-4

In this article, William Lane Craig claims:

Fortunately, Christianity, as a religion rooted in history, makes claims that can in important measure be investigated historically. Suppose, then, that we approach the New Testament writings, not as inspired Scripture, but merely as a collection of Greek documents coming down to us out of the first century, without any assumption as to their reliability other than the way we normally regard other sources of ancient history. We may be surprised to learn that the majority of New Testament critics investigating the gospels in this way accept the central facts undergirding the resurrection of Jesus. I want to emphasize that I am not talking about evangelical or conservative scholars only, but about the broad spectrum of New Testament critics who teach at secular universities and non-evangelical seminaries. Amazing as it may seem, most of them have come to regard as historical the basic facts which support the resurrection of Jesus. These facts are as follows:

FACT #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

FACT #2: On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.

FACT #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.

FACT #4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

In summary, there are four facts agreed upon by the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects which any adequate historical hypothesis must account for: Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.

Do most scholars/historians who have seriously investigated the history of Jesus of Nazareth (including secular ones) agree upon these four historical facts?


Note 1: The "Consensual knowledge" section of the Historical Jesus Wikipedia page appears to support the claim about the crucifixion (first half of fact #1), but is silent about the other claims (second half of fact #1 and facts #2 through #4). Therefore, it does not fully answer the question.


Note 2: The related question Did Jesus live? is mainly concerned with Jesus' existence, not with the academic consensus regarding the more specific four historical facts that William Lane Craig uses to build an "inference to the best explanation" for the resurrection. Therefore, the related question does not (fully) answer this question.

11
  • 6
    "the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects" would include what? Mostly Christian scholars for a couple of millennia?
    – Fizz
    Jul 23 at 1:30
  • 2
    E.g. checking out the linked Q, there don't seem to be any evidence for such detail as "FACT #2" in non-biblical sources or derivatives thereof.
    – Fizz
    Jul 23 at 1:53
  • 4
    Fact 3 is not neutral. It should be "appearance of a man they believed was Jesus".
    – Taladris
    Jul 23 at 14:13
  • 6
    I'm not sure why these particular claims are notable, and I'm not sure that most scholars would have bothered staking a position - particularly on "fact 1." The gospel accounts plus Acts are generally considered the earliest semihistorical accounts we have. You either take them as they are or basically give up knowing anything on the subject. The degree to which anyone accepts individual claims in them as true really depends on how much of the supernatural stuff they are willing to accept, which is not much a matter of history or historiography.
    – Shamshiel
    Jul 23 at 20:19
  • 3
    @Oddthinking, but the question isn't about whether Jesus actually existed, but about what contemporary scholars think. Jul 24 at 23:10

1 Answer 1

6

I will address these from the point of view of Bart Ehrman, using quotes from his 2014 book How Jesus Became God. I am doing this because Ehrman is generally viewed as a reliable voice on scholarly Biblical criticism and history. He devotes several pages in his book to explaining why these apologist arguments are not the central focus of academic Biblical historians, which is why I don't think you will find a better response than this.

FACT #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

Ehrman responds that this is contradicted by Acts 13:28-29, which says that Jesus was buried in a tomb, but not by Joseph. Because it is widely agreed that Acts and Luke have the same author, and Luke follows the Gospel account, Ehrman concludes that Acts 13:28-29 is quoting an earlier source which had no knowledge of the Joseph of Arimathea part of this story. Therefore it is not a determined fact, since early Christian sources disagreed about it. (Edit: I acknowledge the answer asked about "most scholars" and this response seems like a stretch by Ehrman, which may not be widely held by other Biblical scholars. See comments to this answer)

FACT #2: On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.

Ehrman responds that the earliest primary text in Christianity, the letters of Paul, do not mention an empty tomb; the first source to mention it is Mark, who had reason to invent it, namely,

“There would be plenty of reasons, just from his literary perspective, to do so. The more you know about Mark’s Gospel, the easier it is to think of reasons. I’ll give just one. Mark makes a special point throughout his narrative that the male disciples never understand who Jesus is. Despite all his miracles, despite all his teachings, despite everything they see him do and say, they never “get it.” And so at the end of the Gospel, who learns that Jesus has not stayed dead but has been raised? The women. Not the male disciples. And the women never tell, so the male disciples never do come to an understanding of Jesus. This is all consistent with Mark’s view and with what he is trying to do from a literary standpoint.”

This is not to say that it's implausible this happened. For example, maybe a disciple moved the body by himself for religious reasons. There are plenty of reasons for an empty tomb, but Ehrman's point is that we have no reason to assume the story was not invented.

FACT #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.

This is obviously true. It's widely agreed that the letters of Paul are mostly authentic writings by an actual historical person who did have a vision of a "living" Jesus, and that Paul believed this to be a real person, "alive from the dead". But Paul didn't claim to interact with Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person. If you want to go further into history, other people have had visions of Jesus as well as other deities and powerful figures throughout the centuries. It's true there's a consensus here, but it doesn't build a case for Christianity.

The reason this "fact" has been written this way is because the Christian apologist is having trouble merging Paul's experience together with the disciples. Ehrman has plenty to say about the accounts of disciples witnessing Christ in the flesh.

FACT #4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

This is the oddest one because Ehrman uses this as an argument against Christianity being true. Quote:

“And then comes one of the most puzzling verses in all of the New Testament. In Acts 1:3 we are told that after his resurrection Jesus spent forty days with the disciples—forty days!—showing them that he was alive by 'many proofs.' Many proofs? How many proofs were needed exactly? And it took forty days to convince them?”

Ehrman accepts the premise that the disciples came to believe Jesus rose from the dead, but responds that the need for many "proofs" and even the disposition against resurrection suggests a process of spiritual visions (for example, bereavement visions) being elaborated into experiences of resurrection in the flesh.

Here is a fairly reasonable statement about this from Ehrman's book:

“In theory, for example, a historian could look into the question of whether Jesus really was buried in a known tomb and whether three days later that same tomb was found to be empty, with no body in it. What the historian cannot conclude, as a historian, is that God therefore must have raised the body and taken it up to heaven. The historian has no access to information like that, and that conclusion requires a set of theological presuppositions that not all historians share.”

Conclusion

One of the most widely respected scholars of Biblical criticism rejects the second half of fact #1 and all of fact #2, and accepts facts #3 and #4 but finds nothing in them to suggest the truth of Christianity. It is incumbent on secular scholars to take facts #3 and #4 as phenomenological facts about human experience, not religious facts about God interacting with humanity.

16
  • 5
    I don’t understand how Acts fails to agree that it was Joseph was responsible for entombing Jesus; it looks like the cited passage doesn’t specify who did it. Can you elaborate on what the contradiction is? I really don’t understand how the author of Luke not explicitly naming Joseph twice is evidence of anything in any direction.
    – Shamshiel
    Jul 23 at 14:09
  • 6
    Sorry, but claim #1 is completely bogus. Consider, "I went to the store" and "I went to Walmart". It's completely absurd to assert that the first statement contradicts the second. One might argue endlessly as to why JoA is mentioned in Luke and not Acts, but there is no contradiction there, or even evidence that the author of Acts didn't know about JoA. All we can say with certainty is that that detail was omitted from Acts. And if this is the quality of Ehrman's work, I'd be skeptical of anything else he wrote. Looks more like someone with an axe to grind...
    – Matthew
    Jul 23 at 14:46
  • 4
    BTW, another reason claim #1 is absurd... Luke is writing to the same person in Acts. Why would he feel the need to give an equally detailed account of something he's already described? It's much more likely that he intends to remind his reader of something previously described; there's no reason why one would recount an event in equal detail in such a case; it would be redundant. It would be as if a "last time on X" recap duplicated the entire previous episode.
    – Matthew
    Jul 23 at 16:40
  • 4
    Seems this answer misunderstands the question? 'Ehrman is one of X scholars' does not respond to the Q. It seems further irrelevant whether anything in these "facts" would be true or not, just that "most" (or 'not-most'?) would hold these to be true. The 'skepticism' to address is: 'how many do, how many don't' Not: 'is the content of 'do' OK' (like for/"against Christianity")? Christianity or Historicity of JJ aren't the subject, 'scholars of Christian texts' are? Jul 23 at 18:53
  • 5
    As someone who finds that conservative scholars too often explain away contradictions, I'm astounded at how feeble Ehrman's point #1 is. In context, the verses are speech put in Paul's mouth when Paul is in Antioch. Had Paul said "...laid in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea" his listeners would've responded, "Uh...who?" If Ehrman really claims this as a "contradiction," he's only embarrassing himself.
    – Kyralessa
    Jul 24 at 9:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .