The Minimal Facts for the Resurrection: Why a Skeptic Doesn’t Believe

The following is an excerpt from my critical review of Rick Broocks’ Man, Myth, Messiah: Answering History’s Greatest Question. Rice Broocks is a Christian apologist and the man who has inspired the God’s Not Dead films. Man, Myth, Messiah is his ‘companion’ book to God’s Not Dead 2.

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Since 1975, Gary Habermas has been cataloging scholarly sources on the resurrection of Christ to establish certain trends, or ‘minimal facts’, accepted by most historians. In Man, Myth, Messiah, the number of these sources is given as “more than 2,200,” pulled from the 2007 book The Case for the Real Jesus. Just two years earlier, in a paper published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Professor Habermas numbered his sources at “more than 1400”.1 In the three decades Habermas took compiling those initial 1400, he averaged a survey of around 47 publications a year. Yet afterwards, in a mere two years, he managed to survey a whopping 800 additional sources for his list. Of course, some may point out the qualified use of “more than” in both of the total figures, but this ambiguity actually exposes a general problem with Habermas’ research. As Richard Carrier has noted, Habermas has not released his data – which is already quite selective in its reliance on only English, German, and French written sources – and so the trends he extrapolates from it are greatly presumptive.2

On this flawed backdrop, we come to the alleged facts in chapter two that “even skeptics believe.” These facts are built on solid historical criteria, according to Broocks, like multiple and independent attestation, a close proximity to the events in question, and the presence of details too embarrassing to have been invented. With the exception of the last criterion, I find this standard reasonable. Embarrassment is a sticky issue in many ways, particularly because of how it rests on judgments about the sorts of things that would’ve been contrary to the purposes of an author living in the very distant past. Perhaps in some cases where we have a good deal of information on the norms in a given society, it can be plausible to make an argument from embarrassment as a supplementary defense of historicity, but even then there are challenging questions about individual attitudes and ‘hierarchies’ of tolerable to intolerable embarrassments.

Before laying out his first minimal fact, our author sets his sights on Jesus mythicism. Denying the historical existence of Jesus is a “pop culture”, “blogosphere” thing, a “tabloid” level absurdity, says Rice, while suggesting a visit to Jerusalem would sway most rational minds. “And you don’t need a scholar or historian. Any tour guide can set you straight.” Although I am not a mythicist, I have to admit I find ridiculing mythicism to be unproductive as well as uncharitable. Broocks aspires to always be prepared to give an answer for his faith with gentleness and respect, per 1 Peter 3:15-16, but on more than one occasion he opts instead for resorting to strawmen and ad hominem attacks on his opponents. “The real motivation for skeptics to deny that Jesus really lived is not a lack of evidence,” he claims. “They often desire to attack Christianity in any way possible because of the evil perpetrated by self-proclaimed Christians.” (p. 28) Claims like these, whether or not they’re true of some mythicists, seem spectacularly inadequate at dealing with mythicists like New Testament scholar Robert Price, Dominican priest Thomas L. Brodie, or historian Richard Carrier.

Fact #1: He Was Crucified

Historical sources are even part of the supporting case for the first minimal fact, making it especially unnecessary to wage such a verbal war on mythicism. Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, and the Talmud are cited as evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus, and all have been used to endorse historicity, too. While there are issues with each of these sources that leave them open to objections, I think at least the first two are fairly reliable, for the same reasons I gave in my review of God’s Not Dead. It’s worth stating that this first fact, crucifixion, is really not an argument for the resurrection in itself, but more of a stipulation to it. Naturally, it could be that Christ was crucified and remained dead after; the crucifixion is more a part of the minimal facts case to deter the objection that Jesus appeared alive later because he had never actually died. Since I don’t make that objection, I will not offer a critique of the first fact.

Fact #2: His Tomb Was Found Empty

The second minimal fact is the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb by a group of his women followers. Saying that all four gospels depict women as the first to arrive at the tomb, Broocks notes that the testimony of women was “usually dismissed in ancient trials. So no first-century author would have ever made the story up.” (p. 31) Here is an example of the embarrassment criterion in action. The unstated assumption is that women were so distrusted in those days that the presence of them in the resurrection narrative, when they could’ve been omitted or replaced, makes the story more likely to be true. However, even the historian Josephus hung his entire accounts of the incidents at Gamala and Masada on the testimony of women.3 The fact that Rice is careful to say that “usually” the testimony of women was dismissed is also important. If there were instances in which women were treated as reliable sources – including by one of the most prominent historians of the era – then why should we think women in the resurrection story were too embarrassing a detail for the empty tomb to have been made up?

Another argument made in favor of this alleged fact is that the Roman and Jewish authorities could easily have squashed the Christian movement by producing the body of Jesus. Since they did no such thing, it must have been because the body was missing. Again, though, this is quite an assumption. The New Testament itself claims that the disciples did not begin preaching the risen Christ until about seven weeks after the ascension (see Acts 2), at which point the corpse was likely decayed beyond recognition. Add to that the small size of the early Christian sect, as well as the fact that the earliest Christian writings come 20-25 years after the death of Jesus, and it just doesn’t seem the Romans or Jews would have had the motive to hound Christians over what they were not exactly forthcoming with in the first place.

Skeptics of the empty tomb have often claimed it is unlikely that Jesus would have received a proper burial. In what may be one of his stronger counter-arguments in the chapter, Broocks responds to this objection by contending that leaving the body on the cross would have violated Roman laws urging respect for occupied peoples. “Jewish law expressly commanded bodies of the condemned be buried so that the land would not be defiled,” he states on page 32. Supporting these claims are two sources: Josephus and the Digesta Iustiniani.

As Leonard Rutgers explains, Josephus mentions certain religious freedoms the Romans did extend to the Jews, such as to “gather freely in thiasoi, observe the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals, send money to the Temple in Jerusalem, and enjoy autonomy in their communal affairs,” as well as being “absolved from compulsory enrollment in the Roman military.”4 But to call the Romans tolerant of Jewish customs would seem to be a step too far. Rutgers goes on to say that, “Roman laws of the first century C.E. that relate to Jews give the impression that tolerance or intolerance was nothing but a by-product in the formulation of a given policy. Conscious efforts to be tolerant or intolerant do not seem to have been frequently made.” Indication of this even comes from Josephus, who notes in book 2, chapter 9 of The Jewish War how Pilate spent money from the sacred treasury to build an aqueduct, and then sent undercover soldiers to disrupt the mob of protest that ensued.

In book 48, title 24 of the Digesta Iustiniani (Digest of Justinian), we read: “The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.” Broocks cites New Testament scholar Craig Evans saying that burial would have been expected in the time of Jesus. In a paper commenting on the Digesta, Evans notes that most of the text is drawn from Roman jurist Ulpian, who lived from about 170-223 C.E. “Ulpian,” writes Evans, “goes on to say that ‘the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted’. A statement in the lex Puteolana (at II.13) gives the impression that Romans, as did Jews in Israel, had burial pits reserved for criminals and others buried without honor.”5 Evans refers to a book by J.G. Cook that discusses the lex Puteolana. “Some of the corpses were denied burial,” Cook remarks, “apparently at the discretion of the magistrate,” and common burial pits “‘were in use already in the second century BC.’”6 Cook and Evans both mention a particular passage in the Digest that specifically states that permission for burial is not always given, “especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.” (48.24.1). Evans argues in his essay that the mention of treason does not apply to Jesus, but the passage appears to give treason as an extreme example rather than the only exception.

Bart Ehrman names a number of historical sources describing how crucifixion victims were often left to rot on the cross:

The Roman author Horace says in one of his letters that a slave was claiming to have done nothing wrong, to which his master replied, “You shall not therefore feed the carrion crows on the cross” (Epistle 1.16.46-48)… Artemidorus, writes that it is auspicious for a poor man in particular to have a dream about being crucified, since “a crucified man is raised high and his substance is sufficient to keep many birds” (Dream Book 2.53)… there is a bit of gallows humor in the Satyricon of Petronius, a one-time advisor to the emperor Nero, about a crucified victim being left for days on the cross (chaps. 11-12).7

There are a few important things to take from all this. First, there is reasonable doubt that Roman officials in the first century respected Jewish practices and beliefs as a matter of habit. We have seen both scholarly argument and a historical example for this, and it is perhaps further instructive to consider the Jewish-Roman war that arose just a little over three decades after the purported death of Jesus. Second, while it seems that some crucifixion victims were allowed to be buried in special cases, others were denied burial. Although it’s not entirely clear what all the circumstances were that could lead to a denial, the “stereotyped picture that the crucified victim served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey,” as conservative Christian Martin Hengel once remarked,8 suggests that being left on the cross was not a punishment reserved for only the worst of traitors. As a third point, there is a lack of clarity in this material about what kind of burial was allowed in which cases. It’s fair to assume that since giving the body to “relatives” is mentioned by Ulpian, the relatives would likely bury their beloved in a family tomb or something of the sort. Yet when the body is that of a troublemaker or perceived criminal who supposedly had a lot of enemies among the Jewish leaders, the law in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 could have been respected and the Sabbath could have been honored simply by burial in a common grave. Since Pastor Broocks’ main objection to improper burial is Roman respect for Jewish law, this possibility, conceded by both Evans and Cook, poses a significant problem.

Surprisingly, the “unanimous” early church tradition on the site of Christ’s grave is another supporting argument made in defense of the empty tomb. “Custom required Jesus to be buried outside the walls,” Mr. Broocks states, “so the tradition for the site’s location had to go back to within ten years of the resurrection.” (p. 32) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the earliest known site to be identified with the tomb of Jesus. Eusebius reports in his Life of Constantine that the tomb had a pagan temple built over it by the Romans to “obscure the truth.” Under Constantine, the temple was then demolished and replaced by a church. Constantine’s own mother allegedly found the “true cross,” which proved its power by restoring a corpse to life. Curiously, though, there is no evidence prior to the 4th century that links the location to the resurrection story. In her book, Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, historian Joan E. Taylor argues that Constantine chose the site as part of his campaign to Christianize paganism, and the temple he built over was never constructed with the purpose of concealing the tomb of Christ. The absence of early veneration for any alleged site of Jesus’ grave, especially from Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, is a strong argument against the empty tomb legend.

It’s worth noting that Gary Habermas does not include the empty tomb among his minimal facts because 1/4 of the scholars he surveyed are skeptical of it, which Rice notes as well. Our author tries to dismiss the divergence here: “This drop is likely due to the profound implication of an empty tomb. If Jesus were buried after His death, then the empty tomb would be a decisive additional piece of evidence for the disciples encountering a physical Jesus.” (p. 31) However, we have just seen numerous reasons why the empty tomb is a questionable ‘fact,’ reasons all based in historical evidence. In addition, if the empty tomb is so critical to the Christian faith, then it seems the very same reasoning could be used against Broocks and other believers to suggest that bias is why they favor an empty tomb.

Fact #3: His Disciples Believed He Appeared to Them

As certain as Christ’s crucifixion, Broocks says, is the fact that his followers had experiences of him after his death. We find these appearances mostly in Paul and John, but Acts is also included with the caveat that the historical reliability of the text is disputed. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, often regarded as an early Christian creed by scholars, reads:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Rice calls this a “credible list” of witnesses, and makes special mention of how Paul and James were skeptics before their conversions. What exactly about this list is credible? The appearances to the five hundred are frequently talked about by apologists as if we have five hundred eyewitness accounts, when all we really have is this one account saying that five hundred people saw the risen Jesus. No gospel or other early Christian document tells of these unnamed, mysterious five hundred. Most of the individuals identified in this list have left us no first-hand account of their experiences. Notice also that there is nothing said about women being the first to find the tomb – in fact, a tomb isn’t even mentioned at all.

There is an unexplained dissimilarity between the experiences of Paul and James. The story of Paul’s conversion is that he was a Jew persecuting Christians up until his vision on the road to Damascus. Thus, Paul was a skeptic converted by an appearance. James, on the other hand, is considered a skeptic merely because of biblical references to divisions in Jesus’ family (i.e. Mark 3:21, John 7:5), and we are given no information for when James became a believer, whether it was before or after the alleged appearance discussed in 1 Corinthians 15. Christian scholar James F. McGrath shares this view, explaining that “even if there were antagonism or otherwise soured relations between Jesus and James, this does not in any way lead to the conclusion that the estrangement lasted until Jesus’ death.”9 This matters because, as apologists like Broocks assert, the conversion of a skeptic due to a post-resurrection appearance is a more surprising deal than the report of a devout believer that they witnessed a miracle.

So what about Paul? The vision described in Acts stands out in some ways from the other appearances. Paul hears a voice and sees a light so blinding that he falls to the ground and loses his sight. In Acts 9, his companions hear a voice, but see nothing; in Acts 22, they see the light, but don’t hear a voice. What’s odd about labeling this a postmortem appearance is that Paul had never met Jesus while Jesus was alive, and in his vision Paul doesn’t see Jesus – only a bright light – he just knows (or assumes) it’s Jesus based on the voice. This experience is quite similar sounding to a hallucination, and what’s stranger still is that it is not distinguished in any way from the other supposed appearances spoken of in the early creed.

Could multiple people have hallucinated the same thing, or something quite like it? Broocks declares the Christian message “is not based on some corporate self-delusion triggered by the disciples’ grief over having lost their beloved leader; such a scenario would have required a much longer period of time to develop.” (p. 38) But why think this?

On the hallucination theory, philosopher Keith Parsons writes:

In fact, the article “Hallucinations” in the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Psychology, says that 1/8 to 2/3 of the normal population experiences waking hallucinations… Causes of hallucinations in normal persons include social isolation, rejection, and severe reactive depression. The disciples were very likely to be experiencing a strong sense of rejection, isolation, and depression after the execution of Jesus. Further, it is very common for the bereaved to experience visual or auditory hallucinations of their deceased loved ones.10

Not all hallucinations require a good length of time, either, as Matthew McCormick explains.

When people lose someone they love, it is quite common for them to have hallucinations of the person (or even a pet) shortly after the loss. The phenomenon is now well documented and is known as a bereavement hallucination. In one study, a remarkable 80 percent of elderly widows reported having hallucinations – either visual or auditory – up to one month after the spouse had died… And these are not just fleeting glimpses or vague feelings that these widows and widowers are experiencing. They report seeing or hearing the lost person in some familiar environment, being visited in their dreams, or having complete conversations with them while being wide awake.11

We’ve already seen that not all experiences of the risen Jesus are equal. Paul’s vision in Acts is very different from the appearances in John 20. Other appearances, to the five hundred, to James, or to unspecified apostles, are so devoid of any description that it would be sheer speculation to imagine what those experiences might have been like. Worse yet, since Paul is thought to have relayed an early creed pertaining to appearances to some of the same people we find in the gospels, this creed raises doubts about whether the sources we have are truly independent. Perhaps John and Acts relied on the same material Paul relied on. Noting this problem of ambiguity, there just doesn’t seem to be any reasonable grounds for claiming that the postmortem appearances were shared by so many people that hallucination is out of the question. To make that argument, we would need more and better evidence for the array of alleged experiences.

Fact #4: Proclaimed Early

For the fourth fact, Broocks provides the earliness of the preaching of the resurrection. Because “creeds require time to become standardized, the original teaching had to have originated years earlier” (p. 37). Habermas is cited as claiming that such teaching must go back to within fewer than five years of the death of Jesus. This is said to be a consensus view of even critical scholars, but we have previously seen the flaws in the survey approach used in Habermas’ resurrection research. Nonetheless, if we assume that the resurrection was preached so early after the crucifixion – which I am actually willing to grant – is this a fact supporting the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection?

This is where the trouble with assessing miracles through historical method becomes especially apparent. The reports of Joseph Smith’s vision of the angel Moroni are very close to the time he supposedly had his vision. Likewise, as Matt McCormick argues, there is substantial evidence surrounding the Salem witch trials:

…hundreds of people were involved in concluding that some of the accused were witches. Eyewitnesses testified in courts, signed sworn affidavits, and demonstrated their utter conviction that those on trial were witches. Furthermore, the accusers came from diverse backgrounds and social strata, including magistrates, judges, the governor of Massachusetts, respected members of the community, husbands of the accused, and so on.

…The trials were part of a thorough, careful, and exhaustive investigation. The investigators deliberately gathered evidence and made a substantial attempt to view it objectively and separate truths from falsehoods, mistakes, and lies. In the court trials, they took great care to discern the facts. The accusers must have become convinced by their evidence…

The witch trials were historically recent, so we have hundreds of the actual documents that were part of the evidence. We have the signed, sworn testimonies of the eyewitnesses claiming to have seen the magic performed – not as it was repeated and relayed for decades to others, but immediately after it occurred. We have whole volumes written by witnesses to the trials, such as those by Cotton Mather and John Hale.12

Should we then believe Joseph Smith really was a prophet, or that those convicted in the witch trials really were witches? I should say not. The reason why involves a lot of what has already been covered. What we know (or don’t know) of those reporting the event, of the time and place in which they lived, and of the subsequent developments and advances in our general knowledge has to play a significant role in our approach, beyond a basic consideration of criteria like multiple and independent attestation, closeness in time, or embarrassment.

Further Facts

Additional facts are presented in the chapter that have already been touched on at this point, in one way or another. These involve Paul, James, the growth of the early church, and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. To say brief words on the latter two, however, I find the absence of any figures or statistics on the growth of the church makes such a ‘fact’ indefensible, and the purportedly embarrassing nature of Jesus’ baptism hangs on an incredibly thin supposition that it “could” be seen as implying the superiority of John. I mention a study by Keith Hopkins in my review of God’s Not Dead which argues that Christians composed only 10% of the Roman population by the year 300. If the early church exploded in the miraculous way many Christian apologists claim it did, these are the kinds of studies that need to be produced to substantiate their claim. As for John and Jesus, Mark 1:7 effectively eviscerates any notion of embarrassment: “And this was [John’s] message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’”

As a conclusion to my (very long) review of this chapter, I want to make one last argument regarding these minimal facts – one which I believe greatly reduces their persuasiveness on top of all that’s been said so far. Throughout the chapter, Pastor Broocks makes frequent note of how “all four gospels” mention the crucifixion, the women at the tomb, Joseph of Arimathea requesting the body, John baptizing Jesus, and “supernatural confirmations of Jesus’ ministry” (p. 30, 31, 41). These remarks are misleading in that they give the impression that such details are independently and multiply attested by more sources than is likely accurate. The Two-Source Hypothesis in New Testament scholarship, which is the consensus view among even most conservative scholars, has it that Mark was a primary source for both Matthew and Luke. This is even addressed somewhat in the very next chapter of the book, and it’s a little suspicious why something so obviously pertaining to the historical criteria is put after the minimal facts case. The importance of this is that something which appears in all four gospels may only really be independently and multiply attested in two gospels once we take parallel passages into account.

Let’s take the women at the tomb as our example. After stating that this is found in all four gospels, Rice says, “This fact is significant because the testimony of women was usually dismissed in ancient trials.” The significance the author sees here is not just the reporting of women at the tomb, but clearly also the reporting of women at the tomb in four sources. Yet when we look at Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-8, and Luke 24:1-12, we find a number of similarities and parallelisms, from the two Marys to the fear of the women to the presence of men/angels (one in Mark) in white clothing and more. We even find some plausible spots where the authors of Matthew and Luke changed the text from Mark, such as Matthew 28:8, which adds that the women were not just afraid, but “filled with joy,” and so ran to tell the disciples what they’d found – quite an improvement over Mark’s original ending, where the women “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” None of these details occur in John’s gospel. This illustrates how Matthew and Luke relied on Mark, and it changes the scope of attestation for the women at the tomb from four to two sources. If Helmut Koester is right, though, about Mark and John sharing a passion narrative source that is also represented in the Gospel of Peter, then the evidence for women at the tomb comes down to a lonely single attestation.13

When we move outside the realm of guesswork based on a questionable survey, and go into dealing with the problems and arguments that historians deal with, the picture becomes far more complicated with respect to which sources are reliable and for what reasons. The minimal facts case not only faces objections from a methodological perspective, for inferring a supernatural explanation out of historical data, but also from an evidential perspective.

Sources:

1. Gary R. Habermas, Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present, GaryHabermas.com (2005). Retrieved April 12, 2016.

2. Richard Carrier, Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix, Freethought Blogs (Nov. 26, 2013). Retrieved April 12, 2016.

3. Josephus, Jewish War 4.81, 7.399.

4. Leonard Rutgers, “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Apr. 1994), p. 57.

5. Craig Evans, “Roman Law and the Burial of Jesus,” Matthew and Mark Across Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2016), ed. Kristian Bendoraitis and Nijay Gupta, p. 57.

6. John G. Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Mohr Siebeck, 2014), p. 385-386.

7. Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (Harper-Collins, 2014), p. 158.

8. Ibid, p. 158.

9. James F. McGrath, Early Converted Skeptics?, Exploring Our Matrix (Aug. 7, 2009). Retrieved April 14, 2016.

10. Keith Parsons, in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Prometheus, 2005), ed. Jeffery Jay Lowder and Robert M. Price, p. 441.

11. Matthew S. McCormick, Atheism and the Case Against Christ (Prometheus, 2012), p. 84-85.

12. Ibid, p. 58-59.

13. Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels (Trinity Press, 1990), p. 253-255. 

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