The Resurrection of Jesus — Part 5, Further Thoughts
This is the latest in a debate between Gerald R. Baron and myself on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus, and is mainly a response to his latest post. If anyone would like to read the whole debate, please see my previous article, which contains links to everything that has gone before. In previous articles I have responded to Baron in the third person, even when he addresses me personally. Here it seems more appropriate to respond to him directly; I hope that anyone else reading is not put off by this.
Gerald, I agree with you that if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, then the implications would be immense. But the implications would be equally, perhaps even more, immense, if the story is an allegory, as I argued in the previous article.
You say that my reasoning does not seem cohesive, because there are diverse arguments which may be “incompatible, perhaps even contradictory”. To summarise one of your examples, you say that on occasions I refer to authors, for example Tom Harpur, who believe that Jesus was a mythical figure, but on other occasions I ‘assume’ the Historical Jesus and much of the facts of his life and ministry. This seems to you “a bit like an attorney trying to convince a judge by throwing a whole lot of very diverse arguments out there hoping that one will stick”.
I disagree with your interpretation here. I am not assuming anything. I am also not necessarily trying to persuade anyone of anything, as an attorney in a trial is. I am rather, as objectively as possible, trying to present the case that believers will have to answer, if they are indeed to persuade us that the resurrection was real. Of course I accept that I believe the interpretations I am offering are more reasonable, and therefore more likely. You’ve told me that you are about to read Bernardo Kastrup’s Decoding Jung’s Metaphysics. Early on there you will find the following: Jung “favored analogies, similes and metaphors over direct and unambiguous exposition, appearing to frequently contradict himself. This happened because he didn’t use linear argument structures, but instead circumambulated… the topic in question in order to convey the full gamut of his intuitions about it” (p 9).
I am very hesitant about comparing myself to the genius Jung, but Kastrup here describes something like what I’m attempting to do in our discussion; I am circumambulating the topic. Any question concerning the origins of Christianity is extremely difficult, close to unfathomable — although Christians might try to persuade you otherwise — and has to be considered from all angles. The topic is the question of the physical resurrection of Jesus — did this really happen? It therefore seems reasonable to me to first ask the question, did Jesus actually exist? If he did, then we have to consider whether the resurrection happened. If he didn’t exist, then we have to ask the question, why do we have four gospels which appear to suggest that he did? What might their alternative agenda have been?
So I don’t believe that I have been contradicting myself. I am rather circum-ambulating the topic to see what light can be shed on it. I am certainly not behaving like the attorney you describe since I have no investment in what I am saying. I know that it seems to you that I am arguing against the resurrection because I don’t believe in it. I see what I’m doing somewhat differently; I am merely outlining as objectively as possible what I perceive to be the compelling reasons not to believe in it. On that theme, you ask me whether I admit to confirmation bias, which assumes that I have some firm preconceived belief that I wish to defend. In that case I don’t admit to it.
What I’ve said so far therefore becomes an invitation for you and other believers to produce counterarguments which might persuade me otherwise. I regret to say that nothing you have said so far has succeeded in achieving this.
Because you think I’m contradicting myself, you say that you want to press me on the question of whether I believe there was a historical Jesus or merely a fictional one. But that’s the whole point; we cannot possibly know this for certain, because strong arguments can be made for either case. We therefore have to leave the question completely open, and continue to consider and evaluate all the relevant evidence. For what it’s worth, my current thinking — which is always subject to revision — is that there probably was a historical Jesus, but that the gospel accounts of his life cannot be trusted because so much mythology and later Christian theology has been superimposed upon it. That is further reason not to come down on one side of the argument, therefore to keep circumambulating, since we have to constantly keep in mind both the mythicist arguments and the counter evidence for a historical Jesus. We have to try to remove all the mythology, which may well include the resurrection, and see what, if anything, we find underneath.
On the question of the resurrection, you say that you are uncertain of the thrust of my objection. I thought that I had made it clear in the previous article that my main thrust is that the story of the resurrection is best understood as an allegory. The reason that you have so far failed to persuade me is that you do not respond to my points in any meaningful way. You have made no comments about my allegory argument, even though I would suggest that the evidence is strong, as I outlined at length.
To take another specific example, you mention my argument that John’s Gospel has clues that Jesus did not die on the cross, but you don’t discuss any of them. For the benefit of anyone new to the debate, I’ll repeat what I said in an earlier article. John reports (19.39) that, before Jesus was taken to the tomb, the Pharisee Nicodemus arrived with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about an hundred pounds”. I noted that “myrrh is claimed to be a form of sedative, which would be strange for a dead person, and aloes a strong and fast-acting purgative, which would have been useful to help expel the poison from Jesus’s body”. (According to this line of thinking, the sour wine that Jesus was given [v 29] was a poison which would quickly give the impression of death.) A separate source said that myrrh is “used for its restorative properties. The scent is said to boost the spirits and the soul, and is often used to alleviate the symptoms of nervous system disorders”. As I said, one wonders therefore why on earth it was being brought to the tomb of a dead person, and in such vast quantities! Whoever brought it was pretty certain, or at least hoping, that Jesus was not dead. What possible grounds would there be for thinking that, unless it were part of some plan?
A suitable response to further your argument would therefore be to produce some evidence, perhaps to cite a modern scientific clinical study, which demonstrates that these sources have got it completely wrong, and that myrrh and aloes do not have these claimed effects, and were brought to the tomb for some other purpose (embalming?). Instead of that, you simply ignore the issue, and the other related points, and continue to say that you believe in the resurrection. What am I supposed to think?
You ask me why this subject is of so much interest to me: “what drives you to study this issue with such intensity?” Your question suggests that you assume such questions are merely of interest to Christians like yourself, implying that it is strange that I (as some form of non-Christian) would appear to be equally interested, if not more so. (I’m not sure whether you are implying by this that I am unconsciously some kind of closet Christian.)
In response, I would say that I am (some form of) Christian — I did say that in an earlier post — indeed passionately so. A suitable label is difficult to find, since any word can easily be misunderstood, but I would describe myself as a Gnostic Christian, by which I mean that I accept no external authority to tell me what to believe, and I rely upon my own faculties of reason, intuition, and personal revelation. I also find some of the Gnostic Gospels far more interesting than the canonical ones. (It certainly doesn’t mean that I necessarily believe in any of the cosmological scenarios attributed to the various Gnostic schools.) So perhaps a better term would be a ‘freethinking’ Christian. I happen to believe, along with John Shelby Spong, that Christianity must change or die. That is why I study these issues with such intensity, because I passionately believe that true Christianity can be a force for good in the modern world, but only if it can free itself from the errors of its past.
That should help to explain your comment that I am not like the New Atheists, and am not motivated by similar hostility to religion, but that I do have a desire to convince and persuade:
- “Perhaps there is some concern that I, and of course others like me, who hold to orthodox Christian beliefs, are somehow duped and you would be doing such believers a great service in freeing us from a grand deception”.
- “A major motive of those appealing to others to reject their faith is either an effort to justify their new beliefs or out of honest desire to free believers from the prison they felt they were in”.
Obviously without wishing to appear patronising, and without any claims to superiority, I confess that this is my motivation for writing about Christianity, and my “intense interest” in it. If I am in any way like the New Atheists, i.e. motivated by hostility, then my hostility is directed towards the Roman Catholic Church, which was responsible for the creation of the religion we now know as Christianity for its own purposes. I don’t know if you are a Catholic or not, but it doesn’t really matter; all the other later forms are offsprings of the original, and retain the core beliefs.
Going back to the basic question of whether the resurrection was a real historical event, you say that there are “good rational reasons to believe that”. You ask me whether your reasons for believing in the resurrection are rational. I have to say that ‘rational’ seems to me to be a vague and slippery word in this context, and wonder whether a better term might be found, maybe ‘sound historical reasons’.
In any case I’ll focus on the most striking of your arguments: “Did those other 16 saviors who were crucified have friends and followers who died ugly and horrible deaths defending a lie?” I think the best known example of such a death would be the (alleged) upside-down crucifixion of Peter. So I would ask you, is there any genuinely independent historical evidence that this ever happened, apart from the story which grew up later?
There is an interesting debate about this question here. Note that “the earliest reference to the martyrdom of Peter comes from the letter of Clement of Rome (about AD 90). He said: ‘Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him’ ”. The author of the article believes that execution is “clearly implied” (even though the text in that sentence doesn’t say so), but there is no reference to the method, which seems strange if Peter died in the same way as Jesus — you would have thought that might have been worth a mention. A hundred years later Tertullian declared that “Peter had a passion like that of the Lord”, but Tertullian is one of those defenders of Christianity who cannot be trusted, one of those quite capable of making up stories in order to promote the Church’s agenda. Even he does not claim that the supposed crucifixion was upside-down. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that this was a later fabrication, designed to enhance Peter’s reputation in the eyes of the world.
You say that you find irrational “the idea that Jesus can be considered a great teacher and one to model one’s life after when he went around saying he was the Son of God and had all the authority of God. Not only that, he acted as if he really believed that”. Here, I would say, you are demonstrating one of the common problems when dealing with such issues. Your only evidence for any of this are the Gospels themselves. They are indeed our principal sources for the life of Jesus, but we don’t know who wrote them, what their authors’ agenda was. I’m not aware of any serious scholar who thinks that they were written by eye-witnesses, although Christians sometimes try to claim otherwise; on the whole they seem to be reliant on other earlier written sources. They were written, it would seem, at least 40 years after the events they claim to describe. However, to repeat one of my earlier arguments, since our main topic is the resurrection, the one canonical gospel which does seem to be based on an eye-witness account of the crucifixion, gives strong hints that Jesus did not actually die.
The Gospels as we have them have been edited by, and contain interpolations from, later Christians. We know of some examples of this, but there may be more. We cannot therefore assume that they are a reliable source of anything. They may be, but we just don’t know. The four canonical Gospels are the best that the Church could find to promote their Christian message, which is why they were chosen. Yet even they contain severe contradictions and anomalies, when compared with each other. (I’ll follow this with a further brief article outlining some of these difficulties, to indicate why we cannot rely upon them as being authoritative on the life of Jesus.) So, even though the Gospels portray Jesus as “saying he was the Son of God and had all the authority of God”, and acting “as if he really believed that”, I cannot take that as evidence that any historical Jesus actually said these things.
You again invite me to read some authors who you think will persuade me to change my mind about the resurrection. As I pointed out earlier, committed Christians are not necessarily the best people to consult. To draw a parallel, if I wanted to understand whether the Darwinian theory of evolution is correct, neither Richard Dawkins nor Jerry Coyne would be my first port of call. Neither would I consult a Fundamentalist Christian. I would consult several independently minded experts who assess the evidence as objectively as possible.
In my experience, Christians tend to use three arguments in discussions like these. They try to claim: that the gospels are based on eye-witness accounts; that the gospels were written earlier than most independent scholarship believes; and as you do, that the Gospels are accurate histories of the life and words of Jesus. Before I spend any time reading these books, therefore, I would like you to offer some evidence that I am going to find better arguments, perhaps provide a brief summary of what they say.
In conclusion, here are some interesting questions for you to contemplate. Firstly, do you believe in the Virgin Birth, despite the case that I presented against it earlier in this series? If you don’t, as I think you shouldn’t because it is an obvious mythological addition, then why do you treat the resurrection any differently?
Secondly, as a Christian, do you believe that Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth, and that they lived in a garden called Eden, and that an actual serpent was capable of speaking to Eve? Or do you think that this story is better understood to be symbolical or allegorical (thus mythological, provided we do not define ‘myth’ in its modern meaning of ‘false story’)? If the latter, then why not apply the same logic to the resurrection?
Thirdly, do you believe that at the death of Jesus “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised”, and that “after his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many”? Do you believe that on the Sunday morning, as the women went to the tomb, “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow”? Or do you think that these are more likely to be mythological additions, at best to be interpreted allegorically? If you do believe they actually happened as they appear in Matthew’s account (27.52–53 and 28.2–3), then it’s worth noting that none of the other three Gospel writers are aware of these extraordinary events, or at least make no reference to them. The most reasonable assumption is that Matthew just made this up for effect, in order to enhance his story.
In which case, is it not reasonable to ask which other parts of the accounts have been made up?
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