Saturday, September 10, 2022

A maximalist use of the conversion of Paul

It's well-known that I'm highly critical of the Minimal Facts Argument for Jesus' resurrection. I consider it quite weak and therefore vastly oversold, due to its insistence on relying only on facts that are granted by a wide and diverse scholarly consensus. I've discussed this often and am preparing even as I write these words for a livestream in response to an alleged response from Drs. Habermas and Licona. Unfortunately, their "response" video was strikingly non-responsive. Indeed, it was pretty clear that neither of them understood the criticisms I've leveled, and it was unclear whether they were even familiar with those concerns.

The minimalist approach, whether in its MFA incarnation or in other versions, tends to rely heavily on the Apostle Paul as an alternative to relying on the Gospel accounts. The "creed" in I Corinthians 15 is especially prominent in all minimalist-type arguments. And when arguing for the bodily resurrection, it is quite common for minimalists to emphasize strongly that Paul had a bodily concept of the resurrection and that he stated that he and the Jerusalem apostles were preaching the same message. Hence, the reasoning goes, in all probability the Jerusalem apostles were preaching a bodily resurrection.

This may be a legitimate inference as far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn't go very far. People believe all kinds of things, and the mere fact that the Jerusalem apostles and Paul believed that Jesus was raised bodily and had appeared to them bodily doesn't tell us whether they were reasonable to think so. Without further information as to the details of their claims, it is deeply unclear whether they jumped to conclusions, or, to put it in a more jargony form, interpreted some sort of (insufficient) experiences in the light of their theological expectations. (Compare the fact that you wouldn't be very impressed even if you were 100% sure that twelve people sincerely believed that they had conversations with aliens, in the absence of further details about why they believed this.)

On the other hand, in Tim's and my article on Jesus' resurrection published in 2009, we did give the conversion of Paul independent force for the resurrection of Jesus, by which we meant the bodily resurrection. In fact, we gave it a hefty-ish Bayes factor of 103. While I would note that even that Bayes factor needs to be part of a more robust cumulative case in order to overcome even a modestly low prior probability (in other words, impressive as it sounds, that Bayes factor all by itself isn't going to support strong, justified confidence in a miracle), and while I admit to some ambivalence now as to whether that factor may have been overly optimistic, it is still worth revisiting the conversion of Paul to ask this: Do I still grant the conversion of Paul any significant independent force in favor of the bodily resurrection of Jesus? And if so, how does this differ from the minimalist reliance on Paul?

The issue of independence is at the heart of my critique of the minimalist use of Paul in favor of Jesus' bodily resurrection. As I've discussed, by using Paul's conversion and concept of resurrection to support the idea that "the disciples believed" that Jesus was physically risen, the minimalist runs into the problem that I've called the bottleneck issue. Briefly, if the probability that Jesus was risen bodily given only that the disciples believed that he was, based on some unspecified experiences, is not very high (or, to put it a little differently, if their mere belief based on largely unspecified experiences provides only a weak Bayes factor in favor of the truth of their belief), then merely piling on more and more evidence that they had this belief cannot possibly rectify the problem, since it provides no independent evidence for the truth of the belief. My criticism has already assumed that we are "given" that they had that belief. I'm arguing that even if we are "given" it, it doesn't provide much evidence (when details of their reasons and experiences are excluded) for the truth. If we're "given" it, we're given it at probability 1, so making its probability approach 1 more and more can't help us to get beyond the criticism. Hence the minimalist use of Paul to support the proposition, "The disciples believed that Jesus was risen bodily from the dead" provides no independent evidence for the truth of their belief aside from that proposition itself.

A maximalist approach, however, does allow us to make use of Paul's conversion in a different way that doesn't run into this bottleneck problem. The maximalist is prepared to argue for the reliability of the book of Acts. This provides a great many advantages, including access to the serious risks that provided the context in which the disciples made their proclamation and, in the early chapters of Acts, direct evidence that they were preaching the bodily resurrection of Jesus from early on, with no need to infer this indirectly from Paul's letters and his relationship to the Jerusalem apostles as attested in his letters.

Even more importantly, the defense of the reliability of Acts and of the proposition that it comes from a companion of Paul who didn't mess around with the facts means that we can argue with confidence that Paul claimed what we find in the conversion accounts in Acts 9, 22, and 26. These include several very salient points relevant to the evidential force in favor of Jesus' bodily resurrection. Among others, 1) Paul was wide awake, walking down a road at about midday, when the conversion experience abruptly happened. So this couldn't have been a dream. (Contrast any sort of visionary experience stories that begin, "I was reading my Bible alone in my study..." where the person might have dozed off.) 2) Paul was with other people, who presumably could attest to his abrupt, completely unexpected, odd behavior. 3) These other people allegedly saw the light and would have been able to attest that Paul had to be led afterwards because he was temporarily blind. (In the interests of time and space, I'm not going into detail on the question of what they heard. I take the view that they heard a voice but that it was a voice-like sound to them without comprehensible words. This would be another intersubjective element, but I'm not giving it much weight here because of the alleged contradiction concerning it.) 4) Very important: Paul claimed that Jesus not only identified himself but also explicitly endorsed the teaching of the very sect Paul was persecuting by saying, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." This gives content to Paul's experience which, combined with our independent evidence (e.g., from the Gospels and from the early chapters of Acts) that the Christian sect Paul was persecuting taught that Jesus rose bodily, serves as independent evidence for that content, since the best explanation of Paul's conversion and of his account of what occasioned it is that his experience was veridical. 

The point is a little subtle, but I hope that it is clear. Paul's conversion provides independent, significant evidence for Jesus' bodily resurrection only insofar as it does something more and quite different from providing evidence that the disciples and Paul believed that Jesus was physically risen. In a maximalist use of Paul, we take it that, via the reliability of the Gospels and Acts, we have more than enough evidence already that they were teaching that Jesus was physically risen. Then we take it that the detailed accounts in Acts of the circumstances and content of Paul's abrupt conversion really come from Paul. They weren't embellished by the author of Acts. Then we argue that it is quite difficult to explain this abrupt conversion with these detailed aspects on the basis of a non-veridical category (that is, some category according to which Paul was mistaken and did not actually have communication with Jesus). But if Jesus himself said, in a supernatural communication with Paul, that he was to be identified with the group that was preaching that he was physically risen, then this is evidence that he was, indeed, physically risen.

Now whether this gives us an independent Bayes factor as high as 10or not, my point here is that it avoids the bottleneck issue, because it isn't just piling on more and more evidence for what the disciples thought, when a very salient question at issue (in the absence of details of their experiences) is whether they were rational to think that. Moreover, if (given the reliability of Acts) the accounts in Acts really do tell us what Paul claimed, then we understand further why Paul himself was rational in thinking that he had a supernatural communication from Jesus on the road to Damascus. His conviction is quite understandable given the details of the experience.

In contrast, the minimalist approach even to Paul's conversion is extremely tentative, a point that is especially notable given the great importance of Paul to the minimalist approach itself. In The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Michael Licona is quite explicit that he treats the conversion accounts in Acts merely as "possible" sources concerning the nature of Paul's conversion, sources of "limited historical value," and that the reason for this is because there is no scholarly consensus concerning how much liberty Luke felt free to take in writing Acts (pp. 382, 394). (Licona is surely right about this absence of scholarly consensus. Bart Ehrman, for example, absolutely insists that we evaluate Paul's conversion based only on the epistles, and only on a subset of those, and must exclude the accounts in Acts as likely elaborated by the author. Ehrman then, with unintentional humor, complains about the maddening, frustrating limitation of our information about such a historically important event as Paul's conversion!) 

As I have pointed out before, the presence of a large and diverse scholarly consensus, whatever minimalists at times say to the contrary notwithstanding, is undeniably given epistemological weight in their methodology. They treat it as a limiting factor and a necessary condition for our being historically highly confident (confident "as historians") about specific propositions.

Cutting oneself off from the details of the Pauline conversion claims found in Acts cuts one off from the very factors that give significant, independent epistemic force to Paul's conversion. At that point we no longer know what exactly Paul claimed that Jesus said to him on that occasion and how clearly it endorsed what the apostles were already preaching. We don't know whether Paul was alone or with others when it happened, whether there was anything intersubjective about his experience, or whether he could possibly have been asleep at the time. We don't know (without Acts) whether his experience at the time of his conversion had (even to him) clear verbal content as opposed to feelings or impressions.

Another contrast between the maximalist case and the minimalist use of Paul's conversion is worth mentioning: On Paul's own account, unlike the disciples, he had no opportunity to touch Jesus. He wasn't invited to do so. He did not see Jesus eat or have a long conversation with him over a meal, and others were not aware of the various modalities of Jesus' presence in the same way that he was. For example, the others on the road didn't see Jesus. (Unlike in the Gospel accounts, where an entire group is conversing with Jesus at once.) I have found that it is very unpopular for me to say that in very notable respects, Paul's experience was more vision-like (though arguably objective) than the reported experiences in the Gospels. I have received a lot of pushback on this from some fellow believers, but I think it's important. The argument that Paul's experience was veridical and that it confirms Jesus' bodily resurrection is thus different in kind from the argument that the disciples really had bodily experiences of a bodily risen Jesus. Say what you will, Jesus did not seem even to Paul to be standing right there in the dust of the Damascus Road along with everybody else, plainly visible to everyone, plainly tangible, etc. And there is a reason for that: Jesus had, according to Acts, already ascended into heaven. After that the Bible accounts afford no indication that he ever walked around in his body on earth again, and indeed the biblical accounts would lead us to think that he didn't do so (Acts 1:11) and won't do so until his eschatological return. So he probably didn't do so with Paul. 

In contrast, the minimalist approach elides this distinction by referring to Paul as "an eyewitness" of the resurrection and treating him as being like the disciples in this respect, without qualification. This elision is a gift to the skeptic, or to someone like Dale Allison who thinks that the disciples had only visionary-type experiences of the risen Jesus. Evidentially, it is important to emphasize the differences between Paul's experience and the disciples' experiences. They were rational in believing that Jesus was physically risen because they had experiences both individually and in varying groups in which Jesus presented himself in a fully polymodal fashion, just as we present ourselves to one another in ordinary physical meetings. They had every reason to believe (given that they experienced what they reported) that anyone who walked into that room could have seen Jesus, and anyone who bumped into him could have touched him, just as with any other physically present person. 

Paul was rational in believing that Jesus was physically risen for a more indirect reason: He already knew the tenets of the sect he was persecuting and that (per the earlier chapters of Acts) they included the physical resurrection of this man Jesus. Paul then (according to his report, as recounted in Acts) had an experience of being struck down abruptly in the middle of the day, out of nowhere, while accompanied by others, by a light from heaven (which the others saw). He then heard a voice and saw something (perhaps Jesus as a human figure above him), and the voice explicitly stated that it was the voice of Jesus as preached by the group he was persecuting. When their brief dialogue was over and the light receded, he found that he was blind. Given the overwhelming and explicit nature of this experience, its partial intersubjectivity, and its occurrence while he was wide awake (as his companions could attest), it was quite understandable that he concluded that it was veridical and hence that Jesus really had risen from the dead, as preached by the Christians. But this was not because he personally had the opportunity to verify the nature of Jesus' body by interacting with it as the disciples did. The arguments are different. The disanalogy can and must be emphasized, while at the same time we can acknowledge that Paul's detailed claims have independent force in favor of the physical resurrection.

I hope that this has been a useful fuller explanation of how a maximalist "does" the argument from the conversion of Paul for the resurrection. 

1 comment:

John said...