I Reject Christianity Because It’s Not True, Part III
The third common objection to Christianity found in that article has to do with the resurrection of Jesus and is presented in the form of a question:
On what basis do you believe Jesus actually—physically—rose from the dead (besides blind faith, of course)?
I have faith that Jesus rose from the dead, but it isn't a blind faith, because there's good reason to believe he did.
What is curious here is how Anderson’s own response to the question does not match what we find in presuppositional apologetic literature about why one would have faith in the Christian worldview. Typically we find in that literature appeals to the “activity” of the “Holy Spirit” working on a person’s “heart” to compel him to believe whatever Christianity affirms. As Greg Bahnsen puts it in his book Always Ready (p. 88):
Faith is the precondition of a proper understanding… faith precedes knowledgeable understanding.
Meanwhile, in the previous chapter, titled “God Must Sovereignly Grant Understanding,” Bahnsen writes (p. 85):
The understanding which the unbeliever lacks can only be provided when his mind has been opened (e.g., Luke 24:45) and he has been convicted by the Spirit of Truth (John 16:8).
Faith is not a means of epistemology; it is not a method of discovering and identifying facts; it is not an alternative to reason as a faculty of knowledge. To say that one “has faith” that something is true essentially means that he accepts it as true even though he cannot establish it by means of reason; essentially, he’s accepting it because he wants it to be true. Faith, then, is closer to wishing that something were true than simply believing that it is true. Consider Mike Licona’s words regarding the resurrection of Jesus when he declares: “I want it to be true.” If only more believers were so frank about the role that their own wants, wishing and preferences play in their faith!
I believe Jesus rose from the dead primarily because of the eyewitness testimony of people who knew him and claimed to have spoken and eaten with him days after he was publicly executed—testimony that was written down and has been faithfully preserved over the centuries in the books and letters of the New Testament.
What’s important to note on this point is that no New Testament document has any individual being an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection. One point that all the canonical gospels seem to agree on is that Jesus rose from the dead in a sealed tomb, which means no ordinary human being could have observed this alleged event, the most important event in all of Christianity! The danger of statements like Anderson’s is the potential that this often-ignored fact will continue to be casually overlooked: even the biblical record itself does not support the claim that anyone was an eyewitness to the resurrection.
Moreover, I have not read in the New Testament any claim from an author of one its documents “to have spoken and eaten with [Jesus] days after he was publicly executed.” There are stories to this effect about characters figuring in the overall storyline, but at no point in the NT have I seen firsthand testimony to the effect, “I saw Jesus after he was risen; I ate with him; I fellowshipped with him; I touched his wounds.” On the contrary, we have anonymous authors saying that this happened to someone, always using the third person in such cases.
The way that our modern bibles are printed today, the New Testament begins with the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in that order – followed by the Acts of the Apostles. After these come 21 letters or “epistles” written to various churches, persons, or to the church at large. Last we have the Book of Revelation. Consequently, unsuspecting readers might suppose that the books are arranged in the New Testament in the order in which they were written, which mirrors the way in which Christianity actually conceives of the events represented by these various stages: Jesus’ incarnation, ministry and passion, followed by the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s missionary travels – followed by his letter-writing campaign, other letter-writers, and finally Revelation.
But in fact, this does not represent the order in which the New Testament documents were actually written. NT scholars are in wide if not unanimous agreement that certain of the epistles – including those actually written by Paul (which do not include the so-called Pastorals – i.e., I & II Timothy and Titus) – were penned long before the gospels and Acts, which are typically agreed to have been written between AD 70-100. Among the gospels, Mark is generally agreed to be the earliest extant gospel narrative; the gospels of Matthew and Luke were modeled on Mark as though their authors sought to improve on its prototype; John seems to have been written in reaction to much of the theology contained in the other three, given its profound variance against them (and even where John’s narrative shows overlap with any of the others, “in every case the time or location is changed and the whole scene is differently imagined” [B. Lindars, The Gospel of John, p. 27]).
Now it is not only the order in which the NT documents were written that is so remarkably different from what the layout of our printed bibles suggest. What we find when we examine the documents in the order in which they were written (as opposed to the order in which they appear in our printed bibles) is an unfolding development of several traditions which grow with each retelling. For example, in the earliest epistolary layer, we are told of a Jesus who was “made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4) and “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). No other details are given in this layer: no place of birth, no identification of who his earthly parents might have been, no indication of when he was born, etc. When we get to the gospels, we find that a variety of traditions about Jesus had developed by the time they were written, some decades after Paul was writing. In Mark, Jesus starts out as an adult, with no indication of the place, date or circumstances of his birth. Matthew and Luke famously have Jesus born miraculously from a virgin (miraculous births were a common motif in the hero myths and religions of the day – e.g., Horus, Mithras, Ion, Romulus, Asclepius, Helen of Troy, etc.; they are even featured in the Old Testament). What’s noteworthy is that the details of this miraculous birth of Jesus vary between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts; they cannot even agree on genealogy! Meanwhile, John makes no mention of a virgin birth and has Jesus existing eternally and being “made flesh,” without any details given as to what exactly this was understood by its author to mean.
Other developments – beginning with threadbare hints contained in the early epistolary layer to full-blown depictions in later layers – parallel what clearly appears to be the legendary elaboration of an artificially compiled storyline. This is evident when comparing the early epistolary layer with the increasingly detailed narrative layer (the gospels and Acts), and then with the later layer (later epistles, Revelation, extra-canonical writings, apocryphal narratives, etc.). The pattern of development here is unmistakable.
Importantly, not only does the early epistolary layer fail to confirm what we read about Jesus in the gospel stories, but the portrait of Jesus found in the earlier layer actually conflicts in certain respects with that of the gospels. In fact, consider the following list of details which we find in the gospel accounts but which are completely lacking in the early epistles (from my blog Reckless Apologetic Presumptuousness):
- Bethlehem (Jesus' supposed birthplace)
- a place called 'Nazareth' (as in "Jesus of Nazareth")- a Roman census- parents named Mary and Joseph- angelic visitations to both Mary and Joseph- the Virgin Birth- the Slaughter of the Innocents- the Magi (they were magically summoned to meet the baby Jesus)- John the Baptist
- Jesus' baptism- Jesus' career as a carpenter
- Galilee- Jesus' itinerant preaching ministry in Judea (didn't the apostle know about this?!)- that Jesus was a teacher of morals- that Jesus taught in parables- Jesus' prayers- Jesus' many miracles (Paul nowhere has his Jesus turn water into wine, stilling storms, feeding 5,000 or walking on lakes)- Jesus' healings and cures (no mention of the blind receiving their sight, for example, after Jesus spits into dysfunctional eyes)- Jesus' exorcisms- Jesus' temptation in the wilderness- Mary Magdalene- Nicodemus (mentioned only in the gospel of John)- Judas Iscariot (a key player in the lead-up to the passion story)- Gethsemane (and Jesus' hesitation there)- a trial before Pilate- Peter's repeated denials- Jesus' flogging
- Jesus' crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem
- a place called "Calvary" (mentioned only in Luke 23:33)- the two malefactors condemned with Jesus- Jesus' words from the cross- the spear thrust in Jesus' side- the darkness over the earth- the earthquake- the rising of the saints mentioned only in Matthew 27:52-53
- Joseph of Arimathaea- Golgotha- female witnesses- an empty tomb (Paul never even mentions an empty tomb!)- Doubting Thomas
The complete absence of details about the time, place and circumstances of Jesus’ crucifixion in the early epistles is inexplicable. G.A. Wells points out (The Jesus Myth, p. 57):
Paul’s silence about the time, place and circumstances of Jesus’s death is sometimes explained by supposing that, since Jesus was ‘the risen Lord’, such historical data were of very subordinate interest. But from Paul’s premiss of the supreme importance of knowing “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23 and 2:2) one would expect him to be explicit about the Passion and at least specify the when and the where. He is so imprecise about it that he may well have thought that it occurred one or two centuries before his time of writing. We know from Josephus that at these earlier dates holy men had been crucified alive in Palestine and not, as was the usual Jewish custom, only after they had been executed by other means.
Josephus reports that Jannaeus brought 800 rebels to Jerusalem and had them crucified. Even worse, Jannaeus had the throats of the rebel’s wives and children cut before their eyes as Jannaeus ate with his concubines.
Upon which so deep a surprise seized on the people, that eight thousand of his opposers fled away the very next night, out of all Judaea, whose flight was only terminated by Alexander's death.
We do learn that, according to I Cor. 15, the resurrection supposedly took place three days after the crucifixion, but this does not put the crucifixion itself circa 30-33 AD. In that passage Paul (assuming he really wrote it) says that “above five hundred brethren” witnessed the risen Jesus. There are definite problems with using this as “testimony” of five hundred persons (see for example my blog Five Hundred Anonymous Witnesses). Christians today are in the habit of reading I Cor. 15 and indiscriminately supposing it’s all true on its own say so. Many even make the howling error of supposing that what they read in I Cor. 15 constitutes the testimony of some 500 witnesses, when in fact it could be nothing better than the written account of one man. But that is what faith is for: to believe what you want to believe, even though you have no objective basis for doing so. Besides, as Wells points out (The Jesus Myth, p. 125):
People who claim to see a ghost do not necessarily suppose it to be the wraith of someone recently deceased.
Often apologists will object to citation of this inexplicable situation by retorting that Paul, for example, was not writing a biography of Jesus, and therefore that we should not expect to find such details in his letters. But this is an odd retort, suggesting limited awareness of what else we find in the NT epistles. For in the later epistolary layer – written after the traditions found in the gospels had become more widely known throughout the early Christian communities – some of these details are in fact mentioned in writings which are likewise not supposed to be biographies. For example, in I John we find reference to Jesus being baptized (cf. I John 5:6).
Moreover, when it comes to actual teachings, the early epistolary layer’s conspicuous ignorance of gospel traditions is encountered yet again. Wells gives a few examples of this in his book The Historical Evidence for Jesus (p. 33):
Paul gives it as his own view (Rom. 13:8-10) that the law can be summed up in the one Old Testament injunction "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." According to Lk. 10:25-8, Jesus himself taught that love of neighbor (together with love of God) ensures salvation; but one could never gather from Paul that Jesus had expressed himself on the matter. In 1 Thess. 4:9 it is not Jesus but God who is said to have taught Christians to love one another. And the injunction not to repay evil for evil but always to do good to all is given in the same epistle (5:15) without any suggestion that Jesus had taught it (as according to the gospels he did in the Sermon on the Mount). In his letter to Christians at Rome Paul says "bless those that persecute you" (12:14 and 17) and "judge not" (14:13). Surely in such instances he might reasonably be expected to have invoked the authority of Jesus, had he known that Jesus had taught the very same doctrines. (The former doctrine is ascribed to him at Mt. 5:44 and Lk. 6:28, and the latter at Mt. 7:1 and Lk. 6:37.) In the same epistle he urges Christians to "pay taxes" (13:6), but does not suggest that Jesus had given such a ruling (Mk. 12:17). It is much more likely that certain precepts concerning forgiveness and civil obedience were originally were originally urged independently of Jesus, and only later put into his mouth and thereby stamped with supreme authority, than that he gave such rulings and was not credited with having done so by Paul and… by other early Christian writers.
Naturally I cannot do justice to the enormity of the problems of this nature which we find when comparing the NT documents with one another in the space of a single blog entry (it's long enough as it is!). But this should be sufficient indication of the general reasons why an informed understanding of the NT can only point to clear legendary development.
These eyewitness accounts have what C. S. Lewis called "the ring of truth."
They come from multiple independent sources,
and they're too early and unembellished to be legends that developed decades after Jesus' life.
As for embellishments, a comparison of Paul’s portrait of Jesus to those found in the gospel narratives on the one hand, and among those within the gospel traditions themselves, will reveal a marked increase in unparalleled detail. For example, it is commonly supposed that the list of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus given in I Cor. 15:3-7 is an “early creed” (though this seems to conflict with Paul’s own claim, in Gal. 1:11-12, that the gospel he preached was “not after man,” that he “neither received it of man, neither was [he] taught it, but by revelation of Jesus Christ”). If it is an early creed, or even if it is just something that Paul had formulated as part of his own standard preaching, the content of I Cor. 15:3-7 is the same: it gives no details about the time, place or circumstances of what is reported therein. But when we get to the gospel narratives, we suddenly have a wealth of detail on time, place and circumstances about Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and post-resurrection appearances. How can we be certain that none of these details found in the gospels is the result of embellishments arising in the intervening decades?
In the case of the stories about Jesus’ passion and resurrection, for example, there’s no way to tell how much the stories we find in the gospels had already been embellished, if at all, from their original form (supposedly originating as oral traditions) by the time they found their way into the gospels' written pages. With intervening decades between Paul’s own missionary campaign and the writing of the first gospel narrative (Mark) ca. 70 AD, there was more than sufficient opportunity for embellishments to reshape oral traditions.
When we get to the different gospel narratives themselves, now we have different versions which we can compare with one another. A comparison of certain scenes reported in more than one gospel – such as the Easter passion – shows that authors were willing to make considerable revision of Mark’s prototype. (If they had considered Mark to be genuinely historical, why would these later writers alter what is given there?) Consider for example just the Easter scenes between Mark and Matthew. In Mark, when Jesus dies on the cross, he “cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost” and after this “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom” (Mk. 15:37-38). Then the body is given to Joseph of Arimathaea for burial. Even in Mark (given its original ending at 16:8), there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus – pretty strange, isn’t it? When we get to Matthew, however, the following occurs when Jesus “gives up the ghost” (Mt. 27:50-53):
Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
One final point needs to be made here. At several points in his letters, Paul warns his audience not to succumb to “false Christs” or to be taken by “another Christ” or “another gospel.” For example, in II Cor. 11:4, Paul writes:
For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
God would certainly have the power to raise Jesus from the dead.
Also, it’s important to note that imagination plays a central role in Christian god-belief. It is particularly active when reading stories such as Jesus’ resurrection. In his blog Playing Jesus, Steve Hays of Triablogue makes the point that imagination is already involved in merely reading the gospels when he asks rhetorically:
when we read the Gospels, isn't there a sense in which all of us sit in the director's chair? Isn't there a sense in which we play all the parts? By that I mean, isn't it natural for reader's to visualize narrative descriptions? When you read about Jesus cleansing the temple or feeding the multitudes, do you never imagine that scene?
The “appearances” of the post-resurrection Jesus in the early epistolary layer (cf. I Cor. 15) read as though all parties were secretly aware that these were actually exercises of fantasy on the part of the beholders. The apostle Paul, for instance, in his letters, does not point to physical evidence of the risen Christ, such as an empty tomb; Paul nowhere speaks of any “empty tomb” to begin with. He does not speak of people eating with the risen Jesus or touching his wounds. Had Paul supposed that there was such evidence and that it fit with his own Christological views, no doubt he would have referred to it repeatedly just as he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of belief in the resurrection. But there are good reasons to suppose that this would in fact not fit Paul’s Christology (for Paul, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” – I Cor. 15:50). Also, since Paul is silent about the details of the time, place and circumstances of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the record as we find it in the NT only supports the supposition that Paul knew of no evidence to begin with.
Paul was writing to people in distant places; and the people he was writing to were already converted Christians – churches that he had established or was at any rate encouraging to grow beyond the doctrinal conflicts that they were experiencing (which is noteworthy in itself!). He was not writing to teams of fact-checkers who were readying to dispatch teams of investigators to whatever place Paul located events; if they were, they’d have been quite disappointed with Paul, for he never names any places where Jesus was crucified or followers saw him afterwards. Rather, one gets the impression from Paul’s letters that he expected what he says in them to be accepted without question or dispute, purely on his say so, as though he were simply a mouthpiece for the divine. (Indeed, apologists today seem to become incensed when non-Christians do not adopt the same attitude toward their pronouncements.)
And the resurrection wasn't a random, freak event; it fits perfectly into a storyline that began thousands of years before Jesus' birth.
[The author of] Mark was essentially writing an allegory, a symbolic story, one based on Old Testament precedents and midrashic use of scriptural verses. He didn’t provide resurrection appearances not only because he didn’t know of any, but because he wasn’t purporting to tell history. It was sufficient in his mind to say that Jesus had risen and that he would appear to his followers. The women run off and don’t tell anyone because they don’t need to. In fiction, the writer tells the readers, and Mark has told us. The problem is, that wasn’t good enough for the later redactors of Mark.
When I consider the broader historical context, I find the alternative explanations (e.g., the witnesses were lying, hallucinating, or simply mistaken) far less credible than the idea that Jesus really did rise from the dead, just as he himself predicted.
Of course, notice also that Anderson’s “alternative explanations” only allow for what he calls “the witnesses,” which in itself implies that what is described in the gospel stories was witnessed by those who penned the accounts (or at least were close to those who penned them). I see no reason to suppose that this is what we have in the case of the gospels. I suspect that the gospels grew out of a curiosity spurred on among the early faithful by traditions such as those found in the Pauline letters, which – as we saw – gave no details about the earthly Jesus.
Consider the matter from the perspective of the congregants at one of the Asian churches, for instance at Ephesus, Colosse, Corinth, etc. The church’s teachings are contained in the form of oral traditions issued by missionaries like Paul (if not Paul himself) and copies of a letter or two, all about this wondrous person “Jesus.” All that is told to the parishioners at this stage of Christianity is that Jesus was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, that he was crucified, that he rose three days later, and that somehow this spelled salvation from sin and the curse of death. As we saw with Paul’s letters, no details about the time, place or circumstances of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are given. In fact, nothing about his life on earth is given. The early epistolary layer does not even indicate how old Jesus was when he was crucified. All these congregants would have known is what little they’ve been told: that Jesus was the “suffering servant” described in the Wisdom literature, with which they may or may not have even been familiar (especially if they were Gentiles).
A person finding himself in such a situation could readily be forgiven for wanting to know more about this Jesus character he’s told to glorify. The question “Who was Jesus?” must have been a common dinner table conversation topic. Thus within the church itself demand for more information about Jesus would have naturally developed. And the gospels would have been an attempt to meet that demand. Their authors need not have been thought by their contemporaries to be “making up” their narratives (the writers need not have started with a clean slate in order for their product ultimately to be fictional in nature), but rather piecing together little bits of traditions that had by that time been established by repeated circulation among congregants. And indeed, that’s precisely what we have in Mark – a series of unrelated episodes and pericopes strung together, with no discernible necessity to the order in which they appear in many of the cases.
As Anderson himself would likely agree, what one considers “more likely” or “more credible” will be influenced by his worldview’s fundamentals. If the fundamentals of one’s worldview are themselves premised on the supposition that the contents of the bible are true, then clearly the conclusion about what is “more credible” given the limited alternatives Anderson is willing to consider, has already been decided before any argument has even been formulated for it. But this is one of the hazards of basing one’s philosophy on alleged historical events: the assumption that those alleged events are in fact historical becomes a non-negotiable primary on which everything else hinges, which means everything else will have to be subordinated to protecting this assumption, which itself is accepted on faith.
If we begin with objective facts, however, as articulated by Objectivism, then we are not committed to stories handed down from ages past, come hell or high water. Moreover, if we are willing to attend to the vast context that we find in the New Testament, noting the various layers we discover in it and the clues contained therein as to how the Jesus story developed and transformed over the course of Christianity’s early formative decades, the conclusion that what we have here is a legend that grows with each retelling is inescapable.
by Dawson Bethrick