Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Things Which Ought to Be Better Known about the Resurrection of Jesus" notes

For what it's worth, if anything, here are my notes on Peter J. Williams' lecture on the resurrection (which Evan helpfully pointed out in an earlier post).

Since I don't have a lot of time these days, however, I played much of the lecture at a faster than normal rate. So my notes might not be as accurate or as well organized as they should be. Still I hope they're at least helpful in some way.

Obviously people should listen or watch Williams' excellent lecture for themselves. (Although I found his third part weak.)

  1. Non-Christian accounts

    A. Tacitus. Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian. He writes in Annals 15.44:

    So far, the precautions taken were suggested by human prudence: now means were sought for appeasing deity, and application was made to the Sibylline books; at the injunction of which public prayers were offered to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, while Juno was propitiated by the matrons, first in the Capitol, then at the nearest point of the seashore, where water was drawn for sprinkling the temple and image of the goddess. Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated by women in the married state. But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

    i. Note Tacitus says it is "the crowd" who called the followers "Christians," not the followers themselves. This agrees with the NT. The name Christians is used three times in the NT and all three times it is used by outsiders to describe the followers of Jesus. First, in Acts 11:26: "And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians". Second, in Acts 26:28: "And Agrippa said to Paul, 'In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?'". Finally, in 1 Peter 4:16: "Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name".

    ii. This shows the NT documents (Luke-Acts and the Petrine epistles) came from a stage before Christians had started calling themselves Christians.

    iii. We know Tiberius reigned from 14-37 AD and Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from 26-36 AD. So this gives us a timeframe for the crucifixion.

    iv. We know from Tacitus that Christianity began in Judea, which agrees with the NT.

    v. We likewise see the persecution of Christians.

    vi. We know "vast numbers" of Christians were known by Nero and "convicted". This is within 30-35 years of when Christianity began in Judea; Christianity had spread all the way to Rome. The further Christianity had spread and the more number of people believed in Christianity makes it more difficult to believe the resurrection could have been made up later. It's difficult to change a publicity campaign half-way through, so to speak.

    B. Pliny the Younger (governor of Bithynia c. 112 AD). Pliny the Younger writes in Letters 10.96-97 to the Emperor Trajan for advice:

    I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed...

    Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ - none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do - these I thought should be discharged...

    Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty years...

    They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so...

    For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found.

    i. Note Pliny the Younger says a test for genuine Christians could be to sacrifice offerings to pagan gods and also to curse Christ since genuine Christians would not perform these acts. Pliny the Younger got these tests from Christians or ex-Christians, who in turn got them from their understanding of the NT.

    ii. Note from testimonies of ex-Christians who were Christians as many as 20 years ago (i.e. c. 92 AD) that Christians worshipped one God. So it was known Christians worshipped one God as early as the 1st century.

    iii. Note Christians met on a fixed day.

    iv. Note so many people had become Christians that temples were almost deserted and not many people were buying meat from the markets. Although Pliny the Younger hoped this would change and people would again buy meat and frequent temples.

    v. Note how difficult it was to be a Christian, which in turn agrees with Tacitus. And it also agrees with the NT. For example, in Acts 19, so many people in "Asia" (Bithynia was in Asia minor) had become Christians that it affected the economic trade of the region and a riot started.

    C. Josephus. He is writing this in his hometown of Jerusalem at the age of approximately 25 y/o. He is writing about events which occurred in 62 AD. He writes in Antiquities 20.200:

    He [Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had made an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he handed them over to be stoned.

    i. Note Josephus writes James was the brother of Jesus. This agrees with the NT.

    ii. Note James was stoned for believing his brother was the Christ or Messiah. This agrees with the NT. There is a high cost to being a Christian.

    iii. Also, it's a bit hard to imagine someone's brother believes his brother is the Savior of the world.

  2. Christian accounts of the resurrection appearances and empty tomb

    A. Preliminary remarks.

    i. A quick point about bias. Biased accounts should not be ruled out simply because they're biased. If we are falsely accused of having committed a crime, and we give our testimony in which we have a vested interest in defending ourselves, should our testimony be discounted because it has a vested interest and is therefore biased? That'd be unfair.

    ii. Also, it shouldn't be surprising most accounts of Christianity are written by Christians. Most people writing about Christianity would likely be Christians since it's a subject they're interested in. Just like most people writing about video games would likely be video gamers since it's a subject they're interested in.

    iii. Of course, whatever our beliefs about Jesus, the NT is the best source for the accounts of the resurrection.

    B. Take the Pauline letters.

    i. Take 1 Corinthians, for example, which was written around 55 AD. See 1 Cor. 15:3-6 especially. Among other things, Paul is trying to establish his credibility with the Corinthians. If Paul bluffed that the apostles and 500 people had seen Jesus alive when they had not, then Paul would lose credibility with his co-workers and also with the Corinthians.

    ii. Or take Galatians which was written around 50 AD. In Galatians 1:1 Paul writes about the resurrection of Christ. If we use Galatians to estimate when Paul was converted, it'd have to be by the mid-30s at the very latest.

    iii. Although Williams notes there's a good case for the resurrection in the Pauline letters, he will not delve into this in this current lecture but rather aims to focus on the Gospels.

    C. The Gospels.

    i. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more similar to one another than they are to John. That's why these three are termed the synoptic Gospels.

    ii. Problems in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection:

    * Did the women see one or two angels and was it on their first visit to the tomb?

    * Did Peter and John go to the tomb before or after women first saw angel(s)?

    * What did the angel(s) say to the women?

    * Does Mary first learn of the resurrection from Jesus or from the angel(s)?

    Whatever problems, however, what this shows is the four Gospels were not copied from one another as far as this account is concerned. As N.T. Wright pointed out: "The later we imagine them [i.e. the resurrection accounts] being written up, let alone edited, the more likely it would be that inconsistencies would be ironed out" (Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 612).

    It might've been nice to hear how Williams does address each of these apparent inconsistencies though.

    iii. Signs of authenticity

    a. When people are speaking, there's a higher agreement between the three synoptic Gospels than there is in the narrative of the synoptic Gospels. For example (although unfortunately Williams does not label his table):

    This is not to imply they're unfaithful when it comes to the narratives, but rather that there's more freedom when writing narratives.

    There are various possibilities to account for this (e.g. perhaps there's a common source behind Matthew and Luke). But let's instead focus on the resurrection accounts in the synoptic Gospels.

    b. If we look at the resurrection accounts, the synoptic Gospels do not have many words in common at all (again unfortunately Williams does not label his table):

    c. Let's focus on Matthew and Mark's accounts of the resurrection:

    The key point is that, when it comes to the narrative, they're different. But when it comes to the quoted words, they're similar.

    d. Now let's check out Matthew and Luke's accounts of the resurrection:

    Matthew and Luke's accounts are very different. According to Williams, we can't explain it using the argument from minor agreements. That is, we can't explain it by saying Matthew and Luke copied from a common source and also copied from Mark because on this theory Matthew and Luke would generally want to follow Mark first. Williams notes this gets very technical and so he'll move on.

    Again, Luke is very different from Matthew. However, in the middle of very different speeches, Luke has a sentence or two which is identical in Matthew.

    Now, if Luke has Matthew in front of him and is copying from Matthew, then how would you get this pattern of difference then precise agreement? Williams thinks this pattern of difference then precise agreement is best explained by the existence of a larger body of speech from which the Gospel writers are selecting bits and pieces from the larger body which seemed appropriate to them.

    e. Now let's compare Matthew with John:

    On the one hand, the words are different. But on the other hand, there's subtle agreement. For instance, John has Jesus saying "Do not cling onto me," which presupposes what's written in Matthew, "And they came and took hold of his feet".

    iv. Things you would be unlikely to invent

    a. That we should worship someone crucified by the Romans and therefore publicly humiliated (i.e. worship a loser). Crucifixion was a means by which the Romans showed their power and discredited their rivals.

    b. That we should worship someone who was resurrected. As Wright explains: "Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false. Many believed that the dead were non-existent; outside Judaism, nobody believed in the resurrection" (Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 35).

    Not to mention someone raised in a culture of Platonic thought would regard the physical body as a step backwards rather than an advance. They'd want to slough off the physical body rather than return to it.

    c. Josephus in Antiquities 4.219 writes: "Let not the witness of women be accepted because of the lightheadedness and insolence of their kind." Yet the NT has women as the first people at the tomb, and the first who saw the risen Christ.

    d. All four Gospels note bright white angels but a normal looking Jesus:

    e. Doubt. Not only doubt in general but doubt when people are actually seeing Jesus (e.g. Matt 28:17; Luke 24:11, 38, 41; John 20). The theme of unbelief is replete throughout the Gospels. Why introduce the theme of unbelief or doubt which would seem to undermine to some degree the purpose of fostering belief in Jesus' resurrection?

    f. The disciples saw Jesus die. It would not be a person's natural reaction to think the person they saw die a few days ago is now alive again. It'd be more natural for these Jews to believe there was an angel who looked like but wasn't Jesus. Perhaps the angel was there to comfort them. Or to give them some other message from God.

    While the Jews do believe in the resurrection, they believed it would occur at the end of time. And that it would be a resurrection of all people (or perhaps all God's people). They wouldn't have believed in a resurrection out of eschatological sequence and for only one individual. (I take it Williams would say Lazarus belongs in another category.)

    g. Conspiracy theories for the resurrection struggle on two points: they need to explain the empty tomb as well as a sincere belief in resurrection appearances. It might be possible to explain one or the other, but the combination of both compounds the difficulty.

    Plus, there's not much time to plan a hoax of the resurrection. At most they'd have to plan a resurrection hoax within three days.

    People who are hallucinating typically do not see the same things. If a group of people are all using the same hallucinogen, one might see a pink elephant, another a flying pig, etc. Similarly it'd be highly improbable if 500 people had the exact same dream.

    h. What about independent eyewitnesses? There were a minimum of six women, not all in a single group, not all in the tomb at the same time, and different Gospel writers consult different women.

    i. Consider the variety of the resurrection appearances. We have Jesus appearing in Judea vs. Galilee; town vs. country; hill vs. lake; indoors vs. outdoors; morning vs. evening; prior appointment vs. no prior appointment; close vs. distant; appearing to 1 to 500 people; men vs. women; sitting, standing, walking, cooking, eating; always talking; and always talking to adults. All these experiences can't be easily squared with overactive imaginations or hallucinations or the like.

  3. Objection to miracles

    A. According to Williams, David Hume's argument against miracles in On Miracles might be summed up as follows:

    i. Belief should be proportionate to the regularity of experience: "the evidence, resulting from the testimony [of humans], admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual."

    ii. "A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined."

    iii. No miracle in history publicly attested by sufficient number of sensible and educated people of integrity, as to have sufficient probability.

    iv. Humans are gullible.

    v. Miracles most claimed where education/civilization lacking.

    vi. All miracles have an infinite number of testimonies against them (miracles of other religions).

    B. Or to put it into contemporary terms, according to Williams:

    i. Isn't anything more likely than a miracle?

    ii. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (Carl Sagan).

    iii. Science could not work if it did not assume natural laws are not violated.

    iv. Miracles would spoil beautiful pattern of scientific explanation.

    C. Responses from Williams:

    i. Antecedent beliefs affect judgment of probability or what is extraordinary.

    ii. Sometimes we need to make a decision based on limited evidence.

    iii. Hume rejects all non-coercive evidence for miracles.

    iv. Given the right background beliefs, the evidence is adequate if not compelling.

    v. Miracles are not a disturbance of order but a sign of order.

  4. The third leg of the stool: everything else about Jesus.

    A. There are two lines of argument for the resurrection: the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances.

    B. However, there are other remarkable things about Jesus which can be independently verified.

    i. Jesus was already famous before the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances.

    ii. Jesus was already believed to be the Messiah, and already believed himself to be the Messiah. This is on the background of the OT's Messianic prophecies as well.

    iii. Jesus was already believed to have performed miracles. More miracles are reported about Jesus than any other person in the same or similar time period.

    iv. Jesus at an early stage was already believed to be descended from David and born in Bethlehem. These facts are unlikely to have been made up at a later date.

    For one thing, we already have non-Christian sources indicating Jesus was worshipped by the end of the 1st century. If we consider Christian sources, then the dates are even earlier.

    For another, Jesus' mother Mary and brother James (among others) were alive and would've known where Jesus was born. If the stories were told after his family member's deaths, then all the people who had already believed the original story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to the prophecy (many of whom were persecuted) would have had to be have been convinced as well.

    v. Jesus died at the same time as Jews celebrated the Passover, which was the festival commemorating their greatest deliverance by God. Is this sheer coincidence?

    vi. Jesus' moral or ethical teaching is unique. He had the positive golden rule, the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, etc.

    vii. Finally, the blood red moon.

    First, we know Jesus died between 26-36 AD. Second, we know Jesus died on a Friday. Third, we know Jesus died on the 14th or 15th of Nisan (Passover). The Talmud in Sanhedrin 43a says: "On the eve of Passover, they hung Jesus the Nazarene." This agrees with the NT.

    The confluence of these three could only occur on two dates: April 7, 30 AD or April 3, 33 AD.

    Williams argues for the 33 AD date. He argues for the 33 AD date because John the Baptist's ministry began in 29 AD (Luke 3:1), Jesus' ministry was a minimum of three years long per the Gospel of John, and Pontius Pilate was politically weak after 31 AD.

    Moreover, Mark records in his gospel that "When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour" (Mark 15:33). Julius Africanus writing in the early third century records an earlier historian named Thallus who believed this darkness was due to an eclipse: "Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun in the third book of his Histories, without reason it seems to me." And interestingly we have Peter quoting from Joel and preaching at Pentecost that "The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes" (Acts 2:20).

    It wasn't until 1983 that astronomers were able to calculate that there was a lunar eclipse on Friday April 3, 33 AD from 6:20pm to 7:11pm. They did this independently of the NT. See The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus by Colin Humphreys for more information.

    A lunar eclipse should color the moon with a reddish hue:


  1. Just a cautionary note: It would be physically impossible to have an eclipse of the sun and and eclipse of the moon on the same day or near-by days. The eclipse of the sun requires a new moon, and an eclipse of the moon requires a full moon.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mr. Linwood Kemp.

      I think Williams was just arguing for a lunar eclipse though.

      I think he only used the Thallus quote to introduce the general idea of an eclipse. He wasn't using it to argue for a solar eclipse, I don't think.

      But please feel free to listen to or watch Williams' lecture for yourself. As I said above, my notes may be imperfect.

    2. BTW, I should add, the fact that I've taken notes on Williams' lecture doesn't mean I agree with everything he says. Overall I think he did a great job. But (as I alluded to above) he's obviously better on the historical and textual stuff than he is on the philosophical stuff, for instance.

    3. True. Of course "eclipse" is sometimes used loosely or metaphorically. There are other natural events (not to mention supernatural events) which can darken the skies, such as a swarming locusts–which figure in eschatological scenes.