The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry – Part 1

In this series I will discuss a recently published book called The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (hereafter: TRACI).  It is not my intention to DO a critical inquiry into the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus in these posts.  Rather, I will be describing and commenting on the efforts of Michael J. Alter, the author of TRACI, to do a critical inquiry into the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus.

I often complain about the intellectual laziness of Christian apologists.  I have dozens of books by Christian apologists where they present a “case” for the resurrection of Jesus in just one short chapter, or in a few short chapters, or in a short book.  Nearly all of these “cases” for the resurrection are complete and utter CRAP.  They are crap not only because of logical errors and questionable premises, but also because they are simply too short and skimpy to provide a serious rational case for the resurrection of Jesus.  Christian apologists are, in most cases, too intellectually lazy to work up a serious rational case for anything, even for one of the most important doctrines of their faith.

Most Christian apologists write articles and books for a popular audience, and their target seems to be primarily Christians who might have some questions or doubts about the resurrection, rather than writing for an audience of well-informed skeptics and atheists.   They don’t have to work very hard to convince their target audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead.  Because their target audience is largely Christian believers who are ignorant about the New Testament, and about ancient history, and about philosophy, Christian apologists who write for this audience do not have to face serious and intelligent challenges, so they become intellectually fat and lazy.

Although Michael Alter is not a biblical scholar or theologian, his book on the resurrection appears to accomplish what nearly all Christian apologists fail to accomplish: a serious, detailed, and in-depth examination of the question at issue.

So far, I have only examined the table of contents and quickly scanned TRACI, so I cannot recommend it as a good and solid book yet.  However, judging from the table of contents and a quick glance at a few sections,  it seems likely that Alter has done an intellectually serious critical inquiry into the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus.   As I make my way though the 745 pages of text in TRACI,  I will attempt to confirm or disconfirm whether (and to what degree) Alter succeeds in carrying out an intellectually serious critical inquiry into the resurrection, which would put his book head-and-shoulders above the vast majority of intellectually inferior books and articles on this issue written by Christian apologists.

Michael Alter is not an atheist.  He is motivated by the desire that his fellow Jews not be taken in by weak and questionable arguments presented by Christian apologists:

Alter’s interest in the field of Jewish apologetics began in the 1980s when he was a member of Havurah of South Florida. The spark was a class taught by Rabbi Norman Lipson, a guest teacher. Among the topics that Lipson discussed were Key ’73 [The avowed objective of Key ’73 was “to confront every person in North America more fully and forcibly with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”] and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. An important object of these efforts was to convert Jews to the Christian faith. Alter became concerned over Christian attempts to witness, evangelize, and proselytize Jews; his concern prompted him to research this topic.  (Biography)

Michael wants to prevent Jews from converting to Christianity on the basis of weak and questionable arguments.  As an atheist, I’m sympathetic with this aim; I just have a bit more general aim in mind, namely that NOBODY should be taken in by weak and questionable arguments for the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus.  Jews should not be taken in by such arguments, and Muslims should not be taken in by such arguments, and Buddhists should not be taken in by such arguments, and of course atheists and non-religious people should not be taken in by weak and questionable arguments for the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus.

In addition to his concern about Christian attempts to convert Jews,  Alter was partly inspired by a long debate that he was involved in over this issue with a Christian believer:

Alter’s resulting text, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, was a direct challenge raised by Anthony Buzzard, a prolific Biblical Unitarian. They corresponded over a lengthy period of time. Although they agree that Jesus is not God and that there is no such thing as the Trinity, Buzzard adamantly maintains that Jesus is the Messiah, a theological position that Alter totally rejects. It was during several communications that Alter was challenged by Buzzard to refute Jesus’s physical, bodily resurrection – supposedly the ultimate proof that Jesus is the Messiah (and also God for mainline Christianity). During a decade and more, Alter worked to meet Buzzard’s challenge, that Jesus was not physically, bodily resurrected. (Biography)

Alter has an interest in taking a close skeptical look at the arguments and evidence relevant to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  He wants to help his fellow Jews to avoid being taken in by weak and questionable arguments for the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus, and he wants to defend the Jewish position that Jesus was NOT “the Messiah”.   So, it is no surprise that Alter’s conclusion is a skeptical one:

However, the pertinent question that must be asked relates to the evidence of Jesus’s death and claimed physical, bodily resurrection: is the evidence overwhelmingly conclusive to any honestly objective seeker of the truth? This book reveals certainly that this is not the case. (TRACI, p.745)

Although Alter clearly has motivations for reaching a skeptical conclusion on this question, that does not mean that his analysis is biased or unfair.  I will need to read his treatment of several of the questions and controversies that he covers in TRACI in order to determine whether, and to what extent, his analysis is fair and objective.

TRACI is organized chronologically in keeping with the Gospel stories about the trials, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Here are some of the chapter titles:

Chapter 3: From Crucifixion to Death

Chapter 5: Friday Afternoon until Saturday Morning

Chapter 6: Saturday Evening until Sunday Morning

Chapter 7: The Guard’s Report and the Bribe

Chapter 8: Easter Sunday: Travels, Angelic Encounters,

and an Appearance of Jesus

Chapter 9: Mary Magdalene’s Travels

Chapter 10: The Judas Episodes

Chapter 11: The Two Travelers on Their Way to Emmaus

Chapter 12: Easter Sunday Evening to Peter’s Recommissioning

Chapters contain sub-sections that deal with specific “Issues”.  Each issue is numbered, and by the end of TRACI, Alter has covered 113 different issues.  The “Issues” sections are often further divided into sub-sections concerning “Contradictions” and “Speculations”.  Each such sub-section is numbered, and by the end of TRACI a total of 120 contradictions have been discussed, and 217 speculations have been covered.  Here is an example of one “Issue” that contains subsections that are about “Contradictions” and subsections about “Speculations”:

Issue 15: The Actions of Jesus’s Followers during the Crucifixion and His Death

  • Contradiction #20 The Forsaking of the Disciples
  • Contradiction #21 The Differing Accounts of the Women at the Cross during the Crucifixion
  • Speculation #30 Those Present during Jesus’s Death—the Acquaintances in Luke 23:49
  • Speculation #31 Improbability of the Presence under the Cross
  • Speculation #32 The Theological Agenda of John Regarding “the Beloved Disciple”
  • Speculation #33 Could John Have Possessed a Home?

Atheists and skeptics are familiar with the problem of the existence of numerous apparent contradictions between the four canonical Gospels (sometimes even within the same Gospel). Many such apparent contradictions are discussed by Alter.

What about the “Speculations”?  These appear to be any other topic, besides a contradiciton, that is relevant to the issue of whether Jesus rose from the dead.  Some of the “Speculations” clearly involve skeptical objections or challenges to the resurrection claim (e.g. “Speculation #31 Improbability of Presence under the Cross”), while others deal more with matters of interpretation (e.g. “Speculation #32 The Theological Agenda of John Regarding ‘the Beloved Disciple’ “).