When investigating virtually every other past event outside of the origins of Christianity, professional historians recognize that ancient texts — both Pagan and Christian — are generally incapable of proving paranormal claims about the past. This is due to no special bias against the supernatural, as I explain in my essay “History and the Paranormal,” but would apply equally to natural paranormal claims, such as alien abductions, sasquatch sightings, and so on. The operating principle has to do with ad hoc assumptions and “existing knowledge.” As historiographer C. Behan McCullagh explains in Justifying Historical Descriptions (whose methodology is summarized here), historians cannot make claims with good probability about the past that involve too many unproven, ad hoc assumptions that exceed ordinary background knowledge. One way of identifying this “background knowledge” is through the distinction of the paranormal. A “paranormal” event is defined by the Parapsychological Association (Glossary) as:
“Any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.”
Events like extraterrestrial UFOs abducting humans, or a man resurrecting to life after crucifixion and multiple days of brain death, certainly fit this description. To assume that such events could have occurred in the past, one has to make ad hoc assumptions about kinds of phenomena that have not been scientifically confirmed. For example, in order to claim that a particular alien abduction had historically occurred in the past (especially if the only evidence available is literature, with no testable physical evidence), one must first make general ad hoc assumptions that aliens even exist, visit the earth, and occasionally abduct humans. These are assumptions that historians are unable to verify or investigate (absent the aid of modern scientific evidence), which cannot be assumed as sound premises in historical analysis. The same applies to the resurrection of Jesus. In order to justify the particular claim that Jesus resurrected, one often has to assume a slew of untestable metaphysical assumptions about miracles, divine wills, and other unproven phenomena , which cannot be regarded as bona fide historical background knowledge (explained by Bayesian expert Robert Cavin here, slides 325-351).
It should also be noted that I am unaware of any professional Classicist, who has published a book in an academic press or a peer-reviewed journal, that has made the argument that ancient literature can be used to prove miracle claims (even when there are several Pagan miracle claims attested in antiquity). This observation should be applied to the standards of New Testament Studies. Classics and New Testament Studies deal with the same historical period, working with the same languages, and using the same historical methodology. If Classicists are not in the business of seeking to prove miracles using ancient texts, then this provides a good outside model for the limitations of New Testament Studies. Attempting to “prove” (or demonstrate the high probability of) the resurrection of Jesus, therefore, using nothing but ancient literature, is unlike any professional pursuit that I am aware of in the study of ancient history.
Normally historians, at the very least, bracket paranormal claims about the past, particularly those of a supernatural character, as philosophical questions that extend beyond the scope of the historical method. If they did not responsibly limit historical epistemology in this way, as I have discussed before, paranormal events such as witchcraft at Salem in the late 17th century would be fair game for being considered “historical” and we would have far greater evidence to support such miracles than the resurrection of Jesus (for more information about the Salem comparison, see Matt McCormick’s article “The Salem Witch Trials and the Evidence for the Resurrection” in The End of Christianity). We can all see the problems with the former example and yet apologists, who often exercise the same skepticism towards supernatural events outside of their religion (see this example in my exchange with apologist Vincent Torley), consider it an unfair bias to bracket Jesus’ resurrection as a religious, rather than historical, matter.
Simply because the method of history has these restrictions, and is thus incapable of “historically” proving the resurrection, does not entail that one cannot have other reasons for believing in the resurrection. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection is a theological matter does not bother most Christians, as their belief in Christianity is obviously rooted in more than a cold and detached study of history. I have encountered several apologists, however, who have sought evidential justifications when they were trying to convert other people who do not share such theological convictions.
Such apologists, seeking to use the field of ancient history, are eager to slap the label “historical” onto the resurrection. This goal is not really derived from academic concerns, but instead is born primarily out of the desire to evangelize. Once Jesus’ resurrection is considered a “historical fact,” you just have to accept it and apologists can accuse non-believers of being ill-informed or dishonest for not converting to their religion. It was to avoid such non-academic agendas that historians bracketed such religious questions in the first place. I myself was originally content with letting the resurrection be a religious, rather than historical question, but since apologists have fired the first shot in attempting to invade the field of ancient history, targeting lay audiences with a variety of slogans aimed at converting the public, my duty here on Κέλσος is to rebut their arguments.
One such slogan is the so-called “minimal facts” apologetic, spread by apologists such as Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig. Both apologists use different sets of “minimal facts” in order to provide a minimal case for proving just one of Jesus’ miracles: the resurrection.
The strategy behind the “minimal facts” apologetic is based on the fact that apologists realize that there are many problems with defending the historical reliability of the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Therefore, the “minimal facts” approach is to not argue that every claim found in the New Testament is true, but to base the case for Jesus’ resurrection solely on “facts” allegedly agreed upon by a consensus of scholars. Nevertheless, all of these “facts” are ultimately based solely on claims found in the New Testament and Christian literature, and some of them are not even accepted by all scholars . Furthermore, the interpretation of these facts varies drastically between scholars .
Professional apologists (who often work as faculty at faith-based universities with doctrinal statements, which contractually require them to support the truth of Christian doctrines) claim that these “facts” cannot be explained through any other cause besides the resurrection of Jesus. They use such rhetoric to attack non-believes for allegedly being “hyper-skeptical” or even “intellectually dishonest” for not converting to their religion . However, a closer analysis will reveal that all of the “minimal facts” can easily be accounted for in purely natural terms, and have likewise been explained by multiple scholars at secular universities without any appeals to miracles. As such, non-believers can accept all of the conclusions of mainstream NT scholarship, and yet still be perfectly rational in doubting the resurrection of Jesus.
This apologetic takes a variety of forms , but William Craig’s variation used in his debates about the resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most popular. Craig claims that there are “four facts” about Jesus’ resurrection (taken from his website here):
- After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
- On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
- On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
- The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
Craig uses the term “facts,” in order to treat these premises as non-negotiable. The reality, however, is that his first two facts are not even accepted by many mainstream scholars. Scholars like Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, for example, doubt the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. For Ehrman’s case against the historicity of Joseph’s tomb, you can consult his blog series “Did the Romans Allow Decent Burials?.” Likewise, Ehrman also doubts the discovery of the empty tomb by women, which he discusses in his blog “The Women and the Empty Tomb.”
Furthermore, even apologists Habermas and Licona (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 69-70) acknowledge that the discovery of an empty tomb is not a “fact” accepted by all scholars, so that Craig’s first two premises cannot be treated as non-negotiable (to see my case against Habermas and Licona’s minimal facts, which are focused more on “facts” derived from Paul’s Epistles rather than the Gospels, see my discussion in footnote 5).
I will explain why many scholars doubt Craig’s first two facts, and then address how the second two can easily be explained through purely naturally explanations.
“Fact” 1: The Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea
This first two “facts” are the most dubious and also the most crucial to the apologist’s argument. The empty tomb is virtually the only piece of evidence that Craig offers that amounts to physical evidence for the resurrection. His facts 3 and 4 amount to nothing more than psychological evidence of what the earliest Christians believed or experienced regarding Jesus’ resurrection.
Furthermore, Craig’s facts 1 and 2 rely solely on information in the Gospels. The Gospels also make up stories about a three hour midday darkness and Herod slaughtering infants in Bethlehem, when such events suit their narrative purposes and theological agendas (discussed further here), but the empty tomb is historical, right? Very unlikely.
As NT scholar Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 155) explains, “As the burial tradition came to be told and retold, it possibly became embellished and made more concrete. Storytellers were apt to add details to stories that were vague, or to give names to people otherwise left nameless in a tradition, or to add named individuals to stories that originally mentioned only nameless individuals or undifferentiated groups of people.”
There are a number of reasons to think that Joseph of Arimathea and his empty tomb are later inventions and embellishments, probably first derived from the author of Mark (or at least a common source between Mark and the other canonical Gospels):
- There is an overwhelming precedent for such literary inventions elsewhere in the Gospels: Part of the tunnel vision of most apologetic arguments is that by zooming in on a single episode, attempting to prove a kernel of historical truth, they often ignore the context surrounding the event. Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb is first described in Mark 15. What else happens in Mark 15?
- Well, for starters, the chapter begins (15:6-11) with an uncorroborated custom where the Romans allegedly released a condemned criminal named Barabbas during the Passover festival. Beyond the fact that no other ancient source mentions this custom, the story is probably myth. Inventing such a custom would strongly parallel the Yom Kippur sacrifice where one sacrificial victim was released. What does “Barabbas” mean? “Son of the Father.” Is it any small coincidence that a military insurrectionist, standing in for a military Messiah figure, is pitted against Jesus, an apocalyptic Messiah, who is the real Son of the Father? Hardly, the character makes far more sense as an allegorical invention to show how the Jews preferred military insurrection and paid the price during the Jewish War of 66-73 CE, after turning down the true Messiah. The author of Mark (or whatever source he found this claim in) most likely made up this character and event out of whole cloth (discussed further here).
- What happens next? A three hour darkness at noon covers all the land during Jesus’ crucifixion (15:33). Despite there being hundreds of astrologers in the Roman Empire, there is not a single corroboration of this event by any non-Christian author . Nevertheless, inventing such a detail would allow the author of Mark to make allusions to multiple OT verses about the day of the Lord being a day of darkness (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15). This miracle is in some ways more fantastic than Jesus’ resurrection, and still the author of Mark (or his source) made it up out of whole cloth.
- Then when Jesus dies, the massive curtain of the Jewish Temple is torn in twain (15:38). 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 important event. Yet, after all of these examples, I am supposed to approach the empty tomb story from the assumption that it is historical? When, just as in the other examples, the empty tomb conveniently serves Mark’s theological purposes?
- No clear independent attestation: Perhaps if Joseph’s empty tomb were corroborated independently, then there might be evidence that the author of Mark did not invent it. Note, however, that this does not imply by itself that the tomb must be historical. Independent attestation is a commonly misunderstood criterion by apologists. When a claim is independently attested by multiple sources that only means that it goes back to an earlier source. It does not entail that it goes back to an actual historical event. Nevertheless, there is no clear independent attestation of Joseph’s empty tomb. Although Matthew, Luke, and John likewise mention Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb, they are all substantially influenced by the Markan narrative (80% of Mark’s verses are reproduced in Matthew, 65% in Luke, and while John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the earliest gospel, there are still clear parallels and adaptations between the texts, as shown by Louis A. Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel). Accordingly, Crossan (pgs. 138-145) in The Passion in Mark argues that all of the post-Markan references to the empty tomb can be shown to derive from Mark and are thus not independently attested. Furthermore, even if some the later gospels, such as John, were independent of Mark, they could have still derived the story of Joseph of Arimathea from a common source shared between Mark and the other canonical Gospels. In contrast, the Apocryphon of James (5.17) instead records that Jesus was dishonorably buried in a sand pit. Likewise, Cameron (pg. 13o) in Sayings in the Apocryphon of James argues that the sayings tradition preserved in this document might be independent of the canonical Gospels. If so, this may suggest that when a text was independent of the Gospel sources, it was unaware of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, since this story could have been invented solely by these sources.
- No clear pre-Markan source: The Gospels, unlike the authors of historical prose, never name where they derive their sources . Accordingly, the author of Mark does not cite any source for which he derived the tomb story, and Crossan (The Passion in Mark, pg. 136) argues that speculative attempts to derive a pre-Markan source based on thematic, stylistic, lexical, and redactional studies “have been far from successful.” Accordingly, there is no clear pre-Markan tradition to bar the possibility that the author of Mark invented the story. Furthermore, even if there was a pre-Markan source for the empty tomb (such as a pre-Markan Passion Narrative), that does not necessarily entail that it goes back to an historical event, as Mark’s source may likewise have invented it.
- A strong theological motive to invent the empty tomb: The motives for inventing this story are clear. The author of Mark (or a common source) most likely wanted to demonstrate that Jesus had physically resurrected in the same body in which he had died, so he created an empty tomb. This invention would serve as a redaction on previous resurrection traditions (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15) that do not mention any empty burial place being discovered. As NT scholar Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 168) explains about the strong theological motives for inventing the empty tomb (whether it was invented by the author of Mark or a common source): “There are lots of reasons for someone wanting to invent the story that Jesus was buried in a known tomb and that it was discovered empty (whoever would have discovered it). And the most important is that the discovery of the empty tomb is central to the claim that Jesus was resurrected. If there was no empty tomb, Jesus was not physically raised.” As such, it is not hard at all to see why such a story appeared in the later Gospels. The Gospels also make up tons of other theologically convenient episodes about Jesus, such as the conflicting and obviously invented narratives of Jesus’ birth between Matthew and Luke, when it suits their narrative purposes. If you can make up a story at the beginning of a gospel, you can make one up at the end.
- Likewise, as Richard Carrier argues (pgs. 105-232) in “The Spiritual Body and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, the earliest Christians may have been divided over multiple views about the nature of the resurrection. Some Christians may have believed in a “two body” hypothesis, in which Jesus received a new body in heaven after his resurrection, leaving the physical shell of his earthly body behind (implying no empty burial place). Other Christians, however, would have held to a “one body” hypothesis, in which the same body that had died rose from the dead. The author of Mark, who likely believed in a “one body” resurrection, could clarify that the resurrection took place in the same body by having an empty tomb left behind, with no body inside (it should be noted that Carrier also argues that Mark may have used the scene of the empty tomb as a literary symbol for the new heavenly body, which would also imply the non-historicity of the tomb itself). Accordingly, the author had a strong motive to invent the tomb, just as he invented other episodes and characters in his Gospel.
- Joseph of Arimathea as a perfect allegorical candidate: Apologetic attempts to defend Joseph of Arimathea’s historicity have been far from successful:
- There is no such person attested outside of the New Testament and Arimathea has not been archaeologically confirmed as a real city. Various modern guesses have been postulated for a historical location of Arimathea, some identifying the city as another name for Ramathaim-Zophim in Ephraim, others with Ramlah in Dan or Ramah in Benjamin. As explained by NT scholar Roy Hoover (“A Contest Between Orthodoxy & Veracity,” pg. 133), however: “[T]he location of Arimathea has not (yet) been identified with any assurance; the various ‘possible’ locations are nothing more than pious guesses or conjectures undocumented by any textual or archeological evidence.” Furthermore, this Joseph shows up out of nowhere in the Gospels, conveniently provides a narrative role for retrieving Jesus’ body, and then buries it in a tomb that conveniently ends Mark’s narrative with being found empty. (Strangely, Joseph is never questioned in the Gospels or Acts for the whereabouts of Jesus’ body, despite this being a matter that he would have been suspect in.)
- Typical apologetic arguments for Joseph’s historicity allege that it would be unlikely that the author of Mark invented this character, since he is identified as a member of the Sanhedrin group that voted to condemn Jesus. Nevertheless, the authors of both Matthew and Luke saw a problem with this, and accordingly Matthew (27:57) changes Joseph to just being a “rich man” in order to exclude this detail, and Luke (23:50-51) solves the problem by changing the story to claim that Joseph voted against the execution.
- Furthermore, the Greek title for a council member was ευσχημων βουλευτης, which could also be a pun to mean “one who makes good decisions,” in order to explain Joseph’s respect for Jesus’ body. Likewise, while Arimathea has never been confirmed archaeologically, the name would be a perfect stand-in epithet for Joseph’s role as a “best disciple” rescuing Jesus. As historian Richard Carrier notes, the name Αριμαθαια can be formed by the Greek prefix αρι- (“best”) and μαθη, μαθησις, μαθημα, μαθητης (“teaching/disciple”) with the addition of the suffix -αια as a standard indicator of place. Hence, Joseph, who rescued Jesus’ corpse after the other disciples had fled, came from a place that literally means “Best Disciple Town.” Historical coincidence?
- Another possibility, which Roger Aus argues in The Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus, and the Death, Burial, and Translation of Moses in Judaic Tradition (pgs. 162-165), is that the name “Arimathea” may be based on the site of Moses’ burial. In Deuteronomy 34:5-6 Moses died in the land of Moab, in the valley opposite of Beth Peor. Traditionally, this is the same site as Mount Nebo, “the top of Pisgah.” There are four instances in the Hebrew Bible where it refers to the slopes of Pisgah (Deut. 3:17; Deut. 4:49; Josh. 3:23; Josh. 13:20). As Aus argues: “The Aramaic noun רמא in the singular means ‘hight’ … In light of the above evidence I suggest that the early, Aramaic-speaking, Palestinian Jewish Christian who first formulated the narrative of Jesus’ burial borrowed the term (Joseph of) ‘Arimathea’ from Judaic tradition available to him on the site of the death and burial of Israel’s first redeemer, Moses. It was the top of ‘Pisgah,’ in Aramaic the plural רמתא, ‘Ramatha,’ ‘the heights.’ It was also the same form employed for the top of ‘Pisgah’ at the end of the Song of the Well in Num. 21:20. As noted above, early Judaic tradition maintained that the well followed the Israelites to the site of Moses’ death and burial, that is, the Pisgah of Deut. 34:1 (with v 6). The author of Jesus’ burial probably himself added an initial aleph, often done to place names … The Aramaic ארמתא was then basically correctly translated into the Greek as Αριμαθαια.”
- Why name the character “Joseph”? While it may not be possible to always determine how an allegorical character’s name is chosen, there are nevertheless plausible literary interpretations that can make sense of the name “Joseph” as an allegorical invention. One possibility is that Joseph of Arimathea is designed to parallel the role of Joseph the Patriarch in Genesis 50:4-5, who asks the Pharaoh for permission to bury his father’s body in a cave tomb. Another possibility has been advanced by NT scholar Dennis MacDonald, who argues in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (pgs. 154-161) that Joseph of Arimathea is similar to Homeric motifs that he identifies elsewhere in the Gospels, where Jesus and other characters parallel and surpass the actions of Homeric heroes. MacDonald shows how Joseph of Arimathea’s role is very similar to that of Priam’s in book 24 of the Iliad. Priam, the father of Hector, dares to journey to Achilles’ camp to plead for the body of Hector. What is the name of Jesus’ father again? Joseph. And here a figure with the same name paralleling a father figure performs the same action (in fact, Joseph of Arimathea is even identified as Jesus’ uncle in some later traditions)? Historical coincidence? It is hard to know, and not all scholars accept MacDonald’s interpretation (for my own review of MacDonald’s mimesis criticism, see here), but nevertheless plausible interpretations such as these leave fully open the possibility that the name “Joseph” could have been invented for literary, rather than historical, purposes.
- Furthermore, having a rich man perform Jesus’ burial draws a parallel to Isaiah 53:9, in which the “Suffering Servant” described in the passage is likewise buried in the tomb of a rich man (other literary adaptations from Isaiah 53 are discussed below). Also, is it really that strange that a member of the Sanhedrin would later turn out to be sympathetic to Jesus in Mark? Scholars have long recognized that a prominent theme in the Gospel of Mark is reversal of expectation and unlikely characters being the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. For example, a Roman centurion is the first to recognize Jesus as the Son of God following his crucifixion in Mark 15:39. What?! Not only a Gentile, but an occupying Roman, is the first to recognize Jesus as the Son of God after the crucifixion? And yet a Jewish member of the Sanhedrin could not possibly see the error of his council’s ways and bestow Jesus with an honorable burial as part of a literary episode? This would be so awkward that Mark could not possibly have invented it? When Joseph’s character and narrative role are analyzed fully, there is ample literary justification for how such a character and his tomb could have been inventions of the author of Mark (or a common source), just like the other stories and characters that are made up elsewhere in the Gospels when it suits their narrative purposes.
- As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 155) summarizes: “In the story of Joseph of Arimathea we may have … an instance of … what was originally a vague statement that the unnamed Jewish leaders buried Jesus becom[ing] a story of one leader in particular, who is named, doing so.”
So “fact 1” is hardly an established fact at all. This does not mean that Jesus’ body had to stay up on the cross, but as Crossan (The Passion in Mark, pg. 152) observes, “It is most probable that Jesus was buried by the same inimical forces that had crucified him and that on Easter Sunday morning those who knew the site did not care and those who cared did not know the site.” Thus, Jesus’ burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is hardly a historical “fact,” quite possibly a literary myth, and does not require any circumstantial explanation from the historian .
“Fact” 2: The Women at the Empty Tomb
It need not be said that if the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was a literary invention, then it was probably not “historically” found empty. Accordingly, addressing the first “fact” in this apologetic likewise casts doubt on the second about women finding Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb empty.
The skeptic need not stop there, however. Apologetic efforts to defend the historicity of the women at the tomb primarily stress how women in 1st century CE Palestine were not considered reliable courtroom witnesses, and accordingly the author of Mark would not have invented this story because of the criterion of embarrassment. But there are many problems with this argument. For starters, this claim is factually wrong. Jeffery Lowder (pgs. 283-285) has shown in The Empty Tomb that women were allowed to serve as witnesses in court on rare occasions. But furthermore, the women are not presented as courtroom witnesses! We are not talking about a Palestinian legal document, but a Hellenistic prose novel influenced by previous Hellenistic literary motifs. Women being associated with burial rites was a common tradition in previous Greek literature. Anyone who has read Sophocles’ Antigone can see this easily. And likewise in Mark there are plausible literary reasons for women going to care for Jesus’ body.
But furthermore, if one really wants to believe that the women would be considered unreliable witnesses, and thus could not have been invented, part of their role in Mark is actually as unreliable witnesses! What happens at the original ending of Mark? The women run away and don’t tell anybody because they are too afraid. Why have this bizarre ending to the Gospel? Bart Ehrman (“The Women and the Empty Tomb”) has suggested that the reason why the women are specifically said to have told nobody about the empty tomb is because it would be a perfect explanation for why Mark’s readers had not heard the story before. If there really was no such tradition of an empty tomb prior to Mark, and the author invented the story for literary/theological purposes, how could he explain to his audience why they had never heard the story before? Because the women, unreliable witnesses that they were, ran away in fear and told no one! Hence why the story was just now being heard.
While it may be difficult to pin down the exact motive for why the author of Mark would specifically choose Mary the mother of James, Mardy Magdalene, and Salome as the three women who find Jesus’ empty tomb, there are nevertheless multiple possibilities for how this scene could be invented. For example, following from the previous Homeric motif of a father figure requesting a son’s burial, MacDonald (pgs. 154-161) has argued in his chapter “Rescued Corpses” that the women in Mark who find the tomb could plausibly be designed to parallel the women who anoint Hector’s body in Iliad 24. In the Iliad, Hecuba (Hector’s mother), Andromache (Hector’s wife), and Helen (promiscuous beauty) care for his body. In Mark, Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene (Jesus’ most intimate female disciple), and Salome (known for promiscuity) go to anoint Jesus’ body. Again, historical coincidence or yet another literary motif like the several above?
We cannot fully know why the author of Mark chose to write what he did, and scholars have proposed a variety of different interpretations for understanding the ending of Mark. However, analyses such as MacDonald’s show that it would hardly be improbable for the author to have invented the scene for literary purposes, since there are many plausible literary motives for inventing such a scene. Accordingly, when apologists argue that women discovering the empty tomb must be a historical event because of the criterion of embarrassment, they are exercising hyper-skepticism towards a wide range of literary motives, and are likewise needlessly reading the scene as the literal description of an actual event.
However, even the variant descriptions of the empty tomb’s discovery between the Gospels show that none of their authors can be describing a single, literal event. All of the Gospels tweak the role call of women — adding or subtracting various characters to suite their own narrative purposes — so that we do not even have a consistent set of witnesses. Mark 16:1-8 has three women (Mary the mother of James, Mardy Magdalene, and Salome) find the tomb already open, with the stone rolled away, and inside they find a young man dressed in white robs. Matthew 28:1-7 has two woman (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary) 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. Luke 24:1-10 has more than three women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other 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. John 20:11-18 simply cuts to the chase and has one woman (Mary Magdalene) see Jesus himself in person. None of these stories are consistent in the details.
All of these variant depictions and discrepancies show that it is far more probable that the story of women discovering the empty tomb is literary, and not historical, in character, and accordingly all of the Gospels retell the legend in their own way. The inconsistency in who the women ever were and what they even saw adds further doubt to the historicity of this episode.
Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that “fact two” of the argument is a fact at all, and it is probably another legendary element of the Gospels. As such, this is no circumstance here that needs to be explained by the historian.
“Fact” 3: Post-Mortem Sightings of Jesus
So, without the empty tomb, what then caused people to believe in Jesus’ resurrection? “Fact three” of this apologetic is poorly worded, but this one does have a kernel of historical truth. I don’t think any skeptic denies that the early Christians claimed to have experiences of Jesus risen from the dead. But this is not at all something difficult to explain. Post-mortem sightings were common rumors in antiquity. For example, both the emperor Nero and Apollonius of Tyana likewise had stories circulating about post-mortem appearances of them not long after their deaths. Heck, such hysteria is still common today, with Elvis Presley, the Russian princess Anastasia, and Michael Jackson all having rumors circulating within a few years and decades following their deaths about post-mortem appearances indicating that they were still alive. We don’t trust such stories when they appear in the news today, yet we are expected to trust ancient literature from two millennia ago?
Where do we read about these post-mortem sightings of Jesus anyways? From eyewitnesses? None who knew Jesus. The Gospels are anonymous hagiographies (see my article “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels” for problems with the Gospels’ authorship), written half a century later, that, as I have shown above, are packed with legendary elements and fabrications.
We do not even know when Jesus’ disciples would have originally “seen” him and what they would have experienced. As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 175) explains:
“If it is true that the disciples fled from Jerusalem to Galilee when Jesus was arrested, and that it was there that some of them ‘saw’ him, they could not have seen him the Sunday morning after his death. If they fled on Friday, they would not have been able to travel on Saturday, the Sabbath; and since it was about 120 miles from Jerusalem to Capernaum, their former home base, it would have taken a week at least for them to get there on foot. Maybe some of them, or one of them, had a vision of Jesus in Galilee soon after he was crucified — possibly the following week? The week after that? The next month? We simply don’t have sources of information available that make this kind of judgement possible.”
Do we have anything better? Well, we do have the apostle Paul, who wasn’t an eyewitness of Jesus, but who claims to have had a vision of him. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) elsewhere claims that he was once raptured up to “third heaven” in a experience that is very similar to the ones told by crazed street preacher Clarence “Bro” Cope, who likewise claims to have been raptured to heaven twice and to have had Jesus appear to him. Are we to trust these kinds of claims in the ancient past when we do not believe the types of people who make them today?
Paul’s testimony is useful, however, since Paul is writing only a couple decades after Jesus and he claims to have known Peter and other eyewitnesses of Jesus. What does Paul relate in 1 Corinthians 15? Nothing about an empty tomb being discovered by women. Instead, Paul relates a creed (1 Cor. 15:3-7), which is the earliest known tradition about the resurrection (dating to 2-5 years after Jesus’ death). However, the creed does not corroborate the later claims in the Gospels. The creed only states that Jesus died, rose from the dead (there is no discussion of what it looked like, nor mention of a discovered empty burial place), and then ωφθη (“appeared”) to Peter, then “the Twelve” (wasn’t Judas dead?), and then other unnamed persons (I discuss problems with this creed in more detail here).
Such information is very sparse and can be explained in terms of later rumors, private visions, or group spiritual experiences. Both Christian scholar Dale Allison in Resurrecting Jesus and Bart Ehrman in How Jesus Became God discuss how “bereavement visions” of the dead are not uncommon among people who have lost close family and friends. Such could have been the case when Jesus was crucified and separated from his disciples, who then may have had bereaved visions of him. Likewise, “visions of esteemed religious figures” are not uncommon among religious cultures with a high degree of belief in the supernatural. In fact, auditory and visual hallucinations of dead or non-existent persons is even common today. Studies from psychologists Slade and Bentall in Sensory Deception: a Scientific Analysis of Hallucination (pgs. 68-78) have found that 1/10 people have experienced a brief auditory or visual hallucination of a dead person, where visual is the more common. In some of these instances, people have long hallucinations and even conversations with the dead person. Slade and Bentall also found that such hallucinations are more common in cultures that have more widespread supernatural beliefs. For example, their research found that approximately 40% of the natives of Hawaii had experienced such hallucinations, owing to widespread supernatural beliefs in their culture. The Jews of the 1st century CE were also living in a time and region deeply imbued with supernatural beliefs, which could have easily caused similar experiences.
Such research shows that it would hardly be miraculous for the early Christians to have had experiences in which they believed that Jesus had appeared to them. Such experiences are not unheard of today, whereas physical resurrections from brain death have never been demonstrated. As such, visions and subjective experiences are far more probable. See Keith Parsons’ article “Kreeft and Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory” for a refutation of apologetic arguments claiming that such reports about appearances could not have natural explanations.
It is not even clear that Paul believed that Jesus had physically resurrected in the same body in which he had died, rather than that his spirit had ascended to heaven to be clothed in a new heavenly body . Paul instead only reports that Jesus ωφθη (“appeared to”) him and the original disciples. This is the passive form of the verb οραω (“to see”), which very often means “to be seen in visions” (see here a list of ancient inscriptions describing celestial visions of the god Aesculapius that use the exact same vocabulary). Paul elsewhere describes his own visions of Jesus in no physical terms at all (e.g. Paul only says in Galatians 1:15-16 that god αποκαλυψαι τον υιον “revealed his son” to him, and in 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul says that he εορακα “has seen” the Lord, where “seen” refers to Paul’s vision of Jesus and does not include any physical descriptions). Paul likewise uses the same or similar vocabulary to describe the early disciples’ post-mortem experiences of Jesus. Accordingly, the early post-mortem sightings of Jesus are only based on vague vocabulary and descriptions which could be purely rooted in visions or spiritual experiences. Paul says nothing about the disciples or himself seeing Jesus face to face.
Likewise, the earliest Christian belief in the resurrection was probably that Jesus, upon resurrecting, had been raised to heaven, and that the visions of Jesus were from heaven. Thus, the first Christians likely neither claimed nor believed that they had seen Jesus literally in an earthly setting. As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pgs. 205-206) explains about the disciples’ earliest beliefs:
“They believed that Jesus had come back from the dead — but he was not still living among them as one of them. He was nowhere to be found. He did not resume his teaching activities in the hills of Galilee … The disciples, knowing that Jesus was raised that he was no longer among them, concluded that he had been exalted to heaven. When Jesus came back to life, it was not merely that his body had been reanimated. God had taken Jesus up to himself in the heavenly realm, to be with him … This is why the disciples told the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances the way they did. Jesus did not resume his earthly body. He had a heavenly body. When he appeared to his disciples, in the earliest traditions, he appeared from heaven.”
Heavenly visions and the vague vocabulary of “appearances” that Paul relates in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 are not circumstances that are hard to explain in terms of psychologically internal visionary experiences or hallucinations. Thus, it is not hard to see how belief in the resurrection and such post-mortem appearances could have emerged due to purely natural and non-miraculous causes . The fact that the Gospels do not even agree upon a literal geographical setting in which Jesus’ post-mortem appearances first occurred (The Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20 claims that the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples was in Galilee, whereas Luke 24:13-49 and John 19:19-29 claim that Jesus first appeared to them in Jerusalem) illustrates how these stories about post-mortem appearances cannot even point to a unified historical sequence of events.
Stories, of course, change over time, which is why the later Gospel accounts describe the post-mortem appearances of Jesus in different ways and in more physical terms. Consider a diachronic analysis of how the resurrection stories developed over time:
- Paul (c. 50’s CE), the earliest source, has no empty tomb and just “appearances” of Jesus.
- Mark (c. 70’s CE), half a century after Jesus’ death, then has an empty tomb.
- Matthew (c. 80’s CE), after Mark, then has Jesus appear to his disciples in Galilee.
- Luke (c. 90’s CE), even later, instead has Jesus appear to his disciple in Jerusalem (a different story than Matthew’s), and likewise this Jesus can teleport and is not at first recognizable to his followers.
- Finally, John (c. 90-100’s CE) has Thomas be able to touch Jesus’ wounds.
- If you go even later into the Gospel of Peter (2nd century CE), Jesus emerges as a giant from the tomb with giant angels accompanying him (verses 39-40).
As is clear, the proverbial fish gets bigger and bigger over time, exactly as one would expect from a legendary development that started with early visions, spiritual experiences, or hallucinations of Jesus, and then grew into later hagiographies about the disciples physically interacting with their resurrected Messiah in an earthly setting .
When it comes to cataloging the individual and group appearances, they can be summarized as follows (the list below is adapted from chapter 5 of William Craig’s book Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?):
- Peter/Cephas (who is listed first in Paul, even though women are the first to see Jesus in the Gospels)
- The Disciples (possibly “the Twelve” in Paul, but eleven in the Gospels and Acts)
- The Five Hundred (a completely unknown group, as I explain here)
- James (whose experience is discussed further in footnote 5)
- The Other Apostles (a vaguely characterized group that probably included other early Christians)
- Paul (whose experience is likewise discussed further in footnote 5)
- The Women at the Tomb (whose contradictory experiences are discussed in section 2 above)
- The Appearances in the Gospel/Acts (which can include a variety of different kinds of experiences, including Jesus being unrecognizable to his followers, as in Luke 24:16, or appearing in celestial visions, as in Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-9; 26:13-14)
What is important to stress about these different appearances is that it need not be assumed that they happened independently of each other. Peter could have had a bereavement vision of Jesus, for example, which he then told the other disciples about, triggering them to have similar experiences. Likewise, Paul had already heard of the Christians before his experience, which means that his vision was not a completely unprovoked event. Other appearances could have easily been fabricated. Many (all?) of the appearances in the Gospels were likely invented by their authors (or their sources), and it is noteworthy that, while the Gospels are fairly consistent in depicting the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus, they diverge considerably in the resurrection accounts (with Matthew placing the appearance to the disciples in Galilee, for example, whereas Luke and John place it in Jerusalem).
It is also important to note that claiming to have seen or experienced Jesus in his resurrected state was important for establishing leadership and congregation in the early church. As the Jesus Seminar (The Acts of Jesus, pgs. 484, 485, 492) explains:
“Reports of appearances to various people in the early Christian community had political consequences. The recipient of an appearance had received the special endorsement of the source of all authority, Jesus of Nazareth, and was therefore entitled to respect and power.”
A combination of visionary experiences or hallucinations, word of mouth, designation of church authority, estimates of the size of the early congregation, and legendary development can account, therefore, for the traditions of the appearances listed above. We also have to bare in mind our sources. Paul, the earliest source, is highly vague, and does not specify that Peter or “the Twelve” saw Jesus, face to face, in an earthly setting. The Gospels and Acts appear to have discrepancies with this narrative, in that there were only eleven disciples when Jesus allegedly appeared to his followers. It also need not be assumed that all of the experiences were identical. Whatever Peter “saw” could have been quite different than what the five hundred “saw,” for example. Regarding this latter group, scholar Stephen Patterson (The God of Jesus, pg. 236) points out:
“It is not inconceivable that an early Christian group might have interpreted an ecstatic worship experience as an appearance of the risen Jesus.”
As noted above, the story grew in the telling. It is hardly a detailed or straightforward account of factual historical events. As such, the “fact” of the post-mortem sightings of Jesus hardly requires a miracle to explain.
“Fact” 4: The Rise of Belief in the Resurrection
Apologists would have us throw out Occam’s Razor in explaining how belief in Jesus’ resurrection could emerge in 1st century CE Palestine. The typical argument goes that the Jews of this time did not expect a crucified and resurrected Messiah, so that something miraculous must have occurred to reverse the expectation of a small group of Jews who believed that such a thing had happened. It is true that most Jews believed that the Messiah would be a great king or a judge, and not a crucified criminal. Likewise, the early Christians had to cherry pick certain biblical verses out of context, such as those pertaining to Isaiah 53’s “Suffering Servant,” in order to provide so-called “prophecies” for this suffering view of the Messiah, even though the actual verses that Christians appealed to say nothing about the Jewish Messiah in context . But do we really need a miracle to explain how a radical new view could emerge?
As NT scholar Bart Ehrman put it (in his debate with William Craig):
“The one thing we know about the Christians after the death of Jesus is that they turned to their scriptures to try and make sense of it. They had believed Jesus was the Messiah, but then he got crucified, and so he couldn’t be the Messiah. No Jew, prior to Christianity, thought that the Messiah was to be crucified. The Messiah was to be a great warrior or a great king or a great judge. He was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not somebody who’s squashed by the enemy like a mosquito. How could Jesus, the Messiah, have been killed as a common criminal? Christians turned to their scriptures to try and understand it, and they found passages that refer to the Righteous One of God’s suffering death. But in these passages, such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and Psalm 69, the one who is punished or who is killed is also vindicated by God. Christians came to believe their scriptures that Jesus was the Righteous One and that God must have vindicated him. And so Christians came to think of Jesus as one who, even though he had been crucified, came to be exalted to heaven, much as Elijah and Enoch had in the Hebrew scriptures. How can he be Jesus the Messiah though, if he’s been exalted to heaven? Well, Jesus must be coming back soon to establish the kingdom. He wasn’t an earthly Messiah; he’s a spiritual Messiah. That’s why the early Christians thought the end was coming right away in their own lifetime.”
The ancient Jews and the people around the wider Mediterranean did not have carbon copy beliefs. There were all sorts of strange religions and new beliefs floating around the region at the time. Often times new religions are started by deviating from previous expectations towards new and radical ones, just as Ehrman describes. This certainly has a higher probability for explaining the origins of Christianity than a miraculous resurrection.
But a radical new belief in the resurrection need not even be unlikely. Kris Komarnitksy in “The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins” has argued that cognitive dissonance theory might best explain the early Christians’ belief in the resurrection. This theory observes that among religious groups and cults, when something occurs that violates the adherents’ previous expectations and beliefs, rather than abandon their cherished religious beliefs, they instead invent new and radical ad hoc assumptions to rationalize the alarming information. Cognitive dissonance may explain why the Christian were inclined to believe that Jesus had resurrected after the crucifixion.
When their Messiah was crucified, the earliest Christians, instead of abandoning their faith, where able to preserve it through the assumption that Jesus had been raised from the dead and the expectation that he would soon return. “Perhaps Jesus had only temporarily died!” “Maybe he will return soon from Heaven and avenge his death!” Such rationalizations could have easily triggered some cult members to start having visionary experiences or hallucinations of Jesus. They could then tell others, who would then have a prior expectation that could trigger similar visions, or who would simply convince themselves through placebo effects, or who would simply go along with the group. After all, even the Gospel of Matthew (28:17) describes the first post-mortem appearance of Jesus to his disciples in Galilee with the following qualifier: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
As a result of these early experiences, a new rumor could start circulating claiming that Jesus was raised from the dead as the “first fruits of the resurrection.” The cult could then regain its confidence with a new expectation: “Soon all the saints will resurrect!” “Soon Jesus will return in this very generation!” (cf. Mark 13:28-30; 1 John 2:18) tick tock tick tock … “Okay, well maybe we have to wait for a couple new signs, but then he will return, even if later than we expected!” (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4) tick tock tick tock … And so every generation of Christians expecting an apocalyptic return has had its expectations reversed, and yet believers have continually made new ad hoc assumptions to rationalize a worldview that has consistently and repeatedly failed to deliver (see Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World).
Accordingly, the belief in the resurrection, and the subsequent legendary developments about physical interactions with Jesus, can all be explained naturally as the result of cognitive dissonance reduction rationalizing how Jesus could have been crucified, but still be the Messiah. Think that this would be unlikely? Consider an even more extraordinary example: In the 17th century, many Jews believed that the charismatic figure Sabbatai Zevi was finally the God of Abraham’s chosen Messiah. How did he turn out? Much, much worse than being crucified, he actually converted to Islam when in danger and under pressure. The Messiah converted to Islam? Surely this was entirely, entirely alien to all previous messianic expectations. So everyone realized that Zevi wasn’t the Messiah, right? Nope. Instead, many of his followers invented post hoc assumptions that the Messiah was “supposed” to convert to Islam to destroy the enemy religion from within. In fact, there are still Jews today who believe Zevi was the Messiah. If this movement could survive in much worse circumstances, surely Jesus’ followers could have come to believe in the resurrection and Jesus’ imminent return as a way of rationalizing his disgraceful crucifixion with his messianism.
Komarnitsky likewise discusses cognitive dissonance reduction in the case of the messianic figure Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who gained a worldwide following in the 1990’s among a sect of Hasidic Jews called the Lubavitch. Schneerson was widely expected by his followers to be the Jewish Messiah who would usher in the end times redemption. The problem is, however, that Schneerson died of a stroke on June 12, 1994. Did this stop his followers from believing that he was the Messiah? Nope. Instead, the movement rationalized that Schneerson would soon return from the dead to usher in the final redemption. As Simon Dein of Durham University — an expert on Schneerson, author of “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch,” and an endorser of Komarnitsky’s cognitive dissonance hypothesis — points out:
“[The] Lubavitch are not a group of fanatics … They are sane people trying to reason their way through the facts and in the pursuit of understanding … Like many groups whose messianic expectations fail to materialize, resort is made to eschatological hermeneutics to explain and reinforce messianic ideology … [Schneerson’s] illness and subsequent death posed cognitive challenges for his followers. They made two predictions that were empirically disconfirmed: that he would recover from the illness and that he would usher in the Redemption. In accordance with cognitive dissonance theory … they appealed to a number of post hoc rationalizations to allay the dissonance.”
Interesting enough, when I visited Safed, Israel in the summer of 2012, I saw many pictures of Schneerson put up by Jews who still regard Rabbi Schneerson as their Messiah. If such movements can persevere today in the face of disconfirming evidence, the Christians of the 1st century CE could have easily done the same.
Furthermore, thinking that their Messiah had only temporarily suffered, but would soon return in an apocalypse, is not even that odd of a new development. Historical Jesus studies have found that Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic prophet teaching that a new “Kingdom of God” would soon come about through divine intervention, but that the righteous for the present would have to endure hardships and wait for their future reward. Sure, if Jesus had been a military Messiah, then faith in him probably would have dissipated following his crucifixion. But Jesus was talking about suffering followed by divine intervention in the first place. Is it really that hard to create an post hoc assumption that Jesus had only been crucified because of temporary suffering, but that he would be returning soon as the agent carrying out the divine intervention they were awaiting? Not at all. Of course, this divine intervention never happened, but it does explain how belief in Jesus’ resurrection could have emerged through cognitive dissonance, visions, and hallucinations, followed by later legendary tales of a physically resurrected Messiah interacting with his followers.
Accordingly, “fact 4,” when analyzed in greater depth and put into context, is not difficult at all to explain in natural terms. Christianity emerged as a new religion that developed as the result of new ideas, visions, experiences, evangelizing, legendary development, and the eventual writing of sacred scripture (which included numerous forgeries, authorial inventions, and deliberate falsehoods), just like many other religions on the planet.
There are many other answers to this apologetic than the one I have provided above. Jeffery Lowder has written an extensive article providing a plausible explanation for how, even if the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was historical, its emptiness can still be explained through a temporary burial — in which Jesus’ body had been taken down to abide by the regulations of the Sabbath, and was only temporarily put in Joseph’s tomb for storage — only to later be reburied in a criminal graveyard before the third day. Hence when this temporary tomb was found empty, this may have caused people to believe in a resurrection, but still have had a purely natural explanation. Richard Carrier also explores the possibility of grave robbery explaining the discovery of an empty tomb in his “Plausibility of Theft FAQ.” Carrier has also written another article even exploring the probability of the Swoon Theory — which is the hypothesis that Jesus only fainted on the cross, was mistaken for dead, and put in a tomb, but later awoke and escaped. Carrier acknowledges that the likelihood of this explanation is extremely small, but he still estimates that the probability of Jesus surviving is greater than that of a Royal Flush in Poker. Royal Flushes have been show to happen, whereas a miraculous resurrection has never been reliably documented.
I could think of other possible explanations all day: Maybe two of Jesus’ followers apart from the disciples could have attempted to rescue his body from the tomb, gotten caught after they had removed it, been killed, and then all three bodies were hastily buried in an unmarked grave, where they quickly decomposed and within a couple days could no longer be identified. Maybe the soldiers allegedly guarding the tomb were annoyed at having such a ridiculous assignment, got drunk, and then played a practical joke and throwing the body in a ditch to see if people would believe Jesus had resurrected .
I could go on all day thinking of more probable explanations than a miraculous resurrection. As I explain in my essay “History, Probability, and Miracles,” any of these scenarios would be more probable than a miraculous resurrection. Furthermore, one does not have to favor any particular pet theory. Instead, the combined probability of all of the natural hypotheses, whether it be the explanation that I laid out above (which I think is most probable), or another natural hypothesis (such as Lowder’s temporary burial hypothesis), in their combined weight far outweigh the possibility of a supernatural resurrection. So, even if we can’t be completely sure about what sequence of events took place, we can reasonably be confident that something natural or non-paranormal occurred.
Of course, skeptics do not need to “explain” these so-called “facts” to apologists to justify not being Christian. There are all sorts of religions around the world that make miraculous claims, and yet outsiders (including Christian apologists) are not required to provide a detailed case against each. I think that such stories, including Jesus’ resurrection, can be reasonably dismissed due to their simple implausibility alone. I only provide this analysis due to my interest in the field of ancient Mediterranean history, which is being attacked by apologists seeking to spread a religious agenda.
Someone doesn’t have to be a historian, however, to not believe in Christianity. Consider an even more remarkable set of facts to explain than an empty tomb: A couple of years ago there was a whale found on grassland in East Yorkshire that was 800 yards inland from the shore (there are rumors of a pot of petunias being found alongside it).
How does one explain that? Experts have theorized that maybe a tide carried the whale into a salt marsh that gradually moved the mammoth creature 800 yards inland before receding. Seems extraordinary, but do I need a miracle to explain this? Even without the tide, there would still be other possible explanations. Maybe an eccentric billionaire airlifted the poor creature as a practical joke. Who knows. The point is that I don’t need to resort to “God clicked his ruby heels and teleported the whale there” to explain an odd event happening. Likewise, I do not need to explain a religious legend about a resurrected Messiah by assuming that an even more fantastical Palestinian deity raised him from the dead. Any natural explanation would be more plausible.
The ironic thing about apologetic attempts to “prove” the resurrection is that if God really existed, we would not have to rely on such a fantastical historical quest to prove it. God could just provide miracles today making it clear that he exists and he could tell us that Christianity is the correct religion. Instead, apologists are scouring through millennia-old religious texts in an Indiana Jones quest to discover the “proof” of Christianity. But, nevertheless, their arguments do not hold up under scrutiny and examination.
 For example, William Craig has argued that intervention from God would increase the probability of Jesus’ resurrection:
“That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.”
But it is certainly not a “minimal fact” that God even exists, or intervenes in the physical world in such way. As such, Craig’s solution is an ad hoc assumption that exceeds “existing knowledge” in the way C. Behan McCullagh describes. I also discuss in my essay “History and the Divine Sphere” how even ancient historians like Herodotus and Thucydides did not make presumptions about such theological knowledge, let alone modern historians.
 Apologists, recognizing that their “minimal facts” all come from ancient Christian literature, appeal to authority to claim that there is “scholarly agreement” about these “facts.” However, this claim is based on little more than attempts to (vaguely) quantify a variety of publications, from evangelical Christian authors and secular scholars alike, that discuss the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The most prominent apologist to attempt to quantify the authors who support these “facts” is Gary Habermas in a survey where he attempts to identify dominant trends among the writings of primarily “theologians or New Testament scholars.” Yet, even in such fields, which have higher proportions of religious believers and include a number of Christian universities with doctrinal statements, Habermas has not shown that all of the “minimal facts” are supported by a scholarly consensus. For example, Habermas has only found that 70-75% of his pool favor “one or more argument” in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb. This is hardly a “consensus” and it is actually a surprisingly low number in a Christian-dominated field.
Scholars who have doubted that the empty tomb story include:
Bart Ehrman, James Crossley, Marcus Borg, Günther Bornkamm, Gerald Boldock Bostock, Rudolf Bultmann, Peter Carnley, John Dominic Crossan, Steven Davies, Maurice Goguel, Michael Goulder, Hans Grass, Charles Guignebert, Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Herman Hendrickx, Roy Hoover, Helmut Koester, Hans Küng, Alfred Loisy, Burton Mack, Willi Marxsen, Gerd Lüdemann, Norman Perrin, Marianne Sawicki, John Shelby Spong, Howard M. Teeple, and Rev. John T. Theodore.
Furthermore, Habermas’ attempted meta-analysis of the literature is highly questionable and does not take into account the selection bias of authors who work at conservative Christian schools that are required by contract to support some of these “facts.” Here is an excellent complementary article to this one that discusses how Habermas’ attempt to quantify an “agreement among scholars” is riddled with statistical problems and would never pass peer review. In reality, Habermas has actually performed a “literary survey,” but this should not be takes as authoritative, since literary surveys are not actual meta-analyses of scholarly opinion. Richard Carrier in “Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix” also provides an excellent critique of Habermas’ statistical arguments and appeals to authority regarding the “minimal facts.” Among the problems that Carrier points out is the fact that Habermas does not include scholars who are agnostics about the historicity of the empty tomb, which, if included, would substantially diminish his statistic of “70-75%.” This casts doubt on whether even a “majority” of scholars would accept the premise of the empty tomb, much less a “consensus.”
While I disagree with how apologists represent “scholarly consensus” in the “minimal facts” apologetic, there are certain “facts” listed that I agree are historical and have support among a consensus of scholars. These facts, however, are extremely sparse and can easily be explained through natural explanations. The facts that I accept from Habermas’ “minimal facts” include: 1) the crucifixion of Jesus, 2) that Jesus’ followers believed that he had risen and appeared to them, 3) that Paul converted, and 4) that James converted. I do not accept that the Jesus’ burial place was found empty, which even Habermas and Licona (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 69-70) concede is not a “fact” accepted by all scholars. I also think it is important that the empty tomb is not a “minimal fact,” because it is virtually the only piece of physical evidence for the resurrection. The other “minimal facts” basically boil to a man dying (fact 1: the crucifixion) and people later believing that he had risen (facts 2-4: Jesus’ followers believed in the resurrection, and Paul and James converted). This is only psychological and sociological evidence, which, in my opinion, is far less persuasive than physical evidence.
 Another problem that Habermas’ survey does not take into account is the wide range of different scholarly interpretations that exist for each, so called, “fact.” For example, there are many scholars who lean towards acceptance of the empty tomb, but do not regard it as a certain historical “fact.” One is Dale Allison (someone whom Habermas appeals to as a mainstream scholar who allegedly accepts the “fact” of the empty tomb), who actually acknowledges that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the matter. Allison (Resurrecting Jesus, pgs. 331-332) states:
“Looking back over the debate regarding the empty tomb, there is no iron logic on either side. There is a decent case for it, and there is a respectable case against it. Both sides, moreover, have their faults and suffer from a scarcity of proof; neither exercises all our doubts. I am nonetheless not moved to declare a stalemate, for pro and con are not quite here equal. Rather, of our two options — that the tomb was in face unoccupied or that belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied — the former, as I read the evidence, is the slightly stronger possibility, the latter the slightly weaker.”
Although I do not agree with Allison’s weighing of the evidence, I appreciate that he acknowledges the great uncertainty of the matter. It is a great leap to claim that Allison, because he states that the empty tomb is the “slightly stronger possibility,” regards the empty tomb as a “historical fact.” Uncertainty like this applies to other scholars as well, who, as footnote 2 explains above, are already heavily divided on this issue. This is a further reason why the empty tomb cannot be regarded as a “minimal fact” surrounding the origins of Christianity.
 Apologists often use polemical rhetoric to imply that non-believers doubt the resurrection of Jesus because of “moral” or “spiritual” failures. Christian apologist Mike Licona, for example, says the following about non-believers, who do not convert to Christianity in spite of the “evidence” for the resurrection (The Case for the Real Jesus, pg. 136):
“Sometimes it’s moral issues. They don’t want to be constrained by the traditional Jesus, who calls them to a life of holiness. One friend of mine finally acknowledged that Jesus rose from the dead, but he still won’t become a Christian because he said he wanted to be the master of his own life–that’s the exact way he put it. So in many cases–not all–it’s a heart issue, not a head issue.”
Of course, there are numerous qualified NT scholars, many of whom are former Christians — such as Bart Ehrman and Hector Avalos — who have studied all of the data surrounding the origins of Christianity, and yet have still walked away reasonably unconvinced of Jesus’ resurrection. In response to the deconversions of such professionals, Christian apologist William Lane Craig (“Faith and Doubt”) has made the following derision of their characters:
“I firmly believe, and I think the Bizarro-testimonies of those who have lost their faith and apostatized bears out, that moral and spiritual lapses are the principal cause for failure to persevere rather than intellectual doubts. But intellectual doubts become a convenient and self-flattering excuse for spiritual failure because we thereby portray ourselves as such intelligent persons rather than as moral and spiritual failures.”
Needless to say, if Christian apologists had any real evidence for their religion, they would not need to rely on such cheap shots, ad hominem attacks, and smear campaigns against non-believers.
 This essay is primarily written in response to William Craig’s variation of the minimal facts apologetic, which I consider to be a stronger version than Habermas and Licona’s, since it includes more concrete details about Jesus’ burial and post-mortem appearances. That being said, Craig’s “facts” rely more heavily on information that is derived from the Gospels, and there are other apologists who (due to problems with the Gospels’ historical reliability) prefer to rely on information derived primarily from Paul’s letters. In this footnote, however, I think it will be useful to also respond to Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts.”
In The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (pgs. 43-77), Habermas and Licona list the following circumstantial “facts” about the resurrection: 1) Jesus died by crucifixion, 2) his disciples believed he arose and appeared to them, 3) the church persecutor Paul was suddenly converted, 4) James, the brother of Jesus, who was formerly a skeptic converted, and 5) the tomb of Jesus was empty.
- “Fact” one is largely trivial. Jesus lived, so it makes sense that he had to die some way. Crucifixion wasn’t an uncommon form of execution, so there is nothing too improbable about the stories of his crucifixion. But nothing about this “fact” really proves anything about a miraculous resurrection.
- This “fact” has largely been addressed in the third and fourth sections of this essay. One thing to add is that Habermas and Licona frequently embellish the “persecution” that the disciples endured as an argument ad martyrdom for their sincere belief in the resurrection. I have already discussed in this previous essay how the stories about the disciples’ martyrdoms are primarily later legends full of historical improbabilities and clearly fictional inventions. Candida Moss likewise discusses the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire further in The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.
- The conversion of unlikely persons is a new argument, not covered by the “facts” above, but it brings little to the table. I agree that it is unlikely that an early church persecutor like Paul would convert, but guess what, not many did. If Jesus had appeared to Pontius Pilate, Tiberius Caesar, and Caiaphas, and gotten all of them to convert, that may be a stronger case for a miracle. But if the later resurrection stories were purely a superstition, I would expect that only one or so former persecutors might later sympathize with the group and convert. This is the evidence that we do have. Furthermore, Paul’s conversion is really not that extraordinary. As discussed in this essay, Paul was a supernaturalist who shows signs of experiencing visions or (possibly) hallucinations, such as when he once claimed to be raptured to “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). If Paul was facing doubt about persecuting a group that he gradually started to feel sympathy for, and then had a vision or hallucination of their leader chastising him, it is not that hard to see how he might later have a conversion experience. Such a scenario would certainly not require a miracle.
- Here is how scholar Gerd Ludemann (The Resurrection of Christ, pgs. 170-171) explains Paul’s conversion without the need of a miracle: “Paul shows clear evidence of conflicting emotions: a radical sense of guilt and unworthiness combined with an exalted self-image that results in the need to be an authority figure … Caught up in an intellectual and emotional maelstrom that can only have been intensified by his growing familiarity with the sect he was harassing, he seems at last to have discovered the resolution of his problems for himself. The humble and self-sacrificing Jesus represents for Paul a new vision of the Almighty: no longer a stern and demanding tyrant intent on punishing even those who could not help themselves, but a loving and forgiving leader who offered rest and peace to imperfect humans who accepted his grace …. Paul could become the Apostle-in-Chief of some new program of salvation with a culture-wide appeal. Something of that nature was in all likelihood the dynamic that impelled the persecutor turned proclaimer whose religious zeal stands as a measure of the inner tension that was powerfully released and transformed in a vision of Christ.”
- I likewise discuss Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin’s account of Paul’s conversion in A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity in this following book review. While Boyarin does not claim to know what exactly was going on in the historical Paul’s head during his conversion (who could thousands of years later?), he still offers this plausible explanation for Paul’s motives, which does not appeal to miracles: “An enthusiastic first-century Greek-speaking Jew, one Saul of Tarsus, is walking down a road, with a very troubled mind. The Torah, in which he so firmly believes, claims to be the text of the One True God of all the world, who created heaven and earth and all humanity, and yet its primary content is the history of one particular People — almost one family — and the practices that it prescribes are many of them practices which mark off the particularity of that tribe, his tribe. In his very commitment to the truth of the gospel of that Torah and its claim to universal validity lies the source of Saul’s trouble … Now this Saul, as a loyal Jew, has in the past been among the most active persecutors of a strange messianic sect that has sprung up recently in Jerusalem. He knows something, therefore, of the claims and beliefs of the participants in that sect, little as they appeal to him. Walking, troubled and musing, all of a sudden Saul has a moment of blinding insight, so rich and revealing that he understands it to have been, in fact, an apocalypse: That very sect, far from being something worthy of persecution, provides the answer to the very dilemma that Saul is facing. The birth of Christ as a human being and a Jew, his death, and his resurrection as spiritual and universal was the model and the apocalypse of the transcendence of the physical and particular Torah for Jews alone by its spiritual and universal referent for all. At that moment Saul died and Paul was born.”
- The conversion of Jesus’ brother James, the alleged “skeptic,” is even more problematic. The Gospels are not even consistent on whether the family of Jesus were sympathetic to his ministry. John 7:5 and Mark 3:21 have Jesus’ family not agree with his ministry. Luke 8:19-21, in contrast, rejects Mark’s earlier tradition and has the family be supportive of the ministry. Furthermore, unlike Paul, we do not have any writings of James (the epistle attributed to him in the NT was most likely either written by another James or a forgery), so it is not even clear what James’ feelings were about Jesus prior to his death. Only the later Gospel hagiographies, written by unknown authors who likely did not witness the event, tell the story in conflicting ways. Even if James had originally been a skeptic, do we really need a miracle to explain a family member later becoming sympathetic with a new religious movement that had sprung up about his brother? This is very feeble evidence to try to prove something as improbable as a miraculous resurrection.
- Here is what even Christian scholar Dale Allison (one of the scholars whom Habermas and Licona appeal to for their “minimal facts”) actually has to say about the conversion of James as evidence (Resurrecting Jesus, pgs. 337-339): “Most of the past – surely far more than 99 percent, if we could quantify it – is irretrievably lost; it cannot be recovered. This should instill some modesty in us. Consider the weeks following the crucifixion. We have only minuscule fragments of what actually transpired. What, for instance, do we really know about the resurrection experience of James? First Corinthians 15:7 says that he saw the risen Jesus. And that is it. What Jesus looked like, what he said, if anything, where the encounter took place, when precisely it happened, how James responded, what state of mind he was in, how the experience began, how it ended – all of this had failed to enter the record. Almost every question that we might ask goes unanswered … Yet they are the sorts of questions historians often ask of old texts. The fact that we cannot begin to answer them shows how emaciated historically – as opposed to theologically – the Gospel narratives really are. Even if we naively think them to be historically accurate down to the minutest detail, we are still left with precious little. The accounts of the resurrection, like the past in general, come to us as phantoms. Most of the reality is gone … Even if history served us much better than it does, it would still not take us to promised land of theological certainty.”
- Habermas and Licona acknowledge that the empty tomb is not a “minimal fact,” but claim that 70-75% of scholars support its historicity (I discuss the multiple statistical problems with this claim in footnote 2). The empty tomb is already addressed in sections 1 and 2 of this essay (though this “fact” doesn’t always assume that it was Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb; I discuss other burial possibilities in footnote 7 below). One thing to add is that apologists sometimes claim that Paul provides corroboration for the empty tomb, since he states that Jesus “was buried,” and thus the story is not only found in the Gospels. However, Paul never says explicitly that an empty tomb was the basis for belief in the resurrection. Apologists primarily assume that Paul corroborates the empty tomb, because he allegedly believed in a physical resurrection (which is disputable, as discussed in footnote 9 below), which would have thus entailed an empty burial place. However, this is only speculation, since even if Paul had implicitly believed such a thing, that does not mean that he knew or claimed that the burial place was empty. If the discovery of an empty tomb was part of the earliest belief in the resurrection, it is highly unlikely that Paul would not mention this while defending the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Instead, Paul only discusses “appearances” of Jesus, which demonstrates that such appearances were the basis of early faith in the resurrection, not the discovery of an empty tomb. Accordingly, Paul does not provide pre-Markan corroboration for the claim that Jesus’ burial place was found empty.
 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).
 Simply because Jesus was not given an honorable burial in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb does not mean that he was left unburied. However, even defenders of Joseph’s burial, such as James McGrath (The Burial of Jesus: History and Fiction, pgs. 69-79), acknowledge that there are considerable embellishments in Joseph’s story. As McGrath argues, “Our earliest account of Jesus’ burial, the Gospel of Mark, records a fundamental truth that later Christian authors tried desperately to ignore: Jesus’ disciples were not in a position to provide Jesus with an honorable burial. Mark tells us that a pious Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jewish law was observed, and, learning that Jesus had died, got the permission to take the body and bury it.” However, McGrath acknowledges that the later Gospels embellished this story. Luke (23:53) adds the detail that the tomb had never been used before, making the burial more honorable, and Matthew (27:59-6) adds both the detail that the tomb was unused and that it was even Joseph’s own tomb. John (19:39-41) even further adds the detail that Jesus was anointed with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes before his burial, even when this explicitly contradicts Mark 16:1, which implies that Jesus was not anointed before his burial. John also adds the detail that Jesus was buried in a garden.
All of this would be quite elaborate for a crucified criminal, and these embellishments clearly reflect later Christian inventions. Instead, McGrath argues that Jesus was more likely buried in “a tomb near the execution site, used for the burial of criminals. It could accurately be described as a ‘mass grave’ — perhaps of the same sort that would be mentioned in rabbinic literature some centuries later — from which families would presumably have been allowed to remove the bones of their loved ones after a year had passed, so as to deposit them in their family tomb.” McGrath is referring to later burial provisions that are outlined for executed criminals in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6:5-6):
“They did not bury the condemned in the burial grounds of the ancestors, but there were two graveyards made ready for the use of the court, one for those who were beheaded and strangled, and one for those who were stoned or burned. When the flesh had wasted away they gathered together the bones and buried them in their own place.”
However, a problem with this theory is that the rabbinic literature that describes such burial practices dates to centuries after Jesus’ time. It is also very difficult to know whether the Roman or Jewish authorities allowed and paid for the upkeep of such provisions before the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE. Archaeologist Jodi Magness (“What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?,” pg. 48) argues:
“There is no evidence that the Sanhedrin or the Roman authorities paid for and maintained rock-hewn tombs for executed criminals from impoverished families. Instead, these unfortunates would have have been buried in individual trench graves or pits.”
Magness also notes that there is no surviving evidence that these tombs were inscribed with names, and thus they could have very easily been completely anonymous:
“After the trench was filled in, a rough headstone was often erected at one end … the headstones are uninscribed, although some may once have had painted decorations or inscriptions that have not survived.”
Since mourning would have been prohibited during these dishonorable burials, Jesus’ followers (many of whom are even said to have fled to Galilee in Mk. 14:28; 16:7 before his death, and were thus out of town) would not have been present at his burial. Instead, Jesus was likely buried either by a Roman or Jewish disinterested burial crew, in what was likely an anonymous grave. Thus, as Crossan (The Passion in Mark, pg. 152) explains, “It is most probable that Jesus was buried by the same inimical forces that had crucified him and that on Easter Sunday morning those who knew the site did not care and those who cared did not know the site.”
In terms of pre-Markan burial traditions, the creed in 1 Cor. 15:4 states that Jesus “was buried” (εταφη); however, this verb simply describes generic burial and can refer to ground burials, such as outlined above, in addition to tomb burials, making it too vague to corroborate the later burial traditions in the Gospels. Another burial tradition, which is separate from the tradition of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial in Mark, is a pre-Lukan fragment found in Acts 13:28-31. Based on lexical considerations, this passage probably belonged to the source material of the author of Acts. The passage reads:
“Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb [μνημειον]. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.”
This passage does not provide independent corroboration of the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, since the Greek word used to describe the burial site — μνημειον — can also be used to refer to unmarked graves in the ground. For example, the same author uses the word in Luke 11:44 to refer to ground burials:
“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves [μνημειον], which people walk over without knowing it.”
As such, this separate burial tradition does not contradict the hypothesis outlined above that Jesus probably received a ground burial in an unmarked grave.
 The closest that the Gospels come to identifying their sources is in Luke (1:1) when the author simply refers to an anonymous group of previous writers. This does not specify which sources he used, and from source analysis we can tell that he is mostly just following Mark and Q (or possibly Matthew). I discuss further problems about the Gospels’ use of sources in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.”
 For information on the hypothesis that the apostle Paul believed in a “two body” resurrection, see Richard Carrier’s “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (pgs. 105-232), which is also summarized in Carrier’s “Spiritual Body FAQ.” In summary, Carrier argues that it is possible that Paul believed that Jesus’ earthly body had been left behind after his resurrection, and that his spirit had risen to heaven and been clothed in a new body. Hence, the visions of Jesus reported by Paul were of this heavenly body and not the earthly one. Other scholars who hold this view include Dale Martin in The Corinthian Body.
This essay does not need to assume, however, that Paul only believed in a “two body” resurrection, in order to affirm either Paul’s silence on the discovery of an empty tomb or the visionary nature of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances. NT scholar Jindřich Mánek, who argues that Paul believed in a “one body” view of the resurrection, points out that there is no indication in Paul of an “opened tomb,” even if Jesus was physically raised from his place of burial (nobody had to later discover that the burial place was empty, if Jesus’ followers even knew the location of his remains at all). As such, the discovery of an empty tomb is still a claim that is only later found in the Gospels. Furthermore, the later Gospel authors, who clearly believed in a “one body” resurrection, still relate how Jesus could appear as a phantom-like figure. Luke (24:31) has Jesus at first be unrecognizable to his followers and then teleport, John (20:19) has Jesus able to walk through locked doors, and Acts (10:9-13) has Jesus appear in visions from the sky.
The point is that, even if the early Christians believed in a “one body” resurrection (which is debatable), Jesus’ enhanced resurrected body was still able to appear through visions, phantoms, and revelation. Accordingly, all of the early post-mortem sightings of Jesus can still be explained in terms of visions or hallucinations. No eyewitness account survives from anyone claiming to see or touch Jesus physically. All of the later stories reporting these interactions can thus be explained as the result of legendary development.
 For a take down of apologetic attempts to claim that such hallucinations would have been unlikely, see Keith Parson’s “Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory,” which also appears in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (pgs. 433-452). Furthermore, even if such hallucinations would have uncommon (despite tons of similar stories still today), are we seriously expected to believe that a miraculous physical resurrection is more probable? Suffice it to say that the prior probability of hallucinations is much greater, and the expected evidence is exactly what we find in 1 Corinthians 15 with the use of visionary vocabulary.
 Apologists often appeal to A.N. Sherwin-White’s (dated) claim that two generations (the time in which the earliest accounts of Jesus were written) was too short a time for legendary development to have displaced the historical core of Jesus’ biography (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pgs. 186-193). However, as Kris Komarnitsky explains in “Myth Growth Rates in the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule,” even when Sherwin-White’s arguments were first published back in the 1960’s, they never received widespread support among Classicists (the two generation claim has mostly been popularized by apologist William Lane Craig’s later quote mining of Sherwin-White). Furthermore, Sherwin-White was even corrected by his colleague P.A. Brunt, who pointed that legends about Alexander the Great likewise emerged within two generations of his death. Sherwin-White’s response was that, while there was a considerable amount of legendary development after Alexander’s death, it still did not erase the historical core of his biography. However, a problem with Sherwin-White’s response was that Alexander was a figure of considerable public interest, who had extensive records of his life preserved in places like the Great Library of Alexandria, whereas Jesus was an obscure, itinerant prophet, who his only known through hagiographical accounts produced by his later worshipers. I explain further how legends could have easily displaced the historical core of Jesus’ biography before the composition of the New Testament in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?.”
It should also be noted that 1st century Christianity grew at a rate that is entirely typical of other world religions, showing that there was no special evidence or extraordinary growth rate that suggests a miraculous origin. As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pg. 131) explains:
“[S]ociologist Rodney Stark [The Rise of Christianity] has shown that during its first three hundred years years, the Christian religion grew at a rate of 40 percent every decade. If Christianity started out as a relatively small group in the first century but had some three million followers by the early fourth — that’s a 40 percent increase every ten years. What is striking to Stark is that this is the same growth rate of the Mormon church since it started in the nineteenth century. So these mainline Christians who think that God must have been behind Christianity or it would not have grown as quickly as it did — are they willing to say the same thing about the Mormon church (which they in fact tend not to support?”
Ehrman discusses other reasons why Christianity’s growth rate, in the first centuries following Jesus’ death, was merely typical of other world religions in his post “Growth Rate of Early Christianity.”
 Just a couple chapters earlier, Isaiah 49:3 specifies that “Israel” was the Suffering Servant, not the Messiah, and this was not a prophecy, since Israel already had suffered in the Babylonian exile.
 It should be noted that some of these scenarios posit what may be considered ad hoc assumptions about the circumstances surrounding the origins of the resurrection belief. But a scenario such as Jesus’ body being stolen would only posit a particular ad hoc assumption (which would be a far less extraordinary assumption), whereas God raising Jesus’ body from brain death back to life would posit a general ad hoc assumption (about the very metaphysical characteristics of our universe). It is not a paranormal claim that bodies are sometimes stolen from their place of burial. But it is a paranormal claim that a man who has experienced brain death has returned to life on the third day after. If historians are to favor explanations that involve less ad hocness, therefore, the body theft hypothesis is certainly the simpler explanation.
[I should note that, since first writing this article in June 2013, I have since made updates to it, revised some of the language, and added new material (which is something I typically do on this blog). My exchange with Peters, however, took place when this article existed in a much earlier version. To read that version, in order to see the original context of our exchange, here is the earliest archived version that I could find.]