Reply to Vincent Torley

Okay, what follows are my extended remarks about apologist Vincent Torley’s OP–“Evidence for the Resurrection”–which he has asked me to respond to in a comment thread on Debunking Christianity.

I should note that I originally had no interest in the OP, but got dragged into this when John Loftus included a link to one of my essays in a blog post, and then Torley posted comments criticizing it. I responded to Torley’s criticism of my essay, defending my original points against those criticisms, and then he asked me to also respond to his OP. I have already diverted a number of hours away from my dissertation to engage in this tangent, but I will be indulgent of Torley’s request.

Torley begins by noting that he only is only arguing for rational belief in the resurrection on the basis of probability and not certainty:

“In this post, I will not be attempting to demonstrate that the Resurrection actually occurred. Rather, my aim will be to outline the process of reasoning whereby someone might conclude that it probably occurred, while acknowledging that he/she may be wrong.”

On this point we are agreed. I think that virtually all of history (especially ancient history) can only be reconstructed in terms of probability. In my post “History, Probability, and Miracles,” I take a Bayesian approach to argue that historians must factor in 1) the prior probability of a certain event occurring, and 2) how expected the evidence is on that hypothesis. Here is my original essay:

https://celsus.blog/2013/03/31/history-probability-and-miracles/

Interacting with the arguments of epistemologist Robert Cavin, I argue that the 1) prior probability of Jesus resurrecting from the dead is astronomically low. I also argue that 2) the expected evidence found in Paul’s letters and the Gospels is very weak, due in large part to the nature of ancient literary evidence. We know very little about the circumstances in which such evidence was produced (which we can contrast with more tangible forms of evidence, such as what is used in forensic science, for example), and the literary texts themselves are likewise problematic in a number of ways. Paul is problematic because his testimony is too vague and doesn’t allow us much evidence to know specifically what the disciples experienced. The Gospels are problematic because they are anonymous, theological narratives that do not discuss their sources, and were most likely prone to literary embellishment.

Interacting with the arguments of epistemologist Aviezer Tucker, I argue that the primary data that needs to be explained is not what the disciples experienced, but why we have ancient literature describing such experiences. I note that a second-hand or anonymous report of an author *writing* about such experiences is not the same thing as having access to the experiences themselves. An author can write a letter or narrative about things due to other causes then the experiences actually taking place (e.g. hearsay, literary embellishment, lies, misinterpretation of natural phenomena, etc.). When we especially know very little about the circumstances in which such literature was produced, it leaves its causes for being written open to a much wider range of explanations.

This is especially important when discussing the expected evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Since Paul’s letters and the Gospels could have been produced from a wide range of causes, I think they are (roughly speaking) equally expected for a number of non-resurrection hypotheses (e.g. mythical translation fables, hearsay, embellishment, hallucinations or non-veridical visionary experiences, etc.). Since I think that all of these hypotheses also have a higher prior probability than the resurrection, I think their overall probability (when factoring in expected evidence) is likewise more probable than the resurrection, and likewise when they are combined (allowing for a wide range of alternative naturalistic explanations), I think the combined weight of all non-resurrection hypotheses greatly outweighs the probability of the resurrection itself.

With this background in mind, now let’s turn to Torley’s arguments. Torley begins with a “minimal facts” approach that is common in resurrection apologetics. He lists the following “key facts”:

  1. The man known as Jesus Christ was a real person, who lived in 1st-century Palestine.
  2. Jesus was crucified and died.
  3. Jesus’ disciples collectively saw a non-ghostly apparition of Jesus, after his death.
    N.B. By a “non-ghostly” apparition, I mean: a multi-sensory [i.e. visual, auditory and possibly tactile] apparition, which led the disciples to believe Jesus was alive again. I don’t mean that Jesus necessarily ate fish, or had a gaping hole in his side: many Biblical scholars now think that these details may have been added to the Gospels of Luke and John for polemical reasons. Are they right? I don’t know.”

I have already discussed in a previous comment why I think that the use of the term “facts” is problematic. What is really meant here is that we have broad scholarly support for these premises (especially that Jesus existed and was crucified). Here is the previous comment:

http://disq.us/p/1hpnd1o

I would take issue with the notion that “fact 3” is a premise accepted by a consensus of scholars. It is true that 1 Cor. 15 describes an appearance to one group (i.e. the 500), but the evidence is too vague to say that they all saw or heard the same thing. Paul also says that Jesus appeared to the 12, but he doesn’t specify that he appeared collectively. It is also too vague to conclude that it was “multi-sensory,” since the Greek verb ὤφθη can variantly mean “to be seen physically” or “to be seen in visions” or even just “to appear.” To quote scholar Stephen Patterson (The God of Jesus, pg. 236) about the appearance to the 500, for example:

“It is not inconceivable that an early Christian group might have interpreted an ecstatic worship experience as an appearance of the risen Jesus.”

I think, therefore, that Paul’s testimony is too limited to conclude with certainty that the disciples collectively saw a multi-sensory apparition of Jesus. It’s possible, of course, but the evidence is vague enough to be open to other explanations.

Now, it is true that the Gospels (especially Matthew, Luke, and John) do describe multi-sensory experiences of the disciples seeing, speaking with, and even touching Jesus. But, it is important not to conflate these *literary narratives* (which were produced anonymously several decades later, in a different language) with the *experiences* themselves. We don’t have the independent testimony of 12 men giving detailed first-hand accounts of what they saw or heard. What we have are anonymous narratives describing such experiences (in a number of varying ways, such as Jesus appearing in Galilee vs. Jerusalem). Since such narratives can be produced from other causes than the experiences described actually taking place (e.g. hearsay, literary embellishment, lies, etc.), I think that the evidence in the Gospels is (roughly speaking) equally as expected for a much wider range of naturalistic explanations, as it is for the resurrection.

Torley notes that he won’t be relying on the empty tomb as a “fact,” because it is not found in Paul’s letters and because he is primarily trying to avoid relying on the Gospels. On this point I agree with his methodology. But I do take issue with Torley’s statement:

“Jesus’ disciples collectively saw a non-ghostly apparition of Jesus, after his death … which led the disciples to believe Jesus was alive again.”

This statement seems to imply that it was the experience of apparitions that caused the disciples to believe in the resurrection. But a number of scholars have argued that the resurrection belief may have preceded the experiences themselves. One hypothesis is that after Jesus’ death the disciples were frustrated and confused about their failed messianic expectations. This dissonance caused them to rationalize how Jesus, in some way, could still be the messiah. They may have come to believe that he had not truly died, but had been raised to heaven by God after his death, and that he would soon return to carry out the rest of his messianic mission.

If belief in the resurrection did indeed come first, then it may have been this belief which then triggered the reports of “appearances.” Believing that Jesus was raised, the disciples could have started to have visions, hallucinations, ecstatic experiences, or prayers in which they thought the resurrected Jesus had “appeared to” them. The point is that the appearances themselves did not need to come out of the blue. They could have already been wound up in a theology that was developing shortly after Jesus’ death.

Torley next states:

“I propose to distinguish between two kinds of skepticism: Type A and Type B. Type A skepticism casts doubt on people’s claims to have had an extraordinary experience, while Type B skepticism questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one. In the case of the Resurrection, Type A skepticism seeks to undermine one or more of the key facts listed above, whereas Type B skepticism doesn’t question the key facts, but looks for a non-miraculous explanation of those key facts.”

I would argue in the case of the Gospels that Type A skepticism is certainly justified. The anonymous Gospel authors could have certainly invented, embellished, or passed along hearsay about what Jesus’ disciples experienced, without such experiences taking place. We need not assume that the description of Thomas’ experience in John, for example, actually corresponds to a historical event. In that case, I would say that I am a Type A skeptic for most of the resurrection appearances in the Gospels (at least as they are literally described), but I do think that they probably go back to earlier traditions about Jesus appearing to his disciples in some way, which were subsequently embellished and added to.

Torley has noted, however, that he wants to focus on Paul. In the case of Paul, I think Type A skepticism is plausible, if Paul had merely been lying about the report in 1 Cor. 15, for example. But, to be fair, I would describe myself as more of a Type B skeptic in this case. My biggest objection to the evidence in Paul is that it is too vague to be very probative. All we have is a second-hand report of Jesus “being seen” or “appearing” to his disciples. It doesn’t say what they saw or how the experience took place. That kind of evidence is open to wide range of explanations, as noted by scholar Stephen Patterson above.

Torley then notes that there is a difference between an extraordinary *experience* and an extraordinary *occurrence*:

“But we must be careful not to confuse extraordinary claims with extraordinary experiences: the former relate to objectively real occurrences, while the latter relate to subjective experiences. There is nothing improbable about someone’s having an extraordinary experience. People have bizarre experiences quite often: most of us have had one, or know someone who has had one. However, extraordinary occurrences are by definition rare: their prior probability is very, very low. The distinction I have made above is a vital one. The key facts listed above imply that Jesus’ disciples had an extraordinary experience, but as we’ve seen, there’s nothing improbable about that…”

I would also add the nuance that it is even more common for there to be a second-hand or anonymous *report* of an extraordinary experience, than an *actual* extraordinary experience. Remember, what we have as evidence is not the disciples’ experiences themselves, but ancient literature that describes such experiences. So, when Torley states:

“So even if we can show that Jesus’ disciples had an extraordinary experience which persuaded them that he had risen again, one still needs to show that the posterior probability of all proposed non-miraculous explanations of this experience is less than the posterior probability of a miracle, given this extraordinary experience, before one is permitted to conclude that the miraculous explanation is warranted.”

I would argue that what we can show is that we have *ancient literary texts* claiming that the disciples had extraordinary experiences. What needs to be demonstrated is whether the posterior probability for all non-miraculous explanations of such texts being written and transcribed is less than the posterior probability of them being produced in response to an actual miracle.

Torley argues that, in part, he must show:

“(ii) given the key facts listed above, and given also that there is a reasonable likelihood that a supernatural Deity exists Who is at least able to resurrect a dead human being, if He chooses to do so, then the total [posterior] probability of the various Type B skeptical explanations listed below is far less than the posterior probability that Jesus was miraculously raised.”

I would probably disagree with him regarding the reasonable likelihood that a supernatural deity exists who is able to resurrect a human being. If one comes from the background of naturalistic metaphysics (which often denies that there are supernatural agents who intervene in the physical world), then that would probably affect how they evaluate their Type B skeptical explanations for the posterior evidence.

But I would also like to note that Robert Cavin argues that Jesus’ resurrection is improbable, even in a universe where God actually exists. Simply because God is *able* to resurrect the dead does not show that he actually *does*. In a world where there is no scientific/medical evidence of human beings being resurrected in the manner described in Paul and the Gospels, and likewise an abundance of false or imagined reports of such things (e.g. ancient translation fables), the posterior evidence might still favor a non-miraculous hypothesis, even if we assume that God exists.

Torley next states:

“As it happens, I’d estimate the probability of Loftus’ preferred explanation [that the early disciples were visionaries, that is, they believed God was speaking to them in dreams, trances, and thoughts that burst into their heads throughout the day … having their hopes utterly dashed upon the crucifixion of Jesus they began having visions that Jesus arose from the dead] for the Resurrection of Jesus to be about 10%. That’s much higher than the prior probability that God would resurrect a man from the dead, even if you assume that there is a God. However, I also believe that there’s a 2/3 probability (roughly) that Jesus’ disciples had an experience of what they thought was the risen Jesus. If they had such an experience, and if there is a God Who is capable of raising the dead, then I think it’s easy to show that the posterior probability of the Resurrection, in the light of these facts, is very high.”

I think that his 10% figure is a gross underestimation. If all we are dealing with is Paul’s letters (and we bracket the claims in the Gospels), then I think there is a wide range of causes that can explain such vague testimony. Scholar Stephen Patterson above noted how the appearance to the 500, for example, could have been nothing more than an “ecstatic worship experience.” Without specific details, which Paul does not provide, we lack the kind of evidence that we would need to eliminate the kinds of explanations that Loftus is describing to the degree that Torley has claimed. I’ll evaluate more of Torley’s estimations below.

Torley next discusses a number of Type A skeptical scenarios:

I’ll leave aside 1. that Jesus never existed, and 2. he didn’t die on the cross, since I do not support these theories. I take issue with how Torley describes the next hypothesis:

“3(a) The fraud hypothesis: Jesus’ disciples didn’t really see an apparition of Jesus; their story that they had seen him was a total lie. For thirty years, they got away with their lie and attracted quite a following, prior to their execution during the reign of the Emperor Nero. (James the Apostle died somewhat earlier, in 44 A.D.)”

Remember, we don’t have the disciples’ story. What we have are Paul’s vague, second-hand account and the Gospels to work with as evidence. One might also factor in the sociological background that it is widely accepted premise that Christianity grew as a nascent religion during those thirty years. But, we cannot attribute the growth of the religion solely to the disciples claiming to see apparitions of Jesus, since there were many other beliefs wound up in the Christian message (e.g. imminent apocalypticism, the notion that Gentiles could embrace the Hebrew faith, the worship of Jesus in place of other gods, etc.).

When it comes to the “fraud hypothesis,” what really needs to be considered is the possibility that the authors of the literary texts which describe the disciples’ experiences were lying/embellishing. For the Gospels, I think this is highly likely. (I would avoid the word “lying,” but I do think they were imagining, embellishing, and inventing many of the details in their narratives, or their sources did.) When it comes to Paul, I think it is less likely that he was lying about his report in 1 Cor. 15, but I have noted how that report is too vague to exclude with high probability of the kind of explanation that Loftus is giving.

Also, Torley in this statement alludes to the disciples’ persecution and executions, implying that it would count against the idea they were committing fraud. I have already discussed problems with the martyrdom argument in this previous comment:

http://disq.us/p/1hn6pu9

I will discuss the rest of Torley’s 3(b-d) scenario below, where he provides counter-arguments that I will respond to.

I next take issue with how Torley limits the possibilities for Type B skepticism:

“Supposing that one grants the key facts listed above, I can think of only two skeptical hypotheses by which one might seek to explain away the disciples’ non-ghostly post-mortem apparition of Jesus, without having recourse to a miracle. Either it was a purely subjective experience (i.e. a collective hallucination), or it was an illusion, created by mind control techniques.”

The range of purely subjective experiences could be much more than just a “collective hallucination.” As Patterson has noted, it could be nothing more than an ecstatic worship experience, or other forms of prayers or dreams in which they thought Jesus had “appeared to” them. As for some form of optical illusion (let’s a say a solar miracle), I don’t think Paul’s testimony is specific enough to exclude this possibility (the 500 may have seen a solar miracle). All we are dealing with is vague descriptions of “appearances,” and that can encompass a wide range of experiences. I’ll set aside mind control (from aliens or demons) since I don’t consider that very probable. I’ll discuss more of Torley’s objections to Type B skepticism below.

Torley next discusses “religious skeptics” who believe in God but deny the resurrection. Since I don’t belong to this category, I will largely skip over most of the points. But I will say the following about one of Torley’s remarks:

“The fraud hypothesis was put forward by the Jews back in the first century … I have to say that I regard this explanation as a much more sensible one. If I had nothing but the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection available to me, I might be persuaded by it, but for my part, I find it impossible to read the letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians without becoming convinced of their author’s obvious sincerity. The man wasn’t lying when he said that Jesus appeared to him.”

Paul may have been highly deluded though, and we cannot glean from his letters *how* he thought Jesus had appeared to him. He never describes the experience in detail. If we go into Acts, Paul saw a light from heaven and heard a voice speaking to him. That kind of experience could easily be explained by something as simple as a heat stroke on the road to Damascus. It’s also not clear whether his companions saw/heard the same thing. Acts 9:7 states that Paul’s companions heard the sound with him, but saw nobody. Acts 22:9 states that Paul’s companions saw the light, but did not hear the voice that was speaking. Also, there is disagreement on whether Paul’s companions fell to the ground or remained standing. Acts 9:4, 9:8 mention only Paul falling to the ground, whereas Acts 26:14 states that Paul and his companions fell to the ground.

Either way, if we don’t like the idea that Paul was committing fraud, it is certainly possible that he *imagined* much of what he experienced and possibly embellished it in his letters.

Torley next discusses “non-religious skeptics” who deny the resurrection. I fall into this category and will explain where below:

“Non-religious skeptics who deny the Resurrection fall into different categories: there are both Type A skeptics and Type B skeptics. Among the Type A skeptics, there are a few Jesus-mythers (G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, Robert Price, Richard Carrier) favor hypothesis 1, while swoon-theorists such as Barbara Thiering and the authors of the best-seller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, favor hypothesis 2(i). However, most skeptics tend to either favor the Type A hypothesis 3(b) [the disciples saw a ghostly apparition; later Christians made up the resurrection – this is Loftus’ proposal] or the Type B hypothesis 4 [Jesus’ disciples had a collective hallucination, which was so vivid that it caused them to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead]. Hypothesis 3(c) has few proponents, and I don’t know anyone who advocates hypotheses 3(d) or 5.”

I am not a Mythicist, and so I will largely ignore Torley’s comments on that approach.

When it comes to the other hypotheses, I would argue that what needs to be demonstrated is whether they best explain the *ancient literary texts* that describe the disciples’ experiences, not the experiences themselves (which we don’t have access to), following Tucker’s methodology.

Type A hypothesis 3(b) I think is quite probable, though I would stress that the range of “ghostly apparitions” is quite broad can account for a wide range of experiences, to be discussed further below.

Hypothesis 3(c) I think is plausible, if Jesus’ body could no longer be found after the disciples’ had visions of him. Or, in contrast, perhaps the body went missing, which triggered them to have visions of him. I agree with John Loftus (as well as scholars like James Crossley) that the empty tomb story was probably invented by Mark (or his source), so I will focus mostly on the accounts of the disciple’s experiences.

I’m not sure why Torley states that he doesn’t know of any advocates for 3(d), which he describes as “Jesus’ disciples experienced individual (rather than collective) non-ghostly apparitions of Jesus, on separate occasions, which convinced each of them that he had risen, and which made them willing to be martyred for their faith in that fact.”

If we rely on Paul’s letter, the only experience that was clearly defined as collective was the appearance to the 500, through the use of the adverb ἐφάπαξ (“at once”). Though, even that adverb can just mean “at one time” and not necessarily “at one place,” so even it is a bit vague for describing a collective experience.

Either way, I would argue that the first apparition of Jesus was probably a private, individual experience (Paul starts, after all, by naming Peter and no one else). But we need not assume that private experiences are independent of each other. If, for example, Peter had a bereavement vision of Jesus, and then told the other disciples, that may have triggered them to have similar visions, hallucinations, dreams, or prayers. This circumstance could also account for latter collective experiences. Say that Peter convinced the 12 that Jesus was risen, and then they gathered the 500 and told them that Jesus would appear to them. Then, that group had an ecstatic worship experience in which it was thought Jesus had revealed himself. The point is that that apparitions of Jesus certainly could have started as individual experiences, and only later become group experiences, when a common belief in appearances spread throughout the early church.

I will now discuss Torley’s response to the skeptical hypotheses:

When it comes to Jesus never existing, I am no Mythicist, but I would probably rank its probability at above 1%. I certainly place it below 50%, but it strikes me as more plausible than 1%. I don’t know if I can make a precise mathematical calculation, but I would at least put it somewhere in the realm of 3-10%.

I think the swoon theory is pretty unlikely, as well as the notion that someone else was crucified in Jesus’ place, so I don’t have many objections to Torley’s analysis on this point.

For hypothesis 3(a), I think the use of the word “fraud” is too simplistic. We can certainly imagine less sinister motives. Perhaps the disciples were pious believers in an impending apocalypse, and needed the resurrection belief to justify their view (that’s not just looking for fame or money). Again, embellishment and imagination, I think, often cause people to skew the truth more so than deliberate lying. And, of course, we don’t have the disciples’ own testimony, so it only takes the embellishment or imagination of later, second-hand accounts for their experiences to become exaggerated. I’m not going to make precise mathematical calculations in this response, but I think Torley is being too simplistic and too skeptical about this hypothesis.

Torley also brings up the persecution that Paul (self-)describes in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 as counting against the idea he was a fraud. Of course, if Paul was lying about his experiences of Jesus, for the sake of argument, who’s to say that he wasn’t lying about his persecution? I’ve also already discussed with Torley previously why I don’t think we can attribute Paul’s persecution solely to his claim that he saw a resurrected Jesus (as opposed to other causes, such as conflicting with other Jews over their interpretation of the Law, or with the Romans over emperor worship), and so I don’t think we can count such persecution as being motivated solely (or even primarily) by the resurrection belief. I make my reply to Torley about 2 Cor. 11:24-27 in the following comment:

http://disq.us/p/1hna3eo

For hypothesis 3(b) I think Torley performs a bit of a bait and switch. He seems to have defined a “ghostly” appearance in two ways, and I discuss this with him in the following comment:

http://disq.us/p/1hpq4dy

On the one hand, he defines “non-ghostly” as “multi-sensory” [i.e. visual, auditory and possibly tactile] apparition. But here he states:

“St. Paul speaks of Jesus as the first person to be raised from the dead: he is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” If being raised simply means “being seen in a vision after one’s death,” this would make no sense. Post-mortem visions were common in the ancient world. Jesus wasn’t the first to be seen in this way. Nor would it account for St. Paul’s assertion that the resurrection of other human beings would not take place until the end of the world – “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” If a post-mortem appearance by a ghost counts as a resurrection, then many people are raised shortly after their death, and will not have to wait until the Last Day.”

This second definition implies that the disciples believed that Jesus was the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, and not merely a ghost of a dead person. There was something ontologically different about Jesus’ resurrection. That’s fine, but I think that involves much more of a theological distinction, rather than a difference over what the disciples might have seen.

I have already noted to Torley in a comment above how Bart Ehrman, for example, thinks that the disciples originally believed that Jesus had ascended to heaven after his death (not physically returned to earth), and then “appeared to” them from another plane of existence:

http://disq.us/p/1hpnod4

By Torley’s first definition of “non-ghostly,” I think Ehrman is open to the possibility that they did not have multi-sensory experiences of Jesus, since there would be other forms of experiences (e.g. prayers, dreams, or revelations) that might have led them to believe that Jesus had communicated to them from his new place in heaven. But Ehrman would certainly grant this second definition of “non-ghostly,” in that he believes that Jesus had resurrected in some special sense, and was not the ghost of an ordinary person.

Either way, all we are dealing with here are a few vague descriptions in Paul’s letters. I think the term “non-ghostly” is too limited. To have the accounts described there could have been a wide range of experiences (e.g. visions, hallucinations, spiritual ecstasy, prayer, revelation, etc.), and we don’t need to assume a vivid or tactile interaction with the risen Jesus. And, even if one or more of the disciples had such an experience, we don’t need to assume that they saw or heard the same thing, or that every post-mortem experience was of the same character. I discuss this further in reply to Torley in the following comment:

http://disq.us/p/1hrnqzc

For hypothesis 3(c), I think if Jesus’ body had gone missing and the disciples’ learned of this, it may have triggered them to start having post-mortem experiences of Jesus. But, I think this is less likely than the empty tomb being invented.

But what I think is missing from Torley’s analysis is another possibility, namely that the disciples first believed that Jesus had resurrected and would soon return (as a rationalization of how he could die and still be the messiah), and subsequently had post-mortem experiences that (to them) justified their belief. This additional hypothesis is important, because it provides an explanation for how such experiences did not come out of thin air. It’s also something that Bart Ehrman has suggested, which I discuss with Torley in the following comment:

http://disq.us/p/1hrojuc

For hypothesis 3(d), I think it is important to stress how individual appearances may have later influenced group appearances. We don’t need to assume that individual appearances happened independently of each other. If one disciple had a post-mortem experience and then told the others, it could have triggered them to have experiences of their own. Collective, group experiences may have then emerged as the idea that Jesus was appearing to his disciples began to spread in the early church. If the group of the 500 had been told, for example, that Jesus would soon appear to them during an ecstatic experience, they could have then believed that they had collectively experienced the post-mortem Jesus.

To return to my original point, all we have is ancient literature, in this case Paul’s letters. Since the evidence is so vague and non-probative, we can’t exclude possibilities like this. We don’t know the circumstances in which group appearances occured, or how and when they happened. I don’t think we can dismiss the notion, then, that the first appearances were private, and then group experiences occurred primarily from the incitement of others.

Let’s now turn to Torley’s counter-arguments to the Type B skeptical hypotheses. First, Torley states:

“Let me begin by saying that if one has prior reasons for believing that the existence of God is astronomically unlikely, then the evidence for the Resurrection won’t be powerful enough to overcome that degree of skepticism. (John Loftus is one such skeptic.) If, on the other hand, one believes that the existence of God is likely (as I do), or even rather unlikely but not astronomically unlikely (let’s say that there’s a one-in-a-million chance that God exists), then the arguments below will possess some evidential force.”

I agree that if the existence of supernatural agents who intervene in the physical world is extraordinarily unlikely, it makes it further improbable that the resurrection occurred as described (i.e. God raiding Jesus from the dead).

But, I’ll repeat that epistomologist Robert Cavin’s arguments that, even if God exists, the resurrection might still be extraordinarily low, simply because God being *able* to perform such a miracle does not entail that he ever *does*. As Cavin observes, billions of billions of people die without God raising them from the dead. That makes the prior probability that he will do so in the case of Jesus quite low. The posterior probability may be greater, depending on how one weighs the evidence (Paul’s letters and the Gospels), but as I have repeatedly said, such ancient literature is very weak evidence for establishing such extraordinary claims, primarily because we don’t know much about the circumstances in which it was produced (making it non-probative), which leaves its production open to a wide range of causes (including those beyond the resurrection hypothesis).

I think that Torley’s counter-arguments to hypothesis 4 are filled with problems. First off, a collective post-mortem appearance of Jesus can be explained by much more than a “collective hallucination.” It could also be caused by other things, such as an ecstatic group experience, which is what Patterson has noted. Now above, Torley defines this hypothesis as “an apparition of Jesus after his death which was so vivid that they came to believe that what they had seen was no ghost, but a resurrected human being,” so I suppose he is excluding anything short of a vivid and collective multi-sensory experience corroborated by each member of the group. (An ecstatic group prayer experience, I guess, would fall under Type A skepticism.) But he also defines Type B skepticism as the following:

“Type B skepticism questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one.”

The problem is that he seems to be assuming too much about what this “extraordinary experience” was. If all we are working with is Paul’s letters, we don’t know if the disciples had a “vivid” experience of Jesus, for example. The data available is not probative enough to grant this kind of certainty. Given the wide range of phenomena that might have caused the disciples’ experiences (or more importantly, the second-hand reports of them), I would think that there would be many things that could account for such an “extraordinary experience,” besides a collective hallucination.

Torley next claims:

“It stands to reason that after having had the experience of seeing Jesus alive again after his death, the apostles would have cross-checked their reports, to see if they were in agreement about what they saw, before accepting the veracity of such an extraordinary miracle as a resurrection from the dead.”

How does he know this? Paul says no such thing in his letters, and Torley is reading *way* beyond the evidence. Remember also that Torley describes Jesus’ “non-ghostly” apparitions as a “fact.” But it is certainly not a “fact” agreed upon by scholars that the disciples cross-checked their reports with each other, or that they even saw or heard the same thing. I would certainly deny this premise of Torley’s.

Torley calculates the odds of all eleven disciples “seeing and hearing substantially the same thing” as less than 10^-33. I don’t think we have any ancient evidence establishing this. As I explain to Torley in another comment:

“In the case of the Gospels, though, what we have are anonymous narratives claiming that Jesus spoke to his disciples. That is not the same thing as having 11 men individually corroborate that they saw or heard the same thing. The data that needs to be explained is why we have those anonymous narratives (which could have come from a wide range of reasons, like legendary development, polemics, and imagined events), not whether the events depicted correspond to what actually took place, as Tucker has emphasized.

Paul’s testimony is vague and goes even less far toward supporting the notion that the disciples “heard the same thing.” To get evidence like that, what we would need is something like 12 independent, first-hand accounts all describing their experiences in detail, which then corroborate each other about what was seen and spoken. We have nothing like that. We have a vague second-hand account in Paul, and dependent anonymous accounts in the Gospels. That kind of literature, I think, could have been produced from a wide range of causes.”

http://disq.us/p/1hrqdvn

Torley then notes how those experiencing the appearances of the virgin Mary or the angel with the golden plates in Mormonism “didn’t all hear the same thing.” We have no ancient evidence that the disciples did either, as I shown in the comment that I quoted above. Torley remarks:

“the angel who handed Smith the plates did not speak, whereas Jesus’ disciples spoke with him on multiple occasions.”

Paul’s letters (which are supposed to be the primary evidence that Torley is relying on) do not state that the disciples “spoke” with Jesus on multiple occasions, or saw/heard the same thing. The Gospels are not the disciples’ own testimonies, but anonymous theological narratives produced decades after the fact. Torley is reading vastly beyond the evidence when he assumes such a narrow view of their experiences, and such a narrow view is certainly not a “fact,” when many scholars (e.g. Ehrman and Allison) would grant that they could have had a much wider range of experiences. And again, we don’t have the experiences themselves, but only ancient literature vaguely describing such “appearances” (in the case of Paul), which could have been produced from a much wider range of causes than Torley’s narrow description.

I’ll skip over hypothesis 5, since I do not find it very probable.

For the resurrection hypothesis, Torley grants that the prior probability of Jesus resurrecting is astronomically low, based on how many people have died across history without such an event occurring. On this point, I think Robert Cavin would agree with him. But then Torley states:

“Given the evidence listed in the key facts above (a death, and a post-mortem apparition with many witnesses substantially agreeing about what they saw and heard), the posterior probability of a resurrection is much higher. But even if it were only 10^-11, that’s still much higher than 10^-33, as in hypothesis 4.”

Considering that Torley has only listed a collective hallucination (aside from mind control) for Type B skepticism, even though he describes it as “skepticism [that] questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one,” I think that he has substantially underestimated the range of explanations that can account for Paul’s report of the disciples’ experiences, and substantially overestimated how many concrete details we can gather from it. I think there are many forms of Type B skepticism that would not need to rely on a collective hallucination, and so the range of alternative explanations (and their probability) is much higher here.

(I’m also not sure that the odds of a collective hallucination are really as low as 10^-33, and although Torley denies that there has been no authenticated psychological study of such a thing, I would like to see more expert testimony on this.)

I do appreciate that Torley is upfront about how his probability estimates are subjective, when he states:

“I can understand why someone might rate the probabilities of hypotheses 3(a), 3(b) and 3(c) at 20% each, instead of 10%. For such a person, belief in the Resurrection would be irrational, since the total probability of the Type A skeptical hypotheses would exceed 50% … estimates of the probabilities of rival hypotheses will vary from person to person, and there seems to be no way of deciding whose estimate is the most rational one.”

On this point we agree. I have not provided precise subjective estimates of my own, but I would say that I would consider both Type A and Type B skeptical scenarios to be more probable than what Torley is estimating (especially in the Type B camp).

To summarize my main complaints about Torley’s OP, though:

1) Torley lists the evidence that needs to be explained as the disciples post-mortem experiences of Jesus. But as I have said, interacting with the arguments of epistomologist Aviezer Tucker, the actual evidence that needs explanation is why we have *ancient literature* describing such experiences. The literature itself need not correspond to what actually took place (as a much wider range of causes can explain its production), and in the case of Paul, the testimony is too vague to provide a concrete description of what took place.

2) Torley overplays the significance of the early Christians’ persecution and “martyrdoms,” which I have already argued above depends on evidence that is highly unreliable, and likewise cannot be attributed solely to preaching about the post-mortem experiences. There were many other causes of Christian persecution, including conflicts with the Jews over the interpretation of the Law, conflicts with the Romans over emperor worship, or political motives such as Nero blaming the fire in Rome on the Christians. In fact, no Jewish or Pagan author claims that Christians were persecuted for claiming that they had post-mortem experiences of the resurrected Jesus.

3) Torley has seemed to provide two different definitions of what a “non-ghostly” apparition of Jesus is. On the one hand, he defines it as a “multi-sensory” apparition of Jesus, but on the other hand, he defines it as the theological view that Jesus was the “firstfruits” of the resurrection and not just the ghost of an ordinary person. In response, I would think that the appearances of ghosts to people could be multi-sensory (such as in Pliny’s discussion of a ghost haunting), but I would also say that the appearances of a resurrected figure need not be multi-sensory. As I discuss, interacting with Ehrman above, if the first Christians had believed that Jesus had been raised to heaven and communicated to them from another plane of existence, I think there are a wide range of natural phenomena that could account for such experiences (e.g. spiritual visions, individual hallucinations that prompted later group experiences, ecstatic prayer experiences, revelation, etc.), besides just a collective hallucination.

4) Torley reads far too much into the primary sources, especially Paul. He assumes things such as that the disciples cross-checked their experiences with each other (which Paul does not say), that they heard/saw the same thing (Paul does not even describe what they heard or saw), and that the experiences were primarily collective (even though, as I have discussed above, group experiences may have been provoked by individuals first talking about private experiences, and likewise, Paul only describes one group appearance). Torley seems to occasionally draw on evidence from the Gospels, when it suits him, but remember that the Gospels are anonymous, theological narratives and not the disciples’ own testimonies. Such texts could have been produced from a wide range of causes (e.g. hearsay, legendary development, mythical translation fables, literary embellishment, lies, etc.).

5) Torley has not considered enough the possibility that the disciples may have believed in the resurrection *first* (perhaps through some form of cognitive dissonance rationalization), and that it was this prior belief that led them to have post-mortem experiences. He assumes throughout that the post-mortem experiences are what led the disciples to believe that Jesus had resurrected. But, as Ehrman has noted, the disciples may have first come to believe that Jesus was raised (and would soon return) to rationalize how he could still be the messiah. The belief in the resurrection of esteemed figures (e.g. Roman emperors) was common in antiquity, and Richard Miller has argued that the early Christians probably drew their belief from previous translation fables. In that case, the post-mortem appearances could heave easily been secondary to the resurrection belief itself. Since we have no timeline of when the first Christians came to believe in the resurrection or when they had their post-mortem experiences, we can’t assume that the latter preceded the former.

6) Torley is too restrictive of the hypotheses that fall under Type B skepticism. If such skepticism “questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one,” then I think there is a much wider range of hypotheses than a collective hallucination. This is because, drawing solely on Paul’s testimony, we don’t even have a concrete description of what those “extraordinary experiences” actually were. All we have is a second-hand report claiming that Jesus “was seen” or “appeared to” his disciples. Since a lot of different experiences can fall under “seeing” or “appearing,” I think there are a lot of possible experiences that the disciples may have had. And, when there is a broad range of possible experiences, there is also a wider range of explanations that can explain such experiences.

But overall, I would just say that Torley reads way more into the primary evidence than what is there, and that this has caused him to assign too low of a probability to alternative explanations, especially under Type B skepticism. Since I disagree with his estimates on this point, even though I am not going to provide precise estimates of my own, I would say that I probably do not accept his 60-65% probability of the resurrection. To reach that figure, he has to assign an absurdly low probability to type B skepticism, which I would disagree with, and I probably would rate the hypotheses that fall under type A skepticism higher, as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

15 Responses to Reply to Vincent Torley

  1. Hello Matthew and Vincent:

    Thank you for your respective contribution to the relevant topic [with Easter about to approach] of Jesus’s purported resurrection.

    Matthew is correct when he asserts, “Paul’s testimony is insufficient to demonstrate an earthly, physical resurrection.” This point is extensively discussed in The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry. Paul makes several unsubstantiated claims:
    1. According to 1 Corinthians 15:5, Jesus appeared to Peter…
    A. When did this appearance occur? Unknown.
    B. Where did this appearance occur? Unknown
    C. What where the circumstances of this appearance? Unknown
    D. How much time did Peter spend with Jesus? Unknown
    E. How close to Jesus was Peter during the encounter? Unknown
    F. What were the visibility conditions at the time? Unknown
    G. Did Peter carry on a conversation with Jesus? Unknown

    2. According to 1 Corinthians 15:6, and then to the Twelve…
    A. When did this appearance occur? Unknown.
    B. Where did this appearance occur? Unknown
    C. What where the circumstances of this appearance? Unknown
    D. How much time did the disciples spend with Jesus? Unknown
    E. How close to Jesus were the disciples during the encounter? Unknown
    F. What were the visibility conditions at the time? Unknown
    G. Did the disciples carry on a conversation with Jesus? Unknown
    H. Who were the Twelve? Disputed/Unknown
    I. Was this number meant as a “round number” reference? [Summers 1965, 47n11]
    J. Was the number incorporated for theological reasons [Gen 4:1-26; Gen 35:22; Num 1:44; Num 13:15]

    3. According to 1 Corinthians 15:6, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living
    A. When did this appearance occur? Unknown.
    B. Where did this appearance occur? Unknown
    C. What where the circumstances of this appearance? Unknown
    D. How much time did they spend with Jesus? Unknown?
    E. How close to Jesus were they during the encounter? Unknown
    F. What were the visibility conditions at the time? Unknown?
    G. Was their line of observation impeded? Unknown
    H. Did they carry on a conversation with Jesus? Unknown
    I. Did the witnesses know Jesus? Unknown
    J. Were there errors in the description of Jesus? Unknown
    K. If Paul was writing approximately 15 years after the event, how did he know that almost half of the witnesses were now dead? Unknown

    This line of questioning could continue with James, then to all the apostles, and last of all Paul.

    In addition, numerous problems exist with the identity of the Gospel writers [anonymous authors], their theological agenda, the source of their information [or lack therof], the obvious embellishment of the narratives spanning Mark through John, etc.

    Once again, thank you for the timely posts.

  2. Esper says:

    I think when skeptics are tempted to construct plausible naturalistic explanations for the extraordinary events recorded in the Gospels they are making a mistake.

    Compare Scientology’s history of L. Ron Hubbard to the easily available facts. It’s clear to see the ‘official’ version is dubious in the extreme and is basically hagiography. Same with the Gospels. Our accounts of these miracles are at best second hand, written years after the fact, and biased in the extreme.

    The Gospels are not reportage so manufacturing naturalistic alternatives about hallucinations and whatnot is pointless when the texts themselves, even if true, cannot be trusted.

    • Celsus says:

      Hi Esper,

      Well, when it comes to the Gospels, I agree that their narratives about the resurrection appearances are largely literally constructions. And so, we don’t need to turn to naturalistic explanations of what the disciples “saw,” when the best explanation for the “evidence” in the text is pretty much that the author (or his sources) invented it.

      When it comes to Paul, though, it’s important to remember that, while he only wrote a second-hand account, he also personally knew both Peter and James. And so, his discussion of Jesus “being seen” by them probably has some historical basis. But, as noted above, Paul’s testimony is highly vague, which leaves the the post-mortem experiences of the disciples open to a wide range of naturalistic explanations.

      I offered natural explanations, under Type B skepticism, for Paul’s testimony above. But, I also noted that the Gospels can probably be dismissed under Type A skepticism.

  3. Peter N says:

    It looks to me like all we think we know about a resurrection boils down to the gospel of Mark, and that’s a mighty thin reed on which to lean.

    After all, Matthew, Luke, and John are later creations derivative of Mark. The later gospels add many far-fetched story elements — and since these story elements contradict each other in innumerable ways, we know that many parts of them have to be untrue (we will just never know which parts). So we can’t trust anything in Matthew, Luke, and John that isn’t also in Mark.

    Apologists also cite Paul when they attempt to “prove” the historicity of the resurrection, specifically the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15. But Paul doesn’t seem to know much of anything in the gospel stories, which could well be because nobody knew them at the time that Paul was writing — they hadn’t been written yet! So when we read 1 Corinthians 15, we mustn’t assume that Paul is saying people saw Jesus walking around Jerusalem — the idea of a bodily Jesus in Jerusalem didn’t come for generations, until Mark. Paul is talking about the 500+ “seeing” the risen Christ the way Paul “saw” him — in visions and through esoteric readings of Scripture. I daresay we could easily find 500 people who claim to have “seen” the risen Christ “at once” in this metaphorical sense on any Sunday morning in a big city megachurch — but that wouldn’t prove anything — at least, not to me! So I am not persuaded by Paul’s witnesses. Also, if I may mention the obvious, we don’t have 500 witnesses, we only have one story about 500 witnesses. Even if we put our faith in Paul’s truthfulness, how did he know? Did he talk to each of them and keep notes? Or did someone tell him about 500 witnesses? Shouldn’t we be wondering if this number, and in fact the whole statement, has gotten exaggerated along the way?

    So much for Paul. That just leaves Mark — late, anonymous, obviously more theological than historical, and telling a story that the author seems to have set a long time ago in a land far, far away — and conveniently unfalsifiable, beyond the living memories of his first readers. That’s our evidence for the resurrection!

    But wait, no it’s not! Mark isn’t evidence, Mark is just the claim. If there had never been a Mark, we wouldn’t be talking about a resurrection at all! At least, no more than we talk about the resurrection of Osiris or Inanna or Dionysus. We wouldn’t be talking about any part of Jesus’ “life story”!

    • Celsus says:

      Hi Peter,

      I would say that our evidence for the resurrection comes down largely to Paul’s epistles, the Synoptic Gospels and their sources (I don’t think that we can treat Matthew and Luke as wholly derivative of Mark, since they were also drawing on independent sources), and John (which may have been partially dependent on one or more the Synoptics, but if not, would have at least had to have drawn from a common Passion narrative).

      • Peter N says:

        Hi Matthew,

        Well, you approached Mr. T’s remarks very charitably, which is to your credit, and I admit my comment was harsh ( but when he wrote “…given the key facts listed above, and given also that there is a reasonable likelihood that a supernatural Deity exists Who is at least able to resurrect a dead human being…”, that just got me going…).

        The canonical gospels and Paul are all we have to go on for the resurrection, but looking at those documents in the order in which (we think) they were written, it seems to me that the earliest ones (Paul and Mark) give us the least information about any aspect of Jesus’ life, and as time went on, more and more fantastical elements were added to the stories. Suspiciously like a legend that grew in the telling. The later gospel writers might have had “independent sources”, but we certainly don’t know this for sure — it seems more parsimonious to suggest that they just made stuff up on their own (since they disagree in innumerable ways, they can’t all be right — at least some of them seem to have had no hesitation to write falsehoods). The utter lack of independent evidence does not contradict that idea. So all we have to go on is the very worst kind of evidence — anonymous hearsay. Speaking for myself, it’s not enough for me to believe there was even a real Jesus in the first place — but I realize that’s a topic for another day!

        Thanks very much for your thoughtful and informative writing!

  4. Bilbo T Baggins says:

    I think you’re on the right track by pointing out that the followers of Jesus probably believed in his resurrection *before* the appearances. Mark 6:14-16 tells us that some were even saying John the Baptist had been “raised from the dead” which is the exact same claim in Greek that is applied to Jesus. Is it just a pure coincidence that the followers of two apocalyptic prophet leaders, who had both recently been executed, starting claiming they had risen from the dead? I don’t think so. Obviously, the concept of a dying and rising prophet figure existed so it makes sense that it was applied to Jesus after his death.

  5. Brian says:

    Matthew,

    I’m not clear on why you think the existence of the resurrection accounts are what need to be explained, rather than the experiences themselves. I know you’re a literature guy, but the literature itself would seem to be of secondary importance with little direct bearing on what actually happened.
    Let’s take, for example, your hypothesis that either Mark or one of his sources invented the empty tomb. I think you have in mind the idea that if Mark invented the idea, then the tomb must not have been empty. But this conclusion doesn’t follow at all. It is possible for the tomb to have been empty, but for Mark not to have known it. In thinking about the resurrection claims in the Christian community at the time, he might infer that the tomb was empty, even if no Christian ever claimed that. This would be an invention on his part, totally devoid of evidence. But his inference might have ended up being correct, whether he knew it or not. Under these circumstances, what he wrote and why he wrote it provide no insight into what really happened, nor offer any prospect for determining probabilities about the resurrection itself.
    So why do you think the literature is what matters?

    • Celsus says:

      Hi Brian,

      The literature is the primary evidence that needs to be explained, because we do not have access to the disciples directly to interview them about what they did (or did not experience), nor do we have access to the place of Jesus’ burial to know whether it was empty (the tradition about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre not withstanding). All we have to directly investigate are ancient texts, which could have been produced from a variety of causes.

      It’s misleading for apologists to frame the experiences as the evidence that needs to be explained, because, strictly speaking, we don’t even know if they ever took place at all. One explanation of the literature is that Paul’s letters and the Gospels are all complete lies, with no basis in historical fact, and so, neither Peter nor the 12 nor anyone else had any experience of Jesus, nor ever claimed to. Instead, ancient authors simply made up these accounts and committed them to writing. Now, most critical scholars don’t agree that this is likely, but this is due to their *interpretation of the literature* itself. It is not because they have access to Peter or the other disciples. What scholars argue, therefore, is that the best explanation of the literature is that Peter and the other disciples probably had some sort of experience that caused them to think Jesus had resurrected (even though there could be a wide range of possible experiences, since Paul’s account is very vague). The evidence that needs to be explained, therefore, is still the literature, even if the best explanation of the literature is that it probably goes back to some actual experience of Peter and the disciples.

      I’m not quite sure what your point is about Mark. My point is not that, if Mark invented the idea, the tomb must have (with certainty) not been empty. Rather, my argument is that, since Paul doesn’t mention an empty tomb, and since the Gospels’ testimony is dubious, and since there is no scholarly consensus about an empty tomb, then Jesus’ burial place being found empty after his death is not a “minimal fact” that needs to be explained about the origins of Christianity. Strictly speaking, I don’t “know” what happened to Jesus’ corpse. I think it’s unlikely that his final place of burial was empty (corpses don’t usually get moved or disappear), but more importantly, I don’t consider it a piece of the historical data that needs to be explained.

  6. Brian says:

    Matthew,

    I suppose my point is that everyone is really interested in what happened, not how the documents came to be. That left me wondering why you are focused on the less interesting question. If I understand your response correctly, it’s because you believe that’s all we have. Is that a correct understanding?

    When you say it’s misleading to focus on the “experiences,” what do you mean by that exactly? If you mean the particulars of the experiences, such a whether Jesus was seen or heard or touched, I would agree that we have little to go on. But which apologists are focused on that? Is that common? Not from what I’ve seen. But if by “experiences” you mean the more general questions of whether some early Christians believed they experienced the risen Jesus and who those Christians were, that hardly appears to be a misleading focus. After all, we have eyewitness testimony from one such Christian, and the further claim by him that others claim the same thing. Moreover, we have physical evidence and non-Christian documentary evidence that these same people were in fact the central figures in the spread of Christianity. Couldn’t the statement “Early Christians believed that Peter, Paul, James, and others experienced the risen Jesus” be considered a central fact completely independent of any of the Gospels? And if so, isn’t that the real fact that needs to be explained, rather than some secondary concern with how the documents came to be?

    I would also disagree with you about the status of the physical evidence with respect to the tomb. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not a matter of tradition alone. Extensive archaeology shows it is a 1st-century tomb and that it has been an object of continuing Christian veneration from at least the 2nd century, despite having been built over to create a temple to Jupiter. We have eyewitness testimony that when the tomb was finally uncovered in the 4th century, it was exactly where local tradition had claimed it was. We also have the observation that no other tomb has ever been claimed. The uniqueness of the claim and its enduring veneration are more key facts that need to be explained, independent of the Gospels. That the tomb is empty and has been since at least the early 2nd century is another key fact, easily confirmed. One may debate how significant those facts are, of course, but their relevance can’t be denied, nor their independence from New Testament literature.

    I would say, perhaps, that what’s misleading is to claim that all we have is the documentary evidence. Agree or disagree?

    • Celsus says:

      Brian,

      The problem is that, in order to get back to “what happened,” all we have as evidence are the literary texts themselves, and in order to use them as evidence, we have to reconstruct the process of how they came to be composed the way they were. I emphasize that the texts are all we have, because we lack other forms of evidence that sometimes exist for other historical questions (e.g. archaeological evidence, forensic evidence, video footage, direct access to eyewitness, etc.). It’s important to bear this in mind, because our evidence for the resurrection is much thinner than for many other historical questions. No doubt this owes itself in large part to the fact that it happened a long time ago, when less tangible forms of evidence were never produced (or have since ceased to exist), but it is nonetheless the case.

      When I say it is misleading to focus on the experiences, the kind of apologists I am specifically referring to are those like William Lane Craig. He starts his resurrection debates by listing out “facts,” such as the post-mortem appearances of Jesus and the empty tomb, and spends considerably less time explaining the nuances of how we reconstruct this data. It’s important to emphasize that we don’t have a death certificate for Jesus, a group of morticians who have testified to finding his place of interment empty, and 12 men who have independently been interviewed (and had their stories corroborated) about seeing Jesus post-mortem.

      Instead, what we have is ancient literature, reconstructed from textual copies, that we are quite distanced from. We can’t interview any of the original eyewitnesses. We don’t even know what Jesus or Peter would have looked like. We don’t know where Jesus’ burial even took place. And we don’t have precise descriptions of what the disciples “saw.” All we can do is use ancient literature, and seek to explain the causes of its production, in order to reconstruct the world behind the literature. Scholars doing so have reached consensus about a few core details surrounding Jesus (the empty tomb not being one of them), which is what Craig bases his “facts” on.

      But it’s important to emphasize that these “facts” (which should really more appropriately be called “well-supported premises among scholars”) hinge on a much weaker and vaguer form of evidence than what would be available in forensic science or modern history, for example. The weaker and vaguer the evidence is, the wider the range of explanations that are possible for what might have produced it, which means that a wider range of natural explanations (besides the resurrection) are possible for explaining the texts that discuss the resurrection event.

      As far as physical evidence for Christianity with respect to the apostles, not much pops up until later centuries, and it would be after texts like 1 Corinthians, where Peter, Paul, and James are already established as figures of church authority. I’m not sure what more early artwork, alleged burial sites, or inscriptions of these figures would bring to the table that isn’t already heavily influenced by claims that ultimately went back to 1st century literature.

      As far as non-Christian documentary evidence, Josephus’ (late-1st century) testimony is problematic due to textual issues, but he does seem to have made reference to Jesus appearing to his followers post-mortem. That may be outside the New Testament, but it is still a problematic textual source that would have been both vague and most likely dependent on Christian claims in the mid-1st century, which would themselves have been heavily influenced by authors like Paul. Even if Josephus wasn’t directly dependent on a NT text, I don’t think we can show that his source was independent (and even if so, Josephus is another literary source, so we still aren’t outside the realm of ancient texts). With regard to the passage about James, that doesn’t mention the resurrection, so it would only establish that James was an important Christian figure (helpful, sure, but not evidence for the resurrection itself).

      With regard to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, simply showing that it is a 1st-century tomb hardly entails that Jesus was buried in it. It only makes a case for plausibility. The site’s identification in the 4th century, even if there is evidence for veneration there in the 2nd century, does not demonstrate that the tradition about the site is independent of the Gospels. If Mark did indeed invent the empty, rock-hewn tomb in the 1st century, and Christians in the 2nd century were looking for a place to identify with this story, it makes sense that they would choose a 1st century burial site. The dating for the tradition postdates the Gospels by too much time to claim it is independent, or reliable. And so, I don’t think we can treat the tomb as a piece of evidence that is independent of the literature. (It’s also worth noting that to even know about the site’s 4th century identification, and the tradition surrounding it, we have to rely on claims in ancient literary texts, so we still aren’t outside the realm of literature here). There also have been other locations identified with Jesus’ tomb, such as the Garden Tomb.

      So no, I don’t think it is misleading to say the only evidence we have is documentary, though I would even hesitate to even use that term (when I think of “documentary” evidence, I think of stuff more like papyri or inscriptions, which we don’t have in this case), and would instead say the only evidence we have is literature. That is certainly the case for the first 50 years or so after the alleged resurrection event. And all of the evidence after that (Christian archaeological evidence, Josephus, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) cannot be shown to be independent of the claims found in Christian literature dating to that period.

  7. Brian says:

    Matthew,

    I find your approach to the physical evidence curious and contradictory. You say “I don’t think it is misleading to say the only evidence we have is documentary” and “all we have as evidence are the literary texts themselves,” but spend much of your reply discussing how problematic the physical evidence is. Well I agree, all the evidence is problematic and can’t be taken at face value, but that doesn’t stop it from being evidence. The literary evidence is also problematic, but it doesn’t stop that from being evidence either. When I say these things are evidence, I mean they provide data on questions concerning the life of Jesus and the development of early Christianity that must be accounted for in any honest and open-minded analysis. Use of exclusive language like “only” and “all” is virtually guaranteed to be not just misleading but false.

    Your approach is especially curious when you say “And all of the evidence after that… cannot be shown to be independent of the claims found in Christian literature dating to that period.” Well, I think you have this backwards. We don’t have to prove that the evidence is independent of the Christian literature, any more than we have to prove that the Christian literature is independent of the evidence. These various pieces of evidence come from different sources, so they are necessarily assumed to be independent unless the internal evidence suggests otherwise. Take Josephus, for example. There’s little in the language or information in the Testimonium Flavianum (Including the obvious Christian interpolations) that suggests direct literary dependence on Christian literature. Josephus’s information could just as easily have been from verbal tradition within the Christian and Jewish communities.

    Many of your other statements regarding the physical evidence go beyond curious to seemingly bizarre. You say “As far as physical evidence for Christianity with respect to the apostles, not much pops up until later centuries, and it would be after texts like 1 Corinthians, where Peter, Paul, and James are already established as figures of church authority.” Really? The tombs identified by the local Christian communities as belonging to Peter and Paul date from Nero and therefore predate all Christian literature besides Paul’s epistles. Those tombs still hold the bodies of 1st-century males. Do you really want to argue that identification of Paul’s tomb or of his importance depends on Paul’s letters? Roman Christians knew Paul and could evaluate his importance first hand. If Paul’s letters and other New Testament writings never existed, the tomb would still be there and we would be able to infer his importance from the its existence. And you are simply mistaken about other evidence. Archaeology shows that the House of the Fisherman in Capernaum was converted to a church in the mid 1st century, prior to any Gospels being written. There also can be no dependence on Paul’s letters. The prominent role played by Capernaum in the Gospels could not have inspired the building of the house-church; if anything, the causation goes the other way.

    You also seem to be missing the point about the Holy Sepulchre. The site couldn’t have been chosen in the 2nd century based on Mark’s Gospel because the site was covered over by the Temple of Venus. Without good reason to stay with that particular site, it would have been easy to choose another. But that never happened. Instead, the local Christian community kept the tradition alive for over 200 years. Given that kind of oral longevity in the community and the role that Jesus’ family played in the early Jerusalem church, identification of the tomb is close to certain and not at all dependent on the Gospels. Physical evidence like this can’t be dismissed nor simply claimed to come from the New Testament.

    • Celsus says:

      Brian,

      Let’s bear in mind the context of this post. Torley is making a “minimal facts” argument very similar to those used by Habermas, Licona, and Craig. Arguments of this kind base their “facts” on premises that are accepted by a consensus of scholars. That the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located at the authentic burial place of Jesus is not accepted by a consensus of scholars. The “minimal facts” apologetic, therefore, makes no appeal to it as a piece of archaeological evidence.

      Here are the “minimal facts” given by William Craig:

      1. After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
      2. On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
      3. On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
      4. The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

      And these are the “facts” given by Habermas and Licona:

      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.
      5. The tomb of Jesus was empty.

      All of these “facts” depend on claims that are found in ancient literature, particularly Paul’s letters (especially Galatians and 1 Corinthians) and the canonical Gospels. We do not have a piece of archaeological evidence (let’s say an inscription) dating to the 1st century, for example, which describes Jesus appearing to his followers. Nor do we have a tomb, agreed upon by a consensus of scholars, that we know Jesus was buried in that was later found empty.

      To know specific details like:
      -When did Jesus die?
      -Who buried his body?
      -Who found the body missing?
      -What did his disciples see after his death?

      We have to turn to ancient literature for virtually all of this kind of information. Even if we can extrapolate that there were oral traditions and eyewitness experiences that lie behind that literature, we don’t have direct access to the oral traditions or the eyewitnesses themselves. Virtually all we have are the ancient texts themselves.

      Now let’s turn to the other pieces of archaeological evidence that you gave:

      First off, the temple of Venus that was built on the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today was not constructed until 135 CE. If Mark (or his source) invented an empty tomb tradition around the 70’s CE, that leaves over half a century for Christians in the late-1st and early-2nd century to identify a 1st century tomb as the place of Jesus’ burial. Eusebius claims that Hadrian built the temple of Venus there to cover up a Christian site of veneration. If his testimony is to be trusted, that means that they had already made the identification before the temple was built, not that they had chosen an unlikely location (like a Pagan temple) that against all odds happened to have a 1st century tomb beneath it.

      And it’s questionable there was even a temple of Venus there. That was Helen’s propaganda. Venus is the mother of the Caesars (by myth, literally). It’s therefore suspiciously convenient that right when she wants to advocate a new era of the Caesar’s alignment in religion, she “discovers” the new god’s “temple” buried under the temple of the old god being abandoned, which then for that overt reason was conveniently razed and erased, and the new god’s “temple” venerated in its place. This became the standard practice of Christian assimilation thereafter (pagan sites destroyed and remade in the same location as Christian ones). And I suspect this was was mythical (there probably was no such site, or if there was, she chose it for that very reason). Hadrian built something there. Was it a temple of Venus? Only unverifiable 4th century Christian propaganda says so.

      But, to even know about the tradition of Constantine’s mother (who also claimed to have found Jesus’ cross in the same visit, which is certainly dubious), or the previous Christian veneration, we have to rely on Eusebius’ testimony. And, once more, that is a claim found in an ancient text. So, even for the identification of the church as Jesus’ tomb, we are still relying on ancient literature here.

      With Josephus, as I noted above, if we are to trust that the portion of his testimony about Jesus’ post-mortem appearance is original, even if his source had never read Paul’s letters or one of the Gospels (and is thus independent), we would still be relying on an ancient text (in this case, the Jewish Antiquities). What we would extrapolate from this text is that there was probably a verbal tradition within the Christian and Jewish communities that Josephus was familiar with. But, we don’t have access to that verbal tradition. We only have the ancient text itself, which we have to rely on to reconstruct such details lying behind the text.

      The other pieces of archaeological evidence that you have noted are both dubious in their authenticity and irrelevant to reconstructing the details of the Easter event. First off, it’s no longer accepted in current archaeology that the House of the Fisherman in Capernaum was a Christian site during the 1st century. Mark Chancey, interacting with a variety of sources in The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (pg. 105) argues, “this thesis is simply undemonstrable.” I’m not sure which sites you are claiming as Peter and Paul’s tombs, but I’m pretty skeptical that modern scholars agree that we know, with good probability, the burial places of Peter and Paul. I’d like to see some scholarship on that.

      But, more importantly, none of these pieces of data would tell us anything specific about the Easter event. You can’t take Peter’s tomb and extrapolate from that what Peter saw of Jesus after his death. Nor can you take Paul’s tomb and extrapolate what he saw on the road to Damascus. We have to turn to detailed descriptions for that kind of information, and for that virtually all we have is ancient literature.

      Regardless, when it comes to Aviezer Tucker’s methodology when he states (Our Knowledge of the Past, pg. 99):

      “‘What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?’ The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.”

      The same reasoning would apply to archaeological evidence, anyways. Even if the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is authentic, the question we would ask is: “What is the best explanation for this kind of archaeological evidence being produced?” There can be more causes for an empty burial site than a body resurrecting, such as a body being moved or stolen. From a Bayesian standpoint, therefore, you wouldn’t automatically assume that the archaeological evidence corresponds with the tradition surrounding it. You would also factor in the probability of other causes that could have produced the same evidence.

      • Celsus says:

        I also should note that our major literary source for the identification of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with Jesus’ tomb, Eusebius (Life of Constantine, chapter 26), shows dependence on the Gospels, when he mentions “that divine monument of immortality to which the radiant angel had descended from heaven, and rolled away the stone.” These details are lifted right out of the Gospel of Matthew (28:2). So our main literary testimony for the site’s identification does in fact show textual dependence on the Gospels.

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