Torley on The Resurrection: Take Two

Hi @swamidass,

Really @vjtorley? Are you really going to force us to quote the many many places we addressed specific arguments? Are you really going to say that questions about methodology are merely quibbles?

I’d like to apologize. My words were too harsh and sweeping: there were some comments where you attempted to address my arguments, even if the majority of them related to methodology and Michael Alter’s credibility.

Look, I’m a meat-and-potatoes man: I focus on the nitty-gritty stuff. When I see a book attacking the Resurrection, the question I ask myself is not, “Who is this guy?” or “What’s his approach to sorting out historical claims?” but rather, “Has he read the literature, and are his arguments any good?” My overall impression from reading Michael Alter’s book was that he scored a number of big hits. Also, he knew a lot of stuff about Jewish practices that I’d never heard Christian apologists address before, and he was meticulous about citing his sources. So I was very impressed.

At the end of the day, the biggest question you need to address is this: can the empty tomb be historically demonstrated, with a high degree of probability? After reading Alter’s book and the online debates on the subject, I don’t think it can be. There are too many alternative possibilities, and I don’t see how they can be ruled out. Perhaps you feel differently, but I can only call it the way I see it.

Anyway, I shall bow out here. I don’t want to say anything more, as I don’t wish to sound uncharitable. This is your blog, and I’d like to think you for allowing me to comment on it, Joshua. Peace.

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Having commented on the meta-level of the debate, I now want to respond to the debate at a lower level. I want to point out the Vincent’s accusations that

is patently false, since besides my meta-level methodological “quibbles”, I have tried my best, for example, to respond to Vincent’s probabilistic arguments, despite my lack of historical training or knowledge about NT studies. I think the difference is that unlike you, I am way more cautious about proclaiming what a “impartial historian would do”, because I approach this subject as a humble layman.

Nevertheless, in this post I will pick up on a line of argument from our last exchange:

What I seriously think is that the whole business of assigning prior probabilities to events seems dubious and non-rigorous, such that I am happy with assigning 50-50 prior probabilities to most historical claims that are not immediately outlandish (such as a giant blue dragon appearing next to Jesus’ cross). I will elaborate on this claim in more detail here.

Can we psycho-analyze Pilate?

Let’s take, for example, the claim that Pilate would be reluctant to condemn a man accused of advocating insurrection. You base this on an psycho-analysis of Pilate based on his historical record:

Pilate’s alleged reluctance to condemn Jesus to death. This, I argued, is psychologically unlikely, given what we know of Pilate’s character. Here, Story1 is that Pilate was indeed reluctant to condemn Jesus, while Story 2 is that he sentenced Jesus to death without compunction. In my post, I described several incidents in the life of Pilate which illustrated his cruelty. Clearly, killing Jesus would not have been out of character for him. Given this background information about Pilate’s character, we might reasonably conclude that the ratio P(Story2)/P(Story1) is pretty high – say, 10 to 1.

And here is an example of an incident of Pilate’s brutality that you cite:

The Jewish historian Josephus chronicles Pilate’s brutal acts: he tells us (Antiquities 18.3.2) that on one occasion, when Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct to provide fresh water to Jerusalem, he decided to finance the undertaking by stealing the money from the treasury of the Jewish temple. When the Jewish authorities and the people of Jerusalem protested in outrage, Pilate responded brutally: on his command, his soldiers mingled with the crowds, in disguise, and then they suddenly attacked the people, not with swords but with clubs. Many Jews were slaughtered on that day, and many others were trampled to death.

But the above incident could also be interpreted as Pilate simply suppressing a potential rebellion stirred by the Jewish authorities. It is a different situation from responding to an odd, wacky religious leader which seems to be hated by the Jewish authorities for some reason but only had tens of unarmed, mostly poor and powerless followers. It is possible that Pilate would have reacted with the same brutality to Jesus. But it is also possible that he viewed Jesus differently, perhaps buoyed by his personal charisma. Or he just felt differently that day. We don’t know.

We also don’t know how much an account of Josephus (or several of the others you mentioned) is representative of Pilate on a day-to-day basis. It could be that Pilate was a level-headed, fair ruler who just had a bad day and responded brutally, and what gets recorded are the bad things. Of course, I could be wrong. My point is that there is a lot of uncertainty here in assigning the prior probability of Pilate condemning Jesus (versus him not condemning Jesus), P (S_1)/P(S_2) = 0.1. It could be 0.01. It could be 0.2. Or it could be 0.5, if perhaps Pilate was feeling good that day and wanted to toy with the Jewish authorities instead of simply acceding to their request to execute someone they hated.

The Impact of Uncertainty in Priors

This uncertainty in assigning P(S_1) has a great impact on your calculation of the Bayesian odds:
\frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} = \frac{P(E|S_1)}{P(E|S_2)} \frac{P(S_1)}{P(S_2)}.

In your post, you claim that even if \frac{P(E|S_1)}{P(E|S_2)} = 5 (which we’ll grant as exactly right for the sake of argument), because you assign \frac{P(S_1)}{P(S_2)} = A = 0.1, then multiplying the factors together, we get \frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} = 0.5. (Note that I have defined the new variable A for the sake of brevity in notation.)

Thus it is twice more likely that S_2 happened compared to S_1. Sounds reasonable!

But this factor of 2 has a huge uncertainty due to the uncertainty of A. If say, we take A = 0.2, then \frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} = 1. Thus it is now equally likely that S_1 compared to S_2! And taking A = 0.2 is not utterly crazy - we are just saying that Pilate is 83% likely to condemn Jesus, instead of 91% likely.

In fact, if we set conservative limits for A, such as
0.01 < A < 0.5
Then we get
0.05 < \frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} < 2.5.
In other words, as long as we are taking into account our uncertainties in psycho-analyzing Pilate’s state of mind on that day, affected by environmental and societal factors that we don’t fully have access to, our Bayesian calculations have a huge uncertainty on them - from telling us that it is utterly ridiculous to believe that Pilate could ever be reluctant to condemn Jesus, to telling us that it is 2.5 times more likely than not that he was reluctant to condemn Jesus.

Now if we were to be even more honest and start examining \frac{P(E|S_1)}{P(E|S_2)} which we assigned to be equal to 5 (based on the estimation of 20% probability of the Gospel writers fabricating or mis-remembering the account of the trial), the uncertainty in the calculation goes up even higher. Arguably, one could assign any reasonable value from 0.1 to 10. There is no rigorous argument for assigning it to be 20%. Thus, our bound becomes even looser:

0.0001 < \frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} < 5

(Note: edited a miscalculation, but conclusion does not change)

As a physicist, a result like the above would raise eyebrows on the soundness of this whole business of trying to micro-analyze the Gospels and assign priors based on limited historical data. Even if I had access to a person whom I knew fairly well, I would not be able to assign A to them with an uncertainty of less than 20-30%. Why do we think we can do so for historical people we know comparatively very little about? At best, our assignment of A or other priors is a reflection of our subjective, personal belief of how probable some reported incident is, affected by our background beliefs and prior commitments. In this case, there’s a wild diversity in such beliefs.

A Note on the McGrews

Note that the McGrews also perform Bayesian analysis in making their case for the Resurrection, but they calculate the probability of general facts, not very specific facts that apply to variable historical situations like Pilate’s state of mind when being dealt with the Jesus case. In addition, the McGrews argue using extremely large or extremely small probabilities, such that a 20-30% uncertainty on their priors would not significantly affect their case. Still, the shakiness of assigning priors based on historical judgment and not more rigorous scientific reasons makes me not take their claim that the Resurrection happened with 0.9999 probability (from their essay in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology as literally true.

Edit: Licona and Bayesian Analysis
Thumbing through my copy of Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus, I noticed that on pages 116-118, Licona basically makes the same argument as I did above, pointing out that historians (he cites David Bartholomew, C. B. McCullagh and even WLC) regard Bayesian analysis of history as subjective due to the inscrutability of priors. He also has a footnote that makes the same exception for the case of the McGrews, who argue that their case can overcome even very small priors.


Apology accepted, though you seem to misunderstand @dga471 and I.

First of all, You are claiming that a neutral historian would be convinced by @MJAlter but you have not produced any evidence this is the case. Obviously, @MJAlter is not a neutral historian (or a historian of any sort). This is not an attack on his character, but just a brute fact of direct relevance to your claim. I’ve asked you for evidence that any historian has been convinced by his arguments. None have been produced. In fact, people with training in history have noted several of the problems that both @dga471 and I have noted.

Second, we do not believe you are using a sound historical methodology. @dga471 has been explicating this, and I can agree with what he has written. This not a logical way of reasoning, because (as I have said before) it leads ot nihilism. One could not know anything about anything with this sort of reasoning. This is why historians do not reason this way.

Third, we do no believe you are using a fair rhetoric. I’ve compared this to a Gish Gallop, and that is very much what this continues to look like. You flooded the conversation with dozens of weak arguments that are individually easy to refute, but in some total would take too much too much time to deal with in totality. When we have presented explanations of problems with specific arguments, you have essentially ignored them, retreating back to the gallop. This is not a convincing strategy when YECs or anyone else execute it.

You’ve asked to engage the arguments, and we have. We are waiting for you to respond. For example, see what I wrote about communion, one of the more bizarre arguments made by @MJAlter,

You responded:

You propose, without evidence, that it arose gradually, when in fact this does not actually match the evidence we have about the early church.

This is just my point. You are whistling past the graveyard where bad historical arguments go to die. It is a nihilistic argument you are making, leaving all the important questions unasked and ignored. For this reason, I’m certain that this is not what a neutral historian would conclude. At the very least, this is not how they would come to conclude it.

You’ve fallen into a objectively false rhetoric about neutral historians that really needs to be stopped. You can’t justify it, so why continue insisting on it?


@vjtorley you aren’t be asked to leave. I hope you continue the conversation. Your voice is important and you are raising points that need to be engaged. I’m just asking you to engage how we’ve responded to you, rather than just claiming we never responded.

We are fortunate too to have @Freakazoid here. It would be good for you to engage his work. I’m thinking inviting some other scholars here.


and, thank you.


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I already cited an actual academic article by Craig Evans. He’s one of the top NT scholars alive. Evans has published a number of books and articles that deal with the Jesus’ burial. He has personal knowledge of what other scholars are saying about the subject. So when Evans says that no one buys Ehrman’s thesis, you can take that mean pretty much everybody who writes on the topic. It’s not a question of who disagrees with Ehrman, but who actually agrees with him

Blog posts don’t mean anything. Most people don’t have blogs, NT scholars included. They care about what other scholars publish in actual books and articles. Ehrman trying to rebut his critics by using blog posts is a sign that his thesis is weak. If he had some strong ideas to back him up he would have published them. As long as he doesn’t do that he’ll continue to be ignored.

Yes, I am claiming that he is either ignorant or willfully mispreprenting his audience. I can’t see any reason why he wouldn’t cite someone like Jodi Magness (what’s particularly galling is that she teaches at the same university that Ehrman does). Other scholars include Craig Evans, John Granger Cook, Rachel Hachlili, Shimon Gibson. And those are just the specialists on the subject.

This isn’t true. Ulpian specifically says “The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed. At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason. Even the bodies of those who have been sentenced to be burned can be claimed, in order that their bones and ashes, after having been collected, may be buried.”

This is why Ehrman has to claim that Jesus was executed for high treason. Ulpian states that this law was effect since Augustus. There’s no indication that it changed and scholars think that traditions relating to burial are stable over time. There’s also a general pattern of the Romans allowing burial of crucifixion victims when circumstances called for it. Verres took bribes in exchange for letting corpses to be taken down. Cicero talks about empty crosses. Josephus mentions it. Philo mentions it. Jehonanan was a Jew crucified by the Romans. Just because there’s no specific mention of political criminals doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Historians look for patterns, not super specific patterns that allow them shift goalposts whenever they feel like it. What you should be asking instead is where is the positive evidence for Ehrman’s thesis. Where are all the archaeological remains of political criminals buried in the ground? We’ve found stuff elsehwere, why not Palestine? Where in our texts does it state that Roman never ever made exceptions in 1st century Palestine, even for political criminals?

The Gospels indicate that Joseph is a member of the Sanhedrin and an admirer of Jesus. There’s no need to separate the two by him acting as a private citizen. He acts on behalf of the Jewish council by burying the body but does it in a rock tomb. All the Sanhedrin would care about was that the burial was dishonorable. The major two elements for this would be not being buried in the family tomb and no mourning. This happens in the Gospels so the Sanhedrin wouldn’t really care that Joseph buried Jesus in a rock tomb. In fact, a new tomb makes the burial more dishonorable. Furthermore, Magness thinks that her position is compatible with the empty tomb theory. The women and disciples would be referring to the empty loculus in the tomb, not the empty tomb itself.

I didn’t ad hominem them. I state that they aren’t reflective of general opinion. Corley published her article in a Westar journal, which is way out there in terms of skeptical biblical studies. I didn’t call Maurice Casey a reverse fundamentalist either. I said that one particular book was an example of reverse fundamentalism. And I already explained why Casey is wrong. He uses a quote from Barrett that doesn’t actually support his point. His argument also relies on a specific set of charges against Jesus for Roman restrictions against bystanders to be in effect. I cited a number of scholars that disagreed with said charges. I should also note that Gospels are some of the more in depth descriptions of crucifixion that we actually have, so Casey doesn’t have counter examples could actually cite against them.

Ehrman is reposting something he wrote before 2016 which wasn’t in response to Evan’s latest article. The article I mention is part of a book and is much more detailed than the link to the website


Hello Vincent:

Perhaps of interest to everyone, this morning I came across a thesis:

van Noppen, R. (2015). ‘Drink my Blood’: A Theological Rationale from the Jewish Blood Prohibitions (Thesis, Master of Theology). University of Otago. Retrieved from

Its abstract can be read at:

Off to the gym.

Have a great day.


Response: You wrote: Somehow a symbolic blood drinking ritual actually does arise among devote Jews in the 1st Century."

  1. It must be asked: What devote Jews in the first century literally drank blood?
  2. It must be asked: What devote Jews in the first century figuratively drank blood?
  3. It must be asked: Specifically where and when did this “drinking” take place?
  4. It must be asked: What is your definition of the term: DEVOTE JEW?

To be intellectually honest, it must be acknowledged that first century Judaism was NOT MONOLITHIC in its beliefs, views, and practice.

Nonetheless, numerous writers acknowledge the concept that drinking blood was repulsive (pp. 79-80) Three recommended sources to examine are:

Bramer, Daniel Eric. 2010 (PhD diss) Divine Contradiction: The logic of Blood in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures
Cahill, Mich J. “Drinking Blood at a Kosher Eucharist? The Sound of Scholarly Silence.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 32(4), 168-81, 2002,
Fenton, John C. More about Mark. London: SPCK. 2001, 97-111

The reason for absences of a debate among early Christians is only open to scholarly speculation.

You inquire: 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?

RESPONSE: Here too, we can only offer scholarly speculation. One possible hypothesis is that this tradition substantially increased with the destruction of the Temple (c. 70) and with non-Jews assuming leadership of the early church.

Take care


Hi Mike,

Did you ever read the Jewish Encyclopedia article on drinking blood?

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Hello Mung:

I just looked it up: dietary laws (Kosher), blood, blood accusation and blood libel to refresh my memory. This material I was, in general, familiar with. Please let me know if there is another specific entry that you are referring to.

Take care


Hi Mike,

Please see:

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What Freakazoid is saying reflects my experience as well (in regards to Ehrman.) “Look down their noses” may be overstating it as a generalization [though some certainly do take that attitude] but Ehrman is definitely not mainstream academy in his position—and I’m not talking about just fundamentalist or evangelical scholars not being impressed with various of his contrarian claims. [That doesn’t mean that I haven’t greatly enjoyed some of Ehrman’s SBL lectures and especially his debates against “Jesus never existed” mythicists. He also does a good job of destroying the more humorous fringe-scholars (e.g., Bob Price, Richard Carrier) who’ve made a good living appealing to Internet bloggers and anti-theists. On a more personal level, I rather like Ehrman. I just don’t agree with his contrarian positions which I consider insufficiently supported.]

Agreed. And recycled and uninteresting material just doesn’t come up on the radar for most academics, theologians included.

That said, some of Ehrman’s writings are quite interesting and they get discussed in academic circles, even if only to refute those ideas. But nobody should expect his fringe material to get a lot of attention from the peer-review scholarly community. And the more people like Carrier, Price, and Ehrman [and I hesitate to include them in the same group because they are actually very different people and agendas in other regards] who have a strong Internet presence and play to enthusiastic non-academic fans, the less likely the mainstream academics are going to be impressed. [Many Young Earth Creationists claim that Ken Ham has trumped mainstream science and think that that explains why most scientists ignore him. No. That silly claim doesn’t help Ham’s credibility. It will be the same if people make bombastic claims about Ehrman.]

I got to know Craig Evans many years ago and have watched his academic career blossom as you have described. I’ve not been surprised at his steady rise.

@Freakazoid, I’m delighted to read your contributions and am happy to welcome you to this community. (Some of my reasons are probably quite selfish because you are already explaining many important points so very well and save me feeling a need to step in. Of course, you are also far better read on people like Evans because I’ve not adequately kept up since my retirement and I no longer attend the major ETS and AAR/SBL academic conferences of Biblical scholars.)

My opinion in itself doesn’t count for a lot—but I can say that my opinion on this topic is a very common one among academics.


Hello Freakazoid:

First, thank you for joining the conversation!

Second, an important assumption is that Jesus was, in fact, buried in a tomb. And, of course, there are numerous doubters. The NT accounts raise doubts in the minds’ of some writers that, there was, in fact, an actual tomb. Why, it must be asked?

  1. The description of the tomb evolves: no description in Paul, enhancement in the Synoptcs, and John’s burial in a garden.
  2. Is it practical to assume that Joseph of Arimathea, with his rank, position, and wealth would own a personal tomb near a cemetery?
  3. Why cannot archaeologist, anthropologists, theologians, etc even agree on what type of tomb Jesus was buried in? [e.g. Raymond Brown. The Death of the Messiah. 1994, 2:2148-49]
  4. The dubious historical accuracy of the stone used to close Joseph’s tomb [Amos Kloner. “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review. 25(5) 23-29, 76, 1999.]
  5. Similarity [Biblical parallel mania, plagiarism] to Daniel 6:17.
  6. Who buried Jesus? When was Jesus buried? The time line issue…
  7. The manner in which Jesus’s body was prepared.
  8. The presence of 100 pounds of spices - myrrh and aloes [only in John 19:39].

Collectively, these issues, and others, raise doubt that Jesus was buried in a tomb. Rather, the burial account was written change a state of humiliation into a state of honor and respect (i.e. of Jesus).

Take care


Doubt can be raised on any issue.

You are making a claim that the historical record which has multiple independent accounts according the skeptic Bart Ehrman is wrong.

This is fundamental to your thesis. Why do you think raising doubt is enough to overthrow the historical record?

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This response does not appear to hold up to scrutiny. Communion existed in the early church, without debate, before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. You are still left with a large river to cross. There fixed historical facts here, that the Resurrection would parsimoniously explain, but you have not.

Exactly, which undermines your entire argument. The fact that Jews would not normally move to symbolic blood drinking raises immense questions about why a small devote sect of them actually did.


The major question that I offer is: Is there sufficient reason to change one’s faith based on testimony [written accounts] that are not confirmed or multi attested. In addition, the narratives are confusing, contradictory, demonstrate embellishments, written for theological reasons, and… Would you willing to change your faith based on the testimony of one person? In addition, the accounts and/or witnesses are anonymous!

You ask: Why do you think raising doubt is enough to overthrow the historical record?

Response: You are assuming that historical record is FACTUAL - I and many others do not. The burden is on proponents to demonstrate that the records are, literally historical facts [TRUE] and worthy to be a reason to change one’s faith.

Thank you for writing.

Take care


As I see it, you have not presented even the beginnings of an argument that will challenge an informed Christian, or even a secular historian. We can talk about what could change my mind, but we aren’t even in the right ballpark here.

No, this is not true.

I once again ask you to try and articulate what our objections are, so that we know you are understanding them. From there you can tell us why they are wrong.

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Hi Mike,

it seems to me that either you are assuming that (1) the historical record is factual (for example, you believe Jesus actually existed) or (2) you have some consistent criteria for deciding which elements in the Gospels are historically factual and which are not, or (3) you are simply cherry-picking.

Would you agree with that? And if so, which is it?

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That is a non-argument. I don’t follow at all. Why should all authors have reason to describe the tomb?

Yes. Lots of people, both rich and poor, were buried in such places. Why wouldn’t it be “practical”? (I assume you understand what cemeteries were like in those days. For the sake of all of our readers, I will emphasize that they were not much like most modern-day cemeteries in the USA today.)

Even if one assumes that the scholarly consensus is not strong on the type of tomb, why would it possibly matter?

I’m not going to belabor the other points because they, frankly, strike me as very weak.


If that was the agenda, the authors could have done a much better job! And, for example, nobody would have followed that burial account with a resurrection pericope where women were the first witnesses to the resurrection! That’s not an ideal way to emphasize “honor and respect” and make the account sound credible.

Thanks for sharing the list, however. This is very interesting. We’re glad you joined us on Peaceful Science.


Hello Joshua:

Sorry for getting back to this question that you asked.

About a year ago, Gary Habermas and I had lunch at Liberty University. He is a super great guy, and definite Packers fan [they are having a bad season].

I did a search on the internet and came across several examples for William Lane Craig [not part of your list]. Here is one example

William Lane Craig

Dr. William Lane Craig.

Christ died so we may
write articles about

Icon christianity.svg\ 100x100
A multi-chef broth

v - t - e

“”The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. And this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence. And therefore, even if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I do not think that this controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Additional examples can be explored by typing into a search engine: “William Lane Craig lies”

In reference to Sean McDowell, he too, seems like a really nice guy. With have communicated…He invited me (and I agreed) to Skype with his class! He was extremely courteous! The skying was fun. Anyhow, yes, I do believe (although I could be wrong) that he is biased. Please examine his thesis or book The Fate of the Apostles" … His book is extensively interacted with in my future Volume 2. My problem is the rating that he assigns to each Apostle - they were way to high. And, he distorts the data by omitting Judas. I am sure he believes that his evaluation is fair, but, respectfully, I believe that it is strongly “biased” or skewed. Of course, to repeat, this is just my opinion.

Take care