Understanding ancient events

Ben closes his presentation with one last, short argument, and a summary.

A fifth feature, similar to the criterion of embarrassment, is the use of hostile witnesses. The earliest Jewish arguments against Christianity, for example, accuse the disciples of having stolen the body. This is important because it involves an incidental admission of a fact that was operating against the Sanhedrin attempts to suppress the spread of Christian belief: That the tomb was empty. Paul Maier argues that, “if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favour, the fact is to be presumed genuine.”

As with some of his other arguments, this one cuts both ways: an empty tomb is one that does not contain a resurrected Jesus either. If the early Christians had had an actual, risen Savior, the presence of Jesus would have consumed their attention to the point that nobody would care about his absence from the tomb. The early Christian emphasis on the tomb very strongly suggests that it was the only part of the post-crucifixion narrative that had any basis in fact. In this context, it is Matthew, and not the Sanhedrin, who is a hostile witness against himself when he testifies that disciples were commonly known or believed to have moved the body, even before Christians were influential enough to want to suppress.

There’s lots more that could be said on that point, but a lot of it I’ve said before, here and elsewhere. Let’s leave that for now and move on to his summary, which does raise some interesting discussion.

Here’s how he wraps up his comment:

I do not claim that these features prove the resurrection. I merely note that they speak against the idea that it is impossible to supply cogent arguments for the historicity of the Gospels and the events they describe. Personally I see touches of mythological embellishment and apologetic finessing here and there. But more than this I am struck by an aura of numinous mystery of which the texts together provide an insurmountable, if somewhat inconclusive, indication.

I really do think it would be a shame for you to dismiss that out of hand on the basis of exaggerated evidential standards. After all, in doing so, you are essentially committing yourself to a denial of history itself as a valid source of knowledge about the past since the documentary evidence for Christ’s resurrection is greater than that for any alleged miracle in all history.

As I’ve mentioned before, I came to my current conclusions about the Gospel while still a Christian, so whatever exaggerated evidential standards I had at the time were exaggerated in Christianity’s favor. The more I applied a consistent evidential standard standard, though, the more clearly I saw that my faith rested on “evidences” that I would never accept as valid documentation for any other religion. The boasts of apologists notwithstanding, the “documentary evidence” for the resurrection boils down to believing whatever certain people say, despite obvious inconsistencies both internal and external to their stories, just because they said so.

Ben himself is, in some sense, aware of the problems with his evidence, since he admits that it is “inconclusive” while at the same time declaring it to be “insurmountable.” It is obvious that something significant did happen in the first century (hence the “insurmountable”), and yet the available evidence is not really consistent with an actual, literal, physical resurrection (hence the “inconclusive”). Something happened, but probably not anything as supernaturally “mysterious” as believers wish had happened.

So what can we learn from history, given the documentary evidence we currently have? First of all, let’s suppose that two thousand years of Christian influence have not significantly degraded the intellect, integrity, or character of the modern believer. Let’s suppose, in other words, that ancient believers were pretty much like believers today.

What are people like today? For one thing, they have a certain appetite for the sensational, as opposed to the strictly scientifically accurate. Why is the History Channel doing “reality” shows about UFO’s and ghosts? They used to have some really good, educational programming—genuine history—that you could learn a lot from. Unfortunately, people stayed away in droves. People don’t want education, they want sensation. Sensation sells.

That’s people in general, but believers in particular aren’t all that different, especially when the sensational stories reinforce their faith. You may remember the story of the Columbine shootings, where a student bore witness to her Christian faith, and was martyred for it. It turned out later to be untrue, but I bet you heard it anyway. Sensationalism doesn’t merely sell, it spreads. People share the stories that have an impact.

What kind of stories do believers find impressive? There are a number of different types, but most of them have a common characteristic of reinforcing what the believer thinks ought to be true. More significantly, they also share a characteristic of having happened to someone else—someone sufficiently removed that you have a hard time tracking down exactly what happened, when, where, how, and to whom.

For example, someone at a Bible study I attended shared a story about a group of Russian Christians whose worship services kept getting raided by the KGB. They realized that one of their members must be a secret KGB agent who was turning them in, so they came up with a plan. Instead of announcing where their next meeting was going to be, they announced that the Holy Spirit would tell each believer where and when to meet. At their next meeting, every believer showed up, except one. The agent was exposed as a traitor, and the true believers were never raided again.


I remember that story very clearly, and you probably will too. It’s just so perfect, especially if you’re a believer. But when, exactly, did this story take place? Where? To whom? What was the name of the secret KGB agent? It must be true, since it validates the power of God (amirite?), but you have to just take the storyteller’s word for it, because there’s no way to check it out. I was a believer, and I accepted these stories as legit, but over time I started to get frustrated by the invisible barrier that always surrounds such stories. You can approach each one up to a certain point, but no closer.

Another characteristic of these stories is that they frequently report a believer’s subjective, “spiritual” experiences in the language of tangible, concrete events, and these reports, when repeated, tend to emphasize the aspects of the story that make it sound objectively real. This, coupled with the “happened to someone else” factor, results in stories that are widely shared, that assume a more or less canonical form, and that end up surrounded by that invisible barrier that prevents anyone from getting close enough to determine what really happened. By the time it becomes a tale of miraculous experiences, it has become disconnected from the reality that originally spawned it, and thus impossible to verify.

These stories have other factors in common as well, but the last one I want to specifically mention is superstition: people attributing supernatural causes to ordinary events. This, again, frequently involves people describing some kind of inner, subjective, “spiritual” perception, using the language of literal, concrete events. In this case, though, they apply these perceptions to real-world events, which gives the story an added boost of sensationalism, while simultaneously making the supernatural aspects sound more credible by association.

How many stories have you heard from people who were supposed to be on some plane flight that crashed and killed everyone on board? People miss their flights all the time and nobody sees anything miraculous about it—until something sensationally bad happens to the people who caught their flight. Then their stories of supernatural intervention become as sensational as the disaster itself, even though the people telling the story can never tell you exactly what it was that God did that was supernatural, or why He didn’t give everyone else the same benefit of His benevolent intervention. The supernatural association is a purely subjective, superstitious one, but it’s reported as a matter of objective fact.

And here’s the most important part: none of the people involved in spreading these stories is in any way being intentionally and deliberately dishonest. There’s no desire to deceive, only a desire to impress people by telling a story that will make them say, “Wow!” It is spontaneous, honest, well-intentioned communication that has the side effect of transforming mundane experiences into something that goes well beyond the truth. It’s just the way that people are.

Maybe some disciples did steal the body of Jesus, just like the Jews were saying they did. Maybe they stole it without the knowledge or consent of the apostles. Maybe the apostles, emotionally traumatized by this new shock, had some hallucinations (as many people do when bereaved), and reported them using the language of real, concrete experience. Maybe the ones that stole the body, seeing that Jesus did not, in fact, rise from the dead, lost faith, and kept the actual burial site a secret out of fear of retaliation from the Jews (or the Christians).

All of this is consistent with the documentary evidence we have from that period, with what we know about how believers think and speak and act, and most importantly with the absence of an actual, resurrected Jesus. That’s something that the Gospel accounts can never account for: why Jesus, having allegedly achieved everything he set out to accomplish, is not still here. The story of the Ascension comes out of nowhere, unpredicted, unexpected, accomplishing nothing but to get Jesus out of the picture so that Christians don’t have to explain his absence. And from a Christian perspective, the consequences of that abrupt departure have been disastrous: heresy, sectarianism, cults, holy wars, false prophets—you name it. We live in daily fear, enslaved and imprisoned by our own governments, because of Islamic terrorists who wouldn’t even exist if there were a resurrected Lord and Savior abiding in Jerusalem since the first century.

Christians can try and think up plausible excuses for why Jesus would want to abandon us after allegedly making it possible to be with us forever. The secular explanation, however, does not need to explain Jesus’ absence, because it predicts it. It is simpler, and closer to reality, because all it needs in order to account for the documentary evidence is to assume that believers then were pretty much like believers now, ready to hear and share sensational stories, and to tell them in a way that makes them a story worth passing on, at the expense of historical accuracy.

That’s a consistent evidential standard, too. Apply it to any religious story, from any religion. Apply it to urban legends like UFO’s and ghosts. You’ll get consistent results, an accurate understanding of how the real world really works, and maybe a bit more than you really want to know about how people choose their worldviews.

So many thanks to Ben for bringing up these topics, and I hope that he will continue to contribute. I still have a few replies of his in the queue, and if any of them raise points deserving doing a blog post on, I’ll be happy to promote them here.


  1. says

    “if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favour, the fact is to be presumed genuine.”

    I always thought that was a silly bit of reasoning. One other possibility is that a source might admit facts that are in its favor, but the favor is concealed. That’s the essence of Socratic argument: get your opponent to agree to something that will lead them into a contradiction 3 moves later. It’s just thinking ahead. Socrates got to get away with a lot, also, because he had the scriptwriter on his side.

    Further, it’s a cheap rhetorical trick that abuses the word “fact” By saying “X is a fact” it encourages the reader to make an error of accepting something as factual that may not be – it is a “claim” until it is established with evidence or argument from evidence. If we were to phrase it in a non-manipulative way, we might say:
    “if a source accepts as valid evidence something that is decidedly not in its favour, that argues in favor of the evidence”
    That sounds much more ambiguous, doesn’t it? That’s because the powerful verbal manipulation of “fact” is omitted.

    The “argument against evidence” argument is also a favorite lever of con-men. When someone is watching a game of 3 Card Monte and sees one player in the crowd appearing to win over and over again, they become prone to accept that the game is not rigged. “After all,” they reason, the “Monte game is giving all this money to that person in the crowd!” The game is rigged at two levels, that’s all; the “winner” in the crowd is another con-man who is colluding with the Monte game. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the house. In fact simple collusion trivially explains a lot of biblical phenomena. “Arise, Lazarus” is Lazarus’ cue to stop playing dead. It’s a trick faith-healers have been using for millenia. And, not to go all David Hume on you, but which is more likely, that a guy rose from the dead, or that a con-man’s shill stopped playing dead on command? I bet that if there had been a Roman centurion handy to order Lazarus’ “corpse”s head hacked off with a sword “mortuorum non sapiunt” Lazarus would have miraculously returned to life and beaten retreat as fast as his sandals could carry him.

  2. Bruce says

    There’s another point from the parable of the Russian believers who used the Holy Spirit to beat the KGB, which reflects back on the gospels. How could any Russian believer, or anyone else, not notice the significance of getting Holy Spirit action? For almost 2000 years, believers have prayed in vain for any evidence that any of this is real. If a real, magical miracle really helped them beat the KGB, then that proof of the divine would be literally as impressive and significant as the crucifixion and resurrection themselves. As true believers, they should have been eager to risk their lives to spread specific evidence of the unique proof of their faith. Better for all of them to die in KGB jails if only it let them give 6-7 billion people the first real proof that all this is real. If the story were really believed by them to be true, then some of them would have spread the word, at least enough for a few first names.
    Similarly with the resurrection, if people believed it then, then they would have saved more info. But virtually no info exists. So it much better fits an urban legend on Snopes. In both cases.

  3. says

    For almost 2000 years, believers have prayed in vain for any evidence that any of this is real.

    If you consider all the prayers of all the Britons who have ever prayed “god save the {king|queen}*” as a long-term epidemiological study regarding the effectiveness of prayer, I think that the case is made. With millions praying for the scions of House Windsor every day, if it was going to have some kind of effect they wouldn’t have seen their empire in decline and their heir apparent a droopheaded doofus. Further, the existence of Las Vegas as a profitable business shows that the prayers of all the gamblers don’t outweigh the fewer (no matter how fervent) prayers of the casino owners.

    (* Rather tellingly, nobody seems to have thought of a prayer like “god save England”)

  4. Holms says

    The investigation of prayer using the English royal family has already been done, in 1872, by Francis Galton. Guess what? No correlation. Scroll down for the table of figures.

    “The sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence. The prayer has therefore no efficacy, unless the very questionable hypothesis be raised, that the conditions of royal life may naturally be yet more fatal, and that their influence is partly, though incompletely, neutralized by the effects of public prayers.

    It will be seen that the same table collates the longevity of clergy, lawyers, and medical men. We are justified in considering the clergy to be a far more prayerful class than either of the other two. It is their profession to pray, and they have the practice of offering morning and evening family prayers in addition to their private devotions. A reference to any of the numerous published collections of family prayers will show that they are full of petitions for temporal benefits. We do not, however, find that the clergy are in any way more tong lived in consequence. It is true that the clergy, as a whole show a life-value of 69.49, as against 68.14 for the lawyers, and 67.31 for the medical men; but the easy country life and family repose of so many of the clergy are obvious sanatory conditions in their favour This difference is reversed when the comparison is made between distinguished members of the three classes – that is to say, between persons of sufficient note to have had their lives recorded in a biographical dictionary. When we examine this category, the value of life among the clergy, lawyers, and medical men is as 66.42, 66.51, and 67.07 respectively, the clergy being the shortest lived of the three. Hence the prayers of the clergy for protection against the perils and dangers of the night, for protection during the day, and for recovery from sickness, appear to be futile in result.”

  5. Nick Gotts says


    But maybe the clergy prayed mainly for the notoriously wicked lawyers, rather than selfishly for themselves :-p

    Another point about the Ascension. In the time of Jesus, and long after, believers (and non-believers) could envisage Jesus rising further and further (through successive “spheres” if they were sophisticated enough to know the proto-scientific cosmology of the time), until he reached heaven: it was thought of as a real place, in the same universal space as the earth’s surface, and as hell, into which he had descended before the resurrection. But now, all but the least sophisticated believers, even including YECs, know that you won’t arrive in heaven however far upwards you go. So, how are they to envisage Jesus’s route there, if he had an actual physical form post-resurrection, even if it had supernatural powers? The text – at least in English, I’d be interested if the original Greek is the same – is clear that he was “carried up” into heaven” (Luke 24:53, emphasis added). So, at what height did he vanish?

  6. Aly Writes says

    Hello there.
    I recently discovered this blog during my trails through the internet. Thank you for the clear cut, logical arguments. I have looked at many posts and am impressed by the sound logic and the clarity of thought, something that I haven’t encountered in other atheists (…They are prone to proclaiming: there is no god; religion is a sociological construct designed by the powerful to control me, hold me back)

    I notice that the comments gradually move away from the post itself and towards more and more outlandish propositions. 🙂
    “But maybe the clergy prayed mainly for the notoriously wicked lawyers, rather than selfishly for themselves :-p”
    Note the irony. Lol.

    My response is about the blog post itself.
    I’m curious about the complete lack of your explanation of Jesus’ proclamation that he would ‘rebuild the temple in three days’ after it was pulled down. If you say that this statement was not related to the resurrection, then why do you suppose he said so? I’m disinclined to think that he might have been boastful and arrogant about his abilities, because this isn’t evident in other writings on him. I’m under every impression that he was a humble man. However, if you are able to prove otherwise, then I am willing to accept that.

    If you would say that someone might have planted that statement in, I do not think that possible. Mostly because many people have reported him saying that [something that appears in the books by Matthew, Mark, and John and the book of Acts; whereas like you say, the resurrection story et all is only in the one by Matthew which makes it questionable], and the different varieties of ‘tear (it) down and (it) will be rebuilt in three days’. Also because of the fact that the Jews were present during this declaration by Jesus and countered saying (paraphrase) ‘it took forty years to build it, what are you saying man’.

    So, in effect my question is this: Why do you think Jesus said ‘I will rebuild my temple in three days’? What did he mean by this?


    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hello, Aly, thanks for writing. I’m not sure why you would find it “curious” that I have not yet answered a question you are only now asking, but in any case I’m happy to do so now that you have asked.

      You pick an interesting story to ask about. You seem to think multiple people report that Jesus said this, however I’m not sure you’ve looked up the actual references. The earliest reference to any such story is in Mark 14, where it is explicitly declared to be a false testimony.

      Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, and they were not finding any. For many were giving false testimony against Him, but their testimony was not consistent. Some stood up and began to give false testimony against Him, saying, “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.’” Not even in this respect was their testimony consistent.

      Mark’s gospel is the oldest surviving gospel of course, followed by Matthew and Luke, and lastly by the gospel attributed to John, which does not appear until almost the second century (if not later). Chronologically speaking, then, Mark’s report is the closest to any actual event which might have occurred, and Mark records it as an explicit lie told by the enemies of Jesus in order to find an excuse to put him to death.

      Notice too that in Mark’s report, Jesus is not supposed to have said that someone else would destroy the temple of his body and then he would raise it in three days, but rather that he himself would destroy “this temple made with hands.” That’s clearly a reference to the temple building, which was made with hands, and not a reference to his own body, which was not. It might also be worth noting that the “temple made with hands” was neither destroyed by Jesus nor rebuilt 3 days after it was destroyed, so this is clearly a false prophecy even if we didn’t have Mark’s word for it.

      Luke makes no mention of any such prophecy, but Matthew essentially echoes Mark’s report—with just a bit of evolution.

      Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put Him to death. They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’”

      You can see how the story is gradually inching towards the traditional version. Mark knew it was a lie and said so, but the magical “three days” meme is just so…tempting. Not to mention the idea of “temple” being a metaphor for the body. Matthew isn’t quite ready to turn the lie into an authentic part of the Gospel just yet, but you can tell he’d like to, because he changes the bit about “this temple made with hands” into a more ambiguous reference to “the temple of God.” Notice, too, that though he follows Mark’s report about how the Sanhedrin was seeking false testimony against Jesus, he sets this story a little bit apart by saying, “…many false witnesses came forward. But later two men came…” You could read that as stating that after the false testimony was done, two men came and testified truly. In fact, Matthew seems to want us to read it that way, since he deletes Mark’s report that “Not even in this respect was their testimony consistent.”

      Fast forwards to several decades later, when most or all of the original “false witnesses” would have been dead. In the late first or early second century, someone who never claims to be the Apostle John writes a gospel that the church would later designate as being the Gospel according to John. Now, at last, we have the first (and only) report that everyone is so familiar with.

      The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

      Unlike Mark and Matthew, “John” moves the entire story from Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin to the story of Jesus’ cleansing the temple at the beginning of the story of his ministry. Now, it’s no longer a false testimony—and in fact, when “John” gives his version of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, he completely removes any reference to any false testimonies at all. Nor is it a reference to “this temple made with hands,” as in the original story, nor even an ambiguous “temple of God,” as in Matthew’s modified version. “John” tells us explicitly that Jesus is speaking of the “temple” of his body. The evolution is complete, and what started out as a lie told by Jesus’ enemies has become Jesus’ own prophecy, and a fondly-recounted part of the Gospel.

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