Torley Presents Alter's Case Against the Resurrection

Hi Joshua,

I only just found out about this thread. By the way, the name is “Alter,” not “Atler.”

I’ve been reading and studying arguments for the Resurrection for many many years. I’ve been debating skeptics for many many tears. Alter’s arguments were quite new to me, because he was arguing from a Jewish perspective. And quite a lot of what he had to say about the Passion of Jesus was stuff I hadn’t read before.

Naturally, I looked for reviews of Alter’s book, but few people had deigned to read it. When I contacted the McGrews about it, the reaction I got was that it wasn’t even worth reading. That annoyed me, because I knew that Alter had made what at least looked like a damned good case. Not to review it in detail seemed snobbish to me. Mike Alter told me he’d asked many people to review his book, but very few had, owing to its length and the fact that it was self-published.

So over a period of a few months, I sat down, reviewed and rewrote the book’s key arguments, until I had condensed it down to something manageable in size. Then I checked out various claims on the Internet, as well as I could. Alter got a few things wrong, but surprisingly, he got a lot right.

Over that time, I came to see how hollow, lazy and sloppy many arguments for the Resurrection really are. And I say that as someone who regularly takes on skeptics at Debunking Christianity, which I notice no-one around here bothers to do.

Alter is not a historian. He’s a teacher. Nevertheless, he has made a major effort to read what the historians have to say, on the topic of Jesus’ passion, burial and resurrection. And personally, he has been gracious in his dealings with me.

I continue to be amazed that no-one is buying and reading his book. And I should warn you that his second one is a lot better than the first. Got to head off to work, so I’ll stop there.


OK, I get your motivation better now. So you were trying to provoke more people to take his case seriously. Did you contact anyone else? Habermas? Craig? Licona? N.T. Wright? Sean McDowell? There’s just so many people who have written on this issue.

I still think it’s irresponsible to make such a bold proclamation that the historical case for the Resurrection is conclusively “doomed”. This is more than intellectual dialogue - some people’s faiths could be on the line!

I am not an expert on the historical case for the resurrection, although I have read some books on it and are familiar with the basic outlines of the argument. But as I read parts of your review more closely, I find myself agreeing more and more with the McGrews and others that Alter’s case is speculative, unoriginal, and uncharitable. For example, let’s take a simple example of the “good thief”:

As Alter points out (2015, p. 121), neither of the two thieves was present at Jesus’ interrogation or trials; instead, they were locked up in prison. Nineteenth-century German Protestant theologian Karl Theodor Keim’s question about the good thief still stands: “How could the robber know anything of the innocence of Jesus or of his return as king?” (quoted in Alter, 2015, p. 121).

You also point out that only Luke has the account of the thief repenting. Sure. But that’s not necessarily a contradiction. Basic Bible study classes often teach that it could be that both thieves initially heaped insults at Jesus, perhaps not knowing who He was and why He was crucified with “King of the Jews” written on the cross. And then maybe, over the several hours, one of them learned something about Jesus’ circumstances, or saw that Jesus didn’t retaliate back at the mockers. He then repented. Also as crucifixion is a very traumatic event, it’s completely within reason to imagine the thieves going through emotional high and lows that result in different reactions. We don’t know for sure.

To me, none of this is wild conjecture. I’m just reading the narratives charitably and reasonably and taking them at face value. Is this improbable? By what criterion are you evaluating improbability? What are the historical standards being used here? (For example, the McGrews use Bayesian logic to make their case. Licona uses several pre-defined criteria for determining best explanation of all the facts.) How can you claim:

I believe that after weighing up these problems, an impartial historian would have no choice but to bet against the overall reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, as they contain too much material which appears highly improbable , when assessed objectively…

You seem to use the term “impartial historian” a lot in your review, but how do you know what an “impartial historian” is? Are you one? Do you have a degree in history? Have you written any historical papers? Do you present regularly at historical conferences?

(Is “impartial historian” even a term used in historical papers? In very high-stakes, sensitive issues like the Gospel, defining a clear historical methodology and epistemology is crucial. But I only see it implicitly assumed in your review. One way to do this would be to show how historians have accepted or rejected various other historical claims about the ANE or Classical world, and show how your acceptance or rejection of the good thief is consistent with those criteria. But I don’t see something like that. Maybe I missed it?)

What are the proper historical standards for the field that should be used? How can I trust that Alter and you know these standards and are applying them correctly? Maybe my harmonization of the good thief example isn’t convincing to you. But that doesn’t mean anything since neither of us are experts. This is why I think it’s important to defer to expert opinion before making statements like the above.

So, even after reading your Executive Summary, it’s not clear to me what the original, new, knockdown argument in Alter’s case is. I think part of it is the argument against Jesus’ proper burial. Is this right? Perhaps you can distill the core of the argument to a paragraph or two (instead of the long Executive Summary) so that Christian historians can respond to a succinct case.

In any case, I reiterate my original criticism: it’s irresponsible for a non-expert to make sweeping proclamations that a new work destroys some major argument in the field, especially when that work is also written by a non-expert and hasn’t been engaged with other experts. Especially if this is not just an intellectual game, but a spiritual one, too.


@vjtorley great to see you here again.

This is an issue for me also. I think you grant him to much legitimacy in this.

It is clear that Alter is not an impartial historian. He seems neither impartial nor a historian. This is important, because history has rigorous standards. This has been a hotly contested question for a long time too, and it appears he has not engaged the best scholarship here.

Honestly, I do not mean to be rude in this, but the widely varied claims, coming one right after another…it sounds very much like a Gish Gallop. Not from you, but from him.


Alter claims that a crucified criminal would be thrown in a hole with other criminals and,in most cases, I’d agree with him, but we do have archeological evidence of at least one crucified man (not Jesus) buried in his family’s tomb, so that point is more or less moot.


Hi @swamidass

Thank you for your thoughtful response. You write:

It is clear that Alter is not an impartial historian. He seems neither impartial nor a historian. This is important, because history has rigorous standards. This has been a hotly contested question for a long time too, and it appears he has not engaged the best scholarship here.

Honestly, I do not mean to be rude in this, but the widely varied claims, coming one right after another…it sounds very much like a Gish Gallop. Not from you, but from him.

I’d like to respond directly to this point.

  1. Michael Alter does not claim to be a historian, and I make no claim that he is one, either. He is a teacher, with a career spanning over forty years. He’s also the author of seven books.

  2. Re Alter’s impartiality: let it be noted for the record that on page 24 in chapter 1 of his book, he approvingly quotes the words of Christian apologist, J. Warner Wallace:

Everyone begins with a collection of biases. We must (to the best of our ability) resist the temptation to allow our biases to eliminate certain forms of evidence (and therefore certain conclusions) before we even begin the investigation.

That sounds fair to me.

  1. The widely varied claims in my post - in particular, the 17 points relating to the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, on which I claim the Gospels make historically dubious assertions - were my way of framing the 120 contradictions and 113 issues raised in Alter’s book. I reframed the issues in that way, because I grew frustrated with the sheer number of claims made in the book, and my own difficulty in keeping track of them all. 17 was a more manageable number, I thought. The obstacle race metaphor which I invoked in my review was also my own idea. I used that metaphor because I needed to explain why I found Alter’s book so devastating to read. It was one exploded Biblical statement after another, coupled with Alter’s use of eye-opening data and sources that I’d never heard about before. That’s what “broke the dam” for me. In the end, I came to realize that I’d been making excuses for Scripture all these years, by making illicit use of “coulda-woulda-shoulda” logic. I was happy to let Scripture off the hook if I was able to find a way of reading it whereby its factual claims could be true. I now see that I was setting the evidentiary bar far too low.

I hope that clears up a few matters.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone else notice the similarity of this logic with those of anti-evolution arguments?

Any perceived gap in the record is taken as evince against [INSERT: scripture or evolution], and a mere just so story. This ends up being an uncharitable reading. All good stories leave out details. The particulars of all stories are phenomenally improbable, all the the more so when we are discussing singular events. This sort of discourse fixates us on the forest, rather than the trees.

That is why NT Wrights case has been so compelling. Taking a far more “scientific” approach, he compares the rise of Christianity with ten other Messiah movements from 100 years before and after, seeing several clear patterns. On several objective demonstrable and undisputed points, the rise of Christianity is different. Why? That is the crux of the “river” that historians are trying to cross. They need some good account of how a group of orthodox Jews, the least likely to adjust their understanding of faith, decided into turn their lives upside down and start welcoming Gentiles as equals, the least likely type of reform we should expect. We have to give an account of what changed Paul too. This is not a matter of accepting revelation. It is a matter of natural theology.

None of this, by the way, depends exclusively on the Scriptural account. The full case can be made without even appealing to Scripture, and just in reference to non-Christian sources. This is also where the historian’s experience is relevant. It appears that the key facts are more attested to than just about any event at that time. To ask for more evidence is equivalent to an ID proponent asking for a step-by-step mutational pathway. It is not reasonable, because by that standard we would not know anything about the past. There is no reason to subject these facts to a evidential standard higher that no other event could cross. To do so is an indication of prejudicial bias.

I take great exception to this @vjtorley. I encourage you to look more closely at my work. You are not the only one doing this.

I agree with this. That is not the point though, is it? Alter’s case looks like a sloppy argument against the Resurrection by picking on only the sloppy arguments for it, and then relying on a poor historical case.

Correct me if I am wrong, but he did not engage with NT Wright, did he? He did not engage with McDowell’s recent work on the Fate of the Apostles, did he?

Are there any historians anywhere that vouch for his work? Who are historians that he engaged to make sure he was making a valid argument? What do they say about his book?


This is really among the more problematic claims you make. What do you know of how non-Christian and/or impartial historians are responding to Alter’s work versus NT Wrights? Do they think he has added anything new to the conversation?

My fact finding on just this point is that NT Wright’s case for the Resurrection is strong and unanswered. For good reason, many historians still do not believe. This is a crazy story. We do not expect God to allow His Son to suffer and die. We do not expect a man to rise from the dead. This is unbelievable so they do not believe. However, they are not saying Wright’s case is “blown out of the water.” Quite the opposite. They do not have a good response.

Though I would not say it so harshly, I think @dga471’s assessment is important to grapple with:

Note the contrast with this and ID arguments. Most biologists reject ID arguments. ID is trying to argue agains the “establishment” claiming bias. Honestly, they usually just lack good arguments.

In contrast, most historians accept NT Wright’s and Gary Habermas’s arguments even if they ultimately do not affirm the Resurrection. The real issue right now in public discourse is that most people do not know where the field currently stands in regard to this scholarship. Alter is outside the mainstream here. What he is doing is a type of “pseudohistory”.

Of course, I’m happy to be corrected on the material facts. This, however, is really what it looks like now.


Likewise with nails in crucifixion.

The logic appears to be: we know that horses are the animal of choice to ride, so we should doubt Jesus actually rode a donkey into Jerusalem. By this logic, every detail of a story decreases its likelihood, independent of the evidence of what explanation is most likely given all the evidence.

The fallacy is mistaking P( Story1 ) for P(Story1 | Evidence) vs. P(Story2 | Evidence). The P( Story1 ) will always be low for just about every true story. P(Story1 | Evidence) vs. P(Story2 | Evidence), on the other hand, can point to clear winners and losers.


He mentioned nails too? Let me guess, ‘some people were tied to the cross, so Jesus couldn’t have been nailed’?


Not Alter (I hope). See: Did Romans Use Nails in Crucifixion?.


Hi Daniel,

I have five degrees altogether (B.Sc., B.A., B.Ec., M.A., Ph.D.) but history isn’t one of them, although I do have an interest in the subject. As far as I can tell, the term “impartial historian” goes back at least 250 years, to the time of the historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who described the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus as an “impartial historian,” although many modern historians would query that assertion. As to what the term means, I cannot do better than to quote Gibbon himself (see also here):

Since the origin of Theological Factions, some historians, Ammianus Marcellinus, Fra-Paolo, Thuanus, Hume, and perhaps a few others, have deserved the singular praise of holding the balance with a steady and equal hand. Independent and unconnected, they contemplated with the same indifference, the opinions and interests of the contending parties; or, if they were seriously attached to a particular system, they were armed with a firm and moderate temper, which enabled them to suppress their affections and sacrifice their sentiments. In this small, but venerable band of historians, Eusebius cannot claim a seat.

I don’t want anyone to read anything into my quoting Gibbon: I wasn’t aware that he had used the term when I wrote my post.

Alter doesn’t make any such sweeping claim. In his discussion of Jesus’ burial, he reviews a number of alternative scenarios regarding Jesus’ burial (or non-burial), including Pilate’s agreeing to let Joseph of Arimathea have the body of Jesus.

By the way, as Bart Ehrman points out, we have NO archaeological evidence of the Romans allowing the body of a political criminal to be buried. Criminals in this category were subjected to the maximum possible humiliation, and shown no quarter.

Why would anyone have three Bachelor’s degrees?

1 Like

It distresses me that people are making wild and unfounded assertions about Alter’s book, without having read it.

As a matter of fact, despite the fact that Alter raises no less than 113 issues in his book, the question of whether nails were used in Jesus’ crucifixion is not one of them. As far as I can tell, Alter has no particular opinion on this issue.

On pages 181-182 of his book, Alter takes issue with John’s claim that not one of Jesus’ bones was broken. He cites a 1983 article by Stephen Pennells of St. John’s College, Cambridge (Journal for the Study of the New Testament 19 (1983), pp. 99-115), which remarks: “If nails were used it could not be confidently claimed that no bone was broken.” (1983, p. 109)

Elsewhere in his book, in Table 12, Alter examines the question of whether Jesus was actually brain-dead when his body was buried, or whether he was buried alive and then died subsequent to being buried. On pages 255-256, Alter addresses the issue of Jesus being nailed to a cross by his hands on the “pro” side. On the “con” side, Alter mentions doubts raised by some scholars as to whether Jesus was actually nailed to the Cross: maybe he was just fastened or tied with a rope. Also, the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus despite him having nail marks in his hands, which is a bit odd. There are a couple of other points he raises, too - e.g. did the Evangelists mention the nails in order to conform Jesus’ crucifixion with the supposed prophecies in Psalm 22:17 and Zechariah 12:10? In putting forward these “pro” and “con” arguments, Alter himself does not take sides; he simply notes them without drawing any conclusions, except that Jesus definitely died: he did not revive while in the tomb under the influence of some drug, as conspiracy theorists have claimed.

Apparently some people are putting words into Alter’s mouth. They shouldn’t.

1 Like

I’m sure that’s the case which is why I’m hedging everything I say. And asking you to show you how my impressions are wrong.

You havent convinced me I’m not yet.

Gish gallop is a great term to describe what I was feeling. In Vincent’s review, many minor issues (like the case of the good thief, and whether drinking blood symbolically would be acceptable to Jews) are brought up because they supposedly decrease the reliability of the Gospels. The sheer number of such claims create a cumulative effect that makes it seem like the Gospels are doubtful in every detail. But if the entire methodology and criteria are flawed, then these mean very little.

My feeling is that Vincent, in the course of reviewing this massive work, simply got sucked into these details without looking at the bigger picture. I myself was initially tempted to fall into the same trap when reading the Executive Summary.


So you’re giving me a definition of “impartial historian” which you yourself didn’t know about when you wrote the post? (Not to mention that this definition is 250 years old and I’m not sure if it’s something that modern historians are using now.)

I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in your actual methodology for making these historical assessments when you were reading Alter’s book and then writing that post. Since you’re not a trained historian, how do you know how an impartial historian would think?

(As a comparison, if you started claiming “An objective physicist would say X…”, I and a lot of other physicists might start pouncing on that.)

This is important because you claim that various small details have bearing on the reliability of the Gospels. Do you have evidence that historians actually use this criteria when determining the reliability of other ancient documents from around this period, like Polybius, Eusebius, Caesar, etc.?

1 Like

Beyond just an appeal to authority, there are very good reasons why historians adopt the standards they have. They need to be consistent, which is a good way of judging impartiality, without falling into the nihilism of denying all knowledge of the past.

Alter in contrast had no experience academically engaging topics outside of the Ressurection in this time period, right? That alone is strong evidence of bias. He has no set point from which to make reasonable evidential standard or understand if his reasoning is fair or leads to nihilism.

It is like an engineer picking up a biology textbook for the purpose of arguing against evolution. They have no context of how reasonable inferences are made within biology, so they start making absurd claims. They have no contextual depth to know when their arguments are dipping into nihilism or absurdity.

1 Like

By the way, I’m not opposed in principle to non-expert Christians, skeptics, or anybody else voicing objections to various aspects of the argument for the Resurrection. This is an important issue, and even as Christians we don’t want to be peddling bad arguments. Honest engagement is good. But being personally convinced of Alter’s claim is quite a different thing than claiming publicly and loudly that something is a historical “bombshell” and that all Christian apologists should just abandon the Resurrection.

If you want to do that and you’re not a trained historian, the bar is higher. You have to convince us you know what you’re talking about despite being an outsider. One way to do that is to lay out clear methodology. Perhaps I missed it (or you already explained that in the past, in other forums), but I didn’t see that in your post. Please correct me if I’m wrong.


Heh, I love that conspiracy theory: Jesus was savagely beaten, tortured, nailed to the cross and placed inside of a tomb for three days with no medical assistance and yet he survived.

If you say that, you’re gonna have to admit that he’s a God. (or, at least, not human)

1 Like