Michael Alter: The Man and His Argument Against the Resurrection

Is anyone following him here? I’m a bit lost. I don’t know what he is responding to exactly.

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I always felt that this was possible as the Jesus story was a collection of stories about several men who live at that time.

This seems clear from looking at the Gospels in the order as they were written. More detail is added with time and more legend and embellishments are made later in time.

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@patrick the issue is two fold.

  1. that many of these claims not black and white, and the degree to which it is the case is central making sense of what it means.

  2. Many of these claims are actually testable, and this is what @dga471 has been pointing out. We do not yet see a coherent methodology arising in his work for assessing claims like this arising from Alter.

  3. Alter has a very different goal than @vjtorley. Alter says he wants to refute the Ressurection, not to “see what the evidence shows” or what a “fair minded historian” might conclude.

@vjtorley set the bar much lower, and I’m not sure it has been cleared. @MJAlter sets it much higher, so hi I’m certain he is no where near acheiving it. I don’t seen any evidence he has engaged the strong arguments for the Ressurection (e.g. NT Wright) nor that he even understands why we affirm the Ressurection. He has not refuted the Ressurection.

The fundamental issue is that polemicists can argue for their predetermined conclusion in any complex topic, and attract people who will but what they are selling. We see that in creationism all the time. The much more difficult thing is to come with an open mind to see what the evidence is really showing with a genuinely fair-minded inquiry. Even this, I guarantee you, will box no one into belief.

As for me, if I had not encountered Jesus, I would probably be an atheist. I was raised YEC, and new alltye arguments against evolution. I became ruthless in sheddingy bias, to understand what the evidence was really showing. I became willing to listen with an open mind. That is how I left YEC and how I came to affirm evolution. So the open-minded was required to consider Jesus fairly is something I am well acquainted with from my experience in rejecting YEC. I could settle for polemicist arguments that confirmed my bias, or I could seek truth. It was costly, but I chose the more difficult path. That, it seems is a recurring decision we all face in a polemically driven world.

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@MJAlter, thanks for pointing me to your bio. Several parts were really helpful and interesting:

Alter’s interest in the field of Jewish apologetics began in the 1980s when he was a member of Havurah of South Florida. The spark was a class taught by Rabbi Norman Lipson, a guest teacher. Among the topics that Lipson discussed were Key ’73 [The avowed objective of Key ’73 was “to confront every person in North America more fully and forcibly with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”] and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. An important object of these efforts was to convert Jews to the Christian faith. Alter became concerned over Christian attempts to witness, evangelize, and proselytize Jews; his concern prompted him to research this topic.

I did not even know that there was such a thing as Jewish apologetics! That is interesting to me, because the world for apologetics comes from 1 Peter 3:15 (New Testament tex) from the greek word “apologia,” which means defense or explanation. I’m very curious how a devout Jewish man, such as yourself, comes to take that term as his own. Can you tell us more?

Also the concern about Jewish people changing their faith being of concern to you is interesting. Can you explain more why that bothers you? To be clear, I am also bothered by Key’73’s statement to “Forcibly” confront people. That is very ominous. No such claims are made in the the Lausanne Covenant though. I’m still curious why you are concerned about this?

I also do note that you care deeply about your Jewish faith. You write:

Alter’s major passion is learning Torah, researching, and writing.

During the early 1980s, Alter joined Havurah of South Florida, a Jewish fellowship associated with the Reconstructionist movement. In 1991 he published his first book in the field of Judaica, What Is The Purpose of Creation? A Jewish Anthology , the main selection of The Jewish Book News. At this time Alter became affiliated with Chabad, where he deepened his study of Torah and Jewish traditions. At this point Science and Flexibility (2nd edition) was published.

Without meaning any disrespect, how do you know the Torah is true? Why do you believe it is Holy Scripture?


So I had never heard of this Key’73 movement, because it took place years before I was born and seems to have evaporated into nothingness. Very interesting. Here is some jewish coverage of the concerns at the time. It is a very helpful read.

The leaders of “Key 73,” the nationwide Christian evangelical campaign to call “the continent to Christ,” have given assurances to Jews that they repudiate anti-Semitism and any evangelical resort to coercion. This was reported by Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of the American Jewish Committee’s interreligious affairs department who has been corresponding with the “Key 73” leadership in order to convey to them the serious concerns of the American Jewish community over the multi-media evangelical drive.

I see why there was concern. It is interesting that they even had to clarify this. I haven’t yet found the “forcible” statement. It also seems that these whole effort fizzled out and didn’t even accomplish much. I can see how their might be real concern at the time, but it once again is interesting how the reaction that movement provoked has consequences that last till today.

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Thank you for your reply.

It looks like we share some ideas regarding Jesus…

Take care.



If you ever need an arm’s length “3rd Opinion”, i’m available. Im on record here as a Unitarian Universalist (non-attending)… who has embraced @swamidass’ “Genealogical Adam” scenarios as a “middle way”: where the mystical over-reach of Evangelical thinking can be re-engineered to afford an acceptance of an historical/miraculous Adam and Eve (as specified in Gen 2) … in exchange for adopting the ‘full boat’ of science supporting the evolution of humanity (as implied in Gen 1).

Im happy to see your work being discussed with you as a participant!

How would you refute it exactly? From what I can glean, it seems to me he is using a specific approach. Do the gospel accounts of the resurrection have the earmarks of a historical account or of fiction? Whether there are improbable elements included in the narrative seems germane to this question. He seems to have done work to analyze the content of the text for such instances. I’d be interested in reading it and judging his arguments and claims on their merit. The title seems to be a fair statement of the situation.

There are some possible reasons for proceeding here with a goal in mind as opposed to simple “seeing what the evidence shows”. Jesus and the resurrection are not usually considered or evaluated simply as historical arguments, and Christianity has a major impact in the world in various ways. Mike is not a historian, but does that disqualify him from reading and commenting on the available text? I think we might all have a lot to say on the question. If he’s done his homework that should be apparent in his book, and if not, as well. I’m watching an N.T. Wright video now out of interest, but addressing any particular argument isn’t necessary for one to make their own arguments.

I ended up in the middle of this thread … and am not sure how that happened!

George, what does GA have to do with the question of the truthfulness of whether an executed Jewish man in Palestine 2000 years ago was resurrected because He was God and ascended into heaven to seat at the right hand of His Father God - the YHWH of the Torah?

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or everything.

It depends on your theology.

Back in my youth, when I was a devout Christian, I still took an allegorical approach to Genesis 2. And I thought that “original sin” was absurd. However, people who take “original sin” seriously seem to need A&E to be real people.


My original question to Michael was which facts about Jesus does he affirm and why. His response provided a list of things he did not affirm about Jesus. So far, it seems that he is willing to affirm little to nothing about the historical Jesus, in spite of his claim to be following a number of other authors with regard to the historical Jesus.

For example, Michael writes:

So he believes in “a Jesus,” but the Jesus of the New Testament is not that Jesus.

What sorts of difficulties might this raise for his argument? For example, someone might argue that story x, which he finds implausible, isn’t about the Jesus that the New Testament claims was raised from the dead, it is a story about a different Jesus. Therefore it cannot count against the resurrection of the Jesus that was actually raised from the dead.

So a question for Mr. Alter. And thank your for your responses.

Do you believe that the accounts of the crucifixion are all about the same historical Jesus or do you believe that we have the New Testament authors putting together multiple crucifixions of multiple Jesus figures into a composite Jesus, making it appear as if they are talking about the same man, when really they are talking about many different people who were crucified? Or is there another option I have failed to mention?

What problems do others see with the “composite Jesus” hypothesis?


If @MJAlter returns to the thread, some of this might be move to side comments.

That is explicitly not his approach. In his own telling, he is rising to the challenge of debunking the Resurrection. He began his inquiry with his conclusion already in mind. This is not an inquiry, but an “apologetic” to defend Jewish people from conversion. That is how he explains it himself.

He also does not engage these question as an impartial historian would, not at all. In fact he seems to ignore the original cultural context, so how could he possibly know what the “hallmarks” of fictional or historical stories are at this time? There is a reason that even atheist historians reject Jesus as a myth or a fictional composite character.

It is not worth rebutting the whole thing, but I’ll give you two salient an examples.

The Blood Drinking Ritual (Communion)

The argument seems to be that this story is implausible because Jews just don’t do this, so it must not have happened. This misses the point entirely.

We know for a fact:

  1. Somehow a symbolic blood drinking ritual actually does arise among devote Jews in the 1st Century. There are so many independent sources attesting it that no serious historian doubts it, and it is not clear that even @MJAlter disputes this.

  2. Moreover, there appears to be no debate among early Christians (1st century Palestine) about communion and how it arises. There is discussion about the correct way to conduct the Lord’s Supper, but there is not debate about whether to do it or that it represents the body and blood of Jesus.

  3. Agreeing with @MJAlter this is highly unusual. In all the comparator Messiah movements, not once does a comparable tradition arise of symbolic blood drinking. This is not what Jewish people usually do when their Messiah-leader dies. But this is the whole point in the first place. We have increased urgency in asking: how does this happen?

So we see something that is (1) highly unusual and (2) undoubtably took place at some point in the first 50 years of the Church. The historian has to ask: “how did this very unlikely event arise?” @MJAlter does not at all seem interested in this question. No matter how we look at it, at some point we would see very devout Jews instituting this ritual.

Whether it be Jesus, Peter or Paul that institutes it, we face the same objection that @MJAlter raises. This isn’t likely. This objection is entirely missing the point, because we already know that something very unlikely actually happened. We know it happened. It was one of these devout Jews who did it, and somehow convinced all the rest to go along, without argument. How could that be possibly happen?

Their own explanation is that Jesus institutes this shortly before he dies. They all seemed to be confused by it in the moment. It is only later they realize its significance, after Easter sometime. It is because of something that happened after Jesus died (what???), they all come to this point of view, without any dissent, and without any argument. That is what they say. And it makes sense of the data.

The notion that Jesus didn’t institute communion, but it was added in later, raises far more questions, without even answering the first question. If Paul, for example, gets this idea 10 years afterwards, why does everyone go along with it then? Why would he even do it? We isn’t there a massive debate about this recorded in history? We are still left with the original problem: why would devout Jews go along with this? Why and how did they unanimously create a false story about Jesus? What would motivate them to do this?

The best answer is that Jesus himself instituted this right before He died. It is surprising, and is not what we expect. This heightens the question of the Resurrection. What happened to the disciples after he died so that they would institute the communion ritual? If he does not think Jesus institute it, who did? How did they convince the twelve disciples to go along with it without any argument? Why does such an unlikely ritual become a foundational event in this single messiah movement, and no others?

Those are the historian’s questions. @MJAlter and @vjtorley don’t give us a good account of how the ritual arose. This is an example of argument from incredulity, that ignores rigorous engagement with the fundamental historical questions being raised.

Of course, I qualify this with the fact I haven’t read the book and am going of the writings of @MJAlter and @vjtorley here. If they do have a well-considered answer to the historical questions I’d love to hear it. Instead, this was just a two liner in a long list of other claims just like it. That is why I’m calling this a Gish Gallop.

All these arguments are absurd. They would just take so much time to rebut in entirety. We see YECs do this all the time regarding the age of the earth and evolution. This is just the same strategy, and it works when people are ignorant of science, or in this case, of history.

Jesus as a Mythical Conglomerate

I’ll explain this is clearly a false theory later. No respected historian (atheists included) would bring forward such a claim because it is not sustainable. The evidence is just solidly against this.


My guess is that you’ve never had a reasonable explanation of ‘original sin’ explained. Instead, you probably heard a dogmatic recital of an anachronistic commitment with no observable logic behind it.

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You wrote:

I haven’t yet found the “forcible” statement.

Well, the The Philosophy of Key 73 uses the word “FORCEFULLY”… really.

Here are two links:



My copy of the statement was found in a thesis written by Stephen A. Karol at Hebrew Union College, 1977 p. 85

I hope these links help.

Please stay in contact.


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Thank you @MJAlter. I’m glad Key 73 ended up being an ephemeral movement that has totally exited our cultural consciousness.

I agree with you in opposing any effort to forcibly convert people. Even if was being said metaphorically, I would oppose the use fo that word. It is aggressive behavior that is not consistent with the Jesus I read about in Scripture. I am also very sorry that Christians said this to you. Even though I had no part in it, and do not approve, I apologize for what they did say. I understand also why this aggressive behavior would be concerning to Jewish people in this country, and also atheists, agnostics, and any one else who is not a Christian. You were right to be alarmed.

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The church that I was attending was not committed to original sin.



It doesnt concern you. Please dont worry about it. Im a Unitarian speaking to another kind of unitarian. You cant possibly think im going to share my intimate thoughts on the matter with a person who stalks all my posts to trigger turmoil.

If you had ANY history indicating you understood my views i would discuss it.

But you dont. So i wont.

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Sure, but he has to have some method of doing so. I haven’t seen him say much about that. If he thinks he can prove that the resurrection didn’t occur outright, I think it’s a fool’s errand. Anyway, that’s what his approach seems like to me, and I would be interesting in reading more both to see what exactly his arguments are, and simply for the sake of possible insights about the text.

Most do certainly, but not all I believe. I’m not interested in the “fictional composite character” aspect myself, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. Why do you think he ignore the cultural context? He doesn’t seem to in the following example, though I agree he gets it wrong.

That’s a valid objection to this point.

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A little insecure are we? Perhaps afraid the house of cards will come tumbling down? I understand. You don’t need to answer as your beliefs are your beliefs.