Investigation in progress

A skeptical ancient historian explains which sources for the life of Jesus are earliest

We (WK and my friend Rose) have recorded and edited a half-dozen episodes for our new podcast. Rose wants to do one about the resurrection in time for Easter.  I have blogged here a lot about the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15, and how Paul confirmed that creed not once, but twice, in Galatians 1 and 2. And skeptical scholars accept that creed. In this post, we’ll take a look at one.

So, Rose and I have noticed that – at least at the beginning of their apologetics careers – many Christians think that apologetics is just pointing out relevant Bible verses to non-Christians, as if Bible verses were going to be accepted as evidence by non-Christians.  Or they quote people like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, who are not typically making careful arguments or appealing to evidence.

I want to equip Christians discuss Christianity in the neighborhood, schools or workplace. So, I recommend reading books that have footnotes and indices. Books that engage non-Christian scholars are better than opinions / poetry. You should be watching good debates. William Lane Craig debates are good. I also like Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Behe debates. These are people who read and interact with skeptics.

So, as part of our Easter episode script development, I was showing Rose William Lane Craig’s debate with Gerd Ludemann, a German New Testament scholar. Their debate was published in book form as “Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann“. Dr. Ludemann is considered to be on the far-left, and doesn’t accept miracles. His book on the resurrection is called “What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection“. And I thought it would be interesting for us to see which historical sources HE considers reliable.

This guy is as skeptical as you can get.

In chapter 2 of his book, he writes:

The letters of Paul are the earliest texts of the New Testament and come from the years (40) 50-60. Only later did the Gospel of Mark appear (c. 70) and then the Gospel of Luke (c. 80), the Gospel of Matthew (c.85), Acts (c. 90) and finally the Gospel of John (c. 100).

It is generally recognized that none of the Gospels was written by companions or close associates of Jesus. People whom for more or less plausible reasons we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John shaped the text in the form in which we now have it. Moreover, the occurrence of the same passages in several Gospels in wording which is very similar does not mean that such texts intrinsically have a greater truth content.

That’s the strong skeptical position, with extremely late dates for the gospels, and denying eyewitness authors. In contrast, a more moderate skeptic who also debated Dr. Craig named James Crossley dated the gospel of Mark from 37-43 AD in his published work.

So what does Ludemann think is early testimony?

This:

The testimony of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is the earliest text in the New Testament to make concrete mention of the death, resurrection and appearances of the risen Christ. Here Paul uses traditions which he knows from an earlier period. As I Corinthians is usually dated around 50, we may note, first, that the traditions which he mentions must be even older. Just how old remains to be seen. This early text will be the guideline for our investigations.

And a bit later:

There are different views about the origin of the piece of tradition in 1 Cor 15:3b-5. One trend of scholarship derives it from the Greek-speaking communities around Antioch and Damascus (with whom Paul had particularly close contact); another derives it from the Aramaic-speaking earliest community in Jerusalem, in which case we must presuppose a translation into Greek. On the whole the alternative ‘Jerusalem or Antioch?’ here seems to be exaggerated. ‘For even if the tradition came to Paul via the church in Antioch, this would only have handed on what it had received – from Jerusalem.”‘ Moreover, an argument in terms of content suggests Jerusalem as the origin of the tradition: the closing remark in 1 Cor 15:11 that Paul’s preaching corresponds with that of the others mentioned, i.e. the original apostles – and initially these were in Jerusalem.

The source for the material in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 is Jerusalem, where the historical events are alleged to have occurred.

Here is his conclusion:

All the pieces of tradition investigated here (death, burial, resurrection, appearances) came into being at a very early date. We can assume that all the events reported in them are to be dated to the first couple of years after the crucifixion of Jesus. At all events this theory is probable for 1 Cor 15:3b-5. However, 1 Cor 15:6a,7 also provides compelling reasons for putting the conversion of Paul at the chronological end of the appearances listed, and this is to be thought of as being soon after the death of Jesus, which is generally put around the year 30.

A fairly certain date can similarly be worked out for the conversion of Paul as well. The Acts of the Apostles credibly reports a stay of Paul in Corinth when Gallio was there as governor of Achaia (Acts 18). Now this Gallio was in office in 51/52. If we calculate back from this date the intervals which Paul mentions in Gal 1:18 (‘three years’) and [Gal] 2:1 (‘fourteen years’), and add two years for travelling, the date of his conversion comes out at around 33.

So we may state that the appearances mentioned in 1 Cor 15:3-8 took place in the time between 30 and 33 CE (the fact of the appearances) because the appearance to Paul is the last in this list and is not to be dated later than 33 CE.

So, when we talk about making a minimal facts case for the bodily resurrection from reports that even the most skeptical historians accept, this is what we are talking about. Ludemann has his own naturalistic explanation for these reports, of course. But he accepts the same historical data that we use to make our case for the resurrection of Jesus. That’s important.

If you want to see Dr. Craig’s response to Dr. Ludemann’s case from the debate book, he’s posted it online. You can also watch the debate here. It’s not my favorite debate on the resurrection. Ludemann is pretty shocked by Craig’s conservative views, and hadn’t prepared as well as Craig for the debate.

The conclusion of this post is that I think it’s important for people not to go around quoting G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell in the neighborhood, the schools and in the workplace. We can do a lot better than those guys now.

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