Torley on The Resurrection: Take Two

It boggles my mind that Richard Carrier, someone who is view as a total crank by virtually everyone in the field, is being used to try to teach us about the historical method. The intellectual bankruptcy of Richard Carrier is one of the rare consensus positions in NT studies.

On a more serious note, I have little interest in keeping this going if it is going to devolve into Torley using a couple of die-hard atheist bloggers as proxies for actual argumentation on his behalf. Like you said, neither are established scholars. Neither are independent, neutral historians either.


While I agree with you that these guys are not neutral they may have some arguments worth merit. I think the mistake is not creating an argument and just citing one of their write-ups as evidence.

A big hurdle these guys have is trying to make the Gospels irrelevant or the claim against the empty tomb is almost silly. Ehrman argues for their historic value when he makes the case for the historic Jesus so his position is not against Joseph offering Jesus his tomb but arguing that a resurrection cannot be a historical claim. The interesting take away is that when you argue for the historical validity it is hard to argue against Jesus divinity with out contradicting yourself.

Well stated.

Yes, Carrier has a Ph.D. in history. Yet, I don’t know of any university which has offered him a faculty post and he has not succeeded in the world of academic peer-review. I will grant that he has a flair for attracting attention and winning over fans online. But it is difficult to imagine that he has anything important to teach us.

And I can’t help but recall Carrier’s claims that atheist philosopher turned theist Anthony Flew did not actually author the book There is a God. Carrier made this outrageous claim despite an extensive correspondence with Flew, and a very clear statement by Flew through his publisher.



Obviously, a deist is a type of theist. Richard Carrier claimed that Anthony Flew had not abandoned his atheism to become a theist and that Flew’s actual position was misrepresented by the book’s co-author. Deism was not the primary issue in Carrier’s arguments.


Hi @swamidass, @dga471, @Freakazoid, @Djordje and @colewd

All good things must come to an end, and I feel that this discussion has gone on long enough. I’d like to make a closing statement.

@dga471 raised the issue of how credible I am regarding the scholarly consensus, compared to @Freakazoid. He seemed impressed with the fact that @Freakazoid was able to cite more up-to-date sources. There’s a very good reason he’s able to do that: he lives near a good library, and I don’t. I live in Japan, where I simply don’t have access to a theological library. Instead, I have to employ all my ingenuity on the Internet, and rely on the kindness of friends who occasionally send me articles.

Nevertheless, I’d like to make a couple of points. First, there’s a difference between virtual unanimity (which is what I claimed exists among scholars regarding the specific points I mentioned) and absolute unanimity. The fact that @Freakazoid is able to cite some scholar who disagrees with some of the points I discussed proves nothing regarding the existence of a consensus. Take Markan priority. @Freakazoid linked to this recent article in an attempt to show that the question remains up in the air. But in the words of Emeritus Professor Ronald Troxel (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hebrew and Semitic Studies Department), “the consensus within scholarship is of “Markan priority,” that Mark’s gospel was written first and was used as a source by Matt and Luke, thereby explaining the agreements.” That’s despite the fact that several unresolved issues remain regarding the Synoptic question. You can review the key arguments here and Troxel’s discussion of some of their weaknesses here. Nevertheless, Markan priority remains the entrenched position, and even a scholar such as Craig Evans (who thinks Matthew and Luke were written in the sixties A.D.) doesn’t challenge Markan priority. Heck, Christian apologists such as former homicide cop J. Warner Wallace (now a minister), author of Cold Case Christianity, even appeal to it when building their arguments for the Resurrection: he describes Mark’s Gospel as an early “crime broadcast” on pages 166-168.

@Freakazoid also writes that “John is independent of the Synoptics,” but here he is simply being dogmatic: there’s certainly no consensus on this point.

Second, in response to @Freakazoid’s claim that I’m out-of-date: I’m actually quite familiar with most of the points he raises. He mentions the Mishnah, and says that its second-century prohibitions did not hold in the first century. I was familiar with that argument back in the 1980s, and in my original post, I actually cited an article by Rector John Hamilton, who defends the Gospel accounts, but nevertheless concedes that Jesus’ trial “contravened normal legal practice at many points” (p. 336) and approvingly quotes Biblical scholar Dr. Josef Blinzler’s conclusion that one is not able “to spare the Sanhedrin the reproach of very serious infringement of the law” (The Trial of Jesus, English translation, Cork, 1959, p. 138). I also explained why I did not consider Hamilton’s attempt to salvage the credibility of the Gospel narratives historically probable. @Freakazoid also claims I am out-of-date regarding the literature on Jesus’ burial, but in my post, I actually cited an article by Craig Evans from 2016, another article by Jodi Magness from 2007 and several articles by Ehrman from 2018. I wasn’t familiar with the one he cited by John Granger Cook, but after I was kindly sent a copy, I revised my assessment of the probabilities. In any case, as my original post makes very clear, even if Magness’s proposal on Jesus’ burial is correct, the apologetic case for the Resurrection is still fraught with difficulties.

To see why, let’s go back to the three facts that need to be established in order to build the apologetic case for the Resurrection:

(i) that Jesus existed, and died (not contested by scholars);
(ii) that Jesus’ dead body disappeared from its grave, and could not be found anywhere else;
(iii) that Jesus was seen, heard and touched by honest, reliable witnesses whose testimonies independently agreed with one another.

In order to show that Jesus probably rose from the dead, you need to demonstrate facts (ii) and (iii). These two facts should be treated as logically independent of one another: you can have a missing body without apparitions, and vice versa. You cannot assume that (iii) depends on (ii) without begging the question, either against the Resurrection (maybe the disciples’ visions were triggered by the discovery of the empty tomb!) or for it (if God wanted to raise Jesus, then of course he’d bring Jesus’ body out of the tomb before manifesting Jesus to his disciples). So we have to treat (ii) and (iii) as separate, independent facts.

Now here’s the thing: in order to demonstrate that the Resurrection occurred with a probability of over 50%, you need to show that facts (ii) and (iii) have a probability of at least 71% each. (70% of 70% is only 49%.) That’s quite a high bar. Even Professor Gary Habermas was modest enough to claim that 75% of New Testament scholars accepted the reality of the empty tomb, and I should point out that a critique of Habermas’ survey can be found here. It’s really not very scientific.

@Freakazoid correctly points out that two of the Gospels mention that Peter visited the empty tomb, but two don’t. Only Mary Magdalene is common to all four Gospel accounts. But let’s go with Mary and Peter: the whole case for the empty tomb is based on what these two individuals say they saw at the tomb. None of the other apostles, and none of the Jewish high priests or Roman authorities are known to have visited Jesus’ tomb. What’s more, it’s quite likely (see Magness’s article) that Jesus was buried in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, rather than a new tomb. If Jesus was buried in a new burial niche in the wall (or loculus) inside Joseph of Arimathea’s family rock tomb, then the possibility of misidentification cannot be discounted. Did Mary and Peter check the right niche? Recall that Peter wasn’t even present at the burial of Jesus, and according to Luke and John, he went back to check the empty tomb without Mary Magdalene to point him in the right direction.

But let’s be generous, and say that the probability of the empty tomb is 80%. If we can demonstrate fact (iii) with a probability of 62.5% or greater, then we are home and hosed. (0.8 x 0.625 = 0.5, or 50%, which is the bar for "more probable than not.) But can we be even 62.5% sure that Jesus was seen, heard and touched by honest, reliable witnesses whose testimonies independently agreed with one another? I’m afraid not. To repeat what I wrote earlier, in comment 81 above:

First, there is no general agreement as to when and where the risen Jesus appeared to his apostles.

Second, there is no general agreement as to what he said , when he did appear to them.

Third, we have no record of the apostles attempting to verify that they all saw and heard the same thing , when Jesus appeared to them.

Fourth, even if they did so, it is still doubtful whether their testimonies agreed independently of one another. For St. Paul (citing an early Christian creed) and Luke both attest to Jesus having appeared to Peter before appearing to the other apostles, and according to Luke, Peter went and told them what he’d seen. If Luke’s account is correct, the apostles’ expectations would have been biased by what Peter saw and heard, creating an expectation on their part as to what Jesus would say and how he would appear, if he were to appear to them. Thus from a historian’s perspective, we cannot be sure that we have eleven independent testimonies from the apostles who saw and heard Jesus.

Taken together, these arguments vastly weaken the force of fact (iii), and I see no way that its probability on purely historical grounds could be assessed at over 50%.

Leave aside my first point (about the location of the apparitions), if you like, and even my second, if you want to. The third and fourth points are far more important. There’s no getting around them. We don’t have eleven independent testimonies of Jesus’ Resurrection apparitions. Indeed, Matthew 28:17 even includes the jarring detail that some of the disciples doubted, when they saw Jesus. Make of that what you will. Without several independent testimonies, we are unable to demonstrate fact (iii): that Jesus was seen, heard and touched by honest, reliable witnesses whose testimonies independently agreed with one another.

Apologists can tie themselves in knots trying to argue that surely the apostles would have checked one another’s accounts of what they saw and heard, but that’s speculative. The fact is that we have no evidence that they did so.

I might conclude by asking you all: why does a historical proof of the Resurrection matter to you so much? And if there were such a proof, doesn’t that negate the Christian teaching that belief in the miracle of the Resurrection requires the gift of supernatural faith? On your account, someone who accepts the reality of a personal God who is able to work miracles (as classical theists of all stripes do, including Jews, Muslims and some deists) would be able to conclude that Jesus had risen without the need for any gift of faith from God. That seems strange.

The season of Advent will soon be upon us, and I’m off to Mass in a few minutes. I’d like to conclude by wishing you all a happy and holy Advent and Christmas.

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By pure root word meanings, perhaps, but in typical current usage, no. “Theist” has come to have a more specialized meaning for most people, indicating a God who interacts with the world after creation, and not merely by “sustaining the natural laws.” The Deist God creates the world, and maybe sustains its laws by his power, but doesn’t interact with individuals in a personal or providential way.

Hello @Mung:

First, thank you for purchasing my book.

Second, you wrote: Sadly it lacks an index. I have not read it in its entirety.
Response: You are wrong!
The Index of Subjects pp. 831-841
The Index of Names in References pp. 845-854
The Bibliography pp.749-830

Perhaps you purchased an e-book and did not scroll down far enough.

Once again, thank you for the purchase.

Take care


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Hello @dga471 [Daniel]:

You wrote: The Emperor is unimpressed. However, the composer insists that the Emperor has to listen to the entire opera before making judgment. How do you think he should have reacted?

Response: Being an Emperor, I would keep my mouth shut. I would not want to end up in the dungeon! However, depending upon the situation, I would respectfully ask / plead that the Emperor listen to the entire opera.

Obviously, in sports [and other disciples], there are countless examples when fans leave a sporting event early in the game [baseball, basketball, football, etc] because the home team is being wiped out. Then, there is a “miraculous” comeback / recovery, and the team wins…

Take care


An excellent question!

I find it amusing that so many TE/EC proponents have told ID proponents that natural theology is “bad theology” because, by giving evidential arguments for the existence of God, it takes away the need for faith, while some of those same TE/EC proponents don’t hesitate to give evidential arguments for the truth of the Resurrection. Yet if such evidential arguments were rationally compelling, they would, by the same logic, take away from the need for faith as well! And since they concern Jesus, and not merely a generic “Designer God”, they would actually do more damage to specifically Christian faith than natural theology ever could.

My own approach is inverted from that of such people. I find no theological objection to natural theology arguments, but I’m utterly without enthusiasm for proof of Resurrection arguments. The New Testament doesn’t give us proof; it gives us testimony. I see no evidence that most Christians, from before the time of Nicea to the time of Luther and Calvin and a bit beyond, were anxious about finding “proofs” as opposed to accepting testimony. The obsession with proof seems to be part of the modern mind-set. Maybe it’s an overcompensating reaction to modern skepticism. In any case, it’s a phenomenon that seems much more common in the Protestant than in the Catholic or Orthodox worlds. Perhaps the Protestant tradition is more infected by modern criteria of truth than those older traditions.


Hello Vincent [@vjtorley]

I am in total agreement with your comment about Gary’s 75% claim. In volume 2, I devote many, many pages to refute his claim. However, let me mention that currently I am working on a bibliography [English books, NO journals] on the Resurrection. To date, I have approximately 7,000 sources. In entire books written in support [PRO] resurrection and exceeding 47 pages, I located approximately 700 works. In contrast, fewer than 50 books were written in opposition [Excluding Christ Myth advocates and most books asserting Jesus survived the crucifixion [I totally reject this hypothesis.] and moved to India. Approximately, 15 were written prior to 1975. So, it is no wonder that 75 percent have in support in the burial.

The reason that there exist so few works written and eventually PUBLISHED in opposition to the Resurrection is very simple. Please read the previously cited [November 18] article: Follow The Money at

More later. Off to the gym

Take care


Okay, I‘d still like to address your last point since this raises some big problems with your approach and why Christian should be skeptical of you claims

Well, I’d like to think it’s also because I actually have some training in NT studies. What’s more important, however, is that you cannot be legitimately informed about scholarly consensus without access to a good library and academic database. There’s simply too many journal articles and books that you cannot find on the internet.

Virtual and absolute are just weasel words. Part of the problem is that scholars in NT studies often misuse the word consensus. It usually means something like majority or strong majority, and saying virtually everyone agrees is not the same most people agree. Markan priority would fall under strong majority, but there are number of prominent dissenters that can’t be relegated to a marginal or fringe position. I don’t really like using blog posts, but see here.

  1. Troxel is using consensus in the sense of strong majority.

  2. It’s definitely debatable, seeing as how there still a number of books and articles being published about the Matthew being written first. That’s why Craig Evans has to argue for it in The Synoptic Problem: Four Views

Also read this this from the article I linked.

“Nevertheless, this position has come under attack on several fronts. In some ways, the oldest attack is by the Orality and Memory Hypothesis, which also dates to the nineteenth century (at least in one of its forms, the oral) and has continued to be promoted to the present, even if it has not commanded nearly as much widespread assent as the now-usual theory ofMarkan Priority and Q. The Two-Gospel Hypothesis dates back at least to Griesbach, if not earlier to Augustine (a debated point, as indicated earlier), and has been renewed in more recent work by Farmer and his followers. The Farrer Hypothesis, although perhaps argued in an earlier form by others (e.g. Lummis), dates to the 1955 essay by Farrer on dispensing with Q, even if it was developed much more rigorously by Goulder and then by Goodacre. By any reckoning, these four theories of the Synoptic Problem (as well as others, even if they have commanded less attention) have been on the table for consideration for a minimum of fifty years and quite possibly a minimum of one hundred years, if not longer for at least some of them. And yet we are still seriously debating the fundamental plausibility of the various proposals, with most of the essential arguments being the same ones that have been used over and over during the same time. ”

I never said it was the consensus position. I’m already on record on saying there are very few consensus positions in NT studies. The independence of John from the Synoptics, however, is the majority position. Your link mixes together theories of independence with awareness, which is clarified by Paul Anderson in the The Origins of John’s Gospel. You can access a prepublished version of his chapter here. Also note that I am providing an genuine academic source, not something from google search.

I don’t think you get it. My position is the majority position. I cited Keener because he lays out the common objections to your argument (he remarks that it is difficult to argue for your position today. Chapman and Schnabel confirm what I’m saying as well as offering an overview of scholarship which thinks along the same lines that I do. I am stating the majority opinion in the field, contra to your assertions. The only line of support you have is from an article that was written 26 years ago. Anyways…

  1. It’s not enough to say that Jesus’ trial broke every rule in the book. The Mishnah is late and does not reflect legal practices during pre70 Jerusalem. You have to prove that the rules in question date that early. You cannot assume it. The article from Hamilton offers no substantial argumentation on that score, just that he thinks it might be done.

  2. Even if we admit that some laws held in pre70 Jerusalem (it’s highly unlikely that all or most would have been), it wasn’t uncommon for the Jewish elite to abuse their power in this type of situation. Josephus refers to several instances of such abuse as do other Jewish texts. So historians do, in fact, think the account of Jesus’ trial is perfectly plausible.

This only reinforces my point about you being unaware of what scholars are currently thinking. John Granger Cook is one of the go-to scholars for issues surrounding crucifixion and resurrection. You being unaware of his article shows that you don’t know who the experts are on the issue. Furthermore, you cited an article from Magness but were unware that one of the key criticisms of Ehrman was that he didn’t interact with her work at all. Blog posts from Ehrman aren’t academic articles at all and don’t count as scholarly literature. The article from you referenced from Evans is iffy because it is only a summary of an actual academic article in a book.

See what I mean? This is another link to a totally unqualified blogger with an agenda. If you want to show me that less than 75% of scholars support the empty tomb, cite some current scholars and use their work as a starting point.

So… you think that Mary and Peter couldn’t find the body within the tomb? It’s not hard to find a three day old corpse in an enclosed space. Plus I already mentioned that Jews would have to have some means of identifying different niches within the tomb since they might move bodies at a later period. The Gospels don’t mention that the other apostles or Jewish high priests visited the tomb, but it’s logical that they did so. A resurrection means a raised body, and that means that the body would no longer be in the tomb. If you were a disciple and Peter told you that Jesus was resurrected, the first thing you would do is check to see if you could find his body. Maybe some disciples would take what Peter and Mary said on faith, but most probably would check the tomb. Likewise, the high priests would want to find his body because they could use it to stop those rumors they heard about Jesus’ resurrection (corpses are still recognizable after 40 days).

Historians don’t need texts to spell things out for them in this manner. Even in your proposed explanation, collective hallucinations are still subjective events. They don’t naturally synchronize together, especially when verbal communication is involved. Any sort of discussion between the apostles would have revealed major discrepancies in what each one experienced, so they would have inevitably had to have checked what they had saw and heard. Do you think the apostles never talked about what they had seen? What you are proposing is that the apostles never discussed the appearances with one another which is entirely implausible since they resurrection was the foundation for their preaching.

I can’t speak for everyone else, but what bothers is that there are many other Christians out there with more experience, training, and qualifications to speak about the resurrection than you. Alter’s book reads like he was trying to throw as much has material as he possibly could against the wall and in order to see what sticks. I don’t think this is a good way to do history, but more importantly, critically investigating his book takes a lot of skills and resources that you do not have. You cannot substitute good academic resources with the internet, just like you need actual training to use the historical method.


The additional evidence that is compelling is the conversion of Paul and his testimony of the resurrection in his letters. Paul with his conversion, education and relationship with James and Peter is compelling evidence.

I also see problems with Vincents statistical argument. How is it possible that additional evidence for an event reduces the probability the event occurred?


I’ll be extremely brief. Re Habermas’s claim that 75% of New Testament scholars accept the reality of the empty tomb: (i) apparently the true figure is somewhere between 67 and 75%, according to theology student and apologist James Bishop; (ii) in any case, Habermas’s figure is based on “a private manuscript of more than 600 pages that simply does little more than line up the scholarly positions and details on these 140 key questions, without additional interaction or critique. Most of this material is unpublished” (see here). Hardly a reliable source, in the absence of independent corroboration.

The view that Jesus’ trial was illegal even by first-century standards (never mind the Mishnah) is not old hat. It continues to be the common view. See Jeffrey Walker’s 2006 paper, The Trials of Christ: The Silent Defense (Walker is is an adjunct professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and at the Brigham Young University Law School.) See especially footnotes 29, 45 and 46. See also pastor Stephen Davey’s online article, “The Illegal Trial of Jesus Christ” (2009), which lists six illegalities. In a 2017 online article, Dr. Daniel Woodhead, dean of Jewish Studies, Scofield Graduate School and Theological Seminary, asserts that the Sanhedrin “violated all their laws to arrest, charge, try and execute Jesus.”

What in detail is driving the difference of opinion?

I think you can pick at any detail here however it is the collection of all the evidence that is most compelling.

If Jesus was thrown in a common grave and still appeared to the 12 after the crucification and some of the 12 were martyred for their faith how much does the overall story really change?

Torley’s core argument: lack of independent testimony

Now, I wish that instead of writing a 60,000 word blog post, Vincent had simply condensed his argument to this single argument, which he seems to regard as the most important against the historical case for the Resurrection. I suppose this is the “devastating bombshell.” Perhaps in the future, if people want to reply to Vincent’s case, they can focus on this point. (The empty tomb is another one, although Vincent seems to be willing to concede even that.)

It is however, not a new argument at all. Many Christian apologists have already written about this, and it is not clear what Alter or you bring to the table. Certainly nothing "devastating".

The odd, ubiquitous physicality of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances

I am merely repeating a pretty common line of argumentation that you surely are familiar with:

We have multiple lines of evidence (the four Gospels, Acts, the creed of 1 Cor. 15) that the disciples of Jesus thought they had witnessed a physically resurrected Jesus. Even though the details differ, they all agree that they were not merely witnessing a spirit or apparition, but something real and tangible enough that they were convinced it was a resurrected person. Even if the differing accounts of the appearances are not very detailed, they do agree in the physicality of the appearance. Mary Magdalene takes hold of Jesus (Jn. 20:17), Jesus breathes on people (Jn. 20:22), Thomas and other disciples touch and hold Jesus on different occasions (Jn. 20:27, Lk. 24:40, Matt. 28:9), Jesus eats with the disciples (Lk. 24:30). No vision or apparition happens to multiple people simultaneously, much less 500 people at once (1 Cor. 15). And as many authors have argued, Jewish people wouldn’t believe someone was resurrected if they had merely witnessed apparitions or visions, which was not unheard of. Clearly there was something weirder going on here than just normal grief-induced hallucinations. There is a clear core of physicality.

In fact, the differences between the accounts only add to the credibility. It was believed that Jesus appeared to different people at different times, so it makes sense that he would say and do different things. I am not sure what sort of "eleven independent testimonies" would convince you. It seems that you want an appearance of Jesus which was witnessed by multiple people, who then left the area without talking to each other, wrote their own accounts of what happened, which are then found cross-checked to be exactly the same. If that is the standard you are going for, then yes, the gospels do not give you that. I am not sure what kind of historical document could stand up to that standard.

Also I noticed we are playing a losing game here: if the testimonies agree exactly, you are likely to accuse them of not being independent. If they do not completely agree then you argue they are contradictory and hence fabricated. This lack of clear historical method is annoying to me.

Why did the post-resurrection appearances stop?

Even more interestingly, the accounts of Jesus’ appearances abruptly stopped by the beginning of Acts, with the exception of Paul. If this was a series of mass hallucinations, then experiences like Paul’s should have been reported multiple times throughout Acts and the early church, especially as more and more people became converted to Christianity. Instead of relying on the testimony of a limited group of several core disciples, every Christianity community should have had plenty of people ready to proclaim that Jesus had appeared to them as well, similar to charismatic phenomenon like the Toronto Blessing. But we have nothing of that! Instead we have an ancient creed (1 Cor. 15) that lists specific witnesses to Jesus’ appearances, like witnesses to some crime scene.

In my mind, it is likely that there were Christians experiencing psychological visions or hallucinations of Jesus, as is common in religious movements. But the early church must have worked hard to comb through those reports and differentiate them from the ones that eventually made it into that creed.


In this extended discussion, we have covered a lot of bases. Some of the discussion has been summarized in our Wiki article here: Guide to Alter and Torley on the Resurrection (which I intend to massively update as soon as everyone has gotten in their closing statements). While I have not read Alter’s book, nor have I read the entirety of Vincent’s 60,000-word blog post, he has kindly enough bothered to engage us here with what I hope is the strongest selection of his case. I will provide an overview of the threads which we have explored and my final statements on those.

Summarizing the Alter-Torley approach

The Alter-Torley case against the Resurrection, based on this exchange, in my opinion, can be summarized as follows:

  1. Questioning the historicity of Jesus’ burial and the empty tomb (by invoking skeptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman)
  2. Questioning the historicity of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples (the argument viewed as the strongest)
  3. Questioning the historicity of a long list of other narrated events in the gospels to cast doubt on their overall reliability (the “17 points”).

I believe that point 1) has been more adequately answered by @Freakazoid. Here it is again unclear what new work Alter-Torley brings to the table other than summarize the arguments of Ehrman, Carrier and other skeptical/atheist scholars and bloggers, as well as rehash several long-standing alternate theories, such as the possibility that the disciples went to the wrong tomb (a hypothesis that was first proposed by Kirsopp Lake in 1907).

Point 2) has been dealt with in the preceding post. Again, it is unclear what is new in A-T, other than possibly putting more emphasis on the argument that the disciples never corroborated their experiences of the risen Jesus exactly and without pre-conceived bias. However, as I have sought to demonstrate above, this requirement is both unreasonable and a red herring, as everyone agrees that the post-resurrection appearances were physical and several accounts of them involving touch.

We have debated numerous times on this thread regarding point 3), so I will summarize some of its conclusions in the next section.

Probability Arguments

Throughout this exchange, Vincent has repeatedly made references to how some event in one of the gospels is more or less probable, and several times he quantified that with actual probability estimates, such as his contention that it is improbable that Pilate was reluctant to convict Jesus as the gospels say. I have three objections against that:

  1. Making a rigorous estimate of the prior probability of an ancient historical event is difficult, even impossible, due to the many unknown factors involved connected to human psychology, environmental and situational factors.
  2. Most historians do not use Bayesian probability arguments to decide on the historicity of an event.
  3. How do we rigorously differentiate genuinely improbable events from those which are simply improbable because there are a multitude of possibilities that nature can take even for relatively mundane events?

Vincent has at least partially conceded on points 1) and 2) - he agrees that human psychology can make probability estimates iffy. Point 3) has been driven home not just by me but also by Josh both here and in other contexts such as biology. These three objections significantly weaken the legitimacy of Vincent’s methodology in claiming that the Gospels are historically unreliable.

Other methodological concerns

As I have emphasized since the beginning, the onus is on Alter and Vincent to show that despite not being professional historians, they know what standard historical method is and they are applying it properly to their case. Although Vincent has linked to several Reddit posts and atheist blogs which purport to spell out what historical method is, examining bits of his reasoning more closely reveals oddities.

One major issue I have concerning the A-T case is a lack of charity and historical imagination. For example, one of the pillars for his case against the empty tomb is that in Jewish culture, a body was supposedly deemed to be unrecognizable by the third day. On this basis, Vincent argues that because it seems nobody besides Mary Magdalene and some other women visited the tomb before the end of the third day, the case for the empty tomb rests solely on their testimony. This seems inane. He is basically suggesting that if the body of Jesus was found on the 4th day in the tomb, the disciples would not have accepted it as a disproof of the resurrection since it would be legally considered unrecognizable. Were people seriously that senselessly rigid to the “rules”? Now that seems like a very improbable event, given how the disciples were shaken, skeptical of the Resurrection, and thus unlikely to believe based on the sole testimony of a couple of women who just happened to come on the third day. If we want to use our common sense, people do not slavishly follow cultural habits to the dot, especially if something as spectacular as a resurrection is being claimed. It is extremely likely that multiple disciples would have revisited the tomb multiple times over the next few weeks, just to make sure they were not hallucinating or mistaken. Thus I call this a lack of imagination.

Another example: his continued insistence that Jesus’ trial is viewed by several scholars as illegal according to Jewish law. Does that mean that if a historical source reports something illegal, I should assume it is a fabrication? Does nobody ever break the law and abuse their power? Especially given that the Jewish authorities then had a second trial (a more legitimate one) in the morning (Mt. 27:1), then went to the trouble of going to Pilate to have him sign off on the execution? I’m expecting more nuance here in handling the connection between il/legality and historicity which I don’t see. If this illegal show trial actually happened, how were gospel writers supposed to report it without losing credibility in the eyes of A-T?

What is the purpose of the historical case for the Resurrection?

Vincent’s case sought to show that after the work Alter has done, it is impossible for Christian apologists to make a convincing historical case that the Resurrection happened. To quote him:

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.

In light of the various objections that have been raised by Josh, Freakazoid, myself and several others on this thread, I do not think that Vincent’s case demonstrates this. As we have seen, despite its length, most of his arguments are self-admittedly weak and inconclusive, and amount to a massive Gish Gallop against the reliability of the gospels. The one or two arguments that he thinks are the strongest are also not novel and have been discussed endlessly by apologists, historians, and NT scholars.

However, to reiterate an earlier point, I do not think this means that the historical case for the Resurrection is so strong that no unbeliever can rationally reject it. There is a lot of uncertainty in what we can know about 1st century Palestine, given that very little of it was written down. In general, very few extended historical arguments are airtight to the point that no other explanation is possible. Rather, the purpose of defending the historical case for the Resurrection is to provide a credible defense of Christian belief to the outside world, such that someone interested in Christianity would not view belief in the Resurrection as a form of intellectual suicide or dishonesty. For that purpose, the case has to be convincing not just to biased apologists, but also to a neutral observer.

In practical terms, this means that the case has to be respectable and reasonably defendable to experts in the field. A good resource is Freakazoid’s link to a blogpost by NT scholar Jonathan Bernier, who explains what different levels of consensus exist in a scholarly field like NT studies. He defines the terms consensus (~100%), majority (>50%), minority (<50%), dominant (a plurality), marginal (<1%), idiosyncratic but respectable, and quackery. Most interesting to me is the difference between “idiosyncratic but respectable” versus quackery:

Idiosyncratic but respectable: a proposition affirmed by just one, or at most a statistically negligible number of scholars, yet which is sufficiently warranted by the data that it cannot be simply dismissed as quackery. An example might be the arguments in J.A.T. Robinson’s Redating the New Testament. For those unfamiliar with his work, Robinson (by no means a conservative) argued that the entirety of the New Testament dates to before 70 C.E. Few have followed him on this. Yet Robinson advances sufficiently robust argument that one who disagrees must bring equally robust counter-arguments.

Quackery: a proposition affirmed by no or at most a statistically negligible number of scholars, and which is so inadequately warranted by the data that it can be dismissed. Jesus’s non-existence solidly falls into this category, as does creationism in biology. This has to do ultimately with the robusticity of the argumentation. Whereas idiosyncratic but respectable propositions are supported by robust arguments that fail to persuade many qualified experts, quackery is supported by utterly non-robust arguments. As such the one critiquing quackery need only bring non-robust counter-arguments to bear. Put more colloquially, the idiosyncratic but respectable position requires the critic to bring her or his A-game, whereas the same critic can bring the D-game and still prevail over quackery.

I believe that as long as the historical case for the Resurrection does not fall into quackery but is at least “idiosyncratic but respectable”, most of the goals of Christian apologetics have been achieved. However, based on the exchanges in this thread, we can clearly see that the case is much, much stronger than that, since many of the elements of the case are supported by multiple respected scholars, not just one or two idiosyncratic ones (Evans, Bauckham, Wright, Keener, Blomberg, etc.). While Vincent is able to find a few more liberal scholars who dispute various aspects of the case, this is not news. Nobody was arguing that there is a scholarly consensus that every single event in the Gospel certainly happened from a historical viewpoint.

Vincent closes his case with a final argument against why the historical case should be important at all:

The answer is that a strong historical case (I would not say “proof”) helps to remove intellectual objections against faith, which might prevent them from even considering Christianity as an option, given how central the Resurrection is to Christian faith. The case for the Resurrection is strong, but not airtight, and being willing to definitively reject the alternative explanations such that one is forced to grapple with its implications takes a leap of faith that requires the work of the Holy Spirit. The fact that Muslims or Jews like Alter already believe in a theistic God does not lessen the requirement of this leap of faith, as people have very different ideas of what that God is like and how He is supposed to act.