James Crossley is my favorite atheist ancient historian, such a straight shooter. He’s on the skeptical left, but he has a no-baloney way of talking that I really like. I was so excited to summarize this, and there’s not a speck of snark in this summary. Crossley dates the gospel of Mark 37-43 A.D., far earlier than most scholars. Justin Brierley does a great job as moderator. Gary Habermas is OK, but he is not familiar with any useful arguments for God’s existence, (kalam, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, etc.), and that is a problem in this debate.
Here are the details of the debate:
Christian philosopher and historian Gary Habermas has been at the forefront of the ‘minimal facts’ approach as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
He debates the commonly agreed facts with agnostic New Testament scholar James Crossley and they discuss whether the miracle of the resurrection can be a historically valid explanation of the evidence.
Note: this is the first of two shows they are doing together.
There is also a video on YouTube:
This non-snarky summary starts at 10:52.
- Habermas: the minimal facts are the facts that even the majority of skeptical scholars will accept
Habermas list of minimal facts: (near universal acceptance)
- Jesus died by Roman crucifixion
- After his death, his disciples had experiences that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus
- The disciples were transformed by their experiences and proclaimed his resurrection and were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection
- The proclamation of his resurrection was early
- James was converted by a post-mortem experience
- Paul was converted by a post-mortem experience
Habermas list of widely-accepted facts:
- Burial for Jesus in a private tomb
- The private tomb found empty
- The disciples despaired after Jesus was crucified
- The proclamation of the resurrection started in Jerusalem
- Changing the worship day from Saturday to Sunday
Crossley’s views on the minimal and widely-accepted facts:
- Crossley: I am in broad agreement with what Gary said
- Crossley: “the resurrection appearances are some of the hardest, best evidence we have” because it’s in early 1 Cor 15:3-8 creed
- Crossley: people were convinced that they had seen the risen Christ
The burial in a private tomb:
- Crossley: I have my doubts about the private tomb burial and the empty tomb
- Crossley: Mark’s gospel has the burial in a private tomb by Joseph of Arimethea, and Mark is the earliest gospel
- Crossley: I don’t have a doubt, it’s just that there are other possible alternatives, and then the tradition was invented later – but that’s just a possibility
- Crossley: there is not enough evidence to make a decision either way on the burial
The empty tomb:
- Habermas: there are multiple lines of evidence for the empty tomb
- Habermas: the reason it’s not one of my minimal facts is because a quarter to a third of skeptical scholars reject it
The transformation of the followers of Jesus:
- Crossley: “yes, clearly, I don’t think you can argue with that, it’s fairly obvious”
The conversions of James and Paul:
- Crossley: “yes, because it’s based on 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that report, that was handed on to him”
Where Habermas and Crossley agree:
- Habermas: you agree with the 6 facts in the minimal facts list, and you have problems with 2 of 5 facts from the widely accepted list
- Crossley: Yes
The empty tomb:
- Crossley: Two problems: first, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 doesn’t mention it, but it “probably assumes the idea that Jesus left behind an empty tomb when resurrected, I am convinced by some of the conservative arguments on that one, but it’s not hard evidence for there actually being an empty tomb”
- Crossley: Second, “the other early source we have ends with no resurrection appearances”, it makes him a bit skeptical of the empty tomb
- Habermas: the empty tomb is not a minimal fact, I want 90% agreement by skeptical scholars for it to be a minimal fact
- Habermas: I have never included the empty tomb in my list of minimal facts
- Brierley: William Lane Craig puts it in his list of minimal facts
- Habermas: It is very well attested, so if that’s what you mean, then it’s a minimal fact, but it doesn’t have the 90% agreement like the other minimal facts
- Habermas: I have 21 arguments for the empty tomb, and none of them require early dating of sources or traditional authorship of the gospels, e.g. – the women discovered the empty tomb, the pre-Markan source, the implications of 1 Cor 15 has some force, the sermons summary in Acts 13 which Bart Ehrman dates to 31 or 32 A.D. has putting a body down and a body coming up without being corrupted
Why is 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 more respected as a source than the gospels?
- Habermas: There is a unanimous New Testament conclusion, across the board, from conservative to liberal, that in 1 Cor 15:3-8 Paul is presenting creedal data, Richard Bauckham says that this goes back to the early 30s A.D., Paul got this from the eyewitnesses he mentions in Galatians 1 and 2
- Crossley: [reads 1 Corinthians:3-8 out loud], now that’s a tradition that’s handed on, this is Paul, we know this is Paul, writing mid-50s, this is kind of gold, this is the evidence I wish we had across the board
Why doesn’t James accept the resurrection:
- Crossley: Historians should not conclude that the supernatural is real, concluding the supernatural is outside of history
- Crossley: I am more interested in what people believed at that time
- Brierley: as a historian, are you required to give an explanation of the commonly-accepted facts
- Crossley: yes, historians must give their explanation for the facts
- Crossley: we know people have visions, and how the cultural context determines the content of visions, e.g. – the background of martyrdom
- Brierley: so you would go for the hallucination hypothesis?
- Crossley: yes, but I prefer not to use that word
Should historians rule out the supernatural?
- Habermas: let’s not ask what caused the event, let’s just see if the disciples thought they saw him before he died, that he died on the cross, and then believed they saw him after he died, like you might see someone in the supermarket
- Habermas: I’m not asking whether a miracle occurred, I just want to know whether Jesus was seen after he died on the cross
- Crossley: that sounds like the angle I’m coming at this from
- Crossley: the problem is that there is a supernatural element to some of the appearances, so it’s not a supermarket appearances
- Brierley: it’s not angels and hallelujah in the sky
- Habermas: nothing like that, no light in the early accounts, fairly mundane
Does James agree that people believed they saw Jesus after his death?
- Crossley: yes, I think that’s fairly clear that we do
- Crossley: but historians cannot prove claims that what happened to Jesus was supernatural
- Brierley: your view is so far from what I see on Internet atheists sites, where they say it’s all legendary accumulation, fairy tales
- Crossley: I’m perfect comfortable with the idea – and I think it happened – that people created stories, invented stories
- Crossley: there are too many cases where people are sincerely professing that they thought they saw Jesus after his death
Would you expect the disciples to have visions of a resurrected Jesus if nothing happened to him?
- Habermas: the dividing line is: did something happen to Jesus, or did something happen to his disciples?
- Habermas: the view that people were seeing a kind of ghostly Jesus (non-bodily) – a Jedi Jesus – after his death is a resurrection view, but I hold to a bodily resurrection view
- Brierley: N.T. Wright says a resurrected Jesus was contrary to expectations – should we expect the disciples to have a vision of Jesus as resurrected?
- Crossley: Wright generalizes too much thinking that there was a single view of the resurrection (the general resurrection at the end of the age), there are a variety of views, some are contradictory
- Crossley: Herod Antipas thought that Jesus might be John the Baptist returned from the dead, and he knew Jesus was flesh and blood, there is the story of the dead rising in the earthquake in Matthew, there are stories of the resurrection in Maccabees, and this would influence what people expected
- Habermas: the earliest Christian view was *bodily* resurrection
- Crossley: yes, I think that’s right
- Crossley: In Mark 6, they thought Jesus was a ghost, so there is room for disagreement
Why should a historian not rule out a supernatural explanation?
- Habermas: to get to supernatural, you have to go to philosophy – it’s a worldview problem
- Habermas: he predicted his own death and resurrection
- Habermas: one factor is the uniqueness of Jesus
- Habermas: the early church had belief in the bodily resurrection, and a high Christology out of the gate
- Habermas: you might look at evidence for corroborated near-death experiences that raise the possibility of an afterlife
- Crossley: I’m content to leave it at the level of what people believe and not draw any larger conclusions
- Crossley: regarding the predicting his own death, the gospels are written after, so it’s not clear that these predictions predate Jesus’ death
- Crossley: it’s not surprising that Jesus would have predicted his own death, and that he might have foreseen God vindicating him
If you admit to the possibility of miracles, is the data sufficient to conclude that the best explanation of the facts is resurrection?
- Crossley: If we assume that God exists, and that God intervenes in history, and that this was obvious to everyone, then “of course”
- Brierley: Are you committed to a naturalistic view of history?
- Crossley: Not quite, broadly, yes, I am saying this all I can do
- Brierley: should James be open to a supernatural explanation?
- Habermas: if you adopt methodological naturalism,it colors how look at the data is seen, just like supernaturalism does