James Bishop is a well known Christian apologist in Christian circles and for good reasons. He’s well read, he knows his material and he knows how to communicate this with his followers. Late 2016 he published an article on “Reasons for Jesus” providing historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. My article will be a critique. I have already spend some time exploring why it is historians cannot prove the resurrection happened, so there will be some overlap between my article and this critique.
Minimal Facts Theory
James mainly focusses on the “minimal facts theory” as provided by Gary Habermas. Habermas “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones” . So let’s take a look at these four facts.
1. Jesus’ crucifixion.
2. Jesus’ burial.
3. Jesus’ empty tomb.
4. Jesus’ post mortem appearances that convinced Paul, James and the disciples that he had been raised from the dead.
And since these four facts are so strongly attested historically, the resurrection is the best explanation for these facts. I, however, will be arguing that James doesn’t have four facts that can serve as evidence for the resurrection, but he only has one fact.
The Gospels as Historical Documents
Right of the bat James makes an error, or at least he doesn’t make it clear what the deal actually is.
“Since we will review the New Testament I want to make the case that we can trust them as historical documents.”
No, we can not trust the New Testament as historical documents. The New Testament contains texts written long after the alleged facts by anonymous authors probably living outside of Palestine who had their information not first hand and not even second hand, but from other written documents and/or oral traditions. The New Testament contains forgeries (letters written not by Paul and Peter for example), later additions and interpolations (John 8 for instance) and the Gospels are misattributed.
James then goes on providing a quote by Bart Ehrman: “Contemporary critical New Testament historian and professor of Religious Studies Bart Ehrman affirms we can make use of the “New Testament Gospels.” He explains that doing so “is not for religious or theological reasons… these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple”.
James uses Ehrman’s book “The New Testament” as a source for this quote. I have the book right here in front of me and there is no such quote on page 229. There is no such quote on the surrounding pages either. I have sifted through another edition of the book, but there was no such quote found on page 229. So I would really like James to show the source he’s using for this quote.
Also, I don’t think he’s being honest when he quotes Ehrman and here’s why:
“Once it is acknowledged that these Gosples are historically problematic, then the problems must be dealt with in a clear and systematic fashion” – Bart Ehrman – The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to Early Christian Writing (page 242)
So should we dismiss the Gospels all together as historical sources? No, we should not.
“We don’t dismiss early American accounts of the Revolutionary War simply because they were written by Americans. We take their biases into consideration and sometimes take their description of events with a pound of salt. But we do not refuse to use them as historical sources. To refuse to use them as sources is to sacrifice the most important avenues to the past we have and on purely ideological, not historical, grounds. So too the Gospels. Whatever one thinks of them as inspired scripture, they can be seen and used as significant historical sources.” Bart Ehrman – Did Jesus Exist? (page 74)
Should we use the Gospels as a source for historical information? Yes. Can we trust the Gospels? No. This might seem like a contradiction but there are methods for getting out historical information from these biased documents.
Archeological Evidence for Jesus
James then goes on claiming there is archeological evidence for support for the Gospels: “Historians note that archaeology supports the gospel accounts which goes a long way in demonstrating that they are grounded within history.” James never tells us what this so called archeological evidence is and how it supports the Gospels.
Another point often brought up by apologists:
“What is usually meant is that the New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing…In this regard, the classics are not as well attested. While this doesn’t guarantee truthfulness, it means that it is much easier to reconstruct the New Testament text”.
It indeed doesn’t guarantee truthfulness. And no, we can not reconstruct the text of the New Testament. Why? Because we don’t have the originals. As long as we don’t have those, we will never know for sure what the original documents said. We can only construct a version of the text using our best available sources, but we will never know what the original text said. Also, scholars have long given up the idea that we can know the original text.
The Refutation of the Minimal Facts
1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion:
Indeed considered to be historically probable since multiple independent sources tell us about it and therefore it can be trusted, but ask yourselves, how Jesus’ crucifixion related to the resurrection? It isn’t. Jesus could have been stoned to death or drowned to death. The crucifixion is not anything that is related inherently to the question of the resurrection. If the fact is that Jesus died, well that’s not much of a noteworthy fact. We all die.
James says: “The crucifixion is independently attested in no less than 11 independent sources from both within and outside of the New Testament: Pre-Mark Passion Narrative, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter 2:24, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, & Cornelius Tacitus. Pre-Mark and Q are very early dating to within years of the actual crucifixion.”
Now the following seems like nitpicking but it is important to stress this out: Pre-Mark and Q are hypothetical sources and not physical. We don’t have any physical copies of Q for example. This separates them from the other sources.
2. Jesus Burial:
Again, how is Jesus being buried related to a resurrection? Being buried (if Jesus ever was, it wasn’t unusual to throw the bodies in a pit after they were crucified) isn’t much of a fact since dead people tend to get buried. Jesus’ body could have been thrown off a cliff into the ocean or cremated. It would make no difference for a resurrection to happen.
3. Jesus’ tomb was found empty:
That the tomb became empty (if there ever was a tomb) can have a lot more probable and plausible reasons than God raising Jesus from the dead. His body could have been robbed by his followers for instance. Our earliest source for Jesus, Paul, never mentions an empty tomb. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Paul says:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”
Where exactly does Paul say there was an empty tomb? Why would he leave out such an important fact? Apologists often argue that Paul implies there was an empty tomb, but as you can read for yourself, Paul implies it nowhere. Yes, if somebody is physically resurrected than they would leave behind an empty grave, but Paul nowhere indicates that an empty tomb was discovered.
On a little side note, Jesus’ appearance to the twelve? Did Jesus show himself to Judas Iscariot? If not then who were the twelve? Do apologists really believe Jesus appeared to the twelve? Remember that in the book of acts, this was all before they elected a twelfth member. If James really think Jesus appeared to the twelve, then please explain that to me.
James presents the following point: “Jesus’ women followers were the first to discover the empty tomb” and James than concludes it passes the criteria of embarrassment. Here’s what Bart Ehrman says about it (I won’t post the whole piece, but I’ll leave the source for it underneath de quote. Ehrman gives excellent reasons why it doesn’t pass the criteria of embarrassment):
“It is often argued by Christian apologists that no one would make up the story of the discovery of the empty tomb precisely because according to these stories, it was women who found the tomb. According to this line of reasoning, women were widely thought of as untrustworthy and, in fact, their testimony could not be allowed in courts of law. According to this view, if someone wanted to invent the notion of a discovered tomb, they would be sure that it was discovered by credible witnesses, namely by the male disciples.
I used to hold this view as well, and so I see its force. But now that I’ve gone more deeply into the matter, I see its real flaw. It suffers, in short, from a poverty of imagination. It does not take much mental effort at all to imagine who would come up with a story in which the female followers of Jesus, rather than the male followers, discovered the tomb.” Bart Ehrman – Source
4. Jesus’ post mortem appearances to believers and unbelievers
When I said James doesn’t have four facts considering the resurrection but one, this is the one I was talking about. But here’s an important question that I would like any apologist to give an historical explanation for. When Jesus appeared to Paul, how did Paul knew it was Jesus? Paul wasn’t one of Jesus’ his earliest disciples so he didn’t know what Jesus’ looked like. I don’t want a supernatural explanation, I don’t want to hear that God told him it was Jesus as this would be a theological explanation. I want a historical explanation.
Does an appearance to somebody mean someone has been raised from the dead physically? If so, what do you do with the Gospel accounts of the transfiguration? Moses and Elijah seem to appear. Where did they come from? Were they both raised from the dead or would you say this was some kind of visionary experience? If it was a visionary experience, how do you know the apostles didn’t have one? Visions happen without physical people being present. Why not visions of Jesus?
Also, in the Syriac tradition Jesus had a twin brother who looked just like him. Maybe Jesus’ followers mistook Jesus his twin brother for Jesus? It’s highly improbable, but still more probable than a miracle and this explanation has the virtue of being plausible.
The Biggest Problem: Historians can’t prove a miracle
This is by far most the biggest issue any apologist has when he or she claims the resurrection can be proven historically. The historical method tells us that somebody being resurrected after being dead for three days is a violation of the known laws of physics and therefore it’s extremely improbable that it did happen. Even if it did happen, it can’t be proven historically since a miracle is the least probable explanation of an event. And the least probable can not be the most probable. The resurrection of Jesus by God is in any case a theological explanation and not a historical one. Apologists argue that Jesus being resurrected by God is the most probable explanation of the so called facts. But even if it were probable, is it plausible? Plausibility is the big issue because unless you posit the existence of God, you can not claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. Historians can not prove what God has done because God is beyond historical proof. Historians have no access to the divine realm. If you think you do, it’s because you are a theologian, not a historian. If you talk about what God has done, you are talking about theology, not history.
The conversions of the early Jews to Christians
“Not to mention, the disciples believed Jesus had appeared to the them so fervently that they were willing to forsake their lives and be imprisoned, tortured, and executed for this belief. Let’s take James, the brother of Jesus for example.”
I really would like to know where the evidence for this claim is, because all we have is based upon later legends. James is just one of the disciples and does not in itself represent every disciple of Jesus.