Let’s Presuppose That Miracles Happen: The Gospel Resurrection Stories Are Still Unworthy Of Belief

[This is a brief opinion piece that I wrote back on my old blog server a number of years ago. I still agree with the general points, but also check my more recent essays for further elaboration on many of the nuances. -MWF 12/1/16]

A common apologetic slogan is to claim that non-believers only doubt the miracles and extraordinary events reported in the Gospels because of “naturalist presuppositions.” I have previously explained in my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles” that skepticism towards miracles does not have to derive from dogmatic a priori assumptions, but can instead be based on cumulative inductive evidence that allows the non-believer a posteriori to be skeptical towards such improbable occurrences. Furthermore, I have also shown in my essay “History and the Paranormal” how this skepticism does not even derive from any special bias against the supernatural, but would apply equally to natural paranormal claims — such as alien abductions, sasquatch sightings, and so on. As such, non-believers can have non-presuppositional grounds for doubting the miraculous events reported in the Gospels, without any special methodological biases.

Frequency-of-miracles

This answer, of course, will probably not satisfy apologists who are bent on trying to “historically” prove the resurrection. Accordingly, I will offer a further reason to be skeptical towards the Gospels, even if one still believes in the literal occurrence of miracles. This argument is based on the fact that the Gospels do not provide the evidence that we would expect if the miracles they report had literally taken place. In contrast, once one pops the lid on using ancient documents to try to prove paranormal claims like miracles, a far more compelling case can be made for the historical occurrence of witchcraft in Salem during the 17th century, which can be demonstrated by a mountain of better evidence than the Gospels. When apologetic methodology, actually applied in a consistent manner, leads more to the justification of witch hunts than to belief in their resurrected Messiah, we really need to consider the ramifications for just sitting back and letting these arguments affect how we do ancient history.

The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus

As I have previously discussed in my essay “Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?,” the Passion scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospels are littered with contradictions that reflect the opposing opinions between the four authors and the creative liberties that they took in inventing their own narratives. I will do my best to lay this problem of inconsistency aside, however, in order to provide a general sketch of what common narrative we can gather by combining the four accounts and Acts together, so that we at least have a core sequence of events to evaluate. Here is the main sequence of events:

First, Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem during Passover (a politically turbulent time), presented as a king with whole crowds of people marching before him (Mt 21:1-11; Mk 11:1-11; Lk 19:28-44), and yet he is not apprehended by the authorities. Then, Jesus violently clears out the entire Jewish Temple courtyards (a massive complex with Temple police specifically designed to stop such behavior), by overturning tables and chastising the money changers, and yet again he is not captured in the act. Mt 21:12-17, Mk 11:15-19, and Lk 19:45-48 place this event shortly before Jesus’ arrest, although Jn 2:13-25 claims it happened two years earlier (maybe the Temple police sat back and let Jesus get away with it twice!). Despite these highly public events, and the fact that members of the Pharisees and Sadducees had confronted Jesus on a number of previous occasions, for some inexplicable reason the chief priests need Judas to identify what Jesus looks like (Mt 26:47-50; Mk 14:43-46). Jesus is then brought before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, and condemned to death.

PilateBefore that, however, the Gospels record that there was a custom during the Passover festival (uncorroborated by any other ancient source) to release a prisoner of the crowd’s choosing (because, you know, a state as practical as the Romans Empire would release a death row inmate who was potentially a threat to public safety simply because a Jewish crowd, possibly containing subversive factions, had requested it). During this alleged custom, Jesus is pitted against Jesus Barabbas (meaning Jesus “Son of the Father”) for the crowd’s approval (Mt 27:15-26; Mk 15:6-15; Lk 23:18-19; Jn 18:39-40). Is it merely a pure coincidence (of course not allegory!) that the real “Son of God” the Father, just happens to be pitted against another guy with the same name who is a false “Son of the Father”? Is there no invented symbolism at all in the fact that the Jews choose to release this false “Son of the Father” in place of the true “Son of God” when rejecting their Messiah?

Then, Jesus is led to the site of his crucifixion. Simon Peter had previously promised to follow Jesus even until death (Mt 26:31-35; Mk 14:27-31; Lk 22:31-34; Jn 13:31-38), but instead he denies Jesus three times and flees. Purely by coincidence, another “Simon” of Cyrene is then asked to carry Jesus’ cross for him (Mt 27:32; Mk 15:21; Lk 23:26), for no particular reason, almost as if to draw a literary parallel with Simon Peter’s refusal to take up his cross and follow Jesus. As Jesus is crucified, the attending soldiers divide his clothing and cast lots to see which items they will receive (Mt 27:35; Mk 15:24; Lk 23:34; Jn 19:23). Is this a literal description of a historical event, or is it possible that the authors of the Gospels directly lifted this detail from Psalm 22:18 for purely darknessliterary reasons? Then, suddenly there comes upon the Earth a three hour darkness at noon (Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44). This extraordinary event is recorded by absolutely no contemporary author, despite there being hundreds of Roman astrologers who would immediately record such an event [1]. Is it even possible to conceive that this uncorroborated darkness may, just may, be an invention to draw parallels with multiple OT passages (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15)?

When Jesus dies, an earthquake immediately strikes and the massive curtain of the Jewish Temple is torn in twain (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Lk 23:45). Despite both Philo of Alexandria and the Jewish historian Josephus recording events that pertained to the Jewish Temple around this exact time period, neither is aware of this massive earthquake that would have affected much of the Jewish world. Following the earthquake, the tombs of the saints were opened and the bodies of many holy people are raised from the dead, who enter Jerusalem and are later seen by multiple witnesses (Mt 27:52-53). Gazing in pure awe at all of this, the Roman centurion standing by Jesus declares, “Wow! That sure is one hell of a Son of God!” (Mt 27:54; Mk 15:39).

After Jesus’ death, a man with the same name as Joseph the Patriarch (who requests burial for his father in Genesis 50:4-5) and Jesus’ father Joseph (similar to Priam requesting the burial of his son in the Iliad) comes to beg for the burial rites of Jesus. This Joseph is from Arimathea, which from the Greek prefix ἀρι (“best”) and the noun μαθητής (“disciple”) translates roughly as “Best Disciple Town.” So a man with the same name as Jesus’ father, as well as Joseph the Patriarch, buries Jesus in a way that just happens to parallel burial traditions in previous literary sources, almost as if the authors of the Gospels had constructed this character and scene from these literary sources. By the way, no real Arimathea has ever been archeologically confirmed outside of the New Testament (as explained by NT scholar Roy Hoover, “A Contest Between Orthodoxy & Veracity,” pg. 133). Could this possibly be an allegorical invention, or is it just a coincidence that Joseph comes from “Best Disciple Town” and buries Jesus when the other disciples have fled?

After all of this, try to wrap your head around what supposedly happens next: The Jewish authorities and Pilate, fearing that, if Jesus’ tomb is found empty, people will believe that a Jesus Tombmiracle has occurred, station guards at the tomb to prevent grave robbery (Mt 27:62-66). Wait a second… They didn’t want the tomb to be found empty because then, then people would think that a miracle had happened? After the sky growing dark for three hours at midday and an earthquake tearing the curtain in the Jewish Temple in twain, a tomb not being marked “ocupado” is the evidence that will convince people that a miracle has occurred? Seriously?

The narratives of Jesus’ resurrection contain even more discrepancies. The earliest gospel— Mark (16:1) — has three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. This detail contradicts the later Gospel of John (19:38), which has Jesus’ body already be anointed days before by Nicodemus (and also makes no mention of women coming later to anoint it). Likewise, the other three Gospels all change the role call of how many women went to the tomb, with Matthew (28:1) having two women (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary), Luke (24:10) having more women than three (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them), and John (20:1) only having one woman (Mary Magdalene).

What the women find at the tomb contains even more discrepancies: Mk 16:2-8 has the women find the tomb already open, with the stone rolled away, and inside they find a young man dressed in white robs. Mt 28:2-7 has the woman arrive when the tomb is still sealed, when an angel comes down from heaven with an earthquake, who roles away the tombstone and shows that Jesus is no longer inside. Lk 24:2-8 has the women arrive when the tomb is already opened, but when they enter nobody is inside, and instead two men outside the tomb approach them from behind. Jn 20:11-18 simply cuts to the chase and has Jesus himself (along with two angels) appear to Mary Magdalene.

After the empty tomb is discovered, even more contradictions abound. Mark has no post-mortem appearances of Jesus in the narrative, but the young man in the tomb (Mk 16:7) tells the women that Jesus will appear to his disciples in Galilee. Matthew (28:16-20) follows this queue by having Jesus first appear to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee, though the author even adds the detail that, when the disciples saw Jesus, “some doubted” (Mt 28:17). Rather than have Jesus first appear in Galilee, however, the Gospel of Luke (24:13-49) instead has Jesus appear to his disciples in Jerusalem (a different geographical region), where Jesus is at first unrecognizable to some people who had know him previously (despite sitting right in front of their face) and can vanish into thin right from before their very eyes (Lk 24:30-32). John (19:19-29) also has Jesus appear first to his disciples in Jerusalem (rather than in Galilee, as Jesus_ascending_to_heavenin Mark and Matthew). This Jesus is able to teleport through closed doors (Jn 20:19).

Jesus’ ascension to Heaven is only mentioned in Luke and Acts. Luke (24:50-53) has Jesus ascend to Heaven in the vicinity of Bethany, and Acts (1:9-12) further specifies the Mount of Olives. Strangely, the Gospel of Matthew (28:16) seems to imply that Jesus last appeared to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (some 70-80 miles North of Bethany). Despite Jesus flying into space publicly in broad daylight, not a single secular author outside the New Testament knows anything of this event. It is almost as if the idea of the ascension was made up out of imitation of the prophet Elijah, but you know, the Gospel authors would never do something like that…

Assessing the Evidence

So, that is the “Good News.” As can be seen, the Passion and resurrection narratives in the Gospels are so incredibly illogical, and so unattested among contemporaries, that they are unbelievable, even if miracles do happen. Why didn’t any astrologers record the three hour darkness? If there really was a zombie invasion of Jerusalem, wouldn’t there be bigger problems to worry about than simply one body going missing? Is it just pure historical coincidence that people with apparent allegorical names, such as Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, and Joseph of Arimathea, just happen to show up at the right time and in the right narrative roles? Later in Acts, why is there no follow up investigation of the empty tomb? Did the Jewish authorities not care that this condemned criminal had managed to escape and was at large? Why does Pilate completely drop out of the narrative and only the Pharisees and Sanhedrin confront the disciples about their preaching of the resurrection? If the Jewish authorities were concerned enough to station guards at the tomb, lest Jesus’ body go missing, wouldn’t they have prosecuted the disciples for grave robbery after the body had supposedly gone missing? Whatever happened to all of the zombie saints wandering throughout Jerusalem? Why do the stories about Jesus’ post-mortem appearances contradict even about the sheer regions in which they first happened?

We have none of the evidence or reactions that we would expect if these narratives were actually true. In Bayesian terms one considers both the prior probability and the expected evidence when assessing the likelihood of an event. There is an extraordinarily low prior probability of a genuine miracle occurring (as I explain here), given that an authentic one has never been reliably documented and multiple reports of miracles are regularly proven to be false. But even if we allow (without justification) a higher prior probability for a miraculous resurrection, the story still fails due to its incredibly poor expected evidence. If there really had been a three hour darkness, an earthquake destroying the Temple curtain, a zombie invasion of Jerusalem, and a criminal so dangerous that the Jewish authorities felt the need to guard even his dead body, I would expect that tons of contemporary authors would record such extraordinary things (as they do for many other extraordinary events in the ancient world). There would have been a massive reaction to these events that changed the course of the immediate history (not history hundreds of years later due solely to belief in such things), and we would not have to rely solely on such religiously-biased sources written half a century later to know about it.

And yet, what do we have as evidence? Anonymous hagiographies that both copy and contradict each other, which are packed with allegorical elements that for all practical purposes appear to be fiction, and present their characters reacting in blatantly illogical ways. This is exactly the sort of evidence that I would expect if the resurrection of Jesus was merely a myth spread by delusion and hearsay that was later embellished by legends, religious propaganda, and overt hyperbole.

This is true in a world even where I presuppose that miracles happen. The Gospels still fail the test when we do not have the expected evidence there would be for their miracles, but instead have the exact evidence we would expect if they were myths. So even though I still have good reasons to doubt the existence of miracles period, based on my background knowledge of their low prior probability, I still have further good reasons to doubt the Gospels and the resurrection of Jesus even if I irrationally assume that miracles happen. The Gospels, the resurrection, and Christianity itself are simply unworthy of belief, no matter how greatly you stack the deck [2].

The Evidence for Witchcraft at Salem

But now let’s consider another miraculous claim about history that actually does have good expected evidence. Normally, apologists tailor-make methodologies designed solely to retroactively confirm the exact faith that they already believe in. This manner of tunnel-vision, however, has unexpected consequences when one applies their methodology elsewhere. Since we have presupposed from the armchair that supernatural events occur, in order to be fair we must be open to considering whether such events have occurred outside of the New Testament. We have incredible evidence for such a supernatural event in late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts.

In The End of Christianity, Matt McCormick has an excellent chapter “The Salem Witch Trials and the Evidence of the Resurrection” that demonstrates how we have better evidence for witchcraft in Salem than the resurrection of Jesus in almost every category that can be considered. McCormick (pgs. 208-9) lays out just how much evidence we have for the Salem witchcraft:

“First, hundreds of people were involved in concluding that the accused were witches. They testified in court, signed sworn affidavits, and demonstrated their utter conviction that the accused were witches. Furthermore, the people attesting to the witchcraft charge came from diverse backgrounds and social strata. They included magistrates, judges, the governor of Massachusetts, respected members of the community … The trials were a part of thorough, careful, exhaustive investigations. They deliberately gathered evidence and made a substantial attempt to objectively sort out truth from falsity … We have hundreds of the actual documents that were part of the evidence. We have the signed, sworn testimonies of the very eyewitnesses claiming to have seen the magic performed – again, not as it was repeated and relayed for decades to unknown others, but from the eyewitnesses themselves immediately after it occurred … How much evidence do we have? Enough to fill a truck … We have nothing like this for the resurrection of Jesus.”

For the skeptic, the background knowledge that we have of witchcraft never being demonstrated with any modern evidecne, but mass hysteria and delusion being common in all (especially pre-modern) periods, provides rational and consistent grounds for disbelieving in the findings of the witch trials, largely due to their low prior probability. SalemFor apologists, however, who repeatedly demand that we treat sources with naive credence and not assess the prior probability of miraculous events, there can be no rational and consistent grounds for doubting the witchcraft. In fact, the expected evidence for the witchcraft is much better. If there was real witchcraft at Salem, I would expect that many members of the community would be concerned, that there would be an investigation into the matter, that there would be committed eyewitnesses, and that there would be a legal reaction consistent with the danger of the event. In short, I would expect the exact evidence that has come down to us. Doubting the Salem witch trials is a matter of assessing their low prior probability, not the expected evidence, but this is the very step in the historical method that apologists beg that we ignore. Even so, this is nothing like the case with the Passion scene and the resurrection of Jesus, where we have none of the expected evidence for such incredible events, even if miracles do happen. Thus, apologetic presuppositions, when rationally and consistently applied, do not even lead to rational belief in the resurrection, but instead to a justification for witch hunts.

When the rational and fair conclusions of apologetic presuppositions and methodology justify witch hunts rather than Jesus’ resurrection, one must consider the sheer insanity that threatens legitimate academic pursuits when apologists attempt to hijack the field of ancient history.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For information about how Thallus does not record the darkness, see Richard Carrier’s “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death.” Furthermore, even if Thallus (whose date of writing is unknown, but may have been as late as the 2nd century CE) had claimed that the darkness was an eclipse, it would have been in response to Christian claims and propaganda. This would not make Thallus an outside or independent source, since his knowledge of the darkness would be dependent upon previous Christian claims. What is actually far more likely, however, is that Julius Africanus, trying to find an outside reference for the legendary darkness at Jesus’ death, falsely connected an irrelevant passage in Thallus about an eclipse and earthquake in Bithynia in 32 CE (also recorded by Phlegon) with the rumored darkness in Jerusalem in 30 or 33 CE. This merely means that Africanus made an error, or, worse, was completely unable to find an outside reference for the darkness, and thus had to misrepresent Thallus’ statement. Either way, Thallus does not by any stretch count as an independent reference for the darkness, which was almost certainly invented by the authors of the Gospels, to draw an allusion to OT verses (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15).

[2] Recognizing the problem of these historical implausibilities in the Gospels, apologists have tried a number of ways to get around them. One approach is to claim that things like the midday darkness and the resurrection of the saints are merely metaphorical descriptions, which should not be treated as literal claims for their occurrence, but should instead be interpreted symbolically. Christian apologist Mike Licona, for example, does not believe in the literal resurrection of the saints described in Mt 27:52-53, but instead claims that the passage merely refers to apocalyptic imagery. The problem with this approach, however, is how do we pick and choose? What if the empty tomb is symbolic? What if the post-mortem appearances of Jesus are not literal? Furthermore, as philosopher Steven Law explains about the principle of contamination, when narratives contain so many extraordinary descriptions of events that it is impossible to sort fact from fiction, a general operating principle should be to treat all of their claims with skepticism, even for ones that are more mundane. Another apologetic strategy is to claim that the resurrection of Jesus does not have to be proven with the Gospels, but can be demonstrated through the Pauline Epistles alone (particularly Galatians and 1 Corinthians). The problem with this approach is that Paul’s letters contain little specific details about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ alleged resurrection. Moreover, in creeds about the resurrection that Paul relates (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3-7), the vocabulary for the post-mortem appearances is highly vague and possibly only refers to spiritual and celestial visions (the same vocabulary, for example, was used in antiquity to discuss celestial visions of the god Aesculapius; I also discuss the creed in 1 Cor 15:3-7 further here). As such, one needs more than just Paul’s letters to give a coherent and substantive account of Jesus’ resurrection. However, the only such substantive accounts that we have are the Gospels, which have all of the problems discussed above. 

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9 Responses to Let’s Presuppose That Miracles Happen: The Gospel Resurrection Stories Are Still Unworthy Of Belief

  1. Jesus with a whip
    This is a fine post which I re-read again today. It demonstrates the problem with the Gospel Passion Narrative (GOSPAN) besides ANY presupposition about miracles. That ultimate presupposition being a deity could make this story ‘work’ in any fashion he chooses, except as what we experience in our shared reality. Metaphorically speaking, if this was a 100-yard dash of accurate historical truth the GOSPAN starts 1mm from the finish line and Mister Magoo is the race referee/judge. Sorry Tacitus, that’s just your tough luck buddy for not starting your own religion.

    Thoughts that come to mind about the xian apologist POV is this: why do they need to treat it as a ‘fair’ race at all? What’s the point? They’ll search for a reasonable historical legitimacy of the GOSPAN, but does it need this outside of the sacred timespaces constructed inside one’s religion faith? Who, besides those incurious faith-heads we all love, needs any firm convincing of these sort of GOSPAN ‘facts’?

    Which is worse?… being called deluded or someone who cannot see the tool they are using is the incorrect one? GOSPAN is the farthest thing from an actual truthful accounting of an historical event, even with 99.9% miracle workings. The 0.1% being that which the almighty allows towards any arbitrariness in our human events. He surely doesn’t want to totally transgress Lady Reality too badly in all of this (blush, hope it wasn’t on the first date!)

    Congrats to the xian apologist who realizes that an old wagon pushed off a steep cliff is not a brand spanking new Boeing 787 Dreamliner in flight. Keep up the good work MWF.

    • Heh, I like the 100 meter dash analogy. Often apologists act like the Gospel stories totally make sense if someone is open to miracles, as if all the pieces just fall together. But it is not the last centimeter of the race where solely my lack of belief in miracles is keeping me back. The Gospels fail at multiple earlier portions in the race when they are chalked full of allegory, illogical situations and character reactions, blatant authorial manipulation, and continual religious propaganda. The Gospels can’t even make it far past the starting line before falling and breaking their leg, let alone make it to the finish line, and this is the case even if I grant the immense intellectual charity of assuming that miracles sometimes happen.

  2. deisespirit says:

    you know that atoms exist, but we cannot see them, but yet we know their there, to exclude the possibility of other realities because we lack visual representation is foolhardy.

    B

    • Bunto Skiffler says:

      please. we’ll accept any scientific way to detect the supernatural. that too unfair?

    • We have empirical evidence of atoms existing. Not all of empiricism derives from direct visual observation, which should be obvious from our other senses, as well as technologically aided forms of visual observation. The post had nothing to with “other realities,” so I’m not sure where you are even going with that, but the blog dismisses such claims only in the absence of evidence. I am open to the possibilities of whatever you mean by “other realities” as much as I open to the existence of Bigfoot, provided that there is evidence. What you seem to suggest, however, is that I should believe in something simply because it is possible. That is a possibiliter ergo probabiliter argument, which is a logical fallacy and invalid.

  3. Bob says:

    Just asking- can you give a source that says the curtain was intact until 70 CE?

    • Well, it’s not so much that, as it is that no outside source corroborates that the curtain was torn by an earthquake prior to 70CE. One could argue that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but this is really quite a glaring silence. That curtain was of very high symbolic value, and Josephus never records that it was destroyed by an earthquake. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence when one would not expect silence, which I think is the case with at least Josephus (and possibly Philo who writes about matters dealing with the temple not long after Jesus’ time). Hence, I stated that the other sources “indicate” or imply that it was destroyed in 70CE. Sorry if the wording was unclear.

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