Thursday, August 15, 2013

4 Facts That Aren't Really Facts

Until recently I didn't have enough knowledge about the historicity surrounding Jesus and the resurrection to properly critique it. But after reading and watching many lectures and debates on the reliability of the New Testament and the Bible in general, I'm pretty convinced that the case for Christ and the resurrection are founded on little more than pillars of faith on very shaky ground.

But that's not the case according to William Lane Craig. According to him we have firm evidence that Jesus was a historical figure, that he was crucified by the Romans, that his tomb was found empty and that his followers had post mortem appearances of him indicating that he had been resurrected. In his many debates, Craig offers four lines of evidence he calls "facts" to support this story. But are these really facts? I want to spend the rest of this blog critiquing his argument for the resurrection.

Craig's "facts" are as follows:

FACT #1: After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.

FACT #2: On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.

FACT #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.

FACT #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

In his collaboration with philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God? A Debate Between A Christian and An Atheist, Craig offers several lines of evidence to support these four "facts," so all the material from him that I will be critiquing will come from that book. 

And before I begin, I first want to say that I resent that Craig insists upon called these claims "facts." I think at best they are reported facts. Actual facts are things that we either know are true by definition, or things that are supported by empirical evidence. None of Craig's "facts" meet any such criteria and it's interesting to note that his only source material to back up his claims is the Bible. That's it. There is no empirical evidence that has been produced to support Jesus' entombment, his resurrection, or even that he actually existed, and until there is, these are not facts and I will not be treating them as such. 

So let's begin by examining "fact" number one:

FACT #1:After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.

Craig supports this claim with 5 lines of evidence. Let me look at each line by line.

1. Jesus’ burial is attested in the very old information (ca. < AD 36), which was handed on by Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece.

The Pauline epistles were all written in the AD 50s, not in the not AD 30s, but many scholars believe the accounts they describe occurred within a few years after the purported resurrection. Since there aren't any contemporary corroborations, this is speculative. Although Paul mentions that Jesus was buried (1 Cor 15:4), we get no description about whether it was in a tomb or a simple common grave. There is no indication from Paul's writing that Jesus was a physical man who lived and preached to followers. Paul never mentions in his letters that anyone saw Jesus while he was alive; Paul never mentions Jesus' ministry or any of his disciples or anyone having ever met him. Jesus only ever appeared to various people after he died through visions. The Egyptian god Osiris was a spiritual god who was also died, was buried and was reborn. It is not inconceivable that Paul thought of Jesus as a purely spiritual being who died and rose from the dead in the same fashion that many pre-Christian pagan gods in the ancient Near East had. This could have been the early Christian narrative before Jesus was "euhemerized" decades later by the writers of the gospels by having Jesus placed into historical contexts.

2. The burial story is independently attested in the very old source material used by Mark in writing his gospel.

Craig here seems to be referring to a document called Q, which is supposed to have been the inspiration of Mark's gospel that was written in about AD 70, 40 years after the alleged crucifixion. We don't know if Q ever existed and there is much debate over it, so Craig appears to be resting this line of evidence on a hypothetical document that might have existed.

3. Given the understandable hostility in the early Christian movement toward the Jewish leaders, Joseph of Arimathea, as a member of the Jewish high court that condemned Jesus, is unlikely to be a Christian invention.

We don't have any records of the members of the Jewish high court at the time of Jesus from any sources. It is entirely possible that Joseph or Arimathea could have been an invention in Mark's gospel in order to place Jesus in a grand tomb as opposed to a common burial. The gospels aren't even congruent about whether Joseph was a member of the high court as Matthew's account states Joseph is simply a "rich man" from Arimathea. (Mat 27:57) Outside of the gospels we have no independent evidence that Joseph of Arimathea existed.

4. The burial story is simple and lacks any signs of legendary development.

Mark's account of the burial is pretty straightforward and simple, but it is merely one detail of an early account of a story that will later go on in the other gospel accounts to contain numerous signs of legendary embellishment. Early accounts of legends are almost always the most simple and straightforward. Then, as the accounts are retold and transcribed they become adorned with embellishment. Peter Kirby on notes, "It is no stretch of the imagination to think that legend makers or fiction writers would be aware that there were and are tombs hewn out of rock and that some of these tombs had benches. This does not make these legends or fictions into history. The only thing that might be remarkable would be if the description of the tomb matched the tombs of the early first century but not the tombs of a later period. However, there are no details about the tomb that could not be provided from the author's experience with tombs in his own time. Indeed, when the author could have specified that the stone sealing the tomb was not round and thus demonstrate knowledge of tombs in the Second Temple period, the author does not do so. The bare description of the tomb hardly improves the credibility of the story."[1]

5. No other competing burial story exists

This is an argument from silence. If there never was a physical burial to begin with but only a celestial symbolic one, and the burial narrative was entirely fictional, written decades later and invented by the writer of Mark, we would not expect any competing stories to exist. Now arguments from silence can be inductively correct. [2] But as Jeff Lowder notes in A Reply to William Lane Craig, "Craig has not shown that the alleged lack of competing burial traditions is unlikely on the hypothesis that some alternative to the Markan tradition is true. Indeed...there is no evidence that the Jewish authorities were even interested in the matter."[3]

Conclusion: I don't think Craig's claims have been able to sufficiently establish the burial of Jesus in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb to be factual. If we had independent Jewish sources attesting to Joseph's existence and position in the Jewish high court, or if we had physical evidence of the tomb, then I think we'd be in a much better position to establish this claim as truth. Although, of the four "facts" Craig is trying to make, I think this one has the most probability of being true.

FACT #2:On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.

Craig defends this claim with 5 additional lines of evidence.

1. In stating that Jesus “was buried and he was raised on the third day,” the old information transmitted by Paul in I Cor.15 3–5 implies the empty tomb.

This is exactly what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:3-5:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures
Paul could have been talking about a spiritual raising of Jesus, and he even says in 1 Cor 15:50, "that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." Paul also never mentions anything about an empty tomb, just that Jesus was buried, and he never once refers to an earthly Jesus who is seen alive by anyone before his death.

2. The empty tomb story is also multiply and independently attested in Mark, Matthew, and John’s source material, some of which is very early.

First off, John says that Mary was alone and not accompanied by anyone. So that contradicts Craig's claim that it was a "group" of Jesus' women followers. Second, there are many other wide discrepancies regarding the empty tomb account. Mark's account has the stone rolled away when Mary and Salome approach the tomb and a strange man is there saying Jesus has risen. Matthew's account has the tomb closed, watched by two Roman guards (who are not mentioned in any other account), and an earthquake that occurs as an angel descends from the sky and rolls the door of the tomb away, sits on it and tells Mary and another woman named Mary there that Jesus has risen. And as I mentioned, John has the tomb open and empty when approached by Mary alone. Then as Mary returns with several disciples, she sees two angels and then Jesus appears right there to her.

Somebody here is full of shit, or should I say, embellishing the story. It is impossible to reconcile these discrepant accounts into one coherent story. Since Matthew and Luke simply used Mark as a source, I submit that Mark's account is itself probably a work of fiction, or at least partial fiction, that the other gospels are based off of that simply embellished the story in the style of myth. We don't know what the source material for John was, but we do know that John was the last gospel and deviates significantly in many ways from the synoptic gospels. (More on that later)

3. The empty tomb story as related in Mark, our earliest account, is simple and lacks signs of legendary embellishment.

Being that Mark is the earliest gospel, there is nothing before it except the epistles that we can say his account embellishes. But it's interesting that Craig mentions this because Paul's writings never mention an empty tomb, so the empty tomb narrative appears to have been a later Markan development. And as I mentioned above, legendary developments generally begin simple, and over time through retelling become more elaborate. So for example, Mark's account has no post mortem appearances of Jesus. This casts serious doubt onto those reports in the other gospels. To emphasize Mark's account as lacking embellishment, Craig is implying that the other gospels do contain them, which from what I wrote above in number 2 should seem obvious. Therefore, he is tainting the reliability of all the later post-Markan gospels.

4. Given that the testimony of women was regarded as so unreliable that they were not even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law, the fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is best explained by the historical facticity of the narrative in this regard.

This is a common argument. It is quite possible that the placement of women as the witnesses of the tomb was done precisely because women were not regarded as worthy of serving as witnesses in Jewish courts. But was their status that absolute? Many scholars don't think so. Women could serve as legal witnesses when no male witnesses were available.[4] And as Lowder observes, "Having women discover the empty tomb may have been somewhat embarrassing to the church, but, if so, that would have been for reasons that had nothing to do with their qualification to serve as legal witnesses, since the women are not portrayed as legal witnesses in the story." He also notes that in John 4:39, a woman's testimony about an encounter with Jesus is enough to convince a town of Samaritans that Jesus is a prophet, "Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony." And he notes that there's no records of an anti-Christian polemic against the women serving as witnesses.[5]

5. The earliest known Jewish response to the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, namely, “The disciples came and stole away his body” (Matt. 28: 13–15), was itself an attempt to explain why the body was missing and thus presupposes the empty tomb.

Matthew's account is the only one that mentions Roman guards, who you'd think would have been mentioned in the other accounts. And Craig's earlier emphasis that Mark's account is simple and appears to lack signs of embellishment inadvertently makes Matthew's account appear more legendary and less probably true. I think that that the legendary nature of Matthew's account of the tomb makes it likely that that the guards never existed. And the author of Matthew would have known that he had to cover up why, if guards were there, they didn't report the angel (or the earthquake that no one ever reported), and the best way to explain away why the guards wouldn't have spoken about the angel would've been to make up the story of the Jewish priests paying them money to keep quiet about the incident. But I wonder, if the guards were real, wouldn't they have been held accountable by the Roman authorities for failing to do their job?

Conclusion: With so many discrepancies in the gospels themselves on the events surrounding the empty tomb and the clear evidence that with each successive gospel there is embellishment, the idea that a group of women came to an empty tomb they thought contained their messiah is far from "fact." And it is helpful to remember that the women followers in the gospels were not testifying in a Jewish court, just as the Samaritan woman in John 4:39 wasn't. If a woman's testimony was good enough to convince an entire town that Jesus was the messiah, it would have been enough to convince Jesus' male followers that his tomb was empty - given these narratives at face value.

FACT #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.

Craig supports this claim as a "fact that is virtually universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars." (p. 23) The problem is that seeing appearances of Jesus, is not the same as actually seeing a physical man who just recently died. People can have visions of angels, demons and all kinds of figures that only exist inside the minds of the people who report them.

Craig supports this with two lines of evidence:

1. Given its early date, as well as Paul’s personal acquaintance with the people involved, the list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, quoted by Paul in I Cor. 15.5–8, guarantees that such appearances occurred.

All we have to go by in 1 Cor is Paul's claim that Jesus appeared to various people, including 500 at once, and then to him. The alleged appearance of Jesus to 500 is not even corroborated in the gospels, and you'd think they would have mentioned such a fantastic detail. Paul never even says that Jesus appeared in physical form and never writes any detail about what Jesus looked like. As Professor of Philosophy Keith Parsons notes in essay Why I Am Not A Christian, "Apologists have claimed that the Greek verb horao employed by Paul in verses 5-8 always refers to physical sight and not visions. However, Paul himself, in Colossians 2:18, uses the same verb to denigrate false visions."[6] We simply just have nothing to go on as the basis for this "fact" besides Paul's letters (and the later gospel accounts that were not written by eyewitnesses and were at best merely recording what other people believed). This is hardly a historical "guarantee." You will ultimately be forced to take Paul's word on faith about something that is not physically possible by a man who according to his own accounts has a history of hallucinations (See 2 Cor 12). Even if given the most charitable consideration, hallucination is a neurological phenomenon well understood by neuroscientists, and is found cross-culturally in many religious contexts. If I am to be asked to grant the reports of visions of reanimated dead people in one religion, then I have to grant them for all religions.

2. The appearance narratives in the gospels provide multiple, independent attestation of the appearances.

No they do not. The synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) are primarily based off of one another; they were not created in a vacuum. Mark is the first gospel according to almost every scholar, then Matthew and Luke copy that account and add to it (some believe with the help of the hypothetical Q document). John generally takes a different route according to scholars and that's why it has a different feel and message about Jesus and his role.[7] Mark's account doesn't even contain post mortem appearances, indicative that the later gospels were embellishments. If stories about appearances of Jesus after his death were circulating around from at least the time of Paul's writing of 1 Cor around AD 53-55, Paul could have been the one that created or embellished upon such stories.

Craig closes this section with a quote from the German New Testament critic Gerd Ludemann, “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.” (p. 24)

Yeah but notice that the words "appeared to them" could mean vision or hallucination, in much the same way one could say that the angel Gabriel "appeared" to Mohammad. Remember, all we have to go with are (1) a few verses in Paul's letters where he claims that a spiritual Jesus appeared to people at various occasions and then to him, and (2) we have the four gospels, two of which are based on the one that doesn't even record post mortem appearances, and one that deviates from the other three in message and theology.

Conclusion: I think the vagueness of Paul's account along with the interpolated nature of the gospels strongly indicates that Craig's argument here cannot come close to be established as fact, especially given how medical science demonstrates how prone the mind is to deception.

FACT #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

Craig justifies this claim by arguing the plight of the disciple's situation after the crucifixion.

1. Their leader was dead, and Jewish Messianic expectations included no idea of a Messiah who, instead of triumphing over Israel’s enemies, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal.

Then why is it that Christians are always trying to say that the Old Testament foretold of Jesus' crucifixion? Catholic apologist Phil Fernandes even asks the following question as a challenge to atheists on his website, "How do you explain David's graphic portrayal of Jesus' death by crucifixion (Psalm 22) 1000 years before Christ lived?"[8] Either the Jews had a tradition of a messiah who'd die or they didn't. Christians can't have it both ways. Furthermore, Craig's claim ignores the fact that in Mark 10:32-34 Jesus tells his disciples that he will be condemned to death by the Jewish priests and return three days later. In his debate with Gerd Ludemann, Craig responded to this argument by saying that Luke's telling of this story says the disciples didn't understand what Jesus meant by this (Luke 18:34). But the problem for Craig is that Luke was written after Mark by as much as twenty five years, and probably contains an interpolation by Luke's author. So the account in Luke should not take precedence over Mark. In any case, religions centered around dying and rising gods were fairly common in antiquity. This has been heavily documented by Dr. Richard Carrier. Gods that are known to have died and rose were Osiris, Romulus, Hercules, Inanna, Zalmoxis, Bacchus and Adonis.[9]

2. According to Old Testament law, Jesus’ execution exposed him as a heretic, a man literally accursed by God.

Given a historical Jesus who preached a radical message against the Jewish tradition at that time, he would have convinced his followers to deny some of the Old Testament law. For example, in Mark Jesus claims to have the authority to forgive sins (2:10), he claims to be "Lord" over the Sabbath after breaking it (2:28), and he changes the dietary rules (7:14-19), all radical departures from the Jewish tradition. Thus, his followers would not have been Jews in the traditional sense, but early Christians. And if his followers believed he was a messiah, it doesn't of course mean Jesus was god. Plenty of people believed certain charismatic leaders were divine, such as David Koresh, Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, and thousands of other cult leaders, kings and emperors.

And if Jesus was god, why such a radical departure from the Old Testament law, considering that it came from his father, who is the same as him? If this was all supposed to be part of god's grand plan, it makes me wonder if we can really call god logically consistent and all-knowing. And why didn't Jesus just prove he was god to the Jewish priests by performing a miracle during his trial before Pilate? Wouldn't that have set the record straight? I mean if you're claiming to be god and put on trial for it, the least you can do is perform a miracle or two during the trial.

3. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.

That doesn't mean that other pagan beliefs did not contain such characters who rose from the dead to glory. As I just mentioned above, ancient historian Richard Carrier has documented at least 7 of them (Osiris, Romulus, Hercules, Inanna, Zalmoxis, Bacchus and Adonis). What the early Christians might have done is simply just mixed pagan ideas with existing Jewish ideas and made a new religion out of it in a phenomenon called syncretism. That's why Christianity is in some ways so radically different from Judaism.

Then Craig spends some time arguing that "the original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief." (p. 24) Plenty of people are willing to die for an illusion. Mohammad's disciples were willing to die for his alleged prophesy. Religions and cults emerge all the time where people are willing to die for the belief in it. Just look at cults like the Heaven's Gate and Jim Jones' People's Temple. Christianity is by no means unique in this respect.

But Craig deduces, "I think that the best explanation in this case is the one that was given by the eyewitnesses: God raised Jesus from the dead." (p. 24) I disagree. These four reported facts all have more plausible natural explanations. One of them is that the miracles never happened and were made up by the writers of the New Testament. A miracle by definition is and always will be the least likely explanation for anything. So why should we infer that not one, but several actual miracles occurred 2000 years ago as the most probable explanation?


It is important to remember who bares the burden of proof here. Any theist who is making an argument for their faith bares the burden of proof. The skeptic does not have to know exactly what happened 2000 years ago, nobody does. All the skeptic has to show is that the Christian in this case has not been able to establish the historicity surrounding their religion's beginnings as fact. Craig clearly has not been able to do so in large part because his only source of evidence is the New Testament, and it has repeatedly been shown not to be a reliable historical document. His four "facts" are really just four claims, and no skeptic should give him the privilege of being able to sneak the word "fact" into the debate. While I am not entirely a mythicist on Jesus, I think it's likely that a charismatic first century Jewish preacher lived who the New Testament was based off of. Still, we cannot be sure going on what we have. It is possible that Jesus is entirely mythical – a legendary invention drawn from various pagan religions and syncretized with Judaism. A decent case can be made for that hypothesis. This is especially true when considering that we have recent instances of legendary figures emerging that are the basis for religions like John Frum and the Cargo Cults. In the end it is faith that carries the believer, not evidence.


[1] Kirby, Peter "Tomb: Rebuttal to Tomb Burial by Joseph of Arimathea" The Secular Web Retrieved 8 Aug 2013

[2] Lowder, Jeffrey Jay, "Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story" The Secular Web Fall 2001 Retrieved 8 Aug 2013

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Parsons, Keith "Why I Am Not A Christian" The Secular Web 2000 Retrieved 13 Aug 2013

[7] John's gospel differs theologically in several areas. For example:

1. In John, Jesus' disciples call him the messiah the first time they meet him in chapter 1 (John 1:41). In Mark's gospel, Jesus' disciples don't call him the messiah until chapter 8 (Mark 8:29).

2. In John, Jesus explicitly says he is divine. "I and the Father are one." (John 10:30) “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58) But Jesus never claims divinity in Mark, Matthew and Luke, the earliest gospels. Since John is the last gospel, Jesus' claims to divinity appear to have been later embellishments from the author of John, who was also not an eyewitness. So we can see in the gospels ending with John that Jesus became divine as the story was told.

Except for conservative evangelicals, many scholars do not think that John's gospel accurately records Jesus' words and many of his sayings appear to have been invented by the author.

[8] Fernandes, Phil "Questions For Atheists" I Love Atheists Retrieved 8 Aug 2013

[9] Carrier, Richard "Ehrman On Historicity Recap" Free Thought Blogs 24 July 2012 Retrieved 8 Aug 2012


  1. When an apologist like Craig espouses this argument he is basically saying, "I have not studied History in any rigorous way, ever!"

    Apologists are usually savvy enough to know that they can't espouse a young earth, deny common descent, etc., without looking like rubes. But for some reason they seem to think that referring to the historical argument for Jesus is entirely respectable, and that maybe armed with that and a little Koine Greek they could get that History PhD in half a year.

    I think this argument should be the main Exhibit if they ever make that Dunning Kruger Museum.

  2. Btw, while there is some room for definitions, etc. on this sort of thing, I do like the treatment of this topic of what constitutes a historical fact, and what Historians actually do (explain those facts, with an ever-changing set of tools and understanding), that can be found at Vridar, etc. I had a good link from there at one point that gave a quick and potent explanation of how apologists misuse the term "facts' -- let me know if you're curious and I'll see if I can re-locate it.

  3. Never mind, found it. Like I said, I thought this was well explained, and succinct:

    1. Good points. History has to be treated the same way that good journalists report the news - that is to say very carefully. Craig just comes out and confidently asserts the bible as fact. I mean what could be more arrogant and ballsy than that?

      If he'd just change this argument to "Four Reported Facts" I wouldn't think of him as such a major douche. He's presupposing that the bible is reliable, accurate and factual before he even makes his argument.

  4. This was a great post. One thing I wanted to add about point 3 that I was very surprised about when I read the gospels is that when Jesus returned after resurrection he didn't even look like himself. It seems entirely plausible to me (if any of this story is true) that the resurrected Jesus could simply have been an impostor.

    1. Thanks. Some even believe Jesus had a twin brother.

  5. Nice post. I don't know if you are familiar with Matt Ferguson but his blog is very useful in regards to the historicity of Jesus and other things related to Christianity in a historical sense. I'll post his blog below for anyone interested.



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