Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Review Of The Carrier/Craig Debate On The Resurrection

As I discussed last week, Richard Carrier and William Lane Craig debated on the subject of Jesus' resurrection last Wednesday. I listened to the debate today, and I want to comment on several issues.

I'll be focusing on Carrier's opening remarks. He's acknowledged that he didn't win the debate, but he maintains that "my opening I still wouldn't change". I'll comment on other portions of the debate, but I'll mostly discuss Carrier's opening remarks.

But before I do so, I want to return to a subject that came up during the debate repeatedly, which I addressed in an earlier article. Near the beginning of the debate, Craig referred to the witness of the Holy Spirit, or a personal experience with the risen Christ, as one means of being convinced of the resurrection. He went on to say that his focus in the debate would be on another means, namely a historical case for the resurrection of Christ. Thus, from the start of the debate, Craig had provided an alternative means of bringing people to trust in Christ and His resurrection. God isn't dependent on persuading people by means of a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, the issue of how God could have reached more people by means of having Jesus appear to more individuals kept coming up again and again, both from Carrier and from audience questions. Because of Craig's comments early in the debate, as well as later, and because of other factors like the ones outlined in my article linked above, I think that the objection that Jesus didn't appear to more people is far weaker than Carrier suggests and shouldn't have taken up so much time during the debate.

What about the rest of Carrier's arguments? I was expecting him to do poorly, for a variety of reasons, but he did even worse than I had expected.

His case for a non-historical genre for the gospels was partially answered by Craig and has been addressed at more length by Steve Hays in This Joyful Eastertide and by J.P. Holding. Carrier doesn't address the internal evidence for a historical genre for the gospels and the widespread acceptance of a historical genre by both the earliest post-apostolic Christians and their enemies. The idea that the early Christians, representing many geographical locations, personal backgrounds, personalities, theologies, etc., would so widely be mistaken about the gospels' genre so soon after the documents were composed is highly unlikely by itself. To add the concept that the early enemies of Christianity made the same mistake is even more unlikely.

The Old Testament echoes Carrier cites in the New Testament are too vague and disconnected to have the significance he suggests. The Old Testament covers thousands of years of history and includes works of many different genres, covering a wide variety of events, etc. With such a large base of data to draw from, what significance is there in Carrier's ability to draw a parallel to a passage in Genesis in one place, a parallel to Ecclesiastes somewhere else, etc.? Carrier tells us that the parallels he draws are "identical or exactly reverse". As Craig mentions during the debate, Carrier argues that Mark sometimes departs from his source material in order to differentiate his material from the material he's supposed to be paralleling. If the material in the gospels sometimes is parallel to something in the Old Testament or another source and sometimes isn't parallel, and the alleged parallels have to be found in such a variety of sources, then what is it that connects such a diversity of material? A historical life of Jesus along the lines of what the gospels describe would explain such an array of alleged echoes from the Old Testament and other sources. Just as we today often describe our experiences with echoes from literature, movies, television programs, other historical events, etc., first-century authors would have done the same. The fact that Mark would use Old Testament language, familiar to himself and to his audience, to describe some of the events in his gospel carries little weight in judging the genre of that gospel.

Concerning Carrier's claim that Barabbas (Mark 15:7) is a "fake name", R.T. France writes:

"Barabbas ('a common name,' BDAG 166a) is an Aramaic patronymic, probably meaning 'son of Abba' (Abba is found in rabbinic literature both as a name and as a title, 'Father') or perhaps 'son of a teacher (Rabban)'" (The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007], n. 32 on p. 1053)

John Nolland comments that the name is "attested in fifth- or sixth-century-B.C. texts and is the name of a third- or fourth-century-A.D. Babylonian rabbi. 'Abba' ['bh] has been identified as a personal name on a funerary inscription from near Jerusalem, coming from the period 110 B.C.-A.D. 100" (The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005], p. 1168).

Carrier suggests that nobody would name a child "son of father", apparently because it's obvious and undistinguished for a son to have a father. Aside from the fact that people sometimes give a child an obvious or undistinguished name, Carrier is assuming that "father" is being defined in a common manner. But if a man is called "father" for some unusual reason, not because he's a biological father, then Barabbas wouldn't be such an obvious or undistinguished name.

Carrier considers it suspicious that Barabbas, whose name identifies him as the son of an earthly father, would parallel Jesus, the Son of the Heavenly Father. But Jesus is identified in many ways. He's a shepherd, bread, a sacrifice, a healer, a rock, a master, a king, etc. The fact that there are some connections between the names of individuals in the gospels and the many roles that Jesus has in Christian theology isn't sufficient to lead us to the conclusion that those individuals' names are "fake". Is Jesus' role as the Son of the Father prominent in the accounts of Jesus' trial and execution, where Barabbas is featured? No. It's one role among others in that context, but it isn't emphasized so much as to suggest that the gospel authors would fabricate Barabbas in order to further that theme.

Carrier tells us that we should consider the cumulative force of his argument. But I don't see how combining his two weak arguments about Barabbas produces a strong argument. I see no significant problem with Barabbas' name, and the son theme is a minor one in the context in which Barabbas appears.

Concerning Carrier's argument that the custom of Matthew 27:15 is unhistorical, Craig Keener writes:

"Although current evidence is insufficient to prove that the custom existed, denying its existence argues from silence (in a narrative that can be confirmed at many other points)...Like most customs of the Roman administration in Palestine, this one is currently unattested, but parallels from other Roman administrations and the Gospel writers' assumption that their audiences were familiar with this practice in the Gospel tradition support it." (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], p. 668)

See, also, Keener's further discussion in the pages that follow.

Carrier argues that the accounts of Lazarus in John's gospel are unhistorical attempts to place the Lazarus of Luke 16 into a scenario like the one described in Luke 16:31. But the Lazarus of Luke 16 is a beggar living at a rich man's gate (Luke 16:20), whereas the Lazarus of John's gospel isn't portrayed as poor or in need of begging from a rich man. Rather, he's living in a house, with the support of relatives and his community (John 11:1-3, 11:31). As with other parallels Carrier suggests, this one is too vague and inconsistent to bear the weight he wants to place upon it.

Carrier argues that it's suspicious that Lazarus doesn't appear in Matthew or Mark. But all of the gospels have some unique material. Any individual resurrection, like that of Lazarus, would be of less significance than Jesus' resurrection, which is included in all four gospels. And Lazarus wasn't the only individual other than Jesus to be raised (Matthew 27:52-53, Mark 5:22-42, Acts 20:9-10). If John 11 was drawn from Luke 16, then why doesn't John's gospel repeat the account of the raising of Jairus' daughter found elsewhere in Luke's gospel (8:41-55)? If John could choose to not include such resurrection accounts in his gospel, then why couldn't other gospel authors have chosen to leave out the Lazarus account?

Regarding Carrier's claim that "nobody" outside the gospels seems to have seen the darkness at the time of the crucifixion, see here. Julius Africanus suggests that there was corroboration from multiple non-Christian sources.

Carrier refers to "hundreds" of resurrected individuals in Matthew 27:52-53. But the passage doesn't state or suggest such a number. And he once again argues that nobody outside of the gospels seems to have known of the event. But see here.

Carrier repeatedly makes vague appeals to visions, often assuming that reports of visions in Christianity or from other religions or individuals have a naturalistic explanation. But such reports have to be judged case-by-case, and a Christian worldview allows for visions and other supernatural events, including among non-Christians. See here and here.

He claims that there's no evidence for an empty tomb in the writings of Paul and, thus, no evidence in Paul that's inconsistent with his hallucination theory. But there's much in Paul's writings that suggests that hallucinations are unlikely, as explained by Gary Habermas here. The issue is probability, not certainty. For example, while it would be possible for a group of people to all hallucinate around the same time, and convince themselves that their individual hallucinations were an objective experience rather than hallucinations, such a scenario would be highly unusual, and it would have to be proposed repeatedly to account for a passage like 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. See Habermas' article for more such examples. And as far as the empty tomb is concerned, Paul's references to a physical resurrection, which Craig argues for in his opening remarks, make Paul's belief in an empty tomb likely. Given that documents attributed to Paul's companions (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) refer to the empty tomb repeatedly, and given how widely accepted such documents were among the early Pauline churches, it seems unlikely that Paul would have been unaware of the account or rejected it.

Carrier acknowledges that Paul wasn't a Christian when he thought he saw the risen Christ, but he objects that Paul is just one "obscure" individual. He suggests that it's problematic that Jesus didn't appear to more than one non-Christian. He's assuming that James was a Christian when Jesus appeared to him, which is doubtful. James was an unbeliever during Jesus' earthly ministry (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:21-35, Luke 8:19-21, John 7:5) and apparently couldn't be trusted with Jesus' mother as late as the time of the crucifixion (John 19:26-27). And Carrier has to assume that the accounts of Paul's travel companions experiencing the risen Christ in some manner are false. On the historicity of Acts, see here. The guards at the tomb, though they didn't see Jesus, did experience some of the supernatural events surrounding the resurrection. And Carrier has no way of knowing how many of the hundreds of witnesses of 1 Corinthians 15 were Christians at the time of the appearances.

He repeatedly refers to the Christians who saw the risen Christ as "fanatical" followers of Jesus, but all of the gospels agree in portraying the witnesses as discouraged and doubtful, with a mixture of belief and unbelief. He claims that the witnesses of the risen Jesus frequently experienced hallucinations, but he argues for that position by citing later experiences described in Acts and Paul's letters and by assuming that the experiences were hallucinations rather than supernatural occurrences. But where do the disciples of Jesus experience hallucinations before seeing the risen Jesus? Where are the women who went to the tomb described as recipients of hallucinations? Where is James described as such? Or the hundreds mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15? Where is there any evidence that Paul had such experiences before becoming a Christian? Carrier is assuming that visions were more common than the evidence warrants, and he's assuming that the visions were hallucinations rather than supernatural.

He speculates that Paul and others had "scripture-inspired" hallucinations. They thought that scripture predicted the resurrection of the Messiah, so they had a hallucination of the risen Christ. But thousands of ancient Christians believed in a risen Messiah, yet didn't think they saw Jesus raised from the dead. Only a small minority of Christians were considered resurrection witnesses, and such appearances of Jesus were thought to have stopped shortly after Jesus' death. For a discussion of some of the problems involved in arguing that the resurrection witnesses hallucinated, see here, Gary Habermas' article linked above, and Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, edd., Jesus' Resurrection: Fact Or Figment? (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

Carrier argues that if the gospel accounts of the resurrection were true, then Acts should mention investigations that were carried out by the Jewish opponents of Christianity, accusations of the theft of Jesus' body, Christians being put on trial for theft of the body, etc. He says nothing about later corroboration of the gospel accounts, such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian's references to Jewish corroboration of the empty tomb. Acts begins a few weeks after the resurrection, so any investigations and such that would have occurred just after the resurrection wouldn't be mentioned there. And Acts, like any other piece of literature, has particular objectives and will be selective in what it covers. The focus is on the spread of the gospel, the growth of the church, the work of the Holy Spirit, and other themes, not the activities of Christianity's enemies. And at least some of the Jewish leaders knew that the theft charge was false. They had reason to use the theft argument when the subject came up, but they also had reason to try to avoid taking it too far. The claim might not hold up under scrutiny. The Christians would have been replying to the theft charge, as we see reflected in Matthew 28:11-15. If people heard both sides of the argument, they would have had reason to be hesitant to bring up the accusation of theft. Where in Acts would we expect to see discussion of these subjects Carrier mentions? We know that Luke knew far more than he includes in Acts. Many of the miracles, parables, and other contents of the gospel of Luke are only vaguely referenced in Acts or aren't mentioned at all. Surely the early enemies of Christianity would have been disputing the other miracles attributed to Jesus, would have been questioning what Jesus taught, etc., but Luke isn't focusing on such disputes in Acts.

In conclusion, I note that William Lane Craig has written a response to Carrier's objections to the topic of their debate. For those of you who will be reading this article at a later date, the link in the last sentence may take you to the wrong page. If so, see Question 100 here.


  1. Jason,

    Excuse me if you made a link in the post. Is the audio/video available online? I did a Google search but to no avail.


  2. The mp3 of the debate is available here:

    The video is now up on youtube:

  3. Thanks for the links, Kumikata. It should be noted, though, that the YouTube video only takes you to near the end of Carrier's closing remarks, at least when I tried it. To get the entire debate, including the Question And Answer segment, listen to the audio file Kumikata linked.

  4. Here's some interesting thoughts on some atheist responses to the debate. Here.

  5. Great review. I linked you up on the video and on my own review. Naturally I have some disagreements, but this is the best I've seen thus far on the WLC side of things.