Thursday, April 09, 2015

Initial Thoughts On The Miller/Cavin Resurrection Debate

Calum Miller and R. Greg Cavin debated Jesus' resurrection this past Tuesday. I've watched a YouTube video of the main portion of the debate. Only the beginning of the question and answer segment at the end is included in the video, so I won't be commenting on that part. Far too much came up in the debate for me to comment on everything, but I'll make several points. The reference numbers in parentheses below are citations of the relevant minutes in the YouTube video.

- Cavin maintains that the prior probability of the resurrection is "astronomically low" (43), but doesn't address Christian arguments for increasing the probability, like some of the points Miller made in the debate and arguments Christians have presented elsewhere for Jesus' fulfillment of prophecy, his healings, modern miracles done in his name, etc. When determining a prior probability, we take far more into account than Cavin does in the debate. The large majority of what Christians would cite in support of the prior probability of the resurrection wasn't even mentioned by Cavin.

- He says that we "have" to give him a Bayesian argument for facts cited in support of Jesus' resurrection, like the empty tomb, before he'll accept those facts (1:26). Yet, Cavin repeatedly cites alleged facts in support of his views, including disputed facts, without presenting a Bayesian argument (e.g., his claims about the patristic evidence pertaining to Biblical authorship).

- He keeps saying that we would need experience with a resurrection body in order to know what it's like. But how could we have any experience to draw from if there weren't a first encounter? And how could we draw anything significant from that first encounter if its being a first encounter makes it undiscernible? There's a first time for everything. And we often accept something others have reported to us without having experienced it ourselves (events that occurred before we were born, what others tell us about experiencing a particular illness without our having experienced it, etc.). The early Christians tell us not only that they encountered the risen Jesus, but that they encountered him on multiple occasions. They don't describe every detail of the resurrection, but they give us some information about the nature of Jesus' body, such as its physicality and its continuity with the pre-resurrection body. Cavin claims to know some details about the early Christians' beliefs concerning the resurrection body, such as what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15, so why can't modern Christians also know some of the details?

- Cavin says that the resurrection body of Jesus that Paul refers to is an "empty blank" (55), and that it could be "physical or spiritual" (58), but elsewhere refers to how it's a "spiritual body, not a physical body" and cites the phrase "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 15:50) as evidence (1:27). Later in the debate, he acknowledges that the phrase "flesh and blood" in 1 Corinthians 15:50 is a Jewish idiom that doesn't normally refer to physicality (2:01), but he claims that the context proves that Paul is using the phrase in an abnormal way. Cavin never demonstrates that claim. Concerning Paul's belief in a physical resurrection body, see here and here. Cavin ignores and contradicts the large majority of the evidence.

- He tells us that Paul is the only resurrection eyewitness who's left us any writings (58). According to Cavin, we have "no reason" to accept what Papias, Irenaeus, and other sources tell us about gospel authorship (59). He ignores the large majority of the evidence for the traditional authorship attributions. To read about some of that evidence, see the relevant posts linked here. He says nothing about the non-Christian corroboration we have for the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels and other relevant documents.

- He repeatedly singles out facts cited in arguments for Jesus' resurrection, such as Biblical authorship attributions (1:25), and asks whether it's more likely that Christians are mistaken about those facts or more likely that Jesus rose from the dead. For example, is it more likely that Irenaeus was wrong about attributing the fourth gospel to John or that Jesus was resurrected? But Cavin never justifies that framing of the argument. People can believe in Jesus' resurrection without believing in John's authorship of the fourth gospel. They can believe in Johannine authorship without believing in the resurrection. Why can't a Christian answer Cavin's question by saying that Jesus' resurrection is more likely than Irenaeus' being mistaken about Johannine authorship, given how likely Jesus' resurrection is in light of his prophecy fulfillments, his healings, his exorcisms, modern miracles done in his name, etc.? To be consistent with his reasoning, which he isn't, Cavin should reject Pauline authorship of documents like 1 Corinthians. After all, what's more likely? That Irenaeus was mistaken about Paul's authorship of 1 Corinthians? Or that Jesus rose from the dead? Part of the Christian argument for Jesus' resurrection is that Jesus existed. You can't have a resurrection of somebody who didn't first exist. If Cavin is going to weigh the non-historicity of any fact used to argue for Jesus' resurrection against the alleged astronomical improbability of the resurrection itself, and ask us to choose between the two, should we conclude that Jesus didn't exist? That Pilate, who had Jesus executed, didn't exist? Cavin didn't demonstrate that Jesus' resurrection has an astronomically high prior improbability, much less did he demonstrate that its overall probability is as low as he suggests. Why are we supposed to think that the supposed improbability of the resurrection is grounds for dismissing not only the resurrection itself, but also a long series of facts utilized in arguments for the resurrection?

- Cavin thinks it's "likely" that the original disciples "worked themselves into a trance state" and thereby came to believe that they'd seen Jesus risen from the dead (1:32). He doesn't address the many problems that have been documented with such hypotheses. And as far as I recall, he didn't explain why opponents of Christianity, namely James and Paul, would have thought they saw the risen Christ.

- Cavin cites the use of "all" in Acts 1:1 as evidence that Luke was being exhaustive in his gospel (1:34). Therefore, when other sources, like the other gospels, include material that Luke didn't include, they're contradicting Luke. But the remainder of Acts 1 goes on to include material about Jesus' resurrection and ascension that wasn't included in Luke 24. Acts 20:35 cites a saying of Jesus that wasn't included in Luke's gospel. And so on. The idea that Acts 1:1 is saying that Luke's gospel is exhaustive is dubious on its face, and it becomes even more implausible as we read the rest of Acts and see Luke repeatedly providing details about the gospel events that he hadn't mentioned in his gospel. Luke's gospel wasn't intended to be exhaustive, nor were the others.


  1. Steve Hays has written responses to some of Cavin's material on the resurrection in the past. See, for example, Steve's e-book, This Joyful Eastertide. And here's one of his posts responding to Cavin.

  2. In the debate (1:27-30), Cavin makes much of the fact that we don't know where Paul got the information he discusses in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15. But, like so many of Cavin's other arguments, his evaluation of 1 Corinthians 15 is focused in the wrong place. The origin of Paul's information is less significant than his maintaining it. Cavin briefly refers to Galatians 1-2 and speculates that Paul might not have made much of an effort to look into the information he had on the resurrection, even though he met with individuals like Peter and James. But most of Cavin's attention is focused on the origins of Paul's material in 1 Corinthians. What about how that information was maintained after it originated?

    For roughly two decades leading up to the writing of 1 Corinthians, Paul believed what he outlines in the opening of 1 Corinthians 15. During that time, he repeatedly, and in a wide variety of circumstances, interacted with individuals like Peter and James and churches like those in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome. He kept up with developments enough to know that most of the more than five hundred resurrection witnesses were still alive, though some had died (15:6). He knew enough about the other apostles' backgrounds to contrast his history to theirs (15:9). He knew enough about the other apostles' labors to comment on how his efforts compared to theirs (15:10). He knew enough about the other apostles' teachings to affirm that all of them were in agreement about the gospel message Paul had just summarized (15:11). Not only were Paul and the other apostles maintaining the information described in 1 Corinthians 15, but so were Christian communities like the one Paul was writing to in Corinth.

    The idea that Paul and these other people would have gone through these experiences I've just described for so many years, but without any significant reason for believing that the information in 1 Corinthians 15 was true, doesn't make sense. You can't write a passage like 1 Corinthians 15 without having a lot of knowledge about a lot of highly significant evidential issues pertaining to the resurrection. To suggest that the appearance to more than five hundred was just a rumor Paul heard one time, that he'd never had any discussions with Peter about the resurrection, or that those discussions always just happened to avoid all significant evidential issues, for example, is implausible. Why would Paul follow the lives of the more than five hundred resurrection witnesses enough to know approximately how many were still alive, at a particular point in time about twenty years after Paul's conversion, if he was unconcerned about the details or hadn't looked into these matters in a long time, for example? Or how would Paul have known that the other apostles were teaching the same message he was if he'd never heard from them about these subjects? These are the kinds of issues critics like Cavin ought to be addressing. To focus, instead, on issues like where the information in 1 Corinthians 15 originated, while ignoring matters like the ones mentioned above, is an exercise in misdirection.

  3. Cavin claims that the appearance to more than five hundred (1 Corinthians 15:6) should have been mentioned in the gospels if it occurred. But the gospel of Mark is aware of resurrection appearances (16:7), yet narrates none of them. The appearance to James was well known (1 Corinthians 15:7; see, also, his status as an apostle, who had to be an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus, in Acts and Galatians), yet none of the gospels mention that appearance to James. Paul knew of the appearance to more than five hundred, yet only mentions it once and less often than the appearance to him. Later sources who had 1 Corinthians and used it, even viewing it as scripture, say more about appearances to individuals and smaller groups than they say about the appearance to the more than five hundred (e.g., Ignatius). Even after 1 Corinthians was widely accepted as scripture, Christians tended to discuss the more than five hundred witnesses less often than they discussed individuals like Paul and Peter as resurrection witnesses. The same is true today. Christians sometimes bring up 1 Corinthians 15:6, but more often bring up individuals or smaller groups. When people are deciding what to include in a document like a gospel or a letter, they take a lot of factors into account other than the number of people involved (one individual in contrast to more than five hundred, for example). If Peter is a more prominent leader than any of the more than five hundred and his life interests people more than the lives of any of the more than five hundred, for example, people may ask about and discuss Peter more.

    Cavin should spend more time trying to explain what's reported in 1 Corinthians 15:6 and less time objecting that it isn't reported elsewhere. If Cavin wants us to believe that 1 Corinthians 15:6 was as widely accepted as Paul suggests, yet none of the gospel authors knew about it or none believed it, let's see Cavin present an argument to that effect.

  4. Cavin refers to how the resurrection appearance to Paul involved his seeing a "bright light" (1:30). He goes on to suggest that the other apostles had a similar experience. But the same Luke/Acts that mentions light also tells us that Jesus had a more ordinary body prior to his ascension, that the earlier resurrection witnesses did things like carrying on conversations with the resurrected Jesus and eating and drinking with him (Luke 24, Acts 1:2-9, 10:41), and that Paul saw Jesus himself (Acts 22:14), not just a light, and had a discussion with Jesus (9:4-6). The other people surrounding Paul experienced objective events associated with Paul's experience, so it wasn't something subjective and limited to Paul (9:7-18). Why does Cavin leave out those details? Similarly, Paul says in his letters that he saw Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 9:1), not just a light.

  5. I want to expand on the third-to-last section of my original post. I don't know just what Cavin thought he was proving with his argument that I address there. But I want to go along with his suggested scenario for the sake of argument.

    Let's grant that it's more likely that Irenaeus was wrong in attributing the fourth gospel to the apostle John than it is that a man would rise from the dead. But what if the numbers are 40% and 30%? There's a 40% chance that Irenaeus was wrong and a 30% chance that a man rose from the dead. It's still likely that Irenaeus was right rather than wrong. And the 30% number for a resurrection is just that: a resurrection. That's a prior probability number, and it's just one portion of the prior probability for Jesus' resurrection. A Christian could grant the 40% and 30% figures mentioned above, yet maintain both the traditional view that Irenaeus was right about Johannine authorship and the traditional belief that Jesus rose from the dead. The 30% figure is just a portion of a prior probability, so the overall probability of Jesus' resurrection can get to 50% or higher even if the 30% figure is granted. What is Cavin's argument supposed to prove, then?

  6. Thanks for all your work on this, Jason!