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.