In a previous article, A Second Look At Biblical Inerrancy, I promised to tackle the resurrection of Jesus in my next article, which was last week. However, that was the week Robin Williams died so that article took a back seat while I wrote a tribute to an actor who played a role that made a major impact in my life.
So to get back on the topic, let me do a quick recap. The previous article dealt with inconsistencies in the details of the resurrection of the four gospels in the Bible. A reader wrote in to say that there may have been inconsistencies, but they were all unanimous in stating that there was indeed a resurrection — and that was the most important point. I responded then that my goal was not to prove or disprove the resurrection but to show that it is erroneous to claim biblical inerrancy, for how can four different accounts be inerrant? They cannot all be right. That is but a logical conclusion.
So now, let’s go to the reader’s other point: was there indeed a resurrection?
There are many ways to approach this question and I have read a good number of literature from both sides of the fence. That being said, there is no way I am going to make a comprehensive case for or against the resurrection in an 800-word article as different scholars have written whole books on this subject alone.
Instead, what I will attempt now is a simple argument for the layperson, someone who is not well-versed in the deeper issues, and doesn’t need to be (at this point). If you are the scholarly type, I’m sure you have answers to my arguments and you’re more than welcome to write me and discuss those with me and maybe I will devote a future article focusing on your particular argument.
For now, let me begin with this phrase popularized by the late Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
For example, if I tell you that I met with a couple of friends from Manila last week, you would probably not have any reason to doubt that statement. It is normal to have friends from other places. Manila is an actual place and last week is a reasonable time to have met them. If you do challenge me, I could just show you my Facebook page where I posted a selfie with these friends and that would be the end of it. You probably would not allege that I edited that picture and that it’s fake, because there is no apparent reason for me to do so. It is an ordinary claim, hence ordinary evidence will suffice to make it believable.
However, if I were to claim that I had dinner with Robin Williams (yes, the dead actor) last night, on the planet Saturn, you would be the most gullible person on earth if you believed that at face value. When I made such preposterous claims to my daughter when she was still 6 years old, even she would raise an eyebrow and say, “Oh yeah, Daddy? Prove it.”
But what if I showed you a photo of me and Robin Williams in a restaurant with a backdrop of what appears to be Saturn’s rings, would you believe me then? You still probably won’t because photos can be faked. What if I showed you a short video clip? Well, it’s a more difficult process, but videos can be faked as well. What if several people claim to have been there with me and witnessed the event? You probably wouldn’t believe them either and think it’s all an elaborate joke.
What makes the second claim so hard to believe? Well, it is an extraordinary claim and what I need to prove it is not just evidence but a preponderance of it, or in the words of a Philippine senator, a whole truckload of it.
Now, what do we have for the resurrection? We have the gospels as the principal accounts for it.
I have pointed out in the previous article, however, that the gospel writers were not eyewitnesses. They were simply relaying a story that has been told and retold thousands of times in the past few decades. Some people claim that the eyewitnesses were still around at the time the gospels were being circulated and could certainly verify or refute whatever was written.
But that is a dubious claim as it transmutes modern standards of life expectancy, literacy and literary circulation into ancient times. The earliest gospel, Mark, is dated at around 70 AD, forty years after Jesus’ supposed death. Historian J.D. Crossan has estimated that the average life expectancy during first century Palestine is 29 years. Biologist Caleb Finch seems to agree with this estimate although he gives a broader range of 20-35 years. That means that an eyewitness who was 20 years old during the crucifixion/resurrection event itself would most probably be dead by the time Mark came out.
Some would argue that it was entirely possible for them to have lived longer, and yes, I’m not saying it’s impossible. All I’m saying is it’s on the wrong side of the probability spectrum. Also, books weren’t published en masse as they were today. It took a lot of time for them to be copied by hand and more time to be circulated, and since the general public were mostly illiterate, they couldn’t read them anyway and could probably not have refuted them outright.
In his book, Sense and Goodness Without God, historian Richard Carrier notes “The early Roman Empire in particular was replete with kooks and quacks of all varieties, from sincere lunatics to ingenious frauds, even innocent men were mistaken for divine, and there was no end to the fools and loons who would follow and praise them. Skeptics and informed or critical minds were a small minority…This was an age of fables and wonder. Magic, miracles, ghosts were everywhere, and almost never doubted…this can be credited to the complete lack of any mass public education…and the lack of any mass media, or any organizations dedicated to investigating and getting at the truth and publishing the results.”
The gospels then are not unique in their tale of miracles and wonders. Even older tales and stories contain resurrection narratives. If one believes in the gospels, then why not these other tales as well?
With all that being said, the gospels themselves do not constitute the necessary preponderant and extraordinary evidence to conclude that an extraordinary event such as the resurrection of Jesus did indeed happen, and thus I am doubtful as to whether it really did. If the writer of Matthew could spin tales of a massive earthquake and dead people climbing out of their tombs to again walk the streets (Matt. 27:51) — an event that surprisingly no other contemporary historian writes about (not even the other gospel writers) — who knows what other tall tales he could conjure?
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.