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.


Max in NYC said...

Thanks for posting. In the interest of disclosure, I am an evangelical in the reformed tradition. I dabble in apologetics from time to time,but it is not a core component to my faith. However I did want to respond to a few of the points that you made.

The first relates to your comment that William Lane Craig “may have won philosophical points there, none of those debater’s tricks actually means anything as far as reality is concerned.” Could the same not be said with regard to Bard D. Ehrman’s naturalism? If Jesus “in reality” rose from the dead, then is not Ehrman’s argument “we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened” meaningless?

As for Craig’s evangelical bias, I’m curious to know why Craig did not take the bait. Jesus himself says in John 10:37,38 … even though you do not believe me, believe the miracle” In Mark 2 Jesus was accused of blasphemy because he claimed the ability to forgive sin, something only Goc can do. “Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?” Jesus responded. But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.

In this case the man got up and walked out, surprising everyone who saw it. It seems reasonable that if one accepts the reporting of Jesus’ life as basically reliable, those accounts substantiate that Jesus performed miracles. And Jesus asked those around him to see the miracles as evidence of his divinity. The miracles were substantiated by witnesses. Add that to the evidence supporting Jesus bodily resurrection, then it follows that one who believes Jesus and become his follower will endorse Jesus view on the authority of the Bible. The point being is that Lane’s commitment to the Bible is not the bias that drives his argument but rather the result of following the teaching of Jesus, the doer of miracles. The bias is in Craig’s belief that Jesus is truly a miracle worker and therefore what he says must be listened to and believed. I don’t see that much would have been lost had Craig responded to Ehrman’s question.

In your conclusion you wrote that “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.”

In light of this comment it might be helpful to acquaint (or re-acquaint) yourself with Pascal’s Wager ably presented at
In short, if this life is all there is then God and eternity are only in a believer’s imagination. Therefore the believer loses nothing of substance. Whereas if Ehrman’s position proved false he assuredly has the most to lose.

Thank you for posting this thoughtful and reflective post.

Scott said...


Thanks so much for reading and providing your thoughts. I appreciate the discourse.

As to your first point, about how debator's tricks don't really mean anything as far as reality is concerned, I agree with you that the same would be true for Ehrman. Obviously, if Jesus *was* resurrected, then Ehrman's historical analysis is meaningless. But my comment about Craig's debator's tricks was referring specifically to his convoluted mathematical argument - which I frankly feel is nonsense - and the way he twisted Ehrman's argument about theology vs. history into a self-refuting argument simply for the purpose of getting "points" from the audience. Ehrman's argument may be self-refuting (a religious historian, by the very nature of his/her work, has to make theological as well as historical claims), but that doesn't make one iota of difference on the question of whether Ehrman's conclusions are right or wrong. Yet that was Craig's implication...since Ehrman's argument about history vs. theolgy is fallacious, his conclusions must therefore be fallacious too. But that assertion on Craig's part is, itself, fallacious!

As to your second point about Craig's bias...I think that Ehrman was suggesting that since Craig takes all the stories of the Bible literally, that worldview biases his work. To me, regardless of how you break that worldview down, it still ends up being that Craig believes the stories of the Bible are literally true. This is why I think Ehrman was suggesting that Craig's views are biased. What are the chances that the religious tradition that Craig accepted at 16 is the one that just happens to be historically credible? It seems apparent that Craig's personal beliefs are biasing the way he approaches the historical texts of the Bible. This, in fact, was my whole argument in the essay, as I delved into the textual problems with his conclusions. The empty tomb thing is a big one. Craig reads an implied tomb into Paul's account that just simply is not there. But because Craig believes in the infallibility of the Gospels, he *must* read an implied tomb into Paul's account. His worldview precludes him from asserting that Paul didn't know about a tomb, even though the evidence, in my opinion, is overwhelming that Paul didn't know about a tomb.

Scott said...

As to your final point about Pascal's Wager, this is one that I am intimately familiar with. I used to make the same argument myself - better to believe and be wrong than not believe and be wrong. You have nothing to lose if you believe and are wrong - you'll just be dead like everyone else. But if you don't believe and are wrong, then you spend eternity in hell or in separation from God while everyone else gets to live forever.

This seems pretty straight-forward at first, but it actually has several major problems.

First, it presupposes that if God exists, then Christianity is the appropriate spiritual path to understanding God. In other words, become a Christian so that you can live forever, but if you're wrong, then you've lost nothing - you'll just be dead like everyone else. But what if God exists but Christianity is the wrong religion? What if it's Islam, or Hinduism, or Paganism, or Buddhism or Judaism, etc? Maybe I accept Jesus as my personal savior based on Pascal, but then I go to hell anyway because it was actually the Muslims that were right.

So Pascal's Wager doesn't work because there is more than one religious expression available to humankind.

The second problem with the wager is that it presupposes that one can control what they believe and don't believe. I may want desperately to believe that there is a gnome in my garden who will help my plants grow, but no matter how badly I want that scenario to be real, I can't force myself to believe it if, in fact, I don't believe it. Similarly, I may want desperately to believe in eternal life, but I can't make myself believe in that if I don't believe it's likely.

Furthermore, if someone *did* become a Christian simply based on wagering that it's better to believe and be wrong than not believe and be wrong, wouldn't God see through that? Wouldn't God see that it wasn't real faith, but only a gamble on eternal life? Wouldn't God see that as a faith that was shallow and meaningless?

So Pascal's Wager is one that just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me when I actually break it down. Faith has to be genuine, not based on a gamble. Furthermore, we can't know if God exists, but if he does exist we also can't know which religion is the one that adequately expresses him, so we may wager and still end up in hell.

Thanks again for the comments, Max. If you're so inclined, I look forward to continuing this discussion.

Serene's Sister said...

This last sums it up exactly for me. Of course I want to believe in eternal life! I am terrified of death and hope like hell (hee-hee) that there is something beyond. Furthermore, I was raised to believe in God and the Bible and all the rest. Who would CHOOSE to stop believing in such a thing?

And yet at some point in your life, you have to reach beyond believing in something just because it's what you were taught, and figure out what you believe in for yourself. For me, once very much a believer, that conclusion is: I don't know, and I can't know.

In the face of that, to keep professing to believe something just on the off chance? Well, there's no integrity in that.

Scott said...

Right, you can assert all you want that you still believe, but if it's only a wager in order to gamble on eternal life, it has no integrity, and surely an all-powerful God will see through that.

Max said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max said...

Sorry, forgot to proof before posting. Here it is again.

I believe the point of Pascal's Wager is to move beyond the philosophical into the existential. Perhaps all you were saying is that Ehrman had less to lose because he was more detached from the subject matter than Craig was. I don't deny that philosophically. However I recently discovered that Ehrman was a student at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. I'm sure he realizes how high the stakes are in this discussion.

Also, Pascal was not addressing other monotheistic religions like Judaism or Islam. His would not an appropriate argument for two people completely invested in their faith, as a devout Christian or Muslim would be. Pascal is seeking to move people from detached observation to existential engagement. Regardless, your point there is well taken.

I also agree that you can not have faith against your will. As I disclosed earlier, I am in the reformed tradition. That makes me a Calvinist. Therefore I believe that the door to faith is locked from the inside. It is not a matter of persuasion. However I do think that one who goes to all this effort has more than a passing interest, unlike Herod who was merely entertained by John and amused by Jesus.

Ehrman rightly points out minor discrepancies in the biblical text. I concede that there are many - more than he mentioned. I also concede that they are problematic. However, none of the discrepancies challenges a single major doctrine of the Christian faith . Does he dispute the enormous and miraculous content where discrepancies would really matter? If you concede that the gospels are a basically reliable portrait of Jesus, those writers are making astonishing claims, that can't be dismissed simply because one gospel writer, for example, said Jesus was crucified at 6am and the other at 9am. How do you account for the multitude of miracles on every page that are consistent? It's the same with Ehrman's argument about Paul's not mentioning the empty tomb. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is not negotiated by Paul’s lack of commentary about it. His position is perfectly clear in 1 Cor 15. The major claims from reliable sources outweigh the minor discrepancies that Ehrman is relying on to move people away faith.

Ultimately, the case for Christianity rests on Jesus. C. S. Lewis is helpful here. God does not give us an airtight argument for belief in Him. Rather in Jesus, he gives us an airtight person against whom there is no argument.

Socratricknight said...

Dear Scott,
I must complement you on a very detailed and analytical summary of the debate as well as what seemed like an honest critique of it. I appreciated that you were frank about your presuppositions in regard to your beliefs about Ehrman. Our prior worldview or paradigm from which we see the world colors how we view all new data. So before you even heard or read the debate you naturally would tend to believe that Ehrman “won” the debate. That is an admission most people would not make. I commend you on it.

I will post my more detailed reply to you soon.

Socratricknight said...

Hello Scott,
In regard to the nature of miracles, in your analysis you wrote that Ehrman argued that a miracle, is “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.’” You seemed to agree with that because I did not see any disagreement with this in your post. I don’t see why we should accept that definition. It seems he is borrowing from Hume’s classic argument against miracles that has been widely refuted.
May I make a wild thought experiment?

If, for example, a hominoid type woman claimed to be an extraterrestrial alien from another world (let us call it planet X), which was she claimed is a few thousand years more advanced than we are. She then gave evidence of this claim by performing things only an alien race more advanced than us can. This is very unlikely right? She signals what she claims is her space ship, which is circling the Earth, to transport you and herself to the Arctic Circle or to the top of the Sphinx near the pyramids in Egypt, change the meteorological map of Death Valley California making it snow in that region, gives automatic and verifiable cures for virus type infections like AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) or cancer, heals congenital blindness with some type of Star Trek scanning contraption, etc. It would be a very likely explanation that she at least has powers or abilities that establish or give evidence for her claim to come from an advanced civilization. She may be lying and is fooling us, but we are justified in our belief that she is from an advanced civilization because of this evidence. It is not “justified true belief” if she is lying, but it is justified belief at least. it would be unwise to continue to disbelieve her in light of this evidence.

We have a warranted belief, or are justified in believing that she is who she says she is.
In the same way, if a Jewish man from around 30 AD and made claims of divinity, fulfilled prophecies that were spoken and written hundreds of years before his birth (things he could not control by natural means such as the place of his birth) and established the evidence of his claims of divinity by many eye witnessed miracles (and many of these eye witnesses went to their deaths rather than deny him) and even rising from the dead, we have good warrant for believing his words. Max, who also commented on your blog, also pointed out the miracles as well. In such a case, given the facts, a miracle would be the most likely explanation of the missing body of Jesus of Nazareth.
The 2000 year old manuscript evidence for the documents for this man’s claim to be God in the flesh are as reliable as we can ever get, given the principles of hermeneutics and textual evidence—they are more reliable than any ancient texts, be it Plato, Aristotle, and Homer. See the following link for amazing evidence for this. (An honest seeker would at least look at the evidence ).

Yes, just because we do not have a proper natural explanation, does not mean we MUST posit a super-natural one. That would be as you said a "God in the gaps" fallacy. But that is not what I (or it seems Criag) is doing. The best explanation for the missing body of Jesus Christ seems to be a miracle, based on the textual evidence, (given you believe in miracles and the reliability of these texts).

But Jesus himself indicated that if people have a hard heart, they will not believe even if someone rose from the dead (Luke 16:31).


Scott said...


Thanks again for your engaging comments. I have a couple of Calvinist friends, and although we have dramatically opposing worldviews, I find that Calvinists, unlike many other brands of Christians, seem to generally be more willing to probe tough questions and dig into the text. I like that.

I'm familiar with the argument that you make about how Paul's lack of an empty tomb isn't necessarily an argument against it. An error of omission isn't necessarily an error of comission. In other words, just because Paul doesn't mention the empty tomb doesn't mean Paul didn't know about it and believe in it. But as I've already argued, I believe his comments as a whole indicate that he did not know of such a tradition. I would also argue that Paul knew of no virgin birth tradition surrounding Jesus. Obviously we are not likely to agree in our interpretations of Paul.

When I read stories about the miracles of Jesus, I believe I am reading stories that were parabolic in nature, not literal in nature. In other words, I believe the Gospel writers' intent was to describe the ineffible presence of God met in Jesus of Nazareth, and to use parables in order to illustrate deeper spiritual ideals. In that sense, I believe the Gospel writers were taking a page from the book of Jesus himself.

As an example, take the feeding of the 5,000. Is that a story written as literal history, intended to be understood as literal history, or is that the Gospel writer using a miracle-parable story to demonstrate how the life of Jesus, and the message of Jesus, is able to feed anyone who cares to partake?

Of course, many of the miracle stories we have for Jesus are the same between Gospels. But that isn't because the individual Gospel writers all came up with the same parabolic teaching. They're the same (or similar) because the Gospel writers were using each other as sources (i.e., Matthew and Luke used Mark as well as a second anonymous source, and John drew from the other three). Mark, then, may have been the originator of some of those miracle-parable stories, or he may have drawn them from earlier texts now lost to history.

Scott said...


Thanks for adding your perspective to this debate.

It's interesting that you mention Hume's miracle argument, because the refutation of that Humean argument is precisely the thing Craig referred to in contradicting Ehrman's claim about miracles being the "least likely explanation" for an event.

I haven't actually read Hume's argument, nor its refutations, and in fact was not even familiar with it prior to reading this debate transcript. So unfortunately I can't engage in any meaningful dialogue with you about it.

With your hominid analogy, you have made a good point, one which should be pretty obvious. Clearly, if Jesus really did perform the miracles the texts say he performed, then it wouldn't be much of a leap to say that he probably was physically resurrected too. If you accept that he performed true miracles, then it would be easy to accept his resurrection. I can't imagine anyone conceding that Jesus performed miracles, but denying his resurrection.

The big question, of course, is "did Jesus perform miracles?" I've already provided my perspective on this in my response above.

If my perspective is right, and the miracle stories of Jesus are parables, then that still leaves us with the question of resurrection. I also believe the resurrection is best understood parabolically. Furthermore, as I have argued in a previous blog post, I believe the earliest Christians - including perhaps the Gospel writers themselves - viewed resurrection as a spiritual event that happened to Jesus' soul, not a physical event that happened to Jesus' flesh and blood body. Paul, just to provide one quick example, states explicitly that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." Clearly he didn't view resurrection as a physical event, but a spiritual one.

You mentioned the place of Jesus' birth, as well as other fulfilled OT prophecies. I've blogged before about the geographic origins of Jesus.

My conclusion is that Jesus was from Nazareth, and may have been born in Nazareth, but was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem. The difficulty Matthew and Luke have with getting Jesus' family to Bethlehem, and the wildly diverging accounts, indicates strongly to me that a Bethlehem birth was not known to be historically true. If they had known it to be historically true, they wouldn't have needed to jump through the hoops they jumped through to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

As for other OT prophecy, I think that issue about the Bethlehem birth tradition is a prime example demonstrating that the Gospel writers were making Jesus fit OT prophecy, whether his historical life had actually fit it or not. This, of course, is not some new, wild opinion. It's been shared by textual historians and biblical scholars for centuries.

Another example: When Matthew gives his account of the triumphal entry, he says Jesus was riding a donkey and a colt. The other Gospels simply say he was riding a donkey. How someone could ride two animals at once is difficult to imagine, but the reason Matthew makes this error is because the Septuagint he was using mistranslated an OT prophecy. He quotes Zechariah 9:9, which says a king will come riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. In other words, riding on a donkey colt. Not riding on a donkey *and* a colt. This phrase, however, was mistranslated in the Septuagint and said that the king would come on a donkey and a colt.

Matthew was clearly relying on his Greek OT to write his story, not relying on history to write his story. The Septuagint's mistranslation is a little loophole allowing us to see that Matthew was writing Jesus' life back into OT prophecy, not the other way around.

Scott said...


I have checked out the website you suggested, and frankly I have a few serious issues with its information, although I don't disagree with all of it.

I agree whole-heartedly that the manuscript tradition in Christianity is one of the best in all of ancient history. It is an absolute fact that as ancient events/people go, we probably have more texts detailing the life of Jesus and the cult that sprang up after his death, all written within 25-75 years of that death, than just about any other event/person in history, with the possible exception of a few prominent emperors and kings. Even mamy of our most notable historical people and historical events are not chronicled until many, many decades, and even centuries, later. The story of the burning of Rome in 64 C.E., for instance, is not documented in text until 115 C.E., 45 years later. On the other hand, the earliest Christian documents are within 25 years of Jesus' death. That's remarkable when you consider that one was detailing the burning of the biggest city in the Western hemisphere, and the other was a text detailing the beliefs of a religious sect that was built around an executed Galilean peasant.

But one thing the website fails to point out is that the reason these early texts about Jesus are still around is because Jesus' followers used them for worship, thereby preserving them for us. I'm sure there were early, and even contemporary, historical accounts of the Great Fire of Rome. But no one was worshipping from them, so the accounts didn't survive, thus leaving us with Tacitus as our earliest source. So while the Christian manuscript tradition leaves a wealth of early documentation for historians to study, that wealth of early writings isn't an indicator, in and of itself, of the reliability of those documents.

Another problem is in its discussion of manuscript copies of those early Christian texts. Its information is very misleading.

It hails the thousands of early copies we have of New Testament texts, without bothering to point out that the only reason we have that many early manuscripts is because the Church saw to it that they were preserved.

The abudance of early manuscript copies doesn't tell us anything about the reliability of the accounts in those manuscripts; it only tells us that the users of those manuscripts wanted to preserve them. Yet the page makes the very obvious implication that quantity of early manuscripts = degree of reliability. In fact, it makes that argument explicitly in the final paragraph. That's a fallacious argument.

Scott said...

Furthermore, it misleads the reader on the date of the "earliest copy" of a New Testament manuscript. It says our earliest manuscript copy is from around 130 C.E. In fact, our earliest complete manuscript of a NT text is, I believe, from sometime in the 4th century - 200-250 years after the text was written. What we have from around 130 C.E. is a very small fragment from the Gospel of John - so small that it contains only 3 or 4 verses from a single chapter. It is by no means a "manuscript," but rather a manuscript fragment, and a very small one at that. Furthermore, we have fragments of Gnostic Christian texts - that is, texts that were not included in the biblical canon - that are earlier than any other book in the Bible except John and Titus - we have fragments from the Gospel of Thomas and the Egerton Gospel that predate Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as all the letters of Paul, Peter, and John, Jude, Revelation, and Hebrews.

Does this website suppose that the early nature of these Gnostic texts points to their historical and theological reliability?

The website says the following: "Almost all biblical scholars agree that the New Testament documents were all written before the close of the first century." This is just patently untrue. Perhaps "almost all" *evangelical* biblical scholars agree that the NT texts were all composed in the 1st century, but within the scholarly world at large, there is very great consensus dating books like Revelation, Jude, and 2 Peter into the first quarter of the 2nd century.

It also says that the fragment of John dated to about 130 is within "29 years" of the original, and that such an early copy is "unheard of" in other ancient documents.

In fact, the scholars who first published the Egerton gospel dated the manuscript in the first part of the 2nd century (say, around 125 C.E.). The original manuscript may have been written as late as 100 C.E. or as early as the 50's or 60's C.E. But if you take that later date - 100 - that means the copy we currently have is as close or closer to the original than the fragment of John.

I realize, of course, that this website freely admits to be dealing in apologetics. But this is one of the reasons I don't like apologetics - most of the time, apologetics is intentionally misleading and fails to give the complete story. And apologetics does this, of course, because to give the complete story would undermine the arguments being defended.

Socratricknight said...

Hello Scott,

It is rare to have someone not just assert their point of view but argue it in these types of discussions. Thanks for that!

I will try to respond to all your points, but for now I will just address the "spiritual resurrection" hypothesis.

You wrote, “Many scholars argue that the earliest Christians understood the resurrection to be a spiritual event, not a physical one..."

Let us examine the data to see if your claim that the earliest Christians, especially the Apostle Paul did believe that Jesus only rose in a “spiritual body.” You said you are familiar with the work of NT Wright, what about that of Gary Habermas?

In the Greek Paul was using, the word for spirit is pneuma, and body is soma. Paul uses the word pneumatikos for “spiritual body” in 1st Corinthians 15, speaking about the resurrection. In Paul’s epistle to the Philippians Chapter 3, he asserts strongly that he was a Pharisee. Any New Testament scholar, or serious Bible student, would know that the Pharisees believed in the bodily, not spiritual, resurrection (as opposed to the Sadducees). Also notice in Luke’s Book of Acts chapter 23, Paul, shouts "Why are you taking me? Because I believe in the resurrection of the dead?" Here is confirms that he does believe in a literal bodily resurrection. Again in Philippians 3:20-21, he writes, "From Heaven, we look for Jesus who will change our vile soma (body) to be like unto His glorious soma (or body)." And "He [Jesus] will change my body to be like His body."

See the following for more data on this: Peter Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 53 and A New Testament Theology, rev. ed., ed. Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 358-63

Any in depth reading of the New Testament will make it difficult to miss that it teaches the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. First, he ate (Luke 24:42), the disciples treat him as a physical human. Finally, Jesus himself says he does not have a “spiritual body:”
“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” I am not a ghost, touch me” (Luke 24:39).
That should settle it. There is no problem here that in his resurrected state that Jesus could have supernatural abilities like that of disappearing and reappearing. He could very well have appeared to Paul on the Damascus road in his resurrected body.

Scott said...

Thanks again for engaging in debate, SK.

Clearly we approach this issue from different worldviews. Despite that, it is informative to debate them.

To begin with, I have read a Gary Habermas article on resurrection perspectives among noted biblical scholars. I did not find his arguments to be persuasive, and felt that they were front-loaded in a style similar to Lee Strobel - the data compiled seemed contrived to prove a pre-existing theory - namely that "most" biblical scholars abide by the notion that Jesus was physically resurrected.

Be that as it may, even if it is true that "most" biblical scholars think Jesus was physically resurrected (and again, I am extremely skeptical of this conclusion), that appeal to authority does not have any bearing on whether Jesus actually was physically resurrected.

I don't believe I have read anything by Habermas arguing about what the Bible writers themselves were trying to say - though I am certain he would agree with you that they believed the resurrection was physical.

When it comes to scholarly perspectives on what the writers of the Bible believed about resurrection, I don't doubt that the majority of scholars would assert that the Bible writers believed in physical resurrection. As I said, however, there are many (though perhaps not a majority), who argue that the earliest Christians understood resurrection spiritually and not physically. I am more persuaded by those arguments than I am by the arguments asserting a physical resurrection interpretation.

Scott said...

As for Paul, I disagree whole-heartedly that he had a flesh-and-blood resurrection theology. Again, if that was so, why does he explicitly say that "flesh-and-blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God"?

The examples you provided do not speak to me of flesh-and-blood resurrection. Exchanging a vile body [soma] (the earthly body) with a glorious body [soma] (the heavenly body) explicitly says to me that the resurrection body is different than the earthly body. One is vile and one is glorious. One is earth-bound and one is heaven-bound. One is a burdensome shell and the other is a blissful mansion. This statement of Paul's from Philippians is perfectly in line with his assertion in 1 Corinthians that "flesh and blood" won't inherit God's kingdom. Flesh and blood is vile. The spiritual body is glorious.

Paul was a Platonic dualist. He believed that soul and body are separate. Body is an inconvenient and mortal outer shell that houses the perfect and immortal soul. At resurrection, that soul is relocated to a spiritual body worthy of the perfect soul, and both are glorified to God's kingdom. The flesh-and-blood body, the earthly body, the sinful shell, is discarded to the grave.

This sort of resurrection theology superimposed onto Platonic dualism is present throughout the authentic letters of Paul.

As for Paul's status as a Pharisee, I agree with you completely, and understand fully, that Pharisees believed in physical resurrection. The dead would rise at the end of time. In converting to Christianity, however, Paul infused Pharisaism with Hellenized Judaism (i.e. Platonic dualism) and superimposed that onto Christian resurrection theology. This is why he speaks of spiritual bodies - the "body" part of that phrase is a concession to the Pharisee in him; the "spiritual" part of that phrasee is a concession to the Hellenized Jew in him.

It is my firm conviction that *especially* in regards to Paul, he believed in a spiritual form of resurrection. He did not believe either Jesus, or the rest of us, were raised in flesh-and-blood. He speaks of no empty tomb, no discarded grave clothes, no post-resurrection shared meals, no post-resurrection words or commands of Jesus. None of that exists in Paul. Taken together with his words about spiritual bodies and the vile nature of the earthly body, it is clear to me that Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection.

Scott said...

Finally, in regards to the NT. It is harder to make the argument that the Gospel writers also believed in spiritual resurrection. There are clearly stories, such as the one you noted from Luke, that seem designed to explicitly deny skeptics who claimed resurrection stories were just ghost stories.

You have already pointed out the Greek word "pneuma" used by Paul. That same word is used in the referenced Lucan passage - translated there as "ghost."

Luke's Jesus explicitly claims to have flesh and blood, as opposed to a ghost/spirit [pneuma] which does not have flesh and blood.

But remember, Paul told us flesh and blood does not inherit God's kingdom.

The fact that Luke directly and explicitly contradicts Paul does not mean that Paul's words must be reinterpreted. One would only make that assumption if one was biasing their own research by assuming that the New Testament is by default the inspired and infallible Word of God. If one approaches biblical scholarship from that worldview, one cannot possibly call one's self an unbiased historian. Instead, they are an evangelist.

I am not trying to suggest that either position is right or wrong or better or worse. I am simply differentiating between a historian and a theologian, a scholar and an evangelical.

Back to the topic of spiritual resurrection in the Gospels, my argument there is primarily that the Gospel writers intertwine various levels of resurrection belief - sometimes arguing, as in the passage above, that the resurrected Jesus was flesh and blood, but other times describing Jesus in terms that only make sense in a spiritual sense - passing through walls and doors, appearing and disappearing, being unrecognizable to his companions, being unable to be touched, and so on.

These represent multiple levels of resurrection belief, and show that even by the time of the Gospel writers, resurrection belief varied widely.

Socratricknight said...

Hello. There is much you have made me think about!! In a sense I thank God for you. Now, let me be open about my presuppositions. I am a Christian in the reformed tradition. My profession is philosophy not theology, so I may need some correction in areas. What are yours may I ask?

My comments/questions are listed below numerically but not necessarily in chronological or in a hierarchical fashion. I think this will make it easier for you to respond to me.
1) I am perplexed by why you reject Craig’s and Habermaus’s arguments about “the majority of scholars” agreeing with their major points about the death of Jesus and the empty tomb, when you keep referring to “many scholars” yourself who accept your position. If what the majority of scholars say is not to be trusted—merely because they say it-- then would that not also apply to your favorite scholars as well?
2) You wrote “The fact that Luke directly and explicitly contradicts Paul does not mean that Paul's words must be reinterpreted. One would only make that assumption if one was biasing their own research by assuming that the New Testament is by default the inspired and infallible Word of God. If one approaches biblical scholarship from that worldview, one cannot possibly call one's self an unbiased historian. Instead, they are an evangelist.” But does not the same criticism apply to you and anyone else? If you approach the NT text from a point of view that it is just like any other human text, then you are also not an unbiased historian. To approach it completely unbiased, is I contend, impossible. But we can try to be honest with the conclusions we do reach regardless of our biased assumptions.
3) Do you hold to a naturalistic view of the world? I don’t know what your view is, please do share. Are you a deist? May I ask? Because a naturalistic view of the world would of course discount, dismiss or disregard the resurrection story. If God exists, and he does act in space and time, then he could easily raise a man from the dead, correct?

Socratricknight said...

4) You wrote “Back to the topic of spiritual resurrection in the Gospels, my argument there is primarily that the Gospel writers intertwine various levels of resurrection belief - sometimes arguing, as in the passage above, that the resurrected Jesus was flesh and blood, but other times describing Jesus in terms that only make sense in a spiritual sense - passing through walls and doors, appearing and disappearing, being unrecognizable to his companions, being unable to be touched, and so on. These represent multiple levels of resurrection belief, and show that even by the time of the Gospel writers, resurrection belief varied widely.”

However, when we weigh the alternate view points on these different readings, we find that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the physical resurrection rather than the spiritual l resurrection. The entire basis of the Christian faith is based on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without that, then the entire edifice falls crashing to the metaphysical ground. A spiritual resurrection would be a cheap way that false religions and cults would use to establish the credibility of their faith. The world’s religions are full of unverifiable claims from the elephant head story of the Hindu god, Ganesh to the Jewish civilizations the Nephites and the Lamenites that the book of Mormon claims lived in the North America. A spiritual resurrection would be even more unverifiable than these claims because of its very nature. The physical bodily resurrection is one of the only verifiable claims in the history of religion. I have strong reason to believe that is why Paul wrote: “3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (I Cor 15:3-8) These people he appeared to tell their story in the gospels, and that story is a physical resurrection. So based on this text, Paul writes that Jesus “was buried, [physically] and was raised on the third day.” Now based on fact that no such thing as a spiritual resurrection existed in early Judaism (please correct me if this is an error) and the physical appearances recorded in Old Testament passages and in the New testament, including Paul’s other letters, it this reasonable to believe that when Paul referred to a resurrection, he was referring to a physical one.

Socratricknight said...

5) The early Church. You claimed that they believed in a spiritual resurrection. What evidence do you have for this?
The Apostolic tradition argues strongly for a physical resurrection. Let me list the evidence for the physical resurrection:

A) The Gospels,
a. Luke 24:36-46 “36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?" 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence. 44 He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. . . .”
(I can quote the other synoptic gospels, but it would be redundant).

This affirms that this resurrection body is flesh and blood—according to Luke. He ate about four times after his resurrection and even had Thomas touch his physical body.

b. Acts 2:31 affirms Jesus body did not see corruption.
B) Old Testament :
a. Job 19:23-29; I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes--I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
b. Psalms 16:9,10; “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”
c. Psalms 49:15 “But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.”
d. Isaiah 26:19; “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead”
e. Ezekiel 37:12-14; Therefore prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.'"
f. Daniel 12:2,3,13; “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. "As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance."
g. Is. 26:19 Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.

Socratricknight said...

Evidence for the physical resurrection (as a back drop for the physical resurrection of Jesus the Christ), from other Jewish scriptures:
C) Psydo- writings
a. 4 Ezra 7:32 The earth shall restore those who sleep in her, and the dust those who rest in it, and the chambers those entrusted to them.
b. 1 Enoch 51:1 In those days, the earth will also give back what has been entrusted to it, and Sheol will give back what it has received, and hell will give back what it owes.
c. Sib. Or. IV ...God Himself will refashion the bones and ashes of humans and raise up mortals as they were before.
d. 2 Baruch 50:2ff For certainly the earth will then restore the dead. It will not change their form, but just as it received them, so it will restore them.
e. Pseudo-Phocylides 103-4 ...we hope that the remains of the departed will soon come to light again out of the earth. And afterward, they will become gods.

Socratricknight said...

6) You consented/agreed that Paul did, as a Pharisee did believe in the physical resurrection, yet you say that he was influenced by Greek thought to become a Platonic dualist. This thus lead him to embrace a spiritual resurrection. That is an interesting hypothesis. It is possible, I must consent to that. However it is also possible that Moses was an Egyptian magician trying to fool the Jews and establish himself as the first Jewish king, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and moved to France to sire children, or that King David was a closet homosexual or that President Bush masterminded 9/11. However, there are just no overwhelming evidences for these claims to give them credibility. Without overriding evidence for this claim you made about Paul, then the burden of proof falls on you, not on the historical church. Paul can affirm that he will one day be absent from the body and present with the Lord without violating any of the doctrines or beliefs he embraced as a Pharisee. Can you expand on this claim that he may have been a Platonic dualist with more evidence?
7) If The Lord Jesus did rise from the dead “spiritually” then his body should have been still in the tomb. Or it was stolen, or went missing? What happened to the body and why did the Jews or the Romans not produce it to crush the new “way” (Christians)? I find Bart Ehrman’s explanation to be very implausible.

Socratricknight said...

7) You mentioned that just because we have a great deal of manuscripts of the NT, that does not make them reliable. Well that is not necessary the case. Of course, more is required than sheer numbers such as archaeological, prophetic, medical, scientific evidences. Have you studied the how scholars to do effective textual criticism? The first is how many existing copies of the manuscript there are? The more copies you have, the more difficult it is to forge the original and to make meaningful comparisons. Also, we must raise the issue of how close in time are the oldest existing documents to the original.
May I quote Gregory Koul on this? He gives a very articulate way of understand this with a recipe example:
Let me illustrate how such a test can be made. It will help you to see how scholars can confidently reconstruct the text from existing manuscript copies even though the copies themselves have differences and are much older than the autograph (i.e., the original). Pretend your Aunt Sally has a dream in which she learns the recipe for an elixir that would continuously maintain her youth. When she wakes up, she scribbles the directions on a scrap of paper, then runs into the kitchen to make up her first glass. In a few days her appearance is transformed. Sally is a picture of radiant youth because of her daily dose of what comes to be known as "Aunt Sally's Secret Sauce." Sally is so excited she sends hand-written instructions to her three bridge partners (Aunt Sally is still in the technological dark ages--no photocopier) giving detailed instructions on how to make the sauce. They, in turn, make copies which each sends to ten of her own friends. All is going well until one day Aunt Sally's pet schnauzer eats the original copy of the recipe. Sally is beside herself. In a panic she contacts her three friends who have mysteriously suffered similar mishaps. Their copies are gone, too, so the alarm goes out to their friends in attempt to recover the original wording. They finally round up all the surviving hand-written copies, twenty-six in all. When they spread them out on the kitchen table, they immediately notice some differences. Twenty-three of the copies are exactly the same. One has a misspelled word, though, one has two phrases inverted ("mix then chop" instead of "chop then mix") and one includes an ingredient that none of the others has on its list. Here is the critical question: Do you think Aunt Sally can accurately reconstruct her original recipe? Of course she could. The misspelled words can easily be corrected, the single inverted phrase can be repaired, and the extra ingredient can be ignored. Even with more numerous or more diverse variations, the original can still be reconstructed with a high level of confidence given the right textual evidence. The misspellings would be obvious errors, the inversions would stand out and easily be restored, and the conclusion drawn that it's more plausible that one word or sentence be accidentally added to a single copy than omitted from many. This, in simplified form, is how the science of textual criticism works. Textual critics are academics who reconstruct a missing original from existing manuscripts that are generations removed from the autograph. According to New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce, "Its object [is] to determine as exactly as possible from the available evidence the original words of the documents in question.” The science of textual criticism is used to test all documents of antiquity--not just religious texts--including historical and literary writings. It's not a theological enterprise based on haphazard hopes and guesses; it's a linguistic exercise that follows a set of established rules. Textual criticism allows an alert critic to determine the extent of possible corruption of any work. (Available at ).

Socratricknight said...

8) You quoted Paul saying “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” many times as evidence or proof that he did not believe in a physical resurrection. But this text does not say a spiritual resurrection took place. This text does not disprove the physical resurrection hypothesis. Paul was talking about the corruption of the flesh and blood by sin that cannot enter heaven. We, our spirit and body need to be redeemed, changed or transformed. In fact the resurrection of the dead is the final hope of all believers. Let us read the verse in context:

“Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.”

Paul is not a Gnostic. He did not believe that the body was evil and only the spirit was good. So this phrase must be understood another way. Even if it were true that the appearances of Jesus to Paul were mystical or spiritual in some way, (Acts 9.1-19: 22.3-16 26.9-23), that does not prove or provide evidence that when Jesus rose from the dead that it was not a physical resurrection. Paul wrote that this body will be transformed. This flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God, but when this flesh and blood are transformed, they can inherit the kingdom of God. This is not my arbitrary conjecture. Paul wrote “we shall all be changed . . . For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.” It is logical to assume here that “this” body will change into a new imperishable body. Thus, the resurrection of the physical dead is most rational.
Paul also wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the call of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, all the Christians who have died will rise from their graves.” Here again I hope you can see that he did believe in a physical resurrection of all believers, why would it not be rational to also believe this extends to the first resurrection of Jesus Christ? Also, Enoch and Elijah were physically taken to heaven. We can safely reason that their bodies were also transformed before they entered the presence of God almighty.

(Note: I had two 7s as a mistake in posting)

Scott said...

Thanks for continuing to engage in this discussion, SK. I'll answer each of your questions separately.

1) Regarding the appeal to scholarly authority. I was trying to make two points, but probably didn't make a clear enough distinction.

The first point is in regards to claims by folks like Habermas and Craig that "the majority" of Biblical scholars assert a physical resuscitation as the best way to understand the stories of Jesus' resurrection. I don't deny that many prominent scholars do abide by this claim. But I have not seen evidence to convince me that these scholars represent "the majority," of scholarship.

A scientific poll would presumably be the best way to tackle this problem, but as far as I know, no such poll has ever been done. Habermas certainly didn't do a poll; he bases his conclusions on the scholars whose published works he has read and studied.

Until substantial proof, through a scientific poll, is produced by those scholars like Habermas and Craig who assert that the majority of the scholarly world is on their side, then their arguments can safely be rejected as biased. The same is true for any other scholar who makes such a claim. Ehrman, in fact, counters Craig in the debate by saying that, in fact, most scholars agree with Ehrman. He too needs to prove that before making the claim.

In fact, I don't think anyone can justifiably say what "most scholars" agree on in regards to the resurrection. There are too many scholars out there, and no one has delved deeply enough into an analysis of their conclusions to say one way or the other.

As to the second point I was trying to make, regardless of what "most scholars" believe or don't believe, there is no question that "many" scholars argue for spiritual resurrection. I made that point simply to show that the arguments I am making are not "fringe" or "way out there." A lot of prominent, mainstream scholarship points toward spiritual resurrection. I am making that point because I have read and heard many evangelicals attempt to paint "liberal" scholars as somehow on the fringe of the scholarly world. This simply is not true.

But no appeal to authority ever means that the conclusions is therefore, by default, correct.

Scott said...

2) Regarding approaching Biblical scholarship without bias:

Everything you said is true. I agree that there is no such thing as "unbiased" historical research - especially in the field of religious history. We aren't robots. We all have worldviews and presuppositions.

But it is certainly possible to be "more" biased or "less" biased. From my experience reading and studying the works of an array of scholars, it is my belief that "progressive" scholarship (that is, scholarship that draws conclusions frequently at odds with traditional belief) is *less* biased than evangelical scholarship (that is, scholarship that draws conclusions perfectly in line with traditional belief).

It would be easy, even if lazy, to support this assertion by simply saying "What's more likely? That everything the Church has always said is true, or that the evangelical scholars are simply biased?"

But that's not why I believe progressive scholarship is less biased than evangelical scholarship. In my studies, I have come across numerous examples of scholars who started their careers as traditionally-leaning Christians, delved professionally into religious scholarship, and came out on the other side as progressive Christians or even sometimes agnostics and atheists.

On the other hand, I know of not a single instance of a person entering professional religious scholarship as a progressive Christian, agnostic, or atheist, who then came out on the other side as a traditionally-leaning Christian.

That tells me very strongly that if any side is less biased than the other, it's the progressive side that is being more honest, because they are the ones who have *changed* their minds based on the evidence they've investigated.

Scott said...

3) As to my own worldviews/background, etc.:

I have a B.A. in European History. I work professionally, however, in the medical industry. I am not a professional academic. I am a published writer, however, mostly in short fiction and poetry. Religious scholarship is simply an intense passion and hobby of mine - and it goes along with my lifelong interest in ancient history and European history. I hope to one day publish on the topic, but it will be as an independent commentator, not as a professional religious scholar.

Scott said...

(Continued from above)

As for my religious beliefs, I like to joke that I am a recovering Baptist :)

In the last 5-6 years, I've moved away, theologically, from traditional Christian beliefs into a much more progressive theological worldview. I'm not an atheist, but I tend to think of God in very abstract terms - the source of love, the ground of being, etc. I no longer identify at all with concepts of God that humanize God into the Big Man in the Sky.

That change from traditional God concepts to non-traditional God concepts came as much from my study of religious scholarship as from any personal experiences/events. A long period of "questioning" led to delving into religious and textual scholarship, and that ultimately led me to be the "progressive" Christian I am today.

I am a very Jesus-centered Christian. I believe very, very strongly in the teachings of Jesus and in following Jesus in the lifestyle he urged his followers to take. I believe the kingdom of God is and was always primarily about the "here and now," not the hereafter. I believe Jesus called his followers into a lifestyle, not just a set of beliefs. I believe, in that sense, that Christianity is a verb. It's about how you act and behave, how you treat others, and how you fight the systemic evils and injustices of a broken world.

I am officially "agnostic" about the resurrection. I do not know if it was physical, spiritual, or completely fictionalized. My argument, however, is that it does not matter. What matters is what it *means*. Am I willing to follow the living words of Jesus in the very difficult lifestyle he taught, or will I choose to "be conformed" to the world, to choose the easy path, the path of self-interest and self-concern?

In that sense, I see the resurrection - whether real or imagined, whether physical or literal - as a powerful metaphor for life: Does Jesus still matter? Is Jesus' message still alive?

If those are the questions the resurrection asks, then I am an avowed "resurrectionist."

Scott said...

(continued from above)

Regarding the Bible: I view the Bible as a human text, written by human beings, describing their own experiences and struggles to understand God. In that sense, I find it to be vitally important - both historically and theologically.

I do not, however, approach the Bible as the divine Word of God, perfectly infallible and directly inspired. I believe it is and can only be a human text. That doesn't mean it's all wrong about God, or that God doesn't exist. It just means that the Bible wasn't faxed down from heaven.

As such, I am open to anything in the Bible being right, but I am also open to anything in the Bible being wrong.

So....that's my long answer to # 3. It's now after midnight, so I will stop for now. I'll pick up with your question # 4 hopefully tomorrow.

Scott said...

To further comment on your question #3 about worldviews regarding God and nature, you are right that *if* God exists as Christianity traditionally describes God (a supernatural deity able to intervene miraculously on earth), then of course it is not a stretch to say God could have raised Jesus.

So any scholar who approaches the Bible as an atheist could not possibly reach the right conclusions if God does exist and if Jesus was raised physically.

But while that point is true from an "absolute" standpoint, it's opposite is also true: If I believe in the God of traditional Christianity, and I believe God is able to raise people from the dead, but in fact God doesn't exist, then I will draw the wrong conclusions when I read the New Testament.

This gets back to the bias thing...we all bring biases to the table, but it *is* possible to be "less" biased than others. And one of the ways we can lessen our bias in Biblical scholarship is 1) to recognize the bias is there and remain cognizant of it; and 2) be open enough to find that anything in the Bible could be true, or anything in the Bible could be false. That is, be willing to follow the evidence where it leads, even if it leads you somewhere your worldview bias doesn't want to go.

Scott said...

4) Regarding spiritual vs. physical resurrection:

You said: "The entire basis of the Christian faith is based on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without that, then the entire edifice falls crashing to the metaphysical ground."

The first response I would give to that is related to what I just posted in the previous answer. Intellectual honesty demands that we follow the evidence where it leads, even if it leads us to a place our worldview bias doesn't want to go.

I don't agree that Christian theology collapses without a physical resurrection, but even if it *did* collapse without a physical resurrection, that would not be a good reason to continue to affirm it, if in fact it didn't actually happen.

Scott said...

(Continued from above)

You also said: "A spiritual resurrection would be even more unverifiable than these claims because of its very nature."

I agree with you 100% on this statement, and addressed it in my recent essay on the nature of the resurrection.

How could we possibly ever confirm a spiritual resurrection? Fact is, we couldn't. But again, if a spiritual resurrection *is*, in fact, what happened, then the fact that we can't confirm it is not a good reason to accept some other conclusion in its place.

I believe this lack of confirmation may, in fact, be one of the reasons bodily resurrection came to be asserted and emphasized by the 2nd and 3rd century Church. Spiritual resurrection was too tenuous; how could Christianity spread with a doctrine of resurrection that could never have been verifiable, even by the earliest Christians (you can't, after all, witness a soul being glorified to heaven)?

I'll make two points:

First, even if we assume physical resurrection, that still doesn't mean we are *certain* that it is an integral part of Christian belief, and that does not change whether you assume physical resurrection or spiritual.

Second, regarding "first-hand" accounts of the resurrection: 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 personally. 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 vision by Paul on the road to Damascus. So our only first-hand account of resurrection is one that speaks strongly of spiritual resurrection, not physical!

Scott said...

You also referred to Paul's comments about those who experienced the resurrection as pretty good proof that the physical resurrection was not only proclaimed, but also supported by eyewitnesses.

The problem here is 2-fold.

1) I've already given my perspective on why Paul's words support a spiritual resurrection, and not a physical one, so I won't go back into that again, other than to simply refer to it: I believe Paul's resurrection appearances are best understood as apparitions of a spiritually-resurrected Jesus, not physical sightings of a physically-resurrected Jesus.

2) Using the Bible to prove the Bible is a circular-argument. To say that we know Jesus was physically resurrected because there were eyewitnesses is to say that we know the Bible is true because the Bible says its true. We know of no eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection outside of Christian texts. It's not like the Jerusalem News Leader published an article on Easter Sunday, 30 A.D., talking about Jesus coming back from the dead.

The only accounts we have of witnesses to the resurrection come from writers who were Christian evangelists - Paul and the Gospel writers, etc, writing their own interpretations of what *other people* saw and experienced.

If we accept those accounts as proving themselves, then it should apply equally to all religions. Yet most Christians have no problem rejecting miracle stories witnssed by numerous people found in other religions' documents.

Buddha, for instance, is said to have performed a miracle of turning his body into part flame and part water, to prove that he had become enlightened. He did this on numerous occasions before numerous people, causing untold thousands to convert to Buddhism.

That, of course, is just one example out of thousands in religious history. So unless we are prepared to accept all religious assertions of miracles as proving themselves, then we should take great care in asserting that the Bible's eyewitness accounts "prove" that Jesus was physically raised.

Scott said...

5) Regarding evidence for a spiritual resurrection:

Rather than type out another exceedingly long response, I will refer you to my blog post where I outlined my reasons for asserting a spiritual resurrection. It's here on my blog at

In regards to your quotes from the Old Testament (since I do not address those in the blog post referenced above), I would point out that most of what you quoted from are OT texts that come from the era of Jewish history when resurrection belief was well-entrenched - that is, the last 100-200 years B.C.E.

You did quote, however, from some OT texts that pre-date any resurrection belief in ancient Judaism. I would like to comment specifically on these.

Isaiah 26: This chapter is a hymn of joy that goes together with the two previous chapters. Chapter 24 talks about God punishing the oppressors of the earth. Chapter 25 praises God's greatness. And Chapter 26 provides encouragement for Jews to persevere.

In the verse in question - 16:19 - the writer is not talking about dead bodies coming back to life. It is clear from the context of the passage that the writer is writing metaphorically. The phrase "the earth will give birth to her dead" refers back to the previous verse, in which it was asserted that while the Jews were like a woman in childbirth, the Jews had not given birth to a new people. They had failed to follow God's commands. So God was going to re-establish them, and make them a great nation again, to spread them across his creation once again as his people.

Scott said...

The two quotes from Psalms are not talking about resurrection either. Much more simply, they are simply talking about life and death. The Psalmist is simply asserting that God is going to save his life, not let him come to personal or physical ruin. Only by reading these passages through the lens of the New Testament could one possibly think they were talking about life after death or resurrection.

Psalm 16, for instance, starts off with the phrase "Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge." Later, then, when he says "you will not abandon me to the grave," it's clear that he's saying God is not going to just let him die. Instead, God will bless him and keep him safe. That's what the entire Psalm 16 is about. It's about life, not death or resurrection.

Additionally, Psalm 49 says that God will "redeem my life from the power of the grave." That Psalm is entirely about how riches and worldly wealth are the way to ruin in God's kingdom (i.e., the way of the grave in God's kingdom). God, on the other hand, will redeem the Psalmist from this fate because the Psalmist sees the hypocrisy and ungodliness in material wealth and power. Again, nothing there about resurrection or life after death, unless you read it out of context and in literal English translation.

Scott said...

Regarding Job 19: This is a popular one in discussions about resurrection prophecies in the OT. And, like the examples above, it is clearly not talking about resurrection in my opinion.

The word translated as "Redeemer" there simply refers to someone who "buys back." Thus, God is someone who will "buy back" Job. Job has just gotten done with a speech about how God has abandoned him. Now, he asserts, he has faith that God will return to him.

The word translated as "earth" in that passage ("In the end, God will stand upon the earth") is not actually the Hebrew word for "earth." Instead, it is the Hebrew word for "dust" or "ashes" or "rubbish." It can mean "earth" in the sense of "He fell to the earth and covered his head" (i.e., "he fell to the ground"), but it does not refer to Planet Earth, as it is made to sound in this passage.

What it actually is saying is that God will stand upon the "rubbish" of Job's life, or the "ashes" of Job's life.

So verse 25, in the context of the original language, says that even though God has abandoned Job, God will buy him back, and when it's all said and done, God will stand upon the ashes of Job's life (perhaps you could say God will "overcome" the ashes of Job's life by redeeming him).

Verse 26 is usually translated as you've given it: "After my skin has been destroyed, yet in my own flesh will I see God."

This is a very Christianized way to translate the verse. Only 6 words exist in the original Hebrew text. In order, they are "After skin destroyed body behold God."

In other words, after my flesh has been destroyed (which, for Job, has already happened), then my body will still behold God. Again, God will "redeem" or "restore" Job's sick, frail body.

Taken together with the previous verses, this passage is saying that although God has abandoned me, he will not leave me forever but will redeem my flesh from destruction, and then I will behold God.

Nothing whatsoever there about life after death or resurrection.

This is one of those famous exmples in the Old Testament where common English translations of the Bible (going back to the KJV but even in more modern versions) Christianize Jewish texts to fit more easily with Christian theology. There is nothing "Christian" in Job. No modern Christian doctrine existed in the 10th century B.C.E. poetry of an anonymous Jewish writer.

We like to imagine our Bibles are bias-free; that the translations are free from error or theological bias; that what we read in English corresponds perfectly with what would have been read and understood in Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The KJV, in fact, is full of Christian theological bias in its English translation of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, and unfortunately the KJV has become the "standard" in English translations, and many of the KJV's translation biases have found their way into modern translations as well.

So to sum up, I agree that much of the late-era OT texts talk about resurrection. And there can be no question that orthodox Judaism in the 1st century conceived of resurrection as physical in nature. But I do not believe that older-era OT texts discuss resurrection theology (Isaiah, Job, Psalms, etc), and I do believe that Paul and the earliest Christians broke from traditional Jewish resurrection theology to assert a spiritual type of resurrection. Again, I refer you to my blog post on the nature of the resurrection to read my arguments there.

More responses tomorrow.

Scott said...

6) Regarding Paul and Platonism:

It's true that anyone can make any sort of claim they want about anything in history: Bush masterminded 9/11, George Washington was a homosexual, or Julius Caesar masterminded his own assassination. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

But the claim that Paul was a Platonist and was Hellenized is not one of those extraordinary claims. Within the realm of historical research, it is widely understood that Jews of the first century were "Hellenized" by Greek culture. All of the Mediterranean world was affected by the Greeks. Our Western culture to this day, in fact, is still living with the influence of the Greeks. This is not debated by historians.

What IS of interest is how much that Greek culture pervaded every day life. Certainly some pockets of the ancient world would have been less affected than others by Hellenization. But 1st century Palestine wasn't one of those places.

So that's the first point - all of 1sts century Judaism was Hellenized, as were the Romans themselves.

The second point is drawn from the texts we've already been discussing. Paul talks about spiritual bodies. Paul talks about souls (psyche) and spirits (pneuma) as being separate from body. This is Platonism, and did not exist in Judaism until Plato and the Greeks.

Consider 1 Thessalonians 5:23b - May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless...

Spirit, soul, and body are all separate things. Jews, prior to Hellenization, did not conceive of body and soul being separate, but one.

The writer of Matthew makes the differentiation clear when he has Jesus say "Don't fear those who can kill the body (soma) but not the soul (psyche)."

Therefore, Paul's entire discussion in 1 Corinthians 15 can only be understood against this Platonic background. Flesh and blood can't inherit the kingdom of God. We are raised with spiritual bodies. We are changed in a twinkling. We are raised in glory. Etc., etc., etc.

Nothing in that chapter is anything whatsover like Jewish ideas of resurrection. And you've demonstrated that quite well yourself by quoting from Jewish resurrection prophecies. "God Himself will refashion the bones and ashes of humans and raise up mortals as they were before." That sure doesn't sound like Paul's spiritual bodies and teachings against flesh and blood inheriting the kingdom!

Finally, this statement: "Paul can affirm that he will one day be absent from the body and present with the Lord without violating any of the doctrines or beliefs he embraced as a Pharisee" simply isn't true, in my opinion.

We've already agreed Pharisees believed in physical resurrection of the flesh and blood body and bones. So if Paul is saying he will leave the body to be with God, he is asserting strong Platonic ideas, not Pharisaical ones!

Scott said...

7) Regarding Jesus' body:

The way you have asked the question implies that you may not have fully wrapped your mind around my argument of "spiritual resurrection" yet.

I have argued that the earliest Christians - the earthly companions of Jesus - never claimed Jesus had been physically raised. I have argued that those ideas did not develop until many decades later, as third and fourth generation Christians, who were Gentile, began to literalize Jewish Christian teachings. I have argued that the first Christians, instead, claimed Jesus' soul or spirit had been glorified to God's right hand.

As such, the question of what happened to Jesus' body would not have been a question in those early decades. Where was his body? Well, right there in the ground where it was buried!

The existence of Jesus' body, either in a mass grave, a tomb, or destroyed by vultures/dogs at the foot of the cross (forgive the gross image), would not have had any impact on the debate about whether Jesus' soul had been glorified.

By the last quarter of the 1st century, as physical resurrection ideas began to circulate, the location of Jesus' grave or tomb would have been long lost or forgotten. And if he had never been buried at all, no such tomb/grave would even have existed.

It's interesting to point out that among all our 1st and early 2nd century textual history about Christianity - texts either within the canon, outside the canon, or secular - none ever gives even the slightest indication that there was any pilgrimage tradition to the grave/tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. If the tomb existed - or if its location was known - surely this would have been a popular pilgrimage site?

It was not until the 4th century, when Constantine replaced a Pagan temple with a Christian church and asserted that it was built over Jesus' tomb - only then did pilgrimage traditions begin.

Why would Jesus' tomb have been lost to history, so quickly, if Jesus had been physically raised? It would have been a major pilgrimage spot from the very beginning. Yet it wasn't. This implies to me 2 things. 1) Jesus may not have been buried in a tomb; and 2) Jesus' resurrection was believed to be spiritual in nature, so venerating the place where his earthly corpse lay decomposing would have been silly.

Scott said...

7) About textual criticism:

You have explained textual criticism well, and I am familiar with it, having studied it myself. I don't think there's any question that most of what is contained in our New Testament is fairly reliable in terms of being original to the documents. In other words, when we read Acts in Greek, we're reading a pretty close rendition of what the original text of Acts probably looked like.

When I said that having a large number of early documents doesn't mean they are "reliable," I meant that it doesn't have anything to do with whether the words they contain are TRUE or not. In other words, just because there are fifty copies of a story talking about Big Foot doesn't mean the stories are true. Similarly, just because we have numerous early texts of New Testament writings doesn't have any bearing on whether what those writings contain is true or not.

That's the only point I was making. It seemed that the website you referred me to was implying that because we have so many early manuscripts, that lends credence to the historicity of Jesus' divine life, resurrection, etc.

Scott said...

8) Paul's discussion about flesh and blood:

First, about Paul's Gnosticism.

I agree that Paul was not a Gnostic. Gnosticism certainly existed during Paul's day, but Christian Gnosticism did not.

However, one could argue that Paul inadvertently *founded* Christian Gnosticism, because there is no question that the Christian Gnostics interpreted Paul's writings as supporting their view of the body's corruption that the soul's perfection.

The earliest prominent Gnostic leader - Marcion - was so enamored with Paul that when he created was is generally regarded as the first Christian canon of scripture, he only included Paul's letters, Luke, and Acts. He chose Luke and Acts because they were written by the same person, with Acts primarily being a biography of Paul. That led Marcion to believe the two texts had been written by a follower of Paul, and it may have in fact been Marcion who first suggested it was Luke (Luke being one of many companions of Paul named in various Pauline letters). Neither text, of course, says who wrote it.

So while I agree that Paul was no Gnostic, there is no question that Paul's writings can be understood within a Gnostic worldview - corruption of the flesh and perfection of the soul.

Scott said...

That leads to the next point. Paul was a Platonist, but he was what we might call a "moderate" Platonist.

If you imagine a scale of body/soul dichotomy, you have on one side the Jews who did not differentiate between body and soul at all. Body and soul were one and the terms could even be used interchangeably. On the other extreme you have the Gnostics and other Platonic dualists who asserted that body was corruption, and soul was perfection - the two could not be more seperate in their eyes. You would NEVER refer to body when you meant soul.

Somewhere in the middle of that is Paul. Body was not total corruption, totally separate from soul, but was instead sort of like the necessary hut that housed the soul. Body was God's temporary creation, so it was good for earthly existence. But soul was God's eternal creation, so only soul would live on beyond death. Body, as the earthly creation, would decay with the earth.

Imagine a fancy sports car. You have the exterior car, the fancy part that everyone sees, and you have the engine inside which actually makes it run and operate with precision.

Jews would not differentiate between car and engine. They were one and the same, both necessary for the other, neither existing without the other. One could refer to the engine or the car interchangeably. The car runs great. The engine runs great. No difference.

Gnostics would see the car as the useless external body masking the truly important part, the engine. A Gnostic would never say the car runs great. The car doesn't do anything but hide the truly important part. In that sense, not only is it not great, it's actually a hindrance. It's the engine that runs great.

Paul would have seen the car as pretty and enticing, but would have understood the engine to be the important part. The car runs great, but only because the engine makes it do so. Without the engine, the car is meaningless. The engine, on the other hand, doesn't need the car.

Scott said...

You said: " We, our spirit and body need to be redeemed, changed or transformed."

I agree that this is what Paul's message was about. And that is why I (and so many others) say that Paul broke with Pharisaical ideas about resurrection and took a more Platonic view. Nothing in Jewish resurrection theology suggested that the body (or soul) needed to be fixed or transformed before resurrection. Instead, the earth would simply bring forth her dead. The Jewish dead would rise up and take their place in God's eternal kingdom, the new Jerusalem. God would right the wrongs. He would justify an unjust world. It didn't have anything to do with whether Jews, personally, were good or bad. God had already chosen the Jews as his people. He would not abandon them.

Paul and the other Christians, however, were Hellenized. They came to understand that the body was the corrupt outer shell, weighted down with sin. Thus, the soul had to be redeemed from that earthly existence in order to see God's kingdom. Thus, we will attain "spiritual bodies" - perfect soul-bodies that are not hindered by flesh and blood, because, as Paul says, flesh and blood won't inherit the kingdom. That phrase, alone, is in direct contrast to Jewish resurrection theology, which specifically and explicitly believed flesh and blood would, in fact, inherit the kingdom.

The very fact that Paul mentions it at all shows that it was a common understanding of resurrection. Paul, instead says no. Flesh and blood *won't* inherit the kingdom. Instead, we'll be given perfect spiritual bodies - just like what Jesus was given.

Scott said...

I believe that understanding, outlined above, is perfectly explicit and clear in the passage in question, and seems to take quite a stretch to try to interpret it any other way.

You made a point about "this perishable" and "this mortal" putting on "imperishability" and "immortality." You draw the conclusion that "this" refers to the body. The New Revised Standard Version (my personal preference) agrees with you, adding in "body" to that verse ("This perishable body must put on the imperishable...").

I don't think that's an unreasonable conclusion or translation. However, I think it is a stretch to use it to tear down arguments about Paul's Platonism.

I go back again to that "flesh and blood" phrase.

Prior to that, Paul has made clear that there are two bodies. The natural (or earthly) body, and the spiritual (or heavenly) body. Not one body that gets transformed into another, but two seperate bodies. I don't think it's a stretch to call Paul's "spiritual body" a soul, even though soul (psyche) is not the word he chose to use there.

After that, he makes the "flesh and blood" statement - flesh and blood can't inherit the kingdom. In other words, the natural (earthly) body cannot inherit the kingdom.

That statement begs the question "Okay, then how do us humans, us flesh and blood, us of the earthly body - how do we get into the kingdom then?"

So Paul tells us. It's a mystery, but it will happen in a twinkling, to some from death, to others who are still alive at the end of time.

We will be "changed." Not "transformed." The earthly body will not be "transformed" into the heavenly body. He's already made clear that those two bodies are separate, and the first can't inherit the kingdom. Instead, we will be "changed" from earthly beings to heavenly beings - no longer an earthly, flesh and blood body, but a heavenly, spiritual body. Then, he asserts, we will have victory over death.

Scott said...

What it really comes down to is terminology and definitions.

When discussing Platonism, "body" means the flesh, blood, and bones. It means, quite literally, our human bodies.

"Soul," on the other hand, means that inefffible stuff that makes us who we are.

When Paul talks about "spiritual bodies," I don't think it makes sense to equate that with the flesh and blood body. It's not just the flesh and blood body made holy or "spiritual." It's a euphemism for "soul." Paul could just as easily have said that we have an earthly body and a soul. For Paul, the soul was the spiritual (heavenly) body, so that's what he called it. But it wasn't simply an earthly body made heavenly. It was distinct and different. And he goes on to illustrate that by saying that we will be changed in the twinkling of an eye. Our flesh and blood earthly body will be discarded, and we will clothe ourselves with our spiritual heavenly body - that is, our soul.

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