The Alter-Torley argument against the Resurrection of Jesus: Introduction
In 2015, Michael J. Alter, a former teacher and independent author with an interest in Jewish apologetics publishes The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, a massive 912-page book which claims to conclusively refute the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
In 2018, Vincent Torley, a Catholic philosopher, writes a 60,000-word blog post at The Skeptical Zone (TSZ) titled: Michael Alter’s bombshell demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection. Torley summarized what he believed was the core of Alter’s case. (His blog post is very long, but he also has a shorter, 5,000 word Executive Summary of his post at the beginning which is more accessible.) Perhaps surprisingly for a Christian, he claimed that after reading Alter’s book,
I now regard the enterprise of trying to prove [the Resurrection of Jesus] (or at the very least, demonstrate it to be more probable than not) is a doomed one.
Torley’s post sparked the interest of several Christians including Josh Swamidass himself, leading to a series of exchanges with Torley and the author Alter himself on Peaceful Science, which are summarized here.
Professional Engagement, Gish Galloping, Impartiality
Swamidass begins by picking up from his comments from TSZ, claiming that professional scholars such as Tim McGrew had regarded Alter’s case as unworthy of serious engagement.
Swamidass accuses Torley and Alter’s case of being similar to a Gish gallop: a long series of weak arguments which are difficult to refute due to the sheer number of claims, but combined together might seem like a strong case. Later, Torley takes issue with the criticism that the Alter-Torley case is essentially a Gish gallop.
Physics graduate student Daniel Ang argues that if Alter had not been taken seriously by historians, it was irresponsible as a Christian for Torley, a philosopher with no training in history, to proclaim that the case for the Resurrection is doomed.
Both Swamidass and Ang take issue with Torley’s constant claims in his blog post that “this is what a neutral historian would conclude” despite him nor Alter being trained historians.
Torley’s Motivations and Background
Torley explains the motivations that led him to write such a positive review of Alter’s book. He found Alter’s book very convincing, but was annoyed by the fact that few historians that he had contacted said it was worth reading, and decided to write such a more digestible summary of the book.
Swamidass compares Alter’s argument with those of professional historians such NT Wright’s argument for the Resurrection, which he claims based on informed history instead of negative apologetics in the case of Alter.
Swamidass argues that Torley is mistaking prior and posterior probability in calculating the historicity of several claims regarding the Passion in the Gospels. This begins the probabilistic branch of the exchange.
The Executive Summary Summary
Torley posts a summary of the Executive Summary. Here, he condenses Alter’s case even further into a list of 17 claims in the Gospels which he argues, individually, are historically dubious. This undermines both the minimalist and maximalist case for the Resurrection. Torley also criticizes the argumentative logic of the minimalist case.
This summary is an excellent place to start if one wants a quick overview of the Alter-Torley case.
Ang lays out his main criticisms of Torley’s methodology. He also responds to Torley’s argument against the historical veracity of the claim of the two thieves crucified with Jesus.
The Rise of Ritual Blood-Drinking, Probability Arguments, Ehrman
Swamidass argues that Torley has fundamentally miscast the historical question of how the Eucharist arose. Wright’s argument for the uniqueness of Christianity as a Messianic movement is revisited. Later, in the exchange with Alter himself, Swamidass expounds on this issue in more detail, claiming that Alter and Torley are using an argument from incredulity.
Torley brings up Bart Ehrman’s argument against the reliability of the disciples’ memory.
Were People Allowed to be at the Foot of a Roman Cross?
Torley focuses on the claim in the gospels that Jesus’ mother and the Beloved disciple stood at the foot of Jesus’ cross. Later, Torley elaborates on this, explaining his 5 historical possibilities that we can conclude from the story about people at the foot of Jesus’s cross. Most importantly, Torley lends a lot of credence to Ehrman’s argument that Jesus was likely buried as a common criminal, and there was most likely no empty tomb.
Ang responds to Torley with further criticisms on methodology, probabilistic reasoning, and impartiality.
Jon Garvey dips in, echoing Ang’s criticism of assigning prior probabilities to historical claims.
Torley responds to Ang about what we can hope from apologetics, and questions his assigning of priors to some of the 17 claims.
Swamidass argues that Torley is putting too high an evidential standard on the historical case for the Resurrection.
Alter Enters the Conversation
Alter is made aware of the exchange with Torley on PS regarding his work, and creates his own thread. Swamidass asks him about his motivations, which he explains.
In response to Mung’s questions, Alter clarifies (also here) what he believes or does not believe with regards to Jesus and the NT. Later, in response to Swamidass, Alter explains his personal beliefs regarding the Torah.
Swamidass argues that Alter’s apologetic motivations casts doubt on his impartiality.
Torley Responds to Ehrman, Wright and Peaceful Science
In the meantime, Torley writes a second blog post at TSZ responding to Bart Ehrman’s argument against the possibility of establishing the Resurrection by historical means and NT Wright’s argument for the Resurrection based on the uniqueness of Christianity.
Later, Torley writes an extended blog post where he responds to the arguments of Swamidass and Ang more at length, reiterating some of his previous criticisms.
Returning to Peaceful Science to engage with his critics, Torley reiterates his main criticism of a minimal historical apologetic in having the empty tomb as one of its pillars, which he regards as shaky, per Ehrman’s argument. Torley also puts forth Maurice Casey as an example of a professional, impartial historian marshaled in support of the Alter-Torley case.
Torley expounds further on the topic of whether Alter is a neutral historian.
An NT Studies Graduate Student Enters the Fray
Ang presents what he calls the “central dilemma”: either Alter is only summarizing the arguments of previous historians (and his case would hardly be a “bombshell”), or he is making a new case and needs to establish himself as a neutral, competent historian. Swamidass echoes this criticism.
@Freakazoid, an anonymous graduate student in NT studies, responds to Torley’s claims. This is the first time that anyone with professional training in the area has participated in the exchange. He claims that Alter’s knowledge is outdated, and also criticizes some of the scholars (such as Casey and Ehrman) that Alter and Torley have cited in supporting their argument. Freakazoid then expands his criticism of Ehrman as a reliable source for Jesus’ burial, and also gives some supporting references.
Torley responds at length to Freakazoid, arguing the importance of popularizing one’s arguments instead of being content with publishing them in academic journals, as well as addressing specific arguments regarding the historicity of Jesus’ burial. Torley also criticizes Craig Evans regarding the burial.
Freakazoid replies to Torley, maintaining that only arguments published scholarly journals mean anything in the context of a historical debate, and elaborates on his criticism of Ehrman’s views as non-standard. Retired minister, biblical linguist and scientist @AllenWitmerMiller reinforces Freakazoid’s criticisms of Ehrman and discusses the difference between his reception in the scholarly community and general public.
Bayesian Probability in Historical Analysis
Ang writes an extended rebuttal of Torley’s use of Bayesian probability in assessing the likelihood that Pilate was reluctant to condemn Jesus during his trial.
Swamidass reiterates his broad criticism of the Alter-Torley case: that there are many responses that have not been engaged.
Alter Defends His Methodology
Alter gives his take on NT Wright’s argument and gives more details on his methodology, including how he looks at the Resurrection from a Jewish perspective.
Swamidass criticizes Alter’s motivations and impartiality again. Alter defends himself against the accusation that he is merely writing a polemic. He later argues that Christian scholars are even more biased due to the fact that they have to subscribe to doctrinal statements at the institutions they teach in.
Ang and Alter discuss the case of Michael Licona’s bias and methodology.
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