A colleague and friend, concerned over my being an atheist, invited me to read Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God so I started to do so. I had not known who Timothy Keller was so I googled and found this wikipedia entry re this particular book:
Keller’s book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism was named Book of the Year for 2008 by World Magazine, a conservative evangelical news magazine. It rose as high as #7 on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best-Seller list in March of 2008.
That looked promising, so I looked at its table of contents and then flipped to his chapter titled “The Reality of the Resurrection”. I began reading on page 203:
The first accounts of the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses are not found in the gospels, but in the letters of Paul, which every historian agrees were written just fifteen to twenty years after the death of Jesus. One of the most interesting texts is 1 Corinthians 15:3-6:
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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have died.
Here Paul not only speaks of the empty tomb and resurrection on the “third day” (showing he is talking of a historical event, not a symbol of metaphor) but he also lists the eyewitnesses.
Yep, that’s what Timothy Keller wrote in his award winning best seller. That the letters of Paul not only contain “accounts”, plural, of “the empty tomb”, but a passage that he quotes and that all can see contains not a thread of a whisker of a mention of an empty tomb is boldly claimed to speak of the empty tomb!
I guess this is called argument by bluff. Just hold up a piece of paper which contains the word “was buried” and declare confidently enough that what the audience sees is something else and you just might get away with it, especially if your audience wants to believe. (Anyone who is bamboozled still needs to check the meaning of burial.)
But Keller is just warming up here. On page 205 he gives readers a double whammy,
Firstly he explains that the women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. He runs through the usual commentary on this point:
- low social status of women meant they could not testify in court
- no advantage to the church to publicize women being the first eyewitnesses
- to admit women were the first eyewitnesses, Christians would know would undermine their credibility
And then the usual coup de grace (or fallacy of the false dilemma): “The only possible explanation for why women were depicted as meeting Jesus first is if they really had.”
Nothing new there, but what caught my attention was the next bit:
N.T. Wright argues that there must have been enormous pressure on the early proclaimers of the Christian message to remove the women from the accounts.
Why of course! THAT’s why Paul did not mention the women in the passage Keller had just cited! Paul succumbed to the pressure to avoid reference of the women being the first witnesses because it would undermine his credibility!
They felt they could not do so — the records were too well known.
Woops. So Paul was found out? The Corinthian audience laughed when they read his pretence that it was men only who first witnessed Jesus?
But wait. There’s more. And it’s all on the same page.
Keller cites Wright again with the assertion that what really convinced people about the resurrection was not simply the eyewitnesses, nor simply the empty tomb.
If there had been only an empty tomb and no sightings, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection. They would have assumed that the body had been stolen. Yet if there had been only eyewitness sightings of Jesus and no empty tomb, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection, because people’s accounts of seeing departed loved ones happen all the time. Only if the two factors were both true would anyone have concluded that Jesus was raised from the dead.
If only Paul had the hindsight of Wright and Keller! Earlier Keller had remarked on Paul’s reference to the 500 witnesses of the resurrected Jesus.
Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. It was a bold challenge and one that could easily be taken up . . . . Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses didn’t exist.
What chance did he have of persuading the Corinthians of the resurrection if that’s the best he could do? He should also have told them that Jesus was resurrected from an empty tomb and to not only consult the eyewitnesses but also to take a pilgrimage to see the empty cave for themselves. After all, any of the 500 could have been just imagining a vision of their beloved messiah. Even though other accounts say there were no more than 120 loyal followers remaining. Maybe 380 of them had died by the time Luke wrote Acts so that he could not in good conscience include them in his narrative by that stage. 😉
Those were the first three pages I read of this 2008 book of the year. How to break this gently to my friend . . . . 🙁