Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Could I be wrong? (Resurrection of Jesus)

In the previous article, I discussed a couple of arguments often presented in support of the existence of God, and explored whether I could be wrong in those areas.

This next article will explore one of the main arguments used in support of the Bible - the resurrection of Jesus.

Reason 3: The resurrection of Jesus

There have been many wild and overstated claims made regarding the resurrection of Jesus. For example, some have even claimed that it is the "best attested event in history". Given the tendency of many Christian apologists to make such outlandish and exaggerated claims, it's important to try to keep a level head and not buy into the hype when researching the matter for ourselves. People believe all kinds of crazy things these days, from evil spirits to homeopathic cures, and their enthusiasm for their beliefs should not be taken as evidence supporting the truth of said beliefs. Forget who is making the claim. What matters is the evidence.

My situation is perhaps interesting because I once accepted many of the arguments presented in favour of the resurrection being a real historical event. I accepted them because they confirmed what I wanted to believe, and made me feel more comfortable with my faith in God and the Bible. I also felt that if Jesus rose from the dead, then that counted as vindication by God of what he had to say. Thus I felt that Jesus' resurrection, if true, provided evidence for God's existence, and by extension, some sort of confirmation of the inspiration of the Bible.

Ironically, if Jesus' resurrection could be proven this way, that would negate the need for faith, which the Bible claims is essential to believe in God.

So what evidence, besides the Bible, do we have for Jesus' resurrection?


Ok, well what evidence do we have for Jesus' resurrection?

We have some textual evidence, and all of it comes from the Bible. That's all. In other words, we have writings believed to be from the first century saying that some of Jesus' followers saw him alive after his crucifixion. More specifically, we have the four gospels, and the writings of Paul. All of these are believed to have been written by Christians, and at least some of them were written specifically to convert other people to Christianity (See John 20:31). They are therefore not without bias, and do not claim to be.

So at most, we have about five textual sources, but it's more complicated than that.

The earliest source we have is believed to be 1 Corinthians, written by Paul as early as 53-54CE, within about 20 years of Jesus' crucifixion.

While Paul alludes to the resurrection of Jesus, he was not an eye-witness and nor did he claim to be. In 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, Paul claims that Jesus appeared to other people after his alleged resurrection and also to himself, but makes no distinction between these appearances despite his admission that Jesus only appeared to him in a vision. Paul doesn't mention the empty tomb (though some people argue that he believed Jesus was resurrected bodily, thus inferring his original body was no longer in the tomb), or even that Jesus was buried in a tomb. Some scholars believe Jesus' body may have been dumped in a common grave, as was the standard practice of the Romans.

But what about the gospels?

The four gospels were written anonymously, and date to between about 68 and 95CE (about 35 to 62 years after the events they narrate). None of the gospels are believed by scholars to have been written by eye-witnesses. Only the gospel of Luke claims to have received information from eye-witnesses (Luke 1:2). However, most of Luke's material was actually derived from the gospel of Mark, or otherwise derived from either the gospel of Matthew or an earlier source (a hypothetical document known as Q) shared with the gospel of Matthew.

The gospel of John, although written later than the other three gospels, contains a lot of information not found in the earlier gospels. However, John's gospel is also considered by many scholars to be the least historically reliable:
"The general consensus among scholars has for a long time been that the Fourth Gospel is of little or no historical value, at least as far as questions relating to the historical Jesus are concerned. This still remains the view of most scholars."
The gospel of Mark originally ended at chapter 16 verse 8, with the women leaving the tomb and telling no one what they had seen. The later verses (9-20) were added by Christians in the second century. Thus in Mark's gospel there were no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

It is therefore not clear to me whether we are dealing with five distinct sources, or even just a single source (as used by the gospels of Matthew and Luke). Several of the sources show clear signs of dependence.

Now consider that the earliest copies we have for these sources date to about the fourth century. A handful of fragments exist as early as the second century but the earliest complete copies date to the fourth century. We have evidence of textual corruption during this time. For example, the long ending of Mark 16 (verses 9-20) is believed to have been a later insertion from the second century. The story of the woman taken in adultery is likewise a later insertion. We have no original manuscripts. Whilst it's probably likely that what we have does resemble the original text, we have no way to be certain. I'm not going to make a big deal of this, but it's worth mentioning for completeness.

Signs of legendary development

If you lay out the gospels in the order in which they were written, you find that each successive retelling of the story adds something new, and sometimes changes some details from the version before it. Matthew adds several supernatural and other elements to the story such as an earthquake and an angel rolling back the stone. Curiously, Matthew also has guards actually witness the resurrection, but apparently they were still prepared to lie about it afterwards in exchange for money! Mark has "a young man" in the tomb. Matthew has "an angel". Luke has "two men in dazzling attire". John has "two angels". More elements are added to the story with each retelling. John adds the most information and even includes entirely new events involving the disciples with the risen Jesus.

Perhaps they were relaying more information as it came to light. Or perhaps what we're seeing here is the development of legendary elements in the story. Remember these gospels were each written up to 10 years apart, over a period of perhaps 30 years, and their only sources were the other gospels (and perhaps the Q source) and oral tradition. There are so many discrepancies between the accounts that it's difficult to declare any of them reliable. Perhaps there was an earlier historical core to the story, but we may never know exactly what it was. How much is historical, and how much was added later? How much was simply misremembered?

Perhaps we will never know.

Because the Bible tells me so

In any case, regardless of any of the above, the bottom line for me is that all we really have is a handful of anonymous anecdotes from the late first century, claiming that some superstitious men and women saw their friend alive after he had died. That's it in a nutshell.

Is that really sufficient evidence to justify belief in a resurrection?

Even if it wasn't a highly superstitious era. Even if the literacy rate was higher than about 10%. Even if the accounts were written closer to the time of the event, rather than 35-62 years later. Even if we had the original sources. This still would not be sufficient grounds for believing in a resurrection.

Which is more likely, that a few anecdotes written in the first century might not be completely accurate, or that a man rose from the dead? Again, which is more likely, that a few men and women were mistaken about what they had seen, or that a man rose from the dead? We have an enormous number of prior cases of people being mistaken and of inaccurate sources, yet we have zero prior cases of people being raised from the dead. Just on prior probability alone, we can conclude that a resurrection is the least likely explanation.

There are even accounts of Christians today claiming that resurrections have occurred and declaring them to be miracles attributed to the Christian god. Should we believe all of these accounts, too?

People claim to see extraordinary things all the time, from alien abductions to ghosts and witches. If we believed everything people claimed, we would end up holding absurd and contradictory beliefs. The far better approach is to be equally skeptical of all such claims.

Now I'm not claiming that the gospel writers were lying. I don't have enough information to make such a claim. They may well have been convinced that what they wrote was the "gospel truth", but they may also have been mistaken. We cannot know for sure.

One good argument I have encountered is that of the Salem Witch Trials. This one is well worth watching because it demonstrates the issue very clearly. What we have for the resurrection of Jesus is just a few sources, and even then it's barely a few pages of text. Suppose we had more info. Would the story remain the same? Perhaps it only looks convincing to people because we have so little, thus making it easier to weave it into a unified account. If we had more detail, the fantastical story could look completely different.

Historically reliable?

Scholars are divided over how much of the material in the gospels is historically reliable. There are contradictions between the gospels, and also discrepancies.

They were not written by eye-witnesses. They were written approx. 35-62 years after the events. Thus, the material contained within them is, at best, largely the result of memories and oral tradition as the stories were told and re-told over that time.

In particular:
"Elements whose historical authenticity is disputed include the two accounts of the Nativity of Jesus, the miraculous events including the resurrection, and certain details about the crucifixion."

This provides ample reason to doubt the reliability of the gospels. However, most defences of the resurrection only work if you first trust that all of the events recorded in the gospels were historically accurate. That is, in order to demonstrate that a particular event contained only within the gospels actually happened, you must first take it on faith that all other events in those same gospels actually happened. It's amazing what a little credulity can prove.

While I was still a believer, I read "Who moved the stone" by Frank Morison, and found it compelling.

On later reflection, I realised that it tries to argue for the historicity of the gospels by first assuming they are 100% historically reliable, and then using that information to argue that each event must have happened that way. It has a circular ring to it, and if you're skeptical of the reliability of the sources up front the whole thing falls to pieces.

By the way, did you ever wonder why the stone needed to be moved? After all, the risen Jesus could walk through walls. Just something to think about...

Could I be wrong?

Could I still be wrong about the resurrection of Jesus? I mean, lots of people believe that the evidence is solid and are convinced that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Well, bless their cotton socks. Yes I suppose I could still be wrong. By the way, lots of people don't believe it, too. Not that the number of people who believe a thing is all that relevant when assessing its truth value.

I'm just saying that I don't find the textual evidence to be sufficient to warrant belief. In my opinion we don't have nearly enough evidence and also the evidence we do have is of poor quality.

If someone feels that the textual evidence is enough to warrant belief, then I merely disagree with them. I would also suggest that they are being quite credulous.

I do wonder on what grounds such a person could reject similar supernatural claims such as exorcisms and modern day miracles, or paranormal claims such as alien abductions, or witchcraft, especially since many of those claimants are still alive and can be interviewed.

How do you remain skeptical about modern claims which would appear to have far more and better quality evidence, while accepting a first century resurrection based on anonymous anecdotes?

Skepticism should be applied as consistently as possible.


So in summary I just want to make two main points:
  1. We have many good reasons to doubt the reliability of the gospels, including the fact they were not written by eye-witnesses, the heavy reliance on oral tradition, the anonymity of the authors, the superstitious culture of the first century, the discrepancies and contradictions between the various accounts (especially the accounts of the resurrection), the fact that many historians dispute the historical reliability of many events they record, and the fact that they were written by Christians with the express intent to convert people to Christianity.

  2. As if the unreliability of the gospels wasn't enough to discredit them on its own, it seems to me to be far more likely that either the writers or their sources, or both, were mistaken, than that any miracle or supernatural event ever occurred.

Many people believe, not because they have researched it and come away convinced, but because they were taught to believe it when they were young and then never seriously questioned it after that. It takes a lot of courage to question beliefs you were taught as a child, especially when those beliefs make up the foundation of your world view. Challenging these beliefs is extremely difficult, but it's not impossible.

Don't let other people tell you what to believe. That includes me. Do your own research. Question everything. Think for yourself.

Could you be wrong?