bookmark_borderThe 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’ “).

bookmark_borderWilliam Craig’s Response to My Objections on the Resurrection

I just found out (purely by accident) that William Craig has read one or more of my posts criticizing his case for the Resurrection and responded to some of my objections:
So, now I need to take a look at his responses, and see whether they are clear, relevant, accurate, etc.
Here are the blog posts of mine that Craig addresses:
Please let me know if you agree with some of Craig’s responses (and explain why you agree),  and if you disagree with some of Craig’s responses (and explain why you disagree).
Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.

bookmark_borderThe Historian’s Job and Christian Apologetics

I am currently writing a work of history. My co-author and I are investigating the nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands by the U.S. from 1946 to 1958. During that period, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests (including some duds) on or near Bikini and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands. These tests produced a total combined yield of 108 megatons, the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb (.015 MT) exploded daily for over nineteen years. Needless to say, unleashing this amount of nuclear force on small coral atolls had a devastating effect, turning them into radiological disaster zones. Bikini had been inhabited by Micronesian people for over 2000 years prior to their evacuation (eviction, really) in 1946. It remains uninhabited to this day. The largest of these tests was Castle Bravo, March 1 (local date), 1954. It was predicted to yield 6 MT, but actually yielded 15 MT, 1000 times the force of the Little Boy bomb that killed 70,000 in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Intensely radioactive fallout rained down on inhabited islands and the crew of the ironically-named Japanese tuna boat, the Lucky Dragon.
Whenever I do any historical research, I am always impressed and often frustrated by how difficult it is to get a straight account of the facts. Some sources say one thing and some say another. Accounts are often fragmentary, leaving the historian to try to piece together a connected narrative. Archival sources are often conflicting and confusing. Politics and ideology enter in at every level. If you rely on government reports, they tend to be written, at least in part, to justify the actions of the agencies and individuals involved. If, on the other hand, you read critics of the government, they obviously are grinding their own axes, and are too credulous with testimony that supports their agendas and too hastily dismiss official claims and arguments. Even scientific or medical reports are often unreliable in one way or another. For instance, it may be that instances of miscarriages and stillbirths among Marshallese women exposed to radiation were underreported to American doctors because of communication problems.
Eyewitnesses are always biased, or at least limited by their own perspectives. With big, complex events, no one witness can give you more than a piece of the story. Besides, eyewitnesses notoriously see what they expect to see rather than what really happened. Also, memories fade over time, and, as has been shown again and again, false “memories” are easily implanted. When controversial claims or issues are involved, all sorts of problems crop up. Conspiracy theories sprout like weeds and cast their shadows over everything. All sources have some problem or other. Some are sketchy just where you need them to be precise. Sometimes you are hotly pursuing something that would be an exciting discovery, only to find that the trail runs cold and crucial facts are missing and unrecoverable. Finally, and essentially, as a historian you have to find ways to constrain your own bias and expectations. Sometimes you are gobsmacked by evidence completely contrary to what you want to say, and you have to have the integrity to deal with it honestly. In short, on a variation of the Gilbert and Sullivan song, the historian’s lot is not an ‘appy one.
Obviously, the above jeremiad is leading up to something: Whenever I hear Christian apologists going on confidently about what happened in and around Jerusalem 2000 years ago, I am simply amazed. With respect to any significant set of historical events, finding out exactly what happened is appallingly difficult, even when, as with my topic, you are writing about events that happened in living memory. Actually, I have many advantages over any historian attempting to reconstruct the events in Palestine circa 30 CE. The events I am studying were meticulously and copiously documented. Whole archives exist with the relevant material. These events were recorded on many different kinds of scientific instruments, were filmed from many angles and locations, and were subjected to minute scientific analysis. Many clearly-identified persons left eyewitness accounts from known locales. Extensive reports were written by observers and participants in the events. For instance, Ōishi Matashichi, one of the unfortunate fishermen irradiated by fallout from Castle Bravo, has recently published his memoirs, The Day the Sun Rose in the West (2011, The University of Hawai’i Press). The events I am writing about were conducted by a society not only literate but scientifically sophisticated and committed to the obsessive documentation of everything. Indeed, the main problem with writing about such a topic is the sheer volume of possible evidence. Yet even with all these advantages, it can be devilishly difficult for the historian of recent events to get all the facts straight.
In contrast, a historian writing about the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth has to deal with evidence that is much scantier and less complete. To take just one of many difficulties, even where hints of eyewitness confirmation exist, details often are completely lacking. In the famous passage from I Corinthians, Chapter 15 Paul mentions the “500” who allegedly saw the risen Jesus. This claim is often adduced as central to the apologists’ case. Paul assures us that some of these 500 are still, alive, implying that you can look them up and ask them about it.  However, what for the modern historian would be crucial information is just not available in Paul’s account. Who were these persons? What were their names? Where did they live? What, exactly, did they see? Did each one know Jesus well so that he could not have been mistaken that it was Jesus he saw? When Jesus appeared before them, was he on a stage or standing on a hill where they could see him clearly? Was it daylight? Did Jesus say anything to authenticate his identity? Why were they gathered together? Had they been told to expect to see the risen Jesus, or did it come as a complete surprise? 500 is a pretty big crowd. Did everybody get close enough for a good look? Can we rule out any possibility here of mass delusion or the “madness of crowds?” Where did Paul get this story? Did he, personally, talk to any of the “500,” or did he hear about them second- or third-hand? Did any leave written accounts of what they experienced? How can we rule out that the whole story of the “500” is not a fabrication or hoax?
Many intelligent and highly educated people (e.g. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli) have accepted and repeated the story about the “500,” without asking the above questions, or at least not taking them seriously enough. This fact is highly indicative of the difference between approaching historical evidence as an apologist and approaching it as a historian. Historians should not be afraid to draw conclusions—but, especially when dealing with obscure events in obscure places long, long ago—they should evince a large degree of humility or (“humble” not being possible for most academics) at least caution. Historians have to follow the evidence—really. If not because they want to, then because they know that other historians will excoriate them if they do not.
Speaking personally (and as close to “humbly” as I can get), I would never presume to think that I knew what events led to the founding of Christianity. Naturally, I could rank some scenarios as more likely than others, but even the most probable of the lot could not be taken as very probable. It was just too long ago, the evidence is too meager, and the imponderables predominate. What happened between the time of Jesus’s crucifixion and the public proclamations that he had risen by the earliest Christians? From my experience of trying to find out exactly what happened a mere 60 years ago, I conclude that nailing down what happened 2000 years ago at the founding of Christianity is not possible. We can guess, we can speculate, we can propose and dispose of scenarios, we can conjecture, we can debate and indulge our imaginations. We cannot know.

bookmark_borderExtreme Unfriendly Theism or Abusive Theism

(This is another item in the “not new, but new for me” category. I was familiar with presuppositionalism, but not this particular presuppositionalist. Based on how radical Cheung’s position is, I guess you could also place this in the “you can’t make this stuff up” category.)
Vincent Cheung is a Christian apologist of the presuppositionalist variety. His website includes two articles which defend his calling all non-Christians “morons”:

In this post, I am simply going to quote some excepts from these articles:

According to Scripture, all non-Christians are morons.

It is important for us to realize that non-Christians are morons and that I am right in stating this as an integral part of the biblical approach to apologetics. This is because if we are going to face our intellectual enemies with Scripture as our weapon, then we better first accept Scripture’s own description of the unbelievers, that they are stupid and depraved. No wonder many Christians are such feeble apologists! They have rejected Scripture’s own description about the situation from the start.

Cheung then turns to philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong to provide an example of what he calls a professional moron. But first Cheung takes issue with William Craig’s performance against Craig:

Then, one day my wife came home and said that she heard William Lane Craig in an interview on a Christian radio program. The interview was mainly to promote this book, and the host of the program asked Craig about several of the issues that were discussed in the debate. My wife thought that Craig’s responses were too uncertain, too tentative, and she wondered whether such weak answers do more damage rather than good for the Christian cause.

Turning to Sinnott-Armstrong, after criticizing various statements and arguments by Sinnott-Armstrong, Cheung offers this assessment:

Look how far the human race has fallen, that someone can be this stupid! Like all other non-Christian scholars, Sinnott-Armstrong is an intellectual fraud. He passes himself off as a professional philosopher, and claims to be one who examines the assumptions behind people’s beliefs. Yet, at essential points in his arguments, he resorts to subjective intuition, common sense, and popular opinion. Professor of philosophy? I would not trust him to teach even elementary school debate. He is better off roaming the streets and picking up soda cans – at least then he would be making an honest living. Where are the scholars? Where are the philosophers? Where are the professors of this world? Has not God made intellectual mincemeat out of them?

You might exclaim, “What?! He calls himself a philosopher, and this is how he argues? What’s wrong with him?!” I already told you – he is a moron.

And elsewhere we get this generalization:

You might exclaim, “What?! Are they stupid or something?” Yes, they are stupid, and these are the same morons who attack your faith and call you irrational. They are desperate and dishonest. They are finding it impossible to remain rational apart from reliance on God’s revelation, but they refuse to admit it.

Cheung makes it absolutely clear the same conclusion holds for any other non-Christian professional philosopher:

I have used Sinnott-Armstrong and Zarefsky only as examples, but all other non- Christian thinkers are just as mentally feeble. Whether it is Michael Martin, Kai Nielsen, or some other non-Christian in the past or present, it makes no difference.

Furthermore, not only are non-Christian philosophers “mentally feeble,” but even small children are intellectually superior to non-Christian professional philosophers:

This brings us to an important point mentioned earlier. Can even children defeat these non-Christian professors in debate? They certainly can, if they are properly trained by their parents and their pastors. God has already made the unbelievers foolish (1 Corinthians 1:20), and he delights in using the lowly things to humiliate the proud (v. 28). Although we should all participate, who better to embarrass non-Christian scholars than the children, the mentally disabled, and the uneducated?

And elsewhere, Cheung writes:

According to Scripture, unbelievers are nothing but spiritual and intellectual fecal matter. Otherwise, why in the world do you think they need to convert? Why do you think that they are helpless apart from God’s sovereign grace?

He concludes:

Under biblically-approved conditions, we are permitted, and at times even duty-bound, to use biblical invectives against unbelievers and heretics. We do not call them “morons” or “feces” out of personal vindictiveness, but to proclaim what Scripture says about them, and to declare to them that they are not the rational and decent people that they imagine themselves to be.

Let us hope that Cheung’s apologetics is as fringe to Christian apologetics, as Westboro Baptist Church is to Christian churches.