Matthew Green of Debunking Christianity has posted two more articles on the resurrection. One is about the empty tomb, and the other is about the diversity of Jesus' resurrection appearances.
In his articles, Matthew makes reference to the work of Richard Carrier, though he sometimes distances himself from Carrier and comments that he's only mentioning his view as one possibility among others. He also mentions Robert Price. Carrier and Price, including arguments of theirs like the ones cited by Matthew, have been answered at length by Glenn Miller, J.P. Holding, and Christian CADRE, for example. Since Carrier and Price have already been answered to such an extent, and since Matthew sometimes distances himself from their arguments and doesn't make much of a commitment to their claims, I'm not going to be saying much about their theories. Readers interested in more of a response to Carrier and Price can consult sources like the ones linked above. My focus will be on the views of Matthew Green.
"Although I have no philosophical objections to accepting an empty tomb as a core historical fact, I do have serious reservations about accepting it as solidly factual. I do not find the arguments of William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas to be persuasive. However, rather than critique their attemtps to defend the empty tomb here, I wish to focus on a chief reason for my hesitation in accepting the empty tomb as historically factual. It's possible that the empty tomb originated as a symbolic creation. Historian and fellow atheist Richard Carrier has proposed the possibility that the empty tomb is a symbolic creation; pious historical fiction created to teach a metaphorical truth....Carrier argues that Mark falls into the genre of didadic hagiography and that the empty tomb is an example of a didadic creation of Mark to teach a spiritual truth. He argues that it was later taken as a core historical fact and was subsequently embellished as a legend in later gospels....Even if Carrier is wrong about some of the details of his plausibility argument such as Mark using the Psalms to construct his empty tomb story, I see no reason to throw out the core of his theory, that is, the empty tomb story is a symbolic fiction....It's precisely because I cannot rule out the possibility that Carrier is right about the empty tomb being didadic fiction, I cannot agree with Christian apologists that the empty tomb is an incontrovertible historical fact."
Matthew repeatedly mentions Christians like William Craig, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, and J.P. Holding, but all of those men speak of probabilities, not "incontrovertible historical fact" (unless they use such a phrase in the sense of high probability). Saying that a theory of Richard Carrier is possibly true isn't saying much. The issue we should be primarily concerned about here is probability, not possibility or certainty, and what men like Craig, Habermas, Licona, and Holding argue about the empty tomb is far more likely than Carrier's speculations. A probability isn't a certainty, but it's better than a possibility.
Matthew asks whether the gospel writers intended to refer to historical events. He uses a similar line of reasoning in his second article, regarding the diversity of the resurrection appearances. In that second article, he comments:
"This is made all the more problematic, in my opinion, with the lack of clear authoral intent in some of the narratives. The closest thing we have to an authoral intent to narrative events accurately is the Lukan prologue. Such a statement of authoral intent is clearly lacking in Matthew, Mark, and John. We don't have any stated intent in the other synoptics or John that the accounts are attempts to record and narrate history accurately. There is no critical mindset that I am personally aware of!"
We have far more than Luke's prologue to go by. Even if we only had Luke's prologue, however, Matthew hasn't given us a reason to reject the historical genre suggested by the gospel of Luke's prologue. And if Luke's gospel was intended to convey history, it seems likely that the three other gospels, written in such a similar manner, had the same intent.
In addition to Luke's prologue, we have a large amount of evidence from the manner in which the remainder of the documents were written, the setting in which they were written, the manner in which the earliest Christian interpreters viewed the documents, the manner in which the earliest enemies interpreted the documents, etc. Matthew's treatment of this issue suggests that he doesn't know much about it. Statements such as we find in Luke's prologue aren't the only means by which an intent to write history can be expressed.
Even if we limited ourselves to such statements, why wouldn't a passage like John 21:24 also qualify? Or when Matthew 28:15 refers to a Jewish argument about the empty tomb still being used "to this day", what are we to conclude other than that the Jewish enemies of Christianity had used the argument in the past as well, and that such an argument about physical evidence related to Jesus' resurrection was part of the discussion occurring between Christians and Jews of the time? Such indications of an intent to convey history are found over and over again in the gospels, Acts, and other relevant sources, including in their resurrection accounts.
Matthew suggests that the resurrection accounts in the gospels might have been derived from or shaped by Old Testament passages, but the Old Testament is rarely cited in the passages of the gospels addressing the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. The resurrected Jesus in the gospels is never made to appear as the resurrected righteous of Daniel 12:3, for example, and there isn't anything in the Old Testament that's detailed enough to be a plausible basis for something like the resurrection appearances of Luke 24 or John 21. The parallels drawn between the Old Testament and the gospel accounts are far too vague to demonstrate a probability of fabrication.
We know that when Paul discussed the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he had historical events in view. That's why he uses "then", "untimely born", and other references to chronology. Similarly, we know that the book of Acts was written in a highly historical genre. See Christopher Price's discussion here. Though documents like 1 Peter and Revelation say less about the resurrection, they do, like other New Testament documents, have a historical resurrection in view. Considering that being a historical witness of the resurrected Christ was a requirement for apostleship, and considering that the New Testament documents put so much emphasis on eyewitness testimony (John 15:27, Acts 1:21-22, Hebrews 2:3, 2 Peter 1:16, 1 John 1:1-3, etc.), why should we think that the writers of the gospels and Acts would decide to use non-historical accounts when discussing the resurrection? The idea that all eyewitness accounts of the resurrection witnesses would be ignored or radically altered by the time the gospels and other such documents were written is unlikely. If events like the ones the gospels and Acts discuss didn't occur, then why is there such widespread recording of such events at a time when there was still so much concern for eyewitness testimony and when eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles were still alive?
Regarding the genre of the gospels, the New Testament scholar Craig Keener writes:
"Readers throughout most of history understood the Gospels as biographies (Stanton 1989a: 15-17), but after 1915 scholars tried to find some other classification for them, mainly because these scholars compared ancient and modern biography and noticed that the Gospels differed from the latter (Talbert 1977: 2-3; cf. Mack 1988: 16n.6). The current trend, however, is again to recognize the Gospels as ancient biographies. The most complete statement of the question to date comes from a Cambridge monograph by Richard A. Burridge. After carefully defining the criteria for evaluating genre (1992: 109-27) and establishing the characteristic features of Greco-Roman ‘lives’ (128-90), he demonstrates how the canonical Gospels fit this genre (191-239). The trend to regard the Gospels as ancient biography is currently strong enough for British Matthew scholar Graham Stanton to characterize the skepticism of Bultmann and others about the biographical character of the Gospels as ‘surprisingly inaccurate’ (1993: 63; idem 1995: 137)….But though such [ancient] historians did not always write the way we write history today, they were clearly concerned to write history as well as their resources allowed (Jos. Ant. 20.156-57’ Arist. Poetics 9.2-3, 1451b; Diod. Sic. 21.17.1; Dion. Hal. 1.1.2-4; 1.2.1; 1.4.2; cf. Mosley 1965). Although the historical accuracy of biographers varied from one biographer to another, biographers intended biographies to be essentially historical works (see Aune 1988: 125; Witherington 1994:339; cf. Polyb. 8.8)….There apparently were bad historians and biographers who made up stories, but they became objects of criticism for violating accepted standards (cf. Lucian History 12, 24-25)….Matthew and Luke, whose fidelity we can test against some of their sources, rank high among ancient works….Like most Greek-speaking Jewish biographers, Matthew is more interested in interpreting tradition than in creating it….A Gospel writer like Luke was among the most accurate of ancient historians, if we may judge from his use of Mark (see Marshall 1978; idem 1991) and his historiography in Acts (cf., e.g., Sherwin-White 1978; Gill and Gempf 1994). Luke clearly had both written (Lk 1:1) and oral (1:2) sources available, and his literary patron Theophilus already knew much of this Christian tradition (1:4), which would exclude Luke’s widespread invention of new material. Luke undoubtedly researched this material (1:3) during his (on my view) probable sojourn with Paul in Palestine (Acts 21:17; 27:1; on the ‘we-narratives,’ cf., e.g., Maddox 1982: 7). Although Luke writes more in the Greco-Roman historiographic tradition than Matthew does, Matthew’s normally relatively conservative use of Mark likewise suggests a high degree of historical trustworthiness behind his accounts….only historical works, not novels, had historical prologues like that of Luke [Luke 1:1-4] (Aune 1987: 124)…A central character’s ‘great deeds’ generally comprise the bulk of an ancient biographical narrative, and the Gospels fit this prediction (Burridge 1992: 208). In other words, biographies were about someone in particular. Aside from the 42.5 percent of Matthew’s verbs that appear directly in Jesus’ teaching, Jesus himself is the subject of 17.2 percent of Matthew’s verbs; the disciples, 8.8 percent; those to whom Jesus ministers, 4.4 percent; and the religious establishment, 4.4 percent. Even in his absence he often remains the subject of others’ discussions (14:1-2; 26:3-5). Thus, as was common in ancient biographies (and no other genre), at least half of Matthew’s verbs involve the central figure’s ‘words and deeds’ (Burridge 1992: 196-97, 202). The entire point of using this genre is that it focuses on Jesus himself, not simply on early Christian experience (Burridge 1992: 256-58)." (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], pp. 17-18, 21-23, 51)
See also the further discussion in the introduction in the first volume of Keener’s commentary on the gospel of John (The Gospel of John: A Commentary [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003]). Keener goes into much more detail than what I outline above, far too much to quote here. Here's a portion of his discussion:
"The lengths of the canonical gospels suggest not only intention to publish but also the nature of their genre. All four gospels fit the medium-range length (10,000-25,000 words) found in ancient biographies as distinct from many other kinds of works….all four canonical gospels are a far cry from the fanciful metamorphosis stories, divine rapes, and so forth in a compilation like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Gospels plainly have more historical intention and fewer literary pretensions than such works….Works with a historical prologue like Luke’s (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2) were historical works; novels lacked such fixtures, although occasionally they could include a proem telling why the author made up the story (Longus proem 1-2). In contrast to novels, the Gospels do not present themselves as texts composed primarily for entertainment, but as true accounts of Jesus’ ministry. The excesses of some forms of earlier source and redaction criticism notwithstanding, one would also be hard pressed to find a novel so clearly tied to its sources as Matthew or Luke is! Even John, whose sources are difficult to discern, overlaps enough with the Synoptics in some accounts and clearly in purpose to defy the category of novel….The Gospels are, however, too long for dramas, which maintained a particular length in Mediterranean antiquity. They also include far too much prose narrative for ancient drama….Richard Burridge, after carefully defining the criteria for identifying genre and establishing the characteristic features of Greco-Roman bioi, or lives, shows how both the Synoptics and John fit this genre. So forceful is his work on Gospel genre as biography that one knowledgeable reviewer [Charles Talbert] concludes, ‘This volume ought to end any legitimate denial of the canonical Gospels’ biographical character.’ Arguments concerning the biographical character of the Gospels have thus come full circle: the Gospels, long viewed as biographies until the early twentieth century, now again are widely viewed as biographies….Biographies were essentially historical works; thus the Gospels would have an essentially historical as well as a propagandistic function….[quoting David Aune] ’while biography tended to emphasize encomium, or the one-sided praise of the subject, it was still firmly rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction. Thus while the Evangelists clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicates that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened.’…had the Gospel writers wished to communicate solely later Christian doctrine and not history, they could have used simpler forms than biography….As readers of the OT, which most Jews viewed as historically true, they must have believed that history itself communicated theology….the Paraclete [in John’s gospel] recalls and interprets history, aiding the witnesses (14:26; 15:26-27).…the features that Acts shares with OT historical works confirms that Luke intended to write history…History [in antiquity] was supposed to be truthful, and [ancient] historians harshly criticized other historians whom they accused of promoting falsehood, especially when they exhibited self-serving agendas." (pp. 7-13, 17, n. 143 on p. 17, 18)
Regarding Matthew Green's speculation that Mark might not have been attempting to convey historical information about the empty tomb, Richard Swinburne writes:
"It would be very odd indeed if Mark, seeking to tell his readers something, and phrasing his Gospel as a historical narrative and so understood by two near-contemporaries [Matthew and Luke] (themselves familiar with other churches, some of whom must have read Mark and could have corrected any obvious misunderstanding of it by Matthew and Luke), was really doing something quite other than trying to record history." (The Resurrection of God Incarnate [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003], p. 73)
The earliest interpreters of the New Testament documents interpreted them in a highly literal manner. The earliest enemies of Christianity responded to the religion as if the Christians were claiming that events such as Jesus’ resurrection were historical. Craig Blomberg writes:
"A careful reading of the patristic evidence suggests that indeed the vast majority of early Christians did believe that the type of information the Gospel writers communicated was historical fact, even as they recognized the more superficial parallels with the mythology of other worldviews" (cited in Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], p. 327, n. 27)
Ignatius writes in the early second century:
"He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed to the cross for us in His flesh….And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be Christians." (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 1-2)
Similar comments are made by other early sources, such as Aristides and Justin Martyr. The early post-apostolic Christians speak of government documents that corroborate elements of the gospel accounts, because those gospel accounts were viewed as historical, and the early post-apostolic enemies of Christianity responded to the religion, in part, by desecrating sites such as Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem. That sort of behavior is the result of both sides, both Christians and their enemies, interpreting the New Testament documents in a highly historical manner.
Much more could be said, but the point is that Matthew's suggestion that the gospels might not have meant to convey historical resurrection accounts is unreasonable. Matthew can't acknowledge the general historical genre of the documents, then arbitrarily exempt some passages he wants to dismiss as unhistorical, since there is no way to single out every passage Matthew would need to single out for exemption. The resurrection in general and the details included in the gospel accounts are among the subjects the earliest Christians and their enemies interpreted in a historical sense.
Regarding the empty tomb in particular, we have no good reason to think that an author like Mark would fabricate an account of the empty tomb, especially with elements such as the tomb's discovery by women while the male disciples are in unbelief and are hiding. When other sources, including the early enemies of Christianity, go on to treat the empty tomb as a historical fact as well, Matthew's speculation that the empty tomb account may have been unhistorical becomes even more implausible. Mark was writing in a highly historical genre, so were the other gospel writers, and the earliest Christian and non-Christian interpreters viewed their accounts in a highly historical manner.
Some of the commenters at Debunking Christianity have raised other arguments against the empty tomb account. BruceA suggests that doubt is cast on the historicity of the empty tomb because it isn't mentioned by Paul. But there's no place where we'd expect Paul to mention it. He could mention it in 1 Corinthians 15, but there's no need for doing so, just as there's no need for Paul to go into more detail about his own experience with the risen Christ, for example. The Corinthians weren't denying that Jesus had risen. The primary issue was what would happen to believers. Paul had a variety of potential arguments to choose from, and the fact that the empty tomb wasn't one of the ones he used isn't sufficient to justify the conclusion that he didn't think there was an empty tomb.
We know that Paul believed in the resurrection of the body that died. See Christopher Price's documentation here, for example. See also J.P. Holding's article here. An empty tomb would be implied in any discussion of a physical resurrection. And while Paul never directly discusses the empty tomb, he does seem to have considered Luke's gospel scripture (1 Timothy 5:18), and Luke refers to an empty tomb. It's highly unlikely that associates of Paul like Mark and Luke would believe in an empty tomb, yet Paul wouldn't. Paul had a lot of influence over the churches in Ephesus, Rome, Corinth, and other cities, and those churches are known to have accepted the gospels early on. Are we to believe that Paul's associates and the churches he influenced collectively rejected Paul's view of the resurrection and collectively replaced it with the view found in the gospels, and that this major shift occurred just after Paul's death and without leaving any trace in the historical record? What's far more likely is that Paul doesn't directly mention the empty tomb because there was no place in his extant writings in which there was a need for mentioning it.
BruceA seems to leave open the possibility that the empty tomb was known to Paul, but wasn't considered "significant", but I don't see how such a conclusion follows. Jesus was considered the Messiah. There wouldn't be space in Paul's extant letters to discuss every significant element of the Messiah's life. It seems that the earliest Christians kept a record of the location of the empty tomb, so they must have seen some significance in it. (For further discussion, see here.) And even if the empty tomb had been viewed as relatively insignificant early on, it could still be significant to us today in a context like this discussion.
Another commenter at the Debunking Christianity blog, Daniel Morgan, asks how Jesus' body could be identified after "50 days of rotting". The body would still have some identifiable features, such as height, hair, and crucifixion wounds, and the body would be in the tomb where Jesus had been placed. A corpse in bad condition would be much better evidence against Christianity than no corpse. Yet, the early enemies of Christianity acknowledged that the tomb was empty. You don't acknowledge an empty tomb if you don't know where the tomb is or if there's still a body in the tomb.
It would be implausible to argue that the Christians were fabricating the concept that their Jewish enemies acknowledged the empty tomb, for reasons such as those discussed by William Craig here. Justin Martyr and Tertullian had some familiarity with the Judaism of their day, and they corroborate what the gospel of Matthew reported. They include details Matthew didn't mention, so they can't be accused of only repeating what they read in Matthew's gospel.
Tommykey, another commenter at Debunking Christianity, claims that the gospels didn't widely circulate until the early second century, and he suggests that many witnesses of the events in question would have died in the war between the Jews and Romans. But the gospels aren't the only sources we have on the resurrection. And Jesus and the apostles traveled widely outside of Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem and the events surrounding it wouldn't have prevented the widespread availability of eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles.
Even if we focused on the gospels for a moment, for the sake of discussion, why should we believe that they didn't widely circulate until the early second century? It's not as if we have sources from the late first century, for example, who deny that the gospels were widely distributed at that time. What we know is that the gospels are in many places, and seem to have influenced Christian thought to a large extent, in the early second century. Such a scenario doesn't prove that the gospels were only narrowly distributed prior to that time.
Even if they had been, they still would have been known to some people, including church leadership. Papias reports, in the early second century, that Mark had Peter as his primary source for his gospel, and Papias tells us that he attained such information from the leadership of the church. In other words, Mark's gospel was a work of Peter's time, and it was a work known to the church leadership at the time of Papias. All four gospels are either universally or nearly universally attributed to an apostle or an apostle's associate. It's unlikely that any of the four documents would have taken a long time to become well known, given who wrote the documents and how widely influential they were among the earliest post-apostolic Christians.
Matthew Green goes on to argue:
"Suppose I believed that Jesus was temporarily interred in the tomb by Joseph of Arimithea and was subsequently reburied elsewhere and that the reburial not only left the tomb empty but triggered visions among Jesus' followers. If I constructed such a theory, this theory would have sufficient enough explanatory scope to explain how the tomb got empty as well as what caused the followers of Jesus to have visionary experiences. In fact, I believe that a theory of reburial would probably be the best explanation if I accepted the empty tomb as a core historical fact. This may not be sufficient in itself to fully answer the objection, but I do believe that it is a step in the right direction. Suppose reburial is historical implausible. I could simply opt for agnosticism regarding the the cause of the empty tomb."
Matthew repeatedly suggests that an empty tomb may have "triggered" some "visions" of Jesus. As I've told Matthew before, he needs to be more specific. The term "visions" is too broad. Which psychological disorders does Matthew have in mind with each individual involved (Paul, James, Peter, etc.)? Why doesn't he demonstrate that the purported resurrection witnesses meet the standards for experiencing such a psychological disorder? Replacing the term "vision" with the term "altered state of consciousness", as Matthew sometimes does, doesn't give us enough detail either. These terms are vague enough to cover a large variety of experiences, and whether a person experienced a psychological disorder has to be evaluated according to the details.
How would an empty tomb "trigger" what Matthew calls "visions" of the resurrected Jesus? Why should we think that an empty tomb account alone would produce widespread visions? The earliest sources we have repeatedly tell us just the opposite of what Matthew is arguing. They tell us that empty tomb accounts weren't sufficient to bring about belief in Jesus' resurrection (Luke 24:11, 24:21-24, John 20:2, 20:15, 20:25).
If the visions Matthew has in mind are hallucinations or something else requiring particular mental or physical conditions, why doesn't Matthew demonstrate that the resurrection witnesses met such conditions? Why would an empty tomb report produce visions among skeptics like James and Paul? Why would the people undergoing these visions think that they had seen a resurrected Jesus? Why didn't they think they saw a resuscitated Jesus or something else more consistent with traditional Jewish thought?
As I discussed in an earlier article, the information we have concerning the resurrection appearances is highly inconsistent with what we know about hallucinations and other psychological disorders that critics sometimes suggest. For reasons like the ones I discuss in the article linked above, it's implausible to dismiss all of these details in the resurrection accounts as unhistorical. Critics like Matthew Green can't just arbitrarily assert that all resurrection details inconsistent with his theory are unhistorical. He has to have some objective means of leading us to the conclusion that the details inconsistent with his theory are unhistorical details. So far, he hasn't produced any such objective means. On the other hand, I've given reasons for believing that such details are historical. See the article linked above.
Matthew goes on:
"If the postmortem appearances and the empty tomb were both supernaturally caused, Christianity would not have naturalism to contend with but rival supernaturalist theologies to counter....A Zoroastrian could argue that Ahura-Mazda had sent a angel or ghost, disguised as Jesus, to trick his followers into thinking that he rose from the dead. A Muslim could argue that Allah allowed an evil spirit, a demon if you will, to appear as Jesus in order to decieve Jesus' followers, because Allah wanted a rival religion to flourish so by the time that Islam originated, Allah could test the faith of Muslims with a heresy like the Christian gospel."
Matthew isn't a supernaturalist. But when Christians are responding to supernaturalists, they do provide answers to arguments such as the ones Matthew mentions above. If a Zoroastrian or Muslim wants to acknowledge Jesus' resurrection, but attribute it to some source other than the God of the Bible, then the issue under discussion would no longer be whether Jesus was resurrected. Rather, the issue would be something like who raised Jesus or why He was raised, not whether He was raised. We would then take the relevant philosophical considerations and other relevant data into account. The suggestion that the resurrection appearances were demonic would be considered in light of issues such as whether it's likely that God would allow a demon to fulfill detailed prophecy and claim to be God, for example, then appear to rise from the dead. We would also consider the source of the claim of demonic deception. Do we have any reason to trust such an assertion by a Zoroastrian or Muslim? If nothing in Zoroastrianism or Islam compels me to acknowledge the truthfulness of those religions, then why should I trust those religions to interpret Jesus' resurrection for me? More could be said, but Matthew Green isn't a supernaturalist, so such supernatural theories aren't the issue of primary concern here.
"It is true that simpler theories always have greater explanatory scope. But there is a point where a theory can have too much explanatory power in which it explains everything, and actually doesn't really explain anything because there is no observation or fact which it cannot explain. Such a theory, having too much explanatory power ceases to be a simple theory and becomes simplistic."
But the resurrection of Jesus doesn't "explain everything" in the sense Matthew is suggesting. It does explain the data we have, but there could conceivably be data it wouldn't explain. We have no such data, but it would be absurd to reject a theory because it's consistent with all of the data we do have. "Explaining everything" is a problem only if the "everything" includes all conceivable possibilities. But the "everything" that Jesus' resurrection explains isn't every conceivable possibility, but rather the data we do have in the historical record. That sort of "explaining everything" isn't a disadvantage. It's an advantage.
Matthew goes on to cite some examples to illustrate his argument, examples involving Santa Claus and aliens building the pyramids, for example. He writes:
"As to why some kids believe that they both 1.) see a man looking like Santa Claus at a local mall and 2.) they will open gifts placed under the tree with, we can put forth two hypotheses. The first is the 'Santa Claus' hypothesis. This hypothesis states that there really is a jolly old man from the North Pole who does visit shopping malls before Christmas and really does visit houses, placing wrapped gifts under the tree for kids to discover and open the next morning. The second hypothesis is called the 'Cultural Trickery' hypothesis. This hypothesis states that it is parents and other grown adults working in collusion with each other to fool kids into thinking that Santa Claus is real....Notice that the 'Santa Claus' hypothesis is a much simpler explanation for the two observations 1 and 2 and that the 'Cultural Trickery' hypothesis is a more complex theory of causation regarding observations 1 and 2. Should we not, then, accept the 'Santa Claus' hypothesis as the more rational hypothesis because of its simplicity and greater explanatory scope?"
Matthew is using an example of something we know to be false for reasons other than the reasons he mentions. We know people who dress up as Santa. We know that different Santas have different physical features. We know that parents buy gifts for their children in the name of Santa. Etc. Nobody reading Matthew's example is going to evaluate his example without taking such factors into account. Matthew acts as if he's appealing only to people's knowledge of "observations 1 and 2", but every reader is going to take other factors into account as well. We don't have evidence against Jesus' resurrection comparable to the evidence we have against the Santa theory. And we don't have evidence for the Santa theory comparable to the evidence we have for Jesus' resurrection.
If you take all of the data related to Santa into account, including photographs of different men putting on Santa clothing, parents explaining that they bought gifts in the name of Santa, etc., then the Santa theory doesn't explain the evidence well. We have explicit and widespread evidence for what Matthew calls the "Cultural Trickery" theory. That theory explains the evidence well. Matthew's speculations about Jesus' resurrection, on the other hand, don't explain the evidence. He has no equivalent of malls giving men paychecks to dress up as Santa or parents acknowledging that they bought gifts in Santa's name.
It's advantageous, not disadvantageous, for a theory to have features like "simplicity and greater explanatory scope". Other factors have to be taken into account as well, but Matthew hasn't shown us that there are other factors that lead us away from the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. Saying that other factors have to be taken into account does nothing to show that those other factors make Matthew's theory more plausible.
He goes on to use the example of aliens building the pyramids:
"Let me recall an example I mentioned above, the theory that alien visitors with superhuman technology, are responsible for the origin of the pyramids of Egypt. Suppose that actual archeological or written evidence of the actual origins of the pyramids was nonexistent, forever lost to history. Would that make the alternative alien theories somehow more credible, more likely? Not really. In the lack of historical evidence for the actual origins of the Egyptian pyramids, I would simply choose to be agnostic."
If we had a "lack of historical evidence", then why would anybody think that an alien theory is the best theory? We have a lot of historical evidence relevant to early Christianity. Christians don't just argue that Jesus must have risen because the raising of Jesus would be simpler than a series of naturalistic events. Simplicity is one factor among others. As I said above regarding the Santa Claus example, saying that other factors have to be taken into account does nothing to show that those other factors make Matthew's theory more plausible. Instead of discussing Santa Claus and aliens, Matthew needs to do more to explain how his vision theory supposedly better explains the evidence related to the resurrection of Christ.
"Agnosticism would be prima facie more likely, more rational than any alternative theory of alien origins of the Egyptian pyramids, for a reason as simple as that alien theories are extraordinary theories requiring extraordinary evidence. Reasoning by means of analogy, then, even if I had no clue whatsoever as to what caused the empty tomb, I believe that because extraordinary or even supernatural evidence for the resurrection is lacking and the New Testament is historically errant, I would simply declare agnosticism as to the cause of the empty tomb."
A term like "extraordinary evidence" is vague and allows critics to keep claiming that whatever amount of evidence they're given isn't enough. Humans will receive and communicate any evidence they have for a historical event through ordinary means (eyesight, speaking, writing, etc.). If you see a man who has risen from the dead, you see that man with ordinary eyesight. You write about your experience with ordinary writing. Etc. If you're going to ask for "supernatural evidence" for the resurrection, then do you also need supernatural evidence for that supernatural evidence? You have to rely on the ordinary rather than the extraordinary at some point. A resurrected Jesus would be seen with ordinary eyesight and heard with ordinary hearing, and we would evaluate the testimony of the eyewitnesses by ordinary standards. The resurrection is the miracle. Seeing the resurrected person isn't.
It's reasonable to want to be careful with something like a resurrection claim, since such an event isn't part of the normal course of life and since it would have significant implications. The Christian claim involves hundreds of witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), including people who had been enemies of Christianity, and we have many examples of those witnesses' willingness to suffer and die for what they had seen, for example. Nobody is being asked to believe in the resurrection because of what one anonymous source thought he saw one time out of the corner of his eye. There's a lot of depth and many layers to the Christian case for Jesus' resurrection. That's why critics of religion in general tend to spend far more time on Jesus' resurrection than they do on something like the miracles associated with Buddha or Muhammad. Critics wouldn't be appealing to widespread memory losses among the early Christians, widespread psychological disorders, widespread apathy among Christianity's early enemies, etc. if the evidence for Jesus' resurrection was easy to dismiss. The demand for extraordinary evidence probably results from the fact that the evidence is indeed extraordinary by normal standards for ancient history. But the term "extraordinary" is vague enough to allow the critic to keep changing his standards however he needs to in order to avoid an unwanted conclusion.
"First of all, I believe that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection are highly discrepant and are impossibly inconsistent, especially in terms of secondary details despite whatever core historical facts underly the accounts."
The issue under discussion is the resurrection, not Biblical inerrancy. But while Matthew refers to the resurrection accounts as "impossibly inconsistent", he gives no examples of an impossible inconsistency.
"As Robert M Price notes, the very admission of a need to harmonize the accounts is an admission that the accounts cannot be taken at face value and that the burden of proof is on the resurrection narratives themselves, not on the critics who would call these narratives into question."
What does Matthew mean by "cannot be taken at face value"? If one account tells us that people A, B, and C witnessed an event, while another account tells us that people B, C, and D witnessed it, then the two accounts differ. They can be taken at face value in the sense of accepting them as possibly consistent with each other. They can't be taken at face value in the sense of accepting each account as giving us every detail of what occurred. But why would anybody assume that either account was attempting to give every detail? Sources often differ from one another without contradicting each other in historical research, courts of law, etc. See the examples cited by J.P. Holding here. Harmonization is commonly practiced in historical research and in other fields.
Matthew tells us that those who want to harmonize have a "burden of proof", but he doesn't tell us what it is. The sort of burden of proof that historians would try to meet would be to demonstrate that two differing accounts can be harmonized and that we have reason for trusting the two sources who give the differing accounts. And Christians have harmonized their sources and have given reasons for trusting those sources.
In his latest articles, Matthew makes much of alleged inconsistencies in the gospels, but some of the most significant problems for his vision theory are in elements of the gospels (and other documents) that are only mentioned by one source or are reported in a similar manner by more than one source. All of the sources who comment on Jesus' tomb agree that it was empty. All of the sources agree that Paul had been an enemy of Christianity prior to seeing the risen Christ. Etc. When an event is reported in only one place, such as the appearance to James in 1 Corinthians 15 or the appearance on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, we can't claim to know that the event must not have occurred because of supposed errors in the gospels. If John's gospel is wrong on some issues, it doesn't therefore follow that it's wrong on all issues, much less that the other three gospels, Acts, Paul, Peter, etc. are unreliable as well. Arguing that two gospels contradict each other can only prove the unreliability of one gospel, not both of them. Why would questioning a detail in Mark's gospel, for example, give us reason to doubt what Paul reports in 1 Corinthians 15? Matthew hasn't given us any reason to reject Biblical inerrancy, but even if he did, his vision theory would still be untenable. A passage like 1 Corinthians 15 or John 20-21 would be highly problematic for Matthew's theory even if documents like 1 Corinthians and John weren't Divinely inspired scripture.
Let's consider a detail found often in the resurrection accounts. All of the sources agree that the resurrection witnesses weren't expecting to see Jesus resurrected (Matthew 28:1-6, Mark 9:10, 16:1-3, Luke 24:11, John 20:25, Acts 9:1, etc.). Yet, we know that expectations play a major role in hallucinations and other psychological disorders. Are we to believe that all of the sources commenting on this subject were mistaken? With somebody like Paul, who refers to himself as a former enemy of Christianity, how would it be plausible to argue that he was expecting to see the risen Christ? Were his travel companions expecting to experience something? All three accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts mention the fact that Paul's companions shared in the experience (9:7, 22:9, 26:14). The three accounts can be reconciled, but even if we were to grant the claim that they're contradictory, why should we think that a first century author (apparently somebody who knew Paul) would three times refer to an element of Paul's experience that didn't actually occur? The author of Acts apparently was with Paul when he spoke about his conversion (Acts 26:12-27:2). It's not just that one or two sources refer to this concept that people weren't expecting to see Jesus. Rather, the concept is referred to often, by a variety of sources and in a variety of contexts. These weren't people gathered together, expecting to see something. Often, they saw something they didn't expect.
What about other details in the accounts that aren't mentioned as often, but are credible? Luke and John refer to how the risen Jesus sometimes ate with His disciples, for example. That would produce physical evidence that something like a hallucination wouldn't produce. Since eating food is something that would be expected to commonly occur among any group of people who are together a lot, and since nothing said elsewhere in the New Testament contradicts such accounts, why are we supposed to believe that these events didn't occur?
We could broaden the issue by asking about the desire for physical evidence in general. All four gospel authors refer to physical evidence produced by the resurrection (Matthew 28:9, Mark 16:4-6, Luke 24:42-43, John 21:9-13, etc.). Similarly, the early Jewish opponents of Christianity acknowledged the empty tomb, and Ignatius of Antioch reports a possible extra-Biblical tradition involving the disciples' touching Jesus' resurrected body (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 3). Since the desire for physical evidence makes sense from the standpoint of common human experience and in the context of first century Jewish beliefs about resurrection, why should we think that the sort of desire for physical evidence reflected in these sources is unhistorical?
This is a context in which the number of resurrection appearances is significant. 1 Corinthians 15 reports six appearances, and Luke refers to Jesus as appearing to people over a period of 40 days, for example. Jesus didn't just appear once or twice. How likely is it that people living in a context like first century Israel, with its beliefs about the physicality of resurrection, would repeatedly think they saw the risen Jesus without seeking any physical evidence?
Much more could be said, but we don't have to accept inerrancy before asking questions like these. Matthew hasn't given us any reason to reject inerrancy, but even if he did, the presence of error in some details wouldn't justify the sort of radical non-historicity that Matthew would have to advocate in order to dismiss all of the evidence inconsistent with his theory. If you go through the relevant documents and take note of all of the details Matthew would have to dismiss, it becomes apparent that he isn't just suggesting common human fallibility. He's suggesting radical, widespread delusions, memory lapses, misunderstandings, dishonesty, and apathy, and not just among the early Christians, but in some cases among their early enemies as well. I'm not aware of any other place in human history, any place other than those early decades of Christianity, where critics have to make such radical speculations in an attempt to dismiss a reported miracle.
"Matthew records an appearance of Jesus to his followers in Galilee while Luke places the first appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers in Jerusalem on the night he rose from the dead. Christian defenders of biblical inerrancy and the resurrection will argue that the two accounts are complementary. What if they really do contradict each other?"
Why would anybody think that there's a contradiction? What's supposed to be contradictory?
"The problem, then, is that Christian apologists like Bill Craig and Gary Habermas may be milking the New Testament for data that simply may not exist, trying to squeeze as much juice out when the accounts may be completely dry. The 'diversity' they have in mind, I would contend, is simply imaginary. This is not to say that there wasn't a diversity of appearances, only, that it seems to me that Bill Craig and Gary Habermas and their apologist cohorts are basing their argument for a diversity of appearances on illegitimate grounds. They are treating the New Testament accounts as if they are reliable narratives, to be completely accepted at face value....The bottom line seems to me to be that any such 'diversity' presupposes harmonization and inerrancy and that has to be argued for despite appearances to the contrary, not simply assumed at face value."
It doesn't seem that Matthew is as familiar with the work of Craig and Habermas as he suggests he is, or he isn't being careful in representing their views. Here's a representative example of what Craig has argued on this subject:
"On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead....there is no single instance in the casebooks exhibiting the diversity involved in the postmortem appearances of Jesus. It is only by compiling unrelated cases that anything analagous might be constructed." (in Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, editors, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000], pp. 33, 190)
"The wide variety of times and places that Jesus appeared, along with the differing mindsets of the witnesses, is another formidable obstacle. The accounts of men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, provide an insurmountable barrier for hallucinations. The odds that each person would be in precisely the proper and same frame of mind to experience a hallucination, even individually, decrease exponentially." (see page 5 here)
Do these comments by Craig and Habermas require "harmonization and inerrancy"? No. All that's required is an acceptance of the historicity of some portions of the relevant documents. That's why Craig and Habermas regularly explain that their argument for the resurrection doesn't require belief in Biblical inerrancy. They frequently appeal to what's commonly accepted in modern scholarship, including among non-Christian scholars.
If you accept the historicity of the resurrection appearances of 1 Corinthians 15, for example, which doesn't require inerrancy, then you have a wide diversity of resurrection appearances from that passage alone. 1 Corinthians 15 alone mentions appearances to individuals and appearances to groups, appearances to believers and appearances to unbelievers. In groups as large as the eleven disciples or the more than 500 men mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:6, we would expect a wide variety of personalities. And 1 Corinthians 15 alone, even if we considered nothing else, mentions six different appearances, which suggests the sort of diversity William Craig and Gary Habermas refer to. You don't have to believe in the inerrancy of the gospels and Acts in order to conclude that the women who went to Jesus' tomb had a different mindset than Saul of Tarsus had on the road to Damascus. You don't have to accept Biblical inerrancy in order to conclude that an unbeliever like James would have had a different mindset than a disciple like Peter. Etc.
Matthew Green has said a lot about alleged errors in the Biblical accounts, but he hasn't given us a single example of an error, and the most significant problems with his theory would remain even if we were to reject Biblical inerrancy. He mentions a lot of possibilities, but doesn't commit to much and doesn't go into much detail. But detail is what's needed. Making vague references to "visions" or telling us that something naturalistic may have triggered both the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, but not telling us what it was that did the triggering and how it brought about "visions", isn't enough. It's also not enough to ignore large amounts of evidence about the genre of the New Testament documents while acting as if we can't know whether the New Testament authors intended to write historical accounts. Matthew can't remain silent or speak only in vague generalities in the places where his vision theory is weakest. The problem isn't that Matthew's opponents are assuming Biblical inerrancy. The problem is that Matthew's theory is absurdly implausible before we even get to a consideration of inerrancy. That's why theories like Matthew's are so unpopular, even among scholars who reject the inerrancy of scripture.
The evidence suggests that the early Christians were attempting to convey historical accounts when they wrote documents like 1 Corinthians and the gospels. The evidence suggests that many details of the resurrection accounts are inconsistent with what we know of hallucinations and other psychological disorders. Matthew Green isn't attempting to give the best explanation of the evidence. He's attempting to give the best naturalistic explanation. But this is a case in which we have a supernatural explanation that's significantly better than any naturalistic theory. And that supernatural explanation is better in a context in which we have a lot of information. We know a lot about first century Israel, common Jewish beliefs of the time, how people viewed Jesus prior to thinking they had seen Him risen from the dead, the details of the settings in which some of the appearances occurred, what the witnesses were willing to suffer as a result of making the claims they made, etc. It isn't a lack of information, but rather the presence of much information, that results in attempts to dismiss dozens of details given to us by first century documents.