Torley Presents Alter's Case Against the Resurrection

@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?

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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.

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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.?

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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.

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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)

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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!

St. Thomas Aquinas appears to have thought differently. In his Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, he doesn’t engage in historical arguments for the high probability of the Resurrection. Instead, he appeals to “the miracles by which Christ confirmed the doctrine of Apostles and of the other saints.” He then adds: “And if anyone says that nobody has seen those miracles done, I reply that it is a well-known fact, related in pagan histories, that the whole world worshipped idols and persecuted the Christian Faith; yet now, behold all (the wise, the noble, the rich, the powerful, the great) have been converted by the words of a few simple poor men who preached Christ. Now was this a miracle or was it not? If it was, then you have what you asked for: if you say it was not a miracle, then I say that you could not have a greater miracle than the conversion of the whole world without miracles, and we need to seek no further.” End of argument. No Licona-style or McGrew-style apologetics.

I might add that faith is not served by poor arguments. Joshua should understand this point: think of the Intelligent Design controversy. Many people’s faith is bolstered by ID, but it’s bad science. Resurrection apologetics is bad history, in the same way that ID is bad science.

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.

So neither you nor the McGrews have read Alter’s book, yet you’re inclined to agree with them that Alter’s case is “speculative, unoriginal, and uncharitable”? How would they know that, without reading the book?

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.

It’s shameless admissions like this that make me want to throw my hands in the air and say: “Aaaargh!” You haven’t read Alter’s book. You haven’t read my post on Alter’s book. You haven’t even read my 5,000-word Executive Summary, because you think it’s too long, and supposedly, you don’t have time to read it - even though you DO have time to comment on this thread. Go away and do your homework. Then come back, and we’ll talk. You’re a physics graduate, so I know you have the smarts to read and digest the case I’m laying out.

Do you know why my review of Alter’s book was so darned long in the first place? First, I had to summarize a 912-page book, which discussed no less than 113 different issues. I finally managed to narrow the issues relating to historical reliability down to 17 points, which I think is a pretty good condensation. Second, I wasn’t able to write a broad, sweeping overview of Alter’s book, because I knew there would be nitpicking Christian reviewers, who would go over what I’d written with a fine-tooth comb and say, “Hey! You forgot about X, Y and Z, when you argued that this passage of Scripture is historically unreliable.” I had to deal with all the arguments I knew they’d bring up, in order to refute them in advance. That made my review a lot longer than it would have been otherwise.

So after thinking about it, I decided to divide my review into multiple sections, and let people explore the issues raised in as much depth or as little as they wanted. I couldn’t possibly be any fairer than that, could I? I also added lots and lots of nice pictures to the text, as well as highlighting of key sections in bold print, to make it easy for people to speed-read. So why are you complaining?

But because I know you probably WON’T read my post, here’s a very short summary. Evidently I’m going to have to spoon-feed you:

One: Resurrection apologists fall into two camps: minimalists who argue from facts accepted by most scholars, and maximalists who try to establish that the Gospels are historically reliable first, and then use reports in the Gospels.

Two: Minimalists rely critically on the fact of the empty tomb, in order to establish the Resurrection. After reading Alter’s book, it becomes apparent that the empty tomb accounts in the Gospels are dubious on multiple grounds, as they assume that:

(a) Pilate would have agreed to let the Jews have Jesus’ body in the first place (very unlikely for the execution of a political criminal like Jesus [“King of the Jews”] - indeed, we know of no such case in all of history where a political criminal was given a proper burial - and more importantly, a key part of the penalty of crucifixion was being denied a proper burial, as people in antiquity greatly feared this fate);
(b) that Pilate would have given Jesus’ body not to the Jewish chief priests (who were able to dispose of the body by giving it a shameful burial, and who had reported Jesus to Rome in the first place, when they requested his crucifixion on the grounds that he was a political upstart), but rather, to a private individual named Joseph of Arimathea - which is something Pilate would have no good reason to do;
(c ) that Joseph would have buried Jesus in his own family tomb, instead of burying him elsewhere (e.g. in the ground, which would have been much simpler, and which was presumably what happened to the two thieves);
(d) that Joseph’s family tomb was a new tomb (which is very unlikely, as it would have probably contained the bodies of other family members), and that this new tomb would have been near Calvary (unlikely, if Joseph was well-off, as he would have presumably situated his tomb in a better location);
(e) that the burial could have taken place without contravening Jewish law - difficult, even if Jesus was buried on the eve of the Passover, as Joseph of Arimathea would still have had to purchase linen cloths at a time when Jewish vendors would have already closed their shops, in order to prepare for the upcoming Sabbath (which was also a Passover). And that’s leaving out the women’s purchases of spices.

So the “minimal facts” approach fails.

Three: The “maximal data” approach fails too. It assumes that the Gospels are historically reliable. But they make no less than 17 factual assertions about Jesus’ last 24 hours, from his Last Supper to his burial, which are historically dubious:

(a) Three Gospels say Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover, but it almost certainly wasn’t. These Gospels also depict Jesus as telling his disciples to drink blood (the blood of the new covenant), but to a Jew, any kind of blood-drinking was disgusting and unthinkable: you weren’t even allowed to do it to save your own life.
(b) Three Gospels say Jesus died on the Jewish Passover, but the Gospels also show that people were working on that day, in clear contravention of Jewish law.
(c ) Jesus’ trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin, as depicted in the Gospels, was highly illegal, and would have broken just about every rule in the book.
(d) Pilate is supposed to have been reluctant to have Jesus put to death, but this goes against everything we know about the man: in reality, he was a ruthless, cold-blooded killer.
(e) The Gospel accounts of Judas (who betrayed Jesus) contradict one another concerning his motive, when he decided to betray Jesus and what happened to him afterwards (there are two contradictory accounts of his death).
(f) The chief priests are said to have mocked Jesus on the Cross, but if he was crucified on the eve of the Passover (as John’s Gospel is probably correct in claiming), then they would have been too busy slaughtering lambs in the Temple to do that.
(g) In Luke, one of the two thieves is said to have repented, insisting that Jesus had done nothing wrong and calling him a king, but if he’d been languishing in jail for weeks, cut off from the outside world, there’s no way he could have known that Jesus was innocent or a king.
(h) The Gospels offer wildly divergent accounts of Jesus’ last words on the Cross, but they’re probably all wrong, because the Romans wouldn’t have let friends and family members stand near enough to the Cross for people to hear his words - especially since Jesus was crucified as a political criminal. And there’s no way Jesus could have cried out in a loud voice before he died: he would have been too asphyxiated.
(i) The story in John of Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple standing at the foot of the Cross is almost certainly fictitious: according to historian Maurice Casey, it’s most unlikely that the Romans would have allowed them to stand that close.
(j) The story in the Gospels of there being three hours of darkness at Jesus’ death is also probably bogus: there are no contemporary records of this miracle (and it would have been a miracle, if it happened: the eclipse and sandstorm scenarios just don’t work). However, there were lots of contemporary accounts of darkness in the skies, at the deaths of other famous people, so the simplest and most historically likely explanation for the story is that it was made up.
(k) The earthquake at Jesus’ death, only recorded in Matthew, is also dubious. There was an earthquake within a couple of years of Jesus’ death, but there’s no reason to believe it struck on the very day when Jesus died. Probably Matthew drew on the story to beef up his account.
(l) The story of the Veil of the Temple being torn in to at Jesus’ death is almost certainly inaccurate. We actually have records in the Talmud of strange occurrences at the Temple from around that time, but the tearing of the Veil is never even mentioned. To cap it all, the veil of the Temple (which faced east ) couldn’t even be seen from Golgotha (also called Calvary, which lies to the west of the Temple), so the story of the Roman centurion witnessing this and other portents at Jesus’ death (Luke 23:45-47) cannot possibly be correct.
(m) The story of Jewish saints being raised at Jesus’ death isn’t credible either: despite being easily Jesus’ greatest recorded miracle, it’s only mentioned in one Gospel (Matthew). Why don’t the other evangelists mention it? That’s pretty fishy. And if these Jewish saints appeared to so many people after they were raised, then why wasn’t the whole city of Jerusalem converted?
(n) The story of blood and water from Jesus’ side presupposes that someone (the beloved disciple) stood close enough to the Cross to notice it - but as we’ve seen, the Romans wouldn’t have allowed anyone that close, especially when they were on serious business, following Pilate’s orders.
(o) The Gospels declare that Jesus was buried in a new tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. This is unlikely, too, for reasons explained above.
(p ) Matthew’s Gospel says that a guard of soldiers was posted at the tomb. However, we are not told why Pilate would have agreed to the Jewish leaders’ request for a guard, as it concerned a purely religious issue that was of no concern to a Roman prefect. And how likely is it that Pilate, whom the Gospels depict as being pressured against his will by the chief priests into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, would have turned around the following day and granted the chief priests’ request for a guard? Finally, the story is at odds with Jewish law, as it involves the chief priests and Pharisees ordering people to work on the Sabbath, which was forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
(q) Stories in the Gospels of women visiting the tomb again on Sunday morning can be discounted as well. According to Alter, it is unlikely that women would have traveled without men to escort them, and in any case, they would have been trespassing (and violating Roman law) by entering a private tomb. Nor would they have had time to purchase any spices to anoint Jesus’ body, as Mark records. What’s more, anointing a dead body and then re-wrapping it in dirty linen cloths makes absolutely no sense. Finally, there is an even more fundamental problem relating to the logistics of entering the tomb: how did the women intend to roll away the stone (which Mark’s Gospel tells us was “very big”), and how did they intend to roll it back again?

Four: The Resurrection accounts, apart from being inconsistent with one another over even basic details, fail to support belief in the Resurrection as the only adequate explanation for the apostles’ subsequent behavior. But in order to support belief in the Resurrection, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances would have to be multiply attested by witnesses whose testimonies were mutually consistent , and it would have to involve them not only seeing and hearing Jesus (as one might in a vision) but experiencing physical contact with him. Only a few of the dozen-odd appearance-stories meet the criteria of multiple attestation and physical contact, but we have no records of separate interviews with each of the witnesses (the apostles), so we can’t be sure that they all saw, heard and felt the same things. It might be said that the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith in the Resurrection. But even if they were, the claim (made by some apologists) that they wouldn’t have all been prepared to die for their faith in Jesus’ Resurrection unless they had carefully checked out each other’s accounts of what they experienced and found that they all tallied, boils down to a psychological assumption. Also, we don’t know how many of the apostles saw Jesus, how many saw and heard him, and how many touched him as well. (It might have only been a couple of apostles who touched him.)

The upshot is that the Resurrection accounts are too weak to use as a justification for belief in the Resurrection. I’ll end my very short summary here.

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.

I don’t claim to know what historians’s standards are, but I stand by what I wrote in my post:

Now for all I know, the historical difficulties with these accounts may all turn out to have a satisfactory resolution; however, historians don’t deal with what’s merely possible , but with what’s probable , in the light of the evidence. 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 – and no, I’m not talking about miracles, but about how key figures in the Gospel narratives – people like Pilate, the chief priests, the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus, and the women who visited Jesus’ tomb – are supposed to have acted. If you want to defend the Gospel narratives, then you have to believe that all these people behaved in a way that was totally out of character for them, on numerous occasions, all within a very short span of time (less than 48 hours). A devout Christian might be prepared to believe that they did so, under the mysterious influence of God’s grace, but historians are not free to make such gratuitous assumptions, any more than they are free to invoke “Jedi mind tricks” when explaining why certain historical individuals acted in the way they did. That’s ad hoc argumentation. The “maximal data” case for the Resurrection thus dies the death of a thousand cuts.

You say it’s important to defer to expert opinion before making public statements about the historical reliability of the Gospels. But on nearly all of the 17 points I raised, the opinions defended within Alter’s book are well within the academic mainstream. He’s not some fanatic with eccentric views.

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.

You’re missing the point. Repentance is easy to explain. The question is: how did the good thief learn that Jesus was in fact innocent, and that he had claimed to be a king who would come in glory? Where did he hear that from? Remember: he’d been locked up in jail for weeks or even months, with no news of the outside world. And seeing a sign of Jesus’ Cross wouldn’t have helped matters either: only 3% of people in that part of the Roman empire were literate in those days.

I respectfully submit that you need to do more reading, Daniel. And I would politely suggest that you give Michael Alter a break.



Since you’re not a trained historian, how do you know how an impartial historian would think?

Short answer: because I’ve been reading what trained historians have to say about the specific matters raised by Alter in his book. Why do you think it took me several months to write my review? I had quite a bit of checking to do. By and large, Alter’s factual assertions checked out.

I suggest you do your own reading.