Jesus End: The Formal Possibilities

There is often discussion of the resurrection apologetic here at SO. Some newcomers to the conversation may be put off by the complexity of it all. In hopes of providing a user-friendly introduction to the context of the debates, I offer the following:

Innumerable scenarios could be and have been advanced about the fate of Jesus of Nazareth. Even in ancient times there were many different accounts. For instance, the Gnostic Basilides’ scenario was that Jesus was not crucified, but someone else. Basilides said that it was Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled to carry the cross for Jesus and was mistakenly crucified in his place. Remember hapless Simon the next time that you think that you are having a bad day. Recent times have seen additional scenarios like the “Passover Plot.” Also, we have seen the development of the “mythicist” view that Jesus was never crucified for the very good reason that he never existed. With a bit of imagination, indefinitely many other scenarios could be added. There has to be someone who has proposed that Jesus was a space alien and was whisked away by a UFO before dying on the cross.

Given the potentially unlimited possible scenarios, it might be helpful to offer an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of the formal possibilities, which could then serve as a classification scheme for all actual and possible scenarios. That is, any scenario will necessarily fit into one of the categories established by these possibilities. We may set up this framework of possibilities by asking four questions which could be answered yes or no in sequence. A “no” answer at any point ends the questioning process because the following questions just would not arise:

1) Did Jesus of Nazareth exist? That is, did there exist an actual human being who could reasonably be identified with the Jesus of the Gospels?

No: Stop

Yes: Go to question 2.

2) Was this person publicly crucified by the Roman authorities in the vicinity of Jerusalem circa 33 CE?

No: Stop.

Yes: Go to question 3.

3) Did this person die on the occasion of his crucifixion?

(Note: “Die” here means really die, i.e. be in a state of brain death and not of mere clinical “death.” Further, “on the occasion of his crucifixion” means that he died from some cause between the time of his crucifixion and the time of his burial.)

No: Stop.

Yes: Go to question 4.

4) Did this person return to life, rising from the dead shortly after his crucifixion?

No: Stop.

Yes: Stop.

The formal possibilities are therefore established by the yes/no answers given to these questions. The possible answers are given below. Each category or type of answer is identified by a letter A through E.

A: 1, N.

B: 1, Y; 2, N.

C: 1, Y; 2, Y; 3, N

D: 1, Y; 2, Y, 3, Y; 4, N.

E: 1, Y; 2, Y, 3, Y; 4, Y.

The mythicist view would fit category A. The mythicist denies that there was any actual person whose life was similar enough to the Jesus of the Gospels to be identified as that person. By denying that Jesus ever existed, the question of his crucifixion, death, and resurrection simply does not arise. Category B would be the one for Basilides’ story. Yes, Jesus existed, but he was never crucified. Perhaps some luckless individual was crucified in his place. C would be the category for the “Passover Plot” type conspiracies of the sort attributed to Jesus in the book by that name authored by Hugh J. Schonfield. In this story, Jesus planned his crucifixion and burial but expected to survive and later be rescued from the grave. However, things went wrong when the Roman soldier speared him in the side. D would be the view of many unbelievers (like yours truly) and biblical scholars such as Gerd Lüdemann. Someone actually existed who did enough of the things attributed to him by the Gospels to count as a historical Jesus of Nazareth. He was crucified, dead, and buried (whether in an identifiable tomb or not), but did not rise again. Finally, E, of course, is the standard Christian view that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and rose again shortly after—on the morning of the third day according to tradition.

These are the formal possibilities. Clearly, none should be ruled out a priori. To which category does the truth likely belong? Well, of course, that cannot possibly be meaningfully addressed here. I will just list each below and give what I think are its advantages and disadvantages.

A (1, N):

Advantages: You have an advantage over the standard apologetic which nearly always assumes that Jesus actually existed. By denying the existence of Jesus, the whole discussion is shifted to a new basis. Further, Christianity is a historical religion. It claims that certain things happened in the course of history. If the Buddha had never existed, there could still be Buddhism. However, Christianity is necessarily false if Jesus never existed. Paul says “…if Christ be not raised your faith is in vain…(I Corinthians, 15: 17). Clearly, if Jesus never existed then he never rose from the dead and Christians’ faith is in vain. Anyone who, for any reason, does not like Christianity might find attractive the idea that the whole thing has no more basis than a religion that worshipped Sherlock Holmes.

Disadvantages: There is a heavy burden of proof here. Mythicism often draws the reaction of gaping incredulity from unbelievers as well as from believers. Part of the problem is the sheer epistemic inertia encountered when trying to dislodge a historical assumption nearly 2000 years old. However, there is still a very considerable burden of proof even if that inertia can be overcome. The burden is to show that Jesus belongs in the category of, say, Hercules rather than Socrates. The mythicist view will face the theoretical challenge to articulate and defend its criteria for historicity. This will not be easy. Such criteria do not seem clear even among professional historians, who often have disputes over the historicity of individuals. Mythicism will also face a plethora of claimed counterexamples of this sort: “What about X? There is more evidence for the existence of Jesus than for X, but everyone admits that X was historical.” Certainly, mythicism might meet these challenges, but the argument will be long, complex, tedious, and likely rancorous.

B (1, Y; 2, N):

Advantages: The advantages here would be chiefly ideological. Some doctrines, such as Gnosticism and Islam, will find it objectionable to suppose that the supernatural Son of God or a holy prophet would die an ignominious death on a cross.

Disadvantages: Surely there is something Monty-Python-esque about this scenario. At best, there seems to be no way it could ever rise above the status of a scenario. It is hard to imagine what evidence would support it unless, e.g. we were to discover memoirs written by Jesus in his old age laughing at the suckers who thought that they had crucified him. Don’t wait around.

C (1, Y; 2Y; 3, N):

Advantages: A successful “Passover Plot” type scenario (one not spoiled by the officious Roman guard with his spear) would seem to offer a straightforward naturalistic, non-miraculous explanation of how the resurrection narrative got started. If Jesus had appeared alive after his crucifixion, maybe people would have thought that he had been raised from the dead. Maybe. Or maybe it would have been perceived as the cheap trick it was.

Disadvantages: Any “Passover Plot” type scenario will face the problems that conspiracy theories always face: Explanations will be complex, contrived, and based upon numerous gratuitous assumptions. Objections will be dismissed with ad hoc excuses and bluster. Rhetoric will often substitute for evidence, and what evidence there is will be spun until it is dizzy. In the end, the only people who will be convinced are crackpots and ax grinders. There are other scenarios, like one I somewhere read by Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. Burgess speculates that Jesus was only clinically dead, and that when the women came on Easter morning to take care of the body, they found him alive. This is slightly more credible than a Passover Plot, but still ranks as a speculation and does not explain why the followers of Jesus would not have interpreted it as what it was—a burial alive—rather than a miraculous resurrection.

D (1, Y; 2, Y, 3, Y; 4, N):

Advantages: There is not nearly so heavy a burden of proof as that borne by the mythicist. You do not have to defend what many will perceive as an inordinate degree of skepticism. Rather, you can just accept the results of standard, mainstream, critical biblical scholarship. You can also follow accepted historiographic norms by treating the records of Jesus and his career just as you would any other accounts from ancient documents, say the Histories of Herodotus. If you take a Bayesian approach, you are also given considerable latitude in setting your priors for events like resurrections. Like Hume, you can impose a considerable burden of proof on a miracle claim and draw upon far more resources than Hume had in criticizing such claims. For instance, we now have a great deal of information from psychology, cognitive science, and folklore studies about how tall tales get started, spread, and become entrenched.

Disadvantages: Since I endorse this alternative, I think that objections against it can be overcome. However, among the prima facie objections are those that demand a satisfying naturalistic account of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. Apologists such as Peter Kreeft, SJ and Ronald Tacelli, SJ devote a great deal of effort to debunking the hallucination theory. I have argued elsewhere (The Empty Tomb, ed. by Jeff Lowder and Robert M. Price) that this attempted debunking fails badly, but no naturalistic explanation in terms of hallucinations, false memories, urban legends, etc. will seem satisfying to many minds (and not just fundamentalist minds). Surely, it seems, something remarkable seemed to happen, something that requires a remarkable explanation. Defenders of naturalistic explanations of the resurrection stories might therefore find themselves in the position of Cassandra, i.e. being right but not being believed.

E (1, Y; 2, Y, 3, Y; 4, Y):

Advantages: Well, of course, the faith of two billion people turns on this. The Easter event, that Jesus rose from the dead, has to be a core Christian claim. I know that some theologians, such as Paul Tillich, say that the resurrection occurred “outside of history.” As far as I can tell, this means “It didn’t really happen.” But I think St. Paul was right. If Christ is not risen (really risen, not just metaphorically or symbolically), Christian faith is in vain. There has to be an occurrence in which the divine definitively intervenes into nature and history. There has to be something that only God could and would have done, an unmistakable suspension of the mundane by divine power. Without that Christianity is just gas. Well, that is a bit strong. A thoroughly “demythologized” Christianity might still have appeal due to the personality and teachings of Jesus. His eschatological ethics (“the first shall be last,” etc.) might still appeal even without the eschatology. But Christianity, construed in anything like its traditional sense, would be false.

Disadvantages: The chief disadvantage is the same as the chief advantage, namely, that a miraculous intervention is claimed. That is, there must have been a physically impossible event that nevertheless occurred, and, further, we have to be able to know that it occurred. Knowing that it happened is the really problematic condition. An event is proclaimed that, in just about any other context, everyone, including Christians, would say is impossible and in no degree believable. That is, excluding supernatural intervention, a resurrection from the dead is an event that we all agree would be maximally improbable and minimally credible. An event that is merely extraordinary cannot do the job; it has to be a miracle. The apologetic task of defending the resurrection claim will therefore involve two jobs: In Bayesian terms, the prior probability of God’s existence cannot be allowed to drop too low, otherwise the prior probability of a physically impossible resurrection will be very low. Further, the “Bayes factor” must be addressed, the ratio of p(e/~h) to p(e/h). In practice, this means that the likelihood that the testimony for the resurrection would exist even if the resurrection did not occur cannot be too high. If it is likely that we would have the Gospel accounts of the resurrection even if there were no resurrection, the testimony will lack credibility. Needless to say, performing these tasks, in the face of determined skepticism, will not be easy.

It is clear from the above that the only options I take seriously are A, D, and E. The other two are hard to see as anything other than a joke or a fantasy. Further, I presume that A will always be a minority view among unbelievers since it bites off considerably more than the skeptic needs to chew. Principled unbelief does not need to deny the historicity of a wandering rabbi of the first century who said and did some of the things attributed to him in the canonical Gospels. Such can be conceded, a least for the sake of argument. The core issue, as I indicate above, is how to account for the claims of Jesus’s postmortem appearances. I think that they are accounted for in much the same way that we account for UFOs and alien abductions, sightings of Bigfoot, homeopathic “cures,” and the innumerable visions, epiphanies, theophanies, visitations, possessions, hauntings, and so forth reported in all cultures throughout history.