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 ~

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Resurrection Of Jesus

It is sometimes claimed by apologists that the resurrection of Jesus is the most parsimonious explanation for various "facts" from first century Palestine. That is, they claim Jesus's resurrection is the best explanation for the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion, was buried, and later the tomb was found empty by his followers, who became convinced he rose from the dead, and went on to boldly devote their life to promoting his teachings and proclaiming that he had risen from the dead.

If you're a believer, it sounds enticing, because you have all of these details that have supposedly been confirmed as historically accurate, and you have a single explanation that ties them all together.

But reality is never this simple. Let's have a closer look at these "facts"...

First, a word about historical accuracy

It seems like a common tactic among apologists to insist that since there is corroborating evidence for several places or practices mentioned in the Bible, that therefore we can trust that everything else in the Bible is likewise accurate. If anyone finds this style of logic convincing, I have an Asterix comic historically accurate document showing how a short, yellow haired Gaul once won the Roman Olympic Games.

In fact this style of argument has been coined "the spiderman fallacy", for obvious reasons.

That's not to say we should dismiss all uncorroborated details either, but that we should be cautious in our approach when trying to determine what most probably happened in the past.

With that out of the way, let's begin...

Death by crucifixion

I tend to agree that there most probably did live a man called Jesus who was crucified by the Romans in the early part of the first century CE, but his crucifixion in itself is not evidence in favour of a resurrection. It is merely a detail that is consistent with the biblical account.

Burial in a tomb

But was Jesus buried in a tomb? That is a lot less certain, and in fact several scholars doubt this. Bart Ehrman covers this in his book "How Jesus Became God", and also in several articles on his blog.

Indeed he is not the only one.

John Dominic Crossan, however, suggests that Jesus' body was eaten by dogs as it hung on the cross so that there was nothing left to bury. Martin Hengel argued that Jesus was buried in disgrace as an executed criminal who died a shameful death, a view widely accepted in scholarly literature.Wikipedia (emphasis mine)

The standard practice of the Romans was to leave crucifixion victims hanging for days in order to maximise the humiliation. There is no precedent where Romans, especially Pontius Pilate, gave special treatment to any crucified criminals in order to align with Jewish customs or laws, or to appease Jewish leaders. The idea that the Jewish leaders were on good terms with Pilate, as portrayed in the New Testament, is simply not historically plausible, given what we know from Roman sources.

The empty tomb

This also leads to the question of whether the tomb was found empty. If Jesus's body was simply dumped in a common grave, as was the standard Roman practice for burying crucified criminals, then there was no tomb, and hence no empty tomb. There was also no way to later identify the body.

But if there was no tomb, then it would have been difficult to convince others that a resurrection had occurred. And even with an empty tomb, someone had to know where the tomb was in order to find it empty. But the gospels say that the disciples had fled the scene. They tend to read as if the women were planted in the story in order to have someone see where Jesus was buried, and in order to find the tomb again later. These literary elements were required by the story in order to prove the resurrection, which in my view makes them a bit suspect. It's subjective, but something to think about.

Continuing this theme, the idea of guards being persuaded to risk the death penalty and lie about a resurrection they had personally witnessed, and the idea of the chief priests satisfying the governor about this issue, just run counter to everything we know about the time period. Again these stories appear to have been invented, to answer the obvious question of why an empty tomb necessarily pointed to a resurrection, rather than a mistaken tomb or misplaced body.

I don't know if that's how the story came to be in the gospels or not. The point is that it's possible to explain why the story is there without everything having necessarily taken place as written.

The disciples' new belief

So the last part of the evidence is that Jesus's followers came to believe he had risen from the dead, and then went about proclaiming that to others for the rest of their lives. I think this is probably true for some of his followers, though not necessarily all. There are some really peculiar statements in the gospels relating to the disciples on this aspect.

So the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain Jesus had designated. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.
Matthew 28:16-17 NET

Who doubted? And if they were looking right at him, what was there to doubt?

Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
John 20:19-20 NET

Again, why show them his hands and side? Wouldn't they have recognised him anyway? Why would a resurrected being not also be healed?

To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs.
Acts 1:3 NET

What might those "many convincing proofs" have looked like? and why were they even necessary at this point?

Now that very day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about all the things that had happened. While they were talking and debating these things, Jesus himself approached and began to accompany them (but their eyes were kept from recognizing him).
Luke 24:13-16 NET

So here we have two disciples walking with Jesus and talking to him, but did not recognise him. Why would that be? If Jesus's physical appearance had changed sufficiently that people didn't recognise him without some alleged miracle, or without seeing his hands and feet, why do apologists argue that James must have recognised his own brother?

On the other hand, if a few of the disciples had merely seen visions of Jesus, that would explain various elements of doubt scattered throughout the story, and why it took so long to convince many of them. I don't know if the disciples really did have visions (Paul at least tells us that he did, and that is the earliest record we have), but it would explain the disciples' transformation and later beliefs without the need for an actual resurrection.

Some people have raised the objection that mass hallucinations are rare, and this is true, but so are resurrections, making the point rather moot. Examples of mass hallucinations do exist, however. I'd also like to point out that the disciples didn't need to all have the same vision, but merely describe their vision in a similar way, leading them to believe they had seen the same vision.

What actually are the facts?

So to recap, yes Jesus was crucified by the Romans. However, we have no good reason to think he was buried in a tomb, nor that the tomb was later found to be empty. Some disciples did come to believe that Jesus had been raised form the dead, but their belief does not prove Jesus actually rose from the dead. And the belief itself is all that is required to explain the disciples' transformation and later ministry. None of this is sufficient to show that Jesus actually rose from the dead. And it seems all that is left to explain is how it is that some people came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Now you might not be compelled by the explanation that people saw visions which led them to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. However, consider that there are people alive today who believe they have been abducted by aliens, seen resurrections, witnessed other miracles, and all manner of extraordinary things. I would have no problems dismissing most of those as hallucinations, lucid dreams, and generally just people being mistaken about what they saw or experienced.

Given the rates at which these sorts of things occur in human societies, and taking into account the superstitious culture in the first century, it seems far more likely to me that the resurrection accounts are simply another example of such things, and not really any different than other resurrection accounts throughout history, except for obviously the religion that later spawned from it (although claims of UFO sightings and miracles have each spawned vast communities as well).

Those who wrote the New Testament had no way to confirm the validity of the stories they wrote down, and the same applies to all Christians from that time onward. More on that later.

The most parsimonious explanation?

To boil it all down as simply as I can, what we have here are two hypotheses:
  1. A single event explains all of the data, but also relies on several unlikely events, and more importantly several phenomena that have no reliably confirmed precedent in human history.
  2. Two separate events (burial in common grave, disciples had visions) likewise explain all of the data, specifically by relying on what was most probable from the time period, and without relying on any phenomena that has not been observed generally among human populations (people often see visions of dead friends or relatives).
So when I hear people argue that the first one is more 'parsimonious', I have to ask, "Really?". I suspect what they really mean is that it can be written in fewer words, rather than that it relies on fewer assumptions. When your view relies on the existence of a god, angels, and miracles, not to mention near-perfect human memory, I think it's fair to say there are more than just a few assumptions in there.

Should we really go with the explanation that relies on unconfirmed, and untestable assumptions, especially when there is an alternative explanation that does not rely on any such assumptions?

But even phrasing this as a dichotomy is wrong. There is no such dichotomy. There are a number of other explanations not listed above that might be equally plausible, or even less plausible, but that still do not rely on assumptions of resurrections or similar events for which there is no precedent and no evidence.

Some might argue that having no precedent does not mean it didn't happen. And sure, Jesus might have actually been resurrected, or he might have been abducted by aliens and revived, or perhaps Satan created a "Jesus double" and put him there to deceive everyone, but I think if we're trying to decide what most likely happened, and the options are (a) something that happens with relative frequency, and (b) something that has never happened before, then obviously it's more rational to assume that (a) is more probable. We might be wrong, but without a time machine to go back and investigate for ourselves, it's the best we can do.

Confirming miracles

There's another point that I'd like to make, which I think short circuits the need to even do the above analysis. Is anecdotal evidence ever going to be enough to confirm a miracle? I would argue that no, it isn't. And since the only evidence we have to confirm the resurrection of Jesus is found in the gospels, which contain copies of copies of stories passed around for decades about Jesus being resurrected, we can simply conclude that there's no way to confirm it as true, and no good reason to believe it is true. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a claim about a resurrection is an extraordinary claim. Just as I do not believe we have been visited by aliens, I likewise do not believe in supernatural miracles, including resurrections, on the basis that the evidence is insufficient.

Now it might be that no evidence would be sufficient, which some people seem to think is a valid objection, but rather I think it simply means there is never going to be a good reason to believe in miracles. It's not my problem, it's theirs. Until miracles can be demonstrated in controlled conditions in order to rule out biases and deception, we simply have no reason to accept that they happen. So far, it seems that the natural world can be explained without them. That might not always be the case, but the time to start believing in miracles is after they've been confirmed, not before.

Summary and conclusion

At the end of the day, there is no way to prove that Jesus didn't rise from the dead. All we have is our best judgement and inference about what the facts are, and what explanation of the facts is most likely.

But it's worth pointing out that there is also no way to prove that Jesus did rise from the dead. And without sufficient evidence to believe it, there is no good reason to believe it. And if I don't believe it, then I cannot be a Christian. At best I'm agnostic. But given the fact that there are naturalistic explanations that are consistent with everything we've ever discovered about the world, it seems more reasonable for me to assume that Jesus probably wasn't raised from the dead, and that no mysterious supernatural agent is at work in the world. Until such an agent or event is confirmed (and indeed there may be no way to confirm it), I see no good reason to believe in it.