Monday, February 16, 2009

The Historicity of the Unfathomable

Last night I listened to a podcast by William Lane Craig regarding the historicity, if any, of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Craig mentioned that he spent two years in Germany studying under the world's preeminent Resurrection scholar, and has written two books as well as lectured a 30-hour course on this topic. He attempted in 10 minutes to give a few points to the questioned directed at him by University of Iowa students, arranging them under 4 headings:

1) After the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in his own tomb.
  • the site and the site's location was known to both Jew and Christian. When the disciples began to proclaim the Resurrection in Jerusalem the tomb must have been empty as it would have been impossible to proclaim this if the body were interred in the hillside tomb.
  • the burial story is one of the best established facts about the historical Jesus. This was mentioned by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians which goes back to the earliest time after Jesus' crucifixion. It was as well independently verified in Mark's (the oldest gospel) source material that he uses to write his gospel providing dual attestation.
  • The fact that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus is highly probable because he is described as a member of the Sanhedrin (the council that condemned Jesus). Given the resentment of early Christian circles at Jewish authorities for their condemnation of Jesus, it is highly unlikely that they would have invented a fictitious character like Joseph of Arimathea--a member of the Sanhedrin--who did what was right by giving Jesus an honorable burial.
  • There are no other independent burial stories. If the burial story were a legend, there would be traces of competing burial legends.

2) On the Sunday following his crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers:
  • This element of the story is agreed to by the majority of New Testament scholars whether conservative, liberal, or mainstream.
  • The empty tomb story was a part of the early source material that Mark used and goes back so near to the events themselves that it could not be a legendary byproduct. This is also implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.
  • The fact that it was women that discovered the tomb is very plausible especially when it is considered that the testimony of women in 1st century Jewish culture was considered worthless. They could not even be witnesses in a court of law because their testimony was considered worthless. Any legend about the empty tomb would have included men as having found the tomb. The fact that it was women means, like or not as embarrassing a fact as it was at the time, it was females that found the tomb empty.
  • The early Jewish polemics presupposed the empty tomb. When the disciples began to preach the empty tomb, the Jewish authorities accused the disciples of having stolen away the body. The very antagonists of the Christians conceded that the tomb was empty. This has led even Christianity's harshest critics to concede that the tomb was empty. Most scholars hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.

3) On various occasions, and under different circumstances, different individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death.
  • This was firmly established by the list of eyewitnesses on the basis of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul is quoting old information handed down to him which probably goes back to the first five years after the crucifixion.
  • The appearances were remarkable, Jesus appeared to many people over and over again, to whole groups of people at various locales under various circumstances to skeptics as well as believers.
  • The appearance traditions are confirmed in the gospel accounts of the appearance stories giving multiple attestation of the appearances.

4) The earliest disciples came to believe he was risen from the dead despite every pre-disposition to the contrary.
  • Their leader was dead and Jews had no belief in a dying, let alone, rising messiah. Yet, the early disciples came to sincerely believe that Jesus was risen from the dead and they were willing to go to their death for that belief.
  • Anyone who was crucified was thereby shown to be a heretic--a man literally under the curse of God.
  • Professor C.F.D. Mol'le at Cambridge said that this is a belief which literally nothing in terms of antecedent historical influences can account for all this apart from the resurrection itself.

I have not read either of Craig's books (although I'm eager to) on the historicity of the Resurrection, but here they are linked: The Son Rises and Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment?

If you want to listen to the podcast itself which I summarized as best I could above, here is the link.


  1. Hi RTF, how's things?

    The historocity of Jesus is far from as clear cut as Craig would like it to be. you haven't given me much to work of here, but he seems to be heavily referencing the Gospels.

    I would like to see why you think then intentions of Mark were anything more than those of the author of Job.

    I would like to see in what ways you believe they are any different from the Jewish fiction that abounds in the Second Sophistic.

    Also, you never got back to me on your defense of Anselm's Ontology.


  2. Hey, Vagon!

    I don't believe that the historicity is "clear cut," but I think it is reasonable. And while I'm not sure it would carry the burden in a court of law, I think it is safe that Craig was successful in making his case that this doesn't have to be taken on "blind" faith. Others might think that Crag could carry his burden--and to be fair, I've not read his books on the matter.

    He does seem to reference the gospel quite a bit, but I find it helpful that he also references Paul, and his letter-writing ministry came before Mark's book. I also presuppose that Mark wrote a trustworthy book which was attested to by Eusebius and Papias, and Justin Martyr who referred to Mark's Gospel as "the memoirs of Peter". (Mark was a follower of Peter--who was in Jesus' inner-circle)

    I don't want to be too lengthy, but it is a bit unfair to compare something that Philostratus wrote, say the "biography" of Apollonius, to Mark's book. For example, attestation wrt to Mark as compared to Philostratus in this one work of myth isn't really comparable. Philostratus is the only source for this particular work.

    Further, Mark wrote his book within a lifetime of many observers and followers of Christ. Philostratus wrote the biography I think just under 200 years from the death of Apollonius--a little easier for legend to creep in. (ETC. ETC. ETC.)

    And, as far as I know, we're unclear as to who authored Job. I also fail to see your point here to be honest.

    As for Anselm... where were we? I apologize I never got back to you, busy weekend. But I'm not sure it will do much good when we both start with different presuppositions. But I'm always up for a dialogue.


  3. You said: "I don't believe that the historicity is "clear cut," but I think it is reasonable. And while I'm not sure it would carry the burden in a court of law, I think it is safe that Craig was successful in making his case that this doesn't have to be taken on "blind" faith. Others might think that Crag could carry his burden--and to be fair, I've not read his books on the matter"

    Nicely put, I agree.

    You also mentioned "He does seem to reference the gospel quite a bit, but I find it helpful that he also references Paul"

    Perhaps its the presuppositions again, but Paul believed in a spiritual Jesus not a historical Jesus. Paul is the only one who was around in the life of Jesus, yet he doesn't offer any historical facts despite his relatively recent death. All this despite talking with the apostles, and all the while completely being at odds with Peter on the message of Christianity.
    It seem likely Paul was interpreting scripture not history.

    There is a greater burden on Mark than Philostratus, because of the significant today. When I refer to Job I mean that its not the accuracy of his account that is in question, but rather the motive that occurs before the accuracy need be questioned. I'm guessing you don't take Job to be literal, so why take Mark to be literal? Were those observers simply people who recorded a spiritual Christ or actual historical observers?

    I think another worthy question to ask is why the historical Jesus quests have all failed to provide a historical Jesus?

    As for Anselm, I gave three refutations:

    1. He only provides the argument for Desim as I can think of a better God than the Christian God.

    2. It falls victim to Reductio ad absurdem and supports an ultimate evil.

    3. It requires that thought isnt contingent, when it clearly is affected by the physical nature of the chemical reaction in your brain. Thoughts exist in reality as it stands, to suggest they don't begs the question.


  4. Vagon,

    I've got a TON of reading to do for class tonight, but I'll get to this asap. Maybe even before class if I finish my reading.

    Have a great day...

  5. Hey no rush or anything Law must leave you with a hectic schedule.

    All the best.

  6. Vagon,

    I tried to keep this organized with numbers.

    1. To my knowledge Paul encountered the resurrected Jesus Christ. Paul is an interesting case, here was a guy who was a great persecutor of Christians, and ended up being (some would say) the founder of Christianity. Again, to my knowledge Paul before beginning his letter-writing ministry consulted many disciples of Jesus Christ to ensure that he was propagating the “right stuff.” I’m not sure what exactly you mean by the rest of your point on Paul, his letter-writing ministry was completed before the Gospels were written—to the best of my knowledge. And, I’m not sure where Paul is at odds with Mark on the fundamental message of Christianity, either.

    2. Be fair and measure Christianity’s historicity the way we measure the historicity of all else. Don’t hold Christianity up to a different historical standard. It doesn’t follow why we hold Mark to a different standard because Jesus claimed to be the Son of God as compared to Philostratus’ writings on Apollonius.

    3. As far as I know we’re not completely certain on who wrote Job, but I believe the Jewish tradition is that Moses wrote it. If you are asking me if I think Job lived and endured the biblical adversity in space-time history the answer would be “yes.”

    4. As far as I can tell Anselm’s argument is for the existence of God—be it deism or theism; I’m not sure why that is a hole in the argument. The premise of the argument is the existence of God, not the nature of God.

    5. It doesn’t change that the serial killer who I’m “thinking” of doesn’t exist anywhere but in my mind. He can’t kill anyone unless he exists in reality. Even if the thought of him exists in reality, the physical person does not.

    6. As to Reduction ad Absurdum, I’m not a logician, but I’m not sure why that leads to the conclusion that the premise I started with was false. Clear this up for me, if you would be so gracious.

    7. Finally, I don’t think the Creator God that I’m speaking of fits into a materialist or naturalist paradigm. God is immaterial which makes this very difficult, especially when you presuppose there is nothing outside of the material and/or natural.

  7. Good call on the numbers, otherwise this could get messier!

    1. I'd just like to point out he is at odds with Peter, not Mark. I'm address your claiming Paul as a helpful aid in your first response above. Paul claims a conversion essentially independent of men (Gal 1:13-16) he talks of a spiritual Christ, not a historical Christ. Paul had little contact with the apostles, visiting Jerusalem and church leaders just two times in 17 years (1:18; 2:1). He met with only three of the apostles—Peter, James, and John (cf. 1:18-19; 2:2, 9).

    2. I believe I am. By contrast it is the Christian Scholars who spend countless hours and funds on affirming their beliefs. The reality is these are extraordinary claims that require closer investigation that your average historical item.

    3. Allow me to be specific. Do you believe he lived in a fish for 3 days and withstood the pressure associated with exploring the depths of the ocean etc.

    4. Fair enough, I'm actually quite open to deism, but I still believe the argument fails.

    5. I'm not sure what you mean here.

    6. Let me demonstrate. The god I'm thinking of is so good that there is not an evil he couldn't vanquish. The evil I'm thinking of is so evil there is not a good he coudn't vanquish. Both can be justified by this ontology, but neither can exist with the other. Therefore the ontology fails.

    7. I'm not sure how you can ask me to consider something that is by definition impossible to consider. Let me ask you a couple of questions:

    If you take all matter and energy away, what is left over?

    Can an idea exist without a brain?