetic attempts to “prove” the resurrection is that if God really existed, we would not have to rely on such a fantastical historical quest to prove it. God could just provide miracles today making it clear that he exists and he could tell us that Christianity is the correct religion. Instead, apologists are scouring through millennia-old religious texts in an Indiana Jones quest to discover the “proof” of Christianity. But, nevertheless, their arguments do not hold up under scrutiny and examination.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For example, William Craig has argued that intervention from God would increase the probability of Jesus’ resurrection:

“That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

But it is certainly not a “minimal fact” that God even exists, or intervenes in the physical world in such way. As such, Craig’s solution is an ad hoc assumption that exceeds “existing knowledge” in the way C. Behan McCullagh describes. I also discuss in my essay “History and the Divine Sphere” how even ancient historians like Herodotus and Thucydides did not make presumptions about such theological knowledge, let alone modern historians.

[2] Apologists, recognizing that their “minimal facts” all come from ancient Christian literature, appeal to authority to claim that there is “scholarly agreement” about these “facts.” However, this claim is based on little more than attempts to (vaguely) quantify a variety of publications, from evangelical Christian authors and secular scholars alike, that discuss the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The most prominent apologist to attempt to quantify the authors who support these “facts” is Gary Habermas in a survey where he attempts to identify dominant trends among the writings of primarily “theologians or New Testament scholars.” Yet, even in such fields, which have higher proportions of religious believers and include a number of Christian universities with doctrinal statements, Habermas has not shown that all of the “minimal facts” are supported by a scholarly consensus. For example, Habermas has only found that 70-75% of his pool favor “one or more argument” in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb. This is hardly a “consensus” and it is actually a surprisingly low number in a Christian-dominated field.

Scholars who have doubted that the empty tomb story include:

Bart Ehrman, James Crossley, Marcus Borg, Günther Bornkamm, Gerald Boldock Bostock, Rudolf Bultmann, Peter Carnley, John Dominic Crossan, Steven Davies, Maurice Goguel, Michael Goulder, Hans Grass, Charles Guignebert, Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Herman Hendrickx, Roy Hoover, Helmut Koester, Hans Küng, Alfred Loisy, Burton Mack, Willi Marxsen, Gerd Lüdemann, Norman Perrin, Marianne Sawicki, John Shelby Spong, Howard M. Teeple, and Rev. John T. Theodore.

Furthermore, Habermas’ attempted meta-analysis of the literature is highly questionable and does not take into account the selection bias of authors who work at conservative Christian schools that are required by contract to support some of these “facts.” Here is an excellent complementary article to this one that discusses how Habermas’ attempt to quantify an “agreement among scholars” is riddled with statistical problems and would never pass peer review. In reality, Habermas has actually performed a “literature review,” but this should not be takes as authoritative, since literature reviews are not actual meta-analyses of scholarly opinion. Richard Carrier in “Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix” also provides an excellent critique of Habermas’ statistical arguments and appeals to authority regarding the “minimal facts.” Among the problems that Carrier points out is the fact that Habermas does not include scholars who are agnostics about the historicity of the empty tomb, which, if included, would substantially diminish his statistic of “70-75%.” This casts doubt on whether even a “majority” of scholars would accept the premise of the empty tomb, much less a “consensus.”

While I disagree with how apologists represent “scholarly consensus” in the “minimal facts” apologetic, there are certain “facts” listed that I agree are historical and have support among a consensus of scholars. These facts, however, are extremely sparse and can easily be explained through natural explanations. The facts that I accept from Habermas’ “minimal facts” include: 1) the crucifixion of Jesus, 2) that Jesus’ followers believed that he had risen and appeared to them, 3) that Paul converted, and 4) that James converted. I do not accept that the Jesus’ burial place was found empty, which even Habermas and Licona (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 69-70) concede is not a “fact” accepted by all scholars. I also think it is important that the empty tomb is not a “minimal fact,” because it is virtually the only piece of physical evidence for the resurrection. The other “minimal facts” basically boil to a man dying (fact 1: the crucifixion) and people later believing that he had risen (facts 2-4: Jesus’ followers believed in the resurrection, and Paul and James converted). This is only psychological and sociological evidence, which, in my opinion, is far less persuasive than physical evidence.

[3] Another problem that Habermas’ survey does not take into account is the wide range of different scholarly interpretations that exist for each, so called, “fact.” For example, there are many scholars who lean towards acceptance of the empty tomb, but do not regard it as a certain historical “fact.” One is Dale Allison (someone whom Habermas appeals to as a mainstream scholar who allegedly accepts the “fact” of the empty tomb), who actually acknowledges that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the matter. Allison (Resurrecting Jesus, pgs. 331-332) states:

“Looking back over the debate regarding the empty tomb, there is no iron logic on either side. There is a decent case for it, and there is a respectable case against it. Both sides, moreover, have their faults and suffer from a scarcity of proof; neither exercises all our doubts. I am nonetheless not moved to declare a stalemate, for pro and con are not quite here equal. Rather, of our two options — that the tomb was in face unoccupied or that belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied — the former, as I read the evidence, is the slightly stronger possibility, the latter the slightly weaker.”

Although I do not agree with Allison’s weighing of the evidence, I appreciate that he acknowledges the great uncertainty of the matter. It is a great leap to claim that Allison, because he states that the empty tomb is the “slightly stronger possibility,” regards the empty tomb as a “historical fact.” Uncertainty like this applies to other scholars as well, who, as footnote 2 explains above, are already heavily divided on this issue. This is a further reason why the empty tomb cannot be regarded as a “minimal fact” surrounding the origins of Christianity.

[4] Apologists often use polemical rhetoric to imply that non-believers doubt the resurrection of Jesus because of “moral” or “spiritual” failures. Christian apologist Mike Licona, for example, says the following about non-believers, who do not convert to Christianity in spite of the “evidence” for the resurrection (The Case for the Real Jesus, pg. 136):

“Sometimes it’s moral issues. They don’t want to be constrained by the traditional Jesus, who calls them to a life of holiness. One friend of mine finally acknowledged that Jesus rose from the dead, but he still won’t become a Christian because he said he wanted to be the master of his own life–that’s the exact way he put it. So in many cases–not all–it’s a heart issue, not a head issue.”

Of course, there are numerous qualified NT scholars, many of whom are former Christians — such as Bart Ehrman and Hector Avalos — who have studied all of the data surrounding the origins of Christianity, and yet have still walked away reasonably unconvinced of Jesus’ resurrection. In response to the deconversions of such professionals, Christian apologist William Lane Craig (“Faith and Doubt”) has made the following derision of their characters:

“I firmly believe, and I think the Bizarro-testimonies of those who have lost their faith and apostatized bears out, that moral and spiritual lapses are the principal cause for failure to persevere rather than intellectual doubts. But intellectual doubts become a convenient and self-flattering excuse for spiritual failure because we thereby portray ourselves as such intelligent persons rather than as moral and spiritual failures.”

Needless to say, if Christian apologists had any real evidence for their religion, they would not need to rely on such cheap shots, ad hominem attacks, and smear campaigns against non-believers.

[5] This essay is primarily written in response to William Craig’s variation of the minimal facts apologetic, which I consider to be a stronger version than Habermas and Licona’s, since it includes more concrete details about Jesus’ burial and post-mortem appearances. That being said, Craig’s “facts” rely more heavily on information that is derived from the Gospels, and there are other apologists who (due to problems with the Gospels’ historical reliability) prefer to rely on information derived primarily from Paul’s letters. In this footnote, however, I think it will be useful to also respond to Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts.”

In The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (pgs. 43-77), Habermas and Licona list the following circumstantial “facts” about the resurrection: 1) Jesus died by crucifixion, 2) his disciples believed he arose and appeared to them, 3) the church persecutor Paul was suddenly converted, 4) James, the brother of Jesus, who was formerly a skeptic converted, and 5) the tomb of Jesus was empty.

  1. “Fact” one is largely trivial. Jesus lived, so it makes sense that he had to die some way. Crucifixion wasn’t an uncommon form of execution, so there is nothing too improbable about the stories of his crucifixion. But nothing about this “fact” really proves anything about a miraculous resurrection.
  2. This “fact” has largely been addressed in the third and fourth sections of this essay. One thing to add is that Habermas and Licona frequently embellish the “persecution” that the disciples endured as an argument ad martyrdom for their sincere belief in the resurrection. I have already discussed in this previous essay how the stories about the disciples’ martyrdoms are primarily later legends full of historical improbabilities and clearly fictional inventions. Candida Moss likewise discusses the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire further in The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.
  3. The conversion of unlikely persons is a new argument, not covered by the “facts” above, but it brings little to the table. I agree that it is unlikely that an early church persecutor like Paul would convert, but guess what, not many did. If Jesus had appeared to Pontius Pilate, Tiberius Caesar, and Caiaphas, and gotten all of them to convert, that may be a stronger case for a miracle. But if the later resurrection stories were purely a superstition, I would expect that only one or so former persecutors might later sympathize with the group and convert. This is the evidence that we do have. Furthermore, Paul’s conversion is really not that extraordinary. As discussed in this essay, Paul was a supernaturalist who shows signs of experiencing visions or (possibly) hallucinations, such as when he once claimed to be raptured to “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). If Paul was facing doubt about persecuting a group that he gradually started to feel sympathy for, and then had a vision or hallucination of their leader chastising him, it is not that hard to see how he might later have a conversion experience. Such a scenario would certainly not require a miracle.
    • Here is how scholar Gerd Ludemann (The Resurrection of Christ, pgs. 170-171) explains Paul’s conversion without the need of a miracle: “Paul shows clear evidence of conflicting emotions: a radical sense of guilt and unworthiness combined with an exalted self-image that results in the need to be an authority figure … Caught up in an intellectual and emotional maelstrom that can only have been intensified by his growing familiarity with the sect he was harassing, he seems at last to have discovered the resolution of his problems for himself. The humble and self-sacrificing Jesus represents for Paul a new vision of the Almighty: no longer a stern and demanding tyrant intent on punishing even those who could not help themselves, but a loving and forgiving leader who offered rest and peace to imperfect humans who accepted his grace …. Paul could become the Apostle-in-Chief of some new program of salvation with a culture-wide appeal. Something of that nature was in all likelihood the dynamic that impelled the persecutor turned proclaimer whose religious zeal stands as a measure of the inner tension that was powerfully released and transformed in a vision of Christ.”
    • I likewise discuss Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin’s account of Paul’s conversion in A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity in this following book review. While Boyarin does not claim to know what exactly was going on in the historical Paul’s head during his conversion (who could thousands of years later?), he still offers this plausible explanation for Paul’s motives, which does not appeal to miracles: “An enthusiastic first-century Greek-speaking Jew, one Saul of Tarsus, is walking down a road, with a very troubled mind. The Torah, in which he so firmly believes, claims to be the text of the One True God of all the world, who created heaven and earth and all humanity, and yet its primary content is the history of one particular People — almost one family — and the practices that it prescribes are many of them practices which mark off the particularity of that tribe, his tribe. In his very commitment to the truth of the gospel of that Torah and its claim to universal validity lies the source of Saul’s trouble … Now this Saul, as a loyal Jew, has in the past been among the most active persecutors of a strange messianic sect that has sprung up recently in Jerusalem. He knows something, therefore, of the claims and beliefs of the participants in that sect, little as they appeal to him. Walking, troubled and musing, all of a sudden Saul has a moment of blinding insight, so rich and revealing that he understands it to have been, in fact, an apocalypse: That very sect, far from being something worthy of persecution, provides the answer to the very dilemma that Saul is facing. The birth of Christ as a human being and a Jew, his death, and his resurrection as spiritual and universal was the model and the apocalypse of the transcendence of the physical and particular Torah for Jews alone by its spiritual and universal referent for all. At that moment Saul died and Paul was born.”
  4. The conversion of Jesus’ brother James, the alleged “skeptic,” is even more problematic. The Gospels are not even consistent on whether the family of Jesus were sympathetic to his ministry. John 7:5 and Mark 3:21 have Jesus’ family not agree with his ministry. Luke 8:19-21, in contrast, rejects Mark’s earlier tradition and has the family be supportive of the ministry. Furthermore, unlike Paul, we do not have any writings of James (the epistle attributed to him in the NT was most likely either written by another James or a forgery), so it is not even clear what James’ feelings were about Jesus prior to his death. Only the later Gospel hagiographies, written by unknown authors who likely did not witness the event, tell the story in conflicting ways. Even if James had originally been a skeptic, do we really need a miracle to explain a family member later becoming sympathetic with a new religious movement that had sprung up about his brother? This is very feeble evidence to try to prove something as improbable as a miraculous resurrection.
    • Here is what even Christian scholar Dale Allison (one of the scholars whom Habermas and Licona appeal to for their “minimal facts”) actually has to say about the conversion of James as evidence (Resurrecting Jesus, pgs. 337-339): “Most of the past – surely far more than 99 percent, if we could quantify it – is irretrievably lost; it cannot be recovered. This should instill some modesty in us. Consider the weeks following the crucifixion. We have only minuscule fragments of what actually transpired. What, for instance, do we really know about the resurrection experience of James? First Corinthians 15:7 says that he saw the risen Jesus. And that is it. What Jesus looked like, what he said, if anything, where the encounter took place, when precisely it happened, how James responded, what state of mind he was in, how the experience began, how it ended – all of this had failed to enter the record. Almost every question that we might ask goes unanswered … Yet they are the sorts of questions historians often ask of old texts. The fact that we cannot begin to answer them shows how emaciated historically – as opposed to theologically – the Gospel narratives really are. Even if we naively think them to be historically accurate down to the minutest detail, we are still left with precious little. The accounts of the resurrection, like the past in general, come to us as phantoms. Most of the reality is gone … Even if history served us much better than it does, it would still not take us to promised land of theological certainty.”
  5. Habermas and Licona acknowledge that the empty tomb is not a “minimal fact,” but claim that 70-75% of scholars support its historicity (I discuss the multiple statistical problems with this claim in footnote 2). The empty tomb is already addressed in sections 1 and 2 of this essay (though this “fact” doesn’t always assume that it was Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb; I discuss other burial possibilities in footnote 7 below). One thing to add is that apologists sometimes claim that Paul provides corroboration for the empty tomb, since he states that Jesus “was buried,” and thus the story is not only found in the Gospels. However, Paul never says explicitly that an empty tomb was the basis for belief in the resurrection. Apologists primarily assume that Paul corroborates the empty tomb, because he allegedly believed in a physical resurrection (which is disputable, as discussed in footnote 9 below), which would have thus entailed an empty burial place. However, this is only speculation, since even if Paul had implicitly believed such a thing, that does not mean that he knew or claimed that the burial place was empty. If the discovery of an empty tomb was part of the earliest belief in the resurrection, it is highly unlikely that Paul would not mention this while defending the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Instead, Paul only discusses “appearances” of Jesus, which demonstrates that such appearances were the basis of early faith in the resurrection, not the discovery of an empty tomb. Accordingly, Paul does not provide pre-Markan corroboration for the claim that Jesus’ burial place was found empty.

[6] For information about how Thallus does not record the darkness, see Richard Carrier’s “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death.” Furthermore, even if Thallus (whose date of writing is unknown, but may have been as late as the 2nd century CE) had claimed that the darkness was an eclipse, it would have been in response to Christian claims and propaganda. This would not make Thallus an outside or independent source, since his knowledge of the darkness would be dependent upon previous Christian claims. What is actually far more likely, however, is that Julius Africanus, trying to find an outside reference for the legendary darkness at Jesus’ death, falsely connected an irrelevant passage in Thallus about an eclipse and earthquake in Bithynia in 32 CE (also recorded by Phlegon) with the rumored darkness in Jerusalem in 30 or 33 CE. This merely means that Africanus made an error, or, worse, was completely unable to find an outside reference for the darkness, and thus had to misrepresent Thallus’ statement. Either way, Thallus does not by any stretch count as an independent reference for the darkness, which was almost certainly invented by the authors of the Gospels, to draw an allusion to OT verses (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15).

[7] Simply because Jesus was not given an honorable burial in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb does not mean that he was left unburied. However, even defenders of Joseph’s burial, such as James McGrath (The Burial of Jesus: History and Fiction, pgs. 69-79), acknowledge that there are considerable embellishments in Joseph’s story. As McGrath argues, “Our earliest account of Jesus’ burial, the Gospel of Mark, records a fundamental truth that later Christian authors tried desperately to ignore: Jesus’ disciples were not in a position to provide Jesus with an honorable burial. Mark tells us that a pious Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jewish law was observed, and, learning that Jesus had died, got the permission to take the body and bury it.” However, McGrath acknowledges that the later Gospels embellished this story. Luke (23:53) adds the detail that the tomb had never been used before, making the burial more honorable, and Matthew (27:59-6) adds both the detail that the tomb was unused and that it was even Joseph’s own tomb. John (19:39-41) even further adds the detail that Jesus was anointed with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes before his burial, even when this explicitly contradicts Mark 16:1, which implies that Jesus was not anointed before his burial. John also adds the detail that Jesus was buried in a garden.

All of this would be quite elaborate for a crucified criminal, and these embellishments clearly reflect later Christian inventions. Instead, McGrath argues that Jesus was more likely buried in “a tomb near the execution site, used for the burial of criminals. It could accurately be described as a ‘mass grave’ — perhaps of the same sort that would be mentioned in rabbinic literature some centuries later — from which families would presumably have been allowed to remove the bones of their loved ones after a year had passed, so as to deposit them in their family tomb.” McGrath is referring to later burial provisions that are outlined for executed criminals in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6:5-6):

“They did not bury the condemned in the burial grounds of the ancestors, but there were two graveyards made ready for the use of the court, one for those who were beheaded and strangled, and one for those who were stoned or burned. When the flesh had wasted away they gathered together the bones and buried them in their own place.”

However, a problem with this theory is that the rabbinic literature that describes such burial practices dates to centuries after Jesus’ time. It is also very difficult to know whether the Roman or Jewish authorities allowed and paid for the upkeep of such provisions before the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE. Archaeologist Jodi Magness (“What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?,” pg. 48) argues:

“There is no evidence that the Sanhedrin or the Roman authorities paid for and maintained rock-hewn tombs for executed criminals from impoverished families. Instead, these unfortunates would have have been buried in individual trench graves or pits.”

Magness also notes that there is no surviving evidence that these tombs were inscribed with names, and thus they could have very easily been completely anonymous:

“After the trench was filled in, a rough headstone was often erected at one end … the headstones are uninscribed, although some may once have had painted decorations or inscriptions that have not survived.”

Since mourning would have been prohibited during these dishonorable burials, Jesus’ followers (many of whom are even said to have fled to Galilee in Mk. 14:28; 16:7 before his death, and were thus out of town) would not have been present at his burial. Instead, Jesus was likely buried either by a Roman or Jewish disinterested burial crew, in what was likely an anonymous grave. Thus, as Crossan (The Passion in Mark, pg. 152) explains, “It is most probable that Jesus was buried by the same inimical forces that had crucified him and that on Easter Sunday morning those who knew the site did not care and those who cared did not know the site.”

In terms of pre-Markan burial traditions, the creed in 1 Cor. 15:4 states that Jesus “was buried” (εταφη); however, this verb simply describes generic burial and can refer to ground burials, such as outlined above, in addition to tomb burials, making it too vague to corroborate the later burial traditions in the Gospels. Another burial tradition, which is separate from the tradition of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial in Mark, is a pre-Lukan fragment found in Acts 13:28-31. Based on lexical considerations, this passage probably belonged to the source material of the author of Acts. The passage reads:

“Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb [μνημειον]. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.”

This passage does not provide independent corroboration of the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, since the Greek word used to describe the burial site — μνημειον — can also be used to refer to unmarked graves in the ground. For example, the same author uses the word in Luke 11:44 to refer to ground burials:

“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves [μνημειον], which people walk over without knowing it.”

As such, this separate burial tradition does not contradict the hypothesis outlined above that Jesus probably received a ground burial in an unmarked grave.

[8] The closest that the Gospels come to identifying their sources is in Luke (1:1) when the author simply refers to an anonymous group of previous writers. This does not specify which sources he used, and from source analysis we can tell that he is mostly just following Mark and Q (or possibly Matthew). I discuss further problems about the Gospels’ use of sources in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.”

[9] For information on the hypothesis that the apostle Paul believed in a “two body” resurrection, see Richard Carrier’s “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (pgs. 105-232), which is also summarized in Carrier’s “Spiritual Body FAQ.” In summary, Carrier argues that it is possible that Paul believed that Jesus’ earthly body had been left behind after his resurrection, and that his spirit had risen to heaven and been clothed in a new body. Hence, the visions of Jesus reported by Paul were of this heavenly body and not the earthly one. Other scholars who hold this view include Dale Martin in The Corinthian Body.

This essay does not need to assume, however, that Paul only believed in a “two body” resurrection, in order to affirm either Paul’s silence on the discovery of an empty tomb or the visionary nature of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances. NT scholar Jindřich Mánek, who argues that Paul believed in a “one body” view of the resurrection, points out that there is no indication in Paul of an “opened tomb,” even if Jesus was physically raised from his place of burial (nobody had to later discover that the burial place was empty, if Jesus’ followers even knew the location of his remains at all). As such, the discovery of an empty tomb is still a claim that is only later found in the Gospels. Furthermore, the later Gospel authors, who clearly believed in a “one body” resurrection, still relate how Jesus could appear as a phantom-like figure. Luke (24:31) has Jesus at first be unrecognizable to his followers and then teleport, John (20:19) has Jesus able to walk through locked doors, and Acts (10:9-13) has Jesus appear in visions from the sky.

The point is that, even if the early Christians believed in a “one body” resurrection (which is debatable), Jesus’ enhanced resurrected body was still able to appear through visions, phantoms, and revelation. Accordingly, all of the early post-mortem sightings of Jesus can still be explained in terms of visions or hallucinations. No eyewitness account survives from anyone claiming to see or touch Jesus physically. All of the later stories reporting these interactions can thus be explained as the result of legendary development.

[10] For a take down of apologetic attempts to claim that such hallucinations would have been unlikely, see Keith Parson’s “Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory,” which also appears in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (pgs. 433-452). Furthermore, even if such hallucinations would have uncommon (despite tons of similar stories still today), are we seriously expected to believe that a miraculous physical resurrection is more probable? Suffice it to say that the prior probability of hallucinations is much greater, and the expected evidence is exactly what we find in 1 Corinthians 15 with the use of visionary vocabulary.

[11] Apologists often appeal to A.N. Sherwin-White’s (dated) claim that two generations (the time in which the earliest accounts of Jesus were written) was too short a time for legendary development to have displaced the historical core of Jesus’ biography (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pgs. 186-193). However, as Kris Komarnitsky explains in “Myth Growth Rates in the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule,” even when Sherwin-White’s arguments were first published back in the 1960’s, they never received widespread support among Classicists (the two generation claim has mostly been popularized by apologist William Lane Craig’s later quote mining of Sherwin-White). Furthermore, Sherwin-White was even corrected by his colleague P.A. Brunt, who pointed that legends about Alexander the Great likewise emerged within two generations of his death. Sherwin-White’s response was that, while there was a considerable amount of legendary development after Alexander’s death, it still did not erase the historical core of his biography. However, a problem with Sherwin-White’s response was that Alexander was a figure of considerable public interest, who had extensive records of his life preserved in places like the Great Library of Alexandria, whereas Jesus was an obscure, itinerant prophet, who his only known through hagiographical accounts produced by his later worshipers. I explain further how legends could have easily displaced the historical core of Jesus’ biography before the composition of the New Testament in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?.”

It should also be noted that 1st century Christianity grew at a rate that is entirely typical of other world religions, showing that there was no special evidence or extraordinary growth rate that suggests a miraculous origin. As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 131) explains:

“[S]ociologist Rodney Stark [The Rise of Christianity] has shown that during its first three hundred years years, the Christian religion grew at a rate of 40 percent every decade. If Christianity started out as a relatively small group in the first century but had some three million followers by the early fourth — that’s a 40 percent increase every ten years. What is striking to Stark is that this is the same growth rate of the Mormon church since it started in the nineteenth century. So these mainline Christians who think that God must have been behind Christianity or it would not have grown as quickly as it did — are they willing to say the same thing about the Mormon church (which they in fact tend not to support?”

Ehrman discusses other reasons why Christianity’s growth rate, in the first centuries following Jesus’ death, was merely typical of other world religions in his post “Growth Rate of Early Christianity.”

[12] Just a couple chapters earlier, Isaiah 49:3 specifies that “Israel” was the Suffering Servant, not the Messiah, and this was not a prophecy, since Israel already had suffered in the Babylonian exile.

[13] It should be noted that some of these scenarios posit what may be considered ad hoc assumptions about the circumstances surrounding the origins of the resurrection belief. But a scenario such as Jesus’ body being stolen would only posit a particular ad hoc assumption (which would be a far less extraordinary assumption), whereas God raising Jesus’ body from brain death back to life would posit a general ad hoc assumption (about the very metaphysical characteristics of our universe). It is not a paranormal claim that bodies are sometimes stolen from their place of burial. But it is a paranormal claim that a man who has experienced brain death has returned to life on the third day after. If historians are to favor explanations that involve less ad hocness, therefore, the body theft hypothesis is certainly the simpler explanation.

[This essay received a critical response from a Christian blogger that can be read here. After reading the post, you can scroll back to this page and read my reply to the post here.]

[I should note that, since first writing this article in June 2013, I have since made updates to it, revised some of the language, and added new material (which is something I typically do on this blog). My exchange with Peters, however, took place when this article existed in a much earlier version. To read that version, in order to see the original context of our exchange, here is the earliest archived version that I could find.]

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37 Responses to Knocking Out the Pillars of the “Minimal Facts” Apologetic

  1. I don’t believe in Swoon Theory or Hallucination Theory. But, if asked, I can walk you through the mountains of biological evidence which show that a fluke swoon or a fluke hallucination are much, much, much less improbable than the reversal of brain death in a three-day-old corpse.

    “Ah HAH,” says the apologist, as though he is about to make a point I haven’t anticipated because I’ve heard it a hundred times before, “your evidence is only a compelling argument against a natural reversal of brain death. But I am claiming there was a supernatural reversal of brain death.”

    To which the fatal reply is:

    How do you know that a supernatural reversal of brain death is more probable or less probable than a supernatural swoon, or a supernatural hallucination (or a supernaturally rapid accumulation of legend in the textual tradition)? What observations have you made, or could anyone even possibly make that allow you to claim a non-flat probability distribution?

    The beauty of this style of reply is that it does not rely on any particular contested definition of “supernatural”, thereby avoiding that conversational rut; nor does it require metaphysical naturalism to be true, nor does it even require any particular claim about methodological naturalism to be true. It allows the apologist every benefit of every philosophical doubt and the benefit of every historical doubt and the benefit of every scientific doubt, giving him complete free reign to make his case with no possible whinge about “hyperskeptics” or “naturalist dogma”.

    Call their bluff.

    • I actually made an argument similar to this in my very first blog post:

      I applied the whole “supernatural explanation” dodge to the Loch Ness Monster. Under a natural hypothesis, the existence of a monster in the lake is extraordinarily improbable, due to the size of the lake, the lack of an adequate food supply, the problem of breeding, a lack of sonar confirmation, etc. But a Loch Ness Monster apologist could just reply, “Ah HAH! This evidence is only compelling against a natural Loch Ness Monster. A supernatural monster doesn’t have those problems!”

      Since we can’t even confirm that the supernatural exists, we can hardly assess what sort of supernatural explanation would be any more probable than any other supernatural explanation. So ultimately the likelihood of any specific supernatural theory versus another supernatural theory is untenable in terms of probability. Fortunately, we can compare the probability of certain natural theories against each other.

      Thanks for reading the blog!

  2. Pingback: Is the earliest hymn an apologetic excuse? | Unsettled Christianity

  3. “Furthermore, Habermas’ survey wasn’t about the scholars ‘who study in the area,’ but about those who have particularly published on the issue…”

    This is not correct. Or, more accurately, no one has any way of knowing whether it is correct or not.

    To my knowledge (someone please please link me to a current copy if I’m wrong about this), not one single person has ever seen this alleged database of scholars. Not secular scholars, not other apologists — no one. Not even his co-author Licona, who when he refers to it is reduced to hearsay claims like “I think he recently revised the percentage on this fact to X%…”

    Habermas has never to my knowledge revealed the criteria for what counts as a “scholar” (much less a “New Testament scholar”) or what counts as a legitimate venue for “publishing on the issue”, nor the criteria for retiring inactive “scholars”, nor whether he allows for anything like degree-of-belief or positions tentatively held etc. Therefore, for all we know, a sermon in the weekly newsletter at Liberty University counts.

    Even if we knew what criteria he laid down, we can’t even check to see how well he followed them.

    • Well, you may be right about not being able to check Habermas’ database, but I did correctly list what he claims. Here is what Habermas has on his website:

      He claims:

      “Since 1975, more than 1400 scholarly publications on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus have appeared. Over the last five years, I have tracked these texts, which were written in German, French, and English. Well over 100 subtopics are addressed in the literature, almost all of which I have examined in detail…Most of the critical scholars are theologians or New Testament scholars, while a number of philosophers and historians, among other fields, are also included.”

      As for the empty tomb, he writes:

      “Of these scholars, approximately 75% favor one or more of these arguments for the empty tomb, while approximately 25% think that one or more arguments oppose it. Thus, while far from being unanimously held by critical scholars, it may surprise some that those who embrace the empty tomb as a historical fact still comprise a fairly strong majority.”

      Take it for what you will, but obviously there is no “consensus,” as even Habermas acknowledges, and “favors one or more argument” is extremely vague. From his own admission too, he is polling primarily theologians and NT scholars in a field dominated heavily by theologically biased seminaries and Christian schools. In addition, you made a lot of good other points about the vagueness of his criteria.

      Either way, I could care less about the number. It’s an appeal to an authority, not even a substantially large margin, and irrelevant to the strength of the arguments.

    • Well, this link was sent to my spam box, so I just now learned of it. Having carefully read through the post, I did not find any issue that was not already sufficiently addressed in this blog post and its footnotes. I encourage anyone interested in this subject to read all of the material in my post, and after that to read this critical response, in order to decide for him or herself how they evaluate the arguments.

      The only thing I will add is that, to make matters clear, the author’s comment about me not responding to Habermas and Licona’s arguments in particular is irrelevant. I very specifically said, “This apologetic takes a variety of forms.” I was responding primarily to William Craig’s arguments about the resurrection, as given on his website. I did so because I think that Craig’s case is a stronger, though still flawed, argument than the others. Nevertheless, a footnote has been added refuting Habermas and Licona’s variation as well, most of which overlaps with the issues that were already addressed in this article.

  4. Reason says:

    Let’s look at “Knocking Out the Pillars of the ‘Minimal Facts’ Apologetic and see how grounded it is in “Facts”.

    The “Pillars” article states, “Simply because history is methodologically naturalist does not entail ontological naturalism. The fact (emphasis added) that Jesus’ resurrection is a theological matter does not bother most Christians, as their belief in Christianity is obviously rooted in more than a cold and detached study of history.
    Naturalism is a worldview that relies upon experience, reason, and science to develop an understanding of reality and humanity’s place within reality. Naturalism is hence a worldview that is heavily dependent on science for knowledge about reality. One’s attitude towards science and scientific Method will therefore control how one thinks about naturalism. Ontological Naturalism, which holds that reality only consists of those things recognized by an exemplary science, such as physics, which has been satisfactorily tested by scientific method. Have you noticed yet that methodological and ontological naturalism depend on each other for substantive content? They cannot be defined independently of each other, since methodology by itself will consider any hypothesis for testing without prejudice, and ontology by itself is sheer dogmatism without a standard of knowledge. The putative contrast between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism is spurious — they work together or not at all. [i]

    When we read “Knocking Out the Pillars…” we first encounter our author asserting ‘factually’ that Jesus’ resurrection is a ‘theological matter’. Yet the author asserts this ‘fact’ with no evidence. This article lacks rooting in facts to begin with. Our author offers no evidence to back his assertions. Instead he wants us to unilaterally accept his unsupported view as ‘fact’. Is this the way of naturalism? Is this what the author considers a rational approach?

    The true scientific method starts with formulating a question, then maturing it into a hypothesis, which leads to a prediction, which is then tested and subjected to further analysis and refinement. However, the author here starts with his own ideas and classifies them as “facts” as we see in this case and will in others.

    Let’s look a little deeper at the Scientific Method. Let’s go to the source of the Scientific Method to get his perspective.

    William Stanley Jevons [ii], Fellow and Professor of Political Economics of London’s University College literally wrote the book on the “Principles of Science” in 1874. [iii] This preeminent 786 page book exhaustively details the principles, logic, and structure that define Scientific Principles and the Scientific Method used throughout science as formed over several hundred years and codified in Jevons The Principles of Science. [iv] In discussing the complexity and scientific approach for determining root causes in the section on Cause and Causation, Jevons provides this foundational principle to build the scientific method on, “Doubtless there is in nature some invariably acting mechanism, such that from certain fixed conditions an invariable result always emerges. But we, with our finite minds and short experience, can never penetrate the mystery of those existences which employ the Will of the Creator, and evolve it throughout time.” [v] Thus we learn that science itself is fundamentally principled on recognition of a Creator and so is its method of systematic observation, measurement, empirical testing and modification of hypothesis against physical observations. Any attempt to scientifically reject the Creator’s existence, requires application of principles and methods that are predicated, and thus fundamentally dependent on acceptance of the existence of a Creator. Using science to attempt to deny a Creator is a contradictory, self-negation of the scientific principles, methods and thus science itself. Logically, ‘A’ cannot claim ‘not-A’. Thus science cannot logically refute that which it is based upon which includes recognition of a Creator. [vi]

    Let’s look at what William Jevons said about the Principles of Science and its dependence on the recognition of God through this illustration. Pretend you want to collect all existing knowledge into a box. Let’s call it the ‘truth box’. In order to put something into the box, it must first pass the scientific truth test. Scientism claims to accomplish this. Scientism dogmatically endorses scientific methodology and reduces all knowledge to only that which is measurable and justifiable in its scientific conclusions.

    The problem is our knowledge project could never get started because some truths need to be in the truth box first to qualify the scientific method as valid truth so that it can be applied to measure validity of everything else. Or to put it another way, with nothing in the truth box, there is no truth by which we can decide what is qualified to go in the box. In order to put the scientific method into the box as valid truth, some rules need to be already in the box to qualify scientism.

    The truths of logic and mathematics must be in the box first, for example. Also, the truth of the basic reliability of our senses needs to be included. Certain moral truths like report all data honestly must be in the box. In fact, the entire scientific method must be in the box, before the method itself can be used to test the truthfulness of anything else. None of these truths can be established by the methods of science. Since science cannot operate in a knowledge vacuum – without these foundational truths, certain truths known through means other than science must be in place before science can begin testing for other truths. Jevons is saying that the “Will of the Creator” needs to be placed in the box as a prerequisite to the methods of science. Without it, the notion of scientism, the child, is inconsistent with the presupposition that makes science possible, the parent, scientism as a comprehensive view of knowledge commits infanticide. To rephrase this, scientism as a belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method is a self-contradiction.

    Our author of the “Pillars’ article may disregard Jevons. However, let’s keep in perspective that Jevons was not attempting to defend his or any faith. He was not Christian. Jevons was a great man of science and economics and his work did go through numerous peer reviews and many committees as well as the scientific community over many decades of scrutiny.

    Our “Pillars” author goes on to state:

    Such apologists, seeking to hijack the field of ancient history, are desperate to slap the label “historical” onto the resurrection. … I myself was originally content with letting the resurrection be a religious, rather than historical question, but apologists have fired the first shot in attempting to invade the field of ancient history…

    Not quite sure what is meant here. How did apologists suddenly “hijack” ancient history? For about 2000 years people have historically defended (apologetics is a ‘defense’ of one’s faith) the resurrection. What does our “Pillars” author mean that he was content letting resurrection be a religious question until apologists have fired the first shot? Yet in reality, the resurrection has been asserted to be a historical topic, albeit in some regards a controversial or debated one, but it is been around for about 2000 years. That first shot was fired a long time ago.

    “Fact” 1: The Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea
    Our “Pillars” author states:

    Fortunately, I just wrote a 25 page paper, The Gospel of Mark, Homeric Mimesis, and the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, this last academic quarter that explains how Joseph of Arimathea and his tomb are allegorical literary inventions of the author of Mark. I encourage anyone who is deeply interested in this issue to read the linked article…

    Let’s look at a story as a three dimensional topographical map where the major points are hills rising up out of the map. A Homeric story may have, let’s pick an intentionally low number, 50 key points. Each of those key points let’s say represent a hill on our map. Each hill has many different potential attributes. A hill could be with desert sand, or icy mountains, for example. This is similar to how key points can have different attributes, such as the main character is an orphan or perhaps even of a peculiar birth background. In the article, The Gospel of Mark, Homeric Mimesis, and the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea , the author and his sources are suggesting the similarity between two different stories or two different maps. One is the Gospel of Mark, the other is the Homeric Epics. Between these two maps the key points are measured for assimilation. Now the two maps need to share not only the same key points or hills, but the attributes of the hills must also be shared between the two maps. Where the hills do not share similar attributes, one must explain how the maps are still related, yet the key points can be distinct since the maps would not be sharing important attributes.

    Now statistically, if there were 50 key points between the two maps, one would need to show similarity for 44 of those key points to have a 95% confidence level in the sample size study. In each of those cases, all attributes of the 44 items would need to correlate exactly. Even then the results would simply show a correlation of the tendency for the two to be interrelated. It would be very subjective and the ability to show one had a cause or effect relationship on the other is statistically virtually impossible. There is no way to validate the hypothesis. Yet, in the article or its sources The Gospel of Mark, Homeric Mimesis, and the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea there are not 44 major similarities shown.

    When we look at similarities that the author uses to suggest a relationship between the Gospel of Mark and the Homeric Epics, the author claims for example, “Joseph of Arimathea is very likely a literary creation designed to parallel Priam in book 24 of the Illiad, where a father figure begs for the burial rights of the slain hero.” Really? So Matthew is saying that based on the Iliad having a character where the father figure asks for the burial rights of the slain here, we can ‘likely’ know that the Gospel of Mark, is an allegorical story and Joseph of Arimathea is just a literary creation?

    By selecting two stories and picking a few major themes and trying to associate them, suggesting one influence the other we find that many items can be associated with many other items without regard to fact. Although in this case even the supposition that Joseph is a father figure to Jesus is used to bolster this particular claim is a remarkable allegation within itself.

    According to the logic that was just applied by our author in his comparison of maps to ‘prove’ his point, it is ok to take a few points of a story, associate them with undifferentiating points (low hills on the terrain), and ignore their true key attributes (Priam was distinct in having many wives and concubines, Joseph was from Arimathea – boy they sound like the same character don’t they? Apparently to our author they do!) claim they are the same.

    Ok, so let’s assume we can use and apply the same logic that Matthew uses. Let’s use the same approach on a different test case and see how it withstands scrutiny. Matthew embraces enlightenment and looks for rules that in accord with principles based on reason, wisdom, and nature. Therefore Matthew is very likely a literary creation designed to parallel Sarastro in the Magic Flute by Schikander and Mozart, since those are the exact key attributes of Sarastro. Thus Matthew does not really exist, but instead is an allegorical allusion.

    Yes, bizarre, but logically consistent with an approach where we selectively take a few key points between two different stories, ignore the rest, and disregard the true attributes of those major hills. Keep in mind the attribute matching that I applied between Matthew and Sarastro is actually a better match than pairing Joseph of Arimathrea and Priam. Yes Matthew does offer more hills in his comparisons, but it is not enough to show to a real link between the two. Plus on the ones he does present, he ignores aspects that don’t match, thus just forcing them to fit.

    i. .

    ii. William Jevons is widely considered the father of modern economics began mathematical methods in economics in his book The Theory of Political Economy (1871). His other works include:

    • 1859 General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy
    • 1863 A Serious Fall in the Value of Gold
    • 1864 Pure Logic; or, the Logic of Quality apart from Quantity
    • 1869 The Substitution of Similars, The True Principle of Reasoning
    • 1870 Elementary Lessons on Logic
    • 1874 Principles of Science
    • 1875 Money and the Mechanism of Exchange
    • 1878 A Primer on Political Economy
    • 1880 Studies in Deductive Logic
    • 1882 The State in Relation to Labour

    iii. William Stanley Jevons. The Principles of Science: A Treatise in Logic and Scientific Method. Second Edition, Revised (London and New York: MacMillan and Co., 1877), 786. (First edition published in 1874). Page 741, “Out of infinitely infinite choices which were open to the Creator, that one choice must have been made which has yielded the Universe as it now exists.”
    P.762: “The Theory of Evolution”: “…The theories of Darwin and Spencer are doubtless not demonstrated; they are to some extent hypothetical… and open to doubt. Judging from the immense numbers of diverse facts which they harmonize and explain, I venture to loop upon the theories of evolution and natural selection in their main features as two of the most probable hypotheses ever proposed… Granting all this, I cannot for a moment admit that the theory of evolution will destroy theology. That theory embraces several laws of uniformities which are observed to be true in the production of living forms; but these laws do not determine the size and figure of living creatures, any more than the law of gravitation determines the magnitudes and distance of the planets… I do not…any less than Paley, believe that the eye of man manifest design… as far as we can see, were subject to the arbitrary choice of the Creator.”

    P.766: Conclusion: “From the preceding reviews of the value of our scientific knowledge, I draw one distinct conclusion, that we cannot disprove the possibility of Divine interference in the course of nature… Secondly, the same Power, which created material nature, might, so far as I can see, create additions to it, or annihilate portions which do exists. Such events are in a certain sense inconceivable to us; yet they are no more inconceivable than the existence of the world as it is. The indestructibility of matter, and the conservation of energy are very probable scientific hypothesis, which accord satisfactorily with experiments of scientific men during a few years past, but it would be gross misconception to scientific inference to suppose that they are certain…

    The hypothesis that there is a Creator at once all-powerful and all-benevolent is pressed, as it must seem to every candid investigator, with difficulties verging closely upon logical contradiction. The existence of the smallest amount of pain and evil would seem to show the He is either not perfectly benevolent, or not all-powerful… But if we cannot succeed in avoiding contradiction in our notions of elementary geometry, can we expect that the ultimate purposes of existence shall present themselves to us with perfect clearness? I can see nothing to forbid the notion that in a higher state of intelligence much that is now obscure may become clear. We perpetually find ourselves in the position of finite minds attempting infinite problems and can we be sure that where we see contradiction, an infinite intelligence might not discover perfect logical harmony?”

    iv. Morris Kline: “Modern science owes its origins and present flourishing state to a new scientific method which was fashioned almost entirely by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)”. Morris Kline (1985) Mathematics for the Nonmathematician. Courier Dover. p. 284. ISBN 0-486-24823-2.

    v. William Stanley Jevons. The Principles of Science, 222.

    vi. Note: See The Principles of Science: A Treatise in Logic and Scientific Method. Second Edition, Revised for an explanation of why this logical argument is scientifically sound.

    vii. Scientism is a belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Routledge, 1994, p. 1ff.

    • Despite this whale of a comment violating what I say in my Comment Policy about keeping comments concise (in addition to the author feeling the need to post it three times), I have approved it to illustrate the type of overly lengthy, rambly, “swarm the website” type comments that have been posted here over the last couple days.

      I see very little major points after glancing through this 12-double spaced comment above and feel no desire to write an essay in response. Much of it is little more than copy and pasting. I will say that our understanding of the scientific method has probably progressed a bit since the 19th century.

      For my own definition of Naturalism, see here:

    • JKX says:

      Jesus babbling Christ “Reason”.

      Your box analogy does a great job of illustrating the absolute insanity of what you claim Jevons was saying.

      “Because of who-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg regarding truth, then God exists because my convenient definition of scientism doesn’t make sense without Jesus in the box”

      Your walls of text with tiny quotes on the bottom are simply tactics to try and appear credible. A reading of your silly rant, though admittedly successful if an attempt to waste non-Christan’s time, reveals quickly that you are not credible and not worth reading.

  5. @Richard 2013,

    Here is my response to your comment on my other post:

    The lack of recognition is a literary trope in the Gospels, but I don’t think there is any historical kernel. Luke has Jesus be unrecognizable at first to his followers and then teleport. The literary purpose is to suggest that his followers did not originally recognize that their Lord had risen (it also shows, BTW, that his resurrected body could appear in visionary-like ways). All of these stories, of course, are made up and are just later embellishments.

    It’s an interesting idea to think of a Jesus, who was not really crucified, but instead had been mistaken for another guy, and escaped crucifixion. Muslims would love that interpretation. Likewise, a later imposter posing as Jesus would also be a funny origin of the resurrection belief. That is actually not unprecedented, as the emperor Nero later had two imposters pretend to be him following his death. Nevertheless, we have no evidence for such things happening and the issue of recognition, which you pointed out, can better be explained as a later literary device.

    As for why the Gospels and Acts never discuss the post-resurrection whereabouts of Jesus and why the Roman and Jewish authorities never seek to find him, this is in part due to the fact that Jesus’ body probably never went missing and also due to the fact that the author of Acts was spinning a fabulous tale about other church issues. It is very bizarre that the author of Acts has the disciples accused of other crimes, but never grave robbery.

    If Jesus’ body really had gone missing, we would expect that his followers would be accused of grave robbery, Joseph of Arimathea would be questioned, and there would be an investigation. Likewise, if Jesus was claimed to still be alive as an escaped criminal, one would expect a manhunt and search for him.

    Richard Carrier discussed this in his debate with O’Connel:

    Instead, none of this took place, which shows that the idea of an empty tomb and missing body are later legends. The belief in the resurrection is best explained in terms of cognitive dissonance and post-mortem visions or hallucinations, as I discuss in the article above. If the early Christians were just claiming to have visions of Jesus appearing to them from his ascended place in Heaven, the Jewish and Roman authorities would have hardly been concerned. Grave robbery, in contrast, was a capital offense, and if a body really had gone missing, their reaction would have been much different.

  6. vinnyjh57 says:

    Suppose I was sitting on a jury in a murder trial and the only agreed facts were that the victim was dead, the defendant had a grudge against the victim, and the defendant was in the neighborhood of the defendant shortly before the time of death. Would I vote to convict based solely on those three facts simply because they were undisputed? Would I ignore all the facts that might exonerate the defendant simply because the prosecution disputed them? I fully agree that none of the “minimal facts” are actually facts, but even if they were, what could possibly justify me in ignoring other potentially dispositive issues simply because there was not universal agreement concerning them?

  7. Pingback: Empty Tombs & Emptier Arguments: Why Resurrection Apologetics Blow Butt | Atheomedy

  8. Nick Gotts says:

    Thanks for a fascinating article. On the “empty tomb”, I see the strength of your arguments that it was simple invention on the part of the author of Mark, but supposing some of Jesus’s followers did report finding “his” tomb empty, a possibility I think more likely than theft of the body, recovery from swoon or (of course) resurrection, suggested itself to me when I read this article by Byron McCane, a Christian. I haven’t seen it suggested elsewhere, but of course it may have been.

    In brief, McCane argues that Jesus would have been “buried in shame” as a criminal according to Jewish law (a blasphemer) even though it was the Romans who crucified him (as a subversive), and that it is quite feasible a member of the Sanhedrin would have asked for and been given permission to bury him, to conform with Jewish religious law. But if any of Jesus’s followers saw the burial, it would have been from a distance, in hiding. So, suppose one or two such people, strangers to Jerusalem and in a highly emotional state, saw the burial, but when they went to tend the body, found “the tomb” empty because they went to the wrong one: Jesus was absent because he’d never been there. No investigation would have occurred, because no body was missing as far as the authorities (Jewish or Roman) were concerned.

    • Yeah, I also rank body theft and the swoon theory below the possibility of reburial or the wrong tomb (though they are plausible alternatives as well). One does not have to favor a single pet theory when, in order to merely refute the hypothesis of resurrection, a combined group of alternative explanations has the most weight in terms of probability.

      Jeff Lowder makes a similar argument to the on you linked about the possibility of temporary burial and reburial by the Sanhedrin:

      Carrier has also made a similar argument in his chapter “The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  9. steele says:


    The mythicist position is such an ad hoc and distortive view of history I find its sad that Carrier has duped you with his garbage and then you recycle it here. I would suggest you not follow in Carrier’s footsteps otherwise no respectable university will employ you and you will have to become a book huckster like he is, not to mention he is severely wrong as well.

    Be that as it may be, your article is nothing but a rehash of what Carrier has to say and frankly not nearly as polished. You should try reading and understanding Craig’s arguments if you are going to try and refute them. Unfortunately I doubt that you will take my advice.


  10. steele says:


    I apologize I didn’t make it clear I was referring more to Carrier than you. I am not quite sure what your position is fully. I just see you using many of Carrier’s arguments and him being a mythicist makes me question your article here.

    I am going to read your related posts on this topic. I am glad you are not a mythicist, even if you are not a Christian. I just think once a person heads down that road, all of history can start to become suspect through hyper-skepticism. Just my opinion though I am not a history major like yourself so I realize it doesn’t mean much.

    • Hi Steele,

      Thanks for your apology. You are correct that I agree with many of Carrier’s arguments, which is why I have quoted him in this article (notably, on issues other than Mythicism). However, the question of Jesus of Nazareth’s historicity is one area where Dr. Carrier and I disagree. That does not mean that I do not agree with and respect a lot of his work. I agree most with Dr. Carrier on the issue of naturalist philosophy. I first became interested in his work when I read Sense And Goodness Without God, which deals with other issues besides mythicism.

      When it comes to ancient history and Jesus of Nazareth I am a historical minimalist. This means that I do believe that a historical Jesus of Nazareth existed, but I also think that the Christian accounts we have of him have been embellished by legends/fabrications/exaggerations and that most of the biography of the real Jesus of Nazareth has been lost to history. I would categorize myself as being somewhere between the views of Biblical scholars like Hector Avalos and Bart Ehrman. I agree with Erhman that a historical Jesus existed and was most likely an apocalyptic prophet. However, I agree with Ehrman to a lesser extent about how much we can know with certainty about the historical Jesus, and in this respect I align more closely with Avalos’ critiques of some of the methodology used in historical Jesus studies.

      Also noteworthy is that James McGrath, a professor of Philosophy and Religion at Butler University, and no friend to Carrier’s mythcisim, has described the position I advocate as “mainstream” and consistent with the views of many NT scholars:

      That said, obviously I am not a Christian and I do not believe that Jesus resurrected from the dead. This conclusion, however, is reached from other reasons than believing that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.

  11. Jeff says:

    Quick question about the temporary burial hypothesis: If someone moved the body then why didn’t that someone say something while the disciples were running around Jerusalem proclaiming the resurrection?

    The only way out of this is, I think, to say that people didn’t really care? And by the time Christianity was growing the body may have decayed and therefore been unrecognizable? But even still. Why wouldn’t someone have spoken up?

    • Hey Jeff,

      Jeff Lowder’s article on the temporary burial hypothesis is a good place to go to answer a question like this.

      To begin with, even in Acts (which I think exaggerates the publicity of the early Christians’ preaching), the disciples were not said to have preached about Jesus’ Resurrection immediately after the event. According to Acts 2, the Christians did not start preaching until 7 weeks after Jesus’ death.

      7 weeks is certainly enough time for Jesus’ body to have become decayed to the point of being unrecognizable (likewise, the body could have been buried in an obscure space and forgotten during that time). So, even if someone did wish to refute the early Christians (which is debatable), they would not have been able to produce the body as sure evidence.

      Also, not all scholars think that the first Christians openly preached as their method of evangelism. I know that Bart Ehrman thinks that Paul converted people, not by giving grand orations, as in Acts, but rather by traveling as a tent craftsmen and using the connections he made to influence people (Paul, after all, in his own letters never represents himself as giving grand public speeches to crowds of hostile Jews and Pagans). So the early Christians may have sought less prominent ways to evangelize, which may have been less likely to provoke efforts from the authorities to disprove them. Not to mention, the early Christians were a fringe cult of people whom they probably did not care too much about.

      Furthermore, the Jewish authorities would almost certainly not have sought to publicly produce the body as counter evidence. Burial was a rite deeply engrained in Jewish culture. If the Jewish leadership had paraded a rotting corpse claiming it was Jesus, they would have had a riot on their hands. It would be the height of uncleanliness, which would go against everything that the Pharisees stood for (also remember that the temporary burial is predicated on the authorities rushing to respect the law, not to overtly violate it by later exhuming the corpse and showing it off). It would be far easier to simply tolerate some weird and fringe group of people who were claiming that a crucified man had ascended to Heaven than to violate burial customs to prove them wrong.

      Also, we are assuming a one-body view of the Resurrection in thinking that a body could disprove the Resurrection. If the early Christians had believed in a two-body spiritual view, the body would not refute their beliefs anyways.

      My thinking about the Resurrection is that it started with cognitive dissonance that lead the early Christians to think that Jesus had not really died, but had ascended to Heaven, from which he would soon return leading the apocalypse that he had preached. Note that it is the ascension to Heaven that I think they believed in first, rather than post-mortem appearances or interactions with Jesus. Later, however, once they had believed that Jesus had ascended, some of the disciples came to believe that Jesus had communicated with them in his post-mortem state (probably in visions, but likewise physical and auditory hallucinations are not uncommon for grieving people). Eventually, the belief in Jesus’ ascension lead to the belief that he had appeared to multiple people in the church. Half a century later, the order became reversed, where Jesus, before he ascended to Heaven, had multiple stories told about him interacting with his disciples on Earth. I think all of these stories are later legendary embellishments.

      However, as the legends grew, Christian authors also embellished the degree to which the early Christians publicly preached. Part of that was making it seem like they were shouting from every street corner and angering the authorities. Why wouldn’t the authorities have produced the body to prove them wrong? Because the later accounts such as in Acts are probably exaggerated and do not reflect the degree to which the Jewish authorities were actually concerned with the early Christians.

      So, even if it might seem strange to us at the end of a long tradition of legendary development that the Jewish leadership would not have produced the body, the original historical circumstances were probably far more mundane and isolated to a small group of people that few, if any, would have wished to disprove.

  12. why in your opinion does the writer of matthew say that the some doubted?

    could it be a case of , ” i DON’T see what you are seeing” i.e 2 saw visions and the other 2 didn’t see anything?

    • I think that dealing with doubt is simply a major theme of the Gospels. It is perhaps best summed up in John 20:29 after Jesus’ appearance to Thomas:

      “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

      I think that the major reason why the disciples are depicted to doubt in the Gospels has little to do with a historical kernel behind the nature of their visions, rather than the rhetorical and apologetic need to address the concern of doubt within the Christian community. If the disciples could have doubts at the empty tomb, then surely people can suffer doubts in the church. But, rest assured, Jesus has risen! As Jesus proved when dealing with Thomas’ doubt.

      That is the rhetorical effect of such scenes about doubt. Even if there was actual doubt at the historical moment when the early Christians came to believe in the resurrection, I am sketpical that we can prove that any traces or memory of it preserved in these scenes, which were shaped more out of the literary/theological/rhetorical concerns of the Gospels’ authors.

      Bart Ehrman (if you have access to his blog) posted recently about this subject as well, where he interpreted more of a historical kernel to these scenes. I do not completely agree with his view, but, as always, I find his analysis to be very interesting and worthwhile, if you want another take on the matter:

  13. Paulus says:

    Hello I read your article and I have to say I very unimpressed. First off the facts that Jesus existed, was crucified under Pilate and that his followers believed to see come back from the dead is universally accepted by biblical scholars. This is not to say they all accept that this was a miracle but at least they accept that Jesus’ followers believed to have such experiences of the risen Christ (for whatever reason) and that this launched the Christian movement. So the Minimal facts apologetic fits completely with the consensus of biblical scholars. You seem to focus a lot on the Gospel traditions of the empty tomb and the women but these are completely superfluous . A case can be made from the far earlier writings of Paul for early belief in the resurrection. In fact the passage from 1st Corinthians is believed to be an early creed by many scholars and is dated to within a few years of the death of Jesus.
    Now you makes some comments when it is pointed out that what you have written goes completely against the consensus of scholarship you spout some drivel about faith based universities. This is an ad hominem as you automatically assume that all believing scholars have non-academic agendas and are out to commit pious fraud. Produce some evidence that they all do not reach their conclusions based on arguments and evidence . Provide some proof that these are not the reasons for their belief. Secondly you completely ignore the fact that scholars from non-faith based universities also accept these facts. You also ignore the fact that many non-believers readily accept these facts based on the evidence such as Geza Vermes and Bart Ehrman. Thirdly I would say that you are hypocritical as you yourself once in a discussion with Kliff Knichtle ( I think it was) brought up the consensus of biblical scholars on the authorship of the gospels and attacked his views of the gospels reading from a textbook on the New Testament. So does the consensus matter at all? Yes or no?

    Again then you commit another fallacy citing that 70% of philosophers are atheist so if that proves that God doesn’t exist If we are too follow consensuses .This is absurd. This has nothing to do with the field of Biblical Studies and whether or not Jesus existed. The mere fact you would make such a perposterous argument is further evidence of your agenda. Following what the vast majority of scholars believe based on the evidence is not a fallacy. One should base their views of Jesus on the latest advances in scholarship and the most widely supported views. Instead you pick and choose from biblical scholarship when it suits you .The consensus became such precisely because the arguments made the best sense were selected by scholars who agreed on them after having critical evaluation. Those which did not and had little evidence were dismissed.

    You largely base your views on the work of Richard carrier who is not a NT scholar and Robert Price. The latter holding views that are so extreme and which have been rejected by all Historical Jesus Scholars. Even Ehrman attacked his views. On top of that he holds that Paul did not exist and his letters were written by Marcion in an attempt to harmonize (or something like that). If you said any of that to the worlds leading experts on Paul you would get laughed at as Paul’s existence is without doubt yet price treat’s his existence with far more skepticism than any other classical writer. So as we can see you are entirely basing your views on a few extreme scholars out of your agenda. The consensus is important in determining if ideas are valid or not and those expressed by Mr. Price etal have been dismissed long ago (with good reason). Price himself wrote an article claiming the passage from 1 Corinthians was actually and interpollation producing no actual evidence and made weak arguments. For this reason it was completely rejected by Biblical scholars

    Now by your logic it is perfectly fine for me to reject evolution ( which is the consensus of scientists and is based on evidence)in favor of creationism because the consensus doesn’t matter. Please show me any other field where the consensus doesn’t matter and can simply be ignored if you want to.

    Hypocritically after previously saying that the consensus does not matter you later cite James Mc Grath trying to say your views fit with the consensus. That they do not. Hector Avalos who you “largely agree with” is a biblical minimalist and writes about the view of the consensus and his own “Jesus historicists, which comprise the vast majority of such academic scholars, believe that there was a real person behind the stories in the New Testament, even if they don’t believe in any supernatural claims about him…..My own opinion, as an academic biblical scholar, is that there is not enough evidence to settle the question one way or the other. I am an agnostic about the existence of the historical Jesus.” So according to his own statements his views do not fit with the “vast majority of academic scholars” yet you largely agree with him and try to claim after previously claiming otherwise that your view is the consensus. What confused load of nonsense. Bart Ehrman does represent the consensus of biblical scholarship but you only agree with him to “a lesser extent”. It is obvious that your views are not supported by the consensus as you describe them.

    Then fact that as an academic , you would even post something from infidels .com clearly demonstrates your bias and agenda. Are you a historian or atheist activist? because I seriously don’t know. It is like a historian quoting Case for Christ. You mention the theory that Mark was based on the Homeric epics . This view again has been dismissed and critiqued by such scholars as Karl Olav Sandnes and is not widely held at all. You then say that you do not hold to authorities but do the research. Well again New Testament scholars precisely came to their coclusions by doing the research. But I think the real reason you reject what most scholars think is that you are parroting the ideology from Price that all scholars come to their views in order to maintain their livelihoods as questioning the NT too much will lose them their jobs. This is essentially an unsupported assertion. Please produce evidence if you believe this and this is the case. I may be wrong but I think this is your view from what I have read so far and it is an apologetic Price’s followers usually spout to explain why price’s views are universally ignored. Unlike you I have actually studied the NT academically and in my experience It is far from the case . Nothing was arrived at dogmatically but on the strengths of arguments. You seem to have a very shallow understanding of NT scholarship and sometimes admit your views are not those of the consensus then at other times try to pass them off as the consensus view. Which is it? It seems to me far from being a fair historian you have an anti-Christian agenda which is why you run a counter apologetics blog in the first place. I just find it sickening.

    • Paulus,

      This is little more than an emotional tirade built around an attempt at character assassination and a complete misreading of what I have written.

      “First off the facts that Jesus existed, was crucified under Pilate and that his followers believed to see come back from the dead is universally accepted by biblical scholars.”

      If you had read the article, I never once questioned whether Jesus existed or was crucified under Pontius Pilate (which is made clear under footnote 4, section 1). I agree that these are probable historical facts. I also clearly stated in section 3 that the post-mortem appearances of Jesus have a “kernel of historical truth.” I explain these post-mortem appearances in terms of cognitive dissonance, visionary experiences, and hallucinations. You are off to a bad start in misrepresenting my views like this.

      “This is not to say they all accept that this was a miracle but at least they accept that Jesus’ followers believed to have such experiences of the risen Christ (for whatever reason) and that this launched the Christian movement. So the Minimal facts apologetic fits completely with the consensus of biblical scholars.”

      This is not an article that denies that some of the minimal facts have scholarly support. It is an article demonstrating that all of these minimal circumstantial details can be explained in purely natural terms. I accept that Jesus was crucified and that afterwards some of his followers believed he had been raised from the dead. I think that all of these sparse details can be explained without a miracle. That is what this article is about. The only minimal “fact” that I do not accept is the empty tomb, which even Habermas acknowledges is not agreed upon by a consensus of scholars.

      “You seem to focus a lot on the Gospel traditions of the empty tomb and the women but these are completely superfluous . A case can be made from the far earlier writings of Paul for early belief in the resurrection. In fact the passage from 1st Corinthians is believed to be an early creed by many scholars and is dated to within a few years of the death of Jesus.”

      I discuss the early tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 both in the body of the article above, in footnote 4, section 5 of the footnotes sections, in my two responses (here and here) to Nick Peters, and in this article. I agree that the creed provides early evidence that Jesus was crucified and that there were stories about his resurrection circulating within a couple years after his death. I agree with Kris Komarnitsky, whose book I reviewed here, that these circumstances can be explained by cognitive dissonance and hallucinations. Likewise, scholars like Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison acknowledge that bereavement visions, as well as visions of esteemed religious figures, can explain the disciples’ port-mortem experiences of Jesus.

      I do not agree that 1 Cor. 15 provides evidence for the empty tomb, which many scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, would agree with.

      “Now you makes some comments when it is pointed out that what you have written goes completely against the consensus of scholarship you spout some drivel about faith based universities. This is an ad hominem as you automatically assume that all believing scholars have non-academic agendas and are out to commit pious fraud.”

      This is not at all the point of bringing up faith-based universities. My point with that is that if someone, like Habermas, is trying to quantify how many “scholars” agree with a certain point based on a survey of publications, it is important to know whether many of these publications come from biased sources.

      If, in a hypothetical scenario, I claimed that 75% of “scholars” do not think that second-hand smoking kills people, but 50% of the publications I was citing came from tabacco companies, then people should know that this detail is skewing the results.

      In like manner, since many of the publications about the resurrection of Jesus come from illegitimate universities with doctrinal statements, such as Liberty and Biola, I do not think that a survey that includes their material should be taken seriously.

      Some of the other facts, however, such as a the crucifixion, have support among secular scholars (which is why I accept them). I do not think that the empty tomb is a fact and many secular scholars outside of faith-based universities, such as Bart Ehrman, would agree with me.

      “Produce some evidence that they all do not reach their conclusions based on arguments and evidence .”

      I have. For example, in my article about faith-based universities, I quote Denver Seminary’s (where Craig Blomberg is from) doctrinal statement:

      “We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original writings, complete as the revelation of God’s will for salvation, and the supreme and final authority in all matters to which they speak.”


      “Each year trustees, administration and faculty are required to affirm and sign Denver Seminary’s doctrinal statement without mental reservation.”

      That is proof that such an institution is based around defending religious dogma, and Denver Seminary even requires its faculty to abide by doctrinal contracts. If there were ever such a policy for any other subject dealing with ancient history (such as forcing Classicists to sign statements that Homer is inerrant) it would be completely rejected by scholars. As such, I do not accept any of the publications from these faith-based universities that have non-academic agendas as mainstream.

      “Secondly you completely ignore the fact that scholars from non-faith based universities also accept these facts. You also ignore the fact that many non-believers readily accept these facts based on the evidence such as Geza Vermes and Bart Ehrman.”

      No, I accept all of the facts that Bart Ehrman accepts. I accept that Jesus existed, was crucified, etc. In Ehrman’s recent book How Jesus Became God in chapter 4 Ehrman discusses how there is insufficient evidence to consider the empty tomb as a historical “fact.” I agree with Ehrman.

      “Thirdly I would say that you are hypocritical as you yourself once in a discussion with Kliff Knichtle ( I think it was) brought up the consensus of biblical scholars on the authorship of the gospels and attacked his views of the gospels reading from a textbook on the New Testament. So does the consensus matter at all? Yes or no?”

      I pointed out that Cliffe Knechtle was being disingenuous when he did not point out to his lay audience that only a minority of scholars accept the traditional authors of the Gospels (explained here). Cliffe was representing this view as mainstream and was also trying to shout down and be diminutive towards people who presented him with scholarship stating otherwise.

      I do not think that there is a consensus about the empty tomb, nor that it is even a majority position among mainstream scholars. This is do, in part, to the fact that Habermas’ sub-consensus estimate of 70-75% is skewed by publications from faith-based universities. Mainstream scholars like Bart Ehrman disagree. Likewise, when one factors in agnostics on the question of the empty tomb (which Habermas’ survey does not), I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were more realistically divided around 50/50.

      I accept all of Habermas’ minimal facts besides the empty tomb, as has been repeatedly emphasized, so that it should be very clear that I have stated that consensus matters.

      However, when I discuss the resurrection, I do not even assume that the empty tomb being ahistorical is the only option. I also discussed above how reburial or the body being stolen could explain the empty tomb, if it really were a historical fact. I do not think that it is a historical fact, but, even if it were, it can easily be explained by natural means.

      “Again then you commit another fallacy citing that 70% of philosophers are atheist so if that proves that God doesn’t exist If we are too follow consensuses .This is absurd. This has nothing to do with the field of Biblical Studies and whether or not Jesus existed.”

      I only cited that to show that 70% or 75% is not a “consensus” (especially when many of the “scholars” publishing on the topic are from faith-based universities). There are plenty of scholars who doubt the empty tomb, so it is not a historical “fact.” On the other issues, such as the crucifixion, more in the realm of 95% would agree with it, and I accept this detail as historical.

      “The mere fact you would make such a perposterous argument is further evidence of your agenda. Following what the vast majority of scholars believe based on the evidence is not a fallacy. One should base their views of Jesus on the latest advances in scholarship and the most widely supported views. Instead you pick and choose from biblical scholarship when it suits you .The consensus became such precisely because the arguments made the best sense were selected by scholars who agreed on them after having critical evaluation. Those which did not and had little evidence were dismissed.”

      Read the above. All of my key premises are within the bounds of what the vast majority of scholars would agree with.

      “You largely base your views on the work of Richard carrier who is not a NT scholar and Robert Price. The latter holding views that are so extreme and which have been rejected by all Historical Jesus Scholars. Even Ehrman attacked his views.”

      Where are you getting any of this? I am not even a mythicist like Carrier and Price. I do not even cite Robert Price once above!

      I also discuss Ehrman and other scholars in the article above. And I obviously agree with Ehrman that there was a historical Jesus. The articles I cite from Carrier are all ones that are compatible with a historical Jesus. Carrier’s views about mythicism is another matter, which is extraneous to this article.

      “On top of that he holds that Paul did not exist and his letters were written by Marcion in an attempt to harmonize (or something like that). If you said any of that to the worlds leading experts on Paul you would get laughed at as Paul’s existence is without doubt yet price treat’s his existence with far more skepticism than any other classical writer. So as we can see you are entirely basing your views on a few extreme scholars out of your agenda.”

      What are even talking about??? Not only do I not cite Price once above, but I never claimed that Paul was not historical. Footnote 4, section 3 clearly discusses Paul as a historical person. You are not even reading what I myself have written. You are reading in other things completely extraneous to this article to find what you want to find. You are the one who is cherry-picking.

      “The consensus is important in determining if ideas are valid or not and those expressed by Mr. Price etal have been dismissed long ago (with good reason). Price himself wrote an article claiming the passage from 1 Corinthians was actually and interpollation producing no actual evidence and made weak arguments. For this reason it was completely rejected by Biblical scholars”

      Again, this has nothing to do with my article. Likewise, I discuss in another article how Price’s view about 1 Cor. 15 is a minority position. Everything that I have written need not assume Price’s view about 1 Cor. 15, which I do not even agree with. Again, you are just raising tangents in an attempt to poison the well.

      “Now by your logic it is perfectly fine for me to reject evolution ( which is the consensus of scientists and is based on evidence)in favor of creationism because the consensus doesn’t matter. Please show me any other field where the consensus doesn’t matter and can simply be ignored if you want to.”

      Once more, you are simply committing a straw man. I do not reject the existence of the historical Jesus. None of what I have stated is outside of the consensus of scholars, like denying evolution would be outside the consensus of biologists. This is yet another complete misreading of what I have written.

      “Hypocritically after previously saying that the consensus does not matter you later cite James Mc Grath trying to say your views fit with the consensus. That they do not.”

      I never once said that the consensus about the historical Jesus doesn’t matter. Again, I said that there is no consensus about the empty tomb and that I accept the other minimal facts. This is what professor James McGrath has written about my article on the genre of the Gospels:

      “Like many mainstream New Testament scholars, Ferguson sees similarities to the novels of that period which were a popular form of historical fiction. And like them, he says (as many other scholars and historians have said, but mythicists reject): “I do think that there are some precious kernels of truth in at least the Synoptic Gospels, but they are few and far between.””

      James McGrath is a qualified scholar who recognizes that my positions are within the mainstream.

      “Hector Avalos who you “largely agree with” is a biblical minimalist and writes about the view of the consensus”

      You are reading what I have written out of context. I agree with Avalos that there is a better case to be made for “a” historical Jesus behind the Gospels, rather than “the” historical Jesus. In terms of probability, the more specific you make claims about Jesus, the more likely they are to be false. However, the more general you are, the less likely you are to be off.

      I am not an agnostic about the historical Jesus, so I disagree with Hector Avalos about that.

      “So according to his own statements his views do not fit with the “vast majority of academic scholars” yet you largely agree with him and try to claim after previously claiming otherwise that your view is the consensus. What confused load of nonsense. Bart Ehrman does represent the consensus of biblical scholarship but you only agree with him to “a lesser extent”. It is obvious that your views are not supported by the consensus as you describe them.”

      Once more, you are reading what I have said out of context. I agree with Bart Ehrman about there being a historical Jesus. I also think that this figure was likely an apocalyptic prophet. I agree with him “to a lesser extent” that we can know as much about the historical Jesus as he claims. I am somewhere between Ehrman’s and Avalos’ views, both of whom are qualified scholars.

      “Then fact that as an academic , you would even post something from infidels .com clearly demonstrates your bias and agenda.”

      The Secular Web has many articles written by professionals with PhDs. Likewise, many of their articles have been published elsewhere in journals or books, such as The Empty Tomb. In fact, Christian scholar Dale Allison has cited articles from The Empty Tomb in Resurrecting Jesus. I cite the Secular Web articles because they are easy to access online. These articles have been republished in many scholarly sources.

      “Are you a historian or atheist activist?”

      This is nothing but an ad hominem attack. Strike 1, btw. If by “historian” you mean someone who has an MA in Ancient History, who is pursuing a PhD in Classics, who has taught courses on the Roman Empire, Classical Greece, Latin, Ancient Greek, who has worked on excavation in Israel, and who has presented NT papers at academic conferences and is currently working on publishing some, then yes.

      “You mention the theory that Mark was based on the Homeric epics . This view again has been dismissed and critiqued fgfffhhh such scholars as Karl Olav Sandnes and is not widely held at all.”

      Dennis MacDonald has also received positive reviews for his analysis of Homeric influences on Mark (see here). That does not matter though. None of what I have written depends on MacDonald’s thesis. I discussed MacDonald’s research to show how there are plausible literary motives for how Joseph of Arimathea and the empty tomb could be literary inventions, contra to what apologists claim. A Homeric influence is hardly the only one that is plausible. Bart Ehrman in How Jesus Became God, chapter 4, has likewise written about how he is not certain that Joseph of Arimathea was a historical figure.

      “You then say that you do not hold to authorities but do the research.”

      Again, you are misreading what I have said. I do not accept it when apologists say, “such and such scholar says X,” when I have done my own research and disagree. My views are based on what I consider to be the best views held by authorities and my own personal insights. I do not always go with the majority, but for the core premises behind the arguments above, everything is consistent with mainstream positions.

      “But I think the real reason you reject what most scholars think is that you are parroting the ideology from Price that all scholars come to their views in order to maintain their livelihoods as questioning the NT too much will lose them their jobs.”

      And, amazingly, Robert Price was not mentioned once above. I pointed out doctrinal statements at faith-based universities that clearly state that professors are under contract to hold to certain positions. As such, faith-based universities should not be factored into surveys about where the majority of legitimate scholars stand on certain issues.

      “This is essentially an unsupported assertion. Please produce evidence if you believe this and this is the case.”

      See the doctrinal statement of Denver Seminary, quoted above.

      “I may be wrong but I think this is your view from what I have read so far and it is an apologetic Price’s followers usually spout to explain why price’s views are universally ignored.”

      You are wrong, but prompts for acknowledging your uncertainty.

      “Unlike you I have actually studied the NT academically and in my experience It is far from the case .”

      Ad hominem attack, strike 2. One more and you are out of here. Making personal insults does nothing to help your case.

      “You seem to have a very shallow understanding of NT scholarship”

      And, ad hominem attack, strike 3. Read what I wrote in my Comment Policy about personal attacks. You’ve committed enough violations to be banned from further comments.

      “It seems to me far from being a fair historian you have an anti-Christian agenda which is why you run a counter apologetics blog in the first place.”

      No, I run a blog that is “anti-apologetics.” I could care less about people’s private religious beliefs. That is a matter of faith. But when apologists attempt to hijack that field of ancient history to make bogus arguments targeted towards laymen, merely to proselytize under the guise of “scholarship,” I point out these scams for what they are.

      “I just find it sickening.”

      A perfect line to end with, illustrating the emotional nature of your response.

      What you probably really do not like is that I am putting out material that explains how to solve all of these Rubik’s cubes that apologists throw at laymen.

      When apologists like Cliffe Knetchtle shove a camera in someone’s face and bark, “How do you explain the empty tomb?!”, they are being highly disingenuous. It’s just like a 9/11 conspiracy theorist demanding from a non-expert how the World Trade Center collapsed. Unless you are an expert, with training in civil engineering, or something like that, it is completely dishonest to put a layman on the spot in that way.

      To understand the origins of Christianity, one needs training in ancient languages, familiarity with ancient historical methods, the NT documents, etc. When apologists try to put laymen on the spot with, “How do you explain these facts?!”, they are being completely disingenuous, since most people will not even have the background to evaluate their claims. Cf. my refutation of Licona’s and Knechtle’s 10/42 apologetic for a case and point about these predatory apologetic tactics geared towards laymen.

      There are plenty of resources out there demonstrating how the origins of Christianity, top to bottom, can be explained in purely natural terms. The minimal facts apologetic is not a good reason to believe in magic. Kris Komarnitsky, a layman who actually took apologists to task when they asked him to investigate the resurrection, has built a complete case starting with the crucifixion and going to the creed in 1 Cor. 15, showing how all of the minimal facts can be explained in purely natural terms. Dale Allison, who is even a Christian scholar, in Resurrecting Jesus argues that all of the circumstances around Jesus’ resurrection can, at least, plausibly be naturally explained, so that the resurrection is not a good argument for someone to abandon their atheism or naturalism. Bart Ehrman in How Jesus Became God has provided a plausible theory that goes all the way from the historical Jesus’ teachings, to his death, to the belief in his resurrection, and finally to Jesus’ deification as God, which can explain all of these developments without a miracle. I likewise post from my background as a Classicist on how none of these apologetic arguments, based on my experience with the NT in addition to a wealth of other ancient texts, hold up under scrutiny. They are simply snares and traps that apologists try to target lay audiences with.

      The fact is that nobody has to do “research” about anything regarding the origins of Christianity to be a non-Christian, just as one does not have to get a degree in structural engineering to believe that the World Trade Center fell due solely to a terrorist attack. Christianity is nothing but an ancient religion that is irrelevant to the present. People are welcome to ignore it in its entirety, just as they ignore astrology or conspiracy theories without having to be experts in refuting them.

      But, when apologists attempt to target laymen with their slogans merely to proselytize or attack non-believers (and they are even open about this), then I put out resources explaining to people how to get apologists to stop pestering them.

      Now, you have been given ample space to state your opinion. You have committed too many personal attacks to warrant any further discussion. I hereby ban you from further comments. I have neither the obligation, time, nor the inclination to engage people who are not behaving reasonably.

  14. Matt says:

    I don’t think the analogy between philosophers and historians on Jesus’ burial/emtpy tomb is accurate and for several reasons.

    1. The burial/empty tomb is agreed upon by both secular and religious scholars so it eliminates one bias.
    2. The philosophy survey is a broad survey of philosophers in general. This is a problem because how many of those philosphers are qualified to speak on a topic like the existence of God? It would seem that Philosophers of Religion are much more qualified to speak on that issue than say a philosopher of ethics or a philosopher of epistemology or aesthetics.

    3. The philosophy survey is different from the Survey that Gary Habermas took because Habermas surveyed published work by both secular and religious scholars who have written on the subject from different parts of the globe.The Philosophy survey is more of a questionaire, and isn’t specific but more broad and general, which goes back to question 2.

    4. The word Atheist has been taken to mean two things. 1) The Non-existence of God and 2) a lack of belief in God. So if you divide 70 by 2, you would get about 35% of philosophers who are the traditional atheists, while the other 35 would be agnostics

    • Hi Matt,

      Thank you for your respectful tone.

      First, let me point out that my earlier comment about professional philosophers is not part of this article, but rather came up in previous discussion in the comments. The body of this article neither makes nor relies on such a comparison.

      That said, based on previous discussion above, there seems to be some confusion about my position regarding scholarly consensus. Allow me to clarify:

      The minimal facts argument, as laid out by Habermas and Licona, takes points that are agreed upon by the large majority of scholars (in the 95% range) and asks the skeptic to explain these facts without the resurrection of Jesus. In this article, I do not deny these “facts”, but rather work to demonstrate that all of them can be answered through natural explanation.

      In The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Habermas and Licona lay out the following “minimal facts”:

      1. Jesus died by crucifixion.

      I accept this fact.

      2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.

      I accept this fact, though I put caution on the meanings of “rose” and “appeared”, since there are different interpretations of what these concepts might mean.

      3. Paul converted.

      I accept this fact and offer natural explanation under footnote 4, section 3.

      4. James converted.

      I accept this fact and offer a natural explanation under footnote 4, section 4.

      5. The tomb was empty.

      I do not accept this fact, and many scholars, such as Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, likewise do not.

      As a note, however, I am willing to entertain, for the sake of argument, that there was an empty tomb, which I still think can be naturally explained.

      Now, Habermas and Licona acknowledge that the empty tomb is not a minimal fact (pgs. 69-70): “The empty tomb of Jesus does not meet our two criteria of being a ‘minimal fact’ because it is not accepted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject.”

      Habermas and Licona then give the statistic that 75% of the authors who have published on the subject in favor of the empty tomb.

      My point about the survey of philosophers, with 70% identifying as atheist, was only to point out that 70% or 75% is not a “consensus.” This is even admitted by Habermas and Licona. As such, one does not have to accept the empty tomb to still explain the minimal facts in natural terms (and I also think there are plausible natural explanations for the empty tomb, for the sake of argument).

      That was all I intended by the comparison. Unfortunately, it seems that my statement was confused to convey greater nuance, which it does not. I apologize for any misunderstanding.

      Also, another misunderstanding in the comments above is that people think I overemphasize the importance of the empty tomb, when Habermas and Licona do not. First off, William Craig still lists it as one of his “facts,” which is why I rebutted it. Secondly, the reason why I think that they empty tomb is important is because it is the only physical evidence for the resurrection. Habermas and Licona’s facts just boil down to psychological evidence about what the early Christians believed. That is much less persuasive as evidence.

      As another note, I am actually going to substantially expand on this article in my upcoming book project, and a few of my positions have been modified from what is above (I wrote this article about a year ago). So, my fuller rebuttal to the minimal facts apologetic will be in the book.

      However, I am busy with schoolwork right now, so I won’t be able to return to the topic for some time.

  15. Eu Phoric says:

    “There are many other answers to this apologetic than the one I have provided above. Jeffery Lowder has written an extensive article providing a plausible explanation for how, even if the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was historical, its emptiness can be explained through a temporary burial, where Jesus’ body was taken down to abide by the regulations of the Sabbath and temporarily put in a tomb, only to be buried in a criminal graveyard before the third day. Hence the empty tomb that may have caused people to believe in a resurrection, but still had a purely natural explanation.”

    It seems that someone by the name of Malachi has responded to Lowder’s reburial hypothesis. Lowder seems to rely on Jewish burial law for the plausibility of the reburial hypothesis but it seems that Lowder has missed some details about Jewish burial law that seem to undermine Lowder’s argument which Malachi highlights when this person states this:

    “People who were crucified actually were able to receive an honorable burial. Semahot 2.9: ‘No rites whatsoever should be denied those who were executed by the state.’ However, once the body is placed in the tomb, Jewish teaching generally prevented reburial. ‘He may not be exhumed. After the tomb has been sealed, the dead may not be stirred from his place.’ [Semahot IV.7] And again, ‘Whosoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave.’ [Semahot XIII.5] And again, ‘Whosoever finds bones in a tomb should place them in an arcosolium [a container]. So Rabbi Akiba. The Sages say: ‘He should not move them from their place.; If he found them in a kok or in a loculus (types of shelves/beds, upon which the corpse decomposed until bone collection), he should not move them from their place.’ [Semahot XIII.6] And again, ‘Neither a corpse nor the bones of a corpse may be transferred from a wretched place to an honored place, nor, needless to say, from an honored place to a wretched place; but if to the family tomb, even from an honored place to a wretched place, it is permitted, for by this he is honored.’ [Semahot XIII.7] And finally, ‘A tomb may be neither moved from place to place nor transferred from family to family.’ [Semahot XIV.2] These Jewish texts show that with the exception of moving a deceased from a tomb to a family tomb, it was not acceptable to move a corpse out of the tomb in which they were first lain. All other exceptions were only movements of the body inside that same tomb. Temporal burial was usually for about a year. That’s how long it would take the person in the tomb to be just bones. The bones would be moved at the end of the year so it could await the resurrection of the dead. 5

    Furthermore, supposing the temporal burial hypothesis to be true, there would appear to have been too short of a time frame for Joseph or the other Jews to have reburied Jesus. Under Jewish law, the Sabbath began at six o’clock Friday night and lasted until six o’clock Saturday night. No work could be done on that day, the Law said. Jesus’ death and initial burial would have been on the even of the Sabbath, and by law, no one could work to rebury the body until nighttime after six o’clock Saturday. However, Joseph, presuming that the temporal burial hypothesis is true, probably wouldn’t have re-buried Jesus then because of darkness. Thus, the soonest Joseph of Arimathea could have buried Jesus was Sunday morning, but this is precisely when Jesus’ women followers discovered the empty tomb. Mark says that the women went just after sunrise. Luke says that the women took the spices very early in the morning. Likewise, John says it occurred while it was still dark. And finally, Matthew says that the women went while it was still dawn. There just isn’t enough time.”

    I read the above passage from the link below.

    I think there are good reasons to believe that Joseph of Arimathea was most likely a literary invention. However, if one granted the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea, how would could somebody respond to Malachi’s response to Lowder argument?

    Thank you for your time, Mr. Ferguson. I enjoy your blog and I look forward to your reply.

    • Hey Eu Phoric,

      Just so you know, Lowder has already responded to another critique of his essay, in which the author (Anne Kim) at least names herself:

      Likewise, Carrier has responded to a critique of his article “The Burial of Jesus In Light of Jewish Law,” written by Glenn Miller, in which he also addresses some of the problems discussed in the article that you linked:

      Concerning the issues raised in the article that you linked, I’ll answer the second dilemma first:

      “Furthermore, supposing the temporal burial hypothesis to be true, there would appear to have been too short of a time frame for Joseph or the other Jews to have reburied Jesus. Under Jewish law, the Sabbath began at six o’clock Friday night and lasted until six o’clock Saturday night. No work could be done on that day, the Law said. Jesus’ death and initial burial would have been on the even of the Sabbath, and by law, no one could work to rebury the body until nighttime after six o’clock Saturday. However, Joseph, presuming that the temporal burial hypothesis is true, probably wouldn’t have re-buried Jesus then because of darkness. Thus, the soonest Joseph of Arimathea could have buried Jesus was Sunday morning, but this is precisely when Jesus’ women followers discovered the empty tomb. Mark says that the women went just after sunrise.”

      This argument struck me as typical apologetic nitpicking, where they try to pose a minor problem to argue that a much larger problem can be swept under the rug. First, Lowder *is* arguing that Joseph of Arimathea performed the burial on Saturday night:

      “The relocation hypothesis is the view that Jesus’ body was stored (but not buried) in Joseph’s tomb Friday before sunset, and moved on Saturday night to a second tomb in the graveyard of the condemned, where Jesus was buried dishonorably.”

      The author then claims that this would not be “probable,” because of the “darkness” after 6pm. I find it rather amusing that this evening darkness would have impeded Joseph of Arimathea from reburying Jesus on Saturday night, more so than Jesus being brain dead over the course of three days would have impeded his rising into an immortal and imperishable body on Sunday morning. Which would be a more “probable” explanation for a tomb being found empty? Suffice it to say, the probability of Joseph transporting a body after 6pm, or before the women had arrived Sunday morning, strikes me as considerably greater than the odds of an immortal resurrection. Certainly the latter involves way more unproven metaphysical assumptions and leaps in credulity than the former.

      FYI, Carrier responds to similar objections about time constraints in his reply to Miller, this time in the case of whether there was enough time for Joseph to perform a proper burial for Jesus after his crucifixion on Friday, allegedly eliminating the need for temporary burial. Carrier replied:

      “We don’t know whether there was enough time to do what was necessary. Miller improperly assumes Jesus was taken down at the moment of his apparent death. But the Gospels do not say this. As I show in my essay, the phrases used for the time of burial imply that the sun was virtually in the process of going down once Joseph arrived and had the permission to get the body. All the Gospels go out of their way to emphasize the urgency of the situation. So clearly there could not have been “hours” left, otherwise the accounts as we have them do not make sense. Likewise, we are told that the women assumed the burial was not completed (they went to complete the anointing on Sunday), so we even have some positive evidence that there wasn’t enough time. However that may be, we don’t know exactly when the body was finally made available, or where the requisite tomb in the criminals’ graveyard was, or to what extent Joseph had made the necessary preparations, how many servants he applied to the task (if any), and so on.”

      I think that the reasoning in Carrier’s reply to Miller applies the same in this objection to Lowder. I do not think that we can use a few brief statements about time in the Gospels (recorded decades after the event, in a different language, in different regions), to narrow down a specific window of time in which it would have been impossible to move Jesus’ body before the women arrived on Sunday (if they ever did), nor to argue that the window of time was so large on Friday as to exclude the need for temporary burial (as Miller did). The most these time considerations can show is that there was a *limited* amount of time for Joseph (if he existed) to move the body (or temporarily bury it), but I do not think that it is implausible for such events to have happened during that timeframe. We certainly cannot rule events happening within a limited window of time as more implausible than an immortal resurrection.

      Now, the second question:

      “People who were crucified actually were able to receive an honorable burial … However, once the body is placed in the tomb, Jewish teaching generally prevented reburial.”

      First, Lowder (and Carrier) are not arguing that Jesus would have been given an honorable burial. Both are arguing that, if Jesus was buried by the Jewish authorities, he would have buried *dishonorably* in a criminals’ graveyard. Support for this idea comes from passages in the Mishnah:

      “They did not bury the condemned in the burial grounds of their ancestors, but there were two graveyards made ready for the use of the court, one for those who were beheaded or strangled, and one for those who were stoned or burned” (Sanhedrin 6.5-6).”

      The purpose of the graveyards was to provide temporary burial for the condemned, until a one year period had passed (allowing nothing but the bones to remain from decompositions), after which family members could return to collect the bones for reburial in a family grave site (just FYI: I personally am skeptical that the Jewish court in 1st century CE Roman occupied Palestine ever paid for the upkeep of such criminal graveyards, described in later passages of the Mishnah, since I think that dirt burial in shallow graves, with no recollection, was more probable during that period, as discussed in footnote 6 above). This practice of reburial after one year appears to be what Lowder’s critic is referring to when he/she states:

      “These Jewish texts show that with the exception of moving a deceased from a tomb to a family tomb, it was not acceptable to move a corpse out of the tomb in which they were first lain. All other exceptions were only movements of the body inside that same tomb. Temporal burial was usually for about a year. That’s how long it would take the person in the tomb to be just bones. The bones would be moved at the end of the year so it could await the resurrection of the dead.”

      Here there appears to be something of a misnomer about the term “temporary burial.” In a modern sense, temporary burial can mean temporarily storing a body in one location, until moving it to a more permanent site for actual burial. In the sense of Jewish Law, temporary burial could mean the burial of a condemned criminal in the criminals’ graveyard (or possibly somewhere else), until a one year period had passed, and family member could return to collect the bones.

      What both Lowder and Carrier are describing is not even an actual “burial,” but rather the temporary storage of a body. The tomb had never been “sealed.” Here is what Lowder describes:

      “If Joseph was forced to bury three bodies quickly before the Sabbath and if his tomb was nearby, Joseph may well have been forced to bury at least one body in his own tomb as a matter of practical necessity.”

      Here is what Carrier describes:

      “The law requiring prompt burial could be fulfilled temporarily by placing a corpse in storage (e.g., in the shade) until a proper burial place could be carried out. One such case was the arrival of the Sabbath, on which it was forbidden to perform any labor, including burial rights, or even so much as moving a body (in most cases).”

      I agree, it was against Jewish Law to move a body once it had been properly “buried” and the tomb had been sealed. An exception would be the recollection of bones from the criminal graveyards after a one year period (if such a practice even existed). But, temporarily storing a body *before* burial means that the burial rights had never been completed to begin with. Hence why the women in the Gospels are described to be arriving on Sunday morning, in order to perform Jesus’ burial rights. In this case, a body could be moved for full burial.

      Finally, one of Lowder’s arguments against permanent burial (or even burial for one year) within Joseph’s own tomb is that, as a member of the Sanhedrin, permanently burying a criminal like Jesus would have defiled his own tomb:

      “Yet the Markan story is rather unlikely, given Joseph’s membership in the very council that condemned Jesus. Indeed, it is incredible that Craig can expect us to believe that a prominent member of the Sanhedrin would have permanently buried Jesus alone in his own family tomb, and an expensive one at that!”

      Joseph, under Lowder’s hypothesis, is instead not defiling his own tomb, but is just providing temporary housing for the body, until Jesus’ actual burial could take place (dishonorably, in the criminals’ graveyard). Hence, moving the body did not involve moving a “buried body” or violating a “sealed tomb” at all, and hence I do not think that the passages quoted by Lowder’s critic are relevant.

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  17. Celsus says:

    This is one of the best write-ups on the internet against the resurrection and empty tomb that I’ve come across. Thank you! Please keep doing what you do!

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