Saturday, October 10, 2009

Can historians prove that Jesus was raised from the dead?

Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman debated this issue, and it's posted on youtube in four parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Ehrman was careful in his first speech to say that the debate was not over whether the resurrection happened, but over whether we can use historical methods to demonstrate that it happened. His argument was basically that since God is necessary to make a resurrection happen, and God is not accessible by historical methods, then the resurrection cannot be demonstrated by history. He also gave a Humean argument against miracles based on probability.

I think Ehrman is very confused about how probability works. Bill Craig pointed that out to him in a debate once, but I don't think Ehrman understood what Craig was explaining, because he accused Craig of trying to make a mathematical proof of the resurrection. I don't think Licona did a good job of addressing Ehrman's confusion.

Ehrman also made a number of irrelevant points. He pointed to the many discrepancies between the gospels in order to demonstrate that they are unreliable in order to demonstrate that we have poor evidence for the resurrection. But as Licona demonstrated, using quotes from Ehrman himself, none of these discrepancies prevented Ehrman and the vast majority of scholars from concluding that Jesus was crucified and that the disciples had experiences they understood as being appearances of the risen Jesus. Since Licona was arguing from three premises that Ehrman already agreed with, Ehrman's discussion of Bible contradictions was completely irrelevant.

Licona based his whole argument on three facts:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Jesus appeared to the apostles.
3. Jesus appeared to Paul.
He argued that the resurrection hypothesis was a better explanation of these facts than rival hypotheses because it better fulfilled four historical criteria--explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility, and the least ad hoc.

Licona defined an ad hoc explanation as an explanation that requires positing entities for which there is no independent evidence. But then later, Licona posited God as a necessary condition for the resurrection without giving any independent evidence for God. I thought this was a severe blunder on Licona's part.

Ehrman claimed that Licona's first point--that Jesus died by crucifixion--was irrelevant to the case for the resurrection since if Jesus had died by stoning, the structure of the argument would've been the same. And since the second and third points are really the same point--that Jesus appeared to people after his death--that Licona really only had one point to argue from. I don't know if I'm confused or if Ehrman is confused. I mean sure, it doesn't matter how Jesus died, but obviously that Jesus died is extremely relevant to the resurrection. A person can't be raised from the dead if they haven't first died. The fact that Jesus die by crucifixion, of course, entails that Jesus died, so Licona does not just have one point. He's got two. I thought Licona should've pointed out the nonsense behind Ehrman's argument, but he just ignored it.

While demonstrating the inadequacy of the hallucination hypothesis (which Erhman preferred to call the visionary hypothesis), Licona said hallucinations don't happen in groups. This is another area where I think Licona smuggled in some information without substantiating it. His whole intention in the debate was to show that you could infer the resurrection from historical facts that are already accepted by almost all new testament scholars. One of them was that Jesus appeared to the disciples. But the fact that the vast majority of scholars agree that Jesus appeared to his disciples does not mean they all agree Jesus appeared to them in groups. Licona just smuggled that one in, and Ehrman didn't seem to catch it.

Ehrman's response was to give counter examples. He pointed to the many episodes of the virgin, Mary, appearing to many people in groups. Licona didn't respond to that, which was disappointing. I wish there had been a cross examination period.

Ehrman claimed that the disciples only saw visions of Jesus, not Jesus himself. He brought up the incident where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, and pointed out the fact that even though Moses and Elijah appeared to Peter, James, and John, it didn't cause them to believe they had been raised from the dead. That really surprised me because if Ehrman was claiming that the vision of Jesus after his death was the same kind of thing, then he's left without an explanation for why the appearance of Moses did not cause them to think Moses had risen from the dead but the vision of Jesus did cause them to believe that Jesus had been risen from the dead. It seems to me that we can reasonably infer that the appearance of Jesus was not the same as the appearance of Moses. And if the appearance of Moses was a mere vision, then the appearance of Jesus was not a mere vision.

Ehrman also asked how Paul recognized Jesus since Paul didn't know Jesus during his mortal lifetime. He seemed to think that somehow worked as an argument against Paul's appearance, but he didn't explain how. Licona didn't answer the question, and unfortunately, there was no cross examination period. I suppose Jesus introduced himself to Paul, and that's how Paul knew who it was. Granted, it's possible some supernatural being other than Jesus just felt like appearing to Paul and pretending to be Jesus so Paul would convert to Christianity, but it seems far more likely to me that it was Jesus himself.

I thought it was a good debate. Some points each brought up were not adequately addressed by the other side, but given the time constraints of debates, that's to be expected. I would say the debate was a tie, because I can't decide who won.

9 Comments:

At 10/13/2009 8:37 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

First Disclaimer: I haven’t listened to the debate. While I have uploaded it to my iPod, I have an enormous lack of motivation to hear another “minimal facts” debate. They appear so repetitive.

Second Disclaimer: I am not trying to start an inter-blog war.

Jon over at Evangelical Agnosticism raises a good point. By their very nature, miracles are the least plausible explanation. Otherwise, we would not recognize them as miracles!

Even those who believe in the supernatural intervention in the form of miracles, tend to relegate claims of the miraculous to being the least plausible. (Do you really believe God burned a grilled-cheese sandwich to form Mary’s portrait, or do you think the burn pattern is a coincidence? *wink*) Most Protestants I am acquainted with do not consider Fatima to be an actual intervention of God.

So do you think other explanations, even one as implausible as mass hallucinations, are still more plausible than a miracle? At what point does a miracle (generally the least plausible explanation) become more plausible than a natural explanation?

I would think, if we are ever to reach that point, we would first need a method to determine how we know a miracle occurred or not. Unfortunately, not even Christians seem to agree on such a method.

Thoughts?

 
At 10/13/2009 4:48 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Jon didn't go into why he thought miracles were implausible, but Ehrman did. According to Ehrman, it's because they are such rare events. Billions of people have died who never came back to life, so chances are Jesus didn't come back to life either. That was basically Ehrman's argument.

Whenever we discuss probability, we're discussing epistemology, not ontology. Ontologically, events either happen or they don't. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then ontologically, it's 100% certain that he was raised from the dead. And if he was not, then it's 0% certain that he was raised from the dead. So when we talk about probability, we are talking about epistemology--based on the information we have, what is the most likely conclusion?

Ehrman is relying on statistically probability alone. Thankfully he didn't go as far as David Hume and claim that there is a uniform experience against resurrections (i.e. they have never happened), because then his argument would've been circular. But even a Christian can grant that compared to how many people have died, resurrections are still extremely rare events. But if that's the only factor that's relevent, then all rare events are improbable events. It's improbable that anybody ever went to the moon, for example, because billions of people have lived and traveled, but have never made it to the moon.

But most of us believe people really did go to the moon because, in spite of the statistical improbability, there are other factors we take into account. It turns out that this statistically improbable event is actually probable. Most of us aren't really privy to the detailed evidence for the moon landing. We believe it on nothing more than having seen it on TV, read it in books, or just the fact that it seems like everybody else believes it. So it hasn't really required much evidence to convince most people that the moon landing happened in spite of its statistical improbability.

In the same way, as rare as resurrections may be, the circumstantial evidence may cause the resurrection to be more plausible than any naturalistic hypothesis. That is what people like Licona are arguing. It seems to me the best tactic for somebody like Ehrman to take is to say that the evidence is not sufficient to overcome the statistical improbability or that the circumstantial evidence makes some other hypothesis more likely. But saying that miracles are by nature improbable events doesn't work if the only reason you say that is because they are by nature rare events.

Worldview is crucial in any kind of epistemology, including determining how plausible something is. I grant that the existence of God alone does not make any particular miraculous claim plausible, since we still have to look at how frequently God performs miracles. On the other hand, a theistic worldview seems to make miralces in general far more plausible than an atheistic worldview would. So the existence of God is certainly relevant in such discussions. It is perfectly understandable why it would take a lot more evidence to convince an atheist of a resurrection than it would to convince a theist of a resurrection.

In the same way, it's understandable why a Marian apparition would seem more probable to a Catholic than to a protestant. For Catholics, it is consistent with their worldview. But it is not as consistent in a protestant worldview. So it makes sense than protestants would be more skeptical than Catholics. That Mary would appear to people is more probable given a Catholic worldview than it is given a protestant worldview. That's not to say it's impossible in a protestant worldview since a protestant could claim it was a deception on the part of a demon to draw people into Catholicism or something like that.

to be continued...

 
At 10/13/2009 4:49 PM , Blogger Sam said...

I don't think we can escape these worldview issues. Not only are they relevant to questions of how probable or improbable certain events are, but we cannot assess the evidence apart from them. We can't not have a worldview that informs our assessment. Even if we adopt a different worldview for the sake of argument, we are still assessing the evidence from a particular frame of reference.

The difficulty sometimes comes in the fact that it's possible we have a false worldview. Suppose some event happens that is inconsistent with your worldview. You can do one of two things--you can either deny the reality of the event, or you can change your worldview. An atheist who looks at the evidence for the resurrection has to wrestle, not only with the evidence for the resurrection, but everything else a resurrection would imply, such as the existence of God. And the existence of God may have other ramifications the atheist would have to deal with. Rarely is it ever the case that one belief alone can be changed. Since beliefs in any total worldview must be consistent, changing your belief about one thing may require changing your belief about a lot of other things, too. In any coherent worldview, all the beliefs are interconnected, which makes it hard to change your mind about things. I discovered that when I converted to Calvinism.

We can't stick rigidly to all of our current beliefs or else it will be impossible for us to ever discover that we're wrong. We'd hardly be able to learn new things if we allowed our worldviews to prevent us from ever allowing evidence to change our minds. Every time we come across some surprising piece of information, it forces us into a dilemma. We have to ask ourselves, "Which is more likely--that my current set of beliefs are true, or that this event really happened?" The fewer beliefs you have to adjust, the easier it is to change your mind about something.

The method I would use in determining whether a miracle happened is by looking at the event and asking myself whether there are any natural means by which the event could've taken place. If nothing natural could've produced the effect, then there's a good chance something supernatural produced it.

Now, I acknowledge that there are limitations to this method. We don't know everything about nature. And people living 2000 years ago knew far less about it than we know now. I suspect that if you took an induction motor to a primitive culture and showed them there was no connection between the rotor and the rest of the motor, you might be able to convince them it's a miracle just because they don't know anything about electromotive force. But obviously the ancient world wasn't completely ignorant of the regularities of nature, or else they could never distinguish between miracles and natural events. But since their knowledge of nature was limited, they may have called some events miracles that really weren't.

In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, it seems to me that we only need to know two things before we can reasonable infer that a miracle took place. First, that Jesus was thorougly dead. Second, that Jesus was alive as some point after his death. I say "thorougly dead," because of course a person's heart can stop beating for a minute and then start beating again. If he was dead for an hour or more, I'd say he was thorougly dead.

As far as we know, there's no natural mechanism that could cause somebody who had been dead for three days to spontaneously come back to life. So in that case, I'd say we're justified in inferring that a miracle took place.

to be continued...

 
At 10/13/2009 4:50 PM , Blogger Sam said...

We could test such events, though, by recreating all the known circumstances surrounding the event to see if the event repeats itself. One thing we've always assumed, even before the enlightenment I'd argue, is that nature is uniform. If a given set of circumstances produced an effect in the past, then it should do the same in the future. We repeat experiments just to make sure because there can always be anomalies caused by unknown factors. Maybe we could crucify some people, put them in tombs, and leave them there a couple of nights and see what happens. If it seems like they always stay dead, then we can say that if Jesus was raised from the dead, it most likely was not by any natural means. His resurrection was caused by something supernatural.

The context of the event is also relevant, though. If some ordinary guy living an ordinary life died and then came back to life three days later, we might all say it was a strange anomoly. If resurrections could happen, we might say it was a fluke. But if somebody claimed to be the messiah sent by God to redeem Israel, and he promised a resurrection to everlasting life for those who put their faith in him, and then that person died and came back to life three days later, I think it would be far more likely that there's a connection between his claim and his resurrection than that it was just a big coincidence.

I am not like a lot of Christian apologists who think miraculous explanations are on an equal playing field with natural explanations. I agree that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You see, I think most Christian apologists and most atheists who oppose them are equally mistaken, but for opposite reasons. They both take opposite extremes regarding statistical improbability. Atheists treat the resurrection as if statistical improbability is the only relevant factor. Christian apologists treat the resurrection as if statistical improbability isn't a factor at all. I think it is a relevant factor, but it is not the only relevant factor. I happen to think that in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, the circumstantial evidence is strong enough to overcome the statistical improbability of resurrections in general. So I do think it is more likely that Jesus was raised from the dead than that his disciples were having hallucinations or visions.

And one of these days, I may finally write my series of blogs on that subject.

 
At 10/14/2009 3:07 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Thank you, Sam, for the well thought-out response. I agree with the vast majority of your comments, especially with how one’s world view impacts treatment of evidence. Your statements regarding Protestant views of Marian appearances are spot-on.

I appreciate you recognize the Resurrection hypothesis is outside our ordinary experience, and therefore would require more substantial evidence in support. (I dislike the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” although I agree with the principle behind it. I am unclear as to the difference is between “extraordinary evidence” and “plain old regular evidence.”)

I would be interested in a blog, or series, where you lay out the “circumstantial evidence strong enough to overcome the statistical improbability of resurrections in general.” For me, personally, I came to the realization all the evidence for the Resurrection is contained in documents I no longer found to be historically reliable. If the documents themselves are not reliable—what value of the evidence within? And I find natural reasons for the recording of post-resurrection sightings to be far more credible—indeed, far more probable—than would ever require a miracle. (I don’t subscribe to the mass hallucination theories. Under my own methodology, these claims do not sustain. Albeit the mass sightings of Mary do give me pause. When you think 70,000 people claim to have seen her at one time, what is so remarkable about a number constituting .015%? What is so remarkable about 11, when you could have 70,000?)

I’ve now listened to the debate, and a few points come to mind. Ehrman waffled around this a bit, confusing the issue (in my opinion) although he eventually attempted to clear it up. I see some confusion over “probability.” Normally, we discuss the term for future events—what are the chances I will win lotto, what are the chances the Lions will win Sunday, etc. Here, scientific methodology is helpful, relying upon past performances and uniform nature (as you point out) to make future predictions. If I throw 1000 iron bars in a pool and they sink, the probabilities are high that Bar number 1001 will sink too.

However, on past events, we cannot exclusively use uniform nature. An event that has happened in the past has a 100% chance of occurring—because it did! Today’s lotto winner-- regardless if yesterday their chance to win was 1,000,000:1—today has a 1:1 chance of winning. 100% probability. Despite the uniform experience of 999,999 people losing at lotto.

What we are looking for is the probability of the explanation conforming to all the evidences we have. Here we do look at past uniformity. In Licona’s example of a patient, if the doctor diagnosed the person as having been stabbed by an instrument, during an Alien Abduction, although that explanation does have explanatory power and explanatory scope, based upon our own uniform experience (namely the lack of Alien Abductions), we would hold the explanation as having a low probability.

I think what Ehrman was getting at, and what I hinted at previously, is due to our lack of verification regarding what God is/is not going to do, how do we come up with any ability to equate God in a probability factor? How do we know whether Aunt Bess being cured of cancer was the treatment, the body healing itself, or God? And, by virtue of the rarity of even what theists claim are miracles, does this make it even less probable? It is not only that they are rare (you are correct, rare things happen all the time) it is that they are rare AND unverifiable. Again, even Christians disagree amongst themselves as to when miracles occur.

(As a side note, I think Licona screwed up by suggesting the possibility Aliens could have resurrected Jesus to answer Ehrman’s question of “If it wasn’t God; what was it?” Later Licona said the objective historian considers ALL possibilities, including God, and I would have shot back, “then should objective historians consider the possibility aliens killed JFK?”)

 
At 10/14/2009 3:08 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

I also understood what Ehrman was striking at regarding the first “minimal fact”—Jesus died by crucifixion. Part of the reason I dislike these debates, is I wonder who choose the “minimal facts” and why must we only look at the “minimal facts”?

What if you and I were arguing over heliocentricism vs. geocentricism, and I said, “Look, the vast majority of scholars agree, we watch the sun move east to west during the day.” I then claimed the “minimal facts” best explanation is that the sun moves around the earth. Shouldn’t you be allowed to bring in other facts? Such as seeing the shadow of the earth on the moon, the perspective issue, orbits of planets, etc.?

Why was “Jesus died by crucifixion” a minimal fact, as compared to “Jesus died”? (You hit on this in your comments nicely.) Why isn’t “Jesus lived” especially in light of the growing number of Jesus-mythers? I found it interesting the buried and empty tomb bits were no longer in the minimal facts.

Further, why is the minimal fact, “Jesus appeared to the Disciples” as compared to “The disciples claimed Jesus appeared to them”? Or better yet, “Third parties wrote down the disciples claimed Jesus appeared to them”? Or maybe, “Third parties heard through others that claimed the Disciples claimed Jesus appeared to them.” I find the phrasing of these minimal facts assume the historicity of the New Testament.

While I agree Ehrman’s complaints regarding contradictions are irrelevant, if he agreed with the three minimal facts--I was unclear as to whether he did agree with the second and third facts. I noted the quote Licona read from Ehrman was that the Disciples said they saw Jesus, which is much different than agreeing the Disciples did see Jesus.

To me the contradictions are important because they go to reliability. Something this debate did not focus on.

Anyway, thanks for the response, and I remain curious as to what circumstantial evidence you find compelling. If you are wondering what to blog next…*grin*

 
At 10/14/2009 5:55 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dagoods.

I am unclear as to the difference is between “extraordinary evidence” and “plain old regular evidence.”

Extraordinary evidence is plain ole ordinary evidence, but there’s just more of it, or it’s stronger. The more statistically unlikely an event is, the stronger the evidence would have to be to overcome that general improbability. If I had a flat tire, a person might be justified in believing it just on the basis of my word on it. But if I kissed Norah Jones, a person might require more than just my word on it. Maybe a picture or a video tape would be necessary.

If the documents themselves are not reliable—what value of the evidence within?

Do you think that because the documents are unreliable that we can’t know anything at all about the historical Jesus? It seems to me that historical criteria, such as embarrassment, allows us to gain historical information even from generally unreliable accounts. At the very least, an unreliable document can tell you something about the people it came from.

And I find natural reasons for the recording of post-resurrection sightings to be far more credible—indeed, far more probable—than would ever require a miracle. (I don’t subscribe to the mass hallucination theories. Under my own methodology, these claims do not sustain.

What natural theory do you think is most likely?

Later Licona said the objective historian considers ALL possibilities, including God, and I would have shot back, “then should objective historians consider the possibility aliens killed JFK?”

If you don’t think people should consider all possibilities, how would you go about eliminating possibilities (such as aliens) before looking at the actual evidence?

Part of the reason I dislike these debates, is I wonder who choose the “minimal facts” and why must we only look at the “minimal facts”?

There’s a practical advantage to it. Debates are timed events. Licona chose to make his case from three points that are almost universally accepted by new testament scholars, including Ehrman. Since Ehrman and most scholars already agree with these points, Lincona did not have to spend a lot of time talking about the evidence for them. If he had relied on more controversial premises, he would have to have spent a lot more time talking about the evidence for them. So minimal fact presentations are just designed to make the job easier.

I found it interesting the buried and empty tomb bits were no longer in the minimal facts.

Neither of them are accepted by “almost all scholars.” Most scholars, maybe, but not all scholars, and probably not Ehrman. Using those two points would’ve sucked up more of Licona’s time and strained the concentration of the audience.

 
At 10/14/2009 5:56 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Further, why is the minimal fact, “Jesus appeared to the Disciples” as compared to “The disciples claimed Jesus appeared to them”? Or better yet, “Third parties wrote down the disciples claimed Jesus appeared to them”? Or maybe, “Third parties heard through others that claimed the Disciples claimed Jesus appeared to them.” I find the phrasing of these minimal facts assume the historicity of the New Testament.

If I remember correctly, the minimal fact is that the disciples had experienced they took to be of the risen Jesus. From my own studies, that is actually what most scholars think. Sometimes they will say, “Jesus appeared to the disciples,” but that is just shorthand for saying the same thing.

While I agree Ehrman’s complaints regarding contradictions are irrelevant, if he agreed with the three minimal facts--I was unclear as to whether he did agree with the second and third facts.

My impression was that Ehrman thought the second and third facts were really just one fact. And since he said Licona had only one fact to argue from—the appearances—then Ehrman was conceding that it was a fact. And since he argued for the visionary hypothesis, it seems pretty clear that he did agree that the disciple had experiences they interpreted as Jesus appearing to them. The visionary hypothesis is an explanation for the appearances, so it assumes that they happened.

To me the contradictions are important because they go to reliability. Something this debate did not focus on.

As you said yourself, the contradictions and reliability of the gospels were irrelevant in this debate since Ehrman didn’t dispute Licona’s list of facts.

Anyway, thanks for the response, and I remain curious as to what circumstantial evidence you find compelling. If you are wondering what to blog next…*grin*

I’ve been planning to do it for a long time, so don’t get too excited. What has kept me from doing it just the work involved.

 
At 10/16/2009 1:21 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Sam: Do you think that because the documents are unreliable that we can’t know anything at all about the historical Jesus?
.
Well…I am almost to that point. Coming up with a methodology to consistently differentiate between myth and history has been the scholar’s bane. I am not a myther—I believe at the core there was a person who obtained a following and was eventually crucified. As to where he was from, how much of a following, how many disciples, what said, etc…I am agnostic.

Take, for example, your criterion of embarrassment. Not a bad method, and one I think has some merit. But first we have to determine it was embarrassing. What if Mark was deliberately writing a polemic against Peter? Then there would be no “embarrassment” as it was intended to be derisive. Or if Mark was written by a Greek playwright who had no interest in supporting history? Would the same items we find embarrassing in the 20th Century, to be embarrassing in the First?

Further, there are other stories I think are even more embarrassing—like the Infancy Gospel’s tale of Jesus being bumped by a child, so Jesus kills him. To my 20th Century mind, that is extremely “embarrassing”—does that make it true? Of course, the Infancy Gospel is dismissed on other grounds—“too late”—which brings in the problem of the method to determine what is “too late”?

This is what I mean by creating a consistent methodology that doesn’t become a tangled mess or ad hoc.

I know what you mean by reluctance to blog due to the work involved. I started framing together my opinion as to what happened regarding the resurrection story, and I quickly realized it will entail a series of blog entries. Ought to gear up and do it…

The (extremely) short version is that Peter thought Jesus came back from the dead. Either initially spiritually that eventually turned to physical, or physical. Due to group dynamics and human tendency to be followers, others started saying they had visions too, or agreed with Peter. (Think of Joseph Smith, for example, leading to the group of Three saying they saw an angel in the woods.) The “group visions” were a later development.

I think Christianity continued to plod along, until it obtained a super-convert: Paul. Whether Paul had a vision, or simply an extreme emotional experience, I do not know. Regardless, he defined being “on fire” for Christianity. Paul took it from a small group of Jews practicing a form of Judaism to a world-wide Gentile religion, foregoing its Jewish background where necessary.

Mark writes a play entitled “A Year in the Life of Jesus” using chiasm, midrash and re-working of the Tanakh, including themes the audience are familiar with from Homer. It’s a smash hit. Matthew and Luke’s audience are receptive to an “updating” of Mark, the Johannine community (still a puzzle to me) use some of the oral stories familiar from Mark with their own Jesus-tradition (and the Gospel of Signs) to create John. The rest is legend development.

 

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