Κυριακή, 5 Μαρτίου 2017

Richard Carrier : Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story (1)

Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)

Richard Carrier

I don't buy the resurrection story. That would normally be all I need say. But I am routinely asked why. This collection of short essays serves to answer that question. There are many reasons I am not a Christian. My atheism is based on findings more fundamental than anything to do with particular religions, but the arguments in favor of the Christian worldview as opposed to any other are ubiquitous in my culture and always center around the historical claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. As an historian, expert in ancient Greco-Roman society, and with a good knowledge of Greek, I'm qualified to make a professional judgement in the matter. This essay explains why I find the Resurrection to be an unconvincing argument for becoming a Christian.
This project began in 1998 and has grown enormously with many new editions over the years, and my thanks go to all those who helped to improve it. The present edition, completed in 2004, updates and reorganizes all previous materials. My debate against Mike Licona at UCLA that same year adds even more perspective to my reasons for not believing Jesus was raised from the dead, as will three scholarly chapters I have contributed to an anthology due to be released next year. I also discuss more of my reasons in other online essays besides this one (see Note 1). Altogether, there are basically four so-called "naturalistic" theories of how the first Christians came to believe Jesus was raised from the dead: either he survived, or his corpse was misplaced, or his corpse was stolen, or the belief arose solely from epiphanies (as dreams, hallucinations, or inspirations from scripture), not from any missing or revived body.
Survival is the least probable (as I will demonstrate, the odds that this can explain the evidence are less than 1 in 700). Misplacement fits the evidence better than most scholars think, and theft fits the evidence even better still, though I only discuss these possibilities elsewhere (see Note 2). I think it is most likely by far that the original belief was derived from dreams, hallucinations, or "inspired" readings of scripture, which later became embellished into fabulous legends serving different dogmas. This could arise in either of two different ways: either a belief arose that Jesus had risen in the flesh, and all evidence to the contrary was dismissed as a trick of the Jews, or a belief arose that Jesus had risen into a new body entirely, leaving his old body behind--in which case there could not have been any contrary physical evidence. The latter I think is the most probable account of all (and I make a preliminary case for it here--while much more evidence and argument will be found elsewhere: see Note 3).
The three key reasons I reject the resurrection story that are elaborated here are these: (1) the evidence is insufficient to warrant belief in this case; (2) even survival (mistaken as a resurrection), despite being the least probable unmiraculous explanation, is more probable than a miracle; and (3) some evidence suggests the original conception of the resurrection of Jesus was spiritual in nature and did not involve his flesh (contrary to what some of the Gospels struggle to claim).
Special Note from 2009:This collection of essays is growing increasingly out of date, and I have no plans to update this collection any further. Though I'm not aware of anything egregiously wrong here, I may have changed some of my views or understanding of the methods and facts in the intervening ten years since this collection first began. My most recent published work (in print and online) should be considered as superseding anything it may contradict here, and the following materials should be used with that caution in mind.

Table of Chapters

Main Argument - Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story
    The Rubicon Analogy
General Case for Insufficiency - The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory
Probability of Survival vs. Miracle - Assessing the Odds
General Case for Spiritual Resurrection - Evidence Against Resurrection of the Flesh
Rebutting Lesser Arguments

Note 1: I have discussed some of my reasons for rejecting the resurrection story in other essays besides this one, and in three chapters I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), including "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb" (pp. 105-232) and "The Plausibility of Theft" (pp. 349-68). For works online see: Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day (2002), which was significantly updated in The Empty Tomb (pp. 369-92); Review of "In Defense of Miracles" (1999), especially sections 4b (Geivett's Exercise in Hyperbole) and 4e (Craig's Empty Tomb and Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus); Review of "The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark" (2000); Thallus: An Analysis (1999); Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange (2002); and Kersey Graves and "The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors" (2003). And more are always being added to my Secular Web Index.
Note 2: These two possibilities (misplacement and theft) I do not discuss here, but I do discuss them in separate chapters that I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), in "The Plausibility of Theft" (pp. 349-68) and "The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law" (pp. 369-92). Those chapters are significant updates to my preliminary case for misplacement in Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day (2002), and my preliminary case for the plausibility of theft in "The Guarded Tomb of Jesus and Daniel in the Lion's Den: An Argument for the Plausibility of Theft," Journal of Higher Criticism 8.2 (Fall 2001), pp. 304-18. I have also composed FAQs for those who have read The Empty Tomb and still have questions: Burial of Jesus FAQ and Plausibility of Theft FAQ.
Note 3: See the video of my UCLA debate with Mike Licona or, better yet, the far more detailed chapter on the subject that I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), which answers most objections anyone might have raised against my case in the UCLA debate (since there was too little time to present all the relevant evidence there), while any others I probably address in a FAQ for the The Empty Tomb chapter on this theory: Spiritual Body FAQ.


What is the purpose of this collection of essays? Many things could be said which cast doubt on the story of the Resurrection of Jesus by God, but there are three above all that are most decisive in leading me to reject the story as unworthy of belief (see Summary). This collection of essays details these three primary reasons. The importance of this collection is to explain a major reason why I am not a Christian: since I cannot rationally bring myself to believe this story, I cannot rationally bring myself to be a Christian. Those eager to convert me respond that few Christians hold the resurrection to be the sole revelation of God, but I do not claim this. The resurrection is only the central revelation justifying the Christian faith, i.e. not just belief in god, but in a particular God with a particular plan that we have to follow or be damned. As Paul writes, "If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is groundless" (1 Corinthians 15.17). Indeed, the only reason I wrote these essays was because hundreds of Christians have e-mailed me or knocked on my door making exactly this argument: the resurrection of Christ proves that the Christian God is all-powerful and will save us in the same way. It is this argument that this essay responds to.
My would-be benefactors are not alone: a joint work of 14 leading Christian apologists, including William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, and Douglas Geivett, concludes with the argument "If God has acted in human history, particularly in the Incarnation, earthly life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then human beings clearly are a focus of God's interest and concern" (p. 276, In Defense of Miracles, InterVarsity Press, 1997) and "the resurrection of Jesus represents victory over the grave, not only for Jesus but for all who believe in him" (p. 279, Ibid.). Josh McDowell is even more adamant: "The resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christianity stand or fall together" (1st ed., § 10.pr., p. 179; 2nd ed., p. 203, § 9.1A; cf. also 9.2A and 9.3A). On subsequent pages he cites, as affirming the same sentiment, Theodosus Harnack, W.J. Sparrow-Simpson, H.P. Liddon, Wilbur Smith, D.F. Strauss, B.B. Warfield, Frederick Godet, Michael Green, John Locke, Philip Schaff, and even St. Peter himself (as well as Jesus, cf. § 10.2B). In my ten years of experience in this field, I have seen this to be the standard argument for converting to Christianity, regularly used to persuade others to join, and hailed as the reason many believers themselves came to believe.
There may be other good arguments for believing some kind of god or other exists. The present essay does not address that question. But if the resurrection is not a proof of the Christian creed, what is? If anyone wants to think that the Christian system allows even doubters of the resurrection to be saved, then perhaps the resurrection need not be a proof of anything. But insofar as "whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16.16), and so long as the resurrection stories were written "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20.31), the resurrection must be a proof equal to the task of saving lives, and my essay remains pertinent in pointing out that the resurrection fails to meet that standard.
There are other reasons why I consider Christianity to be an ill-chosen creed, such as the morals actually taught in the Bible, many of which are abhorrent to a compassionate and just man, or other details of its theology which run counter to observable facts. These have been discussed at length by others here in our Modern Library, and in part in some of my other essays, such as From Taoist to Infidel (2001) and Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay (1999). Even though other aspects of the creed are agreeable, the falsehood of its most important claims, and the imperfection of its teachings, are sufficient grounds to abandon it--just as these are sufficient reasons for Christians to abandon every other religious faith in the world, no matter how well-meaning or wise in their teachings. This does not mean I throw out the baby with the bathwater--for if there is anything good in Christianity which can be defended as good without appeal to the supernatural, I am probably a firm believer in it. I just don't see the need to call such things "Christian" as opposed to merely "human." Christians do not hold a monopoly on wisdom. At any rate, here I will only discuss the falsehood of the central Christian "supernatural" claim, that of the Resurrection. In other words, here I only answer the question "Why don't I buy the resurrection story?"
Faith vs. Proof: Some argue that conversion is entirely about faith, not evidence. This is a moot point here, since this collection of essays is only addressed to those who believe the evidence is sufficient to convince--it is not addressed to those who think belief can be warranted without sufficient evidence. I find the latter to be a thoroughly unacceptable way to approach questions of truth anyway. For example, Ryan Renn (whose critique of my earlier edition no longer exists online) once asserted that he does "not desire to be 'just as right' as Thomas was in the Gospel of John," meaning he does not want even to ask for sufficient evidence, as Thomas did. This is an issue of the ethics of belief, of what Renn thinks a person ought to believe, given certain reasons, and this is based upon his own subjective values. I simply disagree with him. In my opinion, Thomas behaved far more ethically than any other character in the stores we have. Other critics, too, have told me that reason and facts don't belong in questions of faith, and that they are only a barrier to a personal relationship with Jesus. This is also a claim about the ethics of belief, and it is a sentiment that I find to be quite immoral. But I will not argue this here. I have addressed the ethics of belief in other essays (e.g. Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?, What Atheists Ought to Stand For, and A Fish Did Not Write This Essay). And many of my other online essays address related issues (click the link on my name in the title above for a complete list), including my credentials, epistemology, and attitude toward history.
Background and history of this collection: This lengthy collection of essays was heavily revised in 1999 from the original 1998 version, was revised twice more in 2000, and then most recently again in 2004. The second edition united the original with the thirty-three addenda that accumulated over that year, and reconsidered many probabilities and added a few new details. I am very grateful to all those who criticized the original or offered suggestions. The thirty-three addenda were inspired by all of my readers, and the incorporation of these now into the new text is a further recognition of their valuable contribution. The text then grew so large that I was obliged to break it up into a directory of its own, putting each entry as a separate page. Subsequent editions met new needs by revising and adding to the whole.
The third edition aimed to complete the utility of these essays as an addition to the Jury Project, addressing arguments in chapter 10 of the 1st Revised Edition of Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict (now chapter 9 of the 2nd edition, the The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict). Since my essays were not originally designed for this purpose, their format does not follow McDowell's. Instead, sections or points have simply been added where appropriate when something peculiar to McDowell begs for a response. No matter the format, this paper has always effectively stood as a rebuttal to McDowell's certainty that "Christ is risen indeed" (McDowell, 1st ed., p. 260, § 10.6A; 2nd ed., p. 284, § 9.8A), and now it will do so even more directly than before, even though very little had to be added. Both his first (1972, slightly revised in 1979) and his second (1999) editions will be addressed, though they do not differ greatly on this subject. Even so, if you, the reader, find any important points McDowell makes (in either edition) that are not addressed here, please contact me through Secular Web Feedback. This also goes for any facts or details that I have failed to address or take into account anywhere in this essay.
The fourth edition involved two changes: First, I had lectured on this topic at Yale, using a shorter summary text of the same title that actually brings in points I made in other essays, as well as entirely new material, and still more ideas came to me after the nearly two hour Q & A session that followed. I then gave this lecture on several other occasions, and wanted to reproduce it online with footnotes on sources and critical issues I never have time to address in person. Second, after receiving a lot of mail from people who clearly failed to understand what I said at several points in the original essays, I decided to rewrite certain sentences throughout all my materials to make them clearer. No substantial changes were made apart from how I said the same things this essay already said in the third edition. The fifth edition of 2004, however, completely reorganized the collection in a more streamlined and integrated way, drawing what had become scores of pages into a smaller collection of a few longer essays. I also updated several arguments in light of my more recent research, changed the way I said some things, and made everything more accessible with hyperlinked tables of contents. Finally, I changed many of my estimates of probability to make them as low as I could believe possible, to eliminate any charge of bias.

Main Argument

What follows is a half-hour lecture I have given on several public occasions, first at Yale on 26 October 2000 at the request of the Yale College Humanists and Secularists. It was followed by a Q & A session of nearly two hours. Many in my audiences have asked that I reproduce the speech online, with hyperlinked footnotes in brackets giving more detail than I am able to provide in person. I have now made this the central argument in my collection of essays on why I don't buy the resurrection story. In this 2004 edit, I have made only a few minor changes to the original 2000 text.

Today I am going to tell you why I don't buy the resurrection story. By that I mean the tales in the Gospels, of Jesus physically rising again from the grave. As a professional historian, I do not believe we have anywhere near sufficient evidence or reason to believe this, and I've been asked by the Yale College Humanists and Secularists to explain why. If any of you want to know more about this than what few points I can cover in thirty minutes, I have several writings on this and other subjects on the Secular Web. But here I will cover the most important reasons why I don't buy the resurrection story.
It actually begins with a different tale. In 520 A.D. an anonymous monk recorded the life of Saint Genevieve, who had died only ten years before that. In his account of her life, he describes how, when she ordered a cursed tree cut down, monsters sprang from it and breathed a fatal stench on many men for two hours; while she was sailing, eleven ships capsized, but at her prayers they were righted again spontaneously; she cast out demons, calmed storms, miraculously created water and oil from nothing before astonished crowds, healed the blind and lame, and several people who stole things from her actually went blind instead. No one wrote anything to contradict or challenge these claims, and they were written very near the time the events supposedly happened--by a religious man whom we suppose regarded lying to be a sin. Yet do we believe any of it? Not really. And we shouldn't.[1]
As David Hume once said, why do such things not happen now?[2] Is it a coincidence that the very time when these things no longer happen is the same time that we have the means and methods to check them in the light of science and careful investigation? I've never seen monsters spring from a tree, and I don't know anyone who has, and there are no women touring the country transmuting matter or levitating ships. These events look like tall tales, sound like tall tales, and smell like tall tales. Odds are, they're tall tales.
But we should try to be more specific in our reasons, and not rely solely on common sense impressions. And there are specific reasons to disbelieve the story of Genevieve, and they are the same reasons we have to doubt the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus. For the parallel is clear: the Gospels were written no sooner to the death of their main character--and more likely many decades later--than was the case for the account of Genevieve; and like that account, the Gospels were also originally anonymous--the names now attached to them were added by speculation and oral tradition half a century after they were actually written. Both contain fabulous miracles supposedly witnessed by numerous people. Both belong to the same genre of literature: what we call a "hagiography," a sacred account of a holy person regarded as representing a moral and divine ideal. Such a genre had as its principal aim the glorification of the religion itself and of the example set by the perfect holy person represented as its central focus. Such literature was also a tool of propaganda, used to promote certain moral or religious views, and to oppose different points of view. The life of Genevieve, for example, was written to combat Arianism. The canonical Gospels, on the other hand, appear to combat various forms of proto-Gnosticism. So being skeptical of what they say is sensible from the start.[3]
It is certainly reasonable to doubt the resurrection of Jesus in the flesh, an event placed some time between 26 and 36 A.D. For this we have only a few written sources near the event, all of it sacred writing, and entirely pro-Christian. Pliny the Younger was the first non-Christian to even mention the religion, in 110 A.D., but he doesn't mention the resurrection. No non-Christian mentions the resurrection until many decades later--Lucian, a critic of superstition, was the first, writing in the mid-2nd century, and likely getting his information from Christian sources. So the evidence is not what any historian would consider good.[4]
Nevertheless, Christian apologist Douglas Geivett has declared that the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus meets, and I quote, "the highest standards of historical inquiry" and "if one takes the historian's own criteria for assessing the historicity of ancient events, the resurrection passes muster as a historically well-attested event of the ancient world," as well-attested, he says, as Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.[5] Well, it is common in Christian apologetics, throughout history, to make absurdly exaggerated claims, and this is no exception. Let's look at Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon for a minute:
  • First of all, we have Caesar's own word on the subject. Indeed, The Civil War has been a Latin classic for two thousand years, written by Caesar himself and by one of his generals and closest of friends. In contrast, we do not have anything written by Jesus, and we do not know for certain the name of any author of any of the accounts of his earthly resurrection.
  • Second, we have many of Caesar's enemies, including Cicero, a contemporary of the event, reporting the crossing of the Rubicon, whereas we have no hostile or even neutral records of the resurrection until over a hundred years after the event, which is fifty years after the Christians' own claims had been widely spread around.
  • Third, we have a number of inscriptions and coins produced soon after the Republican Civil War related to the Rubicon crossing, including mentions of battles and conscriptions and judgments, which provide evidence for Caesar's march. On the other hand, we have absolutely no physical evidence of any kind in the case of the resurrection.
  • Fourth, we have the story of the "Rubicon Crossing" in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age: Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, Plutarch. Moreover, these scholars have a measure of proven reliability, since a great many of their reports on other matters have been confirmed in material evidence and in other sources. In addition, they often quote and name many different sources, showing a wide reading of the witnesses and documents, and they show a desire to critically examine claims for which there is any dispute. If that wasn't enough, all of them cite or quote sources written by witnesses, hostile and friendly, of the Rubicon crossing and its repercussions.
    Compare this with the resurrection: we have not even a single established historian mentioning the event until the 3rd and 4th centuries, and then only by Christian historians.[6] And of those few others who do mention it within a century of the event, none of them show any wide reading, never cite any other sources, show no sign of a skilled or critical examination of conflicting claims, have no other literature or scholarship to their credit that we can test for their skill and accuracy, are completely unknown, and have an overtly declared bias towards persuasion and conversion.[7]
  • Fifth, the history of Rome could not have proceeded as it did had Caesar not physically moved an army into Italy. Even if Caesar could have somehow cultivated the mere belief that he had done this, he could not have captured Rome or conscripted Italian men against Pompey's forces in Greece. On the other hand, all that is needed to explain the rise of Christianity is a belief--a belief that the resurrection happened. There is nothing that an actual resurrection would have caused that could not have been caused by a mere belief in that resurrection. Thus, an actual resurrection is not necessary to explain all subsequent history, unlike Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon.[8]
It should be clear that we have many reasons to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, all of which are lacking in the case of the resurrection. In fact, when we compare all five points, we see that in four of the five proofs of an event's historicity, the resurrection has no evidence at all, and in the one proof that it does have, it has not the best, but the very worst kind of evidence--a handful of biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, second-hand witnesses. Indeed, you really have to look hard to find another event that is in a worse condition than this as far as evidence goes. So Geivett is guilty of a rather extreme exaggeration. This is not a historically well-attested event, and it does not meet the highest standards of evidence.
But reasons to be skeptical do not stop there. We must consider the setting--the place and time in which these stories spread. This was an age of fables and wonder. Magic and miracles and ghosts were everywhere, and almost never doubted. I'll give one example that illustrates this: we have several accounts of what the common people thought about lunar eclipses. They apparently had no doubt that this horrible event was the result of witches calling the moon down with diabolical spells. So when an eclipse occurred, everyone would frantically start banging pots and blowing brass horns furiously, to confuse the witches' spells. So tremendous was this din that many better-educated authors complain of how the racket filled entire cities and countrysides. This was a superstitious people.[9]
Only a small class of elite well-educated men adopted more skeptical points of view, and because they belonged to the upper class, both them and their arrogant skepticism were scorned by the common people, rather than respected. Plutarch laments how doctors were willing to attend to the sick among the poor for little or no fee, but they were usually sent away, in preference for the local wizard.[10] By modern standards, almost no one had any sort of education at all, and there were no mass media disseminating scientific facts in any form. By the estimates of William Harris, author of Ancient Literacy [1989], only 20% of the population could read anything at all, fewer than 10% could read well, and far fewer still had any access to books. He found that in comparative terms, even a single page of blank papyrus cost the equivalent of thirty dollars--ink, and the labor to hand copy every word, cost many times more. We find that books could run to the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Consequently, only the rich had books, and only elite scholars had access to libraries, of which there were few. The result was that the masses had no understanding of science or critical thought. They were neither equipped nor skilled, nor even interested, in challenging an inspiring story, especially a story like that of the Gospels: utopian, wonderful, critical of upper class society--even more a story that, if believed, secured eternal life. Who wouldn't have bought a ticket to that lottery? Opposition arose mainly from prior commitments to other dogmas, not reason or evidence.
The differences between society then and now cannot be stressed enough. There didn't exist such things as coroners, reporters, cameras, newspapers, forensic science, or even police detectives. All the technology, all the people we have pursuing the truth of various claims now, did not exist then. In those days, few would even be able to check the details of a story if they wanted to--and few wanted to. Instead, people based their judgment on the display of sincerity by the storyteller, by his ability to impress them with a show or simply to persuade and "sell" his story, and by the potential rewards his story had to offer.[11] At the same time, doubters didn't care to waste the time or money debunking yet another crazy cult, of which there were hundreds then.[12] And so it should not surprise us that we have no writings by anyone hostile to Christianity until a century after it began--not even slanders or lies. Clearly, no doubter cared to check or even challenge the story in print until it was too late to investigate the facts.[13]
These are just some of the reasons why we cannot trust extraordinary reports from that time without excellent evidence, which we do not have in the case of the physical resurrection of Jesus. For on the same quality of evidence we have reports of talking dogs, flying wizards, magical statues, and monsters springing from trees.[14] 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.[15] What about alien bodies recovered from a crashed flying saucer in Roswell, New Mexico? Many people sincerely believe that legend today, yet this is the modern age, with ample evidence against it in print that is easily accessible to anyone, and this legend began only thirty years after the event.[16]
Even so, it is often said in objection that we can trust the Gospels more than we normally would because they were based on the reports of eye-witnesses of the event who were willing to die for their belief in the physical resurrection, for surely no one would die for a lie. To quote a Christian website: "the first disciples were willing to suffer and die for their faith...for their claims to have seen Jesus...risen bodily from the dead." Of course, the Gospel of Matthew 28:17 actually claims that some eye-witnesses didn't believe what they saw and might not have become Christians, which suggests the experience was not so convincing after all. But there are two other key reasons why this argument sounds great in sermons but doesn't hold water under rational scrutiny.
First, it is based on nothing in the New Testament itself, or on any reliable evidence of any kind. None of the Gospels or Epistles mention anyone dying for their belief in the "physical" resurrection of Jesus. The only martyrdoms recorded in the New Testament are, first, the stoning of Stephen in the Book of Acts. But Stephen was not a witness. He was a later convert. So if he died for anything, he died for hearsay alone. But even in Acts the story has it that he was not killed for what he believed, but for some trumped up false charge, and by a mob, whom he could not have escaped even if he had recanted. So his death does not prove anything in that respect. Moreover, in his last breaths, we are told, he says nothing about dying for any belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but mentions only his belief that Jesus was the messiah, and was at that moment in heaven.[17] And then he sees Jesus--yet no one else does, so this was clearly a vision, not a physical appearance, and there is no good reason to believe earlier appearances were any different.
The second and only other "martyr" recorded in Acts is the execution of the Apostle James, but we are not told anything about why he was killed or whether recanting would have saved him, or what he thought he died for.[18] In fact, we have one independent account in the Jewish history of Josephus, of the stoning of a certain "James the brother of Jesus" in 62 A.D., possibly but not necessarily the very same James, and in that account he is stoned for breaking the Jewish law, which recanting would not escape, and in the account of the late 2nd century Christian hagiographer Hegesippus, as reported by Eusebius, he dies not for his belief in a physical resurrection, but, just like Stephen, solely for proclaiming Jesus the messiah, who was at that moment in heaven.[19]
Yet that is the last record of any martyrdom we have until the 2nd century. Then we start to hear about some unnamed Christians burned for arson by Nero in 64 A.D.,[20] but we do not know if any eye-witnesses were included in that group--and even if we did it would not matter, for they were killed on a false charge of arson, not for refusing to deny belief in a physical resurrection. So even if they had recanted, it would not have saved them, and therefore their deaths also do not prove anything, especially since such persecution was so rare and unpredictable in that century. We also do not even know what it was they believed--after all, Stephen and James did not appear to regard the physical resurrection as an essential component of their belief. It is not what they died for.
As far as we can tell, apart from perhaps James, no one knew what the fate was of any of the original eye-witnesses. People were even unclear about who the original eye-witnesses were. There were a variety of legends circulating centuries later about their travels and deaths, but it is clear from our earliest sources that no one knew for certain.[21] There was only one notable exception: the martyrdom of Peter. This we do not hear about until two or three generations after the event, and it is told in only one place: the Gnostic Acts of Peter, which was rejected as a false document by many Christians of the day. But even if this account is true, it claims that Peter was executed for political meddling and not for his beliefs. Even more important, it states that Peter believed Jesus was resurrected as a spirit, not in the flesh...[22]
Which brings us to the second point: it seems distinctly possible, if not definite, that the original Christians did not in fact believe in a physical resurrection (meaning a resurrection of his corpse), but that Jesus was taken up to heaven and given a new body--a more perfect, spiritual body--and then "the risen Jesus" was seen in visions and dreams, just like the vision Stephen has before he dies, and which Paul has on the road to Damascus. Visions of gods were not at all unusual, a cultural commonplace in those days, well documented by Robin Lane Fox in his excellent book Pagans and Christians.[23] But whatever their cause, if this is how Christianity actually started, it means that the resurrection story told in the Gospels, of a Jesus risen in the flesh, does not represent what the original disciples believed, but was made up generations later. So even if they did die for their beliefs, they did not die for the belief that Jesus was physically resurrected from the grave.
That the original Christians believed in a spiritual resurrection is hinted at in many strange features of the Gospel accounts of the appearances of Jesus after death, which may be survivals of an original mystical tradition later corrupted by the growing legend of a bodily resurrection, such as a Jesus that they do not recognize, or who vanishes into thin air.[24] But more importantly, it is also suggested by the letters of Paul, our earliest source of information on any of the details of the original Christian beliefs. For Paul never mentions or quotes any of the Gospels, so it seems clear that they were not written in his lifetime. This is supported by internal evidence that suggests all the Gospels were written around or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., well after Paul's last surviving letter, which was written around the year 58.[25]
Yet Paul never mentions Jesus having been resurrected in the flesh. He never mentions empty tombs, physical appearances, or the ascension of Jesus into heaven afterward (i.e. when Paul mentions the ascension, he never ties it to appearances in this way, and never distinguishes it from the resurrection event itself). In Galatians 1 he tells us that he first met Jesus in a "revelation" on the road to Damascus, not in the flesh, and the Book of Acts gives several embellished accounts of this event that all clearly reflect not any tradition of a physical encounter, but a startling vision (a light and a voice, nothing more).[26] Then in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul reports that all the original eye-witnesses--Peter, James, the Twelve Disciples, and hundreds of others--saw Jesus in essentially the same way Paul did. The only difference, he says, was that they saw it before him. He then goes on to build an elaborate description of how the body that dies is not the body that rises, that the flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and how the resurrected body is a new, spiritual body. All this seems good evidence that Paul did not believe in the resurrection of a corpse, but something fundamentally different.[27]
Finally, when we examine the Gospel record closely, it becomes apparent that the physical nature of the resurrection was a growing legend, becoming more and more fabulous over time, a good sign that it wasn't the original story. Now, we don't actually know when any of the Gospels were written, but we can infer their chronological order. Luke and Matthew both copy whole phrases from Mark and arrange them in an identical order as found in Mark, so it is clear that Mark came first among those three. Scholars dispute whether Luke preceded Matthew or the other way around, but it seems to me that, since they show no apparent awareness of each other, they were written around the same time, though scholars generally hold that Luke perhaps wrote later than Matthew. John presents the most theologically elaborate of the accounts, suggesting a late development, and even earliest Christian tradition held that this Gospel was the last to be written, and scholars generally agree on this.
So we start with Mark. It is little known among the laity, but in fact the ending of Mark, everything after verse 16:8, does not actually exist in the earliest versions of that Gospel that survive.[28] It was added some time late in the 2nd century or even later. Before that, as far as we can tell, Mark ended at verse 16:8. But that means his Gospel ended only with an empty tomb, and a pronouncement by a mysterious young man [29] that Jesus would be seen in Galilee--nothing is said of how he would be seen. This was clearly unsatisfactory for the growing powerful arm of the Church a century later, which had staked its claim on a physical resurrection, against competing segments of the Church usually collectively referred to as the Gnostics (though not always accurately). So an ending was added that quickly pinned some physical appearances of Jesus onto the story, and for good measure put in the mouth of Christ rabid condemnations of those who didn't believe it.[30] But when we consider the original story, it supports the notion that the original belief was of a spiritual rather than a physical event. The empty tomb for Mark was likely meant to be a symbol, not a historical reality, but even if he was repeating what was told him as true, it was not unusual in the ancient world for the bodies of heroes who became gods to vanish from this world: being deified entailed being taken up into heaven, as happened to men as diverse as Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, and Mark's story of an empty tomb would simply represent that expectation.[31]
A decade or two passes, and then Matthew appears. As this Gospel tells it, there was a vast earthquake, and instead of a mere boy standing around beside an already-opened tomb, an angel--blazing like lightning--descended from the sky and paralyzed two guards that happened to be there, rolled away the stone single handedly before several witnesses--and then announced that Jesus will appear in Galilee. Obviously we are seeing a clear case of legendary embellishment of the otherwise simple story in Mark. Then in Matthew a report is given (similar to what was later added to Mark), where, contrary to the angel's announcement, Jesus immediately meets the women that attended to his grave and repeats what the angel said. Matthew is careful to add a hint that this was a physical Jesus, having the women grovel and grab his feet as he speaks.[32]
Then, maybe a little later still, Luke appears, and suddenly what was a vague and perhaps symbolic allusion to an ascension in Mark has now become a bodily appearance, complete with a dramatic reenactment of Peter rushing to the tomb and seeing the empty death shroud for himself.[32a] As happened in Matthew, other details have grown. The one young man of Mark, which became a flying angel in Matthew, in this account has suddenly become two men, this time not merely in white, but in dazzling raiment. And to make the new story even more suspicious as a doctrinal invention, Jesus goes out of his way to say he is not a vision, and proves it by asking the Disciples to touch him, and then by eating a fish. And though both Mark and Matthew said the visions would happen in Galilee, Luke changes the story, and places this particular experience in the more populous and prestigious Jerusalem.[33]
Finally along comes John, perhaps after another decade or more. Now the legend has grown full flower, and instead of one boy, or two men, or one angel, now we have two angels at the empty tomb. And outdoing Luke in style, John has Jesus prove he is solid by showing his wounds, and breathing on people, and even obliging the Doubting Thomas by letting him put his fingers into the very wounds themselves. Like Luke, the most grandiose appearances to the Disciples happen in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark originally claimed. In all, John devotes more space and detail than either Luke or Matthew to demonstrations of the physicality of the resurrection, details nowhere present or even implied in Mark. It is obvious that John is trying very hard to create proof that the resurrection was the physical raising of a corpse, and at the end of a steady growth of fable, he takes license to make up a lot of details.[34]
We have no primary sources on what was going on in the forty years of the Church between Paul in the year 58 and Clement of Rome in the year 95, and Paul tells us almost nothing about what happened in the beginning. We only conjecture that the Gospels were written between Paul and Clement, though they may have been written even ten or twenty years later still. But what I suspect happened is something like this: Jesus died, was buried, and then in a vision or dream appeared to one or more of his Disciples, convincing them he had ascended to heaven, marking the beginning of the fast-approaching End Times as the first to be raised, and then what began in the simple story of Mark as a symbolic allusion to an ascended Christ soon to reveal himself in visions from heaven, in time led some Christians to believe that the resurrection was a physical rising of a corpse. Then they heard or came up with increasingly elaborate stories proving themselves right. Overzealous people often add details and color to a story they've been told without even thinking about it, and as the story passed from each to the next more detail and elaboration was added, securing the notion of a physical resurrection in popular imagination and belief.
It would have been a natural mistake to make at the time, since gods were expected to be able to raise people bodily from the dead, and physical resurrections were actually in vogue in the very 1st century when Christianity began. Consider the god Asclepius. Doctors associated themselves with this god, and many legends were circulating of doctors becoming famous by restoring the dead to life, as recounted by Pliny the Elder, Apuleius and others.[35] Asclepius was also called SOTER, "The Savior," as many gods were in that day. He was especially so-named for being able to cure the sick and bring back the dead, and since "Jesus" (properly, Joshua) means "The Savior" in Hebrew it may have been expected that his resurrection would be physical in nature, too. After all, so was that of Lazarus, or of the boy raised by Elijah in 1 Kings--a prophet with whom Jesus was often equated.[36] Jesus' association with many healing miracles may also have implied a deliberate rivalry with Asclepius, and indeed, Jesus was actually called SOTER, and still is today: we see the Christian fishes on the backs of cars now, containing the Greek word ICHTHUS, the last letter of which stands for: SOTER. Not standing to be outdone by a pagan god, Christians may have simply expected that their god could raise himself physically from the grave.[37]
Then there is Herodotus, who was always a popular author and had been for centuries. He told of a Thracian religion that began with the physical resurrection of a man called Zalmoxis, who then started a cult in which it was taught that believers went to heaven when they died. We also know that circulating in the Middle East were very ancient legends regarding the resurrection of the goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar), who was crucified in the underworld, then rescued and raised back to earth by her divine attendant, a tale recounted in a four thousand year old clay tablet from Sumeria.[38] Finally, Plutarch writes in the latter half of the 1st century how "Romeo-and-Juliet-style" returns from the dead were a popular theme in contemporary theatre, and we know from surviving summaries and fragments that they were also a feature in romance novels of that day. This trend is discussed at some length in G. W. Bowersock's book Fiction as History.[39]
So the idea of "physical resurrection" was popular, and circulating everywhere. Associating Jesus with this trend would have been a very easy mistake to make. Since religious trust was won in those days by the charisma of speakers and the audience's subjective estimation of their sincerity, it would not be long before a charismatic man, who heard the embellished accounts, came into a position of power, inspiring complete faith from his congregation, who then sought to defend the story, and so began the transformation of the Christian idea of the resurrection from a spiritual concept to a physical one--naturally, calling themselves the "true church" and attacking all rivals, as has sadly so often happened in history.
Lending plausibility to this chain of events was the Jewish War between 66 and 70 A.D.[40], which ended with the complete destruction of the original Christian Church in Jerusalem, and much of the entire city, after all Judaea itself was ravaged by war. It is likely that many if not all of the original believers still living were killed in this war, or in Nero's persecution of 64, and with the loss of the central source of Christian authority and tradition, legends were ripe for the growing. This would explain why later Christians were so in the dark about the history of their own Church between 58 and 95. It was a kind of mini-dark age for them, a time of confusion and uncertainty. But what exactly happened we may never know. However it came to change, it seems more than likely that the first Christians, among them Paul, believed in a spiritual resurrection, and not the resurrection story told in the Gospels.
So this is where we end up. We have no trustworthy evidence of a physical resurrection, no reliable witnesses. It is among the most poorly attested of historical events. The earliest evidence, from the letters of Paul, does not appear to be of a physical resurrection, but a spiritual one. And we have at least one plausible reason available to us as to why and how the legend grew into something else. Finally, the original accounts of a resurrection of a flesh-and-blood corpse show obvious signs of legendary embellishment over time, and were written in an age of little education and even less science, a time overflowing with superstition and credulity. And, ultimately, the Gospels match perfectly the same genre of hagiography as that life of Genevieve with which I began. There the legends quickly arose, undoubted and unchallenged, of treeborn monsters and righted ships and blinded thieves. In the Gospels, we get angels and earthquakes and a resurrection of the flesh. So we have to admit that neither is any more believable than the other.
It should not be lost on us that Thomas was depicted as no less righteous for refusing to believe so wild a claim without physical proof. We have as much right, and ought to follow his example. He got to see and feel the wounds before believing, and so should we. I haven't, so I can't be expected to believe it.[41] And this leads me to one final reason why I don't buy the resurrection story. No wise or compassionate God would demand this from us. Such a god would not leave us so poorly informed about something so important.[42] If we have a message for someone that is urgently vital for their survival, and we have any compassion, that compassion will compel us to communicate that message clearly and with every necessary proof--not ambiguously, not through unreliable mediaries presenting no real evidence. Conversely, if we see something incredible, we do not attack or punish audiences who don't believe us, we don't even expect them to believe--unless and until we can present decisive proof.
There is a heroic legend in the technology community about the man who invented elevator safety brakes. He claimed that any elevator fitted with his brakes, even if all the cables broke, would be safely and swiftly stopped by his new invention. No one trusted it. Did he get angry or indignant? No. He simply put himself in an elevator, ordered the cables cut, and proved to the world, by risking his own life, that his brakes worked.[43] This is the very principle that has delivered us from superstition to science. Any claim can be made about a drug, but people are rightly wary of swallowing anything that hasn't been thoroughly tested and re-tested and tested again. Since I have no such proofs regarding the resurrection story, I'm not going to swallow it, and it would be cruel, even for a god, to expect otherwise of me. So I can reason rightly that a god of all humankind would not appear in one tiny backwater of the Earth, in a backward time, revealing himself to a tiny unknown few, and then expect the billions of the rest of us to take their word for it, and not even their word, but the word of some unknown person many times removed.
Yet, if one returns to what was probably Paul's conception of a Christ risen into a new, spiritual body, then the resurrection becomes no longer a historical proof of the truth of Christianity, but an article of faith, an affirmation that is supposed to follow nothing other than a personal revelation of Christ--not to be believed on hearsay, but experienced for oneself. Though I do not believe this is a reliable way to come to a true understanding of the world, as internal experience only tells us about ourselves and not the truth of the world outside of us,[44] I leave it to the Christians here to consider a spiritual resurrection as a different way to understand their faith. But I don't see any reason to buy the resurrection story found in the Gospels.
Note 1: Matthew uses the word polla, which translates in English as "many" but in Greek usually means quite a lot, from dozens to hundreds or even thousands. It is the exact same word as hoi polloi, which means "The Masses." Hence, "a mass" is an accurate translation here. In contrast, the word tis "some, several" was more usually used for smaller numbers, like around a dozen or less, but is not used by Matthew here. He clearly envisioned a mass event.
Note 2: See Geivett's Exercise in Hyperbole, and also Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels; The Date of the Nativity in Luke; and The Formation of the New Testament Canon; and also questions raised by my Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark; Luke and Josephus; and Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay, among many others (click my name in the title above for a complete list).
Note 3: W. L. Craig, Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus, Edwin Mellen, 1985, p. 497).
Note 4: I have written on the related matter of the gullibility of witnesses in the time of Jesus in another essay "Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire," and on the question of miracles in general in my Review of In Defense of Miracles.


The Rubicon Analogy

James Holding claims that we have as much evidence that Jesus rose from his grave as we have that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon ("Julie's River Run: On Comparing the Rubicon to the Resurrection"). There are numerous errors in his argument. This rebuttal responds briefly to the most important issues. In the end, my claim remains unchallenged: we have better evidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon than we have that Jesus rose from the grave. Therefore, the claim that this resurrection is "as well attested" as the Rubicon crossing is false. The Resurrection could still be a better explanation of its evidence, but that is not the issue under debate here. I take that up elsewhere.

Issues of Fact

1. Does Caesar Mention Crossing the Rubicon? Holding claims that Caesar's book The Civil War does not mention any crossing of the Rubicon. Perhaps Holding is just being picky. What Caesar does say, in his own words, is that he was "at Ravenna" where he assembled and spoke to his troops when Rome declared war upon him (1.4-6). He straightaway adds: "Once the will of his soldiers was known, he marched with this legion to Ariminum," modern Rimini, where several defectors with messages from Rome were waiting to receive him (1.8.1). Ravenna lies on the Italian coast twenty miles north of the Rubicon. Ariminum lies on the Italian coast ten miles south of the Rubicon. The towns were directly connected by a major Roman road that crossed the Rubicon, the Via Flaminia. You do the math.
In case you are still skeptical, take a good look at a map: there is no way to march an army from Ravenna to Ariminum except through the Rubicon. The only other road available was the Via Aemilia, and though there would have been no logical reason for Caesar to take such a detour, this road also crosses the Rubicon. And the Rubicon at the time flowed from nearby mountains impassable to an army. So there is no possible way Caesar could have marched from Ravenna to Ariminum without crossing the Rubicon. Therefore, when Caesar says he made that march, he is saying he crossed the Rubicon. By analogy, no one reports ever having seen Jesus rise from the grave. They only infer this from related facts (a burial, an empty tomb, and subsequent appearances), and these have various possible explanations. Caesar's march from Ravenna to Ariminum has only one.[1]
2. What about Cicero? Holding claims (to the horrified astonishment of all historians of Rome!) that it is "questionable" whether Cicero was Caesar's enemy. Doesn't Holding even think to check these things? Holding often does this: asserts what every historian knows is completely false, makes claims exactly the opposite of what we learn even in the most introductory courses on the subject, and then poor sods like me have to do the legwork to prove him wrong. It is as if he insists the grass on my lawn is not green, so that I actually have to take the absurd step of bringing in witnesses to testify that my grass is in fact green.
Okay. Here we go. Cicero himself says others argued against him because Cicero was Caesar's enemy, and anything he said about Caesar should carry little weight (Phillipics 1.11.28). Cicero admits he sided with Pompey against Caesar in the Civil War (Phillipics 2.9.23) and claims that had Pompey listened to Cicero before the war and taken action against Caesar as Cicero advised, the entire war would have been averted (Phillipics 2.10). In fact, Cicero was so prominently Caesar's enemy that Brutus shouted only one name after stabbing Caesar to death: "Thanks to Cicero!" (Phillipics 2.12.28).
Though Cicero asserts he always preferred peace to violence, he nevertheless says that even though people wrongly accuse him of planning the assassination of Caesar, he counts this accusation as praise, for he regards Caesar's assassination as "a glorious act" carried out by "a gallant band" of men to whom "the republic owes a debt of gratitude." Additionally, Cicero "admires" them for performing a deed so excellent that it would be absurd for his accusers to believe he would deny involvement unless he really wasn't involved, for their name and number is "glorious" and "honorable" (Phillipics 2.11), and no greater or more glorious a deed was ever done at Rome, to the point that Cicero is happy to be included in their number (Phillipics 2.13.32-33).
Despite all that, Holding has the audacity to claim Cicero showed no sign of approving the assassination. Obviously, Holding just says what he pleases, and doesn't even bother checking the facts. Even besides Cicero's political opposition to Caesar and approval of his assassination, Cicero also called Caesar "wicked" (Phillipics 3.6.14) and regarded many of Caesar's legislative acts to be unconscionable (Phillipics 1.7.16, 1.9.23).
In the end, Cicero was the enemy of Caesar every bit as much as anyone who sided with the South in the American Civil War was the enemy of Lincoln. The fact that Cicero had previously been Caesar's friend actually makes Cicero's testimony more persuasive, and that is exactly my point in citing him. Just as Christians use the fact that Paul converted from an enemy to a friend of Christianity as evidence he really saw a revelation of Christ, so does Cicero's conversion from friend to enemy stand as evidence that Caesar really crossed the Rubicon.[2] This crossing was the final event that launched the war, the last point of no return, before which Caesar could have averted the war. For the Rubicon was the border of the legally assigned province of Caesar, and it was an act of treason for a general to march an army outside his assigned province, especially into Italy (see Cicero, Phillipics 6.3.5 and 7.8.26). This is why "crossing the Rubicon" has become a catch phrase, and why the Rubicon, otherwise a small and insignificant river, became symbolic of Caesar's war against Rome.
Cicero records Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in the same way Caesar himself does. In his letter to his freedman Tiro (letter 311, or Letters to Friends and Family 16.12, dated 27 January in the year of the war, 49 B.C), Cicero says: "[W]hen Caesar yielded to the promptings of what may be called downright insanity, and--forgetting his name and his honours--had successively occupied Ariminum, Pisaurum, Ancona, and Arretium, I left the city [Rome]." In other words, Caesar invaded Italy at Ariminum and proceeded down the coast seizing every town on the way. The only way Caesar could have invaded Italy at Ariminum was to cross the Rubicon (Ariminum is only ten miles down the road from the Rubicon).
Therefore, Cicero attests that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in the very year he did so (in fact, within the very same month). Likewise, in a previous letter to Tiro dated 12 January, Cicero is aware that Caesar is about to invade Italy, and preparations are being made to hold Italy against his advance (300, Letters to Friends and Family 16.2). Then in a letter to Atticus dated 19 January (303, Letters to Atticus 7.2), Cicero reveals there is all manner of confusion as to how far Caesar has advanced. By the 27th he has an accurate account of Caesar's march.
So these three letters together represent a contemporary report that Caesar had not crossed more than a few days before January 12, definitely crossed before January 19, and had gotten as far as Arretium by January 27. Cicero also included actual letters from Caesar and Pompey on the further conduct of the war between them down the coast of Italy, and letters from other people fighting against Caesar, confirming his advance all the way to Brundisium, finally chasing Pompey out of Italy altogether.
If we had this kind of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, we would definitely have much better evidence than we do now.[3] Imagine letters by Caiaphas or Joseph of Arimathea reporting the things they did, saw, heard, and investigated, all dated the very year and on the very days these things were going on.[4] Even if they never used the word "resurrection," that would not matter--describing details of the event would be the same thing, just as describing a march into Italy beginning at Ariminum is the same thing as saying "Caesar crossed the Rubicon."
3. What Counts as Physical Evidence? Holding correctly interprets my wording when he infers I did not claim we had any actual physical depictions of an army crossing a Rubicon (or inscriptions saying "I, Caesar, crossed the Rubicon"). That is not what I mean by physical evidence. Though such things would surely count (if they dated from the life of Caesar), they are not the only things we could have. This is true for the Resurrection, too. It is not necessary to have an inscription stating "Jesus rose from this grave" or a coin depicting this. Though such things would indeed constitute better evidence than we actually have, so would other kinds of physical evidence.
If we had an actual papyrus carbon-dated to the first century containing a letter by Pilate or Peter documenting or detailing any of the key facts surrounding the resurrection claim, that would be physical evidence. If we had an inscription commissioned by Joseph of Arimathea attesting to the fact that he found his tomb empty and that Jesus then appeared to his disciples, that would be physical evidence. If we had a coin issued by Agrippa just a few years later declaring faith in Christ, that would be physical evidence. If the empty tomb acquired miraculous powers as a result of so momentous a miracle there, or if the angels never left but remained there to converse with all who sought to know the truth, so that either fact could be physically confirmed today--so that we could go there now and see these miracles or angels for ourselves--that would be physical evidence.
But in no way is it "just as well to appeal to, say, the letters of Paul as equivalent to" the inscriptions and coins of Caesar, because the letters of Paul do not physically date to the life of Paul. This is a considerable problem, since we have already purged numerous interpolations and emendations from these letters by later scribes, and suspect many more, thus exemplifying the difference in reliability between having the actual letters written by Paul and having copies of copies of copies made by fallible scribes with a religious agenda.[5] This does not mean the letters we have should be rejected as wholly unreliable. What I am saying is that actually having the original letters is better evidence than having these flawed and tampered copies, and therefore such physical objects fall into their own category of evidence.
Consider what we have for Caesar. In 47 B.C. coins were struck by the government of Antioch (which Caesar had just liberated from Pompey) declaring it to be "year two of the era of Caesar." Cicero's letters confirm that Caesar's conquest of the Roman Empire began in 49 B.C., two years before this coin was struck. This is corroborating physical evidence. Comparably, if we had coins struck in Damascus in 33 A.D. declaring "year two of the era of Jesus Christ," that would be physical evidence corroborating the resurrection of Jesus.[6]
We have other coins struck by Caesar himself during the war to pay his soldiers, then coins struck celebrating Caesar's victory over Rome (and then coins struck by Brutus celebrating his assassination of Caesar). In a similar fashion, inscriptions document Caesar's victory over Rome, his capture of Italy, and his founding of colonies for veterans of the war there. We could certainly have had similar inscriptions by or about Jesus erected during his life, or shortly thereafter, documenting his miracles in life or appearances after death, or the subsequent commitments of the Church, and so on. But we don't.

Issues of Method

1. Is Oral History as Reliable as Written? Holding claims that distrust of oral history is "a thoroughly modern, graphocentric prejudice." In so speaking, Holding is parting company with every professional historian I know or have ever read. It is not a "prejudice" to employ the best methods available for avoiding error and getting at the truth. And historians know that written records are preserved more accurately and honestly than oral tradition.[7]
Oral tradition cannot be confirmed--it is taken solely on someone's word, and is subject to restatement, embellishment, and mistake. The latter entails either misunderstanding what was said or mistaking what one person said as what someone else said. Moreover, oral history lacks controls: there is no way to go back and "check" to make sure a statement was gotten right or correctly attributed--or genuinely said at all.[8] In contrast, though written transmission can be doctored, this is not so easy as in the case of oral tradition. Since many people have a text to compare a written transmission to, claims can often be checked. Furthermore, manuscript traditions often survive, allowing us to identify errors and corruptions. And though written transmission was subject to error, its errors were usually minor and often easily identified, for the kinds of mistakes a copyist makes are much more limited than mistakes of memory and formulation.
Moreover, the ancients had developed a professional system for ensuring the reliability of transmitted writings, with supervisors who checked copies against originals and made corrections, as well as standards and processes for collating critical editions. No comparable system was in place for oral transmission--at least none that we know was used by Christians. For example, Jewish oral law was institutionally taught in formal schools and routinely recited daily in courts of law, and there is no evidence of any such institutional system of memorization in the first-century Church. Likewise, scientific evidence for an imperfect but modestly reliable transmission of oral epics and songs pertains only to stories constrained by meter and rhyme, or to brief apothegms and proverbs, never to long prose narratives or speeches, which we've instead found very prone to distortion and change. The wide diversion among all the resurrection narratives of the Gospels are a case in point.[9] Finally, all evidence of reliability in oral transmission pertains not only to these limited and categorically different circumstances, but relates only to memory, not the ability to deliberately add, subtract, or change things.
Consider how many changes and interpolations were already allowed into the written Bible--which we can now exclude and "correct" precisely because we have other manuscripts to compare. If the tradition were oral, we would have nothing to check our current version by, and would therefore have a very incorrect Bible on our hands. The problem would even be worse, since oral transmission is much more subject to distortion, alteration, and error than written tradition. This is so precisely because the mechanisms available to check and correct distortions were available only in the latter case, as physical documents were copied and disseminated. Moreover, oral transmission requires much more rapid copying, and therefore entails a far greater number of opportunities for distortion.
This is because the same physical manuscript can be read by (or to) thousands of people and stored for a hundred years or more, but an oral record has to be "copied," often dozens of times, to reach this same audience. And then it is inevitably copied again as all these people spread it, each in their own way, while those who hear it from them copy it, again in their own way. It quickly becomes impossible to identify which version is the original, even for a skilled investigator. And there is no evidence that any such highly skilled personnel were involved in controlling the Christian story in the first century.
Obviously, the closer a written source is to the actual things said, the better. Recent studies of oral transmission have confirmed that prose stories become distorted--in fact, they are routinely altered to suit the needs and interests of each particular audience or circumstance. This is especially true when an oral tradition becomes important to some political, social, or religious agenda (for example, see the works of Rosalind Thomas or Greg Sarris). In fact, this is exactly why we turned to a reliance on writing and developed a distrust of oral transmission. Everyone knows that "this guy told this other guy who told this other guy who told me" is never a trustworthy source.
The ancients knew this too. That is why the best historians of the day, such as Thucydides and Polybius, insisted on relying only on direct eyewitness testimony, distrusting oral traditions altogether. Even mediocre historians, such as Herodotus, made a point of relying on no more than one generation removed from eyewitness testimony, and were suspicious of oral reports of more distant origin. Tacitus specifically wrote: "That everything gets exaggerated is typical for any story" and "all the greatest events are obscure--while some people accept whatever they hear as beyond doubt, others twist the truth into its opposite, and both errors grow over subsequent generations" (Annals 3.44 & 3.19).
In Roman law, oral contracts were still common, but often required five witnesses (especially to verify weddings, wills, and the emancipation of slaves), and when contested in court, all five witnesses often had to be presented to confirm what they saw. Second hand testimony was never trusted. So for any contract expected to outlive its witnesses, Romans got it in writing. They knew better than to trust oral tradition. So did the Jews, who also banned second-hand testimony from the courts in almost every case.
Therefore, it simply is not true that "Jesus' own speech to his disciples is thus as good as Caesar's own hand" because we have sound reasons to believe the Civil War we now have is a copy (with minor errors) of what Caesar wrote. The required standards and mechanisms of checked-and-corrected copying were demonstrably in place, and Caesar's style is too difficult to fabricate. But we have no way to know whether what some unknown people claimed Jesus said is what Jesus said.[10] Even if we accept the names attributed to these stories (and few scholars do), we still don't know for sure who these people were, when they wrote, or how they got any of their information. Indeed, because they never name or assess their sources, we have no idea what the reliability of transmission was, how many people the claims passed through, or what they originally looked like at the start of this process.
Moreover, when the Gospel authors wrote their stories down, there may have been no way for anyone to check their claims--we have no evidence any witnesses were alive by the time these documents circulated. Indeed, even the authors themselves might not have been able to check. We simply don't know, because they don't tell us. Even the dubious "added" ending to John (chapter 21; cf. 20:30-31) only claims an anonymous "we" heard the account from an anonymous eyewitness never mentioned anywhere else--not even in Luke, the only author who claimed to have "followed everything precisely from the beginning."
Finally, oral tradition wasn't the only bugbear. It was typical for writers to invent speeches, too. Even when they wanted to try and capture what really was said, the rules were very flexible, and no one expected exact words to be written down. Thucydides was one of the most strict historians, yet even he said "my practice has been to make the speakers say what in my opinion was demanded of them by the various occasions--or what in my opinion they had to say on the various occasions--of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what was really said," insofar as he knew what that was (1.22.1). This is the strictest standard we know from the time--and yet it amounts to admitting he is often making things up, ultimately limiting himself only to what he thinks people "must have" said.
Few historians in antiquity were so strict, and in fact many complaints are heard from ancient authors about how much liberty numerous historians actually took in constructing speeches and even entire narratives. When we add the incentive to defend dogmas, the possibility of readily believing a claim of questionable origin, or simply fabricating a claim that someone knew "had" to be true but couldn't find actual evidence of, we find ourselves in a very problematic position. We can't rule any of this out because the authors give us no information to go on. This is universally true throughout the field of ancient history, not just in the study of Jesus. How much more this would have been the case for oral transmission, where there is no constraint to copy a written account faithfully, and no written account to check claims against.
Then there is Holding's last objection, that Caesar would have dictated his book, which is just silly. Even if that were true (and it often wasn't--many aristocratic writers put their own hand to scroll or wax), Caesar still would have continually checked and corrected the text, and the words written would still be his in both content and style. That is, they would have without doubt originated with him and not someone else. Therefore, there is no analogy here to oral transmission. This is still Caesar's words, as Caesar himself wrote or spoke them. Had Jesus done the same--had someone recorded what he said in writing after he rose from the dead, and Jesus checked and corrected and signed off on it--that would count as an eyewitness report direct from Jesus. It would indeed provide better evidence for the Resurrection than we now have--if we had as much reason to believe the document was authentic as we do for Caesar's Civil War.
But the truth is, "after Jesus rose from the dead" our earliest and only eyewitness report says he only spoke "in a revelation" and not in "flesh and blood" (Gal. 1:11-12, 1:15-16). In other words, it was a subjective experience in the mind of the believer that Jesus was speaking to him. We know there are many other causes of such an experience besides an actual spirit of a deceased person contacting us, and have never yet confirmed that any such contact can or ever has happened to anyone. Therefore, this is not comparable to Caesar dictating to a slave. "Jesus said it" is exactly the proposition that remains to be proven, before we can trust that he did.
2. What about Hostile and Neutral Sources? Holding objects to my application of the criterion of hostile attestation on the grounds that "we would never expect 'enemies' of Christianity to record it, since it would not serve their purposes." Of course, if the evidence were really so clear, there would not be many enemies in the first place: many leading, literate Jews would have converted, many more than just Paul, and all would have left us letters and documents about their experiences and reasons. But that would fall under the category of eyewitness testimony, of which we have none, except Paul, who of course never testifies to ever meeting Jesus in the flesh, to seeing the empty grave, or to seeing the actual corpse of Jesus rising and talking. In fact, Paul never really says anyone saw these things.
Instead, my category of hostile attestation is distinct from this, for if even those who don't like it or don't believe it nevertheless report it, even if only to denounce or deny it or explain it away, that is itself stronger evidence than we now have. For example, if we had what Matthew claims the Jews were saying in Matthew 28:11-15 from a first-century Jewish writer, that would be hostile attestation.[11] Certainly many Jews would have an interest in publishing such lies or explanations, if in fact Christians were making such claims then, and there really were enough Christians making these claims for anyone to care. Instead, the complete absence of any Jewish texts attacking Christianity in the first century is astonishing--unless Christianity was a socially microscopic cult making unverifiably subjective claims of revelations from God that no one could falsify. Otherwise, ancient authors were not beneath writing tracts slandering other people, and later pagan authors had no scruple against attacking the Christians. So why did no one attack the Christians earlier? There are problems here, surely.
But that isn't the only kind of evidence I meant. Neutral parties also count under this criterion. For example, if we had genuine letters from Pilate recording what claims were made and how his investigations turned out, he would have simply reported the facts, probably attributing them to sorcery or the miracles of just another god among many, or at worse speculating on possible trickery. But because he wouldn't be a believer or have any interest in defending the belief, this would count as hostile contemporary attestation.
Indeed, it would matter a very great deal if we had a hostile or neutral attestation to the actual content of the original Christian belief. If the Jews were in fact accusing the Christians of stealing the body within a year of their movement's origin, that would be proof that the first Christians believed the tomb was empty. That would indeed be something--a lot more than we actually have. Instead, we don't have this claim from any Jewish author, only a Christian author defending the empty tomb claim many decades after the fact. Or imagine a letter from Pilate to a friend or an official describing the full content of the dispute between the Christians and the Jews, even including the report of Thomas that he handled the wounded body. If Pilate dismissed this as idle nonsense, he would be a hostile witness to the claim being made from the very beginning, thus ruling out legendary development.
And contrary to Holding's strange assertion, there is no reason such hostile or neutral corroboration "would not serve their purposes." Pliny's letters on the Christians, Matthew's purported "Jewish lie," and Lucian's account of Glycon served their authors' purposes.[12] The latter, in fact, is a perfect example of hostile attestation to the existence and miracles of Glycon. Lucian didn't believe Glycon's miracles were real, but nevertheless he records them--with his own explanations. We have nothing like that for Jesus. It doesn't matter if we have no reason to expect it, due to the poor chance of records surviving or even being written (though such momentous events as are claimed in the Gospels hardly seem the type to escape records). The fact that this evidence is not available now still means we lack evidence for this claim that we otherwise have for the Rubicon crossing. It doesn't matter why this is the case. It still is the case.
In the same fashion, Holding objects to my criterion of physical evidence by claiming that "to expect coins and inscriptions from such an event as the resurrection would be unreasonable." Again, that is irrelevant--the issue is what evidence we have, not why we have none. But we can still question Holding's assumption that we should expect no physical evidence. Was it unreasonable of Diogenes of Oenoanda to erect an inscription conveying the complete gospel of his beloved philosopher Epicurus? Was it unreasonable of pagans who saw God to erect inscriptions honoring the event (as documented by Robin Lane Fox in Pagans and Christians)? Was it unreasonable of people to erect inscriptions documenting the miracles performed on them or for them by various gods? Or of various Jewish sects to erect inscriptions honoring their God? No.
Nor would it be unreasonable to expect some Christians to have done the same. If any king had been converted, for example, it would not be unreasonable for him to mint coins honoring his new god, just as Vardaman has tried to claim for king Aretas. If Joseph of Arimathea was indeed a rich believer, it would not be unreasonable for him to do what Diogenes did and inscribe his own beloved gospel in stone somewhere. And motives aside, the point remains we still don't have any such evidence. It doesn't matter why we don't have it. We still don't have it. But we do have some such corroborating evidence for the Rubicon crossing. And that is a material difference.
Combining both points, if we had the actual papyrus letter supposedly written by Claudius Lysias quoted in Acts (23:26-30), that would be much better evidence than we have now. That is, if it had mentioned anything relevant, though apparently it didn't. It doesn't even name Paul, much less Jesus, and makes no mention of the resurrection of Jesus being the point of dispute between Paul and the other Jews. But it could have. Lysias could have spelled out the dispute. And if he did, and we actually had the datable papyrus itself, we would have both physical evidence and hostile or neutral corroboration. But in fact we have neither.
3. Are the Evangelists as Good as Historians? Holding claims it doesn't matter that many major historians record the Rubicon crossing, but not the resurrection of Jesus.[13] This seems rather silly. Clearly we would have better evidence if the resurrection story were discussed in all these same historians--especially if they in turn cited earlier historians whose works otherwise don't survive, and even more if they also cited (as they often do) official or eyewitness documents. So when I claim that we have better evidence for the Rubicon crossing than the resurrection of Jesus, this is plainly true. Holding's attempt to deny this is simply bizarre. Surely if we had such accounts, he would cite this fact in support of the Resurrection. So he can't claim it "makes no difference."
But what matters most for the issue of method is Holding's apparent presumption that I dismiss the Gospels "merely" because they are late, and therefore later historians should count even less for me.[14] This totally mischaracterizes what I've argued in several places, including the section he is criticizing. Lateness is a problem, but not in itself grounds for dismissing a source. The quality and reliability of a source requires an assessment of all the relevant factors. The Gospels fail to count as reliable histories because they fail on every criterion, not because they fail on only one or two.[15] I address this issue at greater length elsewhere, including the problems with the best of them (Luke-Acts) by comparing its features with good ancient historians.[16] But to make a long story short, Luke exhibits none of the markers of a careful, critical historian, but instead preaches and propagandizes, and implicitly serves an ideological agenda, not an objective inquiry into the truth.
For a good extreme comparison unrelated to the Rubicon question, compare the explicit methods of Arrian with Luke-Acts: Arrian records the history of Alexander the Great five hundred years after the fact. But he does so by explicitly stating a sound method. Arrian says he ignored all works not written by eyewitnesses, and instead only followed surviving ancient texts by actual eyewitnesses to Alexander's campaign. He names them and discusses their connections to Alexander. He then says that on every point on which they agree, he will simply record what they say, but where they significantly disagree, he will cite both accounts and identify the sources who disagree (and he appears to have followed this method as promised, though not always faithfully).
Now, this is not the best method--modern methods have improved considerably upon Arrian--but this is among the best methods ever employed in antiquity. And it is considerably different than just writing stories five hundred years later. Quite clearly, if Arrian did what he says, he is almost as good as an eyewitness source (in fact, arguably better). But notice how Luke does none of this (nor do any of the other Gospel authors). We have no idea whom Luke used for what information (he doesn't even tell us he used Mark, even though we can prove he did). We also have no idea how he chose whom to trust or whom to include or exclude.[17] Luke is therefore not even in Arrian's league as a critical historian. He fares even worse when compared with Polybius or Thucydides. Nor does he reach the level of lesser historians like Tacitus or Josephus, either--who, though they do not give such clear discussions of their methods, nevertheless often name their sources and explicitly show critical acumen in choosing between conflicting or confusing accounts.
The significance of all this is simple: we know for a fact these historians carried out at least some decent research and critically examined evidence and admitted doubt or conflicting information. We don't trust any ancient historian as much as we'd trust a good modern historian--all ancient historians get things wrong on a variety of points for a variety of reasons (and therefore, by extension, we can be certain Luke did, too). But we do trust ancient historians to the extent that they exhibit the qualities of a trustworthy historian, such as being a critical thinker with an explicit interest in checking claims against documents and eyewitness accounts.
Now, Holding claims that for the Gospel authors "there was no dispute over source material," but this is plainly false. All the Gospels disagree.[18] Even Luke, who claims to follow everything precisely, leaves out many things. Luke also recasts what Jesus said or did in a slightly different way than his one known source (Mark) and provides a completely different chronology than John. Obviously, there must have been disagreements. A critical historian would address them and, if possible, resolve them by naming and citing sources. For example, consider current Christian efforts at harmonizing the Gospel accounts. That is exactly what an author like Luke would have done--had he been a critical historian, and not a mere mouthpiece defending an ideology.
But what I actually said goes beyond what Holding tries to dodge. The problem is not just that Luke made no effort to resolve disputes and differences among his sources, and made no effort to name, verify, or establish the merits of any of his sources. Those are both serious problems. But the bigger of the two is that Luke doesn't tell us anything about his methods--so we can't know how reliable they are--or his sources--so we can't know how reliable they are--or even who he is. Many other historians at least tell us this somewhere--some, like Appian and Josephus, even wrote entire autobiographies.
Even in general, Luke does not behave like a critical thinker. A critical thinker starts skeptical and only ends up a believer after finding the evidence strong--and then expects his audience to approach the truth the same way.[19] Consequently, he expresses doubt at amazing claims and then goes the extra mile to explain why he nevertheless believes, or admits where he believes but isn't sure, and so on. Ancient historians aren't always very good at this. But they at least do it a little. Luke does not.
Therefore, as I originally said, Luke and the other Gospel authors are, in terms of overt markers of reliability, among the lowest echelon of "historians" (and properly speaking, in the entire New Testament only Luke claims to be writing history). They are not neutral observers, but believers selling a religion, whereas we have the Rubicon crossing in numerous neutral and demonstrably critical historians, about whom we know a lot more than we do about Luke. Therefore, the evidence for the Rubicon crossing is better than the evidence for the Resurrection, and any claim to the contrary is false.


Clearly my argument stands unrefuted. On the Rubicon crossing we have corroborating physical evidence, and we know several contemporaries wrote on the war and thus provided direct or indirect evidence for the crossing. Apart from the direct testimony of Caesar himself, we have the letters of Cicero and his friends, and the letters he had from Caesar and Pompey, and we know Livy, Pollio, and others also recorded the event (for later historians used their accounts). Later, several known critical historians investigated and documented the event. And the course of history--including abundant physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, and the records of contemporaries and later critical historians--demonstrates decisively that Caesar invaded Italy's east coast all the way down, chased Pompey out of Italy, and eventually seized Rome. There is absolutely no way this could have happened had he not crossed the Rubicon. The "belief" that he had done so could not cause any of this evidence to exist nor have produced the subsequent historical outcome.
On the Resurrection, however, no eyewitness wrote anything--not Jesus, not Peter, not Mary, not any of the Twelve, nor any of the Seventy, nor any of the Five Hundred. All we have is Paul, who saw nothing but a "revelation," and who mentions no other kind of experience or evidence being reported by anyone. On the Resurrection, no neutral or hostile witness or contemporary wrote anything--not Joseph, not Caiaphas, not Gamaliel, not Agrippa, not Pilate, not Lysias, not Sergius, not anyone alive at the time, whether Jewish, Greek, or Roman. On the Resurrection, no critical historian documents a single detail, or even the claim itself, until centuries later, and then only by Christian apologists who can only cite the New Testament as their source (and occasionally bogus documents like the letter sent by Jesus to Abgar that Eusebius tries to pass off as authentic). On the Resurrection, no physical evidence of any kind was produced--no coins, no inscriptions, no documentary papyri, no perpetual miracles. And everything that followed in history was caused by the belief in that resurrection, not the resurrection itself--and we know an actual resurrection is not the only possible cause of a belief in a resurrection.
So, again, we still have no eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no neutral or hostile witnesses to the resurrection claim. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no critical historical work on the resurrection claim. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no corroborating physical evidence for the Resurrection. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no need of an actual resurrection to explain the belief that influenced the course of historical events. But we do need an actual crossing of the Rubicon to explain the subsequent course of historical events. Therefore, on all five points, we have better evidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon than that Jesus rose from his grave. In fact, on four of the five, we have absolutely nothing for the Resurrection. And on the one single criterion it meets, we do not have the best kind of evidence, but among the worst.
[1] This refutes Holding's suggestion that Caesar didn't cross with his army. See Addendum A below.
[2] On the importance of this point, see Addendum B below. Note that I have little quarrel with the idea of Paul having a vision of Christ. Paul may well have thought he saw Christ in a revelation, as I have argued elsewhere. For example, see Richard Carrier, "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb" in Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 105-232.
[3] Holding continues to claim that "we have just as much evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus," but if we discovered the actual, direct testimony of any ideologically neutral or hostile witness like Pilate, Caiaphas, Joseph, the alleged guards of the tomb, bystanders, or anything like that, Holding would not hesitate to argue we had discovered more and better evidence for the Resurrection than we previously had.
[4] Note that I do not assume Joseph of Arimathea was a "disciple," as the Gospels of Matthew and John claim, because no other Gospel mentions this--neither Mark, the first Gospel written, nor Luke, the only author who claims to have written a careful history--and Acts fails to mention Joseph being a disciple or continuing with the Church in any capacity.
[5] This holds even for Caesar's text: if we had a papyrus copy of it dated to the 1st century, we would have better evidence than we already do. But this is even more the case for the Bible. See Addendum C below.
[6] Obviously, this alone would not prove the Resurrection genuine. Rather, the point is, if we had any evidence like this corroborating any element of the Resurrection claim (coins, inscriptions, documentary papyri, or anything), we would have better evidence than we have now. Though Holding claims such evidence "doesn't make a whit of difference," I doubt he is being honest. If we found any such evidence, Holding would not hesitate to claim it makes a difference. He would argue it makes the Resurrection claim even more credible and skepticism even less tenable. I agree. That's exactly my point. Whether we "need" such evidence, or whether it would be enough to justify our believing Jesus rose from the dead, is not the issue. That it would be more evidence than we have now is the issue.
[7] Holding plays rhetorical games at this point, claiming "written tradition cannot be confirmed any more than oral tradition," "is taken solely on someone's word," and "is subject to restatement, embellishment, and mistake, just as readily as oral tradition." I have placed in italics the words that render these statements false. As I go on to explain, though there are similar problems attending written transmission, they are greatly reduced in kind, degree, scale, and rate of accumulation, due to the very features that distinguish written transmission from oral.
[8] Certainly, if we could show that a recorded oral report was checked (for example, by the recorder questioning several witnesses as to whether something said is correct), then we would be dealing with critical history, not oral history. This is a distinction Holding fails to grasp. See Addendum D below.
[9] Holding correctly observed that my original wording was too sweeping. Some of the content of the Gospels conforms to the structural features of proverbs and apothegms that aid in their memorization, which may well be the reason the record of what Jesus said consists of so many short, often disconnected sayings. I acknowledge my error and corrected it.
[10] In other words, even those elements of the sayings of Jesus that may have made memorization easier or more accurate do not themselves confirm that those sayings came from Jesus.
[11] Holding provides us with another example when he asks rhetorically whether I have "read the speech of Gamaliel in Acts." If we had Gamaliel's speech from Gamaliel, or from anyone who actually heard it, even that would be more than we now have--if he had even bothered to mention what the Christians were preaching that he was asking his colleagues to ignore. Holding spends a lot of time making excuses for why we don't have any of this, even citing this speech to that effect, but that doesn't change the fact that we don't have any of this evidence, nor the fact that we do have such evidence for Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon. That is the entire point and thesis of my rebuttal. I can only conclude that Holding doesn't want his readers to notice this.
[12] Holding falsely alleges I "lied" about his argument here because "Josephus and Tacitus are the equivalent to a Lucian reporting Glycon's miracles," but he can only support this claim by being dishonest himself. See Addendum E below.
[13] Holding claims he didn't say this, but in the same sentence admits to having said what amounts to the same thing. See Addendum F below.
[14] Holding claims he didn't say this, but I never said he did. I only said this was an "apparent presumption" of his. And despite his protestations, it is still an apparent presumption of his. See Addendum G below.
[15] As almost all ancient histories do. Modern history leaves ancient methods in the dust, as far as reliability is concerned, which is why no historian today trusts any ancient historian implicitly. See: Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995); Charles Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (1983); John Marincola, Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (1997); Averil Cameron, ed. History As Text: The Writing of Ancient History (1990); Bruno Gentili & Giovanni Cerri, History and Biography in Ancient Thought (1988).
[16] Richard Carrier, "Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?," chapter 7 of "Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False?" (2005).
[17] Holding continues to make excuses for why Luke didn't do any of this, but excuses don't change the fact that he still didn't do them. So, unlike Arrian, we are not in a position to assess the quality or reliability of Luke's sources or methods.
[18] Holding claims there are no significant disagreements, not even in the chronologies of Luke and John. The general consensus of experts does not agree with him. But see Addendum H below.
[19] Holding incorrectly claims this "amounts to saying that Luke didn't end up with Carrier's own view of the world, so therefore he must have been uncritical from the start." To the contrary, had Luke actually engaged a proper critical method and still found what he reports to be true, then I would not expect him to end up with my worldview. Indeed, had that happened to me, even I would not have ended up with my worldview. The difference is not in where we ended up. The difference lies in whether we used sound methods and thus have a reasonable claim to have discovered the actual truth. We can't prove that Luke did, because he tells us nothing at all about his methods and offers no clear evidence he employed sound ones. See the links provided in Addendum D below.

Responses to Holding's Dishonest Addendum

Addendum A: Holding's attempt to distinguish personal and corporate crossing is irrelevant for two obvious reasons: (1) the evidence from Caesar himself, Cicero, and every historian plainly says Caesar personally crossed with his army; and (2) no evidence whatsoever even hints at Caesar taking a different route to Rome than that taken by his army.
Bayesian analysis confirms the conclusion. First, the "alternate route" theory has a lower prior probability. We know from many historical precedents that a charismatic leader embarking on treason would not likely leave his troops to their own devices, nor pit his main force against his most capable foe (Pompey) without his most capable leader and tactician in command (Caesar himself). Second, the "alternate route" theory makes the evidence we have less probable. All the eyewitnesses, contemporaries, and critical historians say Caesar was with and went with his army, and no hint or record survives of anything else. And the probability of his army maintaining loyalty and success (and thus achieving victory) without Caesar's leadership presence, especially when invading their own country and killing their own countrymen, is also lower (thanks to Paul Doland for inspiring this point). According to the formal logic of Bayes Theorem, a theory that has a lower prior probability than personal crossing and makes the evidence less probable than personal crossing will always have a lower final epistemic probability than personal crossing. Therefore, if we believe Caesar's army crossed the Rubicon, we must also believe Caesar personally crossed the Rubicon with his army, since that has an even greater probability of being true.
By analogy, Holding claims I "suggest that Jesus survived the crucifixion," but he fails to tell his readers that I actually found this very improbable--far less probable than many other theories, except miracle, for which we have no basis for assigning a higher prior probability (see Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). Thus, the possibility that Jesus survived the cross has a lower epistemic probability than other theories, hence even I concluded the "survival hypothesis" is not worth considering unless and until all other theories bearing a higher epistemic probability are eliminated. The survival hypothesis is therefore as unworthy of credit as "Caesar took a different route than his army." And yet, unlike that theory, we do have some evidence supporting survival: being seen alive after being declared dead would certainly be cited as evidence of survival in a court of law, being taken down from the cross so early greatly magnifies the probability of survival, and so on. Yet even with that evidence in place (to which we have nothing comparable in the case of "Caesar taking a different route than his army"), survival is still too improbable to credit because other theories bear a higher epistemic probability. For exactly the same reason, "Caesar went with his army" has a higher final epistemic probability than "Caesar took a different route than his army." Since a less probable theory is ruled out by one more probable, we have no reason to consider whether Caesar took a different route. All the evidence we have more strongly supports personal crossing than not.
In his effort to make this distinction between corporate and personal crossing seem even remotely relevant, not only did Holding fail to tell his readers what I actually concluded about the survival hypothesis (which would have readily exposed why I consider the corporate-but-not-personal distinction irrelevant), he then repeatedly implies I sympathize with those who advance even more ridiculous theories about the origins of Christianity. This is the contemptible fallacy of "poisoning the well," another example of Holding's lack of honesty.
Addendum B: On the question of Cicero's hostility to Caesar, Holding deploys at least four dirty tricks:
(1) When Holding says "we get no actual quote from any historian of Rome that says any such thing," i.e. that Cicero was Caesar's enemy, he is clearly implying none do. In actual fact, every historian who discusses the matter says Cicero was Caesar's enemy. But since I know Holding plays games with quotations by simply gainsaying anyone whose expert opinion I might care to cite, I pipped him at the post by going straight to the primary evidence itself, which is clear, unambiguous, and irrefutable. Let Holding find any real historian of Rome claiming anything else. He cannot. And he knows it. Will he admit it? Probably not.
(2) Holding then deceptively claims I demand "testimony from hostile witnesses for the Resurrection" when in fact I only said having "hostile or even neutral records" counts as better evidence than not having them. Thus, I said hostile or neutral, and I didn't "demand" it, I simply stated the fact that having it is better than not. The very first paragraph of my original rebuttal said, "The Resurrection could still be a better explanation of its evidence, but that is not the issue under debate here." Instead, Holding consistently ignores the point in dispute, which is whether we have as much evidence for one event as we have for another, not whether we have enough evidence to believe either.
(3) Holding willfully ignores my point that why Cicero was Caesar's enemy is what lends credibility to his testimony. Cicero had no religious or dogmatic motive to report the crossing. His salvation did not depend on it. He did not base his system of moral values on it, nor did he believe it would morally improve people who believed it. His participation in a society of friendship and support did not require affirming it. And he was not at all predisposed to believe it. To the contrary, it wasn't what he wanted to hear, nor is it what he expected. It dashed his very hopes, which were settled quite strongly on the contrary, that there would be no civil war. His letters make clear he was shocked and surprised by it. It is the very event that converted him from friend to enemy. That makes Cicero's testimony stronger than that of someone, for example, who thought he would benefit strategically by spreading propaganda about a crossing that hadn't occurred, or someone who believed that affirming it would secure him an eternal life in paradise, or turn people back to God.
(4) Holding makes the clear, and dishonest, implication that I lied about what my source said, claiming Cicero's Phillipics somehow says something other than what I claimed. But what I actually said (contrary to Holding's bogus misrepresentation of what I said) is that "Cicero was the enemy of Caesar every bit as much as anyone who sided with the South in the American Civil War was the enemy of Lincoln," an example of ideological, not personal, enmity, the very distinction Holding accuses me of ignoring. I also used the analogy of Paul's hostility to the Church, which was also ideological and not personal. And let's be honest: If President Bush were assassinated and I said this was a "glorious" act that I would consider it praise indeed to be accused of, Holding wouldn't let anyone get away with claiming "to call Carrier an 'enemy' of Bush is questionable." So Holding's irrelevant distinction between hating the man and hating what he stood for has nothing to do with anything I said, and is essentially a pointless distinction designed solely to rescue Holding from the embarrassment of having falsely insinuated that Cicero was not Caesar's enemy.
Addendum C: Experts have found considerable evidence that there was an atmosphere of religious and dogmatic doctoring and editing of the New Testament wholly unlike anything affecting Caesar's text. Holding pretends I am just making this up, but it is a mainstream and recognized fact. Indeed, most experts already agree several entire letters claiming to be from Paul are forgeries, while others have clearly been tampered with (e.g. Romans has two endings, and the manuscripts don't even agree whether the letter was actually written to the Romans; 1 Cor. 15:51 and 2 Cor. 5:3 were fudged to sound more orthodox; etc.). See the entries for each of the letters attributed to Paul in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000) and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd. ed. (1997), and see the introductory chapters to each of them in The New Interpreter's Bible (1995). Also see Bart Ehrman's library of scholarly studies on the subject: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1996); Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005); The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 3rd ed. (2003); The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (2003).
Addendum D: Holding says oral transmission can have controls, but a possibility is not an actuality. I am talking about what actually is the case, not what could have been the case. At no point, anywhere in the Gospels, is any such critical inquiry or "checking" of the facts ever mentioned, much less discussed in enough detail for us to assess their merit in establishing the truth and correcting error, such as by naming a witness and identifying his or her qualifications, or by discussing how conflicting reports were reconciled. Since we have no evidence of this, we cannot conclude there were any effective controls on what we actually find written in the Gospels. If we did have such evidence, then we would not be looking at oral history anymore, but critical history, and what I say about oral history pertains to the former, not the latter. For more on the problem of critical transmission in early Christianity, see Richard Carrier, "Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?," "Would the Facts Be Checked?," and "Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?," chapters 7, 13, and 17 (respectively) of "Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False?" (2005).
Addendum E: Holding claims "Josephus and Tacitus are the equivalent to a Lucian reporting Glycon's miracles." This is dishonest.
(1) Tacitus never once mentions any miracles associated with Jesus, or even that there were any miracles associated with Jesus. He doesn't even mention there being a claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Indeed, if all we had about Jesus was this passage in Annals 15.44, we would never even know anyone had claimed Jesus rose from the dead. See "Tacitus" in Jeffery Jay Lowder, "Josh McDowell's 'Evidence' for Jesus: Is It Reliable? (2000). Holding knows this. So how can Holding honestly claim that Tacitus failing to mention any miracle whatsoever is "the equivalent" of "Lucian reporting Glycon's miracles"? He can't. Not honestly.
(2) It is very unlikely that Josephus ever mentioned any miracles associated with Jesus, and it cannot be established that he mentioned his resurrection. Qualified experts on the question are virtually unanimous that the only passage in Josephus mentioning this has been extensively tampered with, or forged in its entirety, by Christian scribes. Since the text has been compromised, no definitive conclusions can be reached as to what, if anything, Josephus himself actually said. Scholars agree the evidence is fairly strong that whatever Josephus may have wrote, he didn't mention the resurrection of Jesus (e.g. if he had, Origen would have mentioned this fact). Holding knows this. So when he neglects to mention any of this to his readers, and instead simply asserts that Josephus "directly" reports "that Christians believed Jesus was resurrected," he is not being honest.
Even the Christian apologist Josh McDowell agrees that Josephus did not mention the resurrection of Jesus, affirming that after he looked at all the evidence, McDowell found himself "agreeing with those scholars" who conclude that "some Christian additions" have been added to what Josephus wrote, and one of those additions McDowell himself concedes is the only reference to Jesus having risen from the dead. See Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1999), pp. 123-24. Holding is thus in a radical and untenable fringe if he believes what even McDowell doesn't. And it is dishonest to assert as a settled fact what few experts believe, even among conservative Christians. For more on Josephus, see "Josephus" in Jeffery Jay Lowder, "Josh McDowell's 'Evidence' for Jesus: Is It Reliable? (2000).
Not only is Holding dishonest here, but he would be wrong even if he was telling the truth. Neither Tacitus nor Josephus were witnesses or even contemporaries of the Resurrection. So they bear no analogy at all to Cicero or Lucian, the original examples he was responding to, or to any of the other examples I brought up in my rebuttal. In other words, Holding dodges my entire argument by changing the subject. Suddenly, without reason, though rebutting my citation of an unfriendly contemporary, Holding jumps all the way to later critical historians (even though those sources fall into my fourth category of evidence, not my second). Since all my examples and discussion related to contemporaries, Holding's reference to later historians is wholly irrelevant to my argument. That is why I addressed his remarks as pertaining to the absence of contemporary neutral or hostile records of the Resurrection claim: because that was the claim he was purporting to rebut.
Maybe Holding goofed and meant to put those original remarks lower down in his rebuttal to my fourth point instead of my second, but that's his mistake, not mine. I simply defended my second point against the arguments he made against it, and for that he accuses me of lying. Yet Holding continues to reference my use of the example of Lucian, even though treatments of Jesus in Tacitus or Josephus do not resemble Lucian's treatment of Glycon, who reported miracles he himself actually saw or learned first hand, or Cicero's treatment of Caesar, who reported events he heard from several sources within weeks of their happening. Did Holding not understand my original argument?
Perhaps not. When Holding claims his "point" was that "we would not expect Lucian to record Glycon's miracles as real," he seems to think this is something he has to explain to me, when I had already said that very thing--in fact, that was my very point in citing Lucian as an example. My very words were: "Lucian didn't believe Glycon's miracles were real, but nevertheless he records them." So what exactly was Holding arguing in his original rebuttal my second point? I have no idea. He claims "it would not serve the purposes of enemies of Christianity to report the Resurrection as real," but I never said they would report it as real. I even gave specific examples making absolutely clear I meant no such thing. So in what way does Holding's "point" rebut anything I said? Again, I have no idea. I can only assume Holding goofed and is trying to smokescreen his way out of it, instead of acknowledging that his original argument wasn't applicable or correct.
Addendum F: In response to my remark that "Holding claims it doesn't matter that many major historians record the Rubicon crossing, but not the resurrection of Jesus," Holding now makes the following claim:
In fact I nowhere say it "doesn't matter" and I never even use those words anywhere. I make no comment at all of this sort anywhere, and make no such "bizarre" denial as Carrier claims. The closest I come to any such statement is in explaining why such historians would not make note of the Resurrection, or how they would if they knew about the claims of it.
Holding's entire argument, the entire thesis of his rebuttal, is that we don't have less evidence for the Resurrection than for the Rubicon crossing. In defense of this thesis, as he concedes even above, he offers the fact that he can explain "why" we don't have this evidence. That amounts to arguing it doesn't matter that we don't have the evidence. If it mattered, then he would be agreeing with me that we have more evidence for the Rubicon crossing than we have for the resurrection of Jesus (in the form of discussions in several critical historians).
Anyone who says having these references doesn't provide more evidence for the Rubicon crossing than we have for the Resurrection, in rebuttal against someone explicitly arguing it does, is saying these references don't matter. And that is clearly what Holding meant. When I said we "have the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age," but nothing like this for the Resurrection, Holding's immediate rebuttal was, "This is true, but what of it?" What of it? Holding's first response is to flippantly dismiss as irrelevant the facts I just stated. That clearly amounts to saying that "having the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period" doesn't matter. I believe Holding's denial of this is dishonest.
Addendum G: When I said Holding has an "apparent presumption" that I dismiss the Gospels "merely" because they are late--because he argues that "therefore later historians should count even less for me"--Holding seems to think I was asserting he said this. No, I said it was an "apparent presumption" in what he did say. And Holding's attempt to deny this only reinforces my point, and further confirms his dishonesty:
Carrier manufactures arguments for me out of thin air; I say nowhere (despite the quote marks) that Carrier "merely" dismisses the Gospels because they are late. No such word is found in my article related to that issue. He does admit here that he sees lateness as a problem, and that is as far as my point went: That his bald appeal to sources for the Rubicon crossing contains a "problem" that he blithely covers up, while he would (as he has in the past) be all over this "problem."
Holding thus denies the presumption and then immediately embraces that very presumption! He claims that as far as his point went, my "appeal to sources for the Rubicon crossing contains a problem" that I "cover up." What problem is that? He mentions only one: "lateness." In other words, even here Holding presumes that mere lateness presents a problem for my use of those sources. He mentions no other.
And that is exactly his original presumption. I claimed that having "the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period" counts as more evidence than we have for the Resurrection. In his first rebuttal, the very first argument Holding advanced against this claim was that these historians are late, "later than even Carrier believes the Gospels to be." In fact, he says, "to make matters worse for Carrier, our earliest manuscripts of these works are as much as a millennium removed from the originals." And so, merely because of this, he says his point is that "to treat these documents in the same way Carrier treats the Gospels would be an absurdity." In other words, Holding concludes that my treating the Gospels differently than these critical historians is absurd for no other reason than that they are as late as the Gospels.
There is no other argument he could possibly be making here than that I am absurdly dismissing the Gospels because they are late, because the only evidence he offers that my dismissing them is absurd is that it would be absurd to dismiss critical historians because they are late. Since he had discussed no other criterion by the time he made this statement, that is the only thing he could mean when he says, "to treat these documents in the same way Carrier treats the Gospels would be an absurdity." For the presumption here must be that I am dismissing the Gospels because they are late. Otherwise, if I dismiss them for some other reason, his argument makes exactly zero sense. He could not claim I am doing something absurd because those historians are at least as late as the Gospels, because the latter fact would have nothing whatever to do with why I treat the Gospels differently, and would therefore have no bearing on whether my treating them differently was "absurd."
Since there is nothing else Holding could possibly have meant, his attempt now to deny it is appalling. And accusing me of dishonesty for saying his argument contained this apparent presumption is even more appalling.
Addendum H: Holding claims there are no significant disagreements among the Gospels, not even in the chronologies of Luke and John. The general consensus of experts does not agree with him. But I will grant that with some interpretive acrobatics, one could force the chronology of John to fit that of Luke--by admitting, for example, that John erred when he said Jesus was crucified on "the day of preparation for the Passover" (19:14-16 and 19:31), or that Luke erred when he said it was already the Passover when Jesus was crucified (22:7-16; also the interpolated verse at 23:17), and by admitting that Luke did not "carefully follow everything from the beginning" as he claims to (1:3), since he left a lot out. For example, John describes the ministry of Jesus through three Passovers (John 2:13-23; 6:4, 6:10; 11:55, 12:1, 13:1, 18:28, 18:39, 19:14); but Luke, only one (Luke 22). John also only mentions Jesus clearing the Temple once, years before he is executed (John 2:13-23), and long before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-20), but Luke only mentions Jesus clearing the Temple once, mere days before he is executed, and after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-48). Similarly, John records a miraculous catch of fish after Jesus died, not before (John 21), while Luke only records a miraculous catch long before Jesus died, not after (Luke 5:1-11). And so on. But other contradictions are just too huge to allow any rational harmony. For example, see the closing example in my Plausibility of Theft FAQ. For more, see the articles relating to the New Testament in the Secular Web section on Biblical Errancy.


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