What do biblical scholars make of the resurrection?

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by Neil Godfrey

Or more specifically, what was the state of play around five years ago when Research Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, Gary R. Habermas, had a chapter published in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue? Habermas outlines four broad positions found among contemporary scholars and identifies a trend in which a strong majority of scholars do favour the idea that Jesus really was raised from the dead “in some sense”. I find his findings noteworthy for another reason that I will save for the end of this post. The link above is to the Wikipedia article on Habermas where he is described as an evangelical Christian apologist. Still, I was interested enough to know what the general state of biblical scholarship appears to be on the question, so I included his chapter in my reading.

“One of the indisputable facts of history”

Habermas writes (my emphasis throughout):

As firmly as ever, most contemporary scholars agree that, after Jesus’ death, his early followers had experiences that they at least believed were appearances of their risen Lord. Further, this conviction was the chief motivation behind the early proclamation of the Christian gospel.

These basics are rarely questioned, even by more radical scholars. They are among the most widely established details from the entire New Testament. (p. 79)

He quotes Reginald Fuller claiming some years earlier that “one of the indisputable facts of history” is that the disciples of Jesus believed he had been raised from the dead. Both believer and unbeliever, Fuller said, can agree on “the fact” that the early disciples experienced what they believed were resurrection appearances of Jesus.

He also quotes D. G. Dunn:

It is almost impossible to dispute that at the historical roots of Christianity lie some visionary experiences of the first Christians, who understood them as appearances of Jesus, raised by God from the dead. . . . They clearly meant that something had happened to Jesus, God had raised him, not merely reassured them.”

And also “more skeptical scholars” who make the same point. Thus Norman Perrin:

The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based.

And Helmut Koester:

We are on much firmer ground with respect to the appearances of the risen Jesus and their effect. . . . That Jesus also appeared to others (Peter, Mary Magdalene, James) cannot very well be questioned. (p. 80)

Habermas writes that therefore

The crux of the issue, then, is not whether there were real experiences, but how we explain the nature of these early experiences. What best accounts for the early Christian belief that Jesus had appeared after his death?

Peter Carnley:

There is no doubt that the first disciples interpreted the Easter visions or appearances as signs of the heavenly presence of Christ. . . (p. 81)

Bart Ehrman:

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. (p. 81)

Given the weight of such “unquestionable” conviction among biblical intellectuals, the only question to be raised is how to account for this belief of the disciples. Habermas maps four basic theories that fall into natural and supernatural options.

Habermas writes that biblical scholars who hold naturalistic hypotheses to account for the “undoubted fact” of Jesus’ followers believing he had been resurrected are in “a decidedly minority position among the total number of commentators”, although there had been at the time of his writing a slight increase in their ratio. (I don’t know if any biblical scholars would go so far as declaring that laypeople should have enough respect for the intellectual authority of the majority of their peers and likewise embrace the belief that Jesus rose from the dead “in some sense”.)

Natural Internal Theories

These explain the belief in the resurrection of Jesus in terms of subjective inner states of the early disciples. One such theory (William Marxsen) is that Peter was convinced Jesus was alive and that it was his contagious enthusiasm that persuaded others of this belief, too.

Gerd Ludemann likewise explains the belief as a result of visions brought on by “religious intoxication” and “enthusiasm” among the disciples.

Essentially this position is that visions were entirely subjective experiences, even hallucinations.

Habermas also includes here something he calls an illumination thesis, such as that of Robert Pesch. This is the view that the disciples were so impressed by Jesus’ authority and teaching while he was alive that not even his crucifixion shook their faith. Habermas remarks that Pesch has modified this earlier view of his and now recognizes that appearances of Jesus can be established by “careful research”. (I would like to follow up Pesch’s arguments for this.)

Natural External Theories

Of these Habermas lists:

  1. the swoon or apparent death theory, that Jesus revived once in the tomb (e.g. Margaret and Trevor Lloyd Davies)
  2. questioning of the burial and empty tomb stories (e.g. John Crossan)
  3. gospels are fabrications and the story of the resurrection appearances was a gradually emerging legend (e.g. G. A. Wells)
  4. comparing the gospel story to ancient mystery religions and Near Eastern mythical figures such as Isis, Osiris, Adonis, Tammuz (e.g. Evan Fales)
  5. illusions of the kind that lead to people believing they have seen UFOs, witches, Bigfoot (e.g. Michael Martin)

Unfortunately this list is a warning that Habermas is losing the thread of his argument. #2 above has no bearing on why the disciples believed Jesus was resurrected. Habermas is sounding like he is beginning to lash out at anyone who disagrees with the gospel account, period. # 3 and #4 have no bearing on the question, either, since they do not allow for any original disciples to believe in the resurrection in the first place.

Status of the Naturalistic Theories

Habermas turns to making claims about the resurrection itself, thus declaring his own belief that the reason the disciples of Jesus believed Jesus had been resurrected was that he really was literally resurrected.

In the twentieth century, critical scholarship has largely rejected wholesale the naturalistic approaches to the resurrection. For example . . . Raymond Brown calls the attempts “gratuitous charges” and points out that they are at odds with the information we have on these subjects. N. T. Wright treats a number of what he terms “false trails” and concludes that the problem with each attempt is that it runs up against “first-century history.” Similarly, James D. G. Dunn asserts that “alternative interpretations of the data fail to provide a more satisfactory explanation” than the New Testament message that God raised Jesus from the dead.” (p. 86)

Habermas even finds a couple of philosophers to support his belief in the resurrection of Jesus (not in the mere “fact” that it was the early disciples who believed in the resurrection), Steven T. Davis and Richard Swinburne. (If he has so little confidence in his own discipline, why not choose to quote an entertainment or sports celebrity?) Here Habermas sounds like he is slipping into polemic to convert any doubting readers:

All the alternative hypotheses with which I am familiar are historically weak. . . . The alternative theories that have been proposed are not only weaker but far weaker at explaining the available historical evidence.” (Davis)

Alternative hypotheses have always seemed to me to give far less satisfactory accounts of the historical evidence than does the traditional account. (Swinburne)

Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes and we should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens. (Britney Spears)

So Habermas consigns naturalistic explanations for early Christian belief in the resurrection to something that sounds like a fringe within biblical studies:

Exhibiting an amazing amount of consensus, most researchers across a very wide conceptual spectrum have rejected naturalistic approaches as explanations for the earliest Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus. . . . Accordingly, the path of natural alternative theories is definitely a minority approach. (p. 86)

One might as well simply state bluntly that biblical studies generally has no time for post-Enlightenment intellectual values. One is reminded of Niels Peter Lemche’s point that critical scholarship should not even be engaged in professional discussion with such academics.

Still, I’m curious to know what explanations do dominate the field, so here are the supernatural “theories” as mapped by Habermas.

Supernatural Subjective Theories

The “theory” maintains that the early Christians experienced visions of light that were accompanied “with meaning”. Habermas sums up these theories as involving “nonbodily visions”, “most likely from heaven”, through which the risen Jesus communicated messages.

Exponents Habermas mentions are Theodor Keim, Hans Grass, Reginald H. Fuller and “many major scholars” (Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jeremias, Kummel, O’Collins and Wilckens).

While Jesus was actually raised as an act of God, it was usually said that this event cannot be historically demonstrated, although there may well be some decent arguments in its favour. (p.88)

This view, Habermas informs us, was more popular up to the middle of the last century. Since then it has been largely replaced by a “supernatural objective theory”.

Supernatural Objective Theories

These theories claim that Jesus appeared as far more than a body or vision of light, and even that historical evidence can confirm the objective reality of a resurrected Jesus.

Even before the publication of N. T. Wright’s monumental volume The Resurrection of the Son of God in 2003, the tide had begun to turn toward the view that Jesus not only was raised miraculously from the dead but also appeared in a spiritual body. (p. 88)

Here Habermas appears to object to scholars (e.g. Ludemann, Crossan) acknowledge that the biblical characters believed this while not believing it themselves.

Habermas considers one milestone in the widespread scholarly acceptance of this view to be the 2002 publication of Resurrection edited by Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, and Michael Welker.

The eighteen contributors argue repeatedly that the resurrection of both Jesus and believers will be embodied, with most all holding some form of reconstitutionalism. (p. 89)

Habermas applauds N. T. Wright’s contribution:

N. T. Wright furthered the argument yet another step. For more than five hundred pages in his recent volume, he argues very persuasively that, among both pagans and Jews in the ancient Mediterranean world up until the second century C.E., the term anastasis and its cognates . . . along with related words . . . almost without exception referred to bodily resurrection. Even the ancients who rejected the doctrine still used the relevant terms in this manner. Conversely, if they spoke about the soul or spirit being glorified or otherwise living after death, they used terms other than resurrection. Moreover, even Paul, who is most often said to have taught otherwise, held strongly to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, as did the rest of the New Testament authors. (p. 89)

Habermas notes that Crossan has also said that he has been moving closer to Wright’s position on the meaning of bodily resurrection in a Jewish-Christian context.


the view that Jesus was raised bodily is currently the dominant position, if judged in terms of scholarly support. Moreover, some scholars who reject this view still hold that it was at least the New Testament position, including Paul’s own teaching. This is a marked change from recent decades when Paul’s view was often interpreted far differently. (p. 90)


Habermas observes that of the most influential scholars in the Third Quest for the historical Jesus not one subscribes to a naturalistic explanation as above.

Of 2000 scholarly publications from about 2000 to 2005 that dealt with the resurrection Habermas estimates that less than one-quarter of the scholars embraced a naturalistic explanation as a historical explanation. Almost all the others adhere to the view that Jesus was raised from the dead “in some sense”. I would have liked Habermas to have clarified exactly how he defined “scholarly publications” in this context, and to have been a little more clear as to whether he was counting publications or different authors. Even a citation measure to help readers assess the impact of each of the different views would have been more helpful.

Thus, according to Habermas, was the scholarly climate around 2006 when Habermas’s chapter was published.

I suppose Christian believers might be heartened by such a state of the game. But surely if this really is the way it is, surely it ought to raise questions about the place of such studies in publicly funded secular institutions. I wonder what Habermas would think if he uncovered similar results among the higher educational institutions in a predominantly Muslim nation, perhaps in relation to Muhammad’s ascent to heaven.

What hope is there in such a climate of applying normal secular-historical analysis to the Gospels? Is this climate reflective of the general upsurge (swansong?) of fundamentalism in America in particular at this time?

What if the Gospels really are very much more like ancient Jewish novels, let’s say, than historiography or biography? What if the real question is not why the characters in a narrative believed something, but why was the narrative written at all? What was behind it? Was it really historical memory? Habermas began by noting that certain views are in effect beyond question. Maybe that’s the problem.

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45 thoughts on “What do biblical scholars make of the resurrection?”

  1. I see everyone has left out “they were lying.” Puts me in mind of a story that a friend of mine who works in a land documents office here told me. A wealthy old codger, a widower, had taken a second wife, a young Vietnamese woman he had essentially purchased — common enough here. He died and left everything to her. The children by the first wife were incensed, and one of the daughters took to her bed and announced that Mom had appeared to her in a dream to denounce this apportionment of the estate. Not to be outdone, the Vietnamese bride took to her bed and announced that Mom had appeared to her and said that the husband had done the right thing. It is hard to imagine that both weren’t lying.

    It also puts me in mind of the Taipings, the mock-Christian rebels of southern China who were led by the “brother of Christ”, the younger brother in this case. Often during political struggles they would emerge saying that they’d had a communication in a vision telling them what they must do. Their actions were thus legitimated by their having had a vision.

    To come the long way round, it is easy to see how that sort of legitimation-through-direct-contact must have functioned in early Christianity. “have i not seen Christ?” says Paul. They were all lying, of course, deploying competing visions against each other.

    1. I am also puzzled by the lack of attention to the possibility of lying or delusion. It seems to me that when someone claims to have visions of supernatural beings and revelations from God, the possibility that these are products of his imagination has to be seriously considered. If Joseph Smith could convince substantial numbers of literate people in the 19th century that he and others had encountered a supernatural being, why should there be anything surprising about Paul convincing illiterate peasants in the first century of the same thing? Why is Paul’s honesty and sincerity taken for granted?

      1. One of the more depressing things one encounters in some scholarly works is the positive affirmation of the pious integrity of the authors of the NT texts. (And it’s not just Christian scholars, either, who take this default view of the texts — not mentioning any “independent scholars” by name.) What is conveyed is the suggestion that any suspicion that the authors are not devoutly seeking to convey their honest feelings/views/knowledge/understanding of Jesus will be tantamount to evidence of a hostile anti-Christian agenda. You’re with us or against us, is the message. Again, where is the neutral historical approach one would expect of any other historical inquiry?

        1. I don’t believe Christian texts are regarded with ‘pious integrity’.

          Such things as the Gospel of Peter are routinely dismissed as fabrications.

          Craig Evans ‘The Gospel of Peter, which describes a talking cross, is late and incredible.’

            1. Is it my imagination or are there different standards depending on whether the textual critic is approaching a canonical writing or an apocryphal writing or perhaps depending on whether a more or less orthodox interpretation is being suggested? If a historical Jesus skeptic attempted to deal with a troublesome passage in Paul with such an argument, I cannot help but think that the response would be unmitigated derision.

  2. It seems that in the case of the authorship of the NT the majority of mainstream scholarship can also be mistaken. In his review of Ehrman’s new book, Dr. McGrath stated:

    “While Ehrman’s book will probably change few minds about the authenticity of a work if they have already looked into the matter in detail, regarding the question whether those which are pseudepigraphal were likely written with the intention to deceive, and whether the readers taken in by the claim to authorship would have resented being duped in this way, Ehrman’s answer in the affirmative is convincing, and I expect that this will mark the beginning of a sea change in the scholarly realm on this point.”

    In other words, ancient authors were deceiving modern scholars for primarily apologetical reasons for centuries and nobody noticed until now.

  3. I am not clear on the rules of the game. If these scholars reject post-Enlightenment intellectual values, then by what set of criteria do we evaluate historical claims? If we allow supernatural explanations to have equal footing with naturalistic (aka real) explanations, then where does that leave us?

    Competing versions of Christianity had other supernatural explanations for the apparent resurrection. Perhaps Jesus was a ghost who left no footprints. Perhaps the spirit that entered Jesus at the baptism left him at the crucifixion. Or are the only permitted supernatural explanations those that are presented in the canonical gospels? Wouldn’t that be “extra-special” pleading?

    And how do we get from the claim that the apostles believed Jesus had been resurrected to the declaration that he really was raised from the dead “in some sense”? I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the requisite training in medieval philosophy, but I’m simply at a loss here.

    Is it just a matter of lobbing a barrage of assertions (a la N.T. Wright’s 500-page filibuster lovingly recounted above) intended to convince other believers that you have a “good argument”? Am I supposed to believe this tripe because it’s a good argument that I can’t understand or because a majority of “scholarly” believers embrace it?

  4. I loving all this talk about “widely attested facts”, all from secondary, anonymous, theologically tendentious texts of unknown provenance…

    “I wonder what Habermas would think if he uncovered similar results among the higher educational institutions in a predominantly Muslim nation, perhaps in relation to Muhammad’s ascent to heaven.”

    This to me is the crux of the matter. Do not evangelical scholars see that their arguments for the resurrection and supernaturalism in general can be used by other religions? Are they so insulated from reality that they don’t see their arguments are nothing but the worst form of special pleading? Oh, I suppose the Holy Spirit confirms the truth of Christianity and states that all other religions as the work of Satan (cf Justin Martyr)? Oh yes, that’s the ticket.

    What other field of study has a Habermas and his ilk? Are Egyptologists castigated for not believing in the miraculous power of Amon Ra? Do people heap scorn on Homeric scholars for doubting that Greek gods played a part in the Trojan War?

    I have to say, I sometimes wonder why I interest myself in a subject where intellectual honesty is so often lacking from often VERY intelligent people. By all means believe and defend the Christian faith as you see fit, but please don’t pretend you’re doing history as practiced in other fields of study. (Yes, I think I might need a new hobby. Hand gliding? Powerwalking? Roadkill erotica?)

    This hardly needs pointing out, but saying that 70% of Christian scholars believe in Jesus’ resurrection is about as remarkable as finding out that 70% of scholars of the Koran believe that it couldn’t have been written by a human being. It truly means less than nothing. That a Phd holding professor can think it does is really quite worrying. Such is the power of religion to cloud the mind, I suppose.

    1. “Are Egyptologists castigated for not believing in the miraculous power of Amon Ra?”

      If they don’t accept the truth and the holy, mysterious power of the Aten, then they’re miserable outcasts.

      Seriously, though, isn’t it about time for real scholars of history to stand up and defend the Enlightenment? Where are heroes who would admit publicly that rejecting superstition is a virtue?

      1. Tim, Enlightenment values are fine when applied to secular history. And other people’s religions. When it comes to early Christianity, Ernst Troeltsch’s eminently sensible views on how to do history can generally go to hell. But of course you know this.

        I always find it dispiriting that someone like Robert Price is considered a fringe scholar who supposedly holds outdated views when he seems to understand the study of history in general better than most other historical Jesus academics. Perhaps he’s the nearest to a proper historian in HJ studies, and therefore a hero? That might be overdoing it, but there needs to be a few more like him, a few more Baurs, Bauers and Van Manens don’t you think? Even when wrong, those guys showed more originality and bravery than many today. Whatever.

  5. Of 2000 scholarly publications from about 2000 to 2005 that dealt with the resurrection Habermas estimates that less than one quarter of the scholars embraced a naturalistic explanation as an historical explanation.

    It would seem to imply that over 75% of biblical scholars are either unscholarly wishful thinkers or liars. As I recall, Spong believes that Jesus was such an ideal human that he became divine and that this involved something like a flash of light which was observed by the disciples. Given the fine person that Spong is, I presume he really believes this and cannot imagine that he would simply lie about it. It seems to me to be the same sort of wishful thinking he employs in rejecting all the parts of the Bible that are purely tribalistic and accepting the few parts that aren’t as indicative of the true loving God of the Bible.

  6. One of the few facts about 1st century Christian beliefs is that Christian converts in Corinth appear to have been openly scoffing at the idea that their god would choose to raise corpses.

    Paul also claimed to have gone to the third Heaven.Was he lying? How can we explain his visit to the third Heaven naturalistically? Did he have a space-ship?

    Until we have a natural explanation of all claims to have gone to Heaven, we have to accept every single account of going to Heaven. That is Habermas’s logic.

    Until sceptics can produce a natural explanation of how the resurrected Jesus flew into the sky on his way to Heaven (possibly one involving jet-packs, but that runs straight into the fact that jet-packs did not even exist in the first century AD), then they have to accept that Jesus flew into Heaven and disappeared into a cloud en route.

  7. Neil, have you read Dale Allison’s ‘Resurrecting Jesus’? It’s the best treatment of the naturalistic visions hypothesis I know of, even though Allison himself believes in bodily resurrection. In fact, he pretty much admits that he only prefers the supernatural explanation because he want to believe in a God that would raise Jesus from the dead and provide eschatological justice. I’d be very interested to see you blog your way through that book.

    1. No, I haven’t Chris. There’s a lot more I’d like to understand about visionary experiences and the practicesa and related literature of the time, and may pick up this book next time I try to dig into this topic in another wave of interest, so thanks for the reference. In meantime, feel free to raise specific points of interest here if you like.

  8. While I believed in the historical Jesus Christ, I found the explanation for the apparent resurrection in Matthew 28:13. Some disciples stole Jesus’ body at night, while the guards were sleeping.

    The mistake that most people make is to assume that a rather large group of guards was posted right next to the tomb in order to ostentatiously prevent any tampering of the tomb.

    Instead, people should suppose that a couple (two) of guards were assigned to hide some distance from the tomb in order to secretly observe and subsequntly report any tampering of the tomb. With this supposition, Matthew’s explanation is quite reasonable. The two guards fell asleep at night. The disciples were not aware that the two guards were even posted to watch the tomb. By mere coincidence, the disciples happened to come and take the body from the tomb while the two guards happened to be asleep.

  9. This post might be seen as a compliment to Hector Avalos’ book The End of Biblical Studies and his many articles about the subject. If Habermas is correct, and naturalistic explanations of early Christianity are “fringe”, then NT scholarship really is just a religionist enterprise.

  10. The historicity of the accounts, the sheer weight of Biblical documents available in Greek, the extraBiblical verification, the archeological evidence that has come to light, the early dates for I Corinthians (see Ch. 15) which attests a confident and fixed creed of the resurrection, not to mention the internal improvements in using established criteria for scholarly research to biblical studies, and a knowledge of 1st century established traditions of transmission of important historical events, point to the reliability of the Gospel accounts.

    But nothing said here is anything new; such theories, discussions, and arguments have resurfaced through centuries, been exploded, but keep re-appearing. Nothing but truth enlightening the mind and seizing the inner person, aided by the Spirit of the One being ‘deliberated’ here, is sufficient to enable anyone to receive the gospel and the Person of Jesus Christ, as God and man, Lord and Savior. Our very canon predicts just the debates, and problems that occur.

    Our minds are finite and little compared to even the immensity and wonder of the solar system, much less the vast expanse, and strange marvels of other suns and exoplanets, of black holes and quasars. How much more the evidence in us of sleepless mind, the existence of consciousness, the inner voice of innate morality and unquenchable sense and daily experience and use of love, beauty, harmony, joy and justice (and injustice). Academia elevates discussions and offers alternative theories or denies the existence of such things a child or common laborer knows by nature. How much less can our little minds, great with abilities as they are, have the pride to say, “We know all and only through scientific reason”, when your spouse, parents, and children at home do not operate by these when their hearts beat faster to greet you coming in the door?

    Cease debate. much study will not alone resolve the matter for any individuals. Receive the Son through faith, know His Life and love as well as release of all guilt and His renewal. I have the witness of those who grasped the hand of one who came before them, stretching back 2000 years now, a vital and simple connection to those who (have been proven to have lived) saw Him alive, and paid with their lives, instantly upturning centuries of tradition, flying in the face of established religion, risking and paying with their lives for the simple testimony that they saw, held, heard, and believed Him.

    I have experienced the Son of God, His cleansing and renewing, through faith. Before life is gone and the truth confronts with such awful clarity and weight that there will be no time to make a change of mind and heart.

    If not, present your credentials, your educational attainments, your readings, and your peer-reviewed writing and research comparable to Habermas’, and Wrights, and scores of others who have been awarded by their peers the credentials of scholarly achievements, before you sit in judgment.

    1. The historicity of the accounts,

      Which ones?

      the sheer weight of Biblical documents available in Greek,

      Have you checked to see if it outweighs the sheer weight of eyewitness accounts for alien abductions or documents proving the prophecies of Nostradumus? I’ve never heard of the poundage of documents being used to confirm an argument before.

      the extraBiblical verification,

      verification of what?

      the archeological evidence that has come to light,

      Archaeologists have found much to enlighten us about the narrative settings in ancient novels, too.

      the early dates for I Corinthians (see Ch. 15) which attests a confident and fixed creed of the resurrection,

      Ah yes, evangelicals do seem to rely more on confidence than scholarly caution as a criterion of validity of an argument.

      not to mention the internal improvements in using established criteria for scholarly research to biblical studies,

      It’s good you don’t mention these now that those criteria are being exposed more and more as logically fallacious shams.

      and a knowledge of 1st century established traditions of transmission of important historical events,

      You mean conjectures. Last time I studied the oral history specialists I found they contradicted the claims of HJ scholars.

      point to the reliability of the Gospel accounts.

      It’s good to know you belong to the only true religion.

      But nothing said here is anything new; such theories, discussions, and arguments have resurfaced through centuries, been exploded, but keep re-appearing. Nothing but truth enlightening the mind and seizing the inner person, aided by the Spirit of the One being ‘deliberated’ here, is sufficient to enable anyone to receive the gospel and the Person of Jesus Christ, as God and man, Lord and Savior. Our very canon predicts just the debates, and problems that occur.

      It’s even easier if you don’t have to use your intellect. Just believe. Rational inquiry is of the devil unless it is used to serve the cause of faith, right?

      Cease debate

      Spoken like a voice from the Dark Ages.

      If not, present your credentials, your educational attainments, your readings, and your peer-reviewed writing and research comparable to Habermas’, and Wrights, and scores of others who have been awarded by their peers the credentials of scholarly achievements, before you sit in judgment.

      Good for Wright and Habermas. All their peers who disagree with them should be sacked or relegated to early retirement, right? Only read the books by the right authors, never debate them, and thou shalt go to thy grave believing a fantasy.

  11. Let us consider Method and the Resurrection appearances:

    Historians try to establish what “probably” happened in the past. An historian would never claim a miracle “probably happened,” because a miracle is the “most improbable” thing that could happen, by definition. Only an apologist would fallaciously try to establish the historicity of a miracle, because sound historical reasoning rules out the “miraculous explanation” a priori.

    Take this example: The pre Pauline Corinthian Creed claims something like the idea that the risen Jesus appeared to Cephas and the Twelve three days after Jesus died. This creed is very early and so the story may not be the result of legendary embellishment. So what happened? (a) Maybe the disciples were hallucinating out of grief. (b) Maybe Cephas and the twelve were inventing stories of the risen Jesus in hopes of lending divine clout to, and carrying on, Jesus’ ethical mandate of loving your neighbor and your enemy – an ethical cause they may have been willing to die for (like Socrates). Whatever the case, any reasonable secular explanation is historically preferable to a miraculous one.

    In his debate with William Lane Craig, Bart Ehrman points out that even if we don’t accept a particular mundane explanation, it is still more probable than the miraculous explanation. In fact, in the case of an apparent miracle, even if we don’t know of any Aliens having cloaked ships and transporters that are doing “apparent” miracles on our planet (like in Star Trek: The Next Generation – Devil’s Due), this naturalistic explanation is still a more reasonable explanation than a secular historian claiming a miracle happened:


    If anyone is interested, I explain this a little more fully in a blog post (along with the reader comments) here:


      1. I’ll concede that. The Corinthian Creed may not be early. It seems to pre-date Paul, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,” so it appears to be as early as anything we have.

        1. And “He was raised on the third day” may mean the disciples started having visions of Jesus three days after Jesus died.

          – Why am I in moderation? Did I do something wrong? I try to write interesting and “on point” comments

          1. Sorry — you’re not personally in moderation. I am unable to limit moderation to just one post; it’s all or nothing. And I don’t want any more sick hate comments to appear on my blog in response to recent article addressing a scholarly and very balanced and deeply informed study of the history of certain Middle Eastern affairs.

        2. Ah, thanks, yes. Of course one argument against the naive reading is that those words can be interpreted as contradictory to what we read elsewhere of Paul’s modus operandi and past sources.

          1. Paul wasn’t the author of the pre Pauline Corinthian Creed, so it would be understandable if it’s content is contrary to other things Paul says.

            1. The contradictory aspect is the claim that Paul received and taught a tradition from human sources.

              (Further, the question raised is why Paul would quote a hymn that contradicted what he taught or wrote elsewhere.)

              1. Paul wrote this letter to correct what he saw as erroneous views in the Corinthian church. He may have quoted the creed just to send the people something that said the core of what they believed was still secure – so they were all still brothers and sisters in Christ.

              2. Possible. Theologians often seem to propose speculative theories like that. But how might we test such a hypothesis? What might we reasonably expect to find elsewhere in the data if such a hypothesis were true?

              3. @ Neil:

                Including the creed may have just been Paul’s offhand way of being friendly / breaking down the defenses of the Corinthians so they would be amiable toward his corrective epistle. If it wasn’t a big deal for Paul to include it, I don’t know if there would be anything, as you say, that we might “reasonably expect to find elsewhere in the data.”

              4. If we think through suggestions like the one you make we can propose tests. Does Paul elsewhere sound like the sort of guy who makes off-hand friendly remarks of that nature? Is there anything in or around the passage that points to the psychological functions you list? Literary analysis regularly identifies data that supports particular interpretations such as the one you are proposing. It is a quite different exercise, however, to simply suggest a certain psychological motive or function in order to justify some other argument. That’s ad hoc reasoning.

                The point can be more easily recognised, I think, if we take a letter where it is evident as a result of a range of rhetorical devices that an author is being just casually friendly and offhand etc. Compare some of Pliny’s correspondence. There is a tone and verbal cues that make psychological functions clear. We need to have justifications for imputing psychological interpretations into any letter or writing — it is not a strong argument to simply suggest they possibly exist without reference to clear supporting evidence in the text. In fact, without the normal rhetorical cues we have a strong argument that such a proposal is merely an ad hoc explanation, I think.

              5. @ Neil

                Good ideas Neil! Neil wrote: “The contradictory aspect is the claim that Paul received and taught a tradition from human sources.”

                I think it is reasonable to think Paul learned the Corinthian Creed from other people. Here is BART EHRMAN’s explanation of this in a post, which I think is correct:


                A lot of people (at least in my experience) think that Paul is the one who should be considered the “founder” of Christianity – that he is the one who took Jesus’ simple preaching about the coming kingdom of God and altered and expanded it into a complicated doctrine of sin and redemption, being the first of Jesus’ followers to maintain that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that brought about salvation.   This can’t be the case, because Paul was persecuting Christians already before he had converted, and these were certainly people who believed in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

                There is a second reason for thinking that Paul is not the one who invented the idea that Jesus’ death was some kind of atoning sacrifice for sins.  That’s because Paul explicitly tells us that he learned it from others.

                Those of you who are Bible Quiz Whizzes may be thinking about a passage in Galatians where Paul seems to say the opposite, that he didn’t get his gospel message from anyone before him but straight from Jesus himself (when he appeared to Paul at his conversion).  I’ll deal with that shortly since I don’t think it says what people often claim it says. 

                The key passage is 1 Corinthians 15:3-6.   Here Paul is reminding the Corinthian Christians what he preached to them when he brought to them the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Pay careful attention to how he introduces his comments:

                “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.   Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep….”

                Note: he indicates that he “passed on” this message of Jesus’ death and resurrection as he himself had “received” it.   Now, you might think that this means that he received it straight from Jesus when Jesus appeared to him a couple of years after his resurrection.  There are three reasons for thinking that this is not what he means.  The first is that there were others who were making this claim about Jesus before Paul.  That is why he was persecuting them.

                The second is that this interpretation just doesn’t make any sense.   Are we supposed to imagine that when Jesus appeared to Paul he laid it out like this, that he had earlier died according to the Scriptures and been raised according to the Scriptures, and then “oh yeah, then I appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve and then to 500 others”?   Paul knows about the resurrection appearances of Jesus because that was part of the Christian tradition in circulation.  It’s not something Jesus told him in a vision.

                The third reason for thinking that he is not saying that this tradition of Jesus’ death and resurrection was given him directly by Jesus is that the terms he uses here of “delivering to you” and “having received” are code language in ancient Jewish circles for traditions that are passed down from a teacher to his students: during his studies the teacher “receives” a tradition and then in his teaching he “delivers” it to his own followers.  That’s how traditions get circulated among teachers and students.  Paul, good Jew that he is, is simply referring to information that has been given to him by others before he passes it along himself.

                In 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 Paul is reminding his Corinthian converts the very heart and core of his Gospel message that he preached to them when he first was among them.   They, at the time, were pagans, and he preached to them about Christ’s death and resurrection – because that was the message of salvation that he himself had received from others.
                I have a fuller analysis of this passage in my book How Jesus Became God, if you’re interested in seeing more of the ins and outs.  Here I should say, though, that scholars have long recognized that Paul is not merely summarizing his preaching: he is actually quoting a piece of poetry, or possibly a creed, that had been in circulation among the Christians.   You will notice that vv. 3-5 are very lapidary and direct and that you can divide the lines into two major parts, each of the parts having three statements, and that the statements of part 2 correspond to the statements of part 1.  If you laid it out graphically, it would look like this:

                That Christ died for our sins
                in accordance with the scriptures.
                and that he was buried;

                That he was raised on the third day
                in accordance with the scriptures,
                and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

                See how that works?  The first line of each part states the important salvific fact: Christ died, Christ was raised.  The second line of each indicates that he did so in fulfillment of the (Jewish) Scriptures.   And the third line of each provides the tangible proof of the statement (his death is proven by his burial; his resurrection is proven by his appearances).  This is a very carefully and intentionally crafted statement.

                It is widely thought that it may have been some kind of creed that was recited in the Christian churches, or possibly a statement of faith that was to be recited by recent converts at their baptism, a creed that is being quoted by Paul here (not composed by him when writing the letter).  It is often thought to have been crafted by someone other than Paul.  It was a tradition floating around in the church that encapsulated the
                Christian faith, putting it all in a nutshell.

                Paul inherited this creed, just as he inherited the theology it embodies.  He didn’t invent the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought salvation.  That was the view of Christians before him, who he persecuted.

                If that’s the case, why does he say in Galatians 1 that no human gave him his gospel, but that he got it straight from Christ himself? 


                What does Paul mean in his letter to the Galatians when he says that he did not receive his gospel from humans but direct from God through a revelation of Jesus?  Does he mean that he was the one (through direct divine inspiration) who came up with the idea that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than, say, Jesus’ life and teachings, that brings salvation?  And if so, doesn’t that mean that Paul himself would be the founder and creator of Christianity, since Christianity is not the religion of Jesus himself, but the religion about Jesus, rooted in faith in his death and resurrection?
                It may seem like that’s the case, but it’s not.  Not at all.   Belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection were around before Paul and that Paul inherited this belief from Christians who were before him.   But then what would Paul mean when he explicitly says in Galatians 1:11-12 “For I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me – that it is not a human affair; for I neither received it from a human nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ”?

                That sure sounds like he is saying that his gospel message came straight from Jesus, not from humans, right?  Yes, right, it does sound that way.  But it’s important to know – and not just to assume – what Paul means by his “gospel” in this passage.  He doesn’t mean what you might at first think he means.

                Paul begins his letter to the Galatians with a rebuke.   Uncharacteristically, he does not start the letter by thanking God for the congregation.  On the contrary, he’s angry and he tells them so.  He says that he is “astonished” that the Galatians are “deserting” the one who “called” them in order to turn to a “different gospel.”  He goes on to say that if anyone preaches a “different gospel” from the one that he preached when he converted them to the faith – even if it’s an “angel from heaven” – that one stands under God’s curse.   The gospel that Paul first proclaimed to them is the only true gospel and any other gospel is not a gospel at all.

                To understand what he means it is important to know what the historical situation is that Paul is addressing in the letter to the Galatians.  The situation becomes pretty clear in the context of his comments.  Paul had established this church (or these churches) among gentiles (pagans) in central Asia Minor (modern Turkey).  After he left the region to start churches elsewhere, other Christian missionaries arrived who taught the Christians in Galatia a different version of the faith.

                According to these others, faith founded on Jesus was a fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures (on this Paul agreed).  Jesus was the Jewish messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfilment of the Jewish law.  Thus, for these other missionaries, to believe in Jesus required a person to be a Jew.  Yes, gentiles could join the people of God and find salvation through Jesus.  But to join the people of God – they had to join the people of God!  The people of God were the Jewish people.  God had given his people a sign to show that they were distinct from all other people on earth.  This is way back in the Old Testament where God tells the father of the Jews, Abraham, that everyone who belongs to the covenant community needs to be circumcised (see Genesis 17).  Jews are circumcised.  Those who convert to Judaism need to be circumcised.  Belonging to the people of God means being circumcised.  The Christian believers in Galatia need to be circumcised.  When God gave the covenant of circumcision to Abraham, he called it an “eternal covenant.”  It wasn’t a temporary measure.  It was permanent.  And God had not changed is mind.  So say Paul’s opponents.

                Paul writes his letter to the Galatians in shock, disbelief, and white hot anger.  This is NOT, this is DECIDEDLY NOT, what he had taught the Galatians when he converted them.   Paul’s view was that the death and resurrection of Christ was absolutely the goal to which God’s plan of salvation had been moving from the days of Abraham.  But the point of Jesus’ death was that it brought salvation to all people, Jew and Gentile.  Salvation could not come by keeping the law of God, starting with circumcision.  If the Law could make someone right with God, then there would have been no reason for Christ to have died.  A person could just get circumcised and join the Jewish people.  But salvation didn’t work that way.  Salvation came only through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And since it came apart from the law, a person could participate in it apart from the law.

                This was the “gospel” that Paul preached.  When Paul indicates that a salvation came completely “apart from the works of the Law,” he is not saying that salvation comes apart from doing any good deeds — the way Martin Luther and most Protestants since his day have read Paul (until the last 50 years).  Luther read “works of the Law” as “doing good works” – that is “earning one’s salvation.  But that’s taking Paul out of context.  Paul instead is saying that no one needs to do the demands of the Jewish law (such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher food) to be right with God.  One needs only faith in Christ.  As he says most clearly in Galatians (in a message he remembers having forcefully delivered to Peter, Jesus’ disciple), “We ourselves (i.e., he and Peter), who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal. 2:15-16).

                When Paul speaks of the gospel that he preached to the Galatians, this was it.  This is what he learned directly from a revelation of Jesus.  He did not learn merely that the death and resurrection of Jesus brought salvation.   This is what other Christians before Paul were saying; that was the belief held by those Paul had been persecuting.  What Paul came to realize when he “saw the light” – that is, when Christ appeared to him after his resurrection – was that this message of salvation was for gentiles as well as Jews.  And it was to go to gentiles without them first having to become Jews.  The salvation of Christ was for all people, Jew and gentile, and was not tied to observing the practices prescribed in the Jewish law.    Paul was the one who first realized this (he claims).  His mission to the gentile lands was part of God’s plan of salvation.  God now was working to save not only the Jews, but also the gentiles.

                Any thoughts Neil?

              6. Many thoughts. One uppermost in my mind is Bart Ehrman’s indignant insistence some years back that he really honestly truly did read Earl Doherty’s Jesus Neither God Nor Man before he wrote what he did about it in Did Jesus Exist?. Ehrman’s words here are in fact only further evidence he never read Doherty’s book, or at least he has so quickly forgotten what he read there. He is repeating the same points Doherty and others have addressed in detail as if he believes they are entirely new to “outsiders”.

                I will probably reply in some detail in a post.

              7. @Neil

                I’m an amateur internet based bible enthusiast, so this is a learning process for me – so I hope you do respond because I would like to hear your thoughts!

              8. This can’t be the case, because Paul was persecuting Christians already before he had converted, and these were certainly people who believed in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

                By the way, I’m not sure if anyone believes that Paul was the originator of all Christian ideas. For instance, Parvus’s Simonian Origin approach argues that Paul (== Simon Magus) is the source of Christianity-as-we-know-it, but accepts that there were early Christian ideas circulating before Paul. Whether that would include a Christ who has died and been resurrected is not patent. To take the same example, I believe Parvus suggested that pre-Simonian Christians anticipated an apocalyptic death and resurrection in the future, and that a death and resurrection in the past was Simon/Paul’s innovation.

              9. Earl Doherty uses the image of “riotous diversity” to describe the earliest forms of what became Christianity. We see many very different ideas even within the canon — the Book of Hebrews, Revelation, Mark, John, and then beyond the canon: Odes of Solomon, Ascension of Isaiah, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache . . . . Burton Mark identifies many more.

                Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish scholar, believes some Jews prior to Christianity’s emergence even believed in a crucified or at least dying and rising Messiah figure. The concept appeared to have been based on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah and the “one like a Son of Man” in Daniel as the symbol of the martyrs of the Maccabean times and the eventual victory of those persecuted.

                The relatively monochrome image of Judaism we have today really only emerged some centuries after the fall of the Temple.

    1. Imagine a historian of antiquity trying to establish the historicity of one of the miracles of Apollonius of Tyana! They would be laughed out of the Academy. Only with Christian apologists do we see the rules of historical inquiry thrown out the window in trying to establish the historicity of a miracle story about Jesus.

      1. Your comment reminds me that I have wanted for some time to do posts on ancient historians or authors themselves (people from ancient times, not modern scholars of ancient times) rationalising tales of the miraculous in order to establish the “historical reality” behind them — not at all unlike the processes of some modern theologians doing their “critical studies” of the gospels.

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