Last time, we talked about a Christian parent who asked, in her blog post about apologetics memes that all Christian parents should memorize and be able to parrot to their overly-trusting children,
24. What are the four minimal facts of the resurrection that are “so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones?”
I only briefly talked about it at the time, but this question caught my attention for a couple of different reasons. First, it was the first time I’d ever heard that direct quote, and I kind of keep up with apologetics so that was surprising. Second, it was such an outrageously false statement, such a clear mischaracterization of history and skepticism, that I was shocked to see it worded like that, like it was some kind of done deal that everybody–“even the rather skeptical ones”–knows. But the fact that she’d put the phrase in quotes like that meant, ostensibly, that she’d gotten it from somewhere. So I went digging.
You’ll be surprised, perhaps, to discover that this exact phrase shows up all over the internet. I’m not even kidding. Take a look for yourself. This phrase is like “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” which is the title of a book by Norman Geisler. Every single ex-Christian and atheist alive has heard this one thrown at them, right? I’m guessing the only reason I haven’t heard the “so strongly attested” quote by now because it’s just so long. But Christians themselves are saying it among themselves and passing it back and forth like a big game of Telephone, so it pays to know what’s trending in their bubble of a world.
The concept behind the phrase seems to have originated with William Lane Craig (or at least it was popularized by him), a famous Christian apologist who’s written a ton of books about what he thinks is the proof for Christianity. Here’s a debate he had with Bart Ehrman wherein he outlines his “four minimal facts,” and here are the four “facts” themselves:
1. Jesus’ burial
2. the discovery of his empty tomb
3. his post-mortem appearances
4. the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.
We’ll be taking them one by one in a moment.
Before we get started, it’s useful to say a couple of things to get the air cleared.
First, there simply are no contemporary writings about Jesus Christ or the earliest origins of Christianity as told in the Gospels and Acts. In fact, of the many people existing at the time who were actually writing about stuff going on at the time (here’s a list of them, if you’re curious, and I hope you are–that link is a brilliant piece of work), none of those people wrote about Jesus or anything even vaguely similar to Jesus. There is a huge black hole in history where Jesus should be. Nobody noticed this rock-star parading around the area; nobody mentions his huge miracles; nobody at court talks about how unnerved he made the ruling class; nobody records his trials or execution or post-execution appearances. To me, that’s quite a damning silence. Not for decades after his death, apparently, did anybody think anything he did or said was worth putting down on paper.
Christians all have to figure out some way to make peace with that silence. Some Christians honestly accept it–not many though. Some Christians, like Mr. Craig, distort it and try to fill it with something, anything, so that this silence is not so deafening.
The only way that people like Mr. Craig can even think halfway that there’s historical evidence for his religion’s founder is by either stretching the timeframe to include sources that are totally not contemporaneous (like stuff written by people who weren’t even born when Jesus supposedly died), or else by going into circular reasoning (“the Bible’s account is correct because it’s in the Bible; the Bible is accurate history because it says it’s accurate history”). I find that approach not only disingenuous but hugely and baldly dishonest. For a gumby rank-and-file Christian to parrot this nonsense is one thing, but for someone educated like Mr. Craig to do it is absolutely reprehensible.
Second, the historicity of the Resurrection myth is not Christianity’s biggest problem. Christians think his death and resurrection must be true or else their religion falls apart, but the mere fact that they are content to rest in these lame-ass apologetics tells me that they’re not really that eager to find out the facts one way or the other. And if we did find out tomorrow that a real Jesus existed and had been put to death and “rose again” by the reckoning of that insanely primitive time, I don’t think that really confirms his story or Christianity’s claims as a whole. A real Resurrection wouldn’t make everybody flock to convert, though you’d never guess that from how Christians keep pushing and pressing on this question, like all they have to do is demonstrate that their cherished Resurrection myth for realsies happened and we’ll all gasp in amazement and immediately fall to our knees with hands raised up, ready to recite the Sinner’s Prayer. That is completely not the case. Just as the majority of Christians discount one or two things in the Bible and still believe in Christianity, the majority of non-Christians might think one or two things in it might have happened but still do not accept Christianity in the main.
Third, I know that the Bible is not a history or science book. I know that it was written and compiled by various groups and people with profoundly strong agendas ranging from nationalistic fervor to a desire to convert the unwary, and that its stories were not meant to be taken literally but were told, retold, and polished to a razor edge to be effective manipulation tools–and truthfulness took a major back seat to effectiveness, just as it does today for way too many Christian zealots. I know that those stories have shifted and been sliced up and added to over the years as agendas and power structures changed. These stories were never meant to be objective, impartial, unbiased third-party accounts. I do not take its stories as complete and trustworthy on their own, consequently.
That mindset flummoxes most Christians, who do take it as a complete and trustworthy document. The argument goes like this: “the Resurrection happened because the Bible says it happened, and the Bible is always true.” I know that part of why they push the historicity of the Bible is because if they can prove anything in it really happened, that might make people more likely to believe the Bible is right about everything else it talks about. That’s not the case either, but I can see why they think so. They don’t have a lot of tools in the ol’ toolbox here. Since the only source whatsoever talking about the Resurrection is, well, the Bible, they have to use the Bible as a source for their beliefs.
That’s why I don’t tend to argue about Jesus’ historicity with Christians. It’s not what I perceive to be the religion’s biggest problem, and they’re not Christians because they think those myths are historically true anyway (the timeline is generally more like: “became Christian through general gullibility and acceptance of misinformation, then figured out a way to make the Bible sound plausible to make belief seem less insane”). But it’s still important to talk about this topic. The problem isn’t the Bible’s lack of historicity. The problem is that Christians will say absolutely anything to push this false historicity, even lie and distort reality. To me, that is the mark of a bad religion. They’re all mythical, as far as I can tell, but at least the good ones don’t insist on denying reality or lying.
When I was a Christian, I was absolutely convinced that these myths were all true, and everybody around me said they were true and that there was all this evidence for them. It was a huge stumbling block for me to discover the truth, and eventually I deconverted because I could not stomach belonging to a religion so full of lies and distortions. But that was back in the late 80s and early 90s, before the Internet was really a thing, and before information was readily available. We’re very lucky now to live in an age where we have a lot of scholars and historians talking and sharing their wisdom with us, and they are becoming more and more eager to combat the misinformation campaign being waged by huckster Christian evangelists and dishonest Christian apologists.
Okay? Okay. Now we can talk about these ridiculous so-called “facts.”
“Fact #1: After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.”
Actually, we have no outside corroboration of this “fact” besides the Bible. Jesus’ trial and crucifixion are mentioned absolutely nowhere else in contemporary documents–odd, considering there was a huge trial, isn’t it? Romans kept records of stuff like that. If Pontius Pilate had really given up a murderer to a huge, howling mob of a crowd in some strange tradition of clemency so he could condemn Jesus (a tradition which did not actually exist, btw–it was totally made up by the Gospel writers, and besides being made-up isn’t even vaguely in Pilate’s character), you’d think somebody would have mentioned some element of this story somewhere. But no, there’s not a word. This whole trial/crucifixion scene is likely just a fantasy.
The problems with this “fact” certainly do not end there. Joseph of Arimathea is almost certainly a literary invention; his very name isn’t a real name or place–Arimathea doesn’t exist, and Richard Carrier’s made an argument for it meaning “good disciple town,” using the name to highlight and play up the character’s traits in the exact same way that some of us older folks might remember Goofus & Gallant from Highlights magazine. It seems kind of odd that the guy who’d turn out to be such a great disciple would sport a name that means “good disciple town.” If Joseph really existed as described, then he was an educated man–yet he never wrote anything down that we know of, not even a single letter about this amazing man he’d given his tomb to. He never shows up in early Christianity’s writings or organizations and there’s no record of him prior to the anonymous author of Mark using him in his Gospel, either. He shows up right in time to save the day, does a little bit of stuff, gives his tomb to Jesus, and then he just more or less flies off to England like in that song you remember from Monty Python.
William Lane Craig says in that debate link, “We have four biographies of Jesus, by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which have been collected into the New Testament, along with various letters of the apostle Paul.” And I’m more than a little surprised that an educated man like him doesn’t know that those are not “biographies” at all, and that the later three gospels cribbed heavily from Mark, which was written decades after this “fact” of the Resurrection. We do not know the actual identity of any of the four Gospel writers, either; the names are used only as a convention by reputable historians. As for his last named source, Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, and we know that not all of “Paul’s” writings were actually written by Paul.
So far from having a crowd of contemporary writings, Mr. Craig has got one Gospel, Mark, that kicked off the whole parade decades after Jesus’ supposed death, three others that plagiarized, fixed-up, and altered Mark’s work, and one guy we do know existed and can pin down as a New Testament author but who never claimed to have met Jesus at all, who wrote decades after the Resurrection so isn’t a contemporary anyway, and who didn’t witness any of the events in the Gospels. That’s some pretty thin stock to base a soup off of, isn’t it?
It’s really quite baffling why Mr. Craig doesn’t mention any of this stuff. It seems kind of important to me at least.
Fact #2: On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
Again, this “fact” is attested to in no contemporary documents at all, only in the Gospels, and picked up only later by other writers. Of course, the whole story of the Resurrection is filled chockablock with contradictions, some of which I knew about as a Christian and some of which I only discovered after deconverting. Just the beginning of the problems with this assertion is discussing how many women, exactly, were there.
It’s downright shocking that Mr. Craig could present this assertion as a “fact” with a straight face.
On that note, I remember one day in college I was telling an atheist, with me all bright-eyed and chirpy, about the empty tomb and some nonsense about the “Blind Men and the Elephant” and he just stared at me like I was out of my gourd. I still remember the look on his face as he said, “You actually believe what you’re saying?” He stopped walking and just stared. I stammered back that yes, of course I did, and we kept walking, but that incident always stayed with me to remind me that some of the stuff I believed to be totally objectively rational and sensible looked downright insane to outsiders. I had a Christian just today try to tell me, with a straight face, that the Gospels are reliable history, so you know nothing much has changed in 20+ years.
I also do not buy the “argument from shame” that Mr. Craig uses here to say that the fact that women found the tomb, rather than men, makes this story more believable. What would make this story more believable is if he’d gotten the shape of the stone correct (did you know that the stones used to block tombs were square up until 70CE? So nobody was rolling that stone f-all anywhere, if Jesus died around 33CE; it’s almost like whoever wrote the stories didn’t realize that those stones weren’t always round), or if these women had told somebody literate what’d happened, or if anybody at all had recorded the incident, or even if anybody had remembered where the tomb even was until Christianity became a popular movement and suddenly uneducated rubes began taking it as literal history and began asking where it was. If you’re wondering, the answer to “where is his tomb?” was why stop at one tomb when you can have five? (They keep finding tombs they think are his, but weirdly, these discoveries never seem to turn out to be true. You’d think something they’ve found would have turned out to be real at least once in the history of this religion, wouldn’t you?)
Fact #3: On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
Again, this “fact” is attested only in the Gospels and Acts. Nowhere else. Let’s remember that the Gospels and Acts were not written anywhere near the time of Jesus’ actual lifetime, but rather were put to writing decades if not centuries later. It seems a little odd that someone could witness a person being raised from the dead and not write home about it. If so many hundreds of people saw him, why didn’t anybody write about it? Or at least tell someone who could write about it? Surely at least one of these people who saw him could write, or knew someone who could write. This event would have been big news, just like the Jewish zombie uprising in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and the tearing of the veil in the temple as recounted in Matthew 27:51-53 (which also is not mentioned by anybody living in Jerusalem at that time). But nobody wrote about a single bit of it.
If we were looking only at documents written around 30-40CE, we would not see a single person writing a single thing about a single part of the Resurrection narrative, and we definitely wouldn’t see a single word about this apocalyptic prophet rising from the dead and running around doing miracles in view of hundreds of people.
Mr. Craig puts a lot of trust in Paul’s writings, saying that Paul’s statement about Jesus’ resurrection “guarantees” that it happened, but that is not the case at all. Paul, again, wrote decades later, and he could simply be recounting what he heard. He did not see any of it himself, so he is not an eyewitness. And he doesn’t even really claim to have been. He makes it quite clear that his vision of Jesus was purely spiritual in nature; I’m not sure someone could seriously read Paul’s writings and come out of it thinking he even needed a physical Jesus.
Maybe Mr. Craig just doesn’t know how to history. Still, it’s sad that so many Christians are this impressed with someone who is this blatantly incompetent with history and who plays this fast-and-loose with the truth. He’s like a high school’s football quarterback being a 100-pound nerd with big glasses and an Amadeus laugh.
I have a huge affection for this movie.
Fact #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
Yes, because nobody’s ever believed in something patently untrue and it just takes hundreds of years for myths to spring up around someone dead (though a legion of Elvis fans and 9/11 truthers might disagree here). Also, they didn’t have “every predisposition to the contrary” at all. Mr. Craig bases this astonishing claim on the following: that the followers of Jesus were ashamed that he’d been put to death and that Jews just didn’t believe in resurrections.
I find his rationalizations here to be hugely self-serving and delusional. If Jesus’ followers were ashamed that he’d died, then it makes the most sense that they would claim that he wasn’t really dead. When cult members get hugely disappointed, when a big prophecy goes hideously pear-shaped (think “the Millerites” here, who after their “Great Disappointment,” rebounded to become the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, or the folks who believed in Harold Camping’s various failed doomsday predictions), they don’t tend to just give up. No, they drill down harder on their beliefs. It isn’t hard to imagine that the earliest followers of Jesus, if he existed, would have done the exact same thing and began putting out the idea that no no, he wasn’t really dead, he’d risen from the grave, see, look, it’s still all true!
Second, Jews absolutely believed in resurrections. There’s an old story in 2 Kings 13 just as a start about a miraculous resurrection–someone’s dead body jostled against a prophet’s bones, and the guy got back up. In 2 Kings 4 and also in 2 Kings 1, a prophet resurrects dead children. I could probably find more if I hunted, but no, actually, ancient Jews were fine with the idea.
In this belief, they were pretty much like every other religion around the area at the time. Christianity is so very obviously a swirl of Judaism and paganism that it isn’t surprising that contemporary Jews–especially those in Jerusalem and the vicinity–rejected Christianity despite having quite a bit in common with paganism themselves. It was only the Jews outside Palestine–the Diaspora Jews–who had more contact with pagans and were more ripe for a mystery religion like Christianity. In paganism, resurrections, virgin births with a divine element, atonement-style deaths, and big miracles were all par for the course. Christians like to imagine that their religion is unique, and it just isn’t.
Nor was Christianity a monolithic belief structure at the beginning any more than it is today. The earliest Christians fought over how hard to push for the conversion of pagans and Diaspora Jews, and I am not alone in thinking that one reason their religion got so popular is that it began to stress its more pagan elements to appeal to those outside Palestine–and that swirl of Judaism and paganism was a potent mix to sell to those who were steeped in both religions and cultures. Add a dash of mystery-religion “those who have ears to hear” stuff to make Christianity sound like the Cool Kids’ Club, and more than a sprinkling of ANY DAY NOW™ apocalyptic predictions and utterly disproportional threats of eternal torture to make us scared of the unknown enough to get gullible, and it isn’t shocking at all that Christianity got popular. It got the religion formula right just like Phil finally got his date formula right in Groundhog Day.
This one too.
So… Where does all of this leave us?
William Lane Craig wades out of that swamp of falsehoods and distortions with the startling conclusion that the only thing that fits his “facts” is an empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus.
I can’t follow him out of the swamp on that plank, and I’m not sure that even this conclusion could be honestly reached with his “four facts.” As it is, this conclusion is simply not feasible. I see him using the Bible to prove the Bible’s accuracy. I see him engaging in circular logic and ignoring what we have learned about the psychology of cult members. I see him saying stuff that I know, flat-out know, is simply not objectively true. I see him falsely claiming to have contemporary corroboration for his claims when there is not a single one to prop up the Bible’s narrative of, well, anything about Jesus.
If these are what Christians consider “facts,” then it seems quite clear to me that they don’t actually understand this big word at all. These aren’t facts. They’re just wishful thinking. You could use the exact same style of thinking to prove that Harry Potter is real–though the characters in that universe have a far more interesting, cohesive, and coherent setting and narrative, and Harry Potter’s “theology” is way more loving and kind than the ruthless, bloodthirsty cosmology presented by the Bible. And his fans haven’t murdered a whole lot of people at all yet or presented a big front to deny people their bodily rights. So maybe we need to be looking to Harry Potter for life’s big answers, rather than the Bible.
We’re going to talk about fandoms next, especially as touching conventions. Just about every fan group likes to congregate and enjoy their special hobbies together, and Christians are no different. Their latest convention was CPAC, where fans of Republican!Jesus could get together and enjoy their distortions and falsehoods away from critical eyes. Well, mostly away. We’ll be talking about some of the stuff that happened there and about why CPAC is a perfect illustration for why Christianity is falling apart at the seams. As always, I hope to see you there.