Torley on The Resurrection: Take Two

@MJAlter and @vjtorley are back with their arguments against the Resurrection. To keep thing organize, I’m splitting the conversation. The two of them are making different cases in parallel, which makes for a complex and confusing thread to follow. Separating will help us hold the story together.

Hi @swamidass,

I just thought I’d drop by to say hello again. I don’t know whether you and other readers of this thread are aware of this, but since writing my original post titled, Michael Alter’s bombshell demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection, back in September, I’ve written two more posts: Resurrection redux I, in which I respond to some arguments put forward for and against the Resurrection of Jesus, by Bishop N. T. Wright and Professor Bart Ehrman; and Resurrection redux II, in which I summarize my responses to various objections raised on this thread, under several broad categories.

I’d like to briefly reply to some of the questions you directed at Michael Alter. You ask:

Have you had a chance yet to read NT Wright’s work on the Resurrection yet?

The bibliography of Michael Alter’s 2015 book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, makes it abundantly clear that Alter is very familiar with Wright’s work. In fact, Wright lists four of Wright’s books in his bibliography: The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), Jesus and the Victory of God, Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996), The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999) and The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

I might add that Alter will be directly addressing N. T. Wright’s arguments in his forthcoming second volume.

Finally, as I mentioned in my article, Resurrection redux I, “The point where N. T. Wright’s argument is most vulnerable (or so it seems to me) lies in its problematic claim that the disciples’ belief in the Resurrection hinged on their discovery of the empty tomb. The problem here, as I see it, is that from a historian’s standpoint, the empty tomb is a very shaky pillar on which to base the case for the Resurrection… Unfortunately, N. T. Wright’s vigorous argument that only the Resurrection can explain the Easter apparitions founders on the difficulty of establishing, or even defending, the empty tomb (which is essential to his case) on historical grounds.”

I suggest you have a look at my evaluation of Wright’s arguments, in which I strove to be as fair as possible.

You also write:

We also are not discussing the “crimes” of Jesus, but the Resurrection. I’m still waiting for you to demonstrate a consistent and coherent historical methodology.

I think there may be something about Judaism which you’re unaware of, @swamidass, and that is that Judaism has its own distinctive epistemology. To see what I mean, you really need to read this article: Revelation and Miracles - the Kuzari Principle by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb. See especially what the author says about Christian miracles. In order to convince future generations of the reality of a miracle at time T, the author argues that nothing short of a national revelation will do the trick.

Contrast this with what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on the evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection. For him, the conversion of the known world was proof enough:

It is a fact that the entire world worshipped idols and that the faith of Christ was persecuted, as the histories of the pagans also testify. But now all are turned to Christ—wise men and noble and rich—converted by the words of the poor and simple preachers of Christ. Now, this fact was either miracle or it was not. If it is miraculous, you have what you asked for, a visible fact; if it is not, then there could not be a greater miracle than that the whole world should have been converted without miracles. And we need go no further.

Elsewhere, Aquinas argues that Jesus’ Resurrection “was not manifested to everyone, but to some, by whose testimony it could be brought to the knowledge of others.” No need for a national revelation here!

As I said, the epistemology of Christian apologetics is very different from that of Judaism.

The point of Michael Alter’s quotes can be summed up in a passage from my September post on his book, where I discuss the risen Jesus’ first appearance to Simon Peter, and why, taken by itself, it would have cut no ice with the Jews in Jesus’ day:

In any case, this appearance was witnessed by only a single individual, so in a Jewish court of law, it would carry no weight: the testimony of at least two individuals was required (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1).

Finally, you write:

I’m still waiting for you to demonstrate a consistent and coherent historical methodology. I know this is going to be difficult, and will take you time.

Michael Alter is not a historian, but if it’s a coherent methodology you’re looking for, why not try the first three chapters of Professor Maurice Casey’s 2010 book, Jesus of Nazareth: An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching, where he spells out his historical methodology? I mention Casey because he directly engages with many of Wright’s arguments in his work. (Needless to say, Alter cites Casey on several occasions in his 2015 book.) Casey (1942-2014) was a former Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the Department of Theology at the University of Nottingham. I think it’s fair to say he knew what he was talking about. What’s more, he was a remarkably fair-minded individual. I’ll just quote a passage from page 2:

The purpose of this book is to engage with the historical Jesus from the perspective of an independent historian. I do not belong to any religious or anti-religious group. I try to use evidence and argument to establish historically valid conclusions. I depend on the best work done by many other scholars, regardless of their ideological affiliation.

Casey is also a gentleman when treating of Jesus’ Resurrection. Despite being a non-believer, he can still write (on page 498):

In other words, the historical evidence is in no way inconsistent with the belief of the first disciples, and of many modern Christians, that God raised Jesus from the dead, and granted visions of the risen Jesus to the first disciples, and to St. Paul on the Damascus Road.

You might like to look at Casey’s book as a counterbalance to Wright’s. I’m not trying to get you to question the Resurrection of Jesus, which I accept as you do. My aim is rather to show that arguing for it won’t work in the 21st century. The best we can hope to show, from studying the character of Christ in the Gospels, is that Jesus was a Resurrection-worthy individual - someone whom God might well have chosen to raise from the dead, if He were of a mind to do so. But the old apologetic has to go. It’s too vulnerable to attack on many counts, in my opinion. You may well disagree, of course.

This made me smile. I like ID books that have an extensive bibliography. It shows they are very familiar with the subject matter they are discussing.

[/sarcasm]

What actually indicates familiarity is engagement, and for that we await Alter’s next book.

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Hello Mung:

Thank you for your kind words.

Let me mention that currently I am literally working on several projects. One project is a bibliography of English works exclusively from books dealing with Jesus’s resurrection. Currently, that project, tentatively called A Thematic Access-Oriented Bibliography of Jesus’s Resurrection contains approximately 7,000 sources. And, yes, I have read must, but not all of those sources. REALLY! So, I am somewhat familiar with the published material. In January, I intend to submit the manuscript [bibliography] to a really publisher.

Finally, a few days ago, I received from the publisher a copy of The Fourth R [Vol 31, No 6 Nov/Dec 2018.] In that issue, there is an article that I wrote: Historical Problems in the Resurrection Narratives (9-13, 24). It might be of interest…Well, I hope so. In addition, I must acknowledge Prof. Robert J. Miller who read previous drafts of the paper and offered valuable suggestions.

Take care

Mike

Hi @swamidass

Thank you for your response. I’d just like to take issue with a comment you made:

@vjtorley goes so far as to equate your analysis with that of a neutral historian, when you are neither neutral nor a historian.

I’ve been looking over my September 2018 post, titled, Michael Alter’s bombshell demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection. Nowhere in that post did I claim that Michael Alter was a historian. Instead, I described him as “a Jewish author who has spent more than a decade researching the Resurrection,” and as “intimately familiar” with the subject of “the historical reliability of the Gospels.” I referred to his “seemingly effortless ability to cut down arguments put forward by leading Christian apologists.” But I also added that “some of the speculations he entertains are rather fanciful” and that Alter’s book was “broader than it was deep” in its treatment of certain topics. I acknowledged upfront that Alter was a Jewish writer, but I added that Alter “willingly grants for the sake of argument the existence of a personal God Who works miracles and Who has revealed Himself in the Hebrew Bible.” In other words, he isn’t a skeptic.

I’m afraid I don’t know where you got the idea that I equate Alter’s analysis with that of a neutral historian. Here are some things which I did say about neutral historians, in my post:

The question which a Christian reading the Gospels should ask is not, “Are there any knockdown arguments against the historical accuracy of the Gospels?” but rather, “Would an impartial historian, reading the Gospels, conclude that they probably contained factual errors which call into question their reliability?”

And if it turns out that an impartial historian would query even the set of “minimal facts” employed by Habermas and Licona, then the entire enterprise of arguing for the Resurrection on historical grounds collapses like a house of cards.

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, death and burial contain at least 17 factual claims which an impartial historian would judge to be either doubtful or highly improbable.

In conclusion: The cumulative weight of 17 improbable claims in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and burial completely destroys the “maximal data” approach to Resurrection apologetics, as the facts that can be checked by historians simply don’t hold up to scrutiny. The “minimal facts” apologetic fares no better, as it assumes that Jesus received a proper burial – which, as we’ve seen, is highly questionable.

There are about fifteen key areas in which the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are at odds with the known facts. The only conclusion which an independent historian can draw is that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are fundamentally unreliable.

There are about eleven [Resurrection] appearances recorded in the New Testament, and none of them are of a sufficiently high evidential quality as to satisfy an independent and impartial historian.

The New Testament contains almost a dozen accounts of appearances by the risen Jesus to his disciples and friends. Christian apologists contend that the only satisfactory explanation for these appearances is that Jesus had actually risen from the dead. After reading Alter’s book, I have become convinced that the apologetic arguments don’t work, and that even when we limit ourselves to Jesus’ best-attested appearances to his disciples, alternative explanations cannot be ruled out. Faced with this evidence, no fair-minded historian would conclude that Jesus’ resurrection was more probable than not: all we can say is that the evidence is inconclusive.

The upshot of all this is that the Resurrection accounts would never pass muster in a court of law: there are too many holes in the stories, and they don’t meet standards of good evidence. No impartial historian would find them convincing evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection.

I don’t think anyone could say that I equate Alter’s analysis with that of a neutral historian. What I do say is that the arguments he brings forward in his book would suffice to convince any fair-minded historian that the evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection is no longer convincing. I don’t think that’s at all controversial, as Alter freely admits that he obtained these arguments from books which he read on the subject, including books by trained historians. I mentioned Maurice Casey in my previous comment. In other words, Alter is not making anything up.

You referred to Alter’s work as a “polemic effort.” My question is: how does that invalidate it? At the end of the day, the only question which matters is: do his arguments stack up? You seem to think they don’t because of “large methodological flaws.” But the fact is that for most of the issues he raises in his book, Alter quotes from the writings of trained historians and archaeologists.

In any case, I don’t think it requires a history degree to see that the apologists’ case for Jesus having been buried in a new rock tomb is fraught with difficulties, to say the least. I’ve explained why in my comments above and in my September 2018 post. Without a new rock tomb for Jesus’ burial, the case for an empty tomb is profoundly weakened. And in that case, the case for the Resurrection becomes correspondingly harder to make.

Cheers.

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Again, you’re only argument against this is that history cannot validate events that are not normal. I don’t think there is any standard to support this argument.

Multiple sources validated that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. You have not provided any evidence this is false other then an argument that this is not normal Roman procedure.

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One point which I’ve repeatedly tried to bring up to you is that you claim Alter has created this breakthrough in the historical argument for the Resurrection. Yet, you claim here that he is merely quoting from the writings of previous historians. So you’re stuck on a dilemma:

  1. Alter did not do any new historical research, other than popularize or summarize the arguments of previous professional historians.
  2. Alter did do some new historical research (e.g. by taking some claims of previous historians and using that for a new historical case).

If you choose 1), then Alter’s case is not as much of a bombshell as you stated it to be. If you choose 2), then Alter has to persuade people that he can act as an independent, impartial, and trained historian. Which one is it?

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This is what @dga471 and I are taking issue with in your claims. On over a month of reflection on this, giving you the benefit of the doubt, I do not think this is sustainable. I suggest we focus here.

What evidence can you produce that this is true?

Are you suggesting that Gary Habermas, Sean McDowell, and NT Wright are all biased? Can you produce a single actual historian that has changed their view after reading @MJAlter? Please provide evidence of this sort to support your claim, or (better yet) retract it. You are very overstretched here @vjtorley, and as @dga471 noted, this is consequential.

He also correctly identifies as in consistency in your rhetoric tightly tied to this:

This is really the central sticking points for me too as I read your work. I echo @dga471 here, which one is it?

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In skimming this thread, I haven’t yet seen an objection as to the notion that Jesus was considered a political criminal by the Romans. He was, instead, considered a country bumpkin with some interesting miracle stories about his deeds floating about.
Pontius Pilate worked impressively hard to have him merely beaten and released.
It was the Sanhedrin’s leadership, at the time, that threatened to turn it into a political issue, by questioning Pliate’s loyalty to Caesar if he refused to crucify Jesus.
Pilate demurred, under the circumstances, then washed his hands publicly of the decision, in front of a large crowd.
Later, when confronted with what he regarded as a mere superstition as to Jesus’ potential resurrection by the leaders of the Sanhedrin, he released the body to one of their own members, and was willing to post a guard to humor them.
Better to guard a dead body than to allow rumors to spread that he resuscitated on top of a pile of dead bodies before the dogs could get to him.
It didn’t work.

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For the rest of this you would have to believe in Biblical inerrancy, but yes, I believe Romans would have seen him as some kind of madman with dreams of grandeur, not a political enemy.

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You need only have a proper respect for a written and widely circulated (understatement alert!) set of eyewitness documents within the historical record, not “a commitment to inerrancy.”

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Let me rephrase: you’d have to believe that the Bible is a historically accurate document.

I do, of course (to an extent) but there are those who don’t.

Perhaps you mean the four gospels? It would take quite a bit of reverse engineering to take this vector out of the whole Bible.

I believe in four gospels, of course. There is no doubt in my mind about that. I don’t struggle with that one bit.

Old Testament is a little hit and miss for me though.

First Time Post here. As someone who actually does have experience in NT studies, I agree with @swamidass and @dga471. Alter’s book is not something that would convince any fair minded historian. There are a number of glaring problems with it that should pop out to anymore informed reviewer. For instance, the use of rabbinic and other Jewish texts is outdated and uncritical. It is widely held that they don’t accurately reflect 1st century Jewish legal practice (among other things). You cannot read them at face value. Most scholars would disagree with his use of them as in the case of Jesus’s trial and evaluation of Pilate’s character. See The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary by Chapman and Schnabel for an actual scholarly overview of the subject.

Alter also uses older sources that have been superseded by new scholarship and fringe sources that a less discerning audience might not be aware of- like when arguing against the bystanders at Jesus’ cross. Maurice Casey was a good scholar on some things, but his work on John is is close to reverse fundamentalism. Likewise, Corley is a part of the Westar Institute which is basically the Jesus Seminar redux. Nowadays people have a much more positive opinion on the historical character of John. Take his citation of Barrett’s supposed refutation. If you actually read the text from Josephus Barrett cites, it’s about getting permission to take people off crosses, not merely approaching them. His understanding of Jesus being crucified because of maxime maiestatis causa damnatorum (high treason) is unlikely- see Craig Evans, John Welch, John Granger Cook, etc. There were a variety lesser charges that fell under maiestatis like laesa maiestas or seditio. For Barret’s argument to work he needs to have Jesus charged with maxime maiestatis causa damnatorum, but Pilate explicitly finds no fault with Jesus in the gospels and doesn’t see him as a political threat. That’s why a number of scholars who favor the lesser charges like John Welch, Craig Evans, John Granger Cook, Jürgen Moltmann, etc.

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I should also add that red flags should go off for anyone who cites Ehrman as a reliable source for Jesus’ burial. His arguments against its historicity have been widely rejected. Most continue to find the burial by Joseph of Arimethea and the empty tomb plausible. But what’s really damning is the following.

  1. Ehrman’s book is aimed at the Barnes and Noble crowd. It is not academic in nature.
  2. He pretty much recycles the arguments of Crossan from the 90s… which most scholars also rejected at the time. His argument only works if you assume from the outset that there is no historical data for the crucifxion and the evangelists were making stuff up.
  3. He doesn’t interact with scholars who have written on the subject since Crossan. This is telling, since said scholars all all vastly more informed on the subject, go into much more depth, and all contradict him.
  4. He doesn’t understand the charges against Jesus have to be nuanced (no high treason).
  5. He misreads ancient sources on Jewish burial customs and why most people think the Romans made allowances for the Jews. Instead he takes what happens outside of 1st century Palestine and reads it in to what he think should have happened.
  6. He ignores the archaeological evidence. There were a variety of punishments deemed crucifixion, these wouldn’t leave traces, and the fact that we do have evidence of in favor of tomb burials for criminals but not the opposite is telling.
  7. Outside of skeptics on the internet, Ehrman’s arguments have been ignored because of 1-6. People who are familiar with scholarly discussion on the subject would know this and wouldn’t cite him if they wanted to be taken seriously.
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Crossan as in Jesus Seminar, right?

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Thanks @Freakazoid for this information. Finally we have someone who has some actual experience in NT studies joining this thread. This sort of insight is exactly what I was talking about when I asked @vjtorley earlier:

Knowing that Casey’s view on people standing near a cross is not a consensus opinion of the field completely changes the credibility of Vincent’s inclusion of that as one of his 17 claims. It is telling, though not surprising, that Vincent seems to be unaware of how other professional scholars view Casey’s work on John, or Ehrman on the empty tomb. This only illustrates the pitfalls of trying to make sweeping judgments about a field one is not an expert in.

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I should probably give a few.examples.to back up my claim on Ehrman.

Craig Evans says that almost no one follows Ehrman and Crossan in Roman Law and the Burial of Jesus- Matthew and Mark Across Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Stephen C. Barton and William R Telford. He pretty much dismissed Ehrman in a footnote.

Another overview is John Granger Cook, ‘Crucifixion and Burial’, New Testament Studies, 57 (2011), 193–213. Ehrman should had access to this while writing his book but completely ignored it.

And I repeat, I can’t think of any actual published work that agrees with Ehrman.

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I don’t know if this matters but what made me distrust Ehrman is the time he said that earliest New Testament writings had 40.000 differences between each other.

Technically true, but what Ehrman ‘failed’ to mention is that those ‘differences’ are difference in spelling and changing certain words so it would be easier to read (since, as we know, language evolves), basically, whatever the differences, the meaning was always same.

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