Friday, September 22, 2017

Is Doubting Thomas doubtful?

Moreover, with Judas now dead, there were eleven main disciples. Thus Luke 24:33 can speak of Jesus's first appearance to a group of his male disciples as including "the eleven and those with them." However, John 20:19-24 tells us Thomas was absent during that event. Thus, only ten of the main disciples would have been present. Accordingly, either Luke conflated the first and second appearances to the male disciples, or John crafted the second appearance in order to rebuke those who, like Thomas, heard about Jesus's resurrection and failed to believe it. M. Licona, Why are There Differences in the Gospels? (Oxford U 2016), 177-78.

A few observations:

i) It's not my primary objective to offer my own harmonization. But I'll make two brief observations. I think Luke and John were written about 30 years after the event. By that point I think it would be natural for "the Eleven" to be a stereotypical descriptor. Because the Gospels (and Acts) are written from a retrospective viewpoint, it's not unexpected if they'd use terms that reflect later usage, just like a historian might refer to a particular state as Arkansas even though it was technically Indian Territory at the time the historian is referring to. Historians sometimes employ conventional anachronisms to make historical referents recognizable to modern readers. I suspect that by the time of writing, "the Eleven" was a traditional designation rather than a count noun. 

I'd add that, assuming traditional authorship, John has firsthand knowledge of the event whereas Luke has secondhand knowledge of the event. Therefore, it's not surprising if John's account of this particular incident is more detailed, whereas Luke's is more sketchy. An outline and a plot are both compatible. 

ii) I don't object to the category of redaction in reference to the Gospels, but it's overused. There's a common assumption that redaction is theologically motivated. But I think redaction is typically more mundane: to touch up the language, to free up space for independent material, to forestall a misunderstanding on the part of the reader.

iii) Let's talk a bit about genre. Suppose a director makes a movie about a past event, like the Civil War. The movie might be classified as historical fiction. We expect the director to exercise artistic license. 

Even in that respect, there's a difference between artistic license and historical revisionism. For instance, Ridley Scott was criticized for airbrushing Islam and minimizing Medieval Christianity in Kingdom of Heaven. That wasn't a case of taking artistic liberties to improve the dramatic values of the story. Rather, that was filtering the past through the political and secularizing sensibilities of a British director, c. 2005. Even in a fictional or quasi-fictional genre (historical fiction), where we make allowance for artistic license, that doesn't justify an ideological misrepresentation of the past. 

iv) Compare a movie about the Civil War to an account of the Civil War by an academic historian. It would be unethical for him to "craft" an incident that never happened. That's because we're reading the book for information about what really happened.

By the same token, Christians have always read the Gospels for information about the life of Christ. The Gospels are the backbone of the Christian faith. 

v) Notice, too, the openness to classifying a reported Resurrection appearance as a fabrication. But if that's a fabrication, what about the other Resurrection appearances in John? And if the Johannine narrator concocts imaginary accounts of the Resurrection, what about the Synoptics? 

vi) Moreover, the purpose of recording this particular anecdote is to attest the reality and physicality of the Resurrection. Jesus is not a ghost! This wasn't a vision of Jesus. Rather, God bodily restored him to life. To suggest this account may well be pious fiction is especially ironic for a Christian apologist who makes the Resurrection the centerpiece of his apologetic.  


  1. " By that point I think it would be natural for "the Eleven" to be a stereotypical descriptor. Because the Gospels (and Acts) are written from a retrospective viewpoint, it's not unexpected if they'd use terms that reflect later usage, just like a historian might refer to a particular state as Arkansas even though it was technically Indian Territory at the time the historian is referring to."

    I strongly agree with this. Licona's dismissal of this possibility is thin. He says, "...there is no indication that 'the eleven' was ever used in a similar sense" (that is as a name for the group as a whole).

    But surely this very passage *is* such evidence, since that is one quite natural explanation of the passage. Okay, so what if Licona means no *other* evidence? What about the long ending of Mark? So maybe it's non-canonical, fine, but it's very *old*, anyway:

    " later, as the eleven were at table, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised." (Mark 16:14)

    Maybe Licona would say that is literal (because Thomas would have been with them). But it needn't be an either/or. It could be both literal and a commonly used phrase. Licona is setting the bar extremely high for evidence of this use of the phrase "the eleven," while simultaneously setting the bar very low for conjecturing the crafting of a complete scene by John. Which of these is more probable? Which is a more complex hypothesis? He doesn't seem to have a sense of that kind of comparative reasoning.

    Second, he's overlooking another far simpler hypothesis: That Luke simply didn't hear that Thomas wasn't with them that time and that Luke genuinely thought all eleven were present and hence used the phrase "the eleven." I don't know where that would sit with inerrancy, but in purely *epistemic* terms, it seems to be many orders of magnitude more probable than the idea that John made up the whole scene. Perhaps Licona would say that is what he means by Luke's "conflating," but I don't think that can be it, because Luke is pretty clearly talking about a particular appearance in 24:33ff, and he needn't be "conflating" this appearance with any other appearance in order simply to have gotten an understandable but slightly inaccurate impression about who was there at that time, because he lacked information about Thomas's whereabouts.

    Again, if Licona is not considering this extremely simple hypothesis because it would clash with the kind of "inerrancy" he's trying to hold on to, then that's a classic case of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

  2. Although this suggestion that John crafted the second appearance (the Doubting Thomas appearance) is more explicitly radical, it is very much of a piece with this statement in the earlier book on the resurrection:

    In our assessment of the relevant sources in terms of their ability to yield valuable data for our investigation, we noted that the resurrection narratives in the canonical Gospels may be useful. However, because of unknowns, such as the amount of liberty the Evangelists may have taken in their reports as well as the sharp disagreement among scholars pertaining to their reliability, we have chosen to use them only when necessary and to rely more heavily on earlier sources about which more is known and a greater agreement exists within a heterogenous majority of scholars. (p. 542)

    I would highlight especially the allusion to the unknown "amount of liberty the Evangelists might have take in their reports." This is their reports *of the resurrection*. So already there he is raising the possibility that various unspecified aspects of the resurrection narratives, and apparently aspects that might even have apologetic import if admitted in our evidence, may have been added by the evangelists because they deemed themselves to be allowed to take "liberty in their reports."