Wednesday, June 09, 2010

1st Corinthians 15 is not a fact

I recently listened to the debate with Dr. Mike Licona and Dr. Richard Carrier on Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? This followed what I call the “Habermas” approach, regarding the Minimal facts position.

Dr. Licona’s reliance solely on 1 Cor. 15:3-8 in his opening statement was slightly surprising. Indeed, he indicated he was deliberately not relying upon any of the Gospels. The only “facts” he used was this small passage. (I put “facts” in quotes for a reason to be revealed shortly.) He then demanded Dr. Carrier provide a counter-factual to explain these “facts” that is more historically plausible than Jesus being resurrected.

A little background, in case the reader is not familiar with this use of 1 Cor. 15. Around 50 C.E., Paul was writing to the church in Corinth regarding certain problems in the church. How to effectively coordinate speaking in tongues, (1 Cor. 14:5-39), what to do with women in the church (1 Cor. 14:34-35), etc. An issue confronted was congregants saying there was no resurrection of the dead. Paul uses Jesus’ resurrection as an example and in doing so, cites a creed Paul had previously personally provided to the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that He was seen by Cephas,
then by the twelve.
After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.
After that He was seen by James,
then by all the apostles.
Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)

Dr. Licona followed the formulaic Christian apologetic by claiming Jesus died in 30 CE, “most scholars” believe Paul was converted within 3 years and “it is likely” Paul received this information from Peter and James upon visiting Jerusalem after the conversion approximately 3 years later, or 36 CE at the latest. (Acts 9:26-29; Gal. 1:18-19) This formula is designed to make the creed seem very early indeed.

A minor tangent regarding the dating. First, we don’t know when Jesus died, (there is controversy regarding whether he died on a Friday before the Passover, or a Friday that was a Passover, meaning it would be a different year.) Second, we don’t know when Paul was converted. Thirdly, we don’t know who Paul obtained this creed from. Even granting Dr. Licona’s “most scholars” and “it is likely” it is a matter of speculation regarding when Paul received this. And, the earliest Paul could have received it was 40 C.E.; to conform to the chronology required by 2 Cor. 11:32, Gal. 1:17-18 and Acts 9:23-29.

So what is the “fact” we are dealing with? An example for clarification…imagine a criminal trial. The prosecution has presented evidence showing the defendant’s fingerprints on the gun, eyewitness testimony placing the defendant at the scene, and a written confession by the defendant. Now the prosecution puts up their first witness: the Defendant’s mother. She testifies, “My son was with me watching Jeopardy at the time.”

Is the presented “fact” that defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time of the crime? No—a thousand times, No! The fact is: “Defendant’s mother testified defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time.” See the difference?

“Defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time.”
“Defendant’s mother testified defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time.”

If the jury, in our example, convicted the Defendant, we would not demand they come up with an explanation for how the Defendant could possibly be watching Jeopardy at the same time the crime was committed, and demand they come up with a plausible explanation for him crossing town at a commercial break or some other such nonsense. No, what we understand is that the jury sees a plausible explanation for why the Defendant’s mother testified to an alibi defense. She believes her son is innocent (because she is a mother) and has probably confused a day when they did watch television together. This is very plausible.

What bothered me about this debate was how Dr. Licona referred to these appearances in 1 Cor. 15 as “facts” where actuality, the fact is Paul is reporting he heard about these appearances. (Amusingly, this is worse than our situation with the Defendant’s mother. To more closely align it, we would have to state, “The Defendant’s mother heard from unknown persons that the defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time.” I hope you can see how this is even more tenuous a fact.)

Except the last claim--Jesus appearing to Paul (where every indication we have is that was a vision)—the other accounts are hearsay. The easiest and most plausible explanation is that these accounts were made up and passed on to Paul. No resurrection—no miracle—is necessary.

Think about it—creedal Christians are not scratching their heads trying to explain how Joseph Smith chanced upon golden plates buried for centuries. They don’t believe there were any plates in the first place! In a debate with a Mormon, a creedal Christian would not grant the “fact” of the Golden plates’ existence, simply because witnesses claimed to have seen them—they demand proof of the plates themselves.

In the same way, why should we (and why did Dr. Carrier) grant these appearances as having happened (albeit Dr. Carrier gives a possible explanation of group hallucination), simply because Dr. Licona calls them “facts”?

At the debate’s beginning, Dr. Licona gave an example of how a proposed explanation has “explanatory scope” by explaining all the facts at one’s disposal. He relayed an incident in his neighborhood where he heard sirens and emergency vehicles and made one postulation. Upon learning more facts (and learning his first guess was wrong) he made another guess. He went on about learning more facts, making more guesses and each time learning his previous speculation was incorrect.

I am bothered that this was not applied to the present situation. Shouldn’t we look to the other facts? What about the conflicting accounts? Matthew, Luke and John have different orders of appearance. They have females not included in this creed. [Some apologists claim Paul didn’t include females due to their lack of credibility…but I thought he was quoting a creed. Did he modify a creed or did the creed’s authors have something against females?]

The Gospels do not record any appearance to 500. The Gospels do not record an appearance to James—no other canonical book does. And who are the “apostles”? Are they different than the 500 and different than the Twelve?

What about the other accounts not mentioned that conflict with each other? The appearances to Mary Magdalene, the soldiers, whether it was in Galilee or Jerusalem, how long Jesus stayed on earth? In any other historical context we would look at the various accounts and question which (if any) were accurate. Why must we assume 1 Cor. 15 is, and the others are not?

It is also interesting that 1 Cor. 15 indicates Jesus died, was buried and rose again on the third day, “according to the scriptures.” Nothing about Jesus predicting his own resurrection in this—the earliest of creeds! Further, Jesus statements regarding a post-resurrection body (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 23:43, Matt. 22:30, Mark 12:25, John 11:24-25) were apparently unknown to the Corinthians. How is it possible, a religion founded on the physical resurrection of its leader, could reach a point within 20 years where some followers did not believe in a physical resurrection?

I have no idea why anyone is conceding these appearances are “facts.” As if we have to explain how 500 people saw a physically resurrected Jesus. No…all we have to do is explain how someone claims 500 people saw a physically resurrected Jesus. And the naturalistic explanation (they made it up) is far more plausible and probable than that Jesus DID actually rise from the dead.

Unless the creedal Christian is busy explaining away the amazing coincidence of how Joseph Smith just happened to stumble on those ancient Golden Plates and then manage to lose them…


  1. Great post. I try and not do theology much these days :) but you caused me to think about this a bit.
    Thanks for the ammo for use at the next family gathering. :)


  2. I attended a Catholic elementary school in the 1960’s where the nuns told me about various apparitions of the Virgin Mary. I don’t remember exactly what they said but I can certainly imagine one of them claiming that 70,000 people saw the sun dance in the sky at Fatima in 1917 and that some of the people who witnessed it were still alive. Of course this would not have meant anything more than that the nuns had heard the story and believed it was true. It would not have meant that they had actually talked to any of the witnesses. By the same token, Paul may have heard a story about Jesus appearing to 500 (maybe he even elicited it by torture back when he was persecuting the Church), but there is no reason to think that he actually heard it from anyone who was there or knew any of them by name.

  3. The fact is: "Defendant's mother testified defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time." See the difference?

    This is a crucial point, and resolves any number of issues and objections to scientific epistemology.

    As an aside, I'm interested your thoughts about experts in skepticism at my friend miller's blog.

  4. Imagine a witness who came into court but could not say where or when most of the relevant events took place, did not know what the key actors said or did, and claimed that what he did know he learned from a ghost that appeared to him.

  5. The reason is that Dr. Carrier (my probably retarded gushing that I actually met him when Dan Barker gave a speech to the atheist group on campus fall 2008), like most atheists, haven't realized that the solid majority of Christian apologetics are designed to get atheists to argue about things which don't actually matter.

    The Kalaam argument is the primary example of this. Almost no one attacks the jump from 'universe has a cause' to 'the cause is personal' but that is I think where the primary problem is.

  6. [T]he solid majority of Christian apologetics are designed to get atheists to argue about things which don't actually matter.

    Christian apologists should not get the blame for this. 99.99% of philosophy is arguing about things that don't actually matter.

    (And don't gush too much; Richard is a friend of mine, and he's not that smart.)

  7. Has Licona simply abandoned trying to show that the empty tomb was a fact?

    But if he cannot even show that there was a grassy knoll, how can he show that there was a second gunman?

  8. Where exactly did 500 Christians gather in the short space of time between the movement scattering and Jesus flying into the sky on his way to Heaven?

    How many churches of today get 500+ congregations?

    Was there a convention? Just what brought 500+ Christians together?

  9. Steven Carr,

    For this discussion…yes…Dr. Licona did not refer to the empty tomb.

    To answer the other questions…the “where” is a bit funny.

    The most common argument I see is for Galilee in that it couldn’t be indoors, where Jesus would have a number of followers, and arguably aligns with Matthew (although THAT has problems, in that some doubted, meaning not all 500 believed!)

    Humoroulsy, if one believes Acts is historical (and we most Christian apologists do), Peter apparently could talk to at least 3000 in a place around Jerusalem, (Acts 2:5, 41) without “seating problems.” Why 500 ONLY in Galilee, when 3000 could fit in Jerusalem?

    Also, if one steps back to see the big picture, one can start to see the historical problems.

    Jesus allegedly appears to 500—a resurrected dead person—yet some doubted. (Mt. 28:17. Maybe as many as 380 out of the 500, ‘cause by Pentecost there were only 120 left! [Acts 1:15]) Jesus allegedly appeared at the place (Galilee) where he would be most recognized. And some doubted.

    But one, two months later, Peter makes a sermon to people who have NOT seen a resurrected body, to foreign Jews , and 3000 people converted!

    Christians claim, “Why didn’t the priests show the body?” We can rightly respond, “Why was the resurrected apparition so damned unconvincing?”

    Your final question—“What brought the 500 together?” 1 Cor. 15:6’s author’s imagination. *wink*

  10. DagoodS wrote "Jesus allegedly appears to 500—a resurrected dead person—yet some doubted."

    Great point. Got me to thinking....if we all went to a Benny Hinn Meeting and Benny raised a woman from the dead we KNEW was dead.....I suspect we would be believers. (to some degree or another)

    To see a Jesus who was nailed to a cross and taken off of it dead, then alive again.........that would make a believer out of me. Yet in the Bible account some did not believe.

    In my Calvinistic days we answered that : they were not elect. (See how easy it is to find an answer to Bible difficulties?) :)