Monday, November 22, 2021

On the Minimal Facts Case for the Resurrection: Part I--A statement of my central objections

 In light of some recent events, I've decided that it would be a good idea for me to do a new, three-part, written series on my objections to the minimal facts argument (hereafter the MFA) and related cases like the "core facts" case of William Lane Craig. I have written on this before. Here are several of my older posts. (Here, here, here.) Here is a longer treatment of the issues in the form of a webinar. Here is my Youtube playlist. If interested in more details beyond those in this post, please see these other resources.

The three parts currently planned will be as follows.. In this post, Part I, I will state what I take to be the most salient epistemological problems with minimalist approaches to arguing for the resurrection. These are approaches that attempt to rely only on a small number of facts widely granted by scholars and to eschew reliance on the proposition below labeled DT. I will also reply to some attempted responses to my criticisms that I've encountered over the last several years. 

In Part II, I plan to talk about another problem with minimalism, which is what I call the confusion between epistemology and sociology. I am deferring this to the second post, because the objections in this post stand on their own even if someone finds the concern in Part II to be offensive and/or thinks that the scholars in question are neither confused themselves about this nor fostering such confusion in others. 

In Part III, I plan to provide and discuss quotations from Dr. Gary Habermas and possibly from others and to explain how these caused confusion initially for Tim and me concerning what is or is not granted by the wide consensus of scholars. That confusion led to some incorrect statements in our 2009 Blackwell article about the scope of scholarly consensus (statements that we have since publicly repudiated). Some have now tried to use these earlier quotations against us, with the unsubtle implication that what we were doing there was at least quite close to or a lot like an MFA (in fact, it was not, despite our mistaken idea about the scope of consensus) and also that we should have known better than to be at all confused about how much scholars do and don't grant. I would contend instead that such a mix-up is at least somewhat understandable on the part of those who don't expect confusion on the part of prominent, admired apologists (which might seem uncharitable). I think that this is why so many other laymen and even philosophers and apologists have also been confused about the appearance experiences claim in the MFA. I'll be discussing this more in Part III.

Since there has been some surprising confusion in a recent social media exchange about the terms "use" and "rely on" in the context of argument, I want to state for the record at the outset that I intend those terms to be interchangeable in this series, and the same for "depend on."

Throughout this post I will be talking about a proposition that I will label DT (for "details of testimony").

DT: The Gospel accounts and the account in Acts 1 of Jesus' resurrection appearances and of the finding of the empty tomb reliably represent what the disciples/alleged witnesses (both male and female) claimed about their experiences at that time. This includes such matters as that Jesus ate with them more than once, that they were able to touch him, that he appeared to them multiple times and to varied groups, that he had lengthy conversations with them, and so forth.

Readers of our 2009 article on the resurrection will hopefully recognize that DT is included as an aspect of both what we call W there (the testimony of the women) and what we call D (the testimony of the [male] disciples). Our 2009 article crucially relied on DT in order to set the Bayes factor (a measure of the force of an item of evidence) for these facts, something we emphasize repeatedly in the article. I will not argue here for the claim that our 2009 article crucially relied on DT, though I could bring multiple quotations to show it. I believe that the article speaks for itself and that most people who read it can see this, despite some very surprising statements that I have recently encountered to the contrary. I also note that DT is not question-begging, since it is a statement about what the alleged witnesses claimed; their testimony, with this content, must then be explained. We argued that the resurrection was the best explanation.

When I speak of minimalist approaches to arguing for the resurrection in this post, I particularly have in mind those that try to avoid using DT, relying instead on more minimal claims about appearance experiences that are granted by a wide variety of scholars. Such approaches sometimes include the statement that the Gospel accounts "present Jesus' resurrection as physical," but this is different from relying on DT, since the premise instead is merely the very broad fact that the accounts present the resurrection as physical. This is meant to support the conclusion that the apostles claimed that Jesus' resurrection was physical. It does not amount to relying on the claim that the disciples actually testified to the specific experiences that are told in the Gospels. (This is an important distinction.)

A classic and fairly typical statement of the "minimal fact" about the appearance experience claims is found in Michael Licona's book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Licona, along with Gary Habermas, is one of the major proponents of the MFA. Here (with some surrounding context) is how Licona words that.

In a similar manner, historians may conclude that, subsequent to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, a number of his followers had experiences in individual and group settings that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them. We may affirm with great confidence that Peter had such an experience in an individual setting, and we will see that the same may be said of an adversary of the church named Paul. We may likewise affirm that there was at least one occasion when a group of Jesus’ followers including “the Twelve” had such an experience. Did other experiences reported by the Gospels occur as well, such as the appearances to the women, Thomas, the Emmaus disciples, and the multiple group appearances reported by the tradition in I Corinthians 15:3-7 and John? Where did these experiences occur? Historians may be going beyond what the data warrants in assigning a verdict with much confidence to these questions. I reiterate that historicans may conclude that subsequent to Jesus’ execution, a number of his followers had experiences, in individual and group settings, that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in some manner. This conclusion is granted by a nearly unaniumous consensus of modern scholars and may therefore be added to our “historical bedrock.” The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, p. 372

Similar quotations about the disciples having had experiences that "in some sense" seemed to them to be experiences of the risen Jesus can be documented from Habermas. This appearance fact definitely does not include DT. Indeed, I have recently been told that it is so obvious that the MFA doesn't rely on the details of the Gospel accounts, not even on taking them to be what the original witnesses claimed to have experienced (the premise we used in the 2009 article), that everyone should know this and that Tim and I should never have been confused about whether or not a wide consensus of scholars grants DT. (In other contexts, laymen who advocate the MFA have tried to tell me that the MFA and/or William Lane Craig's cousin "core facts" approach does include DT among its premises and that it is uncharitable for me to think otherwise. This understandably makes me feel that I'm in a no-win situation. When I try to clarify what the MFA doesn't include, I'm told by one set of MFA defenders that it does include that. When I admit openly that we were originally confused ourselves about what Habermas's research shows and the fact that DT is not included, I'm told that we should have known better all along.) I will not take the time here to argue further that the MFA and other minimalist approaches do not rely on DT. While I could bring multiple quotations to support this, I will take it that the prominent, scholarly advocates of those approaches are well aware that they are not relying on DT and are quite willing to admit it, so hopefully I won't be accused of misrepresentation for simply stating this: The MFA doesn't rely on DT as a premise. DT is not meant to be included in the MFA premise stating that the disciples had "experiences" that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus. Moreover, the original advocate of the MFA (Habermas) apparently did not intend to say that a large consensus of scholars grants DT, even though DT merely states that this is what the alleged witnesses claimed.

Therein, I believe, lies a crucial problem with the MFA and other minimalist approaches. It is my firm contention that it is not possible to provide a strong argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus without being prepared to defend the proposition that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are unembellished, reliable accounts of at least what the initial putative witnesses claimed. By “strong argument” I mean (roughly) an argument that would require a good bit of evidence to defeat it, an argument that is sufficient to overcome even a moderately low prior probability for the event and to leave one with a high posterior. (To put this in the terms of our Blackwell article, a "strong argument" here refers to an argument that provides a significantly top-heavy Bayes factor.) I'm reluctant to quantify these statements further, but for reasons of concreteness I will tentatively say that I do not think that evidential arguments for the resurrection that do not rely on DT can take a prior probability of, say, .1 or lower to a posterior probability of, say, .9 or higher.

A major reason for my contention about the need for DT is this: A strong argument for the resurrection needs to contain good evidence that the disciples were rational in believing that Jesus was physically raised (not merely that they did believe this). Many people irrationally believe religious propositions, and the skeptic is not going to grant (and perhaps shouldn’t grant) that, since the disciples believed Jesus was physically raised, they must have had very good reasons for believing this. Any skeptic quite reasonably wants to know more specifically what they said they experienced and whether or not that would have been good reason to accept that Jesus was physically alive. 

The MFA states that the disciples had experiences shortly after Jesus’ death that convinced them that Jesus had risen. But the “appearance experiences” referred to in the MFA have to be left vaguely specified in order to obtain the high consensus of scholarship required by the MFA method. Vaguely-defined appearance experiences are insufficient to show with a high degree of confidence that the disciples were rational in believing that Jesus was physically raised. The appearance experiences allowable could include everything from the kinds of empirical, polymodal, sustained, intersubjective group experiences described in the Gospels to some sort of experience of light and sound, a vision at a distance, or a spiritual ecstasy. 

Consider: Atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann is included in the "scholarly consensus" surrounding the experiences claim in the MFA. Habermas and William Lane Craig have quoted the following statement from Ludemann as showing how much support this minimal fact has, and one will often see lay apologists quote it on social media as though it's a big deal. (I just saw someone do this within the past week.)

It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ. (What Really Happened to Jesus? p. 80)

But Habermas and Licona have elsewhere made it clear that Ludemann's concession here really doesn't amount to much. Indeed, in the same book, he says that the "objectification" of the Gospel resurrection accounts is the result of later embellishments. By objectifying he means the physical details such as Jesus' eating and being tangible. He insists that "the original seeing...was a seeing in the spirit" (p. 69)--some sort of religious ecstasy and, in some cases, an individual hallucination. One wonders very much in that case why we should quote Ludemann's statement with such enthusiasm, unless perhaps merely to argue (from Ludemann's authority) that that the disciples were not the merest fraudsters, making the whole thing up from literally nothing.

What is often not well-understood is that the details of evidence matter. It is a crucial principle of probabilistic reasoning that we must always use the most specific version of a piece of evidence that is relevant to the conclusion in question. Otherwise, merely by cherry-picking a  degree of "focus" for the evidence, we can make it sound like it supports a conclusion that, if fully understood, it either doesn't support at all, supports far less than we think, or even disconfirms!

Here is a well-known example in epistemology: Suppose that you are arguing that John is Roman Catholic. Suppose that you have as a piece of evidence the specific proposition that John is from a city in Ireland that is almost entirely Protestant. But instead of describing the evidence in that way, you describe it as, "John is from Ireland." You then argue that, since most Irishmen are Roman Catholic, probably John is Roman Catholic. This is obviously illicit. By deliberately giving the evidence in a "fuzzy" form and leaving something out, you make it sound like you have a strong premise for the desired conclusion, when in fact stating the evidence in the specific form in which you really have it would show that the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction.

Similarly, to say that Ludemann and others grant that the disciples had some sort of appearance experiences that led them to think that Jesus was risen, while including in that "consensus" widely different views about what kind of experiences we are talking about, we are basing our conclusion on supposed expert opinions that might or might not support the desired conclusion--that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. In fact, some such opinions might even tend to support the opposite conclusion. For example, if Ludemann is right that the disciples merely had a "seeing in the spirit" experience, it isn't at all clear that this proposition supports the proposition that Jesus was literally risen from the dead. Or suppose that a scholar thinks that the disciples had an experience as of Jesus up in the sky, seen at a distance--something that Bart Ehrman has suggested might be the most that a group of disciples experienced. (Ehrman doesn't grant even this, but he thinks at most this would have been the type of "group experience" that they had.) An experience like that might be well explained by the theory that Jesus did not physically rise from the dead but instead was dead while his spirit was in heaven, communicating with his disciples from there.

Here is another example of the "specificity of evidence" problem: Suppose that I for some reason want to argue that a number in a box is the number 99. I know ahead of time that it must be some number between 1 and 1000. Suppose that I have never looked in the box and that ten people come and look into the box briefly and then make statements to me about the number in the box. Two of them tell me that the number that they saw was 200. One of them tells me that the number was 99. Four of them tell me that the number was 42. And the remaining three state that the number was 800. It would be completely illegitimate for me to combine the four votes for 42, the one vote for 99, and the two votes for 200 and state, "70% of those surveyed agree that the number in the box is less than 250. Thus this survey supports the proposition that the number is 99, by reducing thee possibilities to numbers less than 250." In point of fact, 9 out of 10 of those surveyed stated a number other than 99! There is nothing about being "less than 250" that unifies all of these claims so as to make them all support the conclusion that the number is 99. It is obviously false to say that the survey supports the conclusion that the number is 99. The "consensus" is gerrymandered by combining specific claims, most of which point away from the desired conclusion, describing them in a vague fashion, and thus making it sound like seven of the speakers asserted something that supported the conclusion that the number is 99.

Similarly, Ludemann's belief that the disciples experienced a "seeing in the spirit" and Ehrman's suggestion that (at most) perhaps they experienced a "seeing at a distance" really have nothing much in common with the belief of an evangelical scholar included in Habermas's survey who thinks that the disciples really had experiences like those contained in the Gospel accounts. These do not form an epistemic "natural kind" supporting a literal resurrection, except in the very tenuous sense that they all involve some notion that the disciples were not mere religious frauds.

The issue of the disciples' rationality and trying to do without DT is exacerbated when one is arguing (as of course a Christian should be) for Jesus' true bodily resurrection and bodily appearances rather than a vision by the disciples. For it is the bodily details that are included in DT as elements of the disciples' testimony. These elements were crucial to Tim's and my argument in 2009 because they helped to rule out various religious, secular, or paranormal explanations of the disciples' testimony other than physical resurrection. As I often put it in presentations, whether or not you and your friends spent a lot of time in conversation with another mutual, well-known friend is not the kind of thing you can be easily mistaken about. All the less so if all of you agree that you had meals and long conversations with him in varying groups over a period of weeks. These are the kinds of robust details of testimony included in DT that make honest mistake, grief hallucination, ghostly apparition, and religious ecstasy non-starters as explanations of the testimony. And this is why trying to do without DT is such a problem.

I would say that a skeptic confronted with the MFA would have reason to think that something-or-other happened after Jesus' death that was odd and intriguing, but he need not have too much concern (on the basis of the MFA alone) that it was something supernatural, much less that it was specifically the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If there is a lot of evidence for "the paranormal" (I'm not convinced that there is, but I bring this up for the sake of completeness), this would provide even more categories for some sort of odd "spiritual" event at that time, after the death of Jesus, sufficient to account for the minimal facts, without strongly supporting the Christian explanation. A non-Christian like Dale Allison will be inclined to give a lot of weight to this latter possibility.

Several responses have emerged over the years as I have laid out these problems. I'll deal first with the most recent--a new one on me, and quickly answered. In a recent presentation at the ETS, the audio of which I possess, one presenter attempted to say that Habermas has already addressed the kind of criticism I am leveling here. Here is the quote from Habermas that supposedly addresses it:

[I]t has been concluded that the resurrection can be historically demonstrated even when the minimum of historical facts are utilized. Neither can it be concluded merely that “something” occurred which is indescribable due to naturalistic premises or to the character of history or because of the “cloudiness” or legendary character of the New Testament texts. Neither can it be said that Jesus rose spiritually but not literally. These and other such views are refuted in that the facts admitted by virtually all scholars as knowable history are adequate to historically demonstrate the literal resurrection of Jesus according to probability. pp. 165-166 The Historical Jesus

I am rather astonished that anyone would think that that quote addresses my concern about the appearances. This is Habermas's assertion of what he believes his argument supports. Of course he believes that his argument supports a stronger conclusion than I think it supports! It is not surprising at all that Habermas asserts that we can indeed conclude something stronger than merely that "something" occurred or that a spiritual resurrection occurred. This is not addressing my arguments that the MFA doesn't provide enough grounds for thinking that the disciples were rational in their belief. I am well aware that Habermas and Licona and other MFA advocates think that they have a good argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. That is not news! I never claimed that those who use the MFA do not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. The question is whether they do have a strong argument for that conclusion, using only premises granted by a wide consensus of living scholars. I've argued that they don't, as summarized here. It doesn't "address" that argument to quote Habermas asserting something about how strong his own argument is.

In fact, if anything, providing this quotation saves me the trouble of searching to document the fact that Habermas has claimed that he has a really strong argument for the resurrection! Suppose that someone wants to retreat to saying merely that the MFA provides some reason (not a strong reason) for the resurrection, or that it's better than nothing or "might get someone thinking," etc. The above quotation from Habermas shows that he thinks he can "historically demonstrate the literal resurrection of Jesus by probability," using only propositions granted by "virtually all" scholars! So any such retrenchment by MFA advocates would amount to a very significant retreat from the founder's ambitions.

A more popular attempted answer to my concerns has been to supplement the barest minimal facts with a slightly larger set of facts, including those designated by Habermas as "known facts" and by Licona as "second-order facts." The most salient of these for purposes of trying to answer my concerns is the proposition that the disciples themselves believed that Jesus was raised bodily. Note that this is somewhat stronger than the fact that they had some sort of experiences that convinced them that Jesus was risen, since it includes more specifically that they really believed that he was risen bodily. (By the way, DT doesn't even make it into this larger list of facts used by Habermas.)

This response to my criticisms--slightly supplementing the barest MFA with the disciples' belief in bodily resurrection--usually involves saying that they would not have believed so firmly in bodily resurrection if they did not have experiences like those contained in the Gospels. It thus reverses the order of dependence from that which I am suggesting. Instead of arguing that the disciples did claim the things found in the Gospels, and hence that (if they were not lying) their belief that Jesus was raised from the dead in bodily form was rational (since such experiences would provide good reason to think Jesus was raised bodily), this proposal is to argue that they probably experienced something-or-other like what is found in the Gospels, since they probably believed rationally.

This, however, is a gravely inferior way to argue. For it requires us to assume without the support of DT that the disciples were rational and then to argue that something akin to DT is true as a conclusion. To use DT both as a premise and as a conclusion would be circular. So the apologist trying to do without DT as a premise is forced to use only evidence that the disciples really believed in Jesus' bodily resurrection, hoping that the skeptic will grant him that they were probably rational in doing so. But that "something akin to DT" is not independently supported by documentary evidence (namely, the Gospel accounts). Rather, it is simply supported by the reasoning that they must have experienced something like that or else they wouldn't have believed and therefore, probably, that their corporate belief was not only rational but true. This is much weaker than arguing for the bodily resurrection of Jesus as an inference to the best explanation, using the records in the Gospels as unembellished, varied testimony from different individuals and groups who were in a position to know. (See this post on the conspiracy hypothesis, which also is relevant to hypotheses of hallucination. Note, too, that the approach I am criticizing here does not allow us to multiply Bayes factors at all, since it treats "the disciples" merely as a group with a particular bare belief, without looking at even partially independent, varied, unembellished, specific accounts.)

Now, I am not going to say that the disciples' sincere belief that Jesus was raised bodily would not be some evidence that they had good reason for believing this, and thereby some evidence that Jesus was really raised, but if I really know very little independently about why they believed this, the argument is quite weak.

Compare: Suppose that I don't know Alice very well. She doesn't seem wildly irrational to me, but I don't have much to go on. I then find out that Alice believes that she has seen a ghost, due to some experience or other that she had last week. But I'm unable to find out about the details of her claims in any way that I am confident is not embellished. So I don't really know in detail what she claims happened to her. Does the bare fact that a person who isn't certifiably insane thinks that she saw a ghost provide some reason for believing 1) that she believed this for good reason and hence 2) that there are really ghosts? Yes, some. But not much. It is not a strong argument.

It makes a big difference which of the following I am saying:

1) Alice does firmly believe that she has seen a ghost. Therefore, she probably experienced detailed interactions with a person she knows to be dead (though I have no access to her actual accounts which I can trust to be unembellished by others). Therefore, probably, she really did see a ghost.

2) Alice has described in detail a series of interactions with a person she knows to be dead, and I have access to these descriptions and reason to think that they are her own, actual claims, unembellished by others. I can see for myself that these would be good reason to believe in ghosts. Since I have other reasons to think that Alice is not a liar, it is probable that she has really seen a ghost.

I can't help thinking that people who make the argument, "They sincerely believed it, so they must have had experiences like those in the Gospels, so Jesus was probably really physically risen" do not appreciate the magnitude of the difference between these. But structurally they are completely different.

This is also why it is not enough simply to argue that the Gospels portray Jesus' resurrection as physical, while carefully saying that we don't know if those portrayals are embellished, not (specifically) what the putative witnesses claimed. There one is using the general fact of the portrayal only to argue that the disciples preached a message of Jesus' physical resurrection, while not using the claim that these stories are what the witnesses claimed. (Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, pp. 329-330, 338-339)

Arguing from the disciples' belief in Jesus' bodily resurrection (while eschewing reliance on DT) only postpones the need to press the skeptic to accept something he is highly unlikely to accept--i.e., that if the disciples sincerely thought Jesus was physically raised, they were probably rational in thinking so. Worse, the deliberate attempt to do without DT as independently supported (due to a desire not to confront squarely skeptical claims that the Gospel resurrection accounts are embellished) leaves the claim that they believed rationally as a bare posit. That is, it leaves one without the resources to say why we should think that they believed rationally. Surely we cannot rely on a generalization to the effect that most people who firmly believe that they have witnessed supernatural or paranormal events are rational in drawing that conclusion!

Here we are up against what I have called elsewhere the problem of the bottleneck. The capacity of evidence for "the disciples firmly believed that Jesus rose bodily" to support "Jesus rose bodily" has a hard upper limit: That upper limit is the probability of "Jesus rose bodily" given that "The disciples firmly believed that Jesus rose bodily"--given it, that is, at probability 1. I am saying here that even if the skeptic fully grants that the disciples firmly believed this, that has fairly limited force to support the conclusion that it really happened, absent more information about why they believed it. You cannot make up the deficiency there simply by providing more and more and more evidence that they believed it. For some reason it is difficult to get people to understand this, but it's very important. (Erik Manning of the Youtube channel Testify has done a nice job here of restating this issue.)

Bringing the Apostle Paul into the picture really does nothing to alleviate the bottleneck problem about whether or not the disciples were rational. Suppose that we argue that Paul believed and taught that Jesus was raised bodily. This is certainly true, and arguments to that effect (e.g., from N.T. Wright) serve to rebut the rather silly (but previously popular) skeptical attempt to pit Paul against the Gospels' physical accounts, based on his use of the phrase "spiritual body" in I Cor. 15. It's good to rebut that skeptical move, but in itself that is not positive evidence that the disciples rationally believed that Jesus was raised. 

All the talk one hears about the disciples offering Paul the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9), hence he was teaching the same Gospel they were teaching, hence the disciples were teaching Jesus' bodily resurrection, runs smack into the same bottleneck problem that I just discussed. When all is said and done, what does this support? Once again, that the disciples sincerely believed and taught that Jesus was physically raised! And how, again, does more and more support just for that proposition independently support the proposition that they believed this reasonably, on the basis of good and sufficient evidence? It doesn't, at all.

Finally, it is of very limited value to argue (again, using Wright) that Jewish expectations of resurrection pointed to a large, apocalyptic resurrection of the righteous rather than individual resurrections in the disciples' own time. While this is no doubt true, it provides only a little evidence that the disciples "would have" required some overwhelming evidence before accepting that Jesus was individually risen. We should remember that this Jewish theology did not prevent the superstitious belief both by Herod and by some unspecified number of Jewish people in the surrounding population that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead (Mark 6:14-16). So generally accepted theology did not preclude human superstition in particular cases, causing a false belief in an individual resurrection.

Compare: Suppose that we argued that members of Alice's religious group tend not to believe in ghosts. Just how far would that go in the absence of more specific evidence about Alice and Alice's claims to convince us that her belief in ghosts must have been rational? Not very far. All the less so if we have a specific record of other people who are part of Alice's religious group, in the same time period, who did believe (falsely) in a ghost.

So none of the popular attempts to use a minimalist account addresses the problem that is induced by trying to do without DT. I suggest instead that we should rely on DT and be prepared to defend it, if and when it is challenged, using the plethora of evidence for Gospel reliability.

I hope that this post is useful as a go-to for my current statement of my central objections to the MFA. Next up: Confusing epistemology with sociology.


Callum said...

Very good post. I especially like the bottle neck problem which is what I think I was confusing some time ago. (I'm also over joyed to see someone else mention that they have little time for the paranormal. It really does concern me to see how many Christians seem to have a low bar for that kind of stuff. Perhaps this isn't surprising given the MFA?).

2 points.

1) I think one way to stress to others how the bottle neck problem plagues the MFA is to scrutinise how ambiguous the claims from Paul are. I think the reason it can be difficult for some to grasp is because the beliefs about resurrection are seen as claims about Christ's body. So Licona will go through the various epistles to demonstrate the Paul clearly teaches a bodily resurrection and it can *seem* as though the Jerusalem apostles were claiming his body was raised from the grave like portrayed in the gospels.Licona will say things like 'we can go in by the back door' to see what Paul (and by extension the Jerusalem apostles) *claimed* about the nature of the resurrection. But all you really get from Paul is that Christ was raised in an incorruptible, glorious etc body.

I know some will then say that we don't just have testimony through Paul that the 12 saw Jesus in some sense or other but that they saw him as an incorruptible and glorious body.

That's fine and dandy insofar as it fits like a charm with the gospels, but ignoring the gospels, how much ammunition do you have to rule out Allison's or Erhman's positions by fleshing out the appearances with 'incorruptible and glorious body'? Doesn't have much kick in defending their rationality.

2) what do you think of Craig using the distinction between visions and appearances? He argues its all over the NT, including Paul. Its certainly in Acts but wouldn't you essentially be having as much trust those passages as the maximal data proponent puts into the resurrection accounts?

Lydia McGrew said...

Also, claims about Christ's body, in the abstract, aren't claims about specifically what the disciples experienced, allowing us to evaluate if this is good evidence. I mean, suppose we knew with certainty that the apostles were saying, "Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, totally bodily, really physically, yep, yep, yep," that still doesn't tell us what made them confident of that. Similarly, even if Alice says, "Yes, I really really saw a ghost, and by 'ghost' I mean the spirit of a dead person," it's like fine, we get that you believe that you saw a ghost, but what makes you so sure that you saw a ghost? Why should *we* believe that you saw a ghost?

On the distinction between visions and experiences, I like that distinction, and I think it's important, but rather like the business about "Jewish views of the resurrection," it's limited in how far it can go to convince us that the disciples were rational. It has some value, but again, if it's being used *instead of* telling us what they actually said they experienced, what we're really trying to do is to say, "See, with this in place, you should grant that they *would have* been really careful to be rational about claiming that something was a real resurrection appearance, so you should be confident that they were rational." That's asking a lot, I think, in the absence of more information.

A comparison with the Alice case: Someone says, "Look, I know Alice, and she has talked to me about what a hallucination would be like, so I know that she has a mental distinction between a hallucination and an objective paranormal experience. So you should trust her to be careful not to claim that she's seen a ghost unless she has good evidence." But still you don't have an account of what she says actually happened!

I also agree with you that insofar as we're having to trust Acts to give us a correct record of their statements, it seems like a double standard in comparison to the treatment of the resurrection appearances, since apparently *they* cannot or should not be trusted to be accurate presentations of what they claimed. HOw much "scholarly consensus" is there among scholars that the disciples had a strong mental distinction between visions and resurrection appearances? I'm *confident* that Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman do *not* grant that they did. Allison even suggests that the appearance to the 500 may have occurred after Pentecost!! I mean, that's ridiculous, but the point I'm making is that when we're trying to make such a big virtue out of basing our argument only on what is granted by a big majority of scholars, and holding the argument hostage to that, and trying really hard to avoid taking on the critical scholarly establishment, then you have to say why you "get to" just dismiss Allison's silly suggestion that the appearance to the 500 happened after Pentecost but we don't "get to" argue for the authenticity of the Gospel resurrection accounts. Because if it's supposed to be on the grounds that there is no good argument for Allison's suggestion, then I'm going to say that there is no good argument for considering the Gospel resurrection accounts to be late and/or apologetically embellished.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think we certainly should talk about the distinction between visions and post-resurrection appearances, and I've even gotten myself in "trouble" somewhat for emphasizing this and stating that Paul's experience on the Damascus Road was more vision-like. But I would use that to emphasize the high quality of the evidence for the physical resurrection in the Gospel accounts. In that way one immediately "calls" Allison on his attempts to muddy the waters by acting like every type of experience of the risen Jesus is alike. But to do that one has to be prepared to take one's stand and argue that the physical details of the Gospel accounts are not "apologetic embellishment," which Allison says they were. That's way different from using the distinction between visions and resurrection experiences to argue in some sort of prior fashion that they must have had good evidence (though we don't know exactly what they claimed!) or else they would have characterized it as a vision. While simultaneously trying *not* to rely on the details of the Gospel accounts as reliable accounts of what they actually claimed. That's just epistemologically wrong.

I think a lot of times people evaluating these arguments think that as long as you mention a proposition at some point, it doesn't matter whether you're treating it as a premise or a conclusion! But it makes a big difference epistemologically.

Callum said...

I think these types of auxiliary arguments for the MFA may actually help bridge the gap for people to take the gospel accounts more seriously.

Do you think it would be correct to say that there's some sort of relationship where the MFA, with the kind of auxiliary arguments of Wright and Craig, help to make the resurrection accounts more plausible? Take Licona's case from Paul. Appearances to individuals and groups with the apostles interpreting them as a physical resurrection. This interpretation being quite weird for the time and place as well as the distinction with visions seemingly well known. Doesn't this cry out for explanation? Yet doesn't the gospel accounts fit hand in glove and explain why they spoke like they did? You have group appearances, often to the 12. Peter's solitary encounter is mentioned by Luke so there's multiple attestation. Jesus is touched in all 3 accounts that narrate the appearances. He eats in 2. These explain why the appearances were interpreted as a physical resurrection and the distinction with visions was made.

For those who reject the resurrection narratives as hopelessly embellished, haven't they then left themselves unable to explain those questions which the MFA raise?

Callum said...

Also, have you heard of work by J.D Atkins? I've had it recommended to me and have seen some excitement about his book. I haven't been able to read it but the gist seems to be that he rebuts sceptical arguments that Luke and Jkhn were concerned to prove the physicality of the resurrection against docetism. Which seems to be a major issue for a number of sceptics. I dont know if he spends much time making a positive case for the trustworthiness of the accounts but seems to be another arrow in the quiver

Lydia McGrew said...

I think we have to be *extremely* precise. For example, I'm not sure exactly what role you are envisaging for "Jesus eats in 2 accounts." What exactly is that *doing*, epistemologically, in the argument as you are envisaging it? In a Craig-style argument or a Licona-style argument, here is what it's doing: The Gospel accounts portray the resurrection as physical. Therefore, probably, the disciples taught a physical resurrection.

In other words, *all* it's doing is supporting the proposition that the disciples definitely taught that the resurrection was physical/bodily. But that's just going to run into the bottleneck problem again!

I have no problem throwing into the mix the statement that they had a mental difference between visions and resurrected people as well as the non-expectation in Judaism of individual resurrections. But to be quite honest, I don't think either of these adds much *independently* to the case. See the o.p. concerning the "Jewish theology expectation" thing. Was it really so "weird for the time and place"? I mean, apparently not all *that* weird given that some of the populace rushed to conclude (falsely) that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead.

I think "cries out for explanation" is somewhat too strong. When we think very precisely, what we end up with is something like:

1. The disciples taught and believed that Jesus was physically raised. (Please remember that the "argument from Paul's teaching a physical resurrection" is *just* an argument *for* this premise.)
2. In the official Jewish religious background of the time, the theological expectation was not for individual resurrections right away but only for a general, apocalyptic resurrection later. (The force of this somewhat blunted by the fact that this did not apparently prevent Jewish people of the time from superstitiously and falsely believing in individual resurrections earlier.)
3. The followers of Jesus apparently had a conceptual distinction between Jesus' appearances and visions. (However, this is probably not granted by a high majority of scholars. So you're probably going to have to take on the liberal scholarly establishment to argue for this anyway.)


I think what you want to say is something like, "Therefore, the prior probability of experiences like those we find in the Gospels is pretty high, even before we actually read what we find in the Gospels."

I'm just not willing to go that far, at all. The most I would say is that these considerations give us *somewhat* of a reason to think that the disciples' actual testimony was of "thick" rather than "thin" experiences. But I think that if we didn't *have* that actual testimony in an unembellished form, we'd be left with something pretty weak.


Lydia McGrew said...

There's another point here that is very important: Suppose that the Gospel accounts *are* embellished apologetically--something that many skeptics, and unfortunately some Christians, think is probable on independent grounds.

I'm afraid that that (if left unchallenged) would provide an argument in *precisely the opposite direction*--namely, that the disciples *did not* have "thick" experiences. After all, if they had *real* experiences with a lot of "thick," empirical, physical content, why would Luke, John, and Matthew have felt like they needed to include embellishments? Why not put the "real" thick experiences in there instead of made-up or embellished ones??

So suppose we take points 1-3, above, and then add to that a liberal point 4:

4. As is well-known via critical scholarship, the resurrection accounts in the Gospels are apologetically embellished, especially when it comes to the physical details.

Where would that leave us? It would plausibly lead to a conclusion like this,

5. Whatever one might have thought *might* be the case based on 1-3, it looks like the disciples didn't have experiences like those in the Gospels and like they therefore believed irrationally and later they, or their followers, felt the need to "beef up" the accounts to make them sound more convincing.

So there's nothing for it (as you probably are happy to agree, but I just want to drive this home)--We're going to have to challenge the claim and the phony arguments for the claim that the Gospel accounts are embellished.

Callum said...

Yes im interested in whether the MFA supports the reliability of the gospel accounts. So one reason we may have for taking seriously the accounts is that it explains why the apostles interpreted the appearances physically and why they distinguished them from visions. With just MFA those two factors are being used as evidence for the resurrection. Im wondering whether the close fit the gospels have with those points (1, 2 and 3) would constitute reasons for taking the gospel accounts as trustworthy. Perhaps using part of the creed in Corinthians as corroboration.

In other words, instead of almost exclusively using Paul to argue for the resurrection, do you think Paul (and the arguments by Wright and Craig) would be put to better use as part of the cumulative case for the gospels?

I hope that makes sense.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, it's important to be careful with the "no double dipping" rule. You can't use the same item of evidence twice in the same argument.

So it's going to be somewhat tricky to count the fact that the gospels portray the appearances as physical as evidence for the reliability of the gospel accounts without violating that rule. No doubt some of the scholars (or even many of them) whose opinions get counted in the nose-counting for the "appearances" claim *are* using the Gospel accounts as part of their reason for believing that "the disciples had experiences that convinced them," etc. etc.

I suppose one could avoid any problem of that sort simply by avoiding *any* reference to the Gospel accounts in this evidence you envisage bringing, and also by any allusion to scholarly consensus on "the appearances." I would also advise not referring to the empty tomb int hat case. (I've argued elsewhere that Paul doesn't really provide independent attestation in the relevant sense to the empty tomb.) Then one would just throw "into the mix" as it were some statement, based on Paul, that the disciples were teaching the physical resurrection.

But I'll be honest: I think that we have much better arguments for the reliability of the Gospels. I don't mind putting into the mix something to the effect that, hey, we can tell independently that the disciples were teaching the physical resurrection, and lo, behold, we find in the Gospels what they were teaching that would explain why they thought it was physical. But we're going to have to be prepared at that point to do all the "pushback" against scholarship in order to argue that those details weren't embellishments.

For that matter, we can argue that Acts is at least independent of Matthew, Mark, and John, and it provides additional information not found in Luke (though by the same author). And Acts provides another resurrection appearance, the early sermons, and so forth. But I'm prepared to argue that Luke had good information there about what (e.g.) Peter was saying on the day of Pentecost, which of course *also* is not granted by critical scholars.

Vincent said...

Hi Lydia,

I'm glad to see that you're posting again. How have you been lately?

I have to say I think your takedown of the MFA is a pretty powerful one. Congratulations.

You also write: "We're going to have to challenge the claim and the phony arguments for the claim that the Gospel accounts are embellished."

Does that mean you are arguing that there are NO embellishments in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' passion and resurrection, and that that your argument for Jesus' bodily resurrection stands or falls on the assertion that the two earthquakes (on Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning), the hours of darkness over the land on Good Friday, the posting of the guard at the tomb on Saturday and the resurrection of the saints (presumably on Easter Sunday) all happened?

Does that also mean you are also arguing that there are NO substantive contradictions between the Gospel narratives of Jesus' resurrection, and that Matthew and Mark's statements on the location of Jesus' appearances are harmonizable with Luke's?

The reason why I'm asking is that an open-minded seeker after truth might well balk at those epistemic requirements. It's one thing to maintain that the Gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection contain few embellishments and few contradictions; it's quite another to maintain that they contain none. And to ask people to believe that before they come to believe in Jesus' resurrection seems like a very tall order.

I'm also curious about your formulation of DT. You want to argue that Jesus had a real, physical body that was capable of eating and that was solid and tangible. Here's my question. Do you maintain, as part of your DT hypothesis, that Jesus' body was not only capable of acting upon other bodies, but also capable of being acted on by other bodies - in other words, passible? That would seem to imply that his risen body, while divinely preserved from death and pain, wasn't physically indestructible (as most Christians have long believed). Is that your view? (I'm thinking here of Cavin and Colombetti's "Atoms or Schmatoms?" dilemma. In response, Steve Hays over at Triablogue maintains that Jesus' risen body was immortal but not indestructible.)

Cheers. Hope you're feeling somewhat better now.

Lydia McGrew said...

There's a difference between embellishment and honest error. If the Gospel authors deliberately embellished their accounts, that would significantly undermine their reliability which would, in turn, significantly undermine the claim that they were telling what the disciples really claimed.

So there can be (some) real contradictions leading to (relatively minor) error conclusions, but I think it's quite important that we not concede that the authors themselves deliberately embellished. I think those two are epistemically quite different. Fortunately, I think the evidence is extremely strong that the authors both never deliberately embellished and were highly reliable. (Though I'm not an inerrantist.)

The DT claim says nothing about whether Jesus' body was indestructible. I think that's a massive red herring, as is Cavin and Colombetti's entire discussion. Also, btw, the DT claim is about what the disciples claimed to have experienced. So just for one thing, I think you are confusing the DT claim with what I think we can *conclude* from the argument. You want to be careful about that. In point of fact, I think Jesus' body was real in the sense that you could have photographed it. And (again, this is conclusion, not premise), I think his body was tangible or else he would not have invited people to touch him! What precisely that means about what would have happened if time-traveling aliens had detonated a bomb in the upper room while he was present is not something that any Christian is required to decide! Indeed, at that point we're getting into a realm of counterfactual speculation that is no part of either Christian belief or well-grounded historical conclusion about the fate of Jesus after his death.

Lydia McGrew said...

It's important to recognize that even if some proposition A would tend probabilistically to undermine proposition B, it doesn't follow that B "stands or falls with" the falsehood of A. So, for example, if A is "There was no raising of the saints as reported in Matthew," this would probabilistically "pull against" B, where B is DT as stated. But it would be far too strong to say that B "stands or falls with" the actual occurrence of the raising of the saints. This is not to say that I think the raising of the saints didn't happen! Indeed, I think the objections to it are hugely exaggerated. But "stands or falls with" is too strong. After all, Matthew simply doesn't tell us who attested to it, so we don't know what his relationship was with them. So even taking it that Matthew was Matthew the tax collector (which I do think is the case), it doesn't follow that he personally witnessed the appearance of any resurrected person in these passages other than Jesus, nor even that he personally spoke with any of those who claimed to have seen them. In contrast, if Matthew was Matthew, he definitely would have known whether or not the appearance to the eleven in Galilee recorded in Matthew 28 happened, and he very likely would have been personally acquainted with the women who went to the tomb as reported earlier in Matthew 28. So we need to make distinctions. Again, this is not to say that I'm throwing the raising of the saints under the bus. But it means that DT is DT. It's not "every other thing that would be probabilistically relevant to DT."

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Vincent, for your inquiries about my health. I'm afraid I'm not significantly better but rather very much up and down. The condition may well be permanent, but the symptoms vary. Doctors haven't been much help so far, and I often can't tolerate the side effects of medication that might help symptoms.

Lydia McGrew said...

Hey, Callum, apologies, I just saw your comment. No, I'm not familiar with Atkins' work. My guess is the "anti-docetism" claim is more plausible for John than for Luke, since John is later. But of course being interested in arguing against docetism doesn't at all make a person likely to invent. In fact, Leon Morris argues just the opposite--that John's interest in arguing against docetism would make him *less* likely to invent, since only real events could have any real affect against docetism. One of the things I love about Morris is that he understands (and understands that John understands) that fake points don't make points.