Historicity “arguments”

I subscribe to this Christian apologetics blog, because I hate myself because I find it interesting to understand more about how Christians think about their faith, and because I don’t want my online reading to isolate me in a bubble of those who agree with me. Recently, they posted a link dump with a pointer to an article that promised to outline the arguments for the historicity of Jesus’s empty tomb. And you know me — I love arguments! If someone’s actually going to try to present evidence of a thing they want me to believe, I’m totally down.

So, what are all these great arguments?

The word resurrection means bodily resurrection: Well, fine. This is a side point that has nothing at all to do with whether a resurrection happened. There is one interesting bit I want to quote from this section, though:

It’s significant that the belief in the resurrection started off in the city where the tomb was located. Anyone, such as the Romans or Jewish high priests, who wanted to nip the movement in the bud could easily have produced the body to end it all. They did not do so, because they could not do so, although they had every reason to do so.

While this isn’t a highlighted “argument,” it sounds like an argument to me, but it’s still a silly one. When exactly did the resurrection belief start? How public was that belief — were people shouting it in the streets or was it private? Did the establishment care at all, or were they indifferent to just another messianic cult? We need a lot more clarity before this line can be convincing. Otherwise, it sounds like something the birthers would say.

There are multiple early, eyewitness sources for the empty tomb: And what are these sources? The Bible books of Corinthians and Mark (or, some older narrative from which the book of Mark was adapted). Sorry, “someone wrote down a story in which it happened like this” doesn’t overcome the enormous weight of our prior knowledge that people don’t rise from the dead. There’s a smidgen of extra weight here because the authors could have been eyewitnesses, i.e., the texts were probably written by people who would have been alive when Jesus* was crucified. But plenty of novels are written today set in the recent past, and this obviously doesn’t mean everything in those novels is true or even likely to be true. Moreover, “multiple” sources? You just cited the Bible twice!

Lack of legendary embellishments: Yep, I would expect the story to get more elaborate over time, as more converts were won and more people’s identities centered around this story. This is not an argument for the truth of the original assertion, however. We would expect this outcome whether or not the original story was fact.

The eyewitness testimony of the women: The eyewitness testimony? The women? The so-called testimony is part of the Bible, which was not written by “the women,” and may just be made-up dialogue. The Bible doesn’t even have its story straight on how many women and which ones were there, let alone what that woman/those women reported seeing. I understand that the testimony of women wouldn’t have been highly valued in those times — but I’m also mindful of how someone looking back on our time from 2000 years in the future might interpret our society’s views of women and the value of women’s perspectives, and I’m not sure someone would sum us up much more favorably. Bottom line, I’m not convinced that the women-are-involved-zomg aspect of this story is more than a tiny tick-mark in the “possibly true” column. The scientist in me cringes at the thought of calling this evidence; it’s a suggestion at best.

The earliest response from the Jewish high priests assumes the empty tomb: There’s a reference here to “the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection” but neither this post nor the William Lane Craig article it links to give a specific citation I could follow. I suspect we’re just inferring the existence of some polemic because Matthew 28:11-15 sounds like it refutes some Jewish argument. In that case, we’re using a Bible story as evidence of an external source that, if it existed, would corroborate the story in the Bible. Like … seriously? And besides, given the number of times I’ve seen people “refute” strawman arguments that weren’t even being made, or build up an offhanded comment into some kind of major challenge from the opposition in order to build up their supporters’ enthusiasm, I’m not really feeling this as compelling evidence.

So … yeah. I know I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up, but … that was awfully disappointing. If anyone out there has actual arguments (beyond “the Bible says so” or non sequiturs) for the historical truth of just about any religious claim, let me know! I would even be open to a guest post here, so you can get the news out to my atheist subscribers.

 

* People were crucified in the Roman empire in that time in history, and there were also an abundance of messianic/doomsday cults among the Jews. I concede that the Jesus narrative may be “based on a true story” in the Hollywood sense, but I don’t mean to say that because some cult leader’s crucifixion might have been the starting point of Christianity that any and all statements about the life of Jesus are also true. [back]

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. There’s a reference here to “the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection” but neither this post nor the William Lane Craig article it links to give a specific citation I could follow. I suspect we’re just inferring the existence of some polemic because Matthew 28:11-15 sounds like it refutes some Jewish argument. In that case, we’re using a Bible story as evidence of an external source that, if it existed, would corroborate the story in the Bible. Like … seriously?

    I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what they’re doing. In The Case for Christ, William Lane Craig makes this same argument – treating a gospel verse telling us what the Jews said and did about the resurrection as if it were independent attestation from a Jewish source. It’s probably not a coincidence that they don’t spell this out, because otherwise the circularity would be too obvious.

    Lack of legendary embellishments: Yep, I would expect the story to get more elaborate over time, as more converts were won and more people’s identities centered around this story. This is not an argument for the truth of the original assertion, however. We would expect this outcome whether or not the original story was fact.

    Because the resurrection story in the canonical gospels, which includes a three-hour darkness over all the earth, the veil in the temple being supernaturally torn at that exact moment, and a mass resurrection of dead saints, lacks legendary elements? :)

    Also, regarding the testimony of the women: If women were the first person to come across the empty tomb, why aren’t they mentioned in the creed in 1 Corinthians that Christian apologists consider to be one of the earliest independent sources attesting to the resurrection?

Leave a Reply