Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Response to Bradley Bowen’s Skeptical View of Jesus’ Resurrection

I have continued to be in dialogue with Bradley Bowen on The Secular Outpost throughout his Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus series. He wrote in part 10 of the series:
A key claim made by Christian apologists who defend the resurrection goes like this:
(JAW) Jesus of Nazareth was alive and walking around unassisted on the first Easter Sunday.
We are considering the implications of the following supposition:
4. (JAW) is false.
On this supposition, there are three logical possibilities:
A. Jesus was not alive on the first Easter Sunday.B. Jesus was alive on the first Easter Sunday but did not walk at all that day.C. Jesus was alive on the first Easter Sunday but was walking only with assistance from others.

Here is my response:
If A is true then the Apparent Death Theory (ADT) is not true. Since the Gospel accounts and historical records agree that Jesus was crucified we know that Jesus was subjected to a life threatening situation. This means that Jesus would have to survive scourging, crucifixion and very likely a spear thrust to the side that pierced his heart. We know that Suetonius, Josephus, Cicero and Livy all documented cases where people died during or shortly after scourging, and that scourging of non-Roman citizens was common before crucifixions. We also know that the Romans executed thousands of people via crucifixion, and so were very good at it. This means that Jesus would have to survive two life threatening events.

Jesus also very likely received a spear thrust to the side. John 19:32-34 says, “So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” This accords with what the South African Medical Journal wrote in "The history and pathology of crucifixion."  They wrote, "The attending Roman guards could only leave the site after the victim had died, and were known to precipitate death by means of deliberate fracturing of the tibia and/or fibula, spear stab wounds into the heart, sharp blows to the front of the chest, or a smoking fire built at the foot of the cross to asphyxiate the victim."  So, it seems likely that Jesus would have to survive a spear thrust to the side as well.

Even if Jesus was somehow alive after sustaining a massive amount of trauma, he would have to survive three days in critical or serious condition in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb without the medical care he would desperately needed. Even if someone made it past the Roman guards and rescued Jesus he would have to go sometime without medical care and the care who would have eventually received would be very primitive by today’s standards.

Most NT scholars agree that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Even the agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman said, “The earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying that Jesus was in fact buried by his fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it’s relatively reliable that’s what happened.” This means that since the highly experienced and disciplined soldiers that crucified really believed that he was dead. 1 Peter 1:3, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and the Gospel accounts all indicate that Jesus followers also believed that Jesus died on the cross. So, everyone around Jesus believed that he really died on the cross. It also means that if Jesus’ body never made it out of the tomb then it would be obvious to everyone involved that Jesus was dead and not resurrected.

Roman historians also validate the Biblical accounts. Tacitus wrote:
Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.  
Tacitus confirms that Jesus was executed by Pontius Pilate.

The Gospel accounts also accord with what Josephus’ history He wrote, “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die.” Again, it is confirmed that Jesus was crucified by Pilate.

So, taken all together there is a lot of evidence that suggests that Jesus died after being scourged, crucified and speared. This is why physician C. Truman Davis writes, “Apparently, to make doubly sure of death, the legionnaire drove his lance between the ribs, upward through the pericardium and into the heart. John 19:34 states, ‘And immediately there came out blood and water.’ Thus there was an escape of watery fluid from the sac surrounding the heart and the blood of the interior of the heart. This is rather conclusive post-mortem evidence that Jesus died, not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, but of heart failure due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.”

This is why I think that the ADT is probably not true. Jesus would have to have to survive an extraordinary amount of trauma and three events that could likely kill him. However, Jesus’ empty tomb and post mortem appearances greatly lower the chances that A is true. All four Gospel accounts, Acts 1, Acts 13:28-32, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and 1 Peter 1:3-4 all claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  

As William Lane Craig likes to point out, it is significant that the Gospel accounts mention that Jesus’ tomb was found empty by two women, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, because the testimony of women was not highly regarded in Jewish culture. Women’s testimony was not even accepted in legal proceedings. If the Gospel accounts were made up then it doesn’t make sense to have women be the first people to see the empty tomb. It would have made much more sense to have men be the first to see the empty tomb if the Gospels were faked. Agnostic NT scholar Bart Ehrman believes that there is solid evidence that women found Jesus’ tomb empty. He says, “We also have solid traditions that indicate that women found this [Jesus’ tomb] empty three days later.

After Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty hundreds of people claimed to have witnessed him walking around at different times. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:5 says that Peter witnessed the resurrection of Jesus and then in 1 Peter 1:3-4 Peter claims that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Even the skeptical NT critic Gert Lüdemann says, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ."

Paul also claims that hundreds witnessed Jesus walking around. Paul would have had a chance to talk to many if not all of these brothers during his wide ranging travels. It would be incredibly unlikely that hundreds of followers of Jesus could simultaneously hallucinate and mistakenly think that they are seeing his resurrected body.   

In 1 Corinthians 15:7 Paul says that James the bother of Jesus witnessed Jesus walking around after his death. As the brother of Jesus James would have a great reason to be skeptical about the extraordinary claims surrounding his brother. While the two were growing up James would have likely seen Jesus as an ordinary older brother. Yet James says in the opening of his epistle, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1).” James was so sure that Jesus was the resurrected Christ that he was will die by stoning for continuing to proclaim the Gospel. In Antiquities of the Jews Josephus writes, “The brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James" met his death after the death of the procurator Porcius Festus, yet before Lucceius Albinus took office (Antiquities 20,9) — which has thus been dated to 62. The High Priest Ananus ben Ananus took advantage of this lack of imperial oversight to assemble a Sanhedrin who condemned James "on the charge of breaking the law."

The Biblical accounts also correspond to historical records of Tacitus. He wrote, “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea.” It makes sense that Jesus’ followers would momentarily give up the movement after Jesus was crucified, and then pick it up again after the post mortem appearances. This is what we see in the Gospels; the followers of Jesus are disappointed after the crucifixion and then are jubilant after the tomb is discovered empty and they see him walking around.

The Biblical accounts also accords with the history of Josephus. He wrote, “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” According to Josephus Jesus disciples really believed that Jesus appeared to them after he was crucified by Pilate.  
Since multiple witnesses testify to seeing Jesus’ resurrection we can say that A is unlikely. When one is not bound by the presuppositions of naturalism then the simple explanation for the death and post mortem appearances of Jesus is the God raised Jesus from the dead. This hypothesis becomes all the more likely when the Kalam cosmological argument; the Leibnizian cosmological argument; the fine tuning argument; the moral argument; and ontological arguments for God’s existence are taken together. All these arguments raise the likelihood that God exists. If God exists then it is likely that God performed a physically impossible, yet logically possible act when he temporally suspended natural order to resurrect Jesus from the dead.

I think that B and C are also not true because there are problems with both possibilities and there is no evidence that shows that Jesus did not walk on Easter Sunday following his crucifixion or that he needed help to get around. A major problem with B and C is explaining how Jesus had survived the all the trauma of a scourging, crucifixion and likely spearing. He would have to survive a significant amount of time in serious or critical condition (assuming that he was somehow still alive after being taken down from the cross) without medical care while he was in the tomb. Even if he did receive medical care after his crucifixion, medical care at that time would have been so primitive that it probably wouldn’t have be able to save someone.

 Another problem with B and C is that one must explain how Jesus could have escaped from his sealed and guarded tomb if he was not capable of walking. If Jesus was not capable of walking then I think we can say with 100% certainty that he was not capable of escaping the tomb on his own.  It would be a feat that is nearly impossible for a strong, healthy man as there are no hand holds on the stone and there is no way to push the stone from the left or right from inside the tomb. For a man in serious or critical condition, that was not capable of walking, this would be impossible.

A hypothesis could be given that Jesus’ followers bribed the Roman guards; rolled the stone; and carried Jesus out, but this hypothesis is ad hoc and implausible. First of all, it must be assumed that Jesus survived scourging, crucifixion and having his heart lanced which is quite unlikely. Secondly, it must be assumed that Jesus’ followers would be willing to rescue Jesus’ body. This seems implausible because the Jewish conception of a Messiah was of a military conqueror not someone who would get crucified, so it seems more likely that Jesus’ followers would have just given up on him.  Thirdly, it must be assumed that the guards would be willing to risk possible capital punishment in order to take a bribe. This explanation is much more ad hoc and implausible then God resurrecting Jesus.

There is also no Biblical or historical evidence that shows that Jesus couldn’t walk on Easter Sunday or that he needed help getting around. Matthew 28 says that Jesus was not only walking around but capable of going up a small mountain. Mark 16 says that Jesus walked away from his tomb and then was seen at various places. Luke 24 reports that Jesus was walking alongside the disciples. John 20 reports that Jesus appeared to the disciples and was able to stand.

In conclusion I think it is unlikely that either A, B or C is true. I think the best explanation for the empty tomb and post mortem appearance of Jesus following his crucifixion is that God performed a physically impossible, yet logically possible event when he raised Jesus from the dead. All other explanations are implausible and ad hoc.    


  1. Where did Bart Ehrman write "The earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying that Jesus was in fact buried by his fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it’s relatively reliable that’s what happened"?

  2. Welcome back, Vinny. The Ehrman quote was from "From Jesus to Constatine: A History of Early Christianity," Lecture 4: "Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus" (The Teaching Company, 2003).

  3. Since that was a series of lectures, it is not accurate to say that Ehrman “wrote” it since in lectures one doesn’t have the same opportunity to edit ambiguous statements.

    That statement was made in the context of a discussion of whether Jesus’ body was buried rather than left on the cross to rot as was the usual Roman practice. What Ehrman finds reliable is that Jesus was buried, not that he was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, which he makes clear immediately after the sentence you quote when he says “I think we can say that after Jesus’ death, probably with some certainty that he was buried, possibly by this fellow Joseph of Arimathea . . . .”

    Here is what Ehrman writes in his 1999 book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium pp. 224-25:

    In several independent accounts we are told that Jesus’ body was buried by an influential but secret follower, Joseph of Arimathea. Some scholars have called this tradition into question on the grounds of contextual credibility. Crucified criminals were normally not allowed a decent burial, but were either left on the crosses to rot and be devoured by scavengers or tossed into a common grave. This was part of the humiliation. At least one recent scholar, otherwise known for his serious scholarship, has made a rather sensationalist suggestion that Jesus’ body was in fact eaten by dogs. One must admit that this is possible but there is really no way to know.

    In any event, it seems improbable that Jesus’ corpse was simply left hanging on the cross. If it had been, his followers would presumably have seen it there later and been somewhat less inclined to maintain that it had been raised from the dead on the third day following. We can at least say then that Jesus’ body was probably buried somewhere by someone, either by the soldiers in a common tomb or, as the tradition itself says, by someone other than his family or closest followers.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Vinny. I have edited my post to say that Ehrman said the quotes you mentioned. However, I disagree with the assessment of the scholar’s that Ehrman mentions for a three reasons.

    The first is that as a member of the Sanhedrin Joseph of Arimathea’s high standing in the Jewish community would have given him access to Pilate. Since Joseph was an influential man it is quite conceivable that Pilate would be willing to grant his request to give him Jesus’ body when it was time to take the bodies down in accordance with Jewish tradition.

    Second, since Joseph was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the group that condemned Jesus, it is unlikely that the Gospel writers would make him up. Mark 14:64 says that all of the members condemned Jesus to death. It would be odd that the Gospel authors would invent a story about one of the people who condemned Jesus then going on to care for his body, especially since there was an adversarial relationship between the Sanhedrin and the early church.

    Thirdly, the description of the tomb that Jesus was buried in matches archeological discoveries of the tombs of wealthy people at that time. Matthew 27:57 says that Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man. The description of the tomb that Joseph had Jesus buried in matches with what we know of the tomb’s of the wealthy. Only a few of the excavated tombs around Jerusalem have rolling stones meaning that this was a luxury that only wealthy people like Joseph could have afforded.

  5. Keith,

    Actually, your first point illustrates perfectly why someone might invent the story of Joseph of Arimathea. Suppose that the evidence for the earliest proclamation of the resurrection was only the appearances. Skeptics would have claimed that the apostles had only seen a ghost and the temptation to add details to the appearance stories to emphasize the physicality of the appearances would have been very great. Eventually, in order to quiet the skeptics, the author of Mark claims that someone had seen Jesus' tomb empty on the third day.

    In order to make the empty tomb story believable, Mark would need some way to explain how Jesus' body came to be placed in a private tomb rather than being left on the cross to rot or thrown in a common grave for criminals as would have been the usual Roman practice. Mark would have known that only a member of the Sanhedrin would have sufficient clout with the Romans to get this done. Thus, even if it were embarrassing, Mark would have recognized it as a necessary element in the story.

    I think this is generally why scholars like Ehrman express uncertainty about Joseph of Arimathea. They think that it could be true, but they see that the reasons why someone would invent the story are quite clear as well.

    I think it is also possible that Mark didn't see the incident as embarrassing at all. Like the Roman centurion who acknowledges that Jesus must have been the son of God, the story of Joseph of Arimathea shows the profound effect that Jesus' death had even on his enemies. Clearly, however, the other evangelists saw it as embarrassing since Matthew and John turn Joseph into a rich disciple while Luke leaves him on the council but exonerates him from participation in Jesus' conviction.

  6. Vinny, the problem with this idea is that if Jesus wasn’t taken down from the cross or he had been buried by the Roman’s then when Jesus’ followers claimed to see him on Easter Sunday all the Romans or Jewish religious elite would have to do is point to Jesus’ body and say, “Here he is you fools!” This would quash the resurrection claims quickly.

    Besides, as far as explaining why Jesus’ crucifixion was hurried has already been explained by the fact that the command in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 of burying the bodies by sundown was being observed. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says, “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” There is no need to invent Joseph to explain why the bodies were taken down from the cross. However, Joseph’s request does explain how Jesus came to be buried in the newly carved tomb of a wealthy man.

    Another problem is that the burial scene is stacking two implausible inventions on top of each other. Not only do we have a closeted follower of Jesus who is a member of the group who condemned him caring for his body, but you have women witnessing this. Women’s testimony was not even accepted in legal proceedings. If the Gospel accounts were made up then it doesn’t make sense to have women be the witnesses of Jesus’ burial and be first people to see the empty tomb. It would have made much more sense to have men be the first to see the empty tomb if the Gospels were faked.

    As to Joseph, I don’t think any of the Gospel writers were embarrassed about who Joseph was. All four writers talk to some extent about Joseph being a follower of Jesus, but it seems to me that he was a closeted and very cautious follower. Mark explains that all members of the council voted to crucify Jesus, so it appears that Joseph did vote to crucify Jesus, probably because he felt like he could receive some kind of retribution if he dared to be a dissenter. Another possibility is that Joseph could have been a no-show on the vote since Luke says Joseph had not consented to the council’s decision and action. Mark says that Joseph took courage and asked Pilate for the body, implying that this was a risky move on his part. John says that Joseph was a secret follower of Jesus because of fear of the Jews. So, it appears that Joseph followed as best as he could, but openly following Jesus was not safe for him. I don’t think there is anything about Joseph to be embarrassed about, but his story does fit it in the truth is stranger than fiction category.

  7. Keith,

    You are assuming that the first appearances took place on that Easter morning in Jerusalem and that the resurrection was first proclaimed there. Matthew and Mark tell us that the apostles went back to Galilee before Jesus appeared to them. If that is so, then the resurrection might not have been proclaimed in Jerusalem until some time later. In any case, when considering the question of whether someone might have invented Joseph of Arimathea, we cannot simply assume that all the other details in the narrative are accurate. We have to take into account the possibility that other details were added later as well.

    Deuteronomy may explain why the Jews wanted to bury the body, but it doesn’t explain why the Romans allowed it. It is my understanding (and I don’t claim to have studied the question closely) that Romans did not allow the honorable burial of crucifixion victims and that even allowing the bodies to be thrown into common graves for criminals was rare. (I think I read somewhere that archeologists have only ever found the remains of one crucifixion victim who was given a proper burial.) The Romans preferred to leave the bodies on the crosses to rot as a warning to other potential trouble makers. So the story would still need someone with some clout to get the Romans to allow a proper burial for Jesus’ body and that would be reason to invent Joseph.

    The women finding the body could also have been a necessary element of the story. If the empty tomb story was invented by Mark some thirty years after the crucifixion, his readers would wonder why they had never heard the story before. By having the silly, unreliable women find the empty tomb and then run away without telling anyone, Mark could say “We just found out about it.”

    In any case, the women weren’t being asked to testify in a court of law. The fact that women were second class citizens in the eyes of the law didn’t mean that women weren’t respected members of the Christian community who could be relied upon to report what they had observed to other members of the community. In any case, Mark isn’t citing the women as sources or relying on their credibility. Mark is telling a story which he expects to be believed because he can be relied upon to communicate the revelation that he has received.

    I am rather surprised that you are saying that none of the gospel writers would have been embarrassed by Joseph of Arimathea. Aren’t we applying the criteria of embarrassment here? I thought the reason why you didn’t think the story of Joseph of Arimathea was invented was because the gospel writers would have been uncomfortable having a member of the Sanhedrin bury the body.

  8. As to why the Romans would allow Joseph to have the body the “History and pathology of crucifixion” says, “After death Roman law allowed the family of the deceased to remove the body for burial, after obtaining permission for a judge. Otherwise it was customary to leave the corpse on the cross to be devoured by predatory animals and birds.” So, the Romans giving up a body for burial wasn’t unheard of. Also, Josephus writes in Jewish War Book 4 Chapter 5, “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.” The Romans giving up the body to Joseph isn’t as unusual as you make it out to be.

    I still think that if the Gospel writers, if they were inventing the Gospel story, would have had men be the ones to watch the burial of Jesus and be the first to see the empty tomb since men were more respected in Jewish culture. Even in the early church women took more of a back seat. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” I know it’s a strange idea for us in the United States in 2011 to think about women’s testimony or input as being lesser then men’s, but Jewish culture was very male centered.

    As to Joseph of Arimathea and embarrassment I think I was misunderstanding what you were saying. I thought you were saying that the Gospel writers were embarrassed about who Joseph was. If we’re talking about the historical principle of embarrassment then yes, I think the incident with Joseph would count. A follower of Jesus that came from a group that was an enemy of the early church would be a very strange invention.

  9. That sounds like a more liberal practice regarding the burial of crucifixion victims than I have seen cited elsewhere, but as I said, I haven’t researched the question myself. However, it sounds like there still had to be someone to request permission for the burial and since Jesus’ disciples were cowering in fear at the time, someone outside the group to make the request and place the body in a private tomb seems like a necessary plot device. Moreover, at the time the gospels were being written, the most prominent voice in the church was a former enemy so it’s hard for me to see how having a member of the Sanhedrin arrange for Jesus’ burial would have been beyond imagination.

    What has always seemed to me to be one of the most salient characteristics of the gospels is their lack of regard for the social conventions of the day. Jesus touches a leper. He heals beggars. He eats with sinners and tax gatherers. He forgives prostitutes. The Samaritan acts more righteously than either the priest or the Levite. When it comes to the events surrounding the crucifixion, it is hard for me to see how social standing would suddenly become an important consideration.

    As to that passage in 1 Corinthians 14, some scholars believe it to be a later interpolation since three chapters earlier, Paul tells women that they should keep their heads covered when they preach or prophesy in church. It would seem very odd for Paul to forbid women to speak in church so soon after he has described the proper manner for them to speak.

    Moreover, the gospel of Mark is thought by many scholars to have been written in Rome for an audience composed of gentile converts to Christianity. From Romans 16, we know that there were many women who played a prominent role in the Christian community there. That would make it even less likely that the status of women in Jewish culture would be a significant influence on the choices that the author of Mark made.

  10. Actually Paul told women to keep their heads covered when they pray or prophesy.