Apr 19, 2011

Jesus died. Case closed?

“Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980's? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well—no.” - Richard Carrier, 2006

(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Thanks RC, you make a good point, in that if your analogy is a good one, Christianity is in evidential trouble. Let’s examine it, making some quick comparisons to the claimed resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

As a test for myself and to save time and effort, I’ll do this response from the top of my head, or mostly anyway, so it may be a little fast and loose; but anyone who reads it will get the general idea. I’ll also add a little to this if I find time I’ll also link in some of my favourite sources, some of which are easy to access on the web.

Carrier is here implicitly talking about the gospels. What are these things and is he being fair in his characterisation? To start with, in one sense, yes. RC gets his maths right, insofar as modern scholarship generally dates the gospels to around 40-50 years - and the final one, John, a little later - after the key events in question, i.e. those surrounding the death of Jesus.

Yet if we grant that, the analogy fails in at least these four ways (assuming we can substitute ‘evidence’ for ‘proof’, given that the subject of discussion is not pure mathematics):

1) The gospels are not the only literary evidence we have for the resurrection
2) The gospels do not contain merely religious content as implied by the comparison to ‘tracts’
3) The gospels are tied back to eyewitness testimony and not entirely ‘anonymous’
4) The resurrection was not an isolated or free-floating event or claim; it occured in a unique historical matrix and had real consequences.

Also, incidentally the synoptic gospels (i.e the first three) can be quite reasonably dated, within the bounds of mainstream scholarship, to within (i.e. prior to) 40 years after the death of Jesus, particularly Mark's gospel. Further, the gospels compare extremely favourably, in documentary evidence and proximity to the source, to other ancient records and writings – if we judge these ancient historical accounts by criteria reasonable for their context, they stand out.

1) The resurrection was a central belief of the early church, found in various of the letters written in the first century, including those of Paul (and slightly later writings such as 1 Clement), with most of his letters accepted across the board as being written before the standard dates for the gospels. Notably, we find this belief and the importance of eyewitness testimony to be the centre of an early creed, found in 1 Cor 15:3-7 and dated to within a decade, or considerably less (the letter itself, which repeats an earlier formula, was written prior to 60AD), of the death of Christ. Paul adds to the early creed (by my reading) his own experience of the risen Jesus, albeit one of a different kind to the others. This resurrection appearance resulted in his conversion from persecutor to missionary. As the next numbered point indicates, other aspects of the gospel accounts receive 'outside' corroboration. To expect hostile witness to the resurrection itself however strikes me as at best slightly absurd. Anyone who believed in the resurrection would, I'd expect, be a Christian; so that the only sources advocating that event are Christian is only to be expected. But that belief in the resurrection was early is a matter of historical fact - a fact which stands in contrast to the general vague modern-day application of the term 'myth' to Christian belief. What you do with it is up to you.

2) The gospels fit broadly into a genre of Greek biography (
comments on related things here), with Luke being reasonably classed as historiography. The term ‘tracts’ is one designed to elicit derision from Carrier’s readers; perhaps the actual arguments aren’t strong enough to do all the work required for such inflammatory claims to fully pass. The gospels talk about real places and real people, as corroborated by contemporary sources including historical accounts and archaeological evidence. This differs from some other religious accounts, which are far more clearly mythological in character. We don’t have access to all of the contemporary historical accounts that might help give context, but, for instance the early secular historians Tacitus and Josephus both refer to the existence and death of Jesus. I've looked quite closely into the controversies over Josephus and the case for an historical core of the most controversial passage seems to be the mainstream position.

3) I leave arguing this to Richard Bauckham, in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” – it’s about what the title suggests it’s about. Available in university libraries. More info on the general reliability of the NT here,
here and elsewhere.

4) The resurrection was not an isolated miracle. Jesus was known as a miracle worker – it is a consistent theme of the gospels and is attested in the Talmud (see 2nd 'Evidence' video.)
Jesus’ resurrection started the church – a community originally focussed around Jerusalem, convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead – and quite willing to suffer for this claim. Later tradition indicates many of the eyewitnesses were persecuted and killed in the name of Jesus, but even disregarding this it is clear that they changed their lives and patterns of worship and culture significantly. What caused this abrupt change? Finally, the early Christian community was itself no stranger to miracles, as the book of Acts attests. Something happened at Easter and it didn’t all stop there.

† If you want a proper treatment of the issue, try something like NT Wright’s ‘the Resurrection of the Son of God’. I only got 30-40% of the way through it on my last attempt over the span of a few weeks, but hey, it’s worth a try.

(As a side point, some of Carrier's other contentions are discussed on this website - I've only skimmed thru' these responses.)

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