Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Debate Thoughts

On September 9th, I listened to this debate [mp3 file download] between Matthew Ferguson and Nick Peters. The topic: “Based on the historical evidence, is it more reasonable to believe or doubt Jesus’ resurrection?”

First some general notes. These two gentlemen are not professional debaters. What a relief! Personally, I am tired of listening to the same Craig or Ehrman repetitions. I have heard Habermas and Carrier and Licona and Hitchens and Turek…enough. I enjoyed the slightly rougher presentations--the not-quite-perfectly-memorized speeches. They were still well-prepared and eloquent…just more man-on-the-street, if you get my meaning.

Also, it is too easy to “Monday morning quarterback” these types of debates. To critically analyze every nuance and statement after-the-fact, with “You should have said…” or “The correct response was…” After all, the participants are now doing it themselves! [After every significant trial, we look back wishing we said something different, or asked a different question. It still haunts Christopher Darden regarding asking O.J. to try on that glove!] Of course that won’t stop me from Monday morning quarterbacking. *grin*

I am writing this from my memory and notes taken during the debate. I have not re-listened to it on the mp3 yet. All quotes are therefore paraphrased, and if I incorrectly state something, please attribute my faulty memory.

The Mechanics.

This debate was established as a conference call, with a limited number of participants. I had a slightly harder time understanding Mr. Peters. Mr. Ferguson sounded as if he was in-studio, whereas Mr. Peters sounded like a person calling into a radio station. Additionally, Mr. Peters has a slight (southern?) accent—there were times I struggled a bit to recognize the word he was saying, and if I didn’t know the topic as well, or the persons he was referring to, I wouldn’t have known what he was saying.

The Format.

There were things I really, really liked about this format, and a few modifications I would make. (Again, this is just personal preference.) The format was as follows:

1) Ferguson Introduction (2 min.)
2) Peters Introduction (2 min)

3) Ferguson Opening Statement (15 min.)
4) Peters Opening Statement (15 min.)

5) Ferguson First Rebuttal (10 min.)
6) Peters First Rebuttal (10 min.)
7) Ferguson Second Rebuttal (10 min.)
8) Peters Second Rebuttal (10 min.)

9) Ferguson questions Peters (10 min)
10) Peters questions Ferguson (10 min.)

11) Ferguson Closing Statement (10 min.)
12) Peters Closing Statement (10 min.)

I liked the initial introduction and think it should be incorporated in more debates. The second rebuttal was unnecessary. They more than adequately covered the necessary material in the first rebuttal. I also felt a bit…rushed…in the opening statement (especially by Mr. Ferguson.) But I greatly enjoyed the questioning back and forth. I think they could have done an opening statement and filled the remainder with questioning and I would have been perfectly pleased in every way.

So the modifications for next time: 1) Extend the opening statement to 20 minutes. 2) Eliminate the second rebuttal. 3) Reduce the closing statement to 5 – 7 minutes. 4) Extend the questioning period.

The Debate.


Mr. Ferguson emphasized he would be approaching this historically—a critical method limited in its ability to make determinations. The best historical method can do is determine what is more probable. Mr. Peters indicated the resurrection can be established “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that the evidence should be approached with an open mind and the resurrection hypothesis was the “most plausible.”

Opening Statements.

Mr. Ferguson indicated the historical method consisted of three items:

1) Theoretical—history can never be 100% re-duplicated.
2) Limited evidence .
3) Probabilistic. We must weigh the theories as to which is more probable (not merely plausible) with the expected evidence.

He used the example of whether Julius Caesar shaved the day he was assassinated. As Roman officials shaved regularly, and this was not something generally recorded, it was more probable he did shave than he did not. With no evidence to the contrary, in using the historical method, we would conclude it more reasonable to believe he did.

Resurrections are extremely improbable, and our initial prior-probability should be they do not occur. The only evidence we have to modify our prior-probability is anonymous records written decades after the event by biased individuals. Mr. Ferguson extrapolated the ever-increasing physical nature of Jesus’ post-mortem body from 1 Cor. 15 to Mark to Matthew to Luke to John.

Mr. Ferguson provided four (4) alternative hypotheses to explain the Resurrection:

1) The doctrine was initially a spiritual resurrection.
2) Jesus was buried in either an unknown tomb or a mass grave.
3) The Body was stolen
4) Re-burial by Joseph to another tomb.

[DagoodS Note: Not sure I would go with Body stolen as much as moved. Notice in Johannine community, it was unremarkable that Jesus’ body was not there. Mary Magdalene asked the gardener where “they” have taken the body. She didn’t start screaming for the guards, or thinking Jesus was resurrected—she took it as matter-of-course the body was moved. Additionally Jesus’ family was likely to bury Jesus in a family tomb in Galilee either by transporting the body itself or after one year and using an ossuary.]

Mr. Peters follows in Mike Licona’s footsteps, so I anticipated he would approach the topic the same way. He did. There are certain facts conceded by a consensus of scholars—credentialed scholars with Ph.D’s who “don’t have an axe to grind”—regarding Jesus. [DagoodS note: This is the first time I have seen any qualification of Dr. Habermas’ list. I am genuinely curious whether they all have Ph.D’s.]

Mr. Peters proceeded through the regular minimal facts approach. Jesus was crucified, 1 Cor. 15 was a creed generated within 5 years of the event, James was not a believer, Paul was a skeptic, and the disciples had appearances of a physical Jesus. Mr. Peters cites Ludemann, Ehrman, Licona and Keener. Cites Craig Keener as saying it is miracles preventing people from believing resurrection. States mass hallucinations are not recorded in studies. Jews did not believe in a physical resurrection

The strongest argument (in my opinion) was the question “Why did Paul do a 180?”

First Rebuttal.

Mr. Ferguson questioned why a physiological impossible event (Resurrection of body to immortal body) would be considered “more probable” than what the apologist considered a psychologically impossible event (mass hallucination.) In other words, how can we pick one impossible event as “more probable” than another impossible event?

Additionally Mr. Ferguson stated Paul’s conversion requires more facts than just resurrection, then opining Paul was unsatisfied with his current belief, had a hallucination, and converted to the belief he was persecuting. He used an example of finding a room devoid of a person and then seeing the person skydiving three years later. I kinda think I understand the analogy, but it was not very clear.

As for Keener, Mr. Ferguson points out Dr. Keener may record a number of miracles, but never records an instance of a person coming back from the dead, and obtaining an immortal body. Anyone coming back from the dead is only postponing death—not eliminating it.

Mr. Ferguson noted Josephus indicated Essenes did believe in a spiritual resurrection, leaving behind their current physical bodies. That Jews were not limited to just “physical resurrection” belief. Mr. Ferguson cautioned (more than once) to not treat the First century communities as homogenous. There were multiple beliefs and doctrines. I found this response very damning and wished Mr. Peters would reply and explain how no Jews believed in the physical resurrection in light of this evidence. Alas, Mr. Peters did not.

Mr. Peters rebutted that resurrection was not resuscitation. (I was not clear why this was important—I thought both participants agreed on this point.) Mr. Peters states the attempts to explain Paul’s conversion as “psycho-history” or performing psychology on historical persons without adequate evidence.

Further, while Mr. Peters has cited numerous credentialed scholars, Mr. Ferguson hasn’t cited anyone. Mr. Peters contacted Tim McGrew who reviewed Mr. Ferguson’s approach on Bayes’ Theorem and called it “thoroughly confused.”

Second Rebuttal

Mr. Ferguson provides a list of scholars he utilized regarding Bayes’ Theorem, as well as other items.

[DagoodS Note: Initially I found this to be a losing approach. Why play your opponent’s game? However, Mr. Ferguson listed enough scholars; I guess it ended up a dead-lock.

[Look, I’ve been in a number of trials with experts on both sides. You know we can hire any body with: a) plenty of credentials and b) who will render an opinion in favor of our client. Amazingly the other side can find someone of equal caliber, who astoundingly will opine in favor of their client! We even have a term for it—“Battle of the Experts.” So I have my expert with their charts, graphs, CV, pictures and opinion; the other side has theirs. Unless one side has an outstandingly eloquent expert, jurors ignore both of them. And then do what their common sense and reasonableness wants to do anyway.

[There is a tendency in Christian apologetics to be enamored with “experts.” “Dr. So-And-So—a non-Christian—concludes this.” “Dr. This-And-That disagrees with you and she has been published in more journals.” “We have this list of names.” There is a tendency in the skeptical community to be more self-reliant (are we more egotistical?). We don’t care if Dr. BigName has 52 letters behind his name—we want to see the underlying data, evidence and arguments.

[This was a debate on evidence. I (being skeptical) want evidence. Not names…heck, I already know the names. You mention Bayes’ Theorem, a Christian apologist is sure to mention McGrew. Minimal facts—Habermas & Licona. Textual Critcism—Wallace. Guess what? The skeptical community has their Bayes’ Theorem expert—Carrier; their textual critic—Ehrman; their minimal fact expert—pick one. Names do not impress people going through deconversion. We have read them. We want to see how ordinary people—jurors—grapple with the facts themselves. This is where this debate had possibility of strength.

[I don’t want to compare names—I want to hear the evidences explored! To quote a crude but apt phrase from the movie Taken: “Now is not the time for dick measuring, Stuart!”]

Mr. Peters second rebuttal was his strongest statement in the debate. He stated Mr. Ferguson’s translation of Greek in 1 Cor. 15 would be flunked by Dr. Licona. (I found this statement petty. Unfortunately such statements have traction in many Christian circles, for the reasons stated above.) He mentioned Craig Keener demonstrating miracles in his book and recommended listeners get the book and do the study themselves.

He then hit upon the social-sciences commentary [DagoodS Note: see Dr. Bruce Malina*] stating crucifixion was shameful, being a Christian was shameful and there would be no reason, in this society, to become a Christian unless it was true. That the Jews would be cut off from Yahweh.

*Sigh. After that long diatribe, I’m now citing names. Just call me “Hypocrite.”


I have fewer notes here; I sat back and enjoyed the conversation. The key points (remember, I have already heard much of this stuff before, so I was looking for something new and interesting) were in this questioning time.

Mr. Ferguson: If God turned me into a cucumber, would it be a miracle?
Mr. Peters: Yes.
Mr. Ferguson: Did Dr. Keener record a resurrection in his book on miracles?
Mr. Peters: Not to an immortal body, but there was an instance where rigor mortis set in, the person’s fingers were black, and they tried zapping him one more time, and the person came back.

Mr. Ferguson: So does the miracle of bringing back a person after rigor mortis make it more probable that God will perform the miracle of turning me into a cucumber?
Mr. Peters: No.

Mr. Peters questioned what would cause Paul to convert to Christianity unless the resurrection was true. Mr. Ferguson replied Paul was one person, and perhaps Paul was crazy.

[DagoodS Note: Christian apologists…stay away from Paul’s conversion. It does not help you.

[People convert for a variety of reasons to a variety of bizarre beliefs. People go from Protestant to Catholic. Christian to Jew. Atheist to Buddhist. And in looking at the beliefs throughout history, there are some very off-beat beliefs that somehow manage to obtain followers. Heaven’s gate, anyone? If 50 years ago someone explained Scientology would be taken seriously, we would have laughed. Yet here we are. The “why” Paul converted is unknown. The “how” is problematic.

[First, Paul had the minimal facts. And they did not convince him. He knew Jesus was crucified and buried. Heck, he is closer to the evidence than we are—he could see the empty tomb! He could talk to the soldiers who were guarding it, who felt the earthquake, who were bribed to say they fell asleep. He could talk to people who saw the resurrected saints. He could talk to the priests from the trials; see where the temple veil was repaired. He knew the disciples were proclaiming they had seen Jesus. He knew they were willing to be persecuted for it. He knew every single minimal fact plus a great deal more.

[And Paul was not convinced by them. If Paul—who was far more intimately familiar with the evidence than we could ever hope to be—was not convinced…why should we be convinced today? The only way to convince Paul was for him to receive direct revelation (in Pauls’ words) or a vision (in Luke’s words.) But this was a vision—NOT an encounter with a physically resurrected Jesus.

[As those who argue with the “wouldn’t die for a lie” approach know—people are willing to die for belief all the time. The strength in the argument is to claim the persons encountered a physically resurrected Jesus. That does not include Paul—he saw Jesus in a vision. While Paul is much closer in time than many Christian martyrs, he is no different in encountering a physically resurrected Jesus than anyone today. Whether Paul saw Jesus in a vision 2 months after Jesus died, or Mary down the street saw Jesus in a vision 1,980 years after he died—BOTH have the same evidentiary value!

[Further, we often hear that naturalistic presupposition hinders our weighing the evidence. No problem with Paul—he was a theist, immersed in a culture readily believing God interacted through miracles.

[Paul’s conversion and willingness to suffer persecution has no more evidentiary value than a person converted today and equally willing. Worse, Paul had all the minimal facts (plus more) and was not convinced by the evidence. I do not see how Paul’s conversion helps the Christian apologist.]

Concluding remarks.

Each wrapped up their positions. No new information here.

I felt Mr. Fergusons strongest point was on the cucumber, effectively removing Keener’s miracles as having evidentiary value, with a secondary point regarding the Essenes. Mr. Peter’s strongest point was on Paul’s conversion, with a secondary question regarding why people would convert to Christianity.

I look forward to these gentlemen discussing again.


  1. After being raised in a moderately liberal Catholic home, I embraced evangelical Christianity at the age of seventeen in 1974. After about a year and a half, I gave up on it being disappointed both in the quality of the apologetic arguments as well as the fact that I wasn't any more at peace or any happier that I had been before.

    From time to time over the last forty years, I have contemplated the reasons why I converted in the first place and I'm still not exactly sure. I've got some ideas of some of the factors that influenced me, but in many ways it's still a mystery to me.

    My point is that if I cannot explain why I converted forty years, how could I possibly be sure why Paul converted two thousand years ago? The notion that any hypothesis is better than any other because it explains Paul's conversion strikes me as the height of silliness. It's not the kind of thing that we can ever hope to determine with any degree of certainly, particularly given the scanty record we have of Paul's experience.

  2. Sorry for the prior post. I tried posting twice earlier today on my ipad and they never appeared.

    Paul's conversion use to be persuasive to me til I realized that his vision was what others experience today. I wouldn't count people with visions today as eyewitnesses, so I shouldn't count him either.

    I have a question about miracles. Even though a miracle's occurrence doesn't have evidentiary value for a different miracle occurring, doesn't it indirectly increase the probability of another miracle (as in at least > 0%) by demonstrating that miracles are at least possible?

    Given that you enjoyed the dialogue between these two, I wonder if you've listened to the "Unbelievable?" podcast? I've listened to many discussions there and thought of you when they recently invited to the program the author of Cold Case Christianity, who is a cold case homicide detective. He discussed applying his method of investigation to Christianity and was questioned by a former homicide detective, who is still an atheist.

  3. DoOrDoNot,

    Nice to hear from you. How is the running? An analogy to explain the miracle thing…

    I claim I made a meal of buffalo snout sausage, marinated in do-do bird sauce, seasoned with crushed fossilized stegosaurus tail. To support my claim, I point out in the past year there were 279 billion Chinese meals made. You would (correctly) point out, it makes no difference whatsoever HOW many billions of Chinese meals have ever been made, this does not support the contention I made a specific unique meal.

    In the same way, regardless if there were billions of colds healed, millions of parking lots magically appearing, hundreds of thousands jobs provided, thousands of tumors disappearing, hundreds of cancers vanishing overnight and one (1) person whose death was delayed by a temporary resuscitation, this does not support a person self-resurrecting with a magic-transforming, self-healing body any more than all those Chinese meals support a particular claimed meal.

    Yes I am extremely familiar with J. Warner Wallace. I have posted on his blog and listen to his podcast. (And I listen to Unbelievable, too. Well….some of them.) Has a terrible methodology (treats 1st Century documents like 21st Century police-reports), poor historical foundation, (has actually written the phrase, “When Herod the Tetrarch was king…”*), fails to demonstrate any critical knowledge regarding current biblical scholarship, only responds to the easiest and lightest criticisms and apparently has no concept of genre. Basically, another [lawyer, doctor, journalist, fill-in-the-blank] Christian apologist who capitalizes on his expertise in another field to impress Christians.

    *Herod Antipas was only titled a Tetrarch, not a king. “King” had a VERY specific meaning in the First Century, granted by the Romans as a sort of insult. Herod Antipas greatly desired the title, even becoming jealous when his nephew, Herod Agrippa obtained the title “King” and Antipas was deposed because he contended with his nephew over the title.

    Mark, in the story of John the Baptist, incorrectly calls Antipas “king” and this is an example where Matthew corrects Mark by correctly titling Antipas as “tetrarch” but later demonstrates fatigue by copying Mark directly and referring to Antipas as “King.” No 1st Century Galilean would call Herod Antipas “king.” This would be like currently making the statement, “When Obama the Senator was President.”

    1. I just expanded upon your soup analogy here:


      I gave your credit for the idea! It's a great example.

  4. J. Warner Wallace also pushes the "Bible accurately describes the hydrologic cycle" argument.

    Only if one is capable of swallowing such a quality of argumentation and coming back to ask the cook for seconds will one be able to digest his arguments for New Testament historicity.

  5. I continue to run, though I'm not trying to improve my time or increase distance. I do have a 5K I'll be running with my dog soon:) I've also taken up biking. My husband has run the Warrior Dash and the Tough Mudder this year. The Tough Mudder is beyond me. I'm sure you'd love it.

    Thanks for the metaphor of the dinners.

    I had a feeling you'd be less than impressed with Wallace :)

  6. Staircaseghost,

    I once showed how one can use the Bible to prove the universe is expanding, staying constant or even contracting, depending on how one wants to read it.