Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Review Of The Licona/Fales Debate On The Resurrection

A few days ago, I linked to a video of a debate on Jesus' resurrection between Mike Licona and Evan Fales. I don't have much familiarity with Fales' material. I don't remember ever reading any of his articles or books, though I'd heard of him before and had read some excerpts of what he'd written. But I want to respond to what he said during the debate. He repeats a lot of common objections to the historicity of Jesus' resurrection, in addition to arguing for some uncommon views.

Unlike many critics of Christianity, Fales acknowledges a high level of honesty and intelligence among the early Christians. He makes some especially positive comments about the apostle Paul. However, he thinks the New Testament authors were often writing in a non-historical genre that modern Christians (and many non-Christians) are mistakenly interpreting in a historical manner. He focuses on the gospels, especially Matthew, for most of the debate, but he addresses Paul to some extent during the Questions and Answers segment at the end. He argues that the New Testament authors didn't intend to claim that Jesus rose from the dead in the physical, historical sense Christianity has traditionally maintained.

In response:

- Since the debate centered around Licona's 2010 book on the resurrection, here's a link to my review of that book. The review addresses some of the issues discussed in the debate.

- Steve Hays responded to Fales on the subject of Jesus' resurrection nearly a decade ago. See pages 227-44 here. Much of what Steve interacted with was repeated by Fales in his debate with Licona this year (e.g., his appeal to Matthew 12:39-40, his claims about the women mentioned in the gospels in the context of Jesus' death).

- The heart of Fales' position is the notion that there's an extraordinarily high prior improbability that a miracle would occur. Supposedly, the evidence for any alleged miracle would have to overcome that sort of prior improbability. He maintains that miracles probably are impossible, but I didn't notice anything he said during the debate that even comes close to establishing such a view. Though he thinks miracles most likely are impossible, he refers to how miracles "maybe" can occur, and he refers to how seeing stars rearranged in the sky to spell out a message would persuade him that God exists and has performed a miracle. No justification is offered for requiring a miracle of that nature. He doesn't interact much with Licona's counterarguments on the issue of the alleged impossibility of miracles. I don't see anything that Fales brought forward in the debate that ought to persuade us of his position.

- Even if we accept some notion that miracles are extremely unlikely to occur upfront, an extraordinarily high prior improbability can be overcome more easily than skeptics commonly suggest. All of us, skeptics included, accept many conclusions that initially seemed highly improbable. See, for example, J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003), 569-70 and Timothy and Lydia McGrew's article here.

- Near the end of the debate, toward the end of the Questions and Answers segment, Fales was asked about early interpretations of the New Testament. Why did the early patristic sources interpret the New Testament differently than Fales does, if the authors of the New Testament intended Fales' interpretation? He doesn't give any example of an early Christian source interpreting the documents as he does. He makes an unsupported assertion that Eusebius held a view at least somewhat similar to his. But I see no reason to accept that claim (see, for example, the highly historical reading of the New Testament in the opening sections of Eusebius' church history, sections that are set alongside his historical reading of later documents), and Eusebius was writing about two centuries or more after the composition of the documents in question. Fales suggests that studying the views of the early patristic sources would make for a good research project, and he refers to his own ignorance of the subject. He says that Richard Carrier has called his attention to some patristic passages that are inconsistent with his (Fales') view, and he acknowledges that he's troubled by such evidence. He should be. From the earliest patristic sources onward, we find Fales' views on the genre of the New Testament and Jesus' resurrection contradicted. See, for example, my three-part series on early interpretations of the New Testament: part one, part two, part three. One of the points I make in that series is that not only did the early Christians assign the New Testament documents to historical genres, including in the passages about Jesus' resurrection, but so did their opponents. Thus, under Fales' view, both the earliest Christian interpreters and the earliest non-Christian interpreters misunderstood what the authors meant and misunderstood the documents in the same way. For many examples of how the early non-Christian sources interpreted the New Testament documents in a historical manner, see Robert Wilken, The Christians As The Romans Saw Them (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984) and John Cook, The Interpretation Of The New Testament In Greco-Roman Paganism (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002). In addition to the pagan sources discussed in the two books I just cited, we see a historical view of the New Testament suggested in early Jewish and heretical sources. See, for example, Ignatius' responses to the Docetists, who, against their interests, conceded a historical appearance that the gospel events had occurred, and Justin Martyr's interaction with Jewish opponents of Christianity in his Dialogue With Trypho. The widespread rejection of Fales' reading of the New Testament among both early Christian and early non-Christian sources is a major problem for his position.

- There's a large amount of evidence that the gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. See here. Fales doesn't interact with that evidence during the debate.

- I don't recall any argument from Fales for a non-historical genre for Acts. Here's a post I wrote about the evidence for its historical genre.

- Mainstream Jewish Messianic expectations involved historical fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, such as a genealogical fulfillment of the prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. The most natural way to take the New Testament claims about prophecy fulfillment is that a historical Messiah fulfilled such historical prophecies. Thus, not only do later Christian and non-Christian interpretations of the New Testament suggest a historical genre for the documents, but so do the Messianic expectations that preceded the New Testament, expectations the New Testament claims Jesus fulfilled. The New Testament is surrounded by sources suggesting its historical genre, from the Old Testament era on one side and the patristic era on the other.

- Given the low social status of most of the early Christians (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:26) and the comments often made about how easy the authors' writings should be to understand (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:13), the traditional Christian reading of the documents seems to make more sense than Fales' more complicated reading. When authors address an audience with a low social status in the modern world, do they normally use the sort of highly coded language Fales is attributing to the New Testament authors?

- Like many other critics, Fales appeals to the supposed non-historicity of the raising of the saints in Matthew 27:52-3. He brings up some common objections to the passage (e.g., Josephus doesn't mention the event). He objects that Matthew doesn't mention the event anywhere else in his gospel. He asks whether the raised saints would have been clothed. He repeats objections Christians have been addressing for a long time, and he makes no attempt to interact with the other side of the argument. Since Licona doesn't think the passage is historical, he didn't challenge Fales on the issue. My review of Licona's book, linked above, interacts with Licona's view of the passage, and you can read two other posts I've written on the subject here and here.

- Fales argues that the gospel accounts about Barabbas suggest a non-historical genre for the gospels, since Barabbas' name identifies him as the son of a father, much as Jesus is the Son of the Father. I responded to a similar argument from Richard Carrier a few years ago. There are many titles, roles, and images associated with Jesus in early Christian literature. In addition to the references to him as Son of God, he's referred to as a rock, a shepherd, a king, a light, etc. The fact that some figures in the gospels have names that are somewhat reminiscent of Jesus or related to him in some other way doesn't provide much evidence for a non-historical genre for the gospels. Since Jesus was considered God by the early Christians, he was associated with many names, titles, images, etc. Under such circumstances, it's to be expected that some individuals in the surrounding culture would have a name that could be seen as significant in relation to Jesus in some way. Given how little the theme of Jesus' sonship is emphasized in the accounts of the events surrounding his death, why would people making up a name for the allegedly fictional character in question choose Barabbas? Why not a name referring to sacrifice, substitution, or redemption, for example? The best explanation for the Barabbas name is that the gospel authors thought a historical figure named Barabbas was involved in the historical events narrated. Even if we took Fales' Barabbas argument as evidence for his position, it would only offer a minor amount of evidence to that end. All that Fales does during the debate is offer a small handful of such arguments. The evidence on the other side is far weightier. He's putting feathers up against boulders.

- The Shroud of Turin didn't come up in the debate, but I've argued that it provides us with some evidence for Jesus' resurrection. Here's an archive of our Shroud posts. The Shroud largely avoids the genre objections Fales emphasizes.

- He dismisses Craig Keener's work on miracles as unimpressive. He doesn't offer any arguments against the evidence Keener cites, but instead objects that not enough investigation has been done and that miracle accounts in general don't hold up under scrutiny. His assertions would be more convincing if he'd interact with the details Keener has provided. When Keener cites before-and-after X-rays and other medical documentation, the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses, hostile corroboration, etc., Fales needs to explain why that evidence supposedly isn't enough. See my series of posts on Keener's book here, which includes examples of miracles accompanied by the sort of evidence referred to above. Fales asks for miracles to be documented in highly controlled settings. That isn't the sort of context in which we'd expect the vast majority of miracles to occur, given the nature of life and God's presumable reasons for performing miracles. But why doesn't Fales interact with the cases in the paranormal literature in which significant controls were in place? See, for example, Stephen Braude's treatment of the D.D. Home, Eusapia Palladino, and Leonora Piper cases (The Limits Of Influence [Lanham, Maryland: University of America, Inc., 1997]; Immortal Remains [Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003]; The Gold Leaf Lady [Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007]). Here's a video of Braude discussing some modern paranormal cases with significant supporting evidence. And here's a discussion between Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Wiseman concerning scientific evidence for paranormal phenomena. Or see the veridical near-death experiences discussed in Janice Miner Holden, et al., edd., The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009). Fales' vague dismissals don't address the detailed arguments and evidence that have been provided against his position for many years.

- Fales repeatedly appeals to non-Christian miracle accounts as evidence against Christian accounts. Near the end of the debate, though, he acknowledges that one miracle or system of miracles can outperform another, just as Moses outperformed Pharaoh's magicians. (I address competing miracle claims in my series on Keener's book linked above. And many other posts in our archives address the subject.) Since the Moses account is found in the Bible, and Christianity has always acknowledged miracles among outside sources, what does Fales' objection prove? He didn't make a case that one or more non-Christian sources has outperformed Christianity. If he wants to claim that he was just making the point that non-Christian miracle claims have to be taken into account, then why did he put so much emphasis on a point that's already so widely accepted? It's a point the Bible itself acknowledged thousands of years ago in the Pentateuch and many times thereafter.

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