Posted: Sep 12, 2013 9:20 pm
by Byron
My respect to Will for putting together such a well-resourced case!

My introduction explains why Will's focus on empiricism misses my point, as does his denial of apostolic fraud; I then illustrate why any natural explanation beats a miracle claim before, following a diversion in which I examine the sources, I conclude with how Will's rebuttal serves to illustrate my points.


I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces ...
... Or polite meaningless words, ...
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. ...

As it was for Yeats in light of the Easter Rising, so it was for the followers of Jesus of Nazareth in light of their resurrection experiences. Not only do I make no claim of fraud on their part: I make no specific or definite claim whatsoever about what they experienced, why they experienced it, and by what mechanism it reshaped them.

Instead my case is built on one short claim, a claim Will has not only failed to rebut, but has failed to describe. You can't make probability judgments about miracles, since probability depends upon a stable frame of reference, and miracles have none. My argument isn't limited to empiricism. Any probability claim about miracles is rendered meaningless by the nature of the thing being claimed.

This is not, as Will's rebuttal mistakenly says, "flat out dismissing [miracles] as non-existent." It's a narrower, and more devastating, proposition than denial: miracles are categorically incapable of being established on a balance of probabilities. They must be believed in, if they are believed in at all, on the basis of irrational faith.

It's telling that N.T. Wright, who Will references, had no reply to Dale Allison's observation* that no one, including Wright, comes to believe in the resurrection by a dispassionate analysis of the sources. As with all apologetics, belief precedes evidence. The faith may be informed, but it remains faith, and due to its inability to make a probability judgment, irrational faith at that.

... All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. ...

Fraud ...

"I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation."
E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus

Will says that "those who argue a Jesus myth and the resurrection was completely made up, based around older folklore have an error in their logic." It's curious to know why he's chosen to say this, as I've made no such argument. Far from it. I haven't thrown the weight of my argument behind any particular scenario for how the resurrection belief originated. I suggested several possibilities, in passing, for illustrative purposes only.

The point that Will hasn't addressed is that I don't need to produce any alternative scenario to unseat the resurrection claim, since that claim fails on its own terms. Just as a defendant isn't obliged to do anything if the prosecution fails to make its case. A resurrection legal analogy that, for once, stands.

I agree with Sanders that fraud is not a worthwhile explanation. If nothing else, there's no apparent motive, least of all for the resurrection-based conversion described by Paul of Tarsus. Palestine and the wider Roman Empire was not known for its money-soaked megachurches. However, fraud, unlikely as it is, would still be a more probable explanation than a miracle. People do commit frauds for a variety of motives. Fraudulent cult leaders exist. And believing in a fraud requires no miraculous explanation.

... and a TARDIS?

This is what the argument revolves around: any natural explanation is, ipso facto, more probable than a miracle claim, since a natural explanation is made in relation to a stable frame of reference, while a miracle claim is made in relation to itself.

In his debate with William Lane Craig, Bart Ehrman deliberately concocted the most fantastical natural explanation he could think of: Jesus' body was spirited away from his tomb at night, only for the 1st century Burke and Hare to die in a scuffle with a night patrol, and end up tossed, along with Jesus' corpse, into a common grave. Jesus' followers stumbled upon an empty tomb and it snowballed from there. Absurd and unlikely? Yes, but possible within a naturalistic framework. Unlike the resurrection.

I'll push it further. Way further. A future time traveler, also a devout Christian, journeys back to the 1st century to observe the historical reality behind the passion narratives, and discovers, to his shock, that nothing is happening. There is no Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem. He realizes that there's fun with paradoxes to be had, and the mother of all acting jobs is required of him. He travels back a few years further, takes on the role of Jesus, and acts out Jesus' life in accordance with the gospels. For that tricky death scene he substitutes his body with an android, sets up a holographic projector by the unfortunate robot's tomb, and we're away.

What? Time travel might be possible. History could be altered. Robots and holograms exist. If we have to consider every alternative, however absurd, there's no reason that this naturalistic scenario can't be thrown into the mix. Scarves and blue boxes optional. Apologists scorn such reductiones ad absurdum. No wonder: they expose the absurdity of consistently applying their "consider everything" approach.

For some reason N.T. Wright's doorstop on the resurrection** didn't turn into a science fiction novel hounded by the BBC's copyright lawyers. A shame, it would've been a damn sight less turgid if it had. As ever, the Christian suspension of disbelief is selective in the extreme. For the apologist, it is reasonable to assess biblical miracles as if they were as mundane as a centurion taking a dump, but other fantastical explanations aren't even entered for consideration. If an explanatory framework varies by its adherence to your chosen dogma, it's the very definition of irrationality. William Lane Craig illustrated it perfectly when, in debate with Ehrman, he dismissed non-Christian miracle claims out-of-hand as myths and legends. That old-time chutzpah never fails to impress.

Will's rebuttal has missed this fundamental point: I haven't said the resurrection didn't happen. I don't need to. My claim is, simply, that historiography isn't equipped to assess claims set outside a natural framework. Will has not demonstrated that it is. He's demonstrated an impressive and comprehensive knowledge of the sources, but he's failed to produce a methodology that supports using them towards his purpose. If you can't make the evidence work for you, it doesn't matter how good, or bad, it is.

Since Will's rebuttal has failed to address, let alone refute, the point on which my case rests, it's not a rebuttal in any substantive sense. It is, I'm sad to say, not even wrong. As usual in this debate, the fault lies not in Will, but in the case he's arguing. When a debater as skilled as Will can't make a case work, its inherent weakness is plain to see.

Out of respect for Will's work, I'll now take a look at the sources. Since this tangent doesn't affect my argument in any substantive way, anyone who wants to should feel free to skip ahead to the conclusion.

Passion, Hope, and Legend: the Resurrection Sources

The earliest account of the resurrection is found in an apostolic letter Paul of Tarsus wrote to the church in Corinth, usually dated around the mid-1st century. By later convention, it's labeled the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians:-

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Simon Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

(Translation: NRSV)

The next account comes from the end of the anonymous biography of Jesus later attributed to John Mark, a companion of Simon Peter. Removing the forged ending, absent at late as the 4th century, it reads:-

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


The anonymous gospels later attributed to Matthew and Luke, which use Mark as a source, embellish the tale. The gospel attributed to John provides its own spin. The details shift -- in Matthew, Salome vanishes and the two Maries are greeted by a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular, with an earthquake and descending angel; Luke offers us a group of women running into two figures in the tomb; John offers a solo visit by Mary Magdalene, who doesn't enter, but fetches Peter and the mysterious disciple "whom Jesus loved," who engage in a tag-race to the tomb, followed by angels and a touching scene with Mary, again on her lonesome, mistaking the risen Christ for the gardener -- and theological narratives are woven.

Treating this as some tawdry eyewitness reportage is an insult to the material. As MacCulloch says, it's not history, but a statement about truth.

The resurrection stories conflict with Paul's account and with each other. The divergence between Paul and the gospel material is the greatest. Paul groups his resurrection experience with those of the other apostles, the same in kind. (Hardly surprising, given his incessant power-play with the Jerusalem church.) The Acts of the Apostles, which shares authorship with Luke's Gospel, places Paul's experience after the ascension of the risen Christ into the clouds (that ancient cosmology at its most blatant), the conversion experience presented by "Luke" as a blast of light which blinds Paul but is invisible -- but audible -- to his companions. Did Paul experience the resurrection, a vision, or were the two one and the same? Depends on which biblical story you read, and how you interpret it. On biblical grounds alone, arguing for a distinctive "physical resurrection" is a nonsense.

I note these developments and contradictions not to "disprove" the resurrection -- such a thing is unnecessary, given the argument made above -- but to highlight just how flexible and inventive the early Christians were, even about the core of their faith. We do their creativity a disservice by playing CSI: Jerusalem with it. Analyze it as literature and as a source for early Christian belief. Believe a resurrection miracle happened on faith if you want. The sources support no more.


... We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died? ...

Will says, following Paul of Tarsus, "if Christ did not rise from the grave then faith is for naught." That is a matter for Christians to decide. I don't agree, but that's outside the remit of this debate. The question before us is the rationality (or not) of believing that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily resurrected in the power of God.

Understandably, Will seeks to separate the irrationality of Christians from the supposed rationality of the resurrection claims, but for naught. Highlighting their panic isn't an appeal to incredulity; rather, it's an illustration of the irrationality at the resurrection's core. Resurrection hope speaks as deep as its rational foundations are shallow: it must be defended by the force of the authority fallacy precisely because its evidential basis is so weak. The fact that faith is not enough for so many Christians and their institutions just goes to show how important rationality is, even -- indeed, especially -- for those who would believe irrational claims. Will claims that apologetics are based on informed faith, not naturalism, but its practice says otherwise.

... All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. ...

The belief that God became incarnate in Christ and won a victory over death inspires the hopes of billions, but that inspiration can so easily cause Christians to waste their lives dreaming of the undiscovered country beyond death, and has been used to make the oppressed resign themselves to their lot. Not necessarily, but frequently, and therein lies the tragedy amidst the exaltation.

Belief in Easter resurrection changed the disciples who in turn changed the world. Alongside Will, I think it's likely that they had some kind of resurrection experience -- it fits the cognitive dissonance model established convincingly by Dale Allison in Millenarian Prophet, and explains the drive behind the early Jesus movement -- but with E.P. Sanders, I don't pretend to know what it was. Will has failed to make any sort of case as to why it is rational to jump beyond the evidence and attribute the experience to a miracle. My point stands unrebutted: there is no rational basis on which to make probability judgments about miracle claims, including the claim that Jesus of Nazareth conquered death. They are something that must be believed on faith, or not at all.

I don't know what the disciples experienced in the wake of Jesus' judicial murder. Neither does anyone else.

... All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. ...

* Dale C. Allison, Jr, "Explaining the Resurrection: Conflicting Convictions," Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2, June 2005
** N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, SPCK, 2003