Monday, May 25, 2009

The Craig-Ehrman Resurrection Debate: A Commentary

In March of 2006, a now famous debate took place on the university campus of Holy Cross in Massachusetts. The participants were religious scholars William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman, and they debated the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Craig is a noted religious scholar and professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and Ehrman is a best-selling writer and head of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bart D. Ehrman

William Lane Craig

Having recently read the transcript, as well as a number of online commentaries, I wanted to add my own perspective to the mix. If you have the time and inclination, I strongly urge you to read the debate transcript yourself, as it is extremely informative in regards to the varied scholarly opinions about the historical rise of Christianity (Transcript link). The video is also available in installations on YouTube (YouTube link to the first segment). Evangelicals will no doubt find Craig’s arguments to be sound and convincing, and progressives and skeptics will find that Ehrman’s arguments seem unassailably rational.

If you don’t want to take the time to read or view the debate (it’s quite long, of course), then (lucky you!) you can simply read what I have written here. I will summarize what each scholar brought to the table, and provide my own commentary and analysis on their arguments.


William Lane Craig opened the debate by presenting his case for a literal understanding of the resurrection. Although he doesn’t say it openly, he draws heavily on ideas presented by British scholar and theologian N.T. Wright in his book “The Resurrection of the Son of God.”

Craig first provides four “facts of history” (which I will call his “4 points”) which he asserts are agreed upon as reliable by the majority of the scholarly world. These facts are: 1) Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea; 2) Jesus’ tomb was later found empty; 3) Jesus’ followers believed they saw Jesus after his death; and 4) Jesus’ followers came to believe that Jesus had been physically resurrected from the dead. Craig points out that scholars like the aforementioned Wright go so far as to say that we can “know” that these four things are true with as much certainty as we can “know” that Caesar Augustus died in 14 C.E. or that the Temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E. The textual evidence, Craig argues, is simply too strong to suggest otherwise.

Craig then takes these four established facts of history, and draws the conclusion that the “best” explanation for these events is that God truly raised Jesus from the dead. No other naturalistic explanation can better explain it. Craig argues that the Resurrection Hypothesis meets all the normal criteria for a historical explanation: “…explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility, and so forth,” and that the existing naturalistic explanations do not. He notes that most scholars, including Ehrman himself, have agreed that the naturalistic explanations put forth through the years (conspiracy, apparent death, hallucination, etc.) are inadequate.


Bart Ehrman opened his argument by differentiating between a historian and a theologian. A historian, he argues, deals with empirical data, evaluating that data and postulating probable conclusions. As he puts it: “Historians try to establish levels of probability of what happened in the past.” A theologian, on the other hand, discusses what God does or doesn’t do.

Ehrman argues that a miracle, by its very nature, is a theological claim – it presupposes the existence of a God or gods that can perform such things. He points out that a miracle, by its very definition, is always the least likely explanation for an event. If it wasn’t the least likely explanation, it would not be classified as a “miracle.”

Since miracles are theological claims, and are always the “least probable” explanation of an event, no historian can accurately say that the best explanation of the resurrection is that God raised Jesus from the dead. That explanation is a theological one, not a historical one, Ehrman argues. You can’t claim that a miracle – the “least probable” explanation for an event – is, in fact, the “most probable.” In his own words: “And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did.”


The argument put forth by Craig is fairly common in modern evangelical circles. If you take what we can know with a fair degree of certainty to be true about the resurrection stories (the “4 points” listed above), then the only hypothesis that adequately explains those four things is that God really did raise Jesus from the dead.

In my opinion, this argument has several problems. First, Craig argues that his “4 points” are generally agreed upon by the majority of New Testament scholars. This is a classic “appeal to authority.”

While there is certainly a time and place for these sorts of appeals, one cannot base an entire argument on such a claim. It is certainly possible that the majority of New Testament scholars are wrong. Most Egyptologists believed for many decades that King Tut had been killed by a blow to the head, but modern analysis and investigation has cast enormous doubt on that hypothesis now. So the simple fact that most scholars agree that these 4 points are factual does not actually mean they are, in fact, factual.

Furthermore, it is highly debatable whether “most scholars” actually agree with the factuality of these 4 points. In my own personal study of scholarly perspectives, I have not seen evidence that “most scholars” would necessarily agree with these points. Later on in the debate, Ehrman points this out too, arguing that, in fact, most scholars don’t accept these 4 points as indisputable facts of history. Both Craig and Ehrman basically insist that the majority of the scholarly world is on their side. Obviously they can’t both be right; in my own personal experience, I think Craig is overstating the scholarly consensus of these four facts of history.

The first two points – Jesus was buried in a tomb, and that tomb was later found empty – are especially debated among scholars. Many scholars have suggested that Jesus was, in fact, probably not buried in a tomb, and so that tomb could therefore have not ever been found empty three days later. They base this argument on the fact that 1) executed criminals in the 1st century would have been buried in common graves, and 2) the tomb tradition does not enter our textual sources until the Gospel of Mark – around 70 C.E., or 40 years after the event.

In the letters of Paul, which predate Mark, he never mentions a tomb, empty or otherwise. He simply says that Jesus “was buried” and was later raised. In fact, it is highly debatable whether “raised” for Paul meant a physical resurrection or a spiritual one. Judging by his accounts of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection, it would seem that “raised” for Paul meant “raised in spirit,” not necessarily “raised in the flesh.” In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives a list of those people that Jesus appeared to. He includes several groups that are not known from any Gospel account (such as an appearance by Jesus to a group of 500 people), and he also includes himself. Clearly, Paul was not claiming that he himself encountered the risen Jesus in the days after the first Easter. Paul didn’t even convert to Christianity until several years after Jesus had died. Paul’s inclusion of himself among those who saw the risen Christ is a clue that he is talking about an ecstatic vision, not a literal resurrection of a dead body back into the material world.

Thus, the fourth point – that the earliest Christians came to understand that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead – is also at issue, as I have illustrated in the previous paragraph. Many scholars argue that the earliest Christians understood the resurrection to be a spiritual event, not a physical one, and that the stories of the New Testament are describing that spiritual event, and were never meant to be understood as Jesus’ actual body coming back to life. Instead, they believed Jesus’ soul had been glorified to God. A cursory reading of the resurrection appearances in the Gospels demonstrates that in almost every scene, Jesus seems to be more of a phantasm than literal flesh and blood (he appears and disappears, he looks different and people don’t recognize him, he rises up into heaven, etc.).

Craig’s third point – that the earliest followers of Jesus believed they had visions of the risen Jesus – is about the only one that is probably generally agreed upon by most scholars. It seems likely that apparitions of Jesus, or visions of Jesus, after his death, were indeed part of the earliest Christian experience.

So Craig’s assumption and assertion that “most scholars” agree with his 4 points is a tenuous one at best, and even if it’s true, the appeal to authority doesn’t actually mean anything. Scholars might be wrong.

The second problem with Craig’s argument is that he presupposes that since no existing naturalistic explanation adequately explains the rise of Christianity, the only alternative is that God must have therefore raised Jesus from the dead. This is classic “God of the gaps” reasoning. Since we can’t explain something, it must be God. 500 years ago, this was the basis for believing that thunder and lightning were representations of God’s anger. We now know that it has to do with electrons moving around inside water vapor clouds. So even if it is true that the existing naturalistic explanations of the rise of Christianity are inadequate, that does not mean that we must default to “God did it.” Maybe we simply don’t know yet.

Later in the debate, Ehrman illustrates this same point by suggesting that Craig only assumes God did it because Craig himself comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Perhaps, Ehrman argues, the god Zulu came and took Jesus’ body from his tomb and carried him off to the 12th dimension and subjected him to unceasing torture, allowing him to return from time to time to earth (in resurrection appearances) but disallowing him to let his followers know what was going on in the 12th dimension. This, Ehrman concedes, is an absurd theological explanation, but it demonstrates the point – Craig only assumes that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob raised Jesus from the dead and accepted his death as atonement for sin, because that is the religious tradition from which Craig himself comes. Without 2000 years of Christian history behind us, no historian would ever analyze the stories of Jesus of Nazareth and conclude that the ancient Hebrew God Yahweh accepted Jesus’ death as an atonement and raised him back to life. This is why Ehrman argues that Craig’s conclusion is a theological “faith” statement, not a historical research statement.

As for Ehrman’s opening statement, he argues that the historian cannot double as a theologian. This is an argument that I think has merit to some degree, but I also think that it is a cop-out. Ultimately the field of biblical scholarship is a multi-faceted discipline. A biblical scholar is both historian and theologian, academic and preacher. You can’t really draw conclusions about something in religious history without also drawing theological conclusions. The simple conclusion that “Jesus was not raised from the dead” is, in itself, a theological claim as much as it is a historical claim. These disciplines overlap, and it is dishonest not to admit that.

Craig points this out several times in his rebuttals by suggesting that Ehrman is arguing for a sort of “methodological atheism.” He concedes that in a scholarly paper, or in front of a classroom, one must differentiate between history and theology, but for the purposes of a debate, or sitting at home at the kitchen table, a historian certainly can and does make theological claims. He accuses Ehrman of dodging the issue by arguing for methodological atheism.

The problem with Ehrman’s assertion is that if a miracle occurred, and if God, in fact, raised Jesus from the dead, Ehrman’s position would disallow him to ever draw that conclusion. His position precludes that possibility, as much as it precludes the possibility of the god Zulu having taken Jesus to the 12th dimension. In fact, by saying that Jesus probably did not rise from the dead, Ehrman is, in fact, making a theological claim – he’s saying that God probably didn’t have anything to do with it. In that sense, his refusal to consider a miracle as a possibility draws a certain level of bias into his conclusions, though in my opinion this is to a far lesser degree than the bias that is drawn into Craig’s work by his commitment to evangelical Christianity.


After the opening statements, each scholar was given the opportunity for two rebuttal speeches, with Craig rebutting first, then Ehrman, then Craig again, and then Ehrman again.

In Craig’s first rebuttal, he attacks Ehrman’s argument about history vs. theology. He asserts that Ehrman’s arguments are self-refuting because if a historian cannot talk about God, then that same historian cannot comment on whether a miracle occurred or not – since to do so would necessitate talking about God. He goes on to say: “In order to show that the hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting.”

This is what we might call a philosophical “Gotcha!

Craig goes on to discuss a probability analysis in regards to the resurrection of Jesus. This includes overhead slides and discussions of mathematical probability theories.

Craig’s argument gets somewhat convoluted at this point, but essentially he asserts that probability ratios demonstrate that Ehrman’s conclusions are fallacious. Ehrman, he asserts, is only considering the intrinsic probability of resurrection alone (up against our “background knowledge,” or what we know about how the world works). He is not considering it up against the historical facts (his “4 points”) or against the alternative naturalistic explanations. He argues that the naturalistic explanations are sufficiently improbable enough to “outbalance” the low intrinsic probability of resurrection. Ultimately he concludes, using a probability ratio, that it is probable, given our background knowledge of the world and the evidence for resurrection (the “4 points”), that God raised Jesus from the dead.

If the preceding paragraph was confusing, that’s because Craig’s argument was also confusing and vague. I admit that I did not really “get” the crux of his argument, and I don’t think Ehrman did either. Craig simply seems to be playing card tricks…using a convoluted mathematical ratio to prove that his position is “probable.”

Ehrman responds to this by saying: “I do have to tell you that if you think I’m going to change my mind because you have mathematical proof for the existence of God, I’m sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen!”

It’s also interesting that in the Question and Answer session at the end of the debate, an audience member asked Craig how he plugs the numbers into his ratio to conclude, mathematically, that the resurrection is “probable.” Not surprisingly, Craig admits that scholars can’t possibly assign numbers to the ratio calculations, which to me simply demonstrates that his argument is little more than a philosophical sleight of hand. It may sound good in a debate, but it doesn’t really mean anything as far as reality is concerned.

In Ehrman’s first rebuttal, he argues that Craig makes four mistakes. First, he makes “dubious use of modern authorities.” This is the argument noted above about Craig’s appeal to authority in regards to the “majority” of Biblical scholars. Ehrman argues that, in fact, most scholars do not agree with his 4 points, and even if they did, it still wouldn’t mean anything. He argues that Craig only thinks “most scholars” agree with him because Craig works in a very conservative, evangelical academic environment.

Second, Ehrman accuses Craig of making “dubious use of ancient sources.” He notes that Craig argues that Paul is our earliest source for the empty tomb tradition, saying the source is within 5 years of the resurrection. This, however, is insupportable. As noted above, Paul never mentions a tomb at all, empty or otherwise. He simply says Jesus “was buried,” and the word he uses there is the word that means, literally, to bury something in the ground. The Gospels, for instance, when talking about Jesus’ “burial” in a tomb, do not actually use the word “bury.” Instead, they say Jesus “was placed” in a tomb. You bury a body in the ground. You put a body in a tomb. So not only does Paul not mention a tomb, but his word implies very strongly that he was talking about a traditional in-ground burial. Secondly, Ehrman points out that Paul was writing 25 years after the resurrection, not 5 years as Craig asserts. Craig no doubt claims that Paul’s source is within 5 years because that’s when Paul was converted and when the traditions of Christianity were passed to him. But even if that’s true, that only demonstrates that the earliest source – within 5 years of the resurrection – says nothing whatsoever about a tomb, and instead refers to Jesus’ burial in the ground!

Third, Ehrman says that Craig makes “dubious claims and assertions.” He points out that Craig argues that the women discovering the empty tomb must be historical because no self-respecting 1st century Jew would invent a story where women are the heroes. This is a very common argument among evangelicals. Lee Strobel, in his best-selling book “The Case for Christ” makes similar arguments.

The problem, Ehrman asserts, is that taken in context, it makes perfect sense that Mark (the first Gospel writer) may have invented this story. Mark’s Gospel, Ehrman shows, is all about how no one in Jesus’ inner circle ever understood – his disciples didn’t understand, his family didn’t understand, his townspeople didn’t understand, etc. Instead, Mark continually depicts outsiders, people on the fringe, as being the only ones who “get it.” He states: “For Mark, only outsiders have an inkling of who Jesus was: the unnamed woman who anointed him, the centurion at the cross. Who understands at the end? Not the family of Jesus! Not the disciples! It’s a group of previously unknown women.” Ehrman argues, essentially, that this is a literary technique used by Mark. Having women find the tomb fits with Mark’s theme of how only outsiders and people on the fringe really ever understood Jesus. For Mark, Jesus’ message was for these people – the fringes of society, the outcast, the despised, the oppressed.

Finally, Ehrman accuses Craig of “drawing dubious inferences from his claims.” He states that Craig assumes Paul believed in an empty tomb because Paul talks about the risen Christ. If Christ was seen later, then the tomb must have been empty. But he notes that for someone living in the 1st century, a vision need not be physical in nature. He points out the Gospel stories of the transfiguration, where Jesus is seen in conversation with Moses and Elijah. “Are we to believe that these men, Moses and Elijah, came back to life? That Moses’ body was reconstituted and raised from the dead and that they appeared from heaven? Or was this a vision? Surely it was a vision; they disappear immediately. Ancient people had no trouble believing that bodies can be phantasmal, not physical.”

I think, generally speaking, that Ehrman’s arguments here are sound. The only point of disagreement I have with him is on his third point – that the stories of the women at the tomb may be fictional. While I understand Ehrman’s point that the women at the tomb fit Mark’s literary theme, I agree with Craig that it is unlikely that any Jewish male in the 1st century would have invented such a story. In fact, I think Ehrman’s argument on this point inadvertently demonstrates what Craig asserted. Mark, and the other Gospel writers, continually paint images of Jesus as challenging authority, uplifting the poor and outcast, and attempting to tear down societal and cultural boundaries that kept people in oppression. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was a kingdom where everyone shared the same table, rich and poor, strong and weak, powerful and oppressed, male and female, slave and free. So while the women at the tomb may have fit Mark’s literary purposes, I believe Mark’s literary purposes have a strong hint of history in them – that is, Jesus’ message was all about the outcast of society.

In Craig’s second rebuttal, one of his key arguments goes back to the discussion about Paul and the empty tomb. He argues that Paul’s language implies an empty tomb because it is part of what is essentially a 4-part outline of the Gospel resurrection message. This 4-part homily from the Gospels is something like: “Jesus was crucified, Jesus was buried in a tomb, Jesus was raised up, and Jesus was seen.” With the exception of Mark (which contains no appearances by the risen Jesus), all the Gospels essentially follow this resurrection homily. Likewise, in the passage from 1 Corinthians where Paul talks about Jesus’ burial, he states: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter.” Therefore, Paul’s statements seem to outline the 4-part homily from the Gospels: death, burial, resurrection, appearance. For Craig, then, burial in a tomb is implied in Paul’s words, because his outline of the story mirrors what was later written down in expanded form in the Gospels.

This is a fairly well-reasoned argument, but there are several problems with it. I’ve already discussed the first one – Paul’s use of the phrase “was buried” clearly implies burial in the ground. Paul is the only New Testament writer that ever refers to Jesus being “buried.” The Gospel writers all say he “was placed” in his tomb. Second, even if this 4-part homily is an early development in Christian history, that does not mean the later Gospel stories, which expanded on the homily, could not have included legendary material – such as a tomb, later found empty. I simply see no reason to suppose there is an implied tomb in Paul’s account. It seems like grasping at straws. Furthermore, even if there is a tomb implied in Paul’s account, it is dubious (to borrow a word from Ehrman) to base a big portion of a historical conclusion on implied words in one text.

Craig also responds to Ehrman’s comments about the women at the tomb. In this response, he makes a curious statement, claiming that we have “five independent sources” for the women’s presence at the tomb. I can’t for the life of me figure out what five sources he’s talking about. In the Bible, we have four Gospels, and only two of those Gospels are independent of the others – Mark and John. It is essentially universally agreed among scholars that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. Thus, Matthew and Luke’s account of the women at the tomb are not “independent” accounts. As to Craig’s fifth source, I can only assume he is referring to Gnostic texts not found in the Bible, although it is not clear which one he is referring to. It would be difficult to assert, however, that any Gnostic sources were “independent” of the Biblical Gospels, as they were written many decades, and in some cases centuries, later. I can only, therefore, come up with two verifiably independent sources for the story of the women at the tomb.


After debating back and forth in their rebuttals (I might actually call it “bickering”), each scholar gave a concluding statement, more or less summing up their arguments.

Craig reasserted his 4 points (Jesus was buried in a tomb, the tomb was found empty, his followers had visions of him, his followers came to believe he had been physically resurrected), again claiming that most scholars agree they are historically probable. He then affirms his conclusion that the best explanation of these 4 points is that God raised Jesus from the dead. He points out that naturalistic explanations cannot adequately explain these facts of the Jesus story. Specifically, he attacks an alternative theory put forth by Ehrman (and certainly others) that perhaps Jesus’ family (or someone else) stole the body. He notes that there would have been no sufficient motivation for this, nor would there have been time before the third day to hatch and carry out such a plan. He also argues that the grave clothes disprove this theory. He asserts: “Nobody would undress the body before taking it away.”

He finishes by giving a short personal testimony of his beliefs and an invitation to the audience to convert to Christianity.

Ehrman concludes first by thanking Craig for his testimony, but then pointing out that the testimony is evidence of the fact that Craig is: “…at heart, an evangelist who wants people to come to share his belief in Jesus and that he’s trying to disguise himself as a historian as a means to that end.”

This may have been a bit unnecessarily antagonistic, but ultimately that does seem to be Craig’s core motivation. He is an evangelical Christian; does anyone suppose that it is simply chance that all his historical conclusions fit perfectly with the evangelical form of Christianity he has already accepted?

Ehrman goes on to reassert his opinion that while anything is possible, a historian can only conclude was is most probable in any given historical scenario. He seems to concede that naturalistic explanations of the rise of Christianity seem improbable; however, any of these naturalistic explanations are less improbable than the explanation that God raised Jesus from the dead. The idea that Jesus’ body was stolen by his family or followers, for instance. This may be historically unlikely, but it is not as unlikely as the conclusion that Jesus was resurrected.

Ehrman finishes by outlining his own theory on how Christianity may have risen. He asserts that Jesus’ followers, grieving after his death, went to their scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – and came to understand Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of Man, the one who would justify a broken world. If Jesus was the Messiah, then he must have been exalted to heaven upon his death, like Elijah and Enoch before him. But the Messiah couldn’t die and go to heaven without justifying the world, so Jesus must be returning soon to inaugurate God’s kingdom. They came to understand him as a spiritual Messiah, not an earthly Messiah. After that time, stories began circulating and people began having visions of the resurrected Jesus. By this time, several years would have passed and no one could reasonably go back to check the grave because the body would have long since decomposed. Stories eventually made it to Paul and then to later Christians, who embellished the stories into narratives which ultimately culminated in the Gospels, 40 to 70 years later.

Although this is not a scenario that can be proven, it seems to me to be a historically-reasonable explanation for how Christianity may have started, and – as Ehrman asserts – more probable, historically- and scientifically-speaking, than the assertion that God must have raised Jesus from the dead. That does not mean, of course, that God did not raise Jesus from the dead. It simply means that based on what we can know about the world, and what we can discern from an analysis of the evidence, it seems likely that a natural explanation is more probable.


It will come as a surprise to no one that I tend to think Ehrman “won” this debate. Naturally, since I tend to agree with Ehrman more than Craig, it follows that I will perceive him to be the victor. An evangelical would listen to the debate and no doubt draw the exact opposite conclusion. There can be no doubt that William Lane Craig is an intelligent, well-spoken, highly-educated academic who is not afraid to delve deeply into the evidence. For that reason, I hold a certain amount of respect for him. But at the same time, I felt that most of his arguments could not stand up to historical scrutiny, and I felt like he attempted to “win points” with the audience by pulling philosophical sleights of hand. This was particularly notable in his convoluted mathematical argument, and in his attempt to twist Ehrman’s words about history vs. theology into a self-refuting argument on Ehrman’s part. Craig may have won philosophical points there, but none of those debater’s tricks actually means anything as far as reality is concerned.

Ironically, Craig accuses Ehrman of pulling a “debater’s trick” on him in the Question and Answer session. In one of his rebuttals, Ehrman had been trying to show that Craig’s conclusions were biased, being informed by his own evangelical belief systems. He asked Craig to answer several questions for him. The first was whether Craig believes the texts of the Bible are infallible or not. If so, Ehrman asserted, how can anyone be expected to believe that Craig is able to approach them as a critical historian? The second question was on the topic of other historical accounts of miracle workers. If the stories of Jesus are historically reliable, then aren’t stories of other miracles workers also historically reliable, based on the same criteria? Finally, he asked Craig to explain how the religious faith he accepted at the age of 16 just happens to be the only one that his historically credible. Again, his point was to show that Craig’s conclusions are biased by his own worldview.

Craig passed up two opportunities to fully answer these questions, despite having 5 minutes left to speak during his second rebuttal. He did address, briefly, the question about other stories of miracle workers, asserting that stories of 1st century miracle workers similar to Jesus are actually later legendary developments based on the Jesus stories – an attempt, in other words, to create a Jesus that fit into Roman paganism.

In the Question and Answer session, however, one of the audience members asked Craig to respond to Ehrman’s questions directly. Craig said: “Dr. Ehrman is trying to play a little debater’s trick here on me, in which I simply refuse to participate.”

This is ironic, of course, considering that much of Craig’s argument against Ehrman’s assertions were little more than debater’s tricks, as I have indicated. His explicit refusal to answer Ehrman’s questions is also quite telling. He recognized that Ehrman had backed him into a philosophical corner, so he simply refused to play the game. One may see that as philosophically savvy, or intellectually dishonest. Instead of answering Ehrman directly, he deflected the argument by suggesting that his beliefs about the inerrancy of scripture are irrelevant. He asserted that regardless of what he believes about the inerrancy of scripture, he is approaching this topic using the same unbiased historical criteria that Ehrman or any other historian uses. He stated: “My attitude theologically toward the reliability or the mistakes in the Bible is just irrelevant tonight. The question is, what can you prove positively using the standard criteria? And my argument is that when you use those criteria, you can prove positively those basic four facts about the fate of Jesus subsequent to his crucifixion.”

I felt that this was definitely a deflection of a relevant point on Craig’s part. He may assert that his arguments are not influenced by his own beliefs, but his conclusions strongly suggest otherwise. No one comes to the table free of worldview biases. Even the atheist/agnostic scholar will bring that worldview to the table when he attempts to delve into the story of Jesus. No one can be theologically-neutral. The question, then, turns on who brings more bias to the table, the believing historian or the non-believing historian? It is my opinion that since the believer has far more to lose in drawing conclusions contrary to his beliefs, it is the believer who brings the most bias to the table. Both the believing historian and the non-believing historian stand to lose intellectual pride by drawing conclusions contrary to their worldviews, but it is only the believing historian who stands to lose God and eternity.

All in all, I felt that Ehrman out-dueled Craig in this debate, primarily because Craig’s arguments are largely theology dressed up as history, peppered with philosophical games that, when put up against real historical scrutiny, seem to lose their strength.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Nature of the Resurrection

It is widely held within Christian circles that the resurrection of Jesus was an event that involved the physical resurrection of Jesus’ crucified body. That is, Jesus is believed to have physically died and then physically risen back to life three days later, leaving his grave clothes behind him in an empty tomb.

Indeed, this belief is so foundational to Christianity that many would argue that one could hardly call themselves a Christian if they denied the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection. Most modern Christians, of course, do not conceive of their own resurrection as a physical one; instead, they assume that when they die, their spirit will go to heaven. In the Middle Ages, mainstream Christianity conceived of Jesus’ Second Coming as a time when all those who had died in Christ would come rising out of their graves, but in the modern age, this has more or less been replaced with the idea that our souls simply go to heaven upon our deaths. It has been my experience that only the most fundamentalist branches of modern Christianity still widely believe in a physical resurrection at the end of time.

Be that as it may, the idea that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical one is still widely believed and vitally important to many Christians.

Debates about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection were a central part of the emerging Christian religion in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and were ultimately put to rest by the ecumenical councils of the 4th century which asserted that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical one, and which outlawed as heretical any group or text that suggested otherwise.

Although discussions continued on a small scale among philosophers and mystics throughout the intervening centuries, it was not until the development of modern Biblical scholarship in the 19th century that debates about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection started up again on a wide scale.

Despite the fact that scholars and historians have been debating this issue for the last two centuries, most of this debate does not seem to have filtered down into the pews of most churches. I certainly have not administered any scientific polls on the topic, but it has been my overwhelming impression through a lifetime of involvement in various churches that most Christians do not give much thought to whether Jesus’ resurrection was physical or spiritual in nature. Most seem to see the issue of resurrection as an issue about whether it happened or not. Either Jesus was physically raised from the dead, or the stories about resurrection are simply unreliable myths. In my experience, the nature of the resurrection is not at issue among most Christians. They accept on faith that the resurrection of Jesus happened, and for them, “resurrection” unquestionably means a physical reanimation of a dead body.

My purposes here are not to argue whether the resurrection happened or not. There is a time and place for that debate. My purposes here are to discuss the traditional viewpoint of a physical resurrection, list its strengths and evidentiary support, provide commentary on its weaknesses, and ultimately draw a conclusion about what the earliest generations of Christians most likely believed about Jesus’ resurrection.

Evangelical New Testament scholars (and, of course, many theologians) generally agree that the earliest Christians came to believe that Jesus had been physically resurrected from the dead. In fact, for scholars like N.T. Wright and William Lane Craig, this is one of four “widely accepted facts” of Christian history. They substantiate this position by pointing to a number of clues.

First, they believed so strongly that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead that they were willing, themselves, to die for the belief. No one would have died for a belief in a spiritual resurrection. The motivation, these scholars contend, would not have been strong enough.

Second, the Gospels universally agree that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. An empty tomb implies very strongly that when the Gospel writers spoke of resurrection, they were talking physical resurrection, not spiritual. Otherwise, Jesus’ fleshly body would have still been inside the tomb. The tomb need not be empty if the resurrection was only spiritual in nature.

Finally, they argue that no 1st century Jew would have conceived of resurrection as anything other than a physical resurrection. This is perhaps their foundational claim when suggesting that the earliest Christians believed Jesus had been physically raised from the dead. They point out that Jewish resurrection theology developed in the last two centuries before Jesus’ birth, and it was a theology that asserted a general resurrection of observant Jews at the end of time. God would justify the world – right all the wrongs – by raising back to life those Jews who had died in the faith. Central to this theology was the belief that the dead body would physically come back to life, rising up out of the ground to live eternally in a world justified by God. Thus, “resurrection” to 1st century Jews – such as those Jews who made up the earliest generations of Christians – must by necessity have meant a physical resuscitation of a dead body.

While these arguments are certainly historically reasonable, I believe there some weaknesses that are important to discuss.

First, the assertion that the earliest Christians were willing to die for their belief in the physical nature of the resurrection.

This is more of a historical assumption based on Church tradition than anything else. In fact, we know very little about what actually became of the disciples and followers of Jesus who started spreading his message after his death. That they were profoundly changed by Jesus seems apparent. But that they went to their deaths for a belief in physical resurrection is not. Our sources that discuss the deaths of some of the disciples are not Biblical sources, and are not early sources. Instead, they come from writings of early Church fathers, writing, in most cases, a century or more after these disciples had died. Even Paul’s death, which is widely understood to have occurred as a martyrdom in the mid-60’s C.E., is not described in any of the texts of the New Testament – not even in Acts, which was certainly written after his death, and which otherwise gives the story of his life. Based on the lack of early sources for traditions about the deaths of the earliest Christians, it is by no means certain that they actually went to their deaths for the message of Christianity.

And that, of course, does not even address whether they died believing Jesus had been physically resurrected. Craig, Wright, and others argue that no one would have died for a spiritual resurrection, but this seems to be an unsubstantiated opinion. In my mind, if a man was convinced that Jesus had been resurrected by God, this would be sufficient motivation for martyrdom regardless of whether it was understood as a spiritual resurrection of Jesus’ soul or a physical resurrection of Jesus’ body. Ultimately, the meaning would be the same – Jesus was raised by God (either spiritually or physically), and so we too will be raised.

Second, the empty tomb tradition. On the surface, this seems to be a fairly strong argument. The earliest Christians must have been talking about physical resurrection; otherwise, there would have been no need for an empty tomb.

It is important first to note that Paul, our earliest source for the resurrection, does not ever mention a tomb, empty or otherwise. Our earliest surviving source for an empty tomb tradition does not come until the Gospel of Mark, about 40 years after Jesus’ death. Yet, perplexingly, folks like William Lane Craig argue that Paul is, in fact, our earliest source for the empty tomb tradition! The only comment that Paul ever makes about Jesus’ burial is simply that Jesus “was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:4). He does not say, or imply, the method of that burial, whether inside a rich man’s tomb, or in a common grave.

It is noteworthy, however, to point out that the word Paul uses here (the Greek word thapto) meant, quite literally, to bury something in the ground. It is used 11 times in the New Testament, with all the occurrences happening in the Gospels and Acts, the one exception being Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians. Every time it is used, it is used when referring to the burial of a person in a grave. When the Gospels speak of Jesus’ burial in a tomb, they use a different word – the Greek word thithemi. This was a verb that literally meant “to lay” to “to place.” The Gospels never say Jesus was buried in a tomb. Instead, they assert he was placed in a tomb. Grammatically speaking, you do not bury something in a tomb. Burying implies putting a body in the ground, not in a sepulcher. So if Paul’s phrase “was buried” implies anything at all about the type of burial, it implies a burial in the ground, not the placement of a body in a tomb. In my opinion, it is clear that Paul either did not know anything about a tomb tradition surrounding Jesus (which seems unlikely if it were a fact of history), or in fact no tomb tradition existed at the time Paul was writing.

Scholars, like John Dominic Crossan, who doubt the empty tomb tradition point out that we know from countless secular sources that criminals who were executed by the Romans were not given the luxury of a private burial. They were either left, quite literally, to the dogs, or otherwise thrown into a mass grave. The likelihood, these scholars argue, that Jesus was given an honorable burial in a tomb is very low, given the historical context. Added together with Paul’s simple comment that Jesus “was buried,” as opposed to “was placed in a tomb that was later found empty,” it seems likely that the empty tomb tradition is a later development in Christian history.

But putting Paul’s story aside, there can be no question that the Gospel writers depict Jesus being laid in a tomb which was later found empty. Even if this is only a legendary development, how can that be reconciled with any argument suggesting that the earliest generations of Christians (including the Gospel writers) conceived of resurrection as anything other than physical? Again, a spiritual resurrection would have left the body in the tomb; it would not have been empty.

Scholar and theologian John Shelby Spong, drawing on the work of British scholar Michael Goulder, offers an interesting hypothesis. He argues that the Gospels were not works of factual journalism, nor were they ever intended as such. Instead, he argues that the Gospels were literary creations, told in the Jewish scribal tradition of midrash. Midrash was a writing style that was prominent during the era in which the Gospels were written, and it involved a creative re-telling of modern events against the backdrop of the collective Jewish past. Important figures would have their stories retold through the lens of important figures and events in Jewish scriptures.

Thus, it was a creative and literary overlapping of reality and fiction, history and imagination, and its purpose was to convey spiritual truths which could not otherwise be captured with normal language.

With this in mind, Spong argues that the empty tomb tradition began as midrash on the Jewish festival of Tabernacles. This was a harvest festival that involved setting up booths, or tents, in the wilderness to reenact the lifestyle of the Israelites in the Exodus period. At the end of this week-long celebration, the Jews would ritually “emerge” from their booths, drawing parallels with the Israelites of the Exodus finally emerging from their tent-dwelling in the wilderness into a new life in the Promised Land. The midrashic parallel between this tradition and the empty tomb of Jesus should be clear – like the celebration of Tabernacles, Jesus emerged from his booth into newness of life.

The aforementioned Crossan, and other scholars like Marcus Borg, make similar points, arguing that the Gospels are parabolic in nature. Thus, it may be that the empty tomb stories were intended to be parables conveying the idea of dying to the old self and being born again into the new, leaving the old life (the tomb) behind.

Ultimately, it is the difference between interpreting the Gospel stories as metaphor, midrash, and parable, versus interpreting them as literal, journalistic accounts of events that occurred in history. When you read the Gospels through the lens of the former, it is easy to understand how empty tombs and spiritual resurrections – two seemingly poorly-matched bedfellows – could have gone hand in hand. If empty tomb stories are midrash or parable, then they do not necessitate a physical resurrection.

Finally, the foundational argument of evangelical New Testament scholars: that no 1st century Jew would have conceived of resurrection as anything but physical.

Like the argument about the empty tomb, this seems, on the surface, to be a rather solid argument. There can be no question that 1st century Jews conceived of resurrection as a physical event that happened to the flesh and blood body. The body would literally be raised back into life. This is widely known and understood from Jewish sources.

The question, then, is not whether 1st century Jewish thought conceived of resurrection as physical; the question is whether a group of 1st century Jews might have broken from this tradition. And in that context, the assertion that the earliest Christians would not have broken with this Jewish tradition is a spurious one, for at least two reasons.

First, to suggest that a group of people – even 1st century, pre-Enlightenment people – could not have reinterpreted a deeply-held bit of theology is simply not supportable by all that we know about human nature. The fact that Jesus clearly broke with, and reinterpreted, many ideas within Jewish scripture is evidence enough of this fact. If Jesus could do it, so could his followers.

This, then, leads to the second point: is there any textual evidence to suggest that the earliest Christians tended to break with deeply-entrenched Jewish thought?

The answer to that question is, of course, a resounding and unequivocal “YES!”

In fact, the entire Christian religion is a break with deeply-entrenched Jewish beliefs. The earliest Christians, following in the tradition of their master, broke in many profound and dramatic ways with traditional Jewish theology. They came to reject Old Testament dietary restrictions; they came to believe that the kingdom of God was for all people, not just Jews; and most importantly, they completely altered Jewish messianic thought.

This last point is the most significant. Jews conceived of the Messiah as a conquering king, a man who would come from the genetic line of David and restore the Jewish kingdom to its former glory, overthrowing earthly oppressors (like the Romans) and inaugurating a new Golden Age of Jewish history. This was a piece of Jewish theology that was just as entrenched, and just as widely understood, and Jewish resurrection theology.

No one – certainly no evangelical – argues that the earliest Christians did not dramatically break with Jewish Messianic thought when they came to believe that the Messiah was an illiterate peasant from the backwoods of Galilee who was executed as a criminal. This was such a profound break with Jewish Messianic expectations that the Jews and Christians became bitter enemies by the end of the 1st century.

If the earliest Christians could break so intensely with Messianic theology, is it so difficult to imagine that they could not have also broken with resurrection theology?

The fact is, when seen contextually, it is insupportable to suggest that the earliest Christians would only have viewed resurrection as a physical event. If they could claim that the Messiah – someone who was supposed to be a conquering king – could instead be a peasant teacher who was executed as a criminal, they could most certainly claim that resurrection was a spiritual event and not a physical one.

There is still one important question to be asked, however. Did the earliest Christians break with traditional Jewish resurrection theology, and is there any evidence for such a claim in our Biblical texts?

I have already pointed out that our earliest Biblical source is the apostle Paul, and that Paul mentions no tomb, empty or otherwise. Paul does, however, talk about resurrection and even goes so far as to list those whom the resurrected Jesus appeared to. This is found in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul states that Jesus appeared to Peter and the twelve disciples and a group of 500 people, among others. He concludes his list of those the resurrected Jesus appeared to with himself. This is a vitally important clue.

No one supposes that Paul was around in Jerusalem at the first Easter experiencing the resurrected Jesus. We know from Paul’s own account, as well as from the second-hand account of his life in Acts, that Paul was a persecutor of the early Church before converting to Christianity several years after Jesus’ death. He certainly was not around at the first Easter to see the resurrected Jesus. Instead, his experience of Jesus was an ecstatic vision of Christ raised to glory in heaven. The fact, then, that Paul does not include any language about an empty tomb, and the fact that he includes himself in his list of those people that the resurrected Christ appeared to, is strong evidence that resurrection, for Paul, was a spiritual, apparitional, event, not a physical flesh and blood event. For Paul, Jesus was raised to glory at God’s right hand; he never got up out of his tomb and walked into Jerusalem.

From here, we move to the Gospels. Surely the Gospel language implies physical resurrection? In some cases, absolutely. The story of Doubting Thomas, found in the Gospel of John, is clearly a polemic against those who suggested that Jesus’ resurrection was not physical. Thomas, after all, is shown touching the healed wounds in Jesus’ hands and flanks. Yet even in that scene, the target was not people who claimed Jesus’ resurrection had been spiritual; the target of that polemic was people who claimed Jesus’ had not been resurrected, period.

In fact, most of the Gospel depictions of the resurrected Jesus seem to imply the exact opposite of a physical flesh and blood body. Jesus is able to appear and disappear. He is able to enter rooms that have the windows and doors barred. He is not recognizable to his friends and followers. He cannot be touched. He ascends into the sky.

These are all things that point strongly to an understanding that the resurrection – even for the Gospel writers – was a spiritual event, not a physical event that happened to Jesus’ body. And while both Luke and John have scenes that depict a human-like resurrected Jesus, demonstrating that his resurrection was real as opposed to myth, these Gospels are also the two sources that have the majority of the “ghostly” or “apparitional” language about the resurrected Jesus. It is Luke and John who say Jesus is not recognizable. It is Luke and John who say that Jesus appears and disappears. It is Luke and John who say that Jesus shows up inside rooms that have the windows and doors barred. It wasn’t that the Gospel writers couldn’t make up their minds about whether Jesus’ death had been physical or spiritual. It was that they were telling some stories with a human-like resurrected Jesus to contradict those who suggested Jesus’ resurrection was not real. Even in the Doubting Thomas story, prior to Jesus showing his pierced hands to Thomas, Jesus appears like a ghost amidst the disciples in a room that was otherwise locked down. Clearly the Gospel writer did not envision the resurrected Jesus being a flesh and blood body.

In the end, it is my opinion that the earliest generations of Christians probably did not conceive of Jesus’ resurrection as being physical in nature. They broke with Jewish traditional thought in a variety of ways, including on the subject of what resurrection meant. They believed that Jesus had been raised to the right hand of God. They did not believe, I am increasingly convinced, that Jesus’ actual body had reanimated.

With this conclusion in mind, what does this mean for Christian theology and beliefs? Well, frankly, not a thing. Is there really any difference, after all, in a spiritual resurrection and a physical resurrection? Does it really matter whether Jesus’ actual body came back to life, or whether it was simply his spirit – his self-aware nature – that was resurrected into eternity? In my opinion, the answer is no, it does not matter. Ultimately, it is important only because it helps us to move closer to the truth of what the earliest forms of Christianity looked like, and how the earliest Christians believed and behaved.

There is one issue with this assertion, however, that is important to note. And it centers on reliability.

If Jesus was only spiritually raised, then how could there have been any eyewitnesses? His tomb (or grave) would still have been occupied. No one could have proved anything because no one would have actually seen anything. You cannot witness a soul being glorified to heaven, after all. A spiritual resurrection would seem, at the very least, highly suspicious. One can imagine a 1st century discussion of the matter between a Christian and a pagan.

Christian: Jesus was resurrected from the dead, so we know that we can be raised too.
Pagan: How do you know Jesus was raised? Did you see him?
Christian: Well, no. I know he was raised because I just…know it.
Pagan: But how do you know? Aren’t his bones still lying there in his grave?
Christian: It’s the only thing that makes any sense. If Jesus was the Messiah, and I believe he was, then God must have raised him. The Messiah can’t get executed without actually doing anything first. Besides, Bill and Joe and Fred saw visions of Jesus at God’s right hand. So his soul must have been raised.
Pagan: How do you know they aren’t making it up?
Christian: Because I trust them. They wouldn’t make up something like that.
Pagan: How do you know they weren’t drunk or something?
Christian: Come on, I know these guys. They’re sincere.

You can see how the discussion would play out. Could Christianity have spread as far and wide and quickly as it did if it was based only on the assumption, no matter how sincere, that Jesus’ soul had been raised to glory at God’s right hand?

And these sorts of thoughts would play out in the modern mind as well. If Jesus’ resurrection was only spiritual, how can we be sure that anything actually happened? It’s only because we have first-hand accounts from those who saw the risen Jesus that we can be certain that there was a resurrection. So the resurrection must have been physical.

The problem here, of course, is twofold. First, we can’t be sure of anything, even if we do assume physical resurrection. They might have been making it up. They might have been hallucinating. Faith is an integral part of Christian belief, and that does not change whether you assume physical resurrection or spiritual.

Second, we do not actually have any first-hand accounts from those present at the first Easter. The Gospels and letters attributed to the disciples Matthew, John, and Peter are widely accepted across the scholarly spectrum to be accounts written only in those disciples’ names, not written by those disciples. And aside from those three figures, no other text in the New Testament even claims to be written by a witness to Jesus’ life.

So most of our “first-hand accounts” are actually accounts told second- and third- and perhaps even fourth-hand.

It is interesting and profoundly important to note, however, that we do have one first-hand account of the risen Jesus. That, of course, is the aforementioned vision by Paul. So our only first-hand account of resurrection is one that speaks strongly of spiritual resurrection, not physical.

That still leaves the question of how a spiritual resurrection belief could have led to the rise of Christianity. If nothing physical had happened to Jesus’ body and no one had actually seen anything, would anyone have bought the story? We know, of course, that people did come to believe, and came to believe in multitudes. Christianity spread quickly and widely, perhaps more quickly and widely than any new religion in history, with the possible exception of Islam.

It is an interesting question, and one which cannot be answered absolutely. I do not know if spiritual resurrection would have convinced people the way that people were obviously convinced.

But to address the question adequately, it is important first to separate our 21st century worldviews from 1st century worldviews. In the modern age, we are skeptical of visions. Even among religious believers, when we hear stories of ecstatic visions, we tend to assume it is either a lie or hallucination. We understand that disease processes like epileptic seizures and other brain disorders, as well as extreme stress and lack of sleep, can produce hallucinations. I recall a teacher in high school who told a story about how he stayed up for three straight days in college studying for finals. On the third day, he specifically recalls having an hour-long conversation with his friend in the cafeteria. Yet he later learned that his friend never saw him in the cafeteria that day, and the conversation never took place. So we understand, in the modern world, the scientific processes that produce visions or hallucinations.

But when it comes to the 1st century, we are dealing with a pre-Enlightenment era that did not fully understand the mind the way we understand it today. For folks living in that primitive time period, visions were a routine and even objective part of life, and were, in fact, a way that people came to understand their God or gods. Jewish scriptures, for instance, are rife with prophets explaining their visions of God, and those visions were certainly taken as “gospel” by Jews. The same was true among pagan religions.

So it may not be so hard to imagine, given the historical, pre-Enlightenment context, that people of the 1st century might have been just as persuaded by the evidence of ecstatic visions of Jesus as they would have been by claims of a physically resurrected Jesus. For those people, an ecstatic vision would have carried the same weight as a real-world sighting. In fact, the two would not even have been fully separated in the mind of a person living in the 1st century. Their lives were lived in a God-filled world. There were no atheists in the 1st century. There were no agnostics and skeptics. Gods were everywhere, involved in day-to-day life, controlling nature, controlling politics, controlling daily life. Ecstatic visions of those gods were commonplace and an accepted part of life.

Christianity, I believe, could still have risen the way it did, even if resurrection was understood spiritually and not physically. That certainly would not be true today of a new religion based on ecstatic experience, but it would have been true in the 1st century.

In the end, there is no question that this is a topic that will continue to be debated and discussed among scholars and theologians and armchair enthusiasts like me for decades to come. Ultimately we cannot have absolute answers about anything in history, but we can study the texts and the contexts, and reach conclusions about what is probable and what is not probable. It is my opinion that it is probable that the earliest Christians did not view Jesus’ resurrection as a physical event that happened to his body, but rather a spiritual event that happened to his soul.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Defining the Decades in Film

A writer friend of mine (see her blog here) suggested a series of blog discussions from various writers about various topics. The first centers on favorite films from each decade. I decided to accept her invitation to throw in my two cents, so this is my list of the best films by decade as I see it.

1930's - I haven't seen very many 1930's movies in their entireties, so I am going with the only one that I can think of off the top of my head - The Wizard of Oz. This is a film that was always a yearly favorite of mine when it was played on network TV in the spring (seems like it was typically around Easter). It set the standard for all sorts of things that would eventually become standard film fair - color picture (of course), special effects, wardrobe, and artistic filming. This last standard was used to great effect when the film changed from black & white to color. What better way to artistically demonstrate the switch from boring old Kansas to the land of Oz? Just brilliant filmwork.

1940's - It's a Wonderful Life. Panned by critics and unpopular with audiences at the time, this movie saw a resurgence in the 1980's. I was right there in the surge, and this has been a Christmas favorite in our house ever since. If I try hard enough, I can still squeeze out a tear when Clarence gets his wings.

1950's - Rear Window. Another Jimmy Stewart classic that has always been one of my favorite old school thrillers. Admittedly, I don't think I've seen it since I was a teenager, but I was always amazed at the how Hitchcock pulled off a great thriller despite the fact that the entire movie, with the exception of one brief scene, takes place in the same room with a main character who is laid up in a bed. And yet it's almost that filming style that makes the movie such a great thriller. As the viewer, you are Jimmy Stewart's character.

1960's - The Sound of Music. From here forward, they'll all be tough calls. But for the 60's, I think the pinnacle is The Sound of Music. Such a moving story, memorable sing-along-with songs, and superb acting.

1970's - Star Wars. Yeah, it's the easy choice, but I was the Star Wars generation. It's as defining of my childhood as Guns n' Roses was to my teenage years. I remember finding a Yoda action figure in K-Mart, sitting on a random shelf where someone had deposited it, and being so excited that I was finally going to add Yoda to my growing collection. An older kid walked by and saw it and was impressed, and begged me to tell him where I found it, since there were none left in the Toy aisle. I pointed to the shelf where it had been laying, and I remember him and his friends literally swarming the shelf to try to find another one.

1980's - The Indiana Jones Trilogy. The defining set of movies for me growing up in the 1980's. Action, adventure, perfectly constructed stories, and an intellectual who doubled as a treasure-hunter as the star. The perfect combination. I have probably seen these three movies at least 100 times a piece, no exaggeration. And yes, I liked Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, too.

1990's - Braveheart. This movie is really the pinnacle of the 90's for me because it was made at a time when I was first discovering my love for history. Obviously the Indiana Jones obsession implies that too, but it wasn't until I was older that I discovered that I am a historian at heart. Braveheart, of course, is full of historical inaccuracies, but I didn't know that at the time :) I admit it's a little hard for me now to name this as my favorite 90's movie, because I have grown to despite Mel Gibson so much, but I try not to let my opinion of him now affect my affection for his older movies. I have to mention that Titantic is a very, very close second for this decade. Also, Schindler's List is right up there as well. My grandfather's funeral in 1988, when I was 13, is the only time in my life that I can remember crying harder than what I cried at the end of this movie.

2000's - Frankly, I don't see movies very often any more, and those from the 2000's that I have seen have not impressed themselves indelibly upon me. I really enjoyed Old School and the Lord of the Rings trilogy was okay. A much bigger fan of Harry Potter books than Harry Potter movies. I suppose I'll pick Gladiator. Good historical fiction, good story, and was at least somewhat of an inspiration for a book idea that I am still working on.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Epistle of Jude


The Epistle of Jude is the last letter in the Christian New Testament, wedged between 3 John and Revelation. Only 25 verses in length, it is written not as a letter to a specific person, but rather to Christians in general. Clearly the author’s intent was that his text would be read and copied and passed from congregation to congregation. It may well be that the author himself made numerous copies from the start, sending them to all the churches he knew.


The writer identifies himself as “Judas” – Ioudas in Greek, which is from the Hebrew name Yehuwdah (Judah). That our modern Bibles call him “Jude” is simply a tradition borne out of an effort to differentiate the writer of this letter from Judas Iscariot, the man who is the betrayer of Jesus in the four Gospels. In fact, the writer of the letter of Jude, and the betrayer Judas Iscariot, had identical names.

In addition to identifying himself as Judas, he also calls himself a servant of Jesus and a brother of James. It seems a reasonably certain fact that Jesus had a brother named James, who went on to become a prominent figure in the early Christian church, specifically as head of the Church at Jerusalem – home base for Christianity, as it were. The Epistle of James in the New Testament is traditionally attributed to him. Any religious reference by a 1st century Christian to “James” could well be referring to James the brother of Jesus. Therefore, in noting that his brother is James, the writer of Jude may also be claiming kinship to Jesus.

Both Mark and Matthew refer to Jesus’ brothers, and both include a James and a Judas. This may seem to support the idea that the writer of Jude was, in fact, Jesus’ brother. However, Church tradition has generally attributed this text to a different person – the disciple known as St. Jude (hence the name of the letter). St. Jude the disciple is referred to as “Judas, brother of James” in the Gospel of Luke. However, only Luke and John mention this disciple. The list of 12 in Mark and Matthew contains no “Judas, brother of James” as a disciple of Jesus. Instead, Judas is replaced in these two Gospels with a disciple known as Lebbaeus Thaddaeus. Traditionally, the Church has simply argued that Judas, brother of James, and Lebbaeus Thaddaeus were one and the same. Other than contradicting lists between Luke and the other Gospels, however, there is no evidence to support this assertion. Furthermore, the English translation “Judas, brother of James,” is probably inaccurate, as the original Greek grammatical context actually calls this Judas the son of James. Since the writer of Jude definitely calls himself a brother, and not a son, of James, it would appear that St. Jude and the writer of the Epistle of Jude cannot be the same person.

Most scholars in the modern world suggest that if the writer of Jude was attempting to call himself Judas the brother of James and Jesus, or if he was claiming to be St. Jude the disciple, then he was probably writing pseudonymously – that is, claiming to be someone else for the purpose of sounding authoritative. This is known to have been extremely common especially in the first few centuries of Christian history. Even Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, warns about people writing forged letters in his name (although this warning, ironically enough, comes in a letter than many scholars believe was, in fact, a forgery). On the other hand, it is not entirely clear that the writer of Jude was claiming to be Judas the brother of James and Jesus or St. Jude the disciple. He doesn’t identify himself as one of the 12, after all, and he certainly doesn’t claim to be Jesus’ brother. It may be that he was just an anonymous Judas, who had a brother named James, and therefore referred to himself as such. This, however, would cast doubt on the authority of the text itself, and there can be no question that the early Church councils of the 4th century, who ultimately decided on which texts to include in the canon, included Jude out of the belief that it came from St. Jude the disciple, and was therefore authoritative.

Such is the tenuous nature of the origins and authority of the texts we call Scripture.


As for the letter itself, many scholars have noted the chiastic form of the text. “Chiastic” writing is a poetic form of writing wherein the wording of successive phrases is reversed: “He climbed up the hill, and up the hill climbed she.” In its more complex form, a succession of entire topics will be followed, and then reversed. Outlined, it may look something like this: A, B, C, D, C, B, A.

Scholars have argued that Jude is written chiastically, with five opening sections, a pinnacle, and five closing sections that reverse the five opening sections.

A1. Assurance for the Christian.
B1. The Believer and the Faith.
C1. Apostates Described.
D1. Apostasy in Old Testament history.
E1. Apostates in the Supernatural Realm.

F. An Ancient Trio of Apostates.

E2. Apostates in the Natural Realm.
D2. Apostasy in Old Testament prophecy.
C2. Apostates Described.
B2. The Believer and the Faith.
A2. Assurance for the Christian.

(Source: Coder, S. Maxwell, “Jude: The Acts of the Apostates.” Chicago, Moody Press, 1958, p. 6.)


After identifying himself, the writer of Jude opens his short letter with a warning to Christians about false teachers, a problem that seems to have become epidemic by the start of the 2nd century when the writer of Jude was probably composing his letter.

By this time, Christianity had spread far enough that many people in many different areas were teaching and practicing varying forms of Christianity, some of which were so different as to almost be separate religions. Debates raged among these congregations about the nature of Jesus, the nature of God, Jesus’ relationship to God, the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, the meaning of the resurrection, which apostolic tradition was primary, and so on. In short, all the things that many Christians are still debating and discussing today!

In verse 4 of his letter, Jude says: “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”

To a modern reader, this may seem to be a simple reference to an unbeliever – a non-Christian. However, taken in its historical context, it is a clear reference to a style of early Christian faith known as Docetism.


Docetism was a fairly widespread and popular form of Christian practice in the first three centuries of the common era, and was ultimately outlawed as heretical by the Church councils of the 4th century. It involved the belief that Jesus had not really been human, but had instead simply been a spirit who only appeared human. This belief was based on two things: first, the idea that the “flesh,” that is, humanity, was fallen and sinful and beneath God; second, the idea that Jesus was God. If Jesus was God, and if humanity was beneath God, then God could not have become a human being, because the divine cannot become un-divine, the supernatural cannot become natural. Therefore, Jesus must have simply been the spirit of God appearing as a human. This naturally led to different ideas about Jesus’ death and resurrection as well. Jesus had only appeared to suffer and die on the cross. In fact, as the perfect spirit of God, he had not suffered and died at all, as that is only something that happens to human beings.

This may seem outrageous to any modern self-respecting Christian, but that is only because we now have 1600 years of post-Constantine Christian history behind us. As I noted above, throughout the first few hundred years of Christianity, Docetism was very common and widespread among Christian believers. Historians such as Charles Freeman have even argued that Docetic forms of Christianity constituted the primary form of Christian belief throughout most of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The enormous time and effort spent by New Testament writers and early Church fathers to counter Docetic beliefs testify to its popularity among average Christians.

But this very tendency among the New Testament writers to denounce Docetism is one that may offer an interesting clue into the mindset of the earliest Christians and how they viewed Jesus.


I have already noted that Docetists believed that Jesus had been God. It was Jesus’ humanity that Docetists denied, not his divinity. So when New Testament writers such as Jude referred to Docetists as people who “deny Jesus Christ,” they were suggesting that a denial of Jesus’ humanity constituted a denial of Jesus. For these New Testament writers, Jesus’ humanity was an incontrovertible truth; to deny it was not only absurd, but even heretical.

Yet these same New Testament writers rarely, if ever, refer to Jesus and God being one and the same – something that was foundational to Docetic belief. Instead, these Christians believed that Jesus’ divinity was a phenomenon that was bestowed upon Jesus upon his resurrection from the dead. Paul says this explicitly in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans: Jesus Christ was “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (1:4). Thus, Jesus was a human man, “born of a woman” as Paul says in Galatians 4:4, who became divine – the Son of God – by his resurrection.

In this context, it is easy to understand why writers such as Jude viewed a denial of Jesus’ humanity, and a suggestion that Jesus and God were one and the same, to be heretical – to be equal to “deny[ing] Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” The Trinity doctrine of the 4th century, which attempted to connect Docetic beliefs about Jesus’ divinity with Orthodox beliefs about Jesus’ humanity, was still 200 years in the future for the writer of Jude, who would no doubt have viewed the Trinity doctrine with the same level of suspicion with which he viewed Docetism.


The writer of Jude devotes about half his letter to berating the Docetists, calling them, among other things: “clouds without rain,” “autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted, twice dead,” and “wandering stars for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.”

In his diatribe against Docetism, however, there are several curious references that would no doubt confuse the average Christian reader. These include:

Verse 6: And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.

Verse 9: But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

Verses 14-15: Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

What is the writer of Jude talking about in these passages? Angels bound in everlasting chains? A dispute over the body of Moses between the archangel Michael and Satan? A prophet named Enoch? These are stories and references that certainly do not appear anywhere else in the Bible, so just what is Jude referring to?

In fact, Jude is quoting from, and referring to, apocryphal books that are not actually included in the Christian canon of Scripture.

The Epistle of Jude is unique in the New Testament as being the only book that directly quotes another religious text that is not found in the Bible.


Verses 6, 14, and 15 come from a piece of Jewish apocryphal literature known as the Book of Enoch. This book has an interesting history. Written in five sections, like a 5-act play, it appears to be a conglomeration of earlier texts, which themselves were no doubt based on older story-telling traditions. Most scholars think the stories originated in the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.E., and were put together into what we know as the Book of Enoch during the late 1st century B.C.E. – that is, perhaps 50 years or less before the birth of Christ. Some historians date at least one section of Enoch as late as the 1st century C.E., into the Christian era. The stories claim to be written by Enoch, who is named obliquely in the Old Testament as one of the ancestors of Adam (the 7th generation after Adam, as noted by the writer of Jude). They entail visions Enoch was shown as he toured heaven and hell.

This book was very popular among both Jews and early Jewish Christians, and continued to be influential in Christian circles well into the Middle Ages. It was clearly considered authoritative by the writer of the Epistle of Jude, and its influences are seen throughout other New Testament texts such as 1 Peter and Revelation. Early Church fathers such as Tertullian and Iranaeus believed it to be authentic, and it is referenced as authoritative in several non-canonical early Christian writings such as the Epistle of Barnabas. Even much later, its influences are seen widely in Dante’s famous work “The Divine Comedy” – which itself has become a much stronger source for modern concepts of hell and damnation than anything contained in the actual New Testament. To this day, the Book of Enoch is considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which also claims to have the original copy written by Enoch himself (incidentally, this church also claims to have in its possession the Ark of the Covenant).

However, outside of Ethiopia, the text is not considered authoritative by any modern Christian denomination, and was rejected by the 4th century councils who created the Christian Bible. The primary reasons the book was rejected included its ambiguous and certainly pseudonymous origin, and the fact that it includes scenes that were too vicious and outrageous even by 4th century standards (fallen angels with horse-sized penises having sex with human beings, God slaughtering children born of fornication, etc.).

For this reason, inclusion of the Epistle of Jude into the Christian canon was met with much debate in the 4th century Christian councils. How could the Church include a text in its canon which quoted another text that had been justifiably rejected from the canon? If the Book of Enoch was not authoritative, how could the Epistle of Jude be authoritative, considering that it quoted the Book of Enoch?


To compound these matters, the Book of Enoch was not the only non-canonical work referenced by the writer of Jude. Verse 9, quoted above, which references a story about the archangel Michael in a dispute with Satan over Moses’ body, comes from another work of Jewish apocrypha called The Assumption of Moses. This text is a bit harder to pin down, as only one copy of it exists – an incomplete 6th century text discovered in the 19th century. This particular copy, in fact, does not even contain the scene referenced by the writer of Jude. It is assumed that the scene comes from the portions of the text that are missing. The only reason, in fact, that historians have long been aware that the Jude reference comes from The Assumption of Moses is because several early Church fathers made note of it in their writings.

Scholars who have studied the Moses text generally date it to the 1st century, meaning it would have been a rather “modern” text to the writer of Jude. It does not appear to have ever been considered for inclusion in any Christian canon of Scripture.

We won’t ever know with certainty exactly how the discussions played out, but the Epistle of Jude was ultimately included in the Christian canon, despite its overt references to other texts that were rejected for inclusion.

This, of course, brings up some bothersome issues – the same issues the Church councils no doubt debated heatedly in the 4th century: is Jude authoritative, despite referencing, and even quoting, non-authoritative texts?


Modern evangelicals believe the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God. Everything in the Bible can be accepted as true and accurate representations of God’s revelation to humankind. The Bible is incapable of being wrong on anything. Yet God certainly did not fax the New Testament down from heaven (to borrow an image from Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code”). As I have noted, the New Testament as we know it was compiled from an array of available sources in a series of Church councils in the 4th century. Twenty-seven texts were included in the official New Testament canon, and as many or more were excluded.

As such, anyone who has faith that the Bible is the infallible, inspired, and complete Word of God must first have faith that these councils chose the right books to start with. It is a fact that the Book of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses were excluded from the canon. As such, they were deemed non-authoritative forgeries that contained unreliable information. Yet, it is also a fact that the Epistle of Jude quotes and relies heavily upon their content. As I have already noted, content from the Book of Enoch also served as a basis for content within several other New Testament texts. If the Book of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses are unreliable forgeries, does that not cast doubt on the claim of inspired infallibility for those books that rely upon them for content?

Stated a different way, if we take Jude as the inspired, infallible Word of God, we must assume that the archangel Michael had a dispute with Satan over Moses’ body. Yet this is a story that we know comes from a text rejected by the Church councils whom modern Christians believe were working on behalf of God in compiling our sacred scriptures. It would seem that we cannot have it both ways. The content referring to Michael, Satan, and Moses cannot be both authoritative and non-authoritative, inspired and forged, fallible and infallible.

It cannot be an unreliable forgery in The Assumption of Moses, but the inspired Word of God when copied into the Epistle of Jude.


After warning his readers against false prophets and “godless” men within their communities, the writer of Jude offers some words of encouragement. He reminds them that the apostles foretold that “in the last times there will be scoffers who follow their own ungodly desires” and that these people are the ones “who divide you.” The writer then encourages his listeners to stay strong in the faith as they await Jesus’ second coming.

Jude’s words here are interesting for several reasons. First, his reference to the apostles in the third person implies strongly that whoever this writer was, he was not St. Jude the disciple, nor was he attempting to forge a letter in that disciple’s name. Otherwise, why would he refer to the apostles as a group of people apparently separate from himself? This hasn’t, however, stopped Church tradition from attributing the text to St. Jude.

Second, Jude’s words in this passage help in the effort to date the text. His reference to the apostles seems to imply that they are men long dead, who foretold the events now playing out within the communities he was writing to. In fact, his phrase “in the last times there will be scoffers who follow their own ungodly desires” sounds a lot like a similar warning found in the book of 2 Peter, which of course is attributed to Peter the apostle: “In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires” (3:3b). 2 Peter, however, is regarded by most scholars to be a very late work – perhaps the latest work in the entire New Testament, written sometime in the first part of the 2nd century, and certainly not written by Peter. It may be that 2 Peter and Jude both referenced some other apostolic writing with a similar warning, or that the writer of 2 Peter – in an effort to bolster his claim to be Peter himself – borrowed the phrase from Jude, who had asserted it was an apostolic prophecy. More than likely, the texts are simply 2nd century contemporaries and were merely repeating a sentiment that was common in that time period.

Either way, the writer of Jude, like most of his fellow New Testament writers, clearly believes that he and his contemporaries are living “in the last times.” Like Paul, writing some 50 years earlier, Jude believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent, perhaps even something that would happen in his own lifetime. Paul had clearly been wrong in his own belief about this, but that did not stop later generations of Christians, like Jude, from believing the same thing. And, of course, such ideas have continued to exist in every generation of Christianity since that time. Even to this day, there are Christians who seem convinced that “signs of the times” suggest that Jesus’ return is near. There is nothing new under the sun in that regard – it is literally one of the oldest traditions in Christianity.

Another interesting phrase that comes from this passage is the one that follows the “scoffers” phrase. Jude points out that such men follow “mere natural instincts” and do not have the spirit of God. This may be a reference to Gnosticism, which was another branch of Christianity eventually deemed heretical in the 4th century.


Related to Docetism in terms of being more mystically-oriented than Orthodox Christianity, Gnosticism asserted that the God of the Old Testament – Yahweh – was an evil god and that the real God of the universe decided to set things straight by sending Jesus as a sort of “emissary” to humanity. Jesus imparted secret knowledge to his various disciples before finally being crucified and taken back to heaven. This secret knowledge varied among Gnostic sects, but generally involved the belief that humans in their purest forms were perfect and godlike, but that worldly sin had corrupted them. The only way to attain salvation, then, was to get in touch with one’s own inner divinity, or inner light. Just how to go about this self-actualization was primarily what separated one Gnostic community from another, but in either case, Gnosticism in general was a much more mystical and personal form of Christianity than the Orthodox form, and focused far more on finding salvation for one’s self than on receiving salvation through the mercy of God.

This tendency among Gnostics to look inward for salvation rather than upward may be the idea behind Jude’s assertion that the “scoffers” were men who followed “mere natural instincts,” rather than the external spirit of God.

If this was indeed a reference to Gnosticism, then it also supports a 2nd century date for the Epistle of Jude, as Gnosticism did not really begin flourishing and spreading until about that time.


The writer of Jude ends his short letter with a doxology that is perhaps one of the most beautiful from a literary standpoint in all the New Testament:

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

This passage demonstrates the highly literary Greek with which the entire text is composed. Such a learned style of prose may be yet another clue implying a later date (early 2nd century) for this text.


The Epistle of Jude is one that is frequently overlooked and understudied in many Christian circles. In three decades of association with various churches, I cannot remember any time ever hearing a sermon, or a Biblical reading, from this letter. This is, no doubt, due to a variety of reasons. First, the letter’s short length and non-primary authorship relegates it to second class status among the Pauls and Peters and Johns of the New Testament. Second, its content is comprised mostly of warnings against false prophets and encouragements to stay strong in the faith – topics covered in depth by other more prominent New Testament texts. Finally, its questionable authorship, and especially its references to non-Biblical content, have led to suspicion about the letter’s authority since its acceptance into the canon. Even Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers of the 16th century questioned whether or not it should remain in Protestant scriptures. This history of disputed authority, then, may also play a role in why the letter has traditionally been ignored in Christian circles.

Be that as it may, the letter, as I hope I have illustrated here, offers a great deal of insight into what was going on in the world of Christianity in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries.