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"!


slamRN said...

Another great article Dr. McGrew. Thanks.

Unknown said...

What a great contribution, Lydia. Bravissimo! A comprehensive view from all sides.
The resurrection of Jesus is of course absolutely fundamental to our faith. Its defense requires especially wise and comprehensive knowledge in times when even powerful believers are deceived by sophisticated heresies. Your confession and defense speech here is a prime example of the fulfillment of the commandment of Jesus in the second half of Matthew 10:16: "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. This call has been engraved in my soul for years and reminds me of my struggle with heresy in a Pentecostal church that I left years ago. I had compared the condition of this congregation with the film clip of an infrared camera from a nature reserve in northern Italy ("Il Paradiso"). Flocks of sheep were in close contact without a fence. In the film clip, you could see a wolf stalking slowly at night, turning its head and dragging one of the outer sheep away almost gently with its jaws on the sheep's hind legs. At some distance from the herd, there was a bloody spectacle then.

Unknown said...

What a great contribution, Lydia. Bravissimo! That was me, RĂ¼diger Sens.