bookmark_borderResponse to William Lane Craig – Part 3

I have criticized William Craig’s case for the resurrection on the grounds that he fails to show that Jesus died on the cross, and that apart from proving this to be a fact, his case for the resurrection of Jesus is a complete failure.
Craig’s primary response to this criticism is that the death of Jesus on the cross is uncontroversial among biblical scholars:
The reason that I personally have not devoted any space to a discussion of the death of Jesus by crucifixion is that this fact is not in dispute.  This historical fact is not one that is controversial among biblical scholars. 
http://www.reasonablefaith.org/establishing-the-crucifixion-of-jesus  (viewed 11/11/15)
Craig then quotes two biblical scholars in order to support his point:  Luke Timothy Johnson and Robert Funk, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.
In the previous post in this series, my main response to Craig is to point out that (a) the judgment of Evangelical Christian biblical scholars on this question does not carry much weight, and that (b) biblical scholars who are more skeptical about the reliablility of the Gospels, such as Luke Johnson and Robert Funk, DO NOT BELIEVE that it is an historical FACT that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday,  less than 48 hours after Jesus was (allegedly) crucified.”
Because Johnson and Funk (and other scholars who are skeptical about the historical reliability of the Gospels) don’t believe this to be a fact, their judgment that is it highly probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross is NOT RELEVANT to William Craig’s case for the PHYSICAL resurrection of Jesus.   Because Johnson and Funk DO NOT BELIEVE that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, they (unlike Craig) don’t have a strong reason to doubt Jesus’ death on the cross on Friday.  Craig, on the other hand, believes it to be an historical FACT that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, so Craig (unlike Johnson and Funk) has a very strong reason to doubt that Jesus was crucified on Friday and that he died on the cross that same day.
A second response to Craig’s main point is that given the skeptical assumptions made by biblical scholars like Luke Johnson and Robert Funk, it is doubtful that their great confidence in the crucifixion of Jesus and in the death of Jesus on the cross is rationally justified.  I will now focus my attention on the development of this second response to Craig’s main point.
The Devil is in the Details
Although biblical scholars who are more skeptical about the Gospels (than Evangelical Christian biblical scholars) do sometimes make general statements about the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the cross being highly probable or nearly certain, when we look into the details of their views about the Gospels and about the stories about Jesus being crucified, we see that they don’t  actually have adequate grounds for their confident judgments that Jesus’ crucifixion and death on the cross are firmly established historical facts.
Since Craig has quoted from Luke Timothy Johnson as an example of a biblical scholar who is very confident that Jesus was crucified and that Jesus died on the cross,  I will begin by taking a closer look at Johnson’s evidence and reasons for his great confidence about these historical claims in the light of Johnson’s own skeptical assumptions about the Gospels.
First of all, the typical Evangelical Christian will think that the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and death of Jesus are sufficient to prove that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.  But Johnson would not agree with this assumption, because he has a more skeptical view about the historical reliability of the Gospels.  Johnson compares the Gospel accounts about Jesus with the accounts that we have of Socrates, and he finds the Gospels to be more questionable and problematic than the accounts we have of Socrates:
The problems facing the seeker of the historical Jesus are even more severe [than the problems facing the seeker of the historical Socrates].  Although the biographies of Jesus…were composed within forty to sixty years of Jesus’ death, that is still greater than the memoirs about Socrates composed by Xenophon and Plato.  Socrates, furthermore, was remembered by disciples who were longtime companions and eyewitnesses.  Although the Gospels undoubtedly bear within them evidence of firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses, such material is not identified as such, and the narratives as a whole were most probably composed by authors of the generation after that of Jesus’ immediate followers. (The Real Jesus, 1st paperback edition, p.107)
According to Johnson, the Gospels were NOT written by “disciples who were longtime companions and eyewitnesses” of the life or death of Jesus.
Johnson allows that the authors of the Gospels might well have used some information from “firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses”, but he points out that we don’t know when they are doing so.  Suppose that half of the information contained in one of the Gospels was based on “firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses”.  That could be true even if the passion narratives (which tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death on the cross) in all four Gospels were pure fiction.  
If we knew that half of the information in a particular Gospel was based on “firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses”, then we might infer that at least half of the events or details in the Gospel were historically reliable (although without knowing anything about the personality, character, history, mental health and intelligence of the persons who were the supposed eyewitnesses, this would be a questionable inference), but since we don’t know which events or details have such backing, it would be the toss of a coin as to whether a given event or detail had such eyewitness evidence behind it.  But we don’t even know this much.  We don’t know whether 10% of the events and details of a particular Gospel are based on “firsthand sources and even eyewitnesses” or  whether 30%  or 50% or 70% of events and details are based on such evidence.  Thus, the weak concession that Johnson makes here is of little significance.
Johnson goes on to note further problems concerning the historical reliability of the Gospels:
As for the Gospels themselves, the critical problems they pose the historian are notorious.  The most obvious and fundamental difficulty is that they are all written from the perspective of faith, a perspective that affects not just one part of the story or another, but the entire narrative from beginning to end.  Depsite sharing a faith perspective, the four Gospels dramatically disagree in their accounts.  The greatest difference is between John and the three Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).
All critical scholars agree that the reason for the strong similarity among the three Synoptics is that they are literarily interdependent.  According to  the majority scholarly opinion concerning this interdependence, Matthew and Luke both use Mark in the construction of their narratives…the synoptic interdependence means that, for strictly historical purposes, these three Gospels in reality represent a single source.  (TRJ, p.107-108)
The content of the Gospels is shaped by ideology and theology, and the Gospel don’t provide us with four independent accounts of the life of Jesus, but only one or possibly two accounts, since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke use Mark as a primary source of their information about Jesus.
Johnson goes on to point out several significant inconsistencies between the Synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John, and then comes to a skeptical conclusion:
So many and fundamental are the discrepancies between John and the Synoptics that one of the earliest decisions made by the first “questers” for the historical Jesus was to abandon John as a historical source altogether. …Further research has shown that elements of John’s Gospel may well have value as historical evidence; equally significant, the confidence of earlier scholars in the bedrock solidity of the synoptic story line has yielded to the recognition of authorial creativity there as well. …The point I want to make is that the present shape of the canonical Gopsels is not such as to encourage the historian. (TRJ, p.108)
The Gospel of John was previously believed to be completly unreliable, but now scholars think there may be some historical nuggets here and there in that Gospel, and there is also a “recognition of authorial creativity” in the other Gospels, so all four Gospels are believed to contain some degree of fiction and falsehood, with John being the most historically unreliable of the bunch.
Let’s summarize Johnson’s skeptical view of the Gospels:  they were not written by eyewitnesses; some events and details might well be based on firsthand or eyewitness sources but there is no clear indication as to which events or details are so grounded; they were composed forty to sixty years after the (alleged) crucifixcion of Jesus; the contents of the Gospels are thouroughly shaped by Christian ideology and theology;  there are several significant inconsistencies between the Gospels;  the three Synoptic gospels consitute only ONE historical source, because Matthew and Luke used Mark as a primary source; the Gospel of John is historically unreliable, and although the Synoptics are not as unreliable as John, their authors did sometimes make stuff up (“authorial creativity”).
Given this skeptical view of the nature of the Gospels, it should be clear that the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion are NOT SUFFICENT to prove that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross, nor are they sufficient to show that it is highly probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.  Yet, Johnson claims that it is highly probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.
Johnson reaches this conclusion on the basis of “converging lines of evidence”.   He reviews evidence from “outsiders” (non-Christian authors) as well as “non-narrative New Testament” writings in order to show that some key points of the Gospel accounts are supported by other historical sources.   Some key points, such as the crucifixion of Jesus, are mentioned by various “outsiders” as well as in various “non-narrative” N.T. writings, and according to the “method of convergence” the additional support from these other writings makes the crucifixion of Jesus, and some other key Gospel claims about Jesus, highly probable.
The Gospels by themselves are not sufficient to make it highly probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross,  but with the addition of “outsiders” evidence and “non-narrartive” N.T. evidence,  Johnson believes we can show these claims to be highly probable.
It is now time to dive into the details of Johnson’s thinking, the details supporting his view that the historical claim that Jesus was crucified and that Jesus died on the cross are nearly certain or highly probable.  It is in these details that, I believe, we will find the devil lurking.
To be continued…
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Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.
 

bookmark_borderResponse to Dr. William Lane Craig – Part 2

In my previous post on this topic, I argued that although I do not consider myself to be a scholar, I do have an extensive background in philosophy that qualifies me as being a well-informed intellectual (BA in philosophy from Sonoma State University, MA in philosophy from the University of Windsor, and completion of all requirements for a PhD in philosophy, except for the dissertation, at UC Santa Barbara).
William Craig’s Main Point
I’m now going to respond to the main point made by William Craig, which he stated up front, at the beginning of his response to my criticism of his case for the resurrection of Jesus:
The reason that I personally have not devoted any space to a discussion of the death of Jesus by crucifixion is that this fact is not in dispute.  This historical fact is not one that is controversial among biblical scholars.
Craig continues by giving some examples to support his claim about biblical scholars:
For example, Luke Johnson, who is a New Testament scholar of some renown at Emory University says, “The support for the mode of his death, its agents, and perhaps its coagents, is overwhelming: Jesus faced a trial before his death, was condemned and executed by crucifixion.”  In fact, the death of Jesus is so well established that according to Robert Funk, who was the co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, the crucifixion was “one indisputable fact” that neither the early Christians  nor their opponents could deny. That remains similar today.  The crucifixion and the death of Jesus is something that is simply not in dispute by historians today.
Consensus of Scholars vs. Strength of Evidence
A consensus among biblical scholars is rare, so if there is a consensus among biblical scholars that Jesus was crucified and died  on the cross, then that is clearly a point in favor of Craig’s view.  However, what is most important is not that there is consensus, but the strength of the evidence and reasons that form the basis of the judgments of these biblical scholars.  If the evidence and reasons are weak, then the consensus of scholars does not magically make the evidence strong.  A consensus of biblical scholars suggests that the evidence is strong, but does not by itself prove that the evidence is strong.  I prefer to look at the evidence for myself, and to do my own thinking.
Funk is NOT as Confident in Jesus’ Death and Crucifixion as Craig Implies
There is no date or specific reference for the quote attributed to Robert Funk about the crucifixion of Jesus (Craig’s footnote says only this: “Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.”), so I cannot assess the meaning and significance of that quotation in context.  But I do have a copy of Robert Funk’s book Honest to Jesus (HarperCollins, 1996; hereafter: HTJ), in which he discusses his views on the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus:
There is nothing in the Christian story, so far as I can see, that is immune from doubt.  The crucifixion of Jesus is not entirely beyond question. …We do not know for a fact that he was buried.  His body may have been left to rot on the cross, to become carrion for dogs and crows.  What we have come to call the resurrection…is nowhere narrated directly, except in the highly imaginative account in the Gospel of Peter.  The reports of his appearances vary so widely with respect to location, time, and witness that we cannot particularize what sort of an event those appearances were.  And very few scholars believe that the birth stories are anything other than attempts to claim that Jesus was a remarkable person.  Even the existence of Jesus has been challenged more than once and not without some justification.  We should begin by admitting that all of these myths and legends may rest on nothing other than the fertile imagination of early believers. (HTJ, p.219-220)
Funk admits that even the existence of Jesus is subject to rational doubts, and he admits that the “crucifixion of Jesus is not entirely beyond question.”  Furthermore, Funk makes comments about the crucifixion of Jesus that support a skeptical viewpoint about it:
We know very few things for certain about the death of Jesus and the events that led up to it.  (HTJ, p.220)
Most of Jesus’ followers fled during or after his arrest, but a few, especially the women, and Mary of Magdala in particular, may have witnessed the crucifixion.  We do not know how their memories came to inform the creation of a passion narrative many decades later, if indeed that narrative reflects any eyewitness observations at all. (HTJ, p.220)
So, from Funk’s point of view, the twelve apostles were NOT eyewitnesses of the crucifixion, and furthermore, although some women “may have”  witnessed the crucifixion, we don’t know whether the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus reflect “any eyewitness observations at all.”   Given these skeptical assumptions, it is difficult to see how Funk could be certain or even highly confident in the claim that “Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.”
 Many Biblical Scholars Do NOT Believe that Jesus was Alive and Walking Around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday
It is interesting that the first two examples of biblical scholars that Craig points to are scholars who DON’T BELIEVE that Jesus rose from the dead.  More specifically, neither Luke Johnson nor Robert Funk believe that Jesus PHYSICALLY rose from the dead.  So, neither Johnson nor Funk believe that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after Jesus was (allegedly) crucified.”  Funk makes it clear that he does not believe that Jesus PHYSICALLY came back to life:
The Jesus Seminar decided not to duck this issue [of whether Jesus rose PHYSICALLY from the dead]: The fellows reached  a fairly firm consensus: Belief in Jesus’ resurrection did not depend on what happened to his corpse. They are supported in this by the judgment of many contemporary scholars.  Jesus’ resurrection did not involve the resuscitation of a dead body.  About three-fourths of the Fellows believe that Jesus’ followers did not know what happened to his body. (HTJ, p.259)
Luke Johnson is more vague and less straightforward (than Funk), and it is harder to pin down his beliefs about the resurrection,  but in his book The Writings of the New Testament (revised edition, Fortress Press, 1999: hereafter: WONT) he seems to hold a view that is similar to that of Funk and the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar:
 The resurrection faith, then, was not the conviction that Jesus had resumed his life for a time and appeared to some of his followers.  It was a conviction, corroborated by the present experience of his power even years after his death, that he was alive in a new and powerful way; that he shared, indeed, God’s life.  (WONT, p.117)
The experience of the resurrection is not about vague and vaporous visions.  It is not a belief that Jesus was resuscitated and then resumed his former way of living.  It does not derive from insights into Jesus’ life.  The Christian witness of the resurrection does not say that Jesus was spotted in passing by a few people before disappearing. …
It is clear, then, that the resurrection experience cannot be confined to the narratives of the Gospels, for the fundamental experience and conviction were available to those who neither saw the tomb nor had a vision of Jesus.   The experience of his powerful presence was possible because he was alive and caused it. (WONT, p.114)
For Johnson, the “resurrection” refers not to an event in which the dead body of Jesus comes back to life, but to a religious experience of the “powerful  presence” of Jesus that is available to any Christian believer at any point in history.  Note also that Johnson contrasts this common sort of religious experience not with the ordinary sensory experiences of the apostles who (allegedly) saw, touched, and talked with a living, walking, talking, and physically embodied Jesus, but rather with having a “vision of Jesus”.  In other words, the apostles did not experience a living Jesus in a physical body on Easter Sunday.  On Johnson’s view, the apostles had various visions of Jesus, not sensory experiences of a living and embodied Jesus (see also p.133-136 of The Real Jesus by Luke Johnson)
I suspect that Craig is aware that neither Johnson nor Funk believe that Jesus’s body came back to life on Easter Sunday, and that this is partly why he chose to quote Johnson and Funk.  If instead of quoting these more skeptical biblical scholars, Craig had quoted the opinion of  an Evangelical biblical scholar (e.g. Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, D.A. Carson, Robert Gundry, Craig Keener, Robert Stein), I and other skeptics would respond that “Of course so-and-so believes that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross; he is an Evangelical Christian scholar, and so he believes that whatever the Gospel accounts say must be true.”  The fact that there is a consensus among Evangelical Christian scholars that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross does not carry much weight.  Thus, Craig quotes from more skeptical biblical scholars who are outside of the Evangelical Christian fold, in order to give examples that carry more weight and significance.
But the views of more skeptical and more liberal biblical scholars on this issue are ALSO problematic, and are ALSO generally lacking weight and significance.  Craig fails to notice that there is a crucially important difference between his point of view, and the point of view of skeptical biblical scholars like Luke Johnson and Robert Funk:  they DO NOT BELIEVE that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after Jesus was (allegedly) crucified.”  Craig not only believes this to be true, he believes that this is an historical FACT, or that it can be firmly established on the basis of historical facts. Since, Johnson and Funk do not believe this, they have NO SPECIFIC REASON to doubt that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.  If they did believe it to be an historical fact that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, then they might well be much LESS confident about the claim that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross on the Friday prior to Easter Sunday.
The probability of a claim is always relative to the information and assumptions that one takes into consideration.  There is a fundamental and critical difference between the information and assumptions that Johnson and Funk take into consideration when making a judgment about the probability of the claim “Jesus was crucified and died on the cross” as compared with the information and assumptions that Craig takes into consideration (or should take into consideration) when making a judgment about the probability of this claim about the death of Jesus.   Craig assumes that it is an HISTORICAL FACT that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after Jesus was (allegedly) crucified”  but Johnson and Funk make no such assumption, and thus they DO NOT take this claim into consideration when making a judgment of the probability of the claim that “Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.”
The relevant question at issue has NOT YET been considered by either Johnson or Funk:
IF you became convinced that it was an historical FACT that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after the Friday when he was (allegedly) crucified, THEN would you still judge it to be nearly certain or highly probable that Jesus was crucified on Friday and that Jesus died on the cross that same day?
Unless and until biblical scholars issue judgments on THIS QUESTION, their judgments are of little significance to the view that William Craig is defending (i.e. belief in the PHYSICAL resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday).
The Devil is in the Details
Although biblical scholars who are more skeptical about the Gospels (than Evangelical Christian biblical scholars) do sometimes make general statements about the crucifixion and death of Jesus being highly probable or nearly certain, when we look into the details of their views about the Gospels and about the stories about Jesus being crucified, we see that they don’t  actually have adequate grounds for their confident judgments that Jesus’ crucifixion and death on the cross are firmly established historical facts.
This will be the main issue covered in my next post on this topic.
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Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.