Hi @swamidass, @AllenWitmerMiller, @Freakazoid and @dga471,
First, I’d like to thank @swamidass for inviting me back to the conversation. I’ll try to respond to your strongest points, but I have a lot of other things I need to do, so I shall keep my remarks brief.
Before I address your specific arguments, I’d like to go back to what I wrote in the very first paragraph of my original post on Michael Alter’s book:
Prior to reading Michael Alter’s book, I believed that a Christian could make a strong case for Jesus’ having been raised from the dead, on purely historical grounds. After reading the book, I would no longer espouse this view.
Please also note that I continue to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. I just don’t believe in arguing for it, anymore. The arguments, as I see them, are full of holes. I’d like to briefly explain why.
In order to establish a resurrection with a high degree of probability, you need to be able to establish the following facts with a high degree of probability:
(i) that the individual in question existed, and died;
(ii) that the individual’s dead body disappeared from its grave, and could not be found anywhere else;
(iii) that the individual was seen, heard and touched by honest, reliable witnesses whose testimonies independently agreed with one another.
If you can’t establish all three of these facts, then you don’t have a good case for a resurrection. Period.
With reference to Jesus, fact (i) is not seriously disputed by any New Testament historian.
Fact (ii) can only be established if (a) Jesus was buried in a publicly known grave, in a publicly known location, (b) this grave was subsequently found empty, and © no-one else claimed to have found Jesus’ body.
Let’s grant ©. I have argued that an independent historian would query point (a). Some of you (notably @Freakazoid) have pushed back on this point. As far as I can tell, all you’ve shown is that a good case can be made for Jesus’ having been buried in a known grave. Let’s grant that. However, the location of Jesus’ body within this grave is vitally important. If it was a new tomb, there’s no problem, but not all the Gospels say that it was (Mark’s doesn’t), and many eminent Biblical scholars (including Catholic priest Fr. Raymond Brown and also Dr. Jodi Magness, whom @Freakazoid cites and whom I myself cited in my original post) think Jesus was simply buried in a new burial niche in the wall (or loculus) inside Joseph of Arimathea’s family tomb, where there would have been other bodies as well.
This is of vital importance, because as you’re all aware, after the third day, in Jewish practice, bodies were deemed unrecognizable. In first century Palestine, the identifying features of the face of the corpse were held to have deteriorated by the fourth day. This means that the only people who could have identified Jesus’ body as missing from its tomb were those who visited the tomb on the third day (i.e. Easter Sunday).
Now let’s look at (b): Jesus’ grave was found empty. If we look at the Gospels, we find that the only people who are commonly agreed to have visited the tomb on the third day are Mary Magdalene and an unspecified number of women. But if we look at the Resurrection narratives, the only people who are commonly agreed to have seen the risen Jesus are his apostles. (Mark implicitly acknowledges an appearance of Jesus to his apostles in Mark 16:7.)
What that means is that we have no solid assurance that the witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection personally took the trouble to check for themselves that his tomb was empty. Think about that. To be sure, John’s Gospel says that Peter and John visited the tomb, but that’s just one Gospel out of four, and a late one at that. John’s account may have also been motivated by a desire to rebut skeptics by providing credible witnesses (two men) who could attest to Jesus’ tomb being empty. Be that as it may, we don’t know that the apostles personally verified the empty tomb, on the third day. (They may have gone to the tomb later on, but by then it would have been too late to ascertain that none of the bodies in the tomb was that of Jesus. And in case you’re thinking, “Well, there wouldn’t have been any other newly deceased bodies,” ask yourself: what about the two thieves? Can we be sure that Joseph didn’t put their bodies there temporarily, as well?)
What’s more, none of the Jewish high priests or Roman authorities visited Jesus’ tomb on the third day. The only people who claimed to have found the tomb empty were his friends: specifically, Mary Magdalene and an unspecified number of women.
Now, before we even consider the Resurrection appearances, ask yourself what an independent historian would conclude at this point. Some of the apostles were (in all likelihood) later martyred for their faith in Jesus, thereby proving their sincerity, but none of the women who visited the tomb were martyred. How reliable is their testimony? And assuming that they visited a family tomb (as many historians believe), how certain can we be that they didn’t make a mistake about the exact location of Jesus’ body within the tomb? Only if we can be fairly sure that it was a new tomb can we rule out that kind of mistake.
Now let’s go on to fact (iii): the risen Jesus was seen, heard and touched by honest, reliable witnesses whose testimonies independently agreed with one another. What would an independent historian conclude? Again, the verdict would have to be: we don’t know. Despite the numerous discrepancies between the Gospel narratives, there seems to be a general agreement that Jesus’ disciples believed that they saw and conversed with him. Luke and John add that they touched him and ate with him, but this is uncertain, as Matthew, Mark and St. Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15) fail to corroborate this point. Leaving this point aside, a historian could still poke huge holes in the apologist’s case here.
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%.
The same goes for fact (ii).
Two of the key facts required to establish Jesus’ Resurrection are open to reasonable doubt, from a historian’s standpoint. The moral of the story? Don’t call on historians to bolster the credibility of the Christian faith. They won’t help you, because they can’t. Besides, it’s not their job to do so. If you want to rekindle your faith, read what the Gospels say about the character of Jesus, and read the story of the early Church. Call the Resurrection credible if you like, but please, don’t call it probable. That’s not an honest reading of the evidence.