Friday, March 30, 2018

Did Jesus really rise?

I never did write about this.  Or at least, I only mentioned it in passing.  But given that it is really the most important reason for my deconversion -- I could have and would have stayed at least Christian if I could have found evidence for the resurrection -- I have always felt like I should write a full post about it.

The first question we have to answer is, do you actually want to know?  I mean, we'd go about this differently depending on what you want.  Do you want to justify your preexisting belief in the resurrection?  Do you want to show it's at least plausible?  Or do you want to know if there's actually good historical evidence for it?

Let's assume you do want to know if there's good historical evidence for it.  If you don't want that, you'll have to go elsewhere.  In this case, we'll want to use a methodology which will give us the best knowledge of history possible.  Every discipline has a gold standard.  In medicine, the gold standard is the double-blind, randomized controlled trial.  In history, it's multiple independent contemporaneous sources, backed up if possible with archeological finds.  Does the resurrection of Jesus meet this standard, or not?

Archeological finds, I think we have to acknowledge, are not to be had.  There are lots of supposed relics of the crucifixion, but in none of these cases do we have any proof they actually belonged to Jesus.  The only real candidate is the Shroud of Turin.  However, it doesn't have provenance (that is, we can't trace it back any further than 14th century Europe) and it carbon-dates to the Middle Ages.  No legitimate historian would admit an archeological find as proof of anything if it had no provenance and didn't date to the right time.

All right, let's get into multiple, independent, contemporaneous attestation.  What does this mean?  Multiple is easy--more than one.  The more sources you have, the better the historical evidence is.  Independent means that the different accounts don't rely on one another--that one writer wasn't looking at the text of another.  When we know that one had access to the other when writing, or when one references or copies from another, we don't truly have two accounts--we have the original, and a secondary source.  Contemporaneous means, normally, during the lifetime of the person written about.  Major historical figures have quite a footprint of contemporary writings--letters to and from them, orders they wrote, gossip about them by friends.  The Resurrection, being an event, doesn't have a lifetime, but the best evidence would be writings within a couple of years.

How many of these does the Resurrection have?  There are multiple accounts, for sure.  Some people cite the four gospels plus Paul, but I don't agree.  The Synoptics, at the very least, copied each other or use the same source.  So I think we have to count all three synoptics as one.  It's not very credible to think that, in decades within the Christian community, John didn't read the Synoptic Gospels, but I will grant John as independent because at least he does not follow those accounts.  Paul, at least, seems truly independent, because he probably wrote first, though the information he gives about the Resurrection is sparse.  So that makes three possibly-independent accounts.  The really unfortunate part is that they are all from the same point of view.  There is no record of Pilate saying the body disappeared and wondering why, or any record of anyone hearing the apostles' account in the first decades after the Resurrection and considering the evidence for it.  You only have religious individuals making religious claims.

What about the non-Christian sources that write about Jesus?  There are a few, though even later than the gospels -- Josephus in the 90's, Tacitus in the 110's.  I tend to discount these altogether, because they are obviously getting their information about what Christians believe from the Christians themselves.  They are  So I would trust it as an account of what Christians believed at the time, but it's no more credible than me saying, "Mormons follow a man called Joseph Smith, who saw an angel bringing him gold tablets."  I'm recounting the religious beliefs, but it's obvious where I got those beliefs, and that I don't share them.  Some people also think that some of what we have from Josephus is a forgery -- he wouldn't have written "Jesus was the Christ" unless he was a Christian, which he wasn't.

How contemporaneous are they?  There's a ton of argument on this topic, but let's take the Christian community's dating of about the 70's for the Gospels and the late 50's or early 60's for Paul.  (I am not sure this is right -- it's largely based on the assumption that the gospels wouldn't include the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem if it had already happened, whereas I think the opposite -- they made sure to include it because it had happened.  And Paul is supposed to have died in 66 or so, but that assumes that the writings of Paul aren't pseudonymous, which isn't a sure thing.  But let's grant the dates.)  That still leaves all record of the Resurrection starting thirty years out.

Thirty years is not a long time to remember something.  For instance, most sixty-year-old people can tell you any life-changing events from when they were thirty, like their wedding day or the birth of a child.  But it's a very long time for oral history to develop, especially within a religious community.  When I was in Regnum Christi, it was about sixty years from its founding and we had a very complicated mythos, much of which wasn't true.  It passed from person to person orally many times, and it must have grown in the telling.  You see, when two versions of the same story are circulating within an excited ideological community, the bigger story always wins.  It's very embarrassing to be the person saying, "Well, that's not what I heard from Other Apostle, I heard it was only one angel."  If a Different Apostle says it was two, everyone jumps on board with two because it's a better story.

I've participated in this myself.  I had a friend who went blind and later regained her sight.  The real story was that she was prayed over by the Pope, and several months later, she started being able to see a lot better.  But that's not how I told it.  I left out the words "several months later" because they softened the story, made it less exciting and miraculous-sounding.  There's a lot of prestige in being a witness to a miracle.

Thirty years also means that any other witnesses who could back you up or refute you are going to be hard to find.  Think of a woman who brings a sexual-harassment claim thirty years after the fact.  She remembers it well, or claims to, but where are all the people who could confirm her story?  One is in another state and can't fly in for the hearing; another honestly cannot remember because it wasn't the big deal to her it was to the victim; a third has passed away.  This would have been a much bigger deal in the ancient world, where there wasn't any Facebook to find people who've dropped off the map.  It's important to remember that if Jane says, "I was groped by Bob, and Stacey was there and saw it," we have one account: Jane's.  We don't have Stacey as a witness, because Stacey didn't write anything.

So no, the Resurrection story is not very well attested.  We have a lot more evidence for almost everything else we know about this time--about Caesar's activities, about Pilate, about Herod.

But, you may claim, surely if there were a flaw in the Resurrection account, contemporaries would have called it out!  Well, yes and no.  As I pointed out, Christians wouldn't be likely to find fault with an account, especially one written by a high-status church member.  And non-Christians could have criticized till they were blue in the face--who would have listened?  Their contemporaries would have put it down to hatred of their new church.  Even if these criticisms had been written down, who would have taken the time to transcribe and preserve them for 2000 years?  Worse, we know that the Christian community actively destroyed texts they thought were heretical or irreligious.  So this objection is no good.

The strongest argument that I have ever found in favor of the resurrection is that the apostles, all eyewitnesses, died as martyrs rather than deny it (except for Judas and John).  The only problem is that this too is a historical claim, to be evaluated historically.  Or rather, it's three claims: first, that these men professed a belief in a physical resurrection; second, that they were put to death; and third, that they could have gotten out of being put to death if they had denied the resurrection.

And the fact is, none of these are well-attested.  The only claims we have for someone believing in the physical resurrection are the accounts we have already talked about.  So instead of 12 apostles plus 500 believers Paul talks about, we still have only three independent accounts.  The evidence that the apostles believed in the resurrection is no stronger than the evidence for the resurrection itself.

Did all ten of the "martyred" apostles actually get put to death?  Again, we don't know.  The only written reference that's under a century old cites only Peter and Paul as having been put to death, and it doesn't say anything further.  All the other martyrdom stories for the apostles were written centuries after they died.  Paul's account, for instance, has Paul's head bounce three times on the way down the hill, which was supposed to have caused Rome's famous three fountains.  But these accounts are fantastical and not written by eyewitnesses.

So the third question, could any of the apostles have saved their lives by denying the resurrection, can't be answered.  Maybe they could, maybe they couldn't.  It seems to me unlikely that the Roman Empire, in choosing to put Christians to death, much cared whether they claimed that Jesus was risen from the dead.  Their concern was that the Christians wouldn't sacrifice to their gods, and that they were causing too much unrest within the Jewish community.  After all, Pilate put Jesus to death without Jesus making any specific claim.  Christians were just trouble.

Okay, so we can admit that the historical evidence for the resurrection isn't the very best.  But it still is some evidence.  Generally my habit is to believe an account unless there's a reason not to; for instance, if someone tells me they were raped, I believe it unless they have a history of lying.  After all, rape is a lot more common than false accusations of rape.  But that a person would rise from the dead is, on its face, pretty incredible.  I'd argue you'd need more evidence for that than you would to believe that, say, Caesar crossed the Rubicon.  Caesar crossing the Rubicon is the sort of thing we'd expect to happen--it happens all the time--whereas a dead person returning to life is unprecedented; you can't even calculate how improbable it would be.  So if you believe it on the basis of the evidence available, you have to set your standards of belief pretty darn low.

If your standards of belief are this low, what else would you be forced to believe?
*You would have to believe in any number of other miracle-workers who lived near Jesus' time, and whose miracles are better-attested than his.
*You would have to believe that any man who had been accused of misconduct by three people was guilty.  This means Trump is a serial sex offender; Roy Moore is a serial sex offender; and Bill Clinton is a serial sex offender.  You should be certain about it, even if none of the accusers has any additional evidence or supporting witnesses.  All three of those men should go to prison.
*You would have to believe in ghosts and alien abductions.
*You would have to believe that Joseph Smith took three men to see an angel holding the famous golden plates of the book of Mormon, and that eight further men saw and touched the golden plates but not the angel.  These eleven witnesses attested in writing to what they had seen.

So can you still believe in the resurrection?  Of course; it hasn't been disproved.  Though there isn't sufficient evidence to be convincing on its own, if you have other reasons for belief, such as spiritual experiences you find credible, then you might still choose to believe in the resurrection.  No one can prove you're wrong--the resurrection is only badly attested, not debunked.

But many will suggest that, if I don't believe in the resurrection, I should suggest a different explanation of what happened -- one which accounts for the evidence we have, without huge leaps of reasoning.  And I will, but that will have to be a separate post.

Further reading:
Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection
Resurrection debate


Paul Tillotson said...

I agree with the stuff you are saying, Sheila, but I have an additional reason for skepticism that you did not mention at least in this post, although you got very close to the same idea when mentioning Joseph Smith and the Mormon golden plates.

You said: "Every discipline has a gold standard. ... In history, it's multiple independent contemporaneous sources, backed up if possible with archeological finds."

I think that the standards of evidence that we generally use for history are not applicable to historical events that describe impossible things. Or at least, they are not sufficient. A historical event could have multiple contemporaneous sources and still not be worthy of belief because it relates something that is impossible.

I would require more evidence to believe something that is impossible, such as a corpse becoming alive again after being dead for 48 hours.

For example, take someone like Rasputin. There are many stories of him apparently miraculously surviving things that should have killed a man in natural circumstances. I require *more evidence* to believe these facts about Rasputin than I require to believe merely that Rasputin existed.

It's not because I'm anti-Rasputin (well, maybe I am given his apparently lack of morality). BUT, the real reason I doubt all of this stuff is just because this is not in accordance with what I know about how human bodies operate.

Sheila said...

Ah, but most Catholics I know believe that stuff about Rasputin as well.

Unfortunately you basically couldn't have that kind of evidence of the resurrection. It was at a time when the best we could get would be written accounts and/or archeological finds. And let's get real -- if most people today saw a *video* that was supposed to be of a resurrection, they'd much sooner assume special effects than a miracle. Or if they saw it in real life, they'd assume it was a different person or that the person wasn't really dead. There are so many more likely explanations.

So I'm perfectly willing to allow the bar to be set at the best evidence that could have been had at the time. And there still isn't. There are no records of the earthquake, the eclipse, the dead people rising from their tombs and appearing within the city. There are no letters home from people in Jerusalem seeing all that took place that week. Philo the Jew was living not that far away, in Alexandria, but he never mentions Christianity. Pilate was obviously a witness to all of it, but he never wrote anything about it. Neither is it mentioned in the works of Herod. If it all really happened as described, one would expect some mention in all of these. Or at least we could say that, if God wanted to make sure these things were known, he could have made sure we had some of these to reference. But no. It's all lost to the mists of time.

Sheila said...

Ugh, an error above -- I meant to say works ABOUT Herod, not OF Herod. I have no idea if Herod wrote anything.

Originally I had intended my post to include a paragraph about how ancient historical documents often include supernatural legends -- even otherwise credible authors -- and we normally just discount those parts. I know I've come across stuff like that in my reading. But I couldn't find a good example to link to, or remember which specific authors were guilty of it, so I left that part out. But yes, we normally hear about signs and wonders which are based on religious or cultural beliefs we don't share, and immediately discount them as exaggerated or made up.

And it's safe to say the historians of the past weren't as careful as we are about substantiating something before passing it on. I've read quite a number of Roman and medieval texts which all claimed that eating menstrual blood would make dogs rabid. Clearly they all copied off each other, and nobody ever thought, "Let's try actually feeding some to a dog and see what happens." They trusted that something written down would be true -- which we all know isn't true. Even in the internet age, when theoretically we should be able to fact-check anything in two minutes, a lie still gets around the world before the truth has its boots on.

The Biblical authors are, if anything, less careful than the historians of their time. The latter, at least, tend to hedge when they're not sure: "it is given out," "some say," and so on. The gospel writers speak very definitively, even about private conversations they couldn't possibly know -- like when Pilate's wife tells him to let Jesus go, or the Jews come to Pilate to demand a guard over Jesus' body. It's supposed to make them sound more credible, but I find it less so, because a good historian is clear on how solid his sources are, and they can't all be flawless. Only in fiction are authors allowed to simply dictate without any reference to how certain their knowledge is.

Anonymous said...


Sheila said...

None of the resurrection accounts were written by women.

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