Updated: Jun 2, 2019
This is the first response in a formal written debate between Stuart McEwing and Malcolm Trevena posted on 12 February 2012 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz, and originally called “Part 3: In Defence of the Historicity of the Resurrection” The question of the debate is “Is the resurrection of Jesus fact or fiction?” in which I defend the historicity of the resurrection.
Part One of this debate is found linked here. Unfortunately, after this response was given, Malcom Trevena chose not to pursue this debate any further nor communicate his reasons for doing reneging on his agreement. My closing thoughts are found here.
Warning: The following post does not following my general policy to avoid big words and keep things short.
I would first like to thank Malcolm Trevena for his opening statement responding to my defence of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. I am grateful for the importance he places on the truth of the matter and that he chose to attack my arguments without attacking me. I hope to do the same here.
To begin, let’s look back and recall my opening statement.
In support of my first contention that there are at least four facts which any adequate historical hypothesis must explain, I offered four facts, namely,
- the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion,
- the empty tomb,
- the post-mortem appearances,
- and that the disciples radically came to believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead,
I also outlined the reasons why each of those facts are commended to us by the majority of experts in the relevant fields.
In support of my second contention, the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead is the best explanation of the aforementioned facts, I assessed that hypothesis using the conventional criteria historians use for determining the best explanation.
I concluded that Trevena, in order to establish that the resurrection of Jesus did not occur, in the absence of some overwhelming proof of atheism, must propose an alternative naturalistic explanation of those facts which exceeds the resurrection hypothesis in fulfilling those criteria.
I will now turn to responding to Trevena’s opening statement and the adequacy of his arguments.
Response to Trevena’s Supposed Arguments for the Fiction of the Resurrection
Trevena has not proposed a naturalistic alternative to the resurrection hypothesis in order to explain the facts that form the historical bedrock. In failing to do so he has merely argued for the agnostic position: that we should not believe Jesus rose from the dead on historical grounds. Unfortunately for him, this position is consistent with Christian belief, and even consistent with the resurrection of Jesus being an historical, albeit an indeterminate historical, event.
Neither has Trevena specifically disputed any of those four facts. Instead he has cast general aspersions on the reliability of the Gospels. Presumably, this was in order to cast doubt on the reliability of those four facts. He says,Mr. McEwing’s entire proof of the resurrection of Jesus is entirely based on the assumption that the Bible is a true and accurate account of events that occurred…
This is incorrect. The proof for the resurrection of Jesus comes in the stage where we assess and weigh different hypotheses according to the criteria for the best explanation. But more importantly, the historicity of those four facts are not established by assuming that the scriptures are true and accurate. Neither were they assumed to be sacred or reliable. The Bible, the New Testament, the Gospels, and even the resurrection narratives therein, may be riddled with contradictions and unresolvable difficulties, yet the historicity of those four facts would still form solid historical bedrock that begs for explanation. This is because I used the tools and rules common to any historical research project. Such tools and rules include; multiple, independent and early attestation, enemy attestation, embarrassment, dissimilarity, semitism, frequency, coherence, etc., each of which are “Signs of Authenticity” which serve to uncover kernels of historical information.
Thus, the charge that my case for the resurrection is based entirely on the Bible’s accuracy and truthfulness is false. This also means that the many examples of biblical difficulties that Trevena supplies, even if they cannot be resolved or harmonised (which I do not grant), are irrelevant to my case. They are red herrings. Someone who has a very low view of the Bible, who disbelieves in scriptural inspiration and inerrancy, is able to accept the four facts I presented.
If we are to take Travena’s position in this debate (that the resurrection of Jesus is fiction) seriously, we must insist he deals directly with those facts.
Although the apparent contradictions and difficulties that Trevena mentions are red herrings to my argument and thus irrelevant to my case, because he has chosen to give these pride of place in his opening statement, and because I believe these contradictions and difficulties do not represent insurmountable problems for the defender of biblical inerrancy, I nevertheless should like to address each. Before doing so I will address this first point of disagreement in order to clarify what my argument achieves.
What does my case purport to show?
Trevena states “Let me be clear about what we are not debated [sic].” His following musings are not altogether clear. He states,Let’s say that Mr. McEwing is 100% correct and Jesus had a literal resurrection. It would not mean that his paternity was divine, it would not prove that his moral teachings were true, or that he was born of a virgin. I could grant Mr. McEwing all the miracles of the Bible, and it would not be true that Christianity is the One True Faith™ and that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Take note again of my second contention: that the hypothesis God raised Jesus from the dead is the best explanation of the four historical facts. Though my case for the resurrection is consistent with many other Christian doctrines being true, including the divinity of Christ and consequently the virtue of his teachings, it does not undertake to argue for them. It is a case for the resurrection. Strange then that Trevena would feel obliged to mention these other doctrines.
Technically, it is a case for the historicity of the resurrection, and not for the fact of the resurrection. This methodological hair-splitting, I think, is no slight on my case, for all historical conclusions are similar. What the historical method does is present the reader with the best explanation and leaves the extra philosophical assumption, that the best explanation is most likely the true explanation, up to him or her as the natural next-step.
I do believe however, contrary to Trevena, that a good case can be made for thinking the rest of Christianity does follow if the resurrection hypothesis is the true explanation.
Does Christianity follow from the Resurrection of Jesus?
The resurrection is significant because its not just anyone being raised from the dead and did not take place in a vacuum, but comes within a religio-cultural context at the climax of a unparalleled life. Jesus of Nazareth was a teacher who arrived onto the scene with an unprecedented sense of authority proclaiming the in-breaking kingdom of God with what was understood to be miracles, healings and exorcism. His radical self-conception as the vanguard and representative of that kingdom; to be the promised Messiah, the unique Son of God, the Danielic Son of Man, as standing in the place of God; inaugurating a new Israel, believing he was able to forgive people’s sins, and that people’s eternal destiny hinged on their response to him.
Horst Georg Pöhlmann notes the consensus of this implicit Christological self-understanding in historical Jesus research, and concludes, “with regard to Jesus there are only two possible modes of behaviour: either to believe that in him God encounters us or to nail him to the cross as a blasphemer. Tertium non datur.”
It’s difficult to overstate the tragedy the cross was for the disciples. Their Rabbi was dead. Crucified on the basis of his blasphemous personal claims, according to Jewish thinking Jesus was literally accursed by God. For them, the options are either go home, or find another messiah. Since the conception of resurrection for them is only at the end of the age when the all the righteous saints are raised to new life and justified by God, the resurrection of Jesus is imbued with religious significance. It arrives as no random event, but as a vindication of those personal claims: a divine imprimatur as it were, which then ushers in an era of relating to Jesus as God, of salvation through him and by extension, the apostolic teachings of the New Testament. 
When the religio-cultural context and Jesus’ radical self-conception is taken into account, it is a very short step to the rest of Christianity, especially in the absence of any hypothesis which exceeds the resurrection hypothesis in fulfilling the conditions for the best explanation. But even if this small step is not taken, the power of my case is still evident, for; it shows that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation, it makes the existence of God more probable, it shuts the mouths of uninformed skeptics claiming its a fiction, and reveals that the rational person cannot be blamed for believing God raised Jesus from the dead.
The Reliability of the Gospels
I now turn to the entirely irrelevant digs on the reliability of the Gospels. Space restrictions do not permit a thorough treatment, so I will focus on those with most the topical appeal. For answers to the difficulties of the differences in genealogies of Jesus and the hares not chewing cud these links to my writings are provided.
As I have already noted, difficulties like this could be totally irreconcilable yet would still not effect my case for resurrection of Jesus. Further, these genealogies are not tied to the resurrection narratives, and less so are they tied to the creedal material quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:3-5.
The difficulty with two scriptures given (Lk. 23:46; Jn. 19:30) is not an indictment on the historicity of the death of Jesus as is suggested by Travena’s subtitle. Rather, it is an alleged contradiction on the final words of Jesus. This is a minor detail historically speaking, and is of relatively small theological consequence if granted. Historically speaking, and vital to any case for the resurrection of Jesus, is the fact that Jesus died and we have these two independent, relatively early sources that attest to it. But if we understand that it is characteristic of the genre of ancient biography to employ summary statements and time-telescoping, then the difficulty evaporates.
The Resurrection of Jesus
The difficulty drawn here is once again not the difficulty suggested by Travena’s subtitle, but is with respect to the amount of women at the empty tomb and the various circumstances that occurred there (see Mt. 28:1-10; Mk.16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-12; Jn 20:1-18). The alleged contradictions here once again do not affect my case, since what is important to the historicity of the resurrection is that the tomb was empty and that it was women who were the discoverers of the empty tomb. All four sources are in agreement on these two things.
It’s worth noting that small differences like these are typically evidence in favour different accounts being independent testimony and thus more probably historical. Police reports which are identical are generally considered to be evidence of collusion and thus concealing falsehoods. The gospels may differ in small details like this, but show agreement in the core facts.
Trevena opines these accounts “can’t all be true,” but draws no explicit contradictions between them. A careful reading suggests a variety of plausible reconstructions of the events that first Easter Sunday.
The Rising of the Saints
The difficulty in Matthew 27:50-53 is of a different variety. Trevena complains that an event so unusual as this, had it occurred would have been be recorded in many extra-biblical sources, especially since the largely illiterate peoples of the Middle East managed to record the teachings, birth and resurrection of Christ. Implied here is an augment from silence (argumentum e silentio) against the historicity of the rising of the saints. The assumption that it would be recorded in many extra-biblical sources itself is dubious, and should be justified further before I judge it worth pursuing. I will simply note two things in response. First, the story of the rising saints is not tied to the resurrection narrative, but to the account of the crucifixion, which is one of the most sure facts of ancient history. Any scepticism therefore reflects not on the resurrection, but on the crucifixion, which next no serious scholar in the field denies. Second, the entire difficulty with the story evaporates if the rising of the saints is intended by the author to be an apocalyptic symbol. Since this option remains consistent with the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy and taken seriously be a variety of evangelical scholars, we can be thoroughly open as to how to interpret this passage and to think about it’s historicity if a literal interpretation is preferred.
Another point of interest with this objection is that Trevena implicitly admits (a) that the criterion of multiple, independent attestation, especially if extra-biblical, renders a historical conclusion more probably, and (b) will exist if an event truly occurred. Given this he should have no trouble admitting the fourth fact of the disciples belief that God raised Jesus from the dead. Additionally, since the bias for accepting the biblical accounts as valuable source material is at this stage of the debate is completely unjustified, there should be no trouble accepting the other three facts: the burial, the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances, as all of these are abundantly and independently attested.
To sum up, I must insist that Trevena deals with the four historical facts on offer directly, instead of irrelevant objections to the reliability of the Gospels. We are engaged in a debate on their resurrection of Jesus–not biblical inerrancy. If he is to continue to support the position that the resurrection of Jesus is a fiction, I must also insist that he propose a naturalistic account of those facts so he can shift from the agnostic position consistent with Christianity he has been defending to the affirmative position that the resurrection is a fiction. On pain of rationality, such a naturalistic account should outstrip the resurrection hypothesis in fulfilling the conditions for the best explanation. In the absence of an overwhelming argument for atheism, I think the Christian is doubly warranted in believing God raised Jesus from the dead.
- These criteria signify, where S is some saying or event, E is evidence of a certain type, and B is the background information, all things being equal, Pr(S | E&B) > Pr(S | B). When S satisfies multiple examples of evidence types, the cumulative probability escalates, such that Pr(S | E1&E2&B) > Pr(S | B). Some criteria are more highly regarded than others, such that Pr(S | E1&B) > Pr(S | E2&B). For instance, the criterion of Dissimilarity is regarded as coming close to rendering S unquestionably authentic. See Robert E Stein, “Criteria for the Gospel’s Authenticity” Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, (Nashville, Tennessee; B&H Academic, 2009) p. 99-102.
- Fox hunters in Britain dragged smelly fish tied to a string through the woods to confuse their hounds in order to prolong a fox-hunt or to test their ability to stay with a scent. These were Red Herrings. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue.
- Christianity teaches that Christ’s nature was divine, and by virtue of a virgin birth had no paternity.
- Here “fact” denotes an event that actually happened in the past, and “historicity” denotes an event that probably happened, or occurred with a good to high degree of certainty.
- Horst Georg Pöhlmann, Abriss der Dogmatik, 3rd rev. ed. (Düsseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1966), 230.
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Jesu Grechichte und unsere Geschichte,” in Glaube und Wirklichkeit (München: Chr. Kaiser, 1975), 92-94.
- The composition of John being c. 80-85 A.D. has an approximate 55-year gap between the purported event, and the composition of Luke c. 65 A.D. has an approximate 35-year gap.
- For a very interesting and detailed harmonisation based upon R. Forster and P. Marston, Reason, Science & Faith (Monarch, 1989), 79-108. See “The Resurrection of Jesus: A Harmony of the Resurrection Accounts,” n.p. Citied 12 February, 2012. Online: http://www.answering-islam.org/Andy/Resurrection/harmony.html
- See for example Michael Licona, When the Saints Go Marching In (Matthew 27:52-53): Historicity, Apocalyptic Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy, A paper presented at the Evangelical Philosophical Society annual conference in November 2011, San Francisco, Cited 12 February, 2012, Published Online: http://risenjesus.com/images/stories/pdfs/2011%20eps%20saints%20paper.pdf
After this response was given, Malcom Travena chose to cease all communication. My thoughts as I closed the debate are published here.