Thursday, December 24, 2020

The weary world rejoices

I don't need to tell you that the world is weary. And anybody who has been reading my posts here and on Facebook can figure out some of the reasons why I think the world is weary. There are, of course, plenty more. I don't need to start listing all the evils of the world, some of which you can agree with me about even if we disagree about others.

Those of us who are Christians and also "literary types" know of a certain kind of literature in which the characters have big epiphanies about the eternal import of their smallest actions. You might call this the Charles Williams trope. Williams has a scene where a woman is being annoying and a guard announcing the trains at a train station is entirely polite to her. Williams goes into rather purple rhapsodies about the eternal value of his two words, "Yes, lady." Similarly, in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is ordered to desecrate a crucifix. He's an agnostic, so the symbol means nothing to him, and he can't figure out why he's being told to do it. His wicked employer Frost tells him that they have found this to be necessary to the training of people in their organization. Studdock finally says, "It's all nonsense, and I'm damned if I'll do any such thing." Lewis, of course, means the reader to realize that Studdock's words have far more literal meaning than he intends. Like Caiaphas, we all sometimes speak prophecy without knowing it, and everything means more than we can possibly realize.

But this creates a bit of a problem in its own right for imaginative types.

For if all the good things and all the bad things have vast, eternal meaning, what happens if there are more bad things going on in the world than good things? What right have I to comfort myself with the thought of that one smile exchanged between neighbors on the street (and perhaps now more than ever when it is almost a subversive act to let one's smile show when passing one's neighbor), that one eternal flower that blooms forever in the mind of God, the one evergreen act of courage, while not offsetting it with the thought of many acts of torture and destruction, the vast amounts of filth on the Internet, the souls hunted down, corrupted, and devoured, the suicides, the insane, the injustice? If they are also of infinite importance (and surely in one sense they are), who is to say which outweighs which in the eternal scales? What is the weight of my one little act of charity when there is so much bad in the world? And on this thought, the mind bows down, crushed with the weight of too much knowledge, the thought of too much darkness.

But then I remember St. Paul's statement that the sufferings of this present world are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. And I remember, too, that evil is a privation. And I remember that God is glorious beyond all the evil that man can do.

C.S. Lewis seems to have wrestled with this notion of "too much darkness" in his fiction. In Perelandra the Un-man tries to tell Ransom that the "real world" is the world of filth and darkness and that the courage of the saints and the innocence of children is as nothing in comparison. The scene is creepy, and one can tell that Lewis has really confronted this possibility. But the whole point is that the Un-man is a damned soul and is uttering the falsehoods of Satan. Why? Because ultimately, it just isn't true that that is a "greater reality." It's not, of course, that our sense of something wrong is an illusion. Rather, it's that the "something wrong" is a twisting of what is good, and what is good, the Good Himself, is over and above all the evil. This is true no matter how much evil rational creatures do and suffer. So in The Great Divorce, George McDonald tells Lewis (as a character in his own book) that one glorious, redeemed soul could not fit into Hell:

All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this worldthe Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swalled all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste....All loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell's miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.

Now there's a man who has truly rejected the dualism of two equal and opposite Powers (good and evil), ever-contending. But he has not rejected it without feeling its pull and the despair to which it leads. If God is just the "light side of the Force," we're all doomed. Thank God He isn't.

And so at the tag end of this dark year, I offer you a thrill of hope. No, it's not a vaccine. No, it's not anything of earth at all. And yet it affirms the flesh and promises a new heaven and a new earth. He makes all things new. There we shall see him, and each other, face to face. This is possible because the Word was made flesh, and the Virgin bore to men a Savior when half-spent was the night.

Merry Christmas!

(Cross-posted at What's Wrong With the World)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Some more notes on the census in Luke

The census in Luke 2 is a gigantic topic on which much ink has been spilled. I certainly had to deal with it in my series on the Virgin Birth, but I'm trying not to write a treatise! This post contains some extra notes on the subject that I didn't include in my recent video, in the interests of keeping the video streamlined and digestible. Here also is my recent debate with atheist Jonathan Pearce on the Unbelievable show.

In my Youtube  video about the census I make the following points:

1) Luke is an historical source in himself, at least as credible (based on track record) as Josephus. The fact that we have no other source for a census in Judea at this time is thus the merest argument from silence, and an especially poor one. Luke is giving us information. There is nothing about Luke's being a Christian author that makes him likely to be unreliable about a boring historical matter like a census. This point goes beyond saying that we should "give Luke the benefit of the doubt" based on his track record elsewhere, though that's true as well. The mere absence of a census in this time and place in the relatively meager set of non-biblical historical literature that we have for that time period does not constitute a strike of any significance against Luke. We can learn about this census from Luke.

2) It's outright false that Luke and Matthew contradict each other about when Jesus' birth took place, with only Matthew placing his birth at the time of Herod the Great. Luke says the same thing. (Luke 1:5)

3) Skeptics will say that Luke's census is improbable to the point of being historically impossible, even on its own terms. They are wrong about that, and they get there by insisting on an overly wooden reading of Luke and an exaggerated idea of what the census would have involved.

4) Skeptics will say that there is only one possible meaning of Luke's reference to Quirinius in connection with the census and that all other suggested translations are attempts by Christian apologists to wriggle out of admitting that Luke was wrong. They're wrong about that, too. What Luke says about Quirinius and "the first census" is genuinely difficult to translate and interpret, which is why there is legitimate scholarly debate about it.

Here I want to add a couple of points to #3 and #4.

Concerning #3, one claim that you will here is that Rome would never order a census (either for purposes of counting or for purposes of taxation) under a client king such as Herod the Great. This is a really strong claim, and there is little to back it up. It's mostly just an assertion, based on the fact that client kingdoms did have some measure of independence. But it's not as though we have a contemporary statement anywhere that the Romans would never meddle in taxation in a client kingdom or would never order a tally of the people in a client kingdom.

On the contrary, here is some evidence that Rome would sometimes do so: In the 30s A.D., as Tacitus tells us (Annals, Book VI, 41.1), a rather war-like tribe (the Cietae) residing in the Roman client kingdom of Cilicia was "pressed to conform with Roman usage by making a return of their property and submitting to a tribute." They were originally from the mountainous region of Cappadocia, and they retreated there and fought. The client king, named Archelaus, required the help of the Roman legions to defeat them. 

As it turns out, there were several rulers about in the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. named "Archelaus." This one (whom Tacitus calls "Archelaus of Cappadocia") was not the same person as the Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, whom I've mentioned elsewhere (see Matt. 2:22). Making things more confusing, the Archelaus ruling the client kingdom of Cilicia, mentioned by Tacitus, was also not the "Archelaus of Cappadocia" who had died about 17 years previously. That was his father, who actually did rule Cappadocia. (Are you confused yet?) I bring all this up because the atheist blogger Jonathan Pearce (who debated me on the Nativity) has claimed that the Biblical Archaeology Report has blundered horribly by mentioning this tribute/census of the Cietae as evidence that you could have Roman censuses in client kingdoms. Pearce assumes that they are referring to a census made in Cappadocia after it was no longer a client kingdom, when Archelaus of Cappadocia had already been dead for years. But he's mistaken. The requirement to "conform to Roman usage" was indeed made within a client kingdom, in the year A.D. 36, when that client kingdom was ruled over by a different "Archelaus of Cappadocia," the son of the one Pearce is thinking of, and (to make matters more confusing) the client kingdom in question was actually Cilicia rather than Cappadocia! The confusion over this obscure fact partly arose because the Biblical Archaeology Report cited a secondary source rather than citing Tacitus directly. I was lucky enough to find the Tacitus reference in this really fascinating article about the census by John Thorley (hat tip to Jason Engwer for recommending it), and I chased it down from there. (Note: You can get a free on-line account with JSTOR for independent scholars that lets you read up to 100 articles per month.)

This is a cautionary tale in a lot of ways: It illustrates the complexity of historical reality (always something skeptics and some Christian biblical scholars need to be reminded of). It illustrates the plausibility of theories that there were multiple people by the same name. (This comes up in discussing other supposed Gospel "errors.") In this case, Wikipedia even calls the Cietae a "Cappadocian tribe," which is confusing and interesting. How could there be a Cappadocian tribe in Cilicia? Well, you know, history is complicated! Anyway, all of this also illustrates the value of tracing things back to original sources.

And bringing us back to the argumentative point: We absolutely should not be doing a priori history about what "wouldn't ever happen" in a client kingdom. We should discover what it meant to be a "client kingdom" in regards to tribute, census, taxation, etc., by reading historical sources (including Luke). The phrase "client kingdom" isn't some kind of talisman that automatically entails the conclusion the skeptic is going for. That's not how history is done. So...yes, Rome under Augustus could certainly have ordered that a client kingdom (or maybe even several of them) must count their people, or their property-owning people. Herod would have had to agree to carry this out or to allow a designated Roman authority to carry it out. As Biblical Archaeology Report notes, Augustus ordered after Herod's death that Samaria didn't have to pay as much tax to Archelaus, Herod's son, because they hadn't joined in a revolt. Even though Archelaus was confirmed as a ruler under Rome and was supposed to have the tribute from the Samaritans himself, Caesar altered the amount. This is indirectly relevant in that it shows how Rome tweaked taxation under client rulers.

In fact, Thorley suggests that that is what Luke is saying when he says that "in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed [registered]." Thorley's idea is that this means that at that general time period Augustus decided to tell the various provinces on the edge of the Roman empire to register/count their inhabitants, this extension of census-taking to all parts of the Roman world being a new practice. Of course, there could be plenty of reasons for this. It would be useful for taxation, for one thing, even if some part of the tax went to the local client king. (Miller, link below, mentions the suggestion that Rome might have wanted to assess the region when a client king was getting older.) The story of the Cietae in Cilicia shows that this is not merely theoretical. A tribe in a client kingdom was required to make a tribute of a portion of their property according to Roman usage, which would have required that the property be counted, and the client ruler had to attempt to carry out this order. While Tacitus doesn't say whose idea this census was (it could in theory have been the idea of Archelaus II himself), he certainly doesn't say that it was not Rome's own idea, and the fact that the legions helped to enforce it certainly shows their involvement. For more on this tribe see Glenn Miller's extensive discussion here. I haven't even had time to read it all and therefore am not endorsing everything he says, but it contains a lot of information. (HT to Jason Engwer for the link.)

It's also worth pointing out that Herod's relationship with Augustus as a client king was not always strewn with hearts and flowers. Some time between 12 and 9 B.C., Herod fell into significant disgrace with Augustus over his treatment of the Nabateans. While he was supposedly reconciled to Augustus, such a reconciliation wouldn't have meant that they both forgot the recent unpleasantness, even if they were formally friends again by the time of Jesus' birth, Augustus had made it quite clear recently that he considered himself fully empowered to interfere in Herod's management of his affairs.

Rome had a passion for counting people, not to mention taxing them. Augustus proudly talks about several lustrum censuses he did, including one beginning in 8 B.C., and how many Roman citizens he counted in those censuses. I should clarify here something that I was not clear enough about in my debate with Pearce: In itself, a lustrum census was for purposes of counting Roman citizens, not all inhabitants per se. There doubtless were Roman citizens in Judea, but if the census at the time of Jesus' birth was related to the 8 B.C. lustrum as it came around to Syria, that would be an extension of its independently known purpose, since Joseph was probably not a Roman citizen. But as Thorley points out, that isn't in itself implausible.

Concerning #4, here are a couple more points (which may or may not have been covered in the video):

Skeptics insist that Luke must be saying that this census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria and that, moreover, he is saying that it was the 6 A. D. census. So there you go! Luke was wrong! Because Jesus wasn't born in 6 A.D.!

But that claim has all sorts of problems of its own. It runs afoul of Luke's clear assertion that John the Baptist was conceived during the time of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5). It runs afoul of Luke's clear knowledge of the 6 A.D. census at its own time period (Acts 5:37). It runs afoul of the fact that Luke has all kinds of definite indicators of the time of the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry and hence Jesus' ministry (Luke 3:1, 3:23), and that on these indicators Jesus would be much too young if Luke thought he was born in 6 A.D. In other words, it just doesn't make sense within Luke's own corpus as an interpretation of what Luke is saying about Quirinius and the census in 2:2. Whatever else is going on, that isn't what's going on. Even if one thinks Luke is incorrect here in some way, that isn't what he's saying just as a matter of interpretation of Luke.

Moreover, the skeptical interpretation leaves out the meaning of the word "first" in Luke 2:2. If all that Luke meant to say was that this was the census taken under Quirinius, the one and only, why didn't he just say, "This was the census made when Quirinius was governor of Syria," full stop? Why include that pesky word "first" (or whatever it should be translated as)? The skeptics apparently think it means "the first census in Judea," but that is far from being the only reasonable interpretation, even if we take "first" to be just an ordinary adjective modifying "census."

Let me also add: In order for us to be justified in thinking that Luke is accurate about the census (in particular), it isn't necessary for any one specific possibility to be probable. What is needed is for the disjunction to be probable--A or B or C. And given that each of these ideas does have some real plausibility (it isn't just barely logically possible), the probability of that disjunction is reasonably high. If one allows for Luke to be right that Jesus was born during a census or registration but wrong about the specific Roman governor/hegemon, through confusing two Roman names (see below), a minor error, then the probability of the disjunction is higher still. So when I mention in the video that this or that is possible, I am not saying either a) that being possible means being probable or b) that these are individually just barely possible. In fact, common sense shows us that many of these ideas that I've suggested about the nativity (such as Joseph's having a connection to Bethlehem stronger than just being descended from David) are entirely plausible, and they are the kind of thing that we invoke in ordinary life all the time to explain what someone says when we have incomplete information. Jonathan Pearce, my atheist opponent in my recent debate, repeatedly states that "apologists" invoke the idea that to be possible is to be probable. This misunderstands the entire point. Moreover, it's particularly ironic that he should repeat this criticism so often, since he himself invokes, and treats as highly probable, extremely implausible theories, such as the idea that Luke 1-2 were added to the Gospel later on or the idea that Luke is secretly trying to make a reference to Psalm 87:6 by making up/moving the census.

Thorley's suggestion, which I'm inclined to endorse as my "first line" of translation, is that Luke is saying that this was the first census (of two) made when Quirinius was "hegemon" of Syria. Again, that "first" has to mean something. We can't just leave it untranslated. Luke is trying to communicate something. I add, which Thorley doesn't talk about, that "hegemon" doesn't have to mean "governor" in the technical sense and that Quirinius could have been in charge of a census in Syria without being governor in the sense that Josephus talks about when he lists the governors. But Thorley, (refreshingly) taking Luke to be an historical source, also says that for all we know Luke is more accurate than Josephus here and knew of a short, earlier governorship of Quirinius wedged between those listed by Josephus, which is also possible.

There is some controversy over the suggested translation, "This census was made before Quirinius was governor of Syria," though it would certainly be a simple way to fit all the data together (always a good thing in an historical hypothesis). I find its simplicity attractive. That translation, by the way, would mean that Luke is particularly accurate here. Here is Daniel Wallace making a case against it. But N. T. Wright endorses it (Who Was Jesus? p. 89). (So did a whole roster of other scholars who were no slouches in Greek, including T.R. Birks. I owe this reference to Tim McGrew.) Maybe we should let Wallace and Wright duke it out on this one. In any event, the contemptuous skeptical dismissal of the "before" translation as a desperate apologetic expedient is unwarranted. It deserves consideration.

Another worthy contender is, "This enrollment was first completed (i.e., used) when Quirinius was governor of Syria."  This is Calvin’s suggestion, endorsed by Beard, Rawlinson, Edersheim, and numerous other scholars. As Paul Maier points out, it took forty years to complete a census in Gaul around this time, so it could well be that a count was made or begun in Judea before the death of Herod and that Quirinius only made use of it to collect tax in A.D. 6 when he came to clean up the mess after the death of Herod the Great's son, the tetrarch Archelaus. Luke 11:28, referring to a famine that at that time was merely predicted, uses the same Greek term (egeneto). Agabus predicts the famine, and Luke comments that it happened, came to pass, etc., under Claudius, in a future time. Similarly, Luke could be saying that this census came fully to fruition when Quirinius was governor of Syria, later on. (I owe information about this option to Tim McGrew.) It occurs to me that this could explain why there was a revolt later in A.D. 6 but not at this time, if this was the count and that was the taxation based on the count. This is just a conjecture but is worth throwing into the mix.

Thorley suggests that Luke may have been mistaken, but only in a narrow sense. Luke may indeed have said, "This was the first [of two] censuses made when Quirinius was governor of Syria," thinking that Quirinius was hegemon of Syria twice, based upon a mistaken memory or reading of the name Quinctilius, since the hapless P. Quinctilius Varus was, according to Josephus, governor of Syria around this time. That would indeed be an error on Luke's part, but a very limited and to some extent understandable one, and it certainly wouldn't at all mean that Luke invented the census. Indeed, Luke's very attempt to nail down the relationship of this census to the one that he knows about later under Quirinius shows an extremely Lukan concern for literal history.

In fact, the whole idea that Luke made up the census (or moved Jesus' birth to much later), as I point out in the video, is fairly absurd. It is using a steamroller to crack a nut. All that Luke had to do, if he wanted to "make" Jesus be born in Bethlehem contrary to fact, was to have Mary and Joseph start out in Bethlehem and later travel to Nazareth. There was no need for him to invent the idea that Mary was from Nazareth and that they had to travel from there, while she was pregnant, down to Bethlehem and then back to Nazareth. And to invent a Roman census for such a purpose would be a wildly exaggerated plot device. Luke's deliberately connecting it falsely with Quirinius and placing it at a date that is in great tension with all of Luke's own other date indicators is overwhelmingly implausible. Why do a thing like that? Luke didn't have to mention Quirinius at all if he was inventing a census out of thin air.

Luke shows not the slightest awareness of any Old Testament passage that is fulfilled by Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. He may or may not have known of Micah 5:2. I think it's a good principle not to attribute theological motives to the evangelists that they say nothing about. They generally aren't shy about mentioning OT parallels or fulfillments of prophecy, so why invent private intentions for which we have no textual evidence?

All of our evidence points to the conclusion that Luke sincerely believed what he said in Luke 2:1-2. And there are plenty of reasons to think that, as a reliable historian, Luke is telling us about a real census that really took place in Judea at the time, whether or not Quirinius was in charge of it. To say that we wouldn't think there had been such a census if it weren't for Luke is no real criticism. There are plenty of historical events that we wouldn't think happened if it weren't for the historical document (sometimes a single document) that mentions them! That's how history works.

Have a look at the video, and be sure to subscribe to my Youtube channel if you haven't already!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Aphorism for the day

 The legitimacy of historical harmonization rests on the observed complexity of reality.

Apropos of which, here's a Youtube video on reconcilable variation in the nativity stories.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

What I'm up to this Advent

 Sorry that there haven't been new posts here recently. I've begun occasionally posting again at What's Wrong With the World. Also, if you follow my public content on Facebook, you will see more of my links and thoughts. The one annoying thing is that Facebook now seems to be changing its algorithms, so even "following" may not be enough to see everything. You may need to "favorite" me as well to be sure not to miss anything.

I've gotten pulled into quite a bit of conversation about the Virgin Birth this Advent season. I've just started a Youtube series about the Virgin Birth, and the first video of that is out, here. Please consider subscribing to my Youtube channel and hitting the bell so that you get notifications. 

Recording on it may be somewhat slow, though, because I've agreed to a debate on the Virgin Birth and infancy narratives (I usually refuse debates), which will be recorded on December 11. Plus I'm indexing The Eye of the Beholder--a huge and rather boring task. I did an interview yesterday about some objections to the birth narratives. That link is here.

Triablogue has a roundup of some great resources on the veracity of the infancy accounts and the Virgin Birth. See that link roundup here. Jason Engwer has done some stalwart work there. Theological blogger Steve Hays of Triablogue passed away from cancer during 2020. He was a great soldier for the faith and is missed.

So a blessed Advent to everyone, and if you don't hear from me again for a while, a Merry Christmas.

By the way, I heard a new Gospel Christmas song on the radio yesterday that Mr. Google does not seem to know about. It was mostly about the lost sheep. Here, from memory, are a few fragments of the words:

"Mary gave birth to light." "...the darkness we mistook for the light." 


O what love the Good Shepherd has shown

To leave the ninety and nine

To go back for that one sheep, lost and alone.

I'm the one he came back to find.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Undesigned coincidences vs. Literary Devices (archived from May, 2018)

 (Originally posted at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at "permalink" below.)

Undesigned coincidences vs. Literary Devices on Bellator Christi [Updated]

[Update: I've decided to put into this post itself a list of some counterexamples to Licona's misleading claims about his, and others' positions. See below. These are also in the podcast on Bellator Christi.]

I had the privilege today to be on the Bellator Christi podcast with Brian Chilton discussing the contrast between the view of the Gospels supported by undesigned coincidences and that of the "literary device" theorists.

The link to the podcast is here. It was great fun being on the show and bringing these various strands together. These really are very different views of what kind of documents the Gospels are. I say this not because I start from an unargued assumption that the Gospels are artless, historical reportage but rather because this is what I find the Gospels to be upon investigation. Undesigned coincidences are just one portion of that argument. Brian was an excellent host, and we had a great conversation.

The podcast is a good introduction generally to undesigned coincidences, and the first good-sized segment of the show is devoted to that positive argument.

Brian introduced the discussion by mentioning the fact that the apologetics community is divided concerning the merit of the literary device theories. Brian mentioned that Tim Stratton has recently hosted a series of conversations with Michael Licona about his (Dr. Licona's) views and suggested that listeners give both sides a hearing.

Naturally, this doesn't mean that I was giving a point-by-point response to what Dr. Licona said in those interviews. For my detailed response to Dr. Licona's actual views, which he has not rebutted or confronted, please see the wrap-up post here of my series and browse from there to posts as your interest and time allow.

One point that I did want to reply to, though, is a completely incorrect characterization that Dr. Licona has made of the views that I (and Esteemed Husband, see here) are criticizing--those of himself, Craig Evans, and Dan Wallace, for example. At minute 23 and following here, in one of the interviews with Tim Stratton, Dr. Licona states that none of these evangelical scholars "who have become targets" (as he puts it) are saying that Jesus did not say the things reported in the Gospels but rather only suggesting that Jesus may not have used those words. They are, he says, saying that some of the reports in the Gospels might be a "loose paraphrase."

This is just false, and even a quick look at my wrap-up post will give examples to the contrary. I do reply to that point in this interview with Rev. Chilton. Please listen to the entire podcast, but that portion begins at about minute 31 in the podcast, here. Here are the counterexamples I give there:

--One idea promoted by scholars Dan Wallace and Mike Licona is that Jesus did not historically, at all, say, “I thirst” while he was on the cross. This isn’t just saying that he really said, “Please give me some water” instead but that there was nothing like that at all. Instead, he said, “My God, why have you forsaken me” and John changed that into “I thirst.” "I thirst" is not even a "loose paraphrase" of "My God, why have you forsaken me."

--Licona has argued (most recently in a debate with Bart Ehrman) that Jesus did not appear first to his male disciples in Jerusalem at all but rather first in Galilee and that Luke “moved” the first appearance to Jerusalem in his gospel for literary reasons. This is not just a matter of our not having Jesus' exact words, nor is it a loose paraphrase of something else. Indeed, this claim of "moving" itself calls into question the historicity of the entire Doubting Thomas scene, since John makes it quite clear that that occurred in Jerusalem before they went to Galilee, and Thomas would have been very unlikely to travel to Galilee if he hadn’t yet seen Jesus at all. This is part and parcel of Licona's theory that Luke "made" all of the resurrection appearances occur on one day rather than forty days.

--One theory, promoted by Craig Evans, is that Jesus never historically said “I am the light of the world” or “I am the bread of life.” Not because he used somewhat different words and said, “I am the lamp of the world” or something instead, but because these sayings didn’t occur historically at all. They were just dramatic portrayals by the “Johannine community” of their theological reflections on Jesus’ other teachings. See video for several minutes here. This is not just a matter of a loose paraphrase, much less of our not having Jesus' very words.

--Another idea, which Dr. Licona attributes to “many Johannine scholars,” is that Jesus would not have been as explicit about his deity as we find him being in John, and saying things like, “Before Abraham was, I am” or “I and the Father are one.” Instead, he just presented himself as God as we find him doing in Mark, by claiming to be able to forgive sins and do these other deeds, and John wrote up these other scenes, which didn’t really occur, in which Jesus makes these “more explicit” claims to deity for himself. See the argument Licona presents for that view here, particularly this statement: "Now, if Jesus was hesitant to announce publicly that He is the Messiah, we would not expect for Him to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting." Obviously, this is not just a matter of John's making a "loose paraphrase" of Jesus' historical words and deeds as we find them in Mark but rather of his inventing whole sayings and scenes in which Jesus claims to be God publicly and in such a relatively clear manner as reported in John.

I would like to emphasize again, in addition to what I said in the podcast with Brian, that these examples are not even "loose paraphrases." Jesus' saying, "I thirst" is not even a "loose paraphrase" of "My God, why have you forsaken me." And so forth.

One example I didn't mention in the podcast (but again, there are so many) to the contrary is Dr. Licona's own suggestion on pp. 180-181 of his Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? that John may have invented the scene in which Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Allegedly he did so in order to "weave mention" of Pentecost into his own Gospel, since he would not be writing about that event directly. (Were the many references to the coming of the Comforter in Jesus' words in John 14-16 not enough of a mention?) Obviously, if that event didn't happen at all, this is a great deal more than merely saying that Jesus may not have used those words! Nor is it even to say that we have a "loose paraphrase" of an historical teaching of Jesus in that real, historical context, where Jesus engaged in a real action (breathing on the disciples). It's an invention of an entire incident.

If we are going to discuss these matters intelligently and with care, it's very important that we be clear about what we're discussing. It is extremely unhelpful for Dr. Licona or anyone else to suggest that these are mere matters of verbal changes or paraphrase or even "loose" paraphrase. When entire sayings of Jesus or events in Jesus' life are said not to have occurred historically at all, these do not turn into "paraphrases" of something else merely because we say that these invented events are true to the general meaning or spirit of Jesus' completely different teaching or self-presentation in other events. That is simply not what is meant by any sort of "paraphrase." And that is aside from all of the alleged literary devices in which other factual matters besides Jesus' words are changed.

Those considering these matters, both scholars and laymen, should not be chivvied by way of a false dilemma. The false dilemma is the insinuation that either you are opposed to reasonable paraphrase such as what can occur in real, literal historical reportage or else you must adopt the theories of Licona, Evans, et. al., including those "many Johannine scholars" that Dr. Licona keeps talking about who think that the real Jesus would not have claimed to be God in such a clear and public manner as we find John reporting. (See Dr. Licona's own characterization of that argument in those terms to the effect that Jesus would not have claimed to be God in such a clear and public manner, here.) That is not a paraphrase view. That is an outright dehistoricization of Jesus' unique Johannine claims to deity.

We must be clear, and I think that once we are clear, it will become evident that these questions are worth looking into. They are not just trivial differences of opinion. Do the results of scholarship really force us to believe that the Gospels are like bio-pics, including made-up dialogue, made-up scenes, and factually altered events? I have argued, in detail, that there is no such evidence--not from Plutarch and not from the Gospels themselves. And there is much evidence to the contrary. That argument has not been answered. Again, I strongly urge those who are interested to look into these matters for themselves.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Live right on

In Wendell Berry's novel Hannah Coulter, Hannah's husband Nathan has a repeated saying: "We're going to live right on." As Hannah trenchantly notes, Nathan does not say it often, and he says it only when living right on is going to be difficult.

In the end, Nathan gets cancer in his old age, and he declines treatment that he deems extraordinary and goes through a dying process that we now associate with home hospice care, eventually dying naturally in his own home in the presence of his wife and a close friend.

But Hannah finds it difficult at first to accept Nathan's decision to decline aggressive cancer treatment. Here is part of the scene:

My tears were falling into the bowl of beaten eggs and then my nose dripped into it. I flung the whole frosthy mess into the sink. I said, "Well, what are you planning to do? Just die? Or what?"

I couldn't turn around. I heard him fold the paper. After a minute he said, "Dear Hannah, I'm going to live right on. Dying is none of my business. Dying will have to take care of itself."

He came to me then, an old man weakened and ill, with my Nathan looking out of his eyes. He held me a long time as if under a passing storm, and then the quiet came. I fixed some supper, and we ate.

He lived right on.

I must confess here that, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, I have often felt a sense of paralysis that has prevented me from blogging, especially about the pandemic. Those who follow my public content on Facebook know that that has been loosening somewhat lately, as I state more forthrightly what I think in public posts. But for a while, I was simply not talking publicly. At first I wanted to tread carefully while watching how the empirical situation unfolded. Then I was almost stunned with horror at the destruction I saw being carried out by what I considered (and still consider) to be the disproportionate, unwise, and dystopian governmental response to the virus and, perhaps even more, by the fracturing and disagreement among otherwise sane and sensible people, including Christians and pro-lifers.

There were other reasons for not writing much on this topic. For a while I was finishing drafting my forthcoming book on John, The Eye of the Beholder. That manuscript is now with the publisher for electronic typesetting. Then I was working hard on my blog posts and video scripts for my responses to Michael Licona. That playlist and blog series are now completed. Then I was not wanting to do anything that might confusingly intersperse current posts at this blog with the massive archiving project in which others copied my apologetics and biblical studies posts over many years from What's Wrong With the World to this blog. So there was always something. And now I still have other work to do, including my duties at home.

In the back of my mind, too, was a feeling of utter weariness and a certain amount of shock at the attitudes being taken and their vehemence: Whom would I offend if I said openly that I think many if not most of the measures being taken against this virus are overly draconian and to that extent misguided, vastly overlooking spiritual and other intangible harms? Would that undermine my work in New Testament and apologetics? Who might hold such comments against me? Who might use them to portray me as some kind of anti-science kook? How much should I allow such considerations to weigh? And who has time for the never-ending squabbling of social media?

But recently, perhaps partly (in an odd way) as a result of the horrifically tragic death of Mike Adams, I have begun speaking out more, though in what I hope are judicious and thoughtful terms. See, for example, herehere, here, and here.

Today (it might seem, irrelevantly) I got my car's oil changed. While sitting in the waiting room at the dealership, clad (more or less) in a dutiful face shield, I was reading a back issue of The Human Life Review, produced during the New York City lockdown. It was a bit of a time capsule (of a time only a few months ago), with some articles showing no awareness of the pandemic and others being all about it. As usual with HLR, there were several well-researched and interesting articles about such esoteric and interesting matters as the under-reporting of abortion complications and the character of Abigail Adams (really). The short pandemic op-eds contained at least one cautionary note about the possible ill effects of lockdowns, but two of them expressed horror at what the authors saw as the brutal rhetoric, incompatible with a pro-life position, of those speaking against lockdowns. As we have seen for months, the pro-life version of, "You just want Grandma to die" is the claim that those who are raising the dangers of lockdowns see those in vulnerable populations as expendable. 

Now, to be fair, it absolutely does not help when some people speak against lockdowns by using talk of "quality of life years." Yikes! Don't do that. You just blur distinctions that need to be un-blurred, and you definitely give fodder to the "expendable lives" claim. Of course, others have pointed out more eloquently than I, and with more statistics, that many people will die as a result of economic and other indirect effects of the lockdowns themselves--people driven into poverty, people who don't get needed medical care, people driven to despair. Are their lives expendable?

As part of the archiving project, this older post of mine came to light--an important bit of work, if I may say so myself.

But now I can add to it. What I argued there is that there is a great danger in our own time of loving death too much rather than loving life too much. I pointed out that older Christian writers, such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, saw a kind of vitalism or transhumanism that seeks to retain and lengthen life at all costs as the great danger in their time, whereas our own danger is somewhat different.

All true. And yet we are also now faced by paradoxes. Consider: In Canada, elderly people (and non-elderly people, for that matter) can choose euthanasia but can't (as in most nursing homes in the U.S.) have relatives visit them, lest they contract Covid-19 and die. Think about that. They can choose death, even due to the loneliness of the Covid restrictions (see this anecdotal comment), but they can't risk death by way of such an ordinary activity as seeing their children, friends, and grandchildren. Euthanasia advocates have even scrambled to be sure that euthanasia assistance is available by Zoom.

As this conversation points out, because ours is a materialistic culture, the physical goal of avoiding death is elevated to the detriment of intangible goods. True. But at the same time, abortion clinics were kept open in my state of Michigan as "essential" even during the hardest lockdown. Not only did this involve deliberately killing babies, it also exposed the mothers and their relatives, bent on the death of the child, to potential medical complications and, for that matter, virus infection, for the goal of making sure that no unwanted child was born. This seems to mean that Thanatos will have his sacrifice, come what may.

Does our secular Western country fear death too much or too little? Does it worship Death or run from him?

As it turns out, both. As a woman planning to access assisted suicide says openly here, it's all about control. "I choose to be in control," she says.

Now, this is just exactly morally backwards. In answer to the misguided hand-wringing about supposedly heartless and "Darwinian" concerns about lockdowns, masking, and other draconian measures, and also in answer to the death doctors, we must distinguish all of the following:

1) Killing people directly and deliberately (as in abortion and assisted suicide and euthanasia). (Always wrong)

2) Foregoing treatment that the patient understandably deems extraordinary. (Sometimes entirely legitimate)

3) Withholding basic care, such as food and water. (Always wrong.)

4) Engaging in otherwise entirely legitimate actions, such as spending time with friends, opening a legitimate business, singing, going to church, traveling, etc., which by an entirely indirect and unintended process causes a death.

It should be evident that #4 is something that we all have to risk doing all the time. It is impossible to live at all without risking causing someone else's death. It is shallow to say that we can take risks only for ourselves. As I pointed out here, we must take risks for other people constantly. Just driving down the road to take your child to get a vaccination risks causing a death by an indirect process, in an accident--your child's death, for one. There is nothing remotely un-pro-life, much less "Darwinian," about saying that you, and others, should go ahead and live life in a more or less normal way, doing moral and even praiseworthy activities, even if this risks causing a death as a result of someone's catching Covid. Of course we must take into account the degree of risk and the importance of the activity in question, and of course there are reasonable precautions we can take (I am not advocating "Covid parties"!). And of course reasonable people can and will differ on what count as reasonable precautions. The point is that risking an indirect and unintended death by engaging in a legitimate activity is business as usual in a contingent world, not heartless immorality. Indeed, by not acting in a way that carries risk, for ourselves and for others, we may indirectly cause more deaths! 

This is where the older authors such as C.S. Lewis have much to teach us. Lewis's characters in his Narnia books talk boldly about "taking the adventure that Aslan sends us." In the water world of Perelandra, the unfallen Green Lady emphasizes the importance of "accepting the wave" that God sends rather than demanding certainty and security. This is exactly what we are now being told never to do. Our hyper-controlling world worships the god Death at the same time that it fears him with a great fear, and the end result is that we never accept the wave or the adventure. In a grisly reversal of all right values, we flee from Death even to the extent of killing our incarnate friendships and our joyful gatherings, while at other times those in our secular world choose to seek out Death (at the abortion mill, at the hands of the euthanasia doctor) to offer him a living sacrifice, unholy and acceptable. Being Christians helps us to see where all of that goes wrong, though one should not need to be a Christian to see it. 

Life is a contingent gift and must be embraced and lived. If you do not believe in God, you may not know how to express that, and in a sense you may not consciously believe it. But in your best moments, you sense it and know it. And you also know that life must be lived and seized and that life is not without risk. Indeed, any driving instructor knows that the student who tries too hard to avoid risk in making a lefthand turn is often the student whose driving is the most dangerous, the most indecisive and tentative, and hence the most likely to cause an accident. Prudence is not dithering. Prudence is not the vain attempt to avoid all risk. Prudence must not be turned into the enemy of all gallantry, courage, joy, and generosity. And prudence is not trying literally to put human relationships and societies into "freeze" mode, shutting them down indefinitely or over and over again, in the hopes that a pathogen will pack its bags and leave in discouragement and that one will do more good than harm by such means. (Nor is such a hope scientific in its basis. Wherefore acting on it is not, ultimately, prudent!) 

At the same time, if you actually do love and care about human life, you ought to be able to see the terrible irony in continuing to kill humans deliberately while compassing land and sea, causing untold spin-off harms (including deaths), in order to avoid causing a single accidental death by means of a single, specific virus.

So if the lady in the nursing home wants to see her relatives, let her see her relatives. Let her take that risk. Let them hold each others' hands and see each others' faces. That is a healthy attitude. It can and should be a part of a healthy worldview that is as far removed as possible from the euthanasia mindset. And if others want to work and rejoice and gather and see each other face to face, don't tell them that this must mean that they do not care about the elderly lady. Their actions can and should be part of a healthy worldview that is as far removed as possible from the desire to see others die or even to neglect them. It should be part of embracing life and should provide the society (both economically and interpersonally) in which the elderly can be cared for rather than being isolated "for their own good." But beware: If you tell all of these people that they must be anti-life to think this way, you risk their believing you, which would be a tragic confusion.

I hope to continue saying these things as a reminder from time to time, while I continue working on other things. 

Live right on. Dying will have to take care of itself.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Independence, conspiracy, and the resurrection

Recently a correspondent wrote and told me that he wanted more ammunition against the theory that the disciples were involved in a conspiracy to fake the resurrection of Jesus. He said that he sees that hallucination theories are a poor explanation and grants (this is important) the reliability of the Gospels but, despite the fact that many of the original witnesses risked much for their testimony, he was still concerned about conspiracy theories.

I found that what I wrote in return has implications more broadly for the arguments for the resurrection, so I decided that it would make a good blog post. Notice for example that the considerations here about the women who claimed to have seen angels and Jesus have implications for hallucination theories as well. Apparently the women claimed to have seen Jesus separately (at least Mary Magdalene separate from the others) as well as a group together. And as argued here, they would have been under various social pressures from their relatives and friends, which produces an important degree of independence in their testimony. This is overwhelmingly strong when it comes to conspiracy, but it is also relevant to other theories. If one can bring oneself to imagine any kind of experience that would lead a group of women to think falsely they had chatted with angels and gripped the feet of the risen Jesus (and what would that be?), one should remember that they would have had separate chances to "snap out of it" in consultation with their own families and friends later on. And once again, Mary Magdalene apparently claimed to have had a separate experience from the others.

It's also important to emphasize the role played here by the reliability of the Gospels. Since he (rightly) took that to be established, I argue repeatedly using the names and descriptions of the alleged witnesses and the specifics of what they claimed. This is important. It's a good thing that I don't regard it as "beyond what historians can conclude" to say that Joanna, the wife of Chuza, was one of the women at the tomb or that two disciples who were not members of the eleven claimed to have experienced the events on the Road to Emmaus. Again, as I have often emphasized, taking the Gospel accounts as reliable means that we can claim boldly that this was what the putative witnesses said. In writing this I was struck anew by how many different people--people, by the way, whom Tim and I didn't even bother to name or to break out as separate witnesses in our 2009 article--claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection and were willing to be known as witnesses either by name (often) or occasionally by description (e.g., Clopas's companion). I was also struck again by the relevance of the conversion of James, Jesus' brother and the fact that he had not previously been a follower of Jesus, which, again, attests to the independence of his testimony. 

Despite the fact that the conspiracy theory is not generally considered to be a strong candidate as an alternative to the resurrection, contemplating all that is wrong with it helps to draw one's attention more generally to the strength of the maximal data case for the resurrection. Here is what I wrote, very slightly edited:

When it comes to a conspiracy theory, I'm inclined to mention the "consensus of scholarship," though not as a bare argument from authority. What I would say is that there is a good reason why even skeptical scholars have abandoned the conspiracy theory. I think they really have been overwhelmed by the evidence, though they may not have thought it all out in detail.

Let me discuss some of the very strong arguments against conspiracy. I'm taking the reliability of the Gospels to mean that the Gospel resurrection accounts at least represent what the alleged witnesses claimed occurred.

First, let's consider the speed with which such a conspiracy would have had to get going. In order to account for the fact that the Jewish leaders didn't simply lead people to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and display the fact that the body was still there, someone invoking conspiracy presumably has to hold that the disciples did in fact move the body and rebury it somewhere secretly--the theory mentioned at the end of Matthew as held "by the Jews to this day." Since the disciples claimed that Jesus rose on the third day, they presumably had to move the body quite early in order to begin putting about this rumor among the larger group of Jesus' former followers whom they hoped to deceive. Otherwise, especially with the testimony of the women, the other followers would have had a very legitimate complaint if the eleven didn't start saying anything about the resurrection prior to Pentecost, even among Jesus' followers--why didn't you say something sooner if all of these exciting things were happening on the third day?

But remember that just as recently as Thursday night, Peter was denying Jesus. What this tells us is that Peter at that time believed that his own best interests lay in denying any connection with Jesus, denying that he ever knew him. He does appear to have felt guilty about doing so, but that would hardly motivate him to turn around within just a few days and start perpetrating a cynical hoax that Jesus had risen! If anything, the feeling that he had failed Jesus and his weeping bitterly would be likely to move him to be a better man. And even if we imagine that he had some hitherto unknown dark streak that would lead him to lie elaborately about Jesus (a supposition completely at odds with the entire portrayal of Peter's personality throughout the Gospels), he would have had to have a radical and swift change of mind about his own self-interest to become involved in a plot to steal and rebury the body just three days later, with the intent to lie and say that Jesus was risen.

This is somewhat different from the usual (and also legitimate) point made about the transformation in the disciples from being fearful to being bold proclaimers of Jesus' message forty days later. Here I am emphasizing how bizarre and swift this about-face would be from the perspective of cynical self-interest, given what we know about Peter's thoughts in that respect on the Thursday evening. And in fact, he was doubtless "correct" on the Thursday evening that the safest course for him to take, from a self-interested perspective, would be to deny Jesus or at least distance himself from Jesus as much as possible. Why in the world, then, would he suddenly change his mind by Saturday night, just two days later, and decide to start an elaborate hoax that would involve lifelong continued association with Jesus' name via a lie and a body theft? That makes no sense. Nor does it make sense for the other disciples either, who all forsook Jesus and fled in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Moreover, Peter and the other disciples would have had to get the women involved in the plot in a short time as well, since the women would be telling their story at least to other followers of Jesus long before the day of Pentecost. Is it at all plausible that they slipped off to wherever the various women were staying on the Sabbath, while everyone was still in shock from the crucifixion, and talked them into participating in such a hoax within a period of less than 48 hours?

Next, consider the number and variety of people who would have to be involved in such a hoax, against their own interests, if the Gospels are reliable accounts of what the alleged witnesses claimed. Of course there were the eleven. Then there would be the women. Given the various name lists in the Gospels, there would be at least five of these--Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Salome, Joanna, and at least one more (if we take literally the plural "other women" in Luke 24:11). We're up to at least sixteen, in at least two different groups. 

Then there would be Clopas and his companion who were on the road to Emmaus. Then there is James the brother of Jesus (given the reference in I Cor. 15 and the leadership of James Jesus' brother in the early church). There are Matthias and Barsabbas called Justus, named in Acts 1 as fulfilling the requirements of witnesses to the resurrection. (We're up to twenty-one.) Luke 24 indicates a group of those who were "with the eleven" supposedly at Jesus' first appearance, which is probably some unspecified greater number who apparently attested that they actually saw Jesus risen and saw him eat and so forth on that occasion. 

Paul mentions 500 at once, and even if one thinks that Paul might have been mistaken in naming such a large number, it seems like there was some good-sized group beyond the eleven who claimed to have seen Jesus for themselves, probably in Galilee, and on a separate occasion from the occasions in Jerusalem when the eleven and others claimed to have seen him. (Notice that there is going to be some degree of independence among these occasions. In Tim's and my article on the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, published in 2009, we considered independence from the perspective of number of witnesses, though we didn't go up as high as twenty-one! But here I'm talking about the fact that different instances have to be explained separately. This is relevant to attempted hallucination theories as well.) Now, all of these people would presumably have had to be involved in the conspiracy, especially those whose names are given or who were known individually. For if their names are given, they were offered to the people whom the disciples were evangelizing as specific witnesses who could discuss the matter, give accounts of how they saw Jesus, and so forth.

That's a lot of opportunities for people to change their minds and decide not to continue with this ridiculous hoax. A lot of opportunities for someone to "blow the gaffe" by admitting that it was all a hoax. The idea that all of these people had something to gain by doing this and that none of them would have reneged is enormously improbable. What did, for example, Joanna the wife of Chuza have to gain by lying and saying that she saw angels and Jesus risen? Nothing at all. Chuza was Herod's household manager. She could simply have returned to her previous life and gotten over her grief and disappointment at the crucifixion. James the brother of Jesus apparently wasn't even a follower prior to the crucifixion. He could have just continued with whatever his profession was. Why would he turn around after the crucifixion and decide to become involved in an elaborate hoax to found a despised sect when he wasn't even very impressed by his brother Jesus during Jesus' own lifetime, when he was followed by adoring crowds and was supposedly healing and raising the dead?

The alleged witnesses are not all equally tight-knit, not all equally under the influence of some charismatic leader. Their interests are not all the same. Jesus' own followers seem to have existed in concentric circles--the closest three (Peter, James, and John), then the Twelve, then the seventy, then some still larger group. We appear to have some in all of these groups who said that they actually saw Jesus risen, and at least one (James) who was in Jesus' own lifetime outside of all of these groups. It is highly likely that such a large, heterogenous group conspiracy would not have held together over time, especially as persecution increased with the beating of Peter and John, then the stoning of Stephen, the persecution from Saul of Tarsus, etc.

For that matter, even the ring-leaders--Peter, James, and John--had a life to return to. As John 21 shows us, Peter still had his boat. They could have gone back to fishing on the Sea of Galilee. It's important not to think of the disciples as losers with nothing else to do with their lives. They'd only been followers of Jesus for about three years. Jewish males were expected to have a trade or some way of making a living, even if they were followers of a rabbi for a while when young. Judaism provided a way of having a relationship with God. It wasn't as though they had no other way of giving meaning to their lives than by inventing these doctrines of the resurrection, etc., and hoaxing people into believing in the resurrection. Nor were Jews given to glorifying failed Messiahs! (After the Bar Kochba rebellion nobody suggested that he was risen from the dead!) The beating of Peter and John can hardly have been pleasant. In the highly, highly improbable event that they were carrying out a conspiracy at that point, one would have thought being flogged would have awakened them to the fact that this was not a promising career path.

Next, consider the question of why the disciples would have involved the women at all in such a conspiracy. This is of course a variant on the criterion of embarrassment that is often brought up concerning the accounts of the women at the tomb. To my mind it is an even stronger point when we are considering conspiracy. This isn't just a matter of someone's making up a pretty bedtime story. This is a matter of getting these five (at least) women unnecessarily involved and inducing them to say that they were the first to see Jesus risen, that they saw angels, and then counting on them to keep up their side of the story. Why do such a thing? Why involve them? In that social context, it is not as though their stories were especially likely to carry conviction. Nor were their stories necessary for such a conspiracy, and involving them only added to the risk of discovery, both due to additional numbers of conspirators and due to other social influences on the women. For example, what if a husband, father, brother, or other male relative told one of the women witnesses to stop all of this silly nonsense? Such a relative would have had much more legal and social authority over her than, say, Peter would have and might easily have questioned her and gotten the truth out of her.

And finally (for the moment), remember that the conversion of Paul then has to be accounted for in a completely different, separate way. Paul was no fool and was patently, burningly sincere in his belief in the resurrection of Jesus. To account for his conversion we must first imagine something or other that brought about his abrupt change on the road to Damascus. That leads us into all of the unconvincing attempts to do this, which seem to come down to some form of hallucination, however you slice it. And on top of that we must assume that in his various meetings with the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem he never detected that they were a bunch of hoaxing knaves making up a story out of whole cloth. This despite the fact that Paul was quite willing to criticize them and was positively proud of his independent judgement. This only adds to the already overwhelming improbability of the theory of conspiracy. And if one were to try instead to say that Saul the persecutor abruptly decided to turn around and join in a known conspiracy, which he knew was a conspiracy, to promote Christianity, the saying goes, explaining how overwhelmingly improbable that is will be "left as an exercise for the reader"!

Thursday, August 20, 2020

(Guest Post) Was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb?


(Guest Post) Was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb?

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

A guest post by Timothy McGrew

… ἡ δὲ κρίσις χαλεπή
Hippocrates, Aphorisms

Skeptical objections to the historicity of the Gospel narratives are numerous. They are also, for the most part, old news. When so many people have gone over the same ground so often, we should not expect much in the way of novelty. Still, every so often someone manages to state some objections so forcefully, or at least with so much bravado and so many footnotes, that they appear to be a new and devastating challenge to the basic factual accuracy of the Gospels.

Michael Alter’s book The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015) is certainly long enough to seem imposing, and somewhat to my surprise it has thrown my acquaintance V. J. Torley into a bit of a tailspin. Torley has written a very long, detailed, glowing review of Alter’s book -- a review that is practically a monograph in its own right -- in which he claims that the book is a “bombshell” that “demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the resurrection.”

Since I am unimpressed by Alter’s arguments, I asked Torley to pick three particular arguments as test cases. He readily obliged, and in this series of guest posts I will evaluate the arguments that seem to Alter and Torley so powerful and convincing. Torley chose the three following points for this test:

1. Was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb?
2. Did Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the cross?
3. Was Jesus buried in a new rock tomb? (specifically, a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea)

In each case, he believes, Alter has mounted a powerful argument that the Gospels get the answers to these questions wrong, and he has recapitulated those arguments that he finds convincing in the linked blog post. I think there is far less to this case than meets the eye.

Here is Torley’s summary of the argument that there was not a guard at Jesus’ tomb.

This story, which is found only in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:62-66), is a transparent invention, and a very silly one at that. In Matthew’s account, the chief priests and elders go to Pilate on Saturday and ask for a guard to secure Jesus’ tomb, in order to prevent Jesus’ followers from stealing Jesus’ body and proclaiming that he had risen from the dead. Pilate accedes to their request. But this story fails to explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night, before the guard was posted over the tomb. Nor are we told why Pilate would have agreed to the Jewish leaders’ request, which concerned a purely religious issue that was of no concern to a Roman prefect. And how likely is it that Pilate, whom the Gospels depict as being pressured against his will by the chief priests into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, would have turned around the following day and granted their request for a guard? Finally, the story is at odds with Jewish law, as it involves the chief priests and Pharisees ordering people to work on the Sabbath, which was forbidden in the Ten Commandments given to Moses: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:9-10). Even Gentiles employed by Jews were not allowed to work.

Torley rejects the story that there was a guard at the tomb for the following four reasons:

A. It is mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel, not in the other three.

B. This account fails to explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night.

C. We are not told why Pilate would agree to the Jewish leaders’ request. In particular:

1. The request concerned a purely religious matter, and we would not expect Pilate to care much about such things
2. Pilate had just been pressured into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, and therefore any further request would be unlikely to meet with a favorable reception

D. The Jewish rulers would not have made such a request of Pilate, since a gentile employed by a Jew would not be allowed to work on the Sabbath.

Let us consider these reasons in turn.

First, only Matthew’s Gospel mentions the setting of a guard at Jesus’ tomb. It is not clear how much weight Torley intends this fact to bear by itself. But as the argument from silence in such cases is generally terribly weak, it is hard to see why it should be significant just here. Many of the events of antiquity crop up in only one source. The conditions that have to be met for an argument from silence to be strong are rather stringent and are rarely met in historical work. (For details, see my paper “The Argument from Silence,” Acta Analytica 29 (2014), 215-28.) As Torley has not attempted to argue that the silence of the other evangelists meets the probabilistic challenge laid out there, I will not belabor the point.

Second, Torley objects that the account does not explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night. In making this objection, he assumes that the request was made on Saturday morning. For the moment, suppose it was; even so, the objection has little force. There are simply too many plausible ways for the rulers to fail to make the request on Friday. Pilate might have left pointed instructions that he wasn’t to be bothered further that evening. The Jewish leaders might have left someone of their own to keep an eye on the tomb overnight. Failing that, they might still have thought that it would be better than nothing to have a guard set for the remainder of the time period specified.

But it is not even clear from the text that the request was made on Saturday. The Jews reckoned the beginning of the Sabbath with sundown on Friday, so for all the text says, they may have made the request on Friday evening as soon as they ascertained the location of Jesus’ body. In his work The Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, According to the Four Evangelists (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1827), Johann David Michaelis argues that the language of Matthew, with its peculiar turn of phrase (ἥτις ἐστὶν μετὰ τὴν Παρασκευήν, hardly necessary after Τῇ δὲ ἐπαύριον unless something more specific than the generic succession of days is intended) actually indicates that the request was made just past sundown on Friday:

Literally translated, on the following day, which is after Friday. As it is self-evident that one day must follow another, and it requires no author to tell us this, the meaning is, “on the following day, immediately after the end of Friday,” or in other words, immediately after sunset, with which, according to the custom of the Jews, the day ends, and the sabbath begins. This mode of speaking seems singular in Greek, but in Hebrew, from the same word [ערב] signifying “evening,” “holy evening,” or, as we should say, “vespers,” it becomes more intelligible. The meaning is, that from an apprehension the body might be stolen in the night, they did not wait until the following morning, they went immediately to Pilate that same evening, which now no longer belonged to Friday, but formed part of the sabbath, and requested a guard. [100; cf. the German edition, 83]

Various other New Testament scholars, not all of them conservative (Doddridge, Paulus, Kuinoel, Thorburn) concur in Michaelis’s analysis. Meyer dissents, but without adducing any reasons other than his disagreement with these authorities regarding the meaning of the expression τῇ ἐπαύριον. He does not engage with Michaelis’s point regarding the parallel Hebrew expression [ממחרת ערב השבת] at all.

The second objection, then, is either very weak (if Michaelis is wrong) or completely misguided (if he is right). This is hardly the sort of reasoning that should lead us to discard a contemporaneous narrative account of a public event.

The third objection is that Matthew’s narrative does not tell us why Pilate would acquiesce in the request of the Jewish leaders. On the face of it, this is a very odd way to object to historical evidence. Many narratives recount events without affording us an explanation for them, and sometimes we are left to guess what that explanation might be. So what?

But perhaps this problem is just a matter of wording; perhaps the real objection is that the two considerations Torley mention are supposed to make it unlikely that Pilate would grant a guard at the tomb. Is it so?

The first consideration is that Pilate, as a secular authority dealing exclusively with non-religious matters, would have had no reason to grant a request of this sort -- perhaps also that the Jewish leaders would not have had the temerity to put it to him. But this consideration misses the mark entirely. The matter of Jesus’ death, though of religious importance to the Jewish rulers, had far wider ramifications. An imposture might well raise civil trouble in Jerusalem, particularly as it was swollen at this time with hundreds of thousands (Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.3 (Loeb #280), estimates three million) of Passover pilgrims. Jesus’ popularity with the crowds was well known. Unrest at Passover had led to disastrous results within living memory, notably on the death of Herod the Great, as Josephus describes in his Antiquities 17.9.3 (Loeb #213-18). Preventing civil unrest lay squarely within Pilate’s sphere of responsibility. On this count, the matter is exactly the sort of thing we would expect the Jewish rulers to request of Pilate. It is a mark of authenticity rather than of inauthenticity.

The second consideration is that Pilate, whom the Jewish leadership had (according to the Gospels) maneuvered into having Jesus crucified against his own better judgment, would have been unlikely to grant them a further request. This point deserves close consideration, because it has a significance that has escaped Torley and Alter. According to the Gospel narratives, Pilate did not believe Jesus had done anything worthy of death. He allowed the Jews to have their way on this matter only because he feared that they would send a twisted version of events to Rome, destabilizing his governorship and perhaps leading to his being recalled in disgrace. For the sake of their argument, Alter and Torley need to grant at least this much authenticity to the Gospel narratives. In a subsequent post, I will return to this point, as it substantially undermines a claim that Torley and others have made in support of the second and third objections.

But the consideration is relevant here only if there is no other reason that Pilate might have felt moved to grant such a request. And even assuming that Pilate was thoroughly unhappy with the Jewish leaders by this time, such a reason lies ready to hand. The theft of a body and proclamation that the individual in question was alive was the sort of scenario a Roman governor under Tiberius could not safely ignore. Some sixteen years earlier, one Clemens, a slave of Caesar Augustus’s grandson Agrippa Postumus, stole the ashes and bones of his murdered master and spread the rumor that Agrippa had in fact escaped the attempt on his life. As he resembled his dead master in age and physique, he went so far as to impersonate him in some of the towns at twilight. Tiberius, who had become sole emperor after the death of his adopted father Augustus in that very year, feared a conspiracy and had Clemens apprehended, interrogated, and slain in a private part of his palace. (See Tacitus, Annals 2.39-40.)

So this second consideration, as well, turns out not only to pose no problem for the authenticity of the narrative but actually to be a point in its favor. These are the sorts of details that modern critics, even those professing to examine historical matters very minutely, are apt to overlook because they are not intimately familiar with the historical context.

The fourth objection is that the Jewish leaders would not have asked Pilate to set a guard at the tomb, since it was the Sabbath day, and Jewish law would have forbidden them to hire a gentile to do such work on the Sabbath. Yet again, the objection seems to me to be fundamentally misguided, and in two ways. First, even supposing the objection to be fairly stated, there is no guarantee that the Jewish authorities would be particularly scrupulous in the matter of hiring a Roman guard to do their work, as they had already shown their willingness to hold a trial by night in prima facie violation of their own rules.

But as it happens, the text does not bear out the idea that they were hiring anyone. Rather, they were making a request to Pilate, as the civil governor, that he would secure the tomb with a guard. Nothing in Jewish law as interpreted at the time would prevent them from making such a request.

I conclude that on the first point, Alter’s argument, as summarized by Torley, completely fails to undermine the credibility Matthew’s account of the setting of a guard at the tomb where Jesus had just been buried. Indeed, some of the particular considerations raised against that account are actually points that count on the other side, showing a minute consistency with the historical context and recent historical events that have escaped the notice of these critics.

In my subsequent posts, I will examine Torley’s two remaining challenges.

[UPDATE: See the comments thread below for an argument of Torley's on a related point.]

Was Jesus Buried in Joseph of Arimathea's New Tomb?


Was Jesus Buried in Joseph of Arimathea's New Tomb?

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

A Guest Post by Timothy McGrew

In this post, I conclude my critical examination of three points in V. J. Torley’s lengthy review essay, wherein Torley summarizes Michael Alter’s even more lengthy book on the resurrection. The previous two posts are here and here.

Torley’s third selected claim, taken from Michael Alter, is that the story of Jesus’ burial is improbable at multiple points, which therefore provides evidence that the Gospels have been substantially factually changed and are not historically reliable.

Here, as in the two previous points, Torley’s method (and presumably Alter’s) is that of a priori history. The idea is to say, at our distance of time, what would not have been done, to infer that therefore it was not done, and to conclude that an account that says that it was done must be false.

This is a terrible way to do history.

Prima facie, the Gospels are early documents that have some claim to be historical sources concerning practices of the time. To decide on the basis of highly indirect inference (often amounting to nothing more than bare assertion) that some practice related in the Gospels “would not” have happened, even in an entirely non-miraculous portion of the account, is to attempt to do history from one’s armchair. But history is intrinsically empirical. We would have to reject a great many things that did undoubtedly happen in secular history if we were to apply such a method consistently.

Torley begins by denying that Jesus’ body would have been buried properly except (at most) in a common grave.

The major support for this denial comes from further assertions by Bart Ehrman, who suggests that there was a hard and fast rule that those convicted of “high treason” were not allowed to be properly buried.

To begin with, the only thing that this assertion seems to have going for it is the mention in Ulpian (cited here by Craig Evans in support of Jesus’ burial) of a possible exception to the allowance of burial in the case of those convicted of high treason:

At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.

There is also the fact that, in times of total war (such as at the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70), the Romans apparently did not permit burial of those crucified. That is all. But on this slender basis Ehrman (followed by Alter and Torley) manufactures a hard and fast rule that no one convicted of a crime against the Roman state, even in a time of peace, would ever have been permitted decent burial. He then argues further that Pilate would have extended this prohibition to Jesus.

The evidence for such a rule is nonexistent; and as I have argued in my previous post, the idea that Jesus was convicted of high treason is nonsense. The record of Jesus’ trial indicates that Pilate himself did not believe that Jesus was a threat to the state and that he merely gave in to pressure to crucify him. According to the Gospels he actually told the crowd that he found no guilt in Jesus on that score, and his references to Jesus as the king have more than a touch of sarcasm in them. As Torley himself says, what Pilate thought is what is important. It was up to Pilate whether to allow Jesus’ body to be properly buried. We have no reason to believe that he was bound by some definite rule requiring him to go one way or another. And, as Craig Evans points out, Josephus makes it clear that it was a fairly frequent practice for the Romans to allow people to bury the bodies of those crucified.

It requires a great deal of cherry picking to manufacture these kinds of difficulties in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ trial. On the one hand, Ehrman & co. need to use the Gospel accounts to make their argument that Jesus was “convicted of high treason.” This comes from, e.g., the leaders’ accusation of sedition and their statement that if Pilate lets Jesus go he is not a friend of Caesar. They then want to lean on their inference that Jesus was “convicted of high treason” to argue against a different part of the documents, just as soberly stated -- namely, that Jesus was buried in a tomb. This is not a principled use of historical data.

Torley’s next objection to the burial narrative is that, if the Romans had allowed anyone to take Jesus’ body for burial, it would have been the Jewish leaders rather than a friend of Jesus. He then further reasons that, on the assumption that the Jewish leaders had custody of Jesus’ body, they would have accorded it a dishonorable burial rather than an honorable burial.

This, again, is the purest a priori history. The claim that Pilate would not have given the body to a private individual but rather to the chief priests is unfounded. Pilate was under no illusions; he knew that they were procuring the death of an innocent man. There is not the slightest reason to think that the governor who had just denied their request for a rewording of the placard over Jesus’ head would deliberately reserve the body for their disposal. In carrying out the execution, he had taken out of their hands the only weapon they could have wielded against him with Caesar. The Jews were not going to send a delegation to Rome to complain to Tiberius that Pilate had crucified a self-appointed “king” but hadn’t been mean enough about his dead body afterward.

Torley implies that the reference in Mark to Joseph of Arimathea as a respected member of the council means that “even if Joseph of Arimathea played a role in Jesus’ burial, as the Gospels narrate, he would have been carrying out the chief priests’ wishes.” This inference is bizarre. Joseph of Arimathea was an individual acting on his own. He could perfectly well choose to do something the chief priest would not have wanted him to do -- allowing for the sake of argument that the chief priest really would have had an objection to Jesus’ burial. There is no reason to assume that Mark’s mention of his being a member of the council means that he was carrying out the council’s wishes about the body. In fact, Mark expressly says (15:42) that he “took up courage” to ask for the body, a point that fits very nicely with John’s statement that he had previously been fearful to admit that he was sympathetic to Jesus (John 19:38). Mark’s own narrative thus implies that Joseph was doing something that he realized could be risky in some way.

Once again, we see here the strange attempt to pit one part of the narrative speculatively against the other even though the narrative itself is quite coherent. Torley is rejecting Mark’s own account of what Joseph did with the body -- wrapping it in linen and burying it in a rock-cut tomb. But he (apparently following Alter) arbitrarily selects a different bit of Mark’s narrative (that Joseph was a member of the council), speculates without justification, and in direct contradiction to the narrative we have, that perhaps this means that Joseph was acting on behalf of the council, and then uses this speculation as a further way to reject the story of the burial, on the grounds that Joseph “would have” been carrying out the wishes of the council. Once again, this manner of handling of Mark’s information is historically irresponsible.

For all we know, Pilate might have delivered the body of Jesus to the chief priests had they asked. But our only historical sources, the Gospels, say that Joseph of Arimathea went in himself (“boldly”) and asked permission to bury the body. The suggestion that certain passages of the New Testament “reflect an older tradition that the Jewish leaders were granted custody of Jesus’ body, after he had been taken down from the Cross” is without foundation. The specious pretense to the contrary arises from an overreading of the implicit pronouns in the Greek verbs in Acts 13:29, which hardly require that all and only the same individuals be in view as those who condemned Jesus a few verses earlier. The actions were done by Jews, and Paul would not be expected to stop to expound on the differences among the members of the Sanhedrin for the purposes of giving a quick verbal outline of the story of the resurrection to the Jews in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia.

Torley next rejects the idea that Jesus was buried in a tomb, but his reasons appear to turn merely on the question-begging assumption that the Gospels’ story of Joseph of Arimathea’s personal intervention is false. He quotes Jodi Magness to the effect that there is no evidence that the Sanhedrin or Romans maintained rock-cut tombs for executed criminals. But who ever said that they did? The whole point of the story in the Gospels is that this was an individual act by an individual man (Joseph of Arimathea) who had become sympathetic to Jesus or who, at a minimum, felt that the crucifixion was sufficiently unjust that he wanted to provide honorable burial for Jesus.

Torley relies on Matthew Ferguson to cast doubt on Joseph’s intervention on the basis of a pure and extremely weak argument from silence -- the absence of any specific mention of Joseph of Arimathea in the creed in 1 Cor. 15. But the absence of Joseph from the creed says nothing about Paul’s own knowledge. By Paul’s own description the creed was delivered to him (15:3) and was therefore not a statement of his own crafting. And in any event, a creed is a brief summary. That is the point of our calling it a creed. In such a summary of course there would be no reason to include such specific details as precisely how Jesus was buried, by whom, or in whose tomb. On the contrary, there would be reason to omit them. This argument is a peculiar sort of sleight of hand, in which one distracts attention from the explicit statement that Jesus was buried by noting that this brief summary does not repeat some other specific details of the Gospel accounts.

Here it is worth noting another implied argument from silence -- namely, the statement that “even” Jodi Magness “freely acknowledges” that archeology does not prove the existence of Joseph of Arimathea! This is simply not worth mentioning as an argument. It has no probative force. If we had only one of Plutarch’s Lives, much less four, that mentioned a given Roman senator, it would be no argument at all to say that we have not also found archeological remains of that particular senator. That is simply not how history works. Millions of people lived and died in the ancient world leaving, 2,000 years later, no record of their existence, much less archeological evidence. We have four different records that describe Joseph of Arimathea in varied but mutually consistent terms. Even one sober record of his doings would be sufficient to give us grounds to believe that he existed.

Torley next borrows from Raymond Brown the claim that the location specified for Joseph’s tomb as near Golgotha would have been undesirable or unsuitable. But this is the merest assertion. What insight does Brown have about what were considered desirable neighborhoods for burial and precisely how far away (in a radius, perhaps?) a desirable burial location was supposed to be from a place sometimes used for execution? There is no reason, for example, to think that a garden could not have been located relatively near to Golgotha and hence have provided a pleasant burial spot. It is not as though we have documents specifying a number of miles, feet, or yards that a desirable burial place had to be from a place of execution, together with a sufficient notion of the “nearness” of Joseph’s tomb to make its location unlikely. The claim that there is something improbable about the statement (John 19:42) that Joseph’s tomb was relevantly near to the place of execution is sheer hand waving. Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

Torley also uncritically accepts Brown’s assertion that the Gospel authors or their sources invented the claim that Jesus was buried in a new tomb for apologetic purposes. It should be obvious that the mere fact that Brown says this does not have any argumentative cogency, but Torley’s (and Alter’s?) method apparently is to treat any such assertion from any scholar as if it automatically shifts the burden of proof. At that point all that they ask is whether the account “could have some historical basis.” Again, this is poor methodology.

Torley rejects the claim that Jesus was buried behind a rolling stone on the ground that we have found only a small number of rock tombs with such a stone. But this is a very weak argument. Indeed, it can be turned on its head. We do have evidence that there were rock tombs with rolling stones at Jesus’ time, precisely as recounted in the Gospels. One cannot reasonably reject testimony on the basis of these statistics. Even if we could accurately and confidently infer the approximate percentage of tombs that had this feature and the wealth of their owners from our archeological discoveries (a fallible inference at best), we could easily think of parallel cases in our own time where a single sober attestation would overcome the minor burden of proof. My elderly neighbor, a decade or so ago, owned a red Cadillac and kept it in lovely condition. Should readers discount my testimony to this fact because the vast majority of Americans do not own Cadillacs, and most Cadillacs are not red?

The Gospel authors had nothing to gain by inventing a round stone for Jesus’ tomb. A rectangular stone would, if anything, be even more difficult to move than a stone that could be rolled. In light of the way that these critics are handling the narratives, I have to wonder whether, had the Gospels specified a stone that could not be rolled, we would be told that this was an apologetic invention to magnify the power of God, or of Jesus, or of the angel who shifted the stone.

Torley considers Jodi Magness’s claim that Jesus was buried in a single niche in Joseph’s family tomb, presumably with other bodies, and he rejects it. Here I agree with him. The theory that Jesus was buried only in a niche with other bodies in the same tomb is bald conjecture in any event, and there is no need for any such concession. Why not take at face value the claim that Jesus was buried in a new tomb? After all, Joseph of Arimathea himself was still alive, so if he had had the tomb made for himself, it likely wouldn’t have been needed yet.

Here again, Torley throws in a forceless argument from silence -- that Mark doesn’t mention that the tomb was new. But so what? By this sort of argument, we would have to say that any tiny detail not found in Mark is automatically suspect, which begs the question against the possible historicity of other Gospels and makes it impossible for an investigator to gain additional knowledge from sources other than the one designated the earliest. But unless we assume that any Gospel later than Mark is adding its information without historical warrant (which, again, would be question begging against the other documents), the mere fact that Mark may have been the earliest Gospel written does not create any presumption against small details added elsewhere. Indeed, as Lydia has argued in Hidden in Plain View, later Gospels sometimes interact with earlier Gospels in explanatory relationships, in both directions. This is the mark of historicity in multiple narratives of the same event.

Torley asserts without argument that surrounding a body with spices was not a Jewish practice, that it was an Egyptian practice instead. Embalming may well not have been a common Jewish practice, but of course the Gospels do not say that Jesus was embalmed, nor would there have been time for embalming on the Gospels’ own accounts. Simply wrapping the body in spices (it is not completely clear whether they were dry spices or ointments) in between the windings of the burial cloth would have been relatively quick, and Torley gives no argument against John’s explicit assertion (John 19:40) that burying a body with spices was customary for Jews. Interestingly, both the Jewish Virtual Library and the Jewish Encyclopedia, sources that presumably have no Christian axe to grind, treat John’s narrative as a source of information about the use of spices in Jewish burial practices, and neither cites any evidence indicating that burial with spices was contrary to Jewish custom. In fact, the Jewish Encyclopedia cites a specific Talmudic reference to the use of spices in burial:

A BENEDICTION MAY NOT BE SAID OVER THE LIGHTS OR THE SPICES OF THE DEAD. What is the reason? — The light is kindled only in honour of the dead, the spices are to remove the bad smell. Berakoth 53.a

Torley quotes and accepts uncritically Byron McCane’s claim that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are progressively elaborated, which Torley follows up with the comment, “So much for the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts, then.” But McCane’s claim, like other developmental theses concerning the Gospels (see here and here), is supported by cherry-picked details written up with a seasoning of rhetoric. Here is McCane:

Virtually all studies agree that as the tradition develops, every detail in the story is enhanced and improved upon. Mark begins the written tradition by saying that on Friday evening, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, requested the body of Jesus from Pilate, wrapped it in linen and sealed it in a rock-cut tomb. Never again would the story be told so simply. Joseph of Arimathea becomes a “good and righteous man” who did not consent to the action against Jesus (Luke 23:51), and then evolves into a secret disciple of Jesus (Matt 27:57; John 19:38). The “rock-cut” tomb in Mark becomes a “new” tomb (Matt 27:60), “where no one had yet been laid” (Luke 23:53). John not only combines those descriptions – the tomb is both “new” and “where no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41) – but also adds that the tomb was located in a garden. In Mark Joseph wraps the body in linen — nothing more – but subsequent Gospels describe the linen as “clean” (Matt 27:59) and claim that the body was bathed in vast quantities of perfume (John 19:39). By the time of the Gospel of Peter, during the mid-second century CE, Christians were going so far as to assert that Jesus had been sumptuously buried in the family tomb of one of Jerusalem’s most powerful and wealthy families. [Emphasis added]

This paragraph is wildly misleading. It is not that Mark’s story of the burial is “told so simply” while the later versions are progressively more “evolved.” What we actually find in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ burial is the kind of non-systematic, non-contradictory variation of detail that characterizes independent, truthful testimonies. For example, only Mark 15:44-45 mentions that Pilate was surprised to learn that Jesus was already dead and that he called the centurion to confirm that this was so. This detail is not found in any of the later accounts, even in the other Synoptic Gospels. Only Mark mentions that Joseph of Arimathea purchased the linen cloth. Mark 15:47 mentions, but John (the later Gospel) does not, the important fact that there were women who saw where Jesus was laid, and the names of some of those women, as does Matthew. These do not constitute contradictions (see below). They do, by their variation, constitute counterexamples to the claim of gradual evolution and elaboration.

Luke mentions the women but omits their names. John does not name any women or mention their involvement at the time of the burial, though he mentions Nicodemus, who is not named in the Synoptics. Mark says that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the council, but John doesn’t. On McCane’s spun account, this was apparently because John was “improving upon” his being a member of the council by causing him to “evolve” into a secret disciple of Jesus. But this is misleading. If anything, John’s account might reasonably be regarded as more disapproving, since John expressly says that Joseph had previously been afraid to admit that he was a disciple of Jesus, as had said of Nicodemus earlier in his Gospel. Mark says that Joseph went “boldly” to Pilate (“took up courage” is a more literal rendering), but none of the other Gospels refer to boldness. Luke calls him a righteous man and is careful to state that he did not consent to the actions of the council, but John does not bother to get into his relationship with the council at all. Matthew alone mentions that the tomb was Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb; neither Luke nor John does so, though they both (obviously) assume that he had access to it. The Synoptics state expressly that the tomb was “cut out of the rock,” but John does not, though he mentions the stone at the door in Chapter 20, which assumes that it was a rock tomb. It is false that subsequent Gospels, plural, state that the linen cloth was clean. In fact, only Matthew does so, though he does not include the mention of Joseph’s purchasing it. And so forth. This is not development or evolution. It is independent variation with different details mentioned in different accounts.

Notice that two facts that are arguably more important from an apologetic perspective appear in Mark but not in John, while the statements in the burial account that McCane uses to claim that John’s account is “improved” are of less apologetic value. Mark says both that Pilate confirmed that Jesus was dead by calling the centurion and also that specific, named women knew where Jesus was buried. John doesn’t have either of these but says that the tomb was in a garden and that Jesus was buried with large amounts of spices. The former are more relevant to the justification for the resurrection. We can be quite sure that, if John included while Mark did not mention the claims about the women and Pilate, we would hear that these were later apologetic additions to the burial account.

As for the amount of spices with which Jesus was buried according to John (about 100 Roman pounds), apparently we are to take the sheer quantity to mean that the account is “probably fictional” at this point. But why think a thing like that? For example, why deny that, at a minimum, the author believed that Jesus was buried with such a large quantity of spices? Apparently only because Michael Alter can invent the theory that John was trying to make Jesus’ burial sound more imposing than that of Gamaliel. But this is unsupported conjecture. (In passing -- if burial customs involving spices were Egyptian rather than Jewish, how can John be competing with the burial of Gamaliel in relating Jesus’ burial with a large quantity of myrrh and aloes?) Incredulity about the proposition that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus with such a large quantity of spices is no argument in itself. In fact, the combined details that Matthew says that Joseph was rich (Matt. 27:57) and that John, who does not mention Joseph’s wealth, mentions a large quantity of spices fit together quite well.

Torley takes McCane’s account of how Jesus “would have been buried” as the way he was buried (if he was buried at all) and makes this rather striking statement:

When we read the Gospels, however, we find that these unpleasant details are progressively airbrushed with the passage of time...

What unpleasant details? The unpleasant details that McCane has simply made up, with no support whatsoever for the claim that this is how Jesus was buried -- things like his being placed within a cave reserved for condemned criminals. To say that the Gospel authors have “airbrushed” something that we have no historical reason to think happened at all is quite astonishing. Simply because someone has baldly claimed that Jesus “would have” been given a dishonorable burial, the Gospel authors (even Mark) now all stand accused of having “airbrushed” out the details of a dishonorable burial as envisaged by McCane in their accounts of how Jesus actually was buried. This is no way to do history.

Torley lists several alleged contradictions among the Gospel burial accounts, but all of these are manufactured; they are not contradictions in the texts at all.

The first contradiction is allegedly about who took Jesus down from the cross. I have already addressed the claim that Paul says that the Jewish leaders personally took Jesus down from the cross in Acts 13:29, but Torley alleges further a contradiction between the claim in Mark and Luke that Joseph took Jesus down and the claim in John that Joseph and Nicodemus did so. But there is obviously no contradiction between saying that Joseph did so and saying that Joseph did so with Nicodemus.

Similarly, Torley alleges a contradiction from the fact that John does not mention the women as present at the burial and that the Synoptics do not mention Nicodemus. To say that non-contradictory variations are contradictions is simply a failure to understand how witness testimony works and how reliable history works. It is normal for one account to mention things that another account does not mention. For John not to mention the women is not for John to say that the women were absent at the burial. Indeed, the account in John 20 implies that Mary Magdalene (named in the Synoptic accounts of the burial) did know where the tomb was. But it shows this in an indirect fashion by describing her coming to the tomb on Sunday morning. Variation is a virtue in the accounts. It shows their independence without contradiction and allows us to gain additional information. It would not be a better indication of historicity if all of the accounts named precisely the same people at each step.

Torley claims that there is a contradiction concerning whether Jesus was buried with a linen shroud, mentioned in the Synoptics, or with linen cloths, mentioned in John. But this is a trivial difference, not a contradiction; the shroud may well have been the principal burial garment with other smaller cloths involved as well.

Torley alleges a contradiction between John’s account of the large amount of spices used by Joseph and Nicodemus and the statements in Mark and Luke that the women came on Sunday morning bringing spices. But this is not a contradiction about “whether Jesus was buried with spices.” The women may well have wanted to contribute their own spices and perfumes (Luke 24:56) to honor Jesus’ body, bringing them several days later. To give a modern example, if we heard that there were many flowers at a funeral this would not create a contradiction with our hearing that someone brought flowers to the grave at a later time. (This is not, of course, to say that the function of flowers at a funeral is identical to the function of spices and perfumes in Jewish burial. I am merely pointing out that multiple people may wish to contribute to a practice honoring the dead.)

Torley also alleges a contradiction between Luke 23:56, which says that the women prepared spices prior to the Sabbath and Mark 16:1, which says that the women bought spices when the Sabbath was ended. (This was probably not early Sunday morning but rather after sundown on Saturday, based on Mark’s wording.) But Mark names three specific women who bought spices when the Sabbath was ended, while Luke does not name the women who prepared spices before the Sabbath. Later, when listing the women who came to the tomb on Easter, Luke 24:10 not only names Joanna, not named in Mark, but also says that there were “other women with them.” There is no contradiction between saying that “the women” prepared spices that they already had on Friday night and saying that some specific women purchased spices later. It is important in investigating historical matters to use a modicum of real-world imagination. Some of the women could have already had some spices on hand while others had to buy them. Or some of the women may have decided that they wanted more. This is just the normal way that human life works. Members of groups do not all do exactly the same things at the same time.

Finally, Torley claims that the Gospel authors must be altering the facts because their details contravene Jewish law. Here he cites Leviticus 23:6-7, which forbids “regular work” on 15 Nisan, and Nehemiah 10:31, in which those rebuilding Jerusalem after the captivity (in the 400s B.C.) promise as part of a reform not to purchase from neighboring peoples if they bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath or on a holy day. The inference is that at the time of Jesus’ death four and a half centuries later, there would have been a universally recognized prohibition against any buying or selling on 15 Nisan. On the assumption that Jesus died on 15 Nisan, this supposedly means that the references or implications in both John and Mark to purchasing things for Jesus’ burial must be fictitious. John mentions that Nicodemus brought spices and Mark says that Joseph purchased the linen cloth. One infers (though John does not expressly say so) that Nicodemus bought the myrrh and aloes at that time. The same verses in Leviticus are supposed to have prohibited the women from “preparing spices” on Friday afternoon per Luke 23:56, as this would (on Torley’s and presumably Alter’s reading) have constituted work.

While I think it is correct (in both the Synoptics and John, for that matter) that Jesus died on 15 Nisan, the claim that all purchases would have been forbidden in that place and time on that day is overly rigid. Jewish interpretations regarding what constituted work and what was permitted on which days are remarkably diverse. These interpretations even varied geographically. Here is a sample from the tractate Pesachim:

[In] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed to do work on the eve of Pesach until noon, we may do [so]; [in] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed not to do [so], we may not do [so]. One who goes from a place where they do [work], to a place where they do not do [work], or from a place where they do not do [work] to a place where they do [work], we place upon him the stringencies of the place he came from, [or] the stringencies of the place that he went to. And a man should not deviate [from the established customs of a place], on account of [the] disagreement [to which such conduct may lead].... [In] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed to sell small domesticated animals [sheep, goats, etc.] to gentiles, we may sell [them to gentiles]; [in] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed not to sell [these animals to gentiles], we may not sell [them to gentiles]. In all places, we may not sell [gentiles] large domesticated animals, calves or foals of donkeys, [whether they are] intact or broken [injured]; Rabbi Yehuda permits [the sale of] a broken [one]. Ben Betera permits [the sale of] a horse.... [In] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed to do work on Tisha Be'Av, we may do [work; in] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed not to do work, we may not do [work]. And in all places, Torah scholars must abstain [from work thereon]; Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, says, "Truly, every one should make himself [in this respect] a Torah scholar." And the Sages say, "In Yehuda, they would do work on the eve of Pesach until noon; and in the Galilee they did not work at all [on that day]." And [with respect to] the evening [of the fourteenth of Nissan in places like the Galilee], Beit Shammai forbids [work], but Beit Hillel permits [it] until the sunrise.

This passage does not directly address the questions of whether buying and selling were permitted in Judea on the afternoon of 15 Nisan at the time of Christ or whether preparing spices counted as “regular labor.” But it does illustrate fact that what precisely constituted “work” and when it was permitted varied tremendously and were subject to rabbinic dispute and differing rulings. In view of this diversity, merely citing Leviticus provides virtually no evidence that a prohibition against “ordinary labor” (מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה) would debar the women from preparing spices. “Preparing” might be an extremely light activity taking place within their own homes.

Luke 23:56 even emphasizes that they did rest on the Sabbath “according to the commandment.” There is something highly misguided about taking a verse that shows an explicit awareness of Jewish laws and customs, explicitly stating that the women observed Jewish law, to be describing an activity that broke Jewish law. Luke did not need to go out of his way to mention that the women prepared spices on Friday before the Sabbath. If he were depending upon Mark only for his account, he would have had no reason at all to invent and insert this detail. The insertion of the detail (that they prepared spices on Friday) serves no literary or theological purpose. That Luke does add that detail and simultaneously says explicitly that the women did not break Jewish law provides reason to believe that he had what he took to be factual information about what the women did, when they did it, and why.

As for purchases on 15 Nisan, we are, again, in a worse position than the Gospel authors were to know whether purchases would have been considered (in that specific place and time) to be contrary to the Jewish law by the prohibition on “regular work” on that day. Interestingly, even on the Sabbath itself it was (according to some rabbinic rulings) possible to “purchase” (in a sense) necessary items by leaving something in trust rather than paying cash. Thus, from the tractate Shabbat:

MISHNA: A man may borrow of an acquaintance jugs of wine or oil (on Sabbath), provided he does not say to him: “Lend (them to) me.” A woman may also borrow bread from her acquaintance. If the man is refused (by his acquaintance), he may leave his upper garment (as a pledge) with the lender, and settle his account after Sabbath. Thus, also, in Jerusalem, the custom was, if the eve of Passover fell on a Sabbath, a man might leave his upper garment with the vender, take his paschal lamb, and settle his account after the holiday.

All four of the Gospels show a keen awareness of the fact that Jesus was crucified on the day before the Sabbath and of the need to observe the Sabbath. If these early accounts indicate that purchases were possible on a Friday, 15 Nisan, but that the body had to be buried before the Sabbath began at sundown, then it is not justified for us to insist that purchases of all kinds were forbidden on 15 Nisan and to infer that the mention of purchases must be invented.

Mark had no need to refer to a purchase on the day of Jesus’ death anyway. He could have said that Joseph brought a linen cloth rather than that he bought it. If he wanted to emphasize that the cloth was not dirty, he could have said (like Matthew) that it was clean, but he did not need to mention specifically that Joseph purchased it. Mark’s own account shows an awareness of Jewish law concerning observing the Sabbath, and specifically its relation to burial and mourning for Jesus (Mark 15:42, 16:1). It thus constitutes evidence that such a purchase was possible on that Friday before sundown.

John actually does not say explicitly that Nicodemus bought the myrrh and aloes at that time, though it is not an unreasonable inference that he did so. John 19:39 literally says only that Nicodemus came “bearing” a large amount of a mixture of aloes and myrrh. If we infer that Nicodemus procured the mixture at that time, then this is yet further evidence, complementary to Mark, that it was not impossible to purchase things in the ordinary way on 15 Nisan. It is even possible, though not the most probable theory, that Joseph of Arimathea and/or Nicodemus, whose age we do not know, had on hand large amounts of these spices for later burial of themselves or family members and decided to use them at this time, as Mary of Bethany in John 12 apparently decided to use a valuable box of ointment to honor Jesus. Or it is possible that Nicodemus, perhaps working together with Joseph, left something valuable as collateral for the large amount of myrrh and aloes, as in the reference to leaving one’s garment as a pledge on the Sabbath. Given that Mark apparently independently refers to purchasing a different item (the linen cloth) on that day, the most likely conclusion is simply that, in Jerusalem at that time and place, purchasing at least some goods was not impossible on 15 Nisan, just prior to the Sabbath, in order to complete a burial before the Sabbath.

All of these issues -- what counts as work, when and whether purchases are allowed, what counts as buying and selling -- were open to minute variations of interpretation of religious law and were discussed extensively in oral rulings outside of the text of the Torah itself. Under the circumstances, it is historical arrogance to allege that authors far closer to the facts made up details for no particular reason on the basis of our own interpretation of Jewish law.

I have now reviewed Torley’s three test cases, using his summary of Alter as a foil. All of the arguments Torley offers dissolve under examination. To the extent that his summary affords us an accurate representation of the arguments in Alter’s work -- and I leave that question aside here as something that is between the two of them -- I think it is fair to say that they are grasping at straws. But they have raked together a great number of them, and the sheer quantity of their objections may leave some people with the misimpression that they have amassed a case of real weight and solidity. It is a most unfortunate illusion.