Stephen T. Davis has written a rather long and quite critical review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.
“The Counterattack of the Resurrection Skeptics: A Review Article.” Philosophia Christi 8.1.
HT: James Gibson.
Davis is a Christian philosopher who specializes in the Resurrection. By his own admission, Davis “does not affirm inerrancy, and is prepared to admit interpolations and contradictions in the text of the Bible” (48, n.20).
Given his low view of Scripture, the way he pans The Empty Tomb is all the more damning since he shares some of the same sceptical presuppositions as the contributors to that volume.
Here are a few highlights:
I should point out that Richard Carrier is virtually the only contributor to TET who recognizes the controlling influence that metaphysical commitment to naturalism or supernaturalism has on one’s attitude toward the resurrection of Jesus; see TET, 370. On the other hand, he says, “Christian theism faces tremendous problems regarding plausibility, disconfirmation, and evidential support” (355). I just wish that Carrier had pointed out what those problems were. I would love for him to have told us what evidence, in particular, disconfirms Christian theism or even shows that it is implausible, (40, n.5).
A believer in the resurrection may hold that Cavin’s (1) is provable [i.e. Jesus died and afterward he became alive once again], but hold that the rest of what Christians believe about the resurrection of Jesus must be taken on faith. That is, it is not necessary to establish (8)-(12) in order to establish (1) | (42).
My notion is that belief that God raised Jesus from the dead is rational from the perspective of Christian supernaturalism. I agree with Martin that even from that perspective, miracles will be highly unusual. Neither in scripture nor in Christian experience does God constantly perform miracles (42).
I do not accept Martin’s accept Martin’s epistemological claim that the probability of a given hypothesis H must be greater than .5 for belief in H to be rational. Normally, this is indeed the case. But suppose we are in a situation where (a) there are four mutually exclusive alternatives to belief in H (call them A, B, C, and D); (b) each of A, B, C, and D, has a probability of .15 (and thus the probability of the falsity of H is. 6 and the probability of the truth of H is 4); and (c) H, A, B, C. and D exhaust all the possibilities. In such a case, believing H is the most rational alternative (42).
I deny that miracles—as long as they are rare, as Christians insist that they are—would impede “scientific understanding of the world” (46). It is true that a miraculous event cannot be explained scientifically, but the vast majority of events—all the nonmiraculous ones—still can…There are even contemporary secular philosophers who argue that explaining things like consciousness and qualia is permanently beyond the pale of science. Mental properties, they say, resist scientific explanation and form a limit to scientific understanding (43).
See, for example, Ned block, “Mental Paint and Mental Latex,” in Perception, Philosophical Issues 7, ed. Enrique Vallanueva (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1996), 19-49. (43, n.10).
Is it a priori highly unlikely, given God’s freedom to choice about when and where to place it, that the incarnation occurred at the particular time and place that Christians say it did? Martin argues that it is. However, the trouble with that claim is that it renders extremely unlikely virtually any hypothesis about the time and place of any past event. Suppose Jimmy Carter was trying to establish that exactly three yeas ago today at 317 p.m. in his backyard in Plaints, Georgia, he for the first time drank a glass of tomato juice. Now think how initially improbable that putative event would be in relation to all the other places and times that it could have occurred. Imagine that for some reason it was important for Jimmy to prove in a court of law that the event happened when and where it did. And imagine further a lawyer on the other side giving Martin-like arguments to the Jury: “think of all the other times and places that the event of Jimmy Carter first drinking tomato juice could have occurred,” the lawyer might say, “so it is highly improbably that it occurred when and were Jimmy Carter alleges.” Such an argument would convince no one (43).
Moreover, Martin’s argument is irrelevant to the debate about the resurrection of Jesus because he and the apologists have already agreed on the question of where and when Jesus’s putative resurrection occurred. It occurred in or around Jerusalem some time in the very late twenties or very early thirties of the 1C. This argument from Martin goes nowhere (43).
I had earlier objected to Martin’s assumption that the rarity of miracles entails that such events have low probability. Suppose, I said, that I enter a used car lot that has a thousand cars for sale. What is the probability that I will buy the one and only red car in the lot? I argued that the answer to that question will not depend merely on considerations of rarity (which might make one erroneously believe that the probability is .001), but also on consideration of preference. Maybe I have always wanted to own a red car (43).
Martin objects that the analogy fails because we do not know God’s preferences. But contrary to Martin, Christians believe that we do “know God’s preferences” (or at least many of them), because God has revealed them to us. Among other things, we believe we know that God wants to redeem human beings, that redemption from death is ca crucial aspect of redemption, and that Jesus promised that he would be raised from the dead. Accordingly, my used car lot illustration still stands. It is entirely possible that God decided to use the vehicle of resurrection in order to vindicate and exalt Jesus in part precisely because of the rarity of resurrections (43-44).
As other contributors to TET admit, it is not true that “given Roman crucifixion customs, the prior probability that Jesus was buried is low” (464). In point of fact, the Romans almost always allowed for local burial customs, and this included Jewish customs, which emphasized quick burial of corpses. The one big exception was during time of war…IN times of peace (and there was no war in Palestine during the time when Jesus would have been crucified), the Romans allowed executed criminals to be buried. This does not prove that Jesus was buried, of course, but it does render it probable (44).
It is Ted Drange, and not any Christian theologian of whom I have ever heard, who apparently thinks that Christian atonement must require that Jesus die and then stay dead forever. Does Drange think that he gets to decide this question?…that God subsequently raised him from the dead does not affect the fact that he truly died (45).
Now on all these points that I am attributing to God’s sovereign choice, I want to note that they are not arbitrary choices, as if God, say, flipped a coin in order to decide between bodily resurrection and immortality of the soul. They were appropriate choices, given human nature, God’s nature, and God’s past actions, as revealed in the Hebrew Bible (46).
Contra Price, there are in fact quotations and clear allusions to 1 Cor 15:3-11 in the Apostolic Fathers, that is, well before the 3C. Ignatius, who died AD ca. 110-12, unmistakably alludes to 1 Cor 15:8-9 in chapter 9 of his Epistle to the Romans. The Shepherd of Hermas, usually dated between AD 140 and 155, clearly alludes (in a different context) to 1 Cor 15:6. And Irenaeus, who flourished from about AD 180-99, quotes 1 Cor 15:8 in his Against Heresies 8:2 (47)
Price himself is the one who set the “beginning of the 3C” cutoff date (we have, he says, no MSS from before tht date and that is why we have no evidence of texts of 1 Cor 15 sans verses 3-11)…Ignatius was definitely 2C and his Epistle to the Romans is widely accepted as authentic. This looks like a case of simply brushing aside inconvenient evidence (48).
Unlike Price, I do not think that 1 Cor 15 makes much sense apart from vv3-11. (If Price is correct, what exactly would Paul be making known to the Corinthians?) Moreover, unlike Price, I think 1 Cor 15 makes perfect sense with vv3-11 includes…The formula establishes, in Paul’s view, the fact of the resurrection of Jesus and the rest of the chapter explains, in Paul’s’ view, the implications or meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, especially in terms of the general resurrection. Moreover, Paul shows both here (1 Cor 15:20,23) and elsewhere (for example, Rom 6:5; 8:11; Phil 3:10-11,20-21; 1 Thes 4:14) that he closely connected the two. Jesus’s resurrection was the first fruits or promise or guarantee of our resurrection (48-49).
Price seems upset that Craig has made up his mind that God raised Jesus from the dead. But hasn’t Price made hp his mind that God did not raise Jesus from the dead (or maybe event that there is no God and there was no Jesus so, obviously, God did not raise Jesus from the dead)? Is the problem that Price thinks Craig is close-minded on this point? Then it would become an interesting question whether Craig is more close-minded or personally interested in his view than Price is, for his. So far as I can see, both are doing what Price calls “engaged scholarship” (50).
I do not accept the claim tht “there appears to be not a single biblical prophecy that meets minimal conditions of being genuinely prophetic, and whose fulfillment can be independently confirmed” (476). In order to falsify this claim, I will submit just one such prophecy. In Mt 24:5, Jesus says, “Many will come in my name, saying, “I am the messiah!” and they will lead many astray.” That surely, is a true statement (51).
[Fales’s] thesis asserts that the whole of the bible should be understood not as history but as myth, that the biblical writers understood and accepted that mythology was what they were doing, and that biblical mythology was always written in support of political or social goals (51).
So far as the “sign of Jonah” text is concerned, Fales’s argument is based on the apparent inconsistency between (1) Jesus’s prediction in that passage that he would be in the heart of the earth for “three days and three nights” (which was obviously a reference to his upcoming death), and (b) the fact that Jesus was in the tomb at most part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday, which hardly amounts to three days…But I have always been impressed with the fact that Matthew seems to use the phrase “after three days” (27:63) synonymously with the phrase “on the third day” (16:21; 17:23; 20:19). So perhaps the phrase “after three day s and three nights” was meant, despite the implication of 72 hours, not to be taken literally, but instead to be taken as meaning the same thing as the other two phrases. Perhaps “three days and three nights” is a Hebrew figure of speech. Note Esther 4:16 and 5:1, where Eater and the Jews of Susa apparently fasted for 72 hours, but then it says the appeared before the king “on the third day” (51).
Finally, the rock on which Fales’s theory flounders, in my opinion, is the practice of private prayer. Were the ancient Israelites and NT Christians so dense as not to see that prayers that included requests for divine forgiveness, intercession for others, and petitions for oneself addressed merely to an ideal sociopolitical state of affairs were nonsensical? No political situation, however ideal, could be in a position to hear, let alone answer, their requests. An idea is not a person. Ergo, the ancient Israelites and early Christians, who regularly engaged in such practices of prayer, though of God as a personal agent, not an ideal sociopolitical state of affairs (52).
Kirby also argues that Matthew’s and Luke’s empty tomb stories are entirely dependent on Mark’s. I do not accept this point either, especially since we know that both Matthew and Luke had sources of information about Jesus that were unavailable to Mark (54).
Kirby argues that the consistent use of plural words like “they” and “them” in canonical and noncanonical burial accounts is an indication that Jesus was buried not by Joseph but by his enemies (247). But of course Joseph would hardly have buried Jesus without any help from other persons. As such, the pronouns may refer to Joseph et a. after all. (54).
Lowder defends an interesting thesis, namely, that Jesus’ body was relocated after its initial burial…But it is damaged beyond repair, in my view, by the fact that there is no suggestion of any such thing in the texts. Indeed, Mark 16:6 is inconsistent with it, and so must be explained away (55).
Moreover, what Lowder has in mind is not like the common ancient practice of reburial. Typically, a body was buried for a year until only bones remained, and then those bones were removed and placed in an ossuary (55).
Moreover, I do not agree that Jesus’s corpse would have been unrecognizable after 7 weeks (which Lowder uses to refute the common argument that had Jesus been buried by his enemies they would simply have put the corpse on display when the disciples started preaching the resurrection). I myself also checked with an eminent pathologist on this point, w ho told me that when a body is in fact buried, and the climate is dray and fairly cool, a corpse can be readily identified for much longer than that (55).
Moreover, we must note that any body that was found in Jesus’s tomb and put on display, even an unrecognizable one, would have spelled disaster for the Christian movement (55).
Surprisingly, given Carrier’s vigorous critique of an argument from silence that William Lane Craig deploys at one point (177-9), much of Carrier’s case is based, to an amazing degree, on arguments from silence. There is one after another. They are usually of the form, “If Paul had meant x, why didn’t he say y?” Now I am not an enemy of all arguments from silence; sometimes they can be fairly effective (especially where a powerful case can be made in favor of the statement, “If the author had meant s, she would have said y”); but they are hardly ever probative when standing alone (56).
Also, there seems to be in this essay a great deal of what I will call “picking and choosing” among texts…it seems that Carrier fastens upon and privileges any texts that can be taken as supporting his theory, and rejects all others. For example, he rejects the whole of the book of Acts as “worthless as a source” except the three descriptions of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-22; 22:6-16; 25:12-18), which Luke puts in the mouth of Paul. This is because the themes of seeing light and hearing voices (TET, 154) seem to agree with Carrier’s view of the subjective e nature of all the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Accordingly, he very much likes those bits of Acts (57).
As Carrier points out, Paul places great emphasis on the simile of a seed growing into a plant. Carrier sees I this metaphor a confirmation of the two-body theory; after all, he says, the plant is very much different from the see. Yet I see in the simile proof of the one-body theory. It all depends on what is meant by “the same” (r, alternately, “different from”) | (57).
It is certainly true that the seed and the plant are qualitatively different. But they are numerically the same because there is material continuity between them…Jesus’s old body is not, as Carrier would have it, replaced by the new one (while the old one decays in the grave); rather it becomes the new body. There is material continuity between the two; the new boy, although transformed, is the same body (57).
I am simply unable to read 1 Cor 15 in the way that Carrier does. One seldom noted grammatical point—which is clear both in standard English translations and the Greek—is the repetition in vv43-44 of the pronoun “it.” Three times Paul says, “It is sown…it is raised…” Now what is the intended referent of this word “It”? Surely he means the person’s body…This does not sound like the exchange of one body from another (57-58).
My only comment on this essay [“The Plausibility of Theft”} is that we must distinguish between two quite different questions. First, is it possible for us to imagine a scenario that is not impossible, is not disproven by the available evidence, and that covers all the admitted facts? Second, do we have convincing evidence that the scenario is true?
Believers in the resurrection of Jesus should answer the first question in the affirmative. Of course e can imagine such scenarios. Carrier does so, again and again…This certainly is a metaphysically possible scenario, but there is no evidence whatsoever for it. That is precisely the case, I believer for many of the theft scenarios that Carrier creates (58-59).
Carrier thinks it is obvious that the claim that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus (Jn 19:38-40) is a legendary embellishment. I ill just say that that is not obvious to me. Carrier’s theory is based on assuming the truth of what he calls the “core accounts” in the gospel burial accounts (that is, “details common to the majority: ). But one cannot help forming the suspicion that Carrier’s actual criterion for what details he will accept from the burial accounts is not what is “common to the majority,” but what agrees with his theory (59).
For much of his article, Parsons is buys answering the wrong set of questions. Few people, including Christians, will dispute the claim that sane and intelligent people sometimes “believe tings that never happened” (343)…the real issue here is whether there is good evidence to believe that this sort of thing happened in the case of the disciples’ beliefs about Jesus (59).
There are also several lesser points where I disagree with Parsons. He quotes Robert Price as asking, “where in the Gospels or in acts do we read ‘profound, extended conversations’ between the risen Jesus and his Disciples?” (444). And I am just wondering why Price and Parsons think Jn 21 fails to fill the bill (60).
Against Parsons, I still think that the resurrection of Jesus looks like an unlikely candidate for hallucinations. The considerations here are several: Jesus’s followers were not expecting a resurrection, many people saw the risen Jesus; the encounters were located in various places and times; some doubted that it was Jesus, and others only recognized him with difficulty; there were no drugs, high fever, or lack of food or water mention; and longstanding convictions and permanent lifestyle changes were produced. Taken together, these points constitute a powerful case against hallucination (61).
I was surprised, however, at how much below-the-surface disagreement there is in the book. In fact, I found myself t times wondering whether I might just somehow step out of the way and let them duke it out among themselves on such issue as:
• whether Jesus ever existed;
• whether Jesus died on the cross;
• whether Joseph of Arimathea existed;
• whether Jesus was buried (by anybody);
• whether the theft-of-the-body thesis is plausible;
• whether the disciples were convinced that Jesus had risen;
• whether Paul learned anything about Christianity from other Christians;
• whether the evangelists ere even trying to record actual events, and
• whether any parts of the Gospel accounts of the burial and resurrection of Jesus are either true or were meant to be taken as true (61).
I must point out that the contributors to TET advance some extremely radical proposals:
• The very concept of God is incoherent,
• The whole of the Bible is myth in the service or politics,
• Jesus never existed;
• Jesus did not really die on the cross; and
• 1 Cor 15:3-11 was not written by Paul.
Not all ten authors of TET push these theses. But I must say that these claims seem rather desperate to me. And so I draw this moral; If these are the lengths to which you have to go in order to deny the resurrection, maybe it is better to affirm it. Accordingly, to a certain extent, I believe that the authors of TET have shot themselves in the foot. Most scholars will recognize these claims for the eccentricities that they are (62).
One aspect of the desperation of which I speak is a methodological procedure that unites the essays in TET. I would describe it as having these steps: (1) suggest a naturalistic hypothesis which, if true, explains some aspects of the NT accounts of the resurrection of Jesus; (2) embrace all biblical or extrabiblical ancient texts, phrases, hints, or textual variants that can be interpreted as supporting the hypothesis; and (3) reject all other biblical texts as late, or patently false, or apologetically motivated, or legendary (62).
Has TET refuted the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead? No: the authors have not even come close to that (63).