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.