Tag Archives: Resurrection

Quick overview of N.T. Wright’s case for the resurrection

UPDATE: Welcome visitors from Free Canuckistan! Thanks for the linky, Binky!

I thought I would just go over a paper from N.T. Wright, whose multi-volume case for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus seems to be getting a lot of respect from the other side, (although I strongly disagree with his economic and political views, which are naive at best).Wright has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Duke, McGill, etc.. He’s published 40 books.

CV excerpt, all degrees are from Oxford University:

  • 2000 D.D.
  • 1981 D.Phil.
  • 1975 M.A.
  • 1973 B.A.(1st class Honours), Theology; Denyer and Johnson Prize (shared) for top first class of year; College Prize
  • 1971 B.A.(1st class Honours), Literae Humaniores; College Prize

Wright seems to get a lot of respect from skeptics like John Dominic Crossan (their debate is here: book, audio – note: buy the audio, don’t buy the book). I have never heard Crossan concede the empty tomb and the appearances before, but he did against Wright. In his debate (audio, book) against William Lane Craig, he denied all 4 of Craig’s minimal facts.

We have seen elsewhere how to argue for the resurrection using the minimal facts approach. The minimal facts are the handful of facts about Jesus that survive the standard historical criteria used in the evaluation of historical biographies. But Wright has a different approach.

Let’s take a look at a lecture (that link has PDF transcript, audio and movies) that Wright gave on the resurrection.

N.T. Wright’s historical case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus

Wright basically argues that the resurrection cannot have been a myth invented by the early Christian community, because the idea of the Messiah dying and being bodily resurrected to eternal life was completely unexpected in Jewish theology, and therefore would not have been fabricated.

In Judaism, when people die, they stay dead. At the most, they might re-appear as apparitions, or be resuscitated to life for a while, but then die again later. There was no concept of the bodily resurrection to eternal life of a single person, especially of the Messiah, prior to the general resurrection of all the righteous dead on judgment day.

Wright’s case for the resurrection has 3 parts:

  • The Jewish theological beliefs of the early Christian community underwent 7 mutations that are inexplicable apart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • The empty tomb
  • The post-mortem appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups, friends and foes

Here’s the outline of Wright’s case:

…the foundation of my argument for what happened at Easter is the reflection that this Jewish hope has undergone remarkable modifications or mutations within early Christianity, which can be plotted consistently right across the first two centuries. And these mutations are so striking, in an area of human experience where societies tend to be very conservative, that they force the historian… to ask, Why did they occur?

The mutations occur within a strictly Jewish context. The early Christians held firmly, like most of their Jewish contemporaries, to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world. ‘Resurrection’ is not a fancy word for ‘life after death’; it denotes life after ‘life after death’.

And here are the 7 mutations:

  1. Christian theology of the afterlife mutates from multiples views (Judaism) to a single view: resurrection (Christianity). When you die, your soul goes off to wait in Sheol. On judgment day, the righteous dead get new resurrection bodies, identical to Jesus’ resurrection body.
  2. The relative importance of the doctrine of resurrection changes from being peripheral (Judaism) to central (Christianity).
  3. The idea of what the resurrection would be like goes from multiple views (Judaism) to a single view: an incorruptible, spiritually-oriented body composed of the material of the previous corruptible body (Christianity).
  4. The timing of the resurrection changes from judgment day (Judaism) to a split between the resurrection of the Messiah right now and the resurrection of the rest of the righteous on judgment day (Christianity).
  5. There is a new view of eschatology as collaboration with God to transform the world.
  6. There is a new metaphorical concept of resurrection, referred to as being “born-again”.
  7. There is a new association of the concept of resurrection to the Messiah. (The Messiah was not even supposed to die, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to rise again from the dead in a resurrected body!)

There are also other historical puzzles that are solved by postulating a bodily resurrection of Jesus.

  1. Jewish people thought that the Messiah was not supposed to die. Although there were lots of (warrior) Messiahs running around at the time, whenever they got killed, their followers would abandon them. Why didn’t Jesus’ followers abandon him when he died?
  2. If the early Christian church wanted to communicate that Jesus was special, despite his shameful death on the cross, they would have made up a story using the existing Jewish concept of exaltation. Applying the concept of bodily resurrection to a dead Messiah would be a radical departure from Jewish theology, when an invented exaltation was already available to do the job.
  3. The early church became extremely reckless about sickness and death, taking care of people with communicable diseases and testifying about their faith in the face of torture and execution. Why did they scorn sickness and death?
  4. The gospels, especially Mark, do not contain any embellishments and “theology historicized”. If they were made-up, there would have been events that had some connection to theological concepts. But the narratives are instead bare-bones: “Guy dies public death. People encounter same guy alive later.” Plain vanilla narrative.
  5. The story of the women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb cannot have been invented, because the testimony of women was inadmissable under almost all circumstances at that time. If the story were invented, they would have invented male discoverers of the tomb. Female discovers would have hampered conversion efforts.
  6. There are almost no legendary embellishments in the gospels, while there are plenty in the later gnostic forgeries. No crowds of singing angels, no talking crosses, and no booming voices from the clouds.
  7. There is no mention of the future hope of the general resurrection, which I guess they thought was imminent anyway.

To conclude, Wright makes the argument that the best explanation of all of these changes in theology and practice is that God raised Jesus (bodily) from the dead. There is simply no way that this community would have made up the single resurrection of the Messiah – who wasn’t even supposed to die – and then put themselves on the line for that belief.

And remember, the belief in a resurrected Jesus was not a belief in a flying spaceship that was going to come and pick them up if they drank the kool-aid. This was a belief they held based on personal experiences. They were able to confirm or deny their belief in the resurrection of Jesus based on their own personal experiences with the object of those beliefs.

Additional resources

For more debates on the resurrection, see here for William Lane Craig, here for Mike Licona, and here for Gary Habermas. I am a big fan of all these guys, but Craig hasn’t lost any resurrection debates, while Licona tied against Richard Carrier and Habermas lost against Arif Ahmed. In particular, I recommend these 3 debates:

UPDATE: Also, I have a more recent post on the earliest source of historical facts about the resurrection.

How every Christian can learn to explain the resurrection of Jesus to others

Basically, as a Christian, I think we, myself included, all ought to be able to show that there is a case for the resurrection on historical grounds. Even if Christians know that the resurrection is true by the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, you cannot use that when persuading and defending it to other people. So you have to make a case using the available evidence and the normal rules of historical investigation. You can’t assume the Bible is inerrant with your co-workers and you can’t focus on Christian-ese or peripheral issues, either. So how can you do it?

Part A: Historical methods

The way I normally start is with the standard rules used by all scholars who analyze ancient biographies. Basically, there is a list of criteria that scholars across the spectrum use for deciding which parts of ancient literary sources are more likely to be true. It’s amazing when you see debates on this because both sides basically agree on the methodology.

And, if you apply the methodology carefully, then both sides actually agree on what facts in the biographies are authentic. I am talking about agreement on authentic facts by atheists and fundamentalists alike!

Here are some of the rules used for analyzing ancient biographies:

1) multiple attestation – if the fact about X is asserted by two or more
sources, then the fact is likely authentic.

2) dissimilarity – if a teaching of X is different from popular teachings
and concepts of that time and place, it is likely authentic.

3) embarassment – if a fact is embarassing to X or X’s community or the
writers of the biography of X, then it is likely authentic.

4) enemy attestation – if a fact about X is corroborated by enemies of X,
or X’s community, then that fact is likely to be authentic.

5) early attestation – if a fact about X is in an early source, then that fact
is likely to be authentic.

And there are others.

So, if you want to talk about the resurrection at work without being laughed at or fired, you can use these criteria to identify historical facts.

Part B: Minimal facts

Using the historical methods above, you won’t be able to recover MOST of what the New Testament writings say about Jesus. For example, the guard at the tomb is only in Matthew, so you cannot use that as a minimal fact. And John is a pretty late gospel, so most of that can’t be used. So what parts can be used?

Well, here is William Lane Craig’s list of facts:

1) the empty tomb
2) the appearances experienced by various people, including Paul
3) early belief in the resurrection emerged in Jerusalem

And, here is Gary Habermas’ list of facts:

1) death by crucifixion
2) early belief in resurrection
3) appearances experienced by disciples
4) Paul’s appearance and change of heart
5) James’s (Jesus’ brother) change of heart
6) the empty tomb

Probably the most celebrated defender of the resurrection writing today is N. T. Wright. He makes a bit of a different case where he asks what sort of historical occurrence would be adequate to explain the changes in theology and practice that occurred when 1st century Jews in Jerusalem became Christians. His argument is that the changes (“mutations”) require a historical resurrection. Here is Wright’s list:

1) the empty tomb
2) the appearances to various people
and 7 mutations (changes) in the way that early Christians changed
their views of the meaning and centrality of the Jewish doctrines of
the Messiah, resurrection, eschatology, etc.

You’ll be surprised to know that few of these facts are disputed by atheistic historians like Gerd Ludemann, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The only one that’s sometimes disputed is the empty tomb, but some guys will give it to you. I just read N.T. Wright’s debate against John Dominic Crossan, who is on the far-left fringe. He gave up the appearances AND said he was “OK” with the empty tomb.

So, once you apply the historical criteria, and you hammer out your list of facts, what comes next?

Part C: Inference to the best explanation

Once you have the list of facts, you need to explain why the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead is the best explanation for the facts. This is done by showing that the hypothesis is consistent with all of the available data.

The atheist is likely to jump in at this point with an alternative explanation of the facts. Their explanations will not involve any miracles – instead, they try to account for the facts by proposing a naturalistic hypothesis. Here is a list of a few together with my defense against them.

1) Jesus wasn’t really dead
– crucifixion is lethal and you can’t fake being dead
– this doesn’t explain the early belief in the resurrection, since
a half-dead Jesus would not inspire a belief in the resurrection

2) Jesus’ disciples moved the body and lied about it
– it doesn’t explain the appearance to Paul, etc.
– it doesn’t explain why the early church was willing to be persecuted

3) The Jews moved the body and lied about it
– they had no interest in helping a rival sect
– it doesn’t explain the appearance to Paul, etc.

4) The Romans moved the body and lied about it
– they had no interest in helping a trouble-making sect
– it doesn’t explain the appearance to Paul, etc.

5) Somebody else moved the body
– it doesn’t explain the appearance to Paul, etc.
– there is no evidence to support the claim

6) The early church hallucinated the appearances
– group hallucinations are impossible
– it doesn’t explain the empty tomb
– it doesn’t explain the theological mutations about “resurrection”, since seeing a ghost does not imply a bodily resurrection

Etc.

Keep in mind that when judging explanations, the simplest explanation is usually the best. If a skeptic has to join together multiple hypotheses, then this weakens the appeal of their explanation, because it’s “ad-hoc”.

I wrote another post on the resurrection here, with some links to debates.  Here is a list of the virtually indisputable facts about Jesus, from respected, skeptical, non-Christian scholars like Norman Perrin and E. P. Sanders. More debates are here.

UPDATE: Welcome, visitors from Robert P. Murphy’s blog Free Advice. Please take a look around – the purpose of my blog is to help Christians to integrate their faith with other areas of knowledge, especially economics! For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Murphy is the author of the greatest book on economics ever written (and I’ve read The Road to Serfdom!). This is a book for everyone – and it’s the first book laymen should read on economics.

Full report from William Lane Craig’s Quebec debating tour

I received William Lane Craig’s report from his Ontario and Quebec speaking tours in my e-mail inbox. The report is not yet posted on his web site, so I reproduce the portion related to his debate at McGill against Shabir Ally below. (I wanted to post everything, but it was too much)

Here’s what Bill says about debating Shabir at McGill University in Montreal:

The next evening was my debate at the English-speaking McGill University with the Muslim apologist Shabir Ally on “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” I began by presenting a case for Jesus’ resurrection, and Shabir then followed. Shabir is a very slick customer, a skilled debater and smooth speaker. Whereas my debating style tends to be pretty formal, ticking off one point after another, Shabir began his opening speech by telling a joke, which got the audience laughing, and even presenting to me a small souvenir gift from Montréal. I thought to myself, “Boy, I’m already ten points behind just on audience rapport!” But my experience is that these first impressions fade pretty quickly as the debate unfolds.

So I figured I should just carry out my plan to attack his view hard, while continuing to be gracious personally. Shabir defends a very strange view of what happened to Jesus. He holds that Jesus was crucified (despite the Qur’an’s denial of that fact) but that he was only apparently dead when he was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. Before he could die in the tomb, God assumed him into heaven and thereafter gave visions of Jesus to the disciples. In that way, Shabir is able to affirm the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the disciples’ belief in his resurrection, but all without Jesus’ being raised from the dead!

Unfortunately, to my surprise, Shabir didn’t even mention his theory in his opening speech but just presented a wishy-washy, feel-good talk about Islam and Christianity. “Now what should I do?” I thought. “If I attack his view when he hasn’t even presented it, I’m really going to come across as mean-spirited. But if I wait till the rebuttals, there won’t be enough time to present my critique.” As I said, I decided to go after his view anyway, explaining to the audience that this is his position in his published work.

As a preliminary observation, I pointed out that no true Muslim could embrace his view, since the Qur’an could not be more straightforward or unambiguous: “They did not kill him; they did not crucify him” (4:157). I even quoted the Arabic “wa maa qataluhu, wa maa salabuhu.” I charged that Shabir, in denying the Qur’an, had already deserted Islam for a mishmash of Christianity and Islam, which I dubbed “Chrislam.” I said that if you’re going to embrace Chrislam, why not go all the way and become a Christian?

I then argued that Shabir should do this because his view faces insuperable historical and theological objections. Historically, it has inadequate explanatory scope (since mere visions of Jesus would not explain the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection), weak explanatory power (since the early Church distinguished visions of Christ from resurrection appearances of Christ), and little plausibility (since it is highly improbable that Jesus was taken down alive).

The theological objections are even more problematic: (1) The theory provides too little, too late. For in virtue of his crucifixion, Jesus has already suffered shame, humiliation, and defeat in the minds of his enemies. (2) By misleading the disciples into thinking that Jesus was risen from the dead, Allah himself is to blame for foisting the religion of Christianity on the world, resulting in hundreds of millions rejecting Islam and going to hell! Shabir had little to say in response to these objections, except to reiterate that there’s no way of knowing that Jesus was really dead.

So in the end the palm of victory went clearly to the Christian side. But sad to say, there were very few Muslims in the audience. I hear through the grapevine that Muslims are increasingly disaffected with Shabir because of his compromises on orthodox Islam. In fact the Muslim Student Association at McGill, which had promised to help promote the debate, called at 4:00 p.m. the very afternoon of the debate to say that they weren’t coming and had decided to schedule a meeting of their own that night! So it appears that the Muslim community is losing confidence in Shabir.

His newsletter contains more about his speaking in Quebec at the University of Montreal and the University of Laval. The newsletter also discusses his debate with Shelly Kagan of Yale University, held at Columbia University. And he concludes with his upcoming speaking engagements. Please pray for Bill and consider supporting him by donating to Reasonable Faith.

Mike Licona to debate Bart Ehrman in April at SES

I sent an e-mail to Mike Licona last night to see if he had any upcoming debates. Mike debates in favor of the view that we can know historically, on the evidence, that God raised Jesus from the dead. Mike replied back to let me know that he will be debating Bart Ehrman, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, again at Southern Evangelical Seminary in NC, on April 2, 2009. The topic of their debate will be “Can Historians Prove Jesus Rose From The Dead?”

In Mike’s first debate with Ehrman, (audio, video), Licona used the minimal facts approach pioneered by Gary Habermas, which is similar to Bill Craig’s approach. Mike’s minimal facts approach does not require that the Bible be inspired, inerrant, or generally reliable.  Mike uses only a fraction of the New Testament, the minimal facts, which are facts that are accepted nearly unanimously by scholars across the ideological spectrum, including atheists. He leans especially hard on 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which contains the basics of the resurrection narrative and is dated to 1-5 years after the cross.

The minimal facts are accepted because they pass a variety of tests that the other passages do not pass. To be considered a minimal fact, the passage must be cited in one early source, such as Paul’s letters or Mark, and it must be in other independent sources. It also helps if the passage is attested to by enemies, or is dissimilar from Jesus’ Jewish milieu, or if it embarrasses the people who are recording and preserving the text. So, a fact like the guard at the tomb, which is only recorded in one source, (Matthew), is not a minimal fact.

Licona’s 4 facts last time were: 1) Jesus was crucified, 2) Jesus’ followers experienced visions of Jesus after his death, 3) Jesus’ enemy, Paul, had an experience that transformed into a powerful advocate for Christianity, and 4) Jesus’ brother, James, also had a post-mortem experience of Jesus, and changed from being skeptical of Jesus during his lifetime to being a leader in the early church. Both Paul and James were eventually martyred for their new faith in Jesus. This approach to the resurrection is a lot more acceptable to skeptics. There is no blind faith – just pure historical analysis.

Interestingly, Licona does not argue for the empty tomb, as Craig does. In the recent debate between J.D. Crossan and N.T. Wright, I was surprised to hear that Crossan was willing to grant the empty tomb, for the sake of argument, to Wright. Crossan is a radical liberal, so if he grants the empty tomb, then you and I can use it. I think that the fact that the earliest witnesses to the empty tomb were women, whose testimony was not regarded as reliable at that time, enhances the reliability of the empty tomb narrative.

Ehrman argues that the New Testament is not a reliable source for history, because there are manuscripts that differ from other manuscripts. He concludes that the resurrection cannot be proved historically. He also makes a point about how miracles are the “least probable” explanation, (which William Lane Craig demolishes in their debate, see transcript here). These manuscript differences are called variants, and there are quite a high number of them, because there are quite a high number of manuscripts. The number of variants sounds alarming, until you realize that no New Testament doctrine is affected by the large number of invariants.

In Ehrman’s debate with Peter Williams on the UK-based Unbelievable radio show, and in Ehrman’s debate with Dan Wallace, Ehrman lists the 4 worst problems caused by the invariants:

  1. the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) is a late addition not present in the earliest manuscripts
  2. the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) is a late addition not present in the earliest manuscripts
  3. Jesus was angry and not compassionate when he healed the leper (Mark 1:41)
  4. that Jesus died apart from God, and not by the grace of God (Hebrews 2:9)

Now I have to tell you, these disputes are irrelevant to standard Christian doctrine. Also, I personally prefer the woman at the well story being left out, and I prefer angry Jesus in 3). Why? Because I am snarky. The only variant that bugs me is the ending in Mark, because I liked the long ending. But none of these “worst cases” affects anything that Mike Licona might say on behalf of the resurrection, which is what the debate is supposed to be about, right?

For further study of Licona and Ehrman, I would recommend the book “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus”, by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona on the resurrection, which is the best introductory book you can get on how to argue the minimal facts case. If you like Lee Strobel’s interviewing style, then you can’t go wrong with this book, “The Case for the Real Jesus”. If you prefer books featuring debates between opposing scholars, check out William Lane Craig against Gerd Ludemann here, (audio of their re-match is here), William Lane Craig against John Dominic Crossan here, (audio of the debate is here), or N. T. Wright against John Dominic Crossan here, (audio of the debate only is here).

If you can get the audio for the N.T. Wright and J.D. Crossan debate, that’s quite useful because of the strong respondents, (Doug Geivett, Craig Evans and Charles Quarles). The audio from the Ben Wallace vs. Bart Ehrman debate is also worth getting. These are both available to buy here.

William Lane Craig to debate Hitchens, Carrier

UPDATE: Audio and video from a  panel discussion with Hitchens, Craig, etc. is linked here.

UPDATE: My play-by-play transcript of the debate is here.

William Lane Craig is arguably the most effective active defender of evangelical Christianity. He is currently finishing off a 5-day debating/ speaking tour in Ontario, Canada, but he also has an upcoming 4-day debating/ speaking tour in Quebec, Canada in February.

A listing of many of Bill Craig’s debates is here, along with links to transcripts, audio and video. Here is audio from a debate between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong which I think is one of his better debates. It was later incorporated into book debate between the two scholars, which was published by Oxford University Press, 2004.

Craig is scheduled to debate Richard Carrier and Christoper Hitchens this year. The debate with Hitchens will be held on April 4, 2009 at Biola University. Radio show host Hugh Hewitt is the moderator. The debate with Carrier is scheduled for March 19, 2009 at Northwest Missouri State University.

Richard Carrier is a strong proponent of atheism, and did well in his debate (audio, video) with Mike Licona on the resurrection of Jesus. Licona has since been awarded his PhD from the University of Pretoria in South Africa with high grades, and would presumably do better in a re-match. Craig and Carrier debated before on Lee Strobel’s “Faith Under Fire” TV show.

Hitchens may be more of an easy win for Craig, as he struggled with the scientific and philosophical issues in his previous debate with Dinesh D’Souza, (video here). Hitchens also debated at Stanford University against Jay Wesley Richards.

UPDATE 1: Welcome, visitors from RichardDawkins.net and SherDog.net! While you’re here, why not check out my snarky series on the the war between science and atheism, in which I analyze recent scientific discoveries and how atheists responded to them! Part one, part two. WARNING! These two posts are deliberately mocking the new atheism by being as mean as they are on purpose!

UPDATE 2: Panel discussion in Dallas, TX with William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Christopher Hitchens on atheism is also scheduled, details here. Date: Saturday, March 21, 2009 from 1:00 – 3:00 PM.

UPDATE 3: You can get a LIVE FEED of the upcoming Craig/Hitchens debate for yourself or group viewing for $98. Details here!

UPDATE 4: Welcome visitors from Ace of Spades HQ! Ace wins Conservative Blog of the Year every year. Thanks for the link, Ace! New visitors, please take a look around. My blog is half conservative/libertarian politics and half analysis of arguments and evidence for and against the Christian faith. The goal of the blog is to bring together fiscal conservatives with socially conservative Christians, by improving understanding between the two factions.

Here are some posts that explain Christianity for non-Christians: the hiddenness of God, the problem of evil, religious pluralism, and the problem of the unevangelized. I also have posts on why men are leaving the church, how to make a pro-life case without appealing to religion, explaining the resurrection without assuming the Bible is inerrant or even reliable, etc. Please make yourself at home, and leave your challenges in the comments. Challengers always get the last word here, after my 1 rebuttal.

UPDATE: I analyze Hitchens’ case against God here, from his debate against Frank Turek.