Thank you for your comments. I’ll respond to you first, because you are the only contributor so far who has actually addressed the arguments marshaled by Michael Alter and summarized in my September 2018 post over at The Skeptical Zone, rather than quibbling about “methodology.” I appreciate that.
Let me begin with a short prologue. Right now, there is a real battle for souls going on, online. I can sense it, because I’m at the coalface, and I spend a considerable portion of my time arguing against Internet skeptics of various stripes. I used to be an enthusiastic supporter of Resurrection apologetics, and I enjoyed watching online debates between skeptics and Christian apologists like William Craig and Mike Licona, among others.
I should add that for several years, I contributed articles supporting Intelligent Design and various aspects of Christian belief, over at Uncommon Descent. The amount of material I wrote would probably be enough to fill two or three Bibles. As a result of interacting with various skeptics, I learned a couple of things.
First, whether you like it or not, people these days assess the truth of religious claims by comparing the best arguments they can find for and against, on the Internet. Books don’t count anymore. Why not? First, they’re too darned expensive - yes, even that $10 Kindle version that you can download. For many of us, $10 is a lot of money. We have families to feed. [In any case, Kindles are unreadable for anyone who (like myself) is over the age of 50 and suffers from presbyopia.] Second, the Internet is free and immediately accessible, at the touch of a button. Third, the Internet is widely perceived as an open forum, where ideas can be tested in an online battle of wits. So if you tell me, “I could refute what skeptic X says, but you’ll have to read my book,” my reaction is likely to be: “What are you hiding? If you’ve got a good argument, why don’t you bring it out into the open? Let’s thrash it out online.” Please, don’t go and tell me to read some 1,000-page scholarly tome which costs $50 and may or may not address the arguments I want to see addressed. Not going to happen.
Second, you have to hit bad arguments on the head immediately, if you’re going to make any headway against them. Otherwise, they’ll simply proliferate online - and if you’re a committed Christian apologist, it will be your fault for not hitting them earlier. This should be obvious to any media-savvy person who’s familiar with the new cycle: any negative publicity about a public individual has to be countered within the first 24 hours, or the public will ignore it and they’ll simply believe the accusations against that person. It’s the same with Jesus: any attacks on the Christian faith have to be whacked online, pronto. Otherwise they’ll stick, in the public mind.
With these points in mind, I’d now like to address your arguments:
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 Arimathea and the empty tomb plausible.
Widely rejected by whom? Who are these scholars who look down their noses at Ehrman? Why do none of them ever debate him, either in front of student audiences at Christian colleges or in their online blogs? I’ve looked in vain online for refutations of Ehrman’s online posts about Jesus’ burial, and haven’t found any, despite the fact that some of Ehrman’s posts go back to 2014 and can be viewed by the public. Instead, what I found was an online debate between Licona and Ehrman on the historical reliability of the Gospels, which I have to say Licona lost. The only scholar I found who was willing to engage online with Ehrman on the subject of Jesus’ burial was Craig Evans - and judging from Ehrman’s recent reply here, I’d have to conclude that he has the better of the argument with Evans. (I’ve read other online posts by Ehrman in response to Evans, as well. And of course I’ve read what Evans has to say here and here. I’ve also read Jodi Magness’s article on the subject.)
So when you claim that most scholars today thumb their noses at Ehrman, on the subject of Jesus’ burial, I’d like some names and references, please.
He pretty much recycles the arguments of Crossan from the 90s… which most scholars also rejected at the time.
In this 2012 post, Ehrman explains that when he first heard about Crossan’s views on Jesus’ burial, he thought them “pretty outrageous,” and held that “Jesus was almost certainly buried by Joseph of Arimathea immediately upon his death.” As late as 2012, he contented himself with claiming that “it is not a certain “fact” that Jesus was given a decent burial and that the tomb must have been empty (as Christian apologists love to claim).” It is only in recent years that Ehrman’s views have crystallized, as it were.
This is important, because if scholars have long debunked Crossan’s arguments (as you contend), then why isn’t Ehrman aware of their debunkings? Are you seriously claiming that he’s not au fait with the current literature on the subject? That makes it all the more puzzling as to why no New Testament scholar has taken him on in public debate and trounced him.
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.
Again: could I have some names and references, please?
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.
I don’t know what you mean by “traces,” but Ehrman’s core argument is a very simple one:
Jesus was executed as a political criminal.
There are no known instances in history of the Roman authorities ever allowing a political criminal to have a decent burial.
With regard to premise 1, Ehrman writes:
Jesus was not executed as a member of the riff-raff, as a slave who committed a crime against his owner, as a lowly criminal from the lower classes. He was executed for calling himself King of the Jews. Craig Evans agrees with that. Virtually everyone agrees with that. Jesus was killed on a political charge.
Now, you contend that Jesus was put to death on some lesser charge than high treason. Fine. But even if you’re right, it was still a political charge: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” That’s political. Can’t get round that. So my question to you is: do you know of a single case where Romans allowed someone who was executed on a lesser political charge to have a decent burial?
He misreads ancient sources on Jewish burial customs and why most people think the Romans made allowances for the Jews.
Ehrman explicitly deals with Jewish burial customs in several of his online blog articles, including this one. As far as I can tell, he seems to be one step ahead of his critics.
But you know what? I’m actually inclined to agree with you that Jesus probably did get a burial of some sort. My point, however, is that even if he did, that won’t help the case for the empty tomb. Here’s why. As I wrote above, there are five possibilities that we have to consider:
- Jesus didn’t get a proper burial at all. Pilate never handed over the body; it was just dumped in a pit, along with those of other crucified criminals. (This is Professor Bart Ehrman’s thesis, and he backs it up by arguing that we have no historical record of a person executed as a political criminal [as Jesus was] being disposed of in any other way.)
- Jesus’ body was handed over to the Jewish chief priests and leaders (including Joseph of Arimathea), who gave him a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave. No family members were present, and there were no mourners.
- Jesus’ body was handed over to the Jewish chief priests and leaders (including Joseph of Arimathea), who wanted to give him a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave, but ran out of time before the Jewish Sabbath, so they placed his body in someone’s family tomb, as a temporary measure, planning to bury it later on. Once again, no family members were present, and there were no mourners.
- Pilate handed Jesus’ body over to a private individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in opposition to the wishes of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own rock tomb. Because it was a family tomb, there would have been other bodies inside the tomb as well.
- Pilate handed Jesus’ body over to a private individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in opposition to the wishes of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own rock tomb. Because it was a new tomb, there were no other bodies inside the tomb as well.
As I understand it, Jodi Magness argues for position 3. Matthew Ferguson, over at his Celsus blog, argues for position 2. Personally, I’m inclined to think position 3 is most likely: it accounts for the Gospel traditions, and it is not too far-fetched, in the light of what we know about Roman crucifixion practices. But here’s the thing: in order to establish the historicity of the empty tomb, you need to argue for position 5. And that’s the least likely position of all, from an independent historian’s standpoint. It goes against all historical precedent.
You also criticize Michael Alter’s arguments in his book, where he attempts to discredit John’s account of Mary and the Beloved Disciple standing at the foot of the Cross:
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… 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 Barrett’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.
Well, at least you appear to have gone out and bought a copy of Alter’s book (am I right)? It’s a pity that Joshua still can’t bring himself to do so. Actually, Alter cites several scholars on the subject:
“Tinsley (1965, 204; cf. Casey 1996, 188; Corley 2004, 81; 1998, 196n117; Thompson 1995, 61) argues that “The Romans did not permit bystanders at the actual place of execution.” Alter then refutes alleged exceptions by citing the work of Corley. Dismissing her as a Jesus Seminar crank (as you do) is an ad hominem argument. Dismissing Maurice Casey as a reverse fundamentalist is equally ad hominem. Casey was a highly respected Biblical scholar, and this is what he wrote about Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross:
The fourth Gospel’s group of people beside the Cross includes Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple. It is most likely that these people would have been allowed this close to a Roman crucifixion. If they had been, and they included people central to Jesus’ life and ministry, it is most unlikely that Mark would merely have women watching from a distance. If a major male disciple had approached this close, it is likely that he would have been arrested. (Is John’s Gospel True?, 1996, London: Routledge, p. 188.)
The central question is simply this: is Casey factually correct or not? If you think he’s wrong, please say why.
I’ll leave it there for now. Please remember: I am a Christian, like you. The difference between us is that after a decade of engaging in online apologetics, I’ve soured on many of the arguments I’ve found, and I now think it’s a waste of time arguing for the Resurrection. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe it; it simply means that I believe for personal reasons of my own, which I find myself unable to articulate to other people. Everyone has to hear the still, small voice of God in their own time. And now, over to you.