I would like to begin by thanking Mike for an interesting and lively argument in support of his view that the Gospels of the New Testament are, by and large, historically accurate and that their accounts of the resurrection of Jesus can be demonstrated, on historical grounds, to be reliable statements of what actually happened in the past.
Let me frame my response by saying something about my personal context in dealing with such questions. I myself came out of a similar religious context to that which Mike now finds himself in — the context within which he acquired his views about the Bible and about history. I went to a conservative Christian colleges (two of them!) out of high school, much like the schools Mike has worked in. The view that Mike has sketched out is very much what I myself was told (and believed) about the Bible, and history, and the relationship between the two.
I need to say that that kind of context is not the one in which historical scholars typically develop and advance their views. It is a highly unusual context, and the views, assumptions, and presuppositions held by people who live and work in those contexts are not those of academics who work in any other context. Sometimes, we see something the way we do simply because that’s how everyone in our immediate context sees it, as well. It seems normal to us. So normal that we think that it is normal. Even if it is not at all normal.
I left that context when I began to teach. Before starting on my university career, I had been to Moody Bible Institute, then Wheaton College, and then for both a master’s and a PhD degree, at Princeton Theological Seminary. All of these were thoroughly Christian schools and the students at all these schools were committed Christians who believed that God was active in history and that history was replete with activities of God. And that you could actually show it. So, that’s what I thought. That’s what everyone in those contexts seemed to think. That’s what Mike thinks. Of course, he does: That’s the context in which he lives, moves, and has his being.
I began my teaching career in a very different context, at a secular research university in New Jersey: Rutgers. After teaching there for four years, in 1988 I moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the truly great state universities in the country. My colleagues in both places have been specialists in a wide range of academic disciplines: classics, anthropology, American studies, philosophy, and lots of other disciplines, especially history. I live with and move among people who do serious historical research for a living. That’s what they have done for their entire academic lives. It’s not a Christian school context, but the context of a purely academic, research institution.
There are some of Mike’s positions, as he has sketched them out for us in his statement, which would be seen as completely non-problematic among scholars who are academic specialists in the field of history. These would include, for example, his use of ancient authors such as Suetonius and Plutarch for understanding the nature of the Gospel writings, and his case that by and large the Gospels are fairly reliable historical sources. There is nothing inherently problematic with either position. Some scholars would agree, some would disagree, but they could have a reasoned argument about it using the same terms and accepting the same presuppositions.
There are other things that Mike claims, though, that would not be accepted in this kind of environment, most notably his claim that you can demonstrate that Jesus was raised from the dead — that is, that a supernatural event from the past can be demonstrated on purely historical grounds as being highly probable. Mike does his best to argue that this is something that a historian, simply using historical evidence, can come to conclude. But he does not make a good case, and I can simply tell you as someone who lives and works with historians, that this is not the kind of view that you would ever find in the context of a major research university. You may find it at Baptist colleges, or independent fundamentalist colleges, or other kinds of denominational schools (whether colleges or seminaries). But at least in my experience, you will not find it in major research universities. You will never, ever have a history class that argues for supernatural occurrences in the past. Never.
That does not, of course, prove that the view is wrong. Not at all! But if you want to know what is widely seen by experts as acceptable argumentation, you should always ask the experts. If you want to know how physicists understand motion, you should ask physicists; if you want to know the proper methodology for conducting a chemical experiment, you should ask chemists; if you want to know how best to conduct ethnographic research, you should ask anthropologists; and if you want to know what are acceptable historical methodologies and assumptions, you should ask historians.
Still, let me stress that Mike has given probably the best defense one can imagine for his views, and he is to be commended for that. I will not be able, given space limitations, to speak at length about each and everyone one of his points — many of which I agree with and some of which (such as whether historians can speak about the supernatural) I heartily disagree with. But I do want to address some of the major issues, and will do so under a number of the key rubrics.
The Nature of the Gospels
I am glad to see that in one major way Mike and I agree about the Gospels. We agree that we cannot hold the Gospels to modern standards of accuracy, because if we do, the Gospels are not accurate. In Mike’s words, the Gospels are “flexible with details” and they are comparable to modern movies that employ extensive “artistic license.” I couldn’t agree more.
And so the natural question arises, as Mike himself raises it: What do we mean by historical accuracy? Let me tell you what I think most people mean. My sense is that when people today want to know whether the Gospels are historically accurate, what they want to know is this: Did the events that are narrated in the Gospels actually happen in the way the stories are told or not? People in general are interested in that basic question, not so much in the points that Mike raises. That is to say, people are not overly interested in the question of whether the Gospels stack up nicely in comparison with ancient biographers such as Plutarch and Suetonius. Of course they’re not interested in that. Most people have never read Plutarch and Suetonius. I’d venture to say that most Bible readers have never even heard of Plutarch or Suetonius, or if they have, it’s simply as some vague name of someone from the ancient world.
People don’t care much, as a rule, about other ancient biographers and their tactics when talking about the Bible. They are interested in the Bible. Is it accurate? For most people that means: Did the stories happen in the way they are described or not? If they did happen that way, then the stories are accurate. If they did not happen in that way, they are not.
If it were, however, important to talk about the relationship of the Gospels to such ancient authors, then it would be worth pointing out, as Mike knows full well, that Plutarch and Suetonius are themselves not thought of as historically reliable sources in the way that many people hope and want the Gospels of the New Testament to be. Both authors tell a lot of unsubstantiated anecdotes about the subjects of their biographies; they include scandalous rumors and hearsay; they shape their accounts in light of their own interests; and they are far less interested in giving abundant historically accurate detail than in making overarching points about the moral qualities of their characters. That is what Plutarch explicitly tells us he wants to do. He wants the lives that he describes to be models of behavior for his readers, and he shapes his stories to achieve that end. He is not concerned simply to give a disinterested historical sketch of what actually happened.
Mike thinks the Gospels are like Plutarch, and I completely agree. They are far more like Plutarch, and Suetonius, than they are like modern attempts at biography. In modern biographies, an author is concerned to make sure that everything told has been verified and documented and represents events as they really and truly happened. Ancient biographies, including the Gospels, are not at all like that.
And so, as Mike suggests, there are places where the Gospels have changed historical information out of “artistic license.” Mike gives a couple of examples of that, places where he thinks the Gospels are not historically accurate. Let me just pick up one of the two in order to show how it all works, since I think the example unpacks very nicely what the Gospels are actually like. This is the example that I gave at length in my opening Statement, and one that Mike has now indicated that he agrees with. It involves the difference between Mark and John on the day on which Jesus died.
Mark’s account is unambiguous: Jesus’s disciples make preparations for the annual Passover meal as he instructs them; that evening, on the day of Passover, they eat the meal with Jesus; afterward Jesus is arrested; he spends the night in jail and he is condemned to be crucified the next morning, the execution happening immediately, at 9:00 am. John’s account is very different. Here, the disciples do not make preparations for the Passover and the final meal they have is not said to be a Passover. Instead, Jesus is arrested and spends the night in jail and is condemned and executed on what John explicitly tells us is the day before the Passover meal was eaten.
As Mike indicates, John appears to have changed a historical datum in order to stress his theological point. In John’s Gospel Jesus dies precisely on the day when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover meal that evening. It is the day before Jesus dies in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark Jesus lives through that day, and that evening he eats the meal and then dies the next day.
I am perfectly happy to agree with Mike that John has done this. Or, one could argue, maybe Mark has done it. Maybe Mark has changed the historical reality in order to make a theological point (if that’s how it happened, then Mark wanted Jesus’s last meal to be a Passover so that Jesus could instill increased significance in the symbolic Passover bread and cup). In either case, someone has changed the account.
But I don’t think we should pass over (so to say) the significance of this change too quickly. If we take John’s account to be historically accurate, then what does that mean? Doesn’t it mean that Jesus did not have a Passover meal with his disciples? Doesn’t that mean that he didn’t institute the Last Supper? Doesn’t that mean that the communion meal that Christians celebrate today is not actually rooted in the Lord’s Supper that Jesus himself established? That seems rather important!
But if Mark is accurate and John is not, doesn’t that also show beyond any doubt that the Gospel writers (John in this case) were (sometimes? many times?) more interested in making their theological points about Jesus than in recording history as it actually happened? So, we shouldn’t skip over this example too quickly or shove it aside. It has enormous implications. And it’s an example that Mike actually agrees with.
So, here’s the big question: If John was willing to do this in this one instance that Mike himself cites, in how many other instances was he willing to do it? Why should we think that this is the one and only place that John did it? If he did it in a few other places, which ones are they? Are there lots of them? Will they always be ones that we are able to detect? We can detect this one only because both John and Mark explicitly tell us the day on which Jesus died (in John it is the day before the Passover meal was eaten; in Mark it is the day after it was eaten). How many times does John change the story in ways that we are not able to detect?
I hope you see the problem. Mike has admitted the Gospels are not historically reliable. Yes, they maybe be reliable by ancient standards — as reliable, say, as one of Suetonius’s notorious anecdotes about one of the emperors. But that’s not what readers of the Bible want to know. They generally don’t want to know if the Gospel stories are as reliable as Suetonius. They want to know if the accounts they describe happened in the way they are described. If they did not happen that way, are they accurate in the way we are concerned about?
My own view is that the kind of thing John did with the dating of Jesus’s death is the kind of thing that happens all over the place in the Gospels, up and down the line. I agree with Mike that in very broad outlines, much of what the Gospels say is historically right: in the present instance, for example, it is almost certainly right that Jesus was condemned to be crucified by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate sometime around the Passover feast, the night after Jesus had some kind of final meal with his disciples. So far, so good! But can we trust the Gospels in any of the details? Or not? If not, if the Gospels are in fact playing loose with the details out of what Mike calls “artistic license,” how can we trust them to give reliable accounts of Jesus, outside of the very broadest outlines?
I’d like to conclude this section by asking Mike to do us all a favor. He has named two places in the Gospels where he thinks the authors have probably changed their stories (or invented them) for artistic reasons (the second case being the multitude of dead people who are said to have come out of their tombs in Matthew’s account of the Jesus’s death and resurrection). I agree completely with both places. But I would like to know more, and I’m sure many of our readers would, as well. So, I would like to ask Mike to provide us with four or five other instances in which he thinks the Gospel writers have done the same thing that he thinks they have done in these instances: changed (or invented) stories of Jesus in order to help them make the theological points they wanted to make.
That should be very easy to do, and we all would love to see more of such details!
Reasons for Thinking the Gospels Are Indeed Accurate
Even though Mike concedes that the Gospels are not accurate in terms that modern readers typically hope, he goes on to claim that they are by and large accurate, and he tries to make a case for that. Here is one area that we have very strong disagreements, and if I were to spend as much time as I needed in order to show why I think this view is wrong, it would take me an entire book. As it turns out, I have indeed written a book that deals with the issue; it is called Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne, 2010), and you should feel free to buy a copy for each of your friends and loved ones. It makes a great birthday present.
Here, I’ll simply deal with two points that Mike makes, and then reiterate a point that I stress in my opening statement that, in my judgment, clinches the argument.
First, I was confused when Mike wants to argue that the Gospels contain “no historical anachronisms.” My handy Webster’s Dictionary defines an “anachronism” as “a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs.” The reason I’m confused by Mike’s claim is this: He already has told us that he thinks the Gospels contain historical anachronisms. That’s what it means to say that an author, because of artistic license, has changed the sequence of historical events so that they are no longer accurate. When John says that Jesus died the day before he actually died, that is by definition an anachronism. And Mike thinks John did that. So, how can he say there are no anachronisms in the Gospels?
Let me give you a second, even more famous instance. This involves not the death of Jesus, but his birth. The Gospel of Luke is quite explicit (see 2:2) that Jesus was born when Quirinius was the governor of Syria; this was also during the reign of Herod, King of Israel (1:5; and, of course, Matthew 2). But this is an enormous problem. Luke appears not to have known the history of Palestine as well as we might like. We know from clear and certain statements in Josephus (the prominent Jewish historian) and inscriptions that Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE. But Herod died in 4 BCE, ten years earlier. Their reigns did not overlap. Luke has simply made a historical mistake. It’s an anachronism. (Christian apologists always try to reconcile this one: Mike may try to do so as well; but let me tell you, ancient historians who do not have a horse in this race have never ever been convinced by the extreme lengths one has to go to in order to make Quirinius and Herod rule at the same time. It simply is a historical mistake.)
Rather than detail a list of anachronisms in the Gospels, let me deal with one other argument that Mike makes in support of the essential reliability of the Gospels. It’s an argument that sounds convincing in the abstract, but far less convincing when you actually look at it. It is the argument advanced by conservative British scholar Richard Bauckham, who argues that the Gospels appear to be reliable because (in Mike’s words)
. . . the names mentioned in the Gospels and Acts are not only common names of Palestinian Jews in that period and not belonging to Diaspora Jews, they appear with roughly the same frequency . . . that we find in the extrabiblical data.
Now, that certainly sounds impressive at first glance! But wait a second. How does it prove that the Gospels are reliable? What if I, as an American, want to tell a story about how on March 22, 2016, two people in France, François and Renée, engaged in a terrorist attack in Paris and placed a bomb at the glass pyramid in the Louvre, leading to the deaths of 49 people. Did that happen? Well, no, today, as I write, it is March 26, 2016, and I can assure you that no such thing happened.
But suppose in two thousand years, a scholar uncovers my account. He wants to know if it’s accurate. And instead of checking the newspapers, to see if in fact a bomb did go off, he checks the names. And it turns out, France was the name of a country back then! And Paris was the name of an important city! And the Louvre was the name of an important museum! And François and Renée were names very common in France at the time — far more common than in America, where I myself was writing. This shows it! The story must be true!
No, the story is not true. It simply uses the right names. Using the right names has no bearing on whether the stories are accurate or not. It simply means that the storytellers knew what names they should use in telling their tales.
How do you know if the stories are accurate, if they do tell us things that actually happened in the way they are described? The best way to know is the way that I indicated at length in my statement. It is a method that you yourself can use. I urge you — in the strongest terms! — to use it if you are interested in this question (which I assume you are since you are still reading at this point). Simply take different accounts of the same event in two or more of the Gospels, and compare them in detail. Take the two accounts of Jesus’s birth in Matthew and Luke; or the four accounts of Jesus’s resurrection in the Gospels; or any accounts found in more than one of these books. Compare them. Carefully. In detail. Line by line and word for word. Note all the similarities and differences. And ask whether the differences can actually be reconciled or not. Do it with a bunch of stories. Then make up your own mind.
The Strength of Memory
Mike wants to argue that it is not at all implausible that writers living 40–65 years after the fact might well remember in detail things that happened in Jesus’s life. After all, each of us can remember things that happened to us many, many years ago. Often, these memories are still quite vivid to us. Right? Mike gives a number of personal examples.
I’m afraid this is one area where Mike simply does not know the scholarship. Until three years ago, I didn’t know it, either. But the scholarship is there, and it is absolutely conclusive. Vivid memories are not the same as accurate memories. We may remember something as clearly as the day we experienced it. But the memories are often wrong.
When I say that the scholarship is absolutely conclusive, I’m not just blowing smoke. About three years ago, I became very interested in how memory works, and so I started reading about it. In fact, for nearly two years I did almost nothing else in my free time. I didn’t read any scholarship on the New Testament, or early Christianity, or . . . or anything else I’m interested in. I read what scholars of memory have to tell us about memory. I read cognitive psychologists and what they have to say about our individual memories. I read legal scholars to see what we know about the memories of eyewitnesses with respect to the events they have witnessed. I read sociologists to learn how our social contexts affect our personal recollections. I read cultural anthropologists and their studies of oral cultures where traditions are passed along by word of mouth. I have to say, this was an exhilarating time of research for me.
I learned tons. Tons of things I never knew before. Things not based on what we might assume, but based on hard-core research by scholars dedicated to nothing but knowing what we can say about memory.
And what the scholars say is just the opposite of what Mike is claiming. The reality is that our vivid memories are not necessarily accurate memories. We think they are — of course we do! But, well, they often are not. I could cite hundreds of studies, but, well, you won’t want me to. So, let me cite just one. If you want more, then simply read my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HaperOne, 2016), where I deal with such things. If you want more beyond that, read the scholarship that I cite in the book. If you want more still, read the other scholarship cited in the scholarship that I cite in the book. But here’s just one illustration, chosen out of hundreds of options.
We all remember perfectly well where we were, with whom, at what time of day, and so on, when we learned about 9/11. All of us do. Or do we? Here’s a harrowing study, the results of which have been verified in similar studies done by other psychologists. I cite it here as it appears in my book. It deals not with 9/11, but with another disaster that took place 25 years earlier. Still, it is one that we also all remembered at the time (if we were old enough to be aware of what was happening in the world): the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Here’s what I say about the event a “false” (but vivid) memories of it that people had/have, in my book:
Psychologists can be very clever about how they go about showing such things. A classic study, which set the stage for much research . . . undertaken by psychologists Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch, who were perceptive enough to realize that a personal and national disaster could be important for realizing how memory works. The day after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, they gave 106 students in a psychology class at Emory University a questionnaire asking about their personal circumstances when they heard the news. A year and a half later, in the fall of 1988, they tracked down forty-four of these students and gave them the same questionnaire. A half year later, spring 1989, they interviewed forty of these forty-four about the event.
The findings were startling but very telling. To begin with, 75% of those who took the second questionnaire were certain they had never taken the first one. That was obviously wrong. In terms of what was being asked, there were questions about where they were when they heard the news, what time of day it was, what they were doing at the time, whom they learned it from, and so on — seven questions altogether. 25% of the participants got every single answer wrong on the second questionnaire, even though their memories were vivid and they were highly confident in their answers. Another 50% got only two of the seven questions correct. Only three of the forty-four got all the answers right the second time, and even in those cases there were mistakes in some of the details. When the participants’ confidence in their answers was ranked in relation to their accuracy there was “no relation between confidence and accuracy at all” in forty-two out of the forty-four instances.
You might think — or at least I did — that after the second questionnaire, when the students were shown the original answers they had filled out the just a day after the explosion, they would realize they had since then misremembered and they would revive their original memories. This did not happen. It decidedly did not happen. Instead, when confronted with evidence of what really took place, they consistently denied it and said that their present memories were the correct ones. In the words of the researchers: “No one who had given an incorrect account in the interview even pretended that they now recalled what was stated on the original record. As far as we can tell, the original memories are just gone.”
This is a sobering point indeed. All of us have vivid memories of the past. These are the memories we trust the most. We are absolutely certain it happened the way we remember: Why else would it be vivid? The answer is that it might be vivid because we have replayed the event in our memory time and time again in the same, wrong, way. So now that’s how we remember it. Vividly.
I think all Gospel scholars should read more about memory. The Gospels are ultimately based on memory: memories of eyewitnesses, memories of what someone remembered an eyewitness telling them, memories of a person trying to remember a story told to him by his wife who heard the story from her next door neighbor who was remembering what her cousin told her based on what he had learned from a business associate whose mother had, only fifteen years earlier, talked with an eyewitness. At every stage of this “remembering” experience (mainly: remembering what someone else said), people are trying to recall something that happened to them (or that they heard). Memories are faulty. That’s a problem when dealing with oral traditions in circulation for decades.
I used to think that it was all different in oral cultures, where everything was more or less passed along by word of mouth. Surely, in those cultures stories are not changed much, right? Well, wrong. They are changed. Changed a lot. Every time. This, too, has been demonstrated time and time again by scholars. In my book I cite the relevant scholarship. You don’t need to take my word for it. No reason you should! Simply read what experts have to say based on research that paints a very different picture from the one that you might (and I did!) imagine to be true, researchers such as Albert Lord, Jack Goody, Walter Ong, and Jan Vansina. The scholarship is all there, and it all points in the same direction. That direction is away from the sense that oral cultures preserve their traditions in a way that we today would consider accurate (which, as I pointed out at the beginning, is what we are talking about when dealing with the accuracy of the Gospels).
The Historian and Miracles
I think one of the methodologically weakest parts of Mike’s statement is where he wants to argue that historians can indeed talk about miracles happening. As I said at the beginning of this reply, I understand where he is coming from. This is the view that I too had when I, like Mike now, was surrounded by people who not only believed miracles happen (as I’m sure most of you do!), but also think they can be shown to have happened (which is not the same thing!). If that’s what everyone around you thinks, then it’s no surprise you think it, as well. But is it academically tenable? Can historians talk about miracles?
Here, I would like to issue a challenge to Mike. If Mike wants to maintain that respectable historians can and do appeal to miracle, I want him to give us some examples. I would like the names of four or five reputable historians — not conservative evangelical Christians who are personally committed to a belief in the resurrection (as is the main figure that he cites, Gary Habermas). But just regular ole academic historians. There are thousands in the country, in many historical fields (ancient Rome; European Middle Ages; American history; and on and on). Which of them agree that we can demonstrate miracles and which of them in fact to argue for miracles in the books that they have written about past events?
In addition, I would like Mike to take some specific historical events that we might believe God had a hand in, for example, the discovery of America by Columbus, or the victory of the Allies in World War II, or the election of Ronald Reagan — take any example. And name some historians who indicate that the intervention of God as one of the reasons, or the very reason, that it happened. If Mike’s view is the view accepted by historians, then this should be a relatively simple exercise for him and we would all benefit from it.
But frankly I don’t believe Mike will be able to do this. And there’s a reason for that. It’s not because historians have to be secularists who don’t believe in God. Many historians do indeed believe in God. But they know that divine intervention is not and cannot be a historical datum that can be either assumed or demonstrated. That’s just the reality of the case.
Mike gives two rather peculiar arguments, though, in favor of historians being able to cite miracles, and we should consider them. The first is the death of King Ludwig II and his physician in 1886. Scholars have never been able to ascertain why they died. Mike uses that to show that historians sometimes don’t know the cause for an event and he concludes that historians then have to concede that miracles have happened. I have to confess, I don’t see how this example has anything to do with the question of how historians can talk about miracles. People die all the time. It often happens that we don’t know why. How does that suggest that we can demonstrate the probability of miracles on historical grounds?
The second argument is even more odd for my tastes. Mike suggests a hypothetical situation where he gets beheaded by a Muslim terrorist on the stage of an auditorium and then later he reappears with his head on. Wouldn’t that prove that a miracle happened? Wouldn’t I have to agree then that it happened? Even if I didn’t want to say it was a miracle, wouldn’t I have to say that, yes, he was beheaded, and yes, he now is not beheaded?
I’m sorry, but this is too strange. In order to show that we can demonstrate that miracles have happened, why has Mike chosen as his proof an incident that has never, ever, happened in the history of the human race? He is illustrating his point not just with a hypothetical situation, but a hypothetical situation that has never occurred. If it has never occurred, how can we say that it probably really happened?
Let me give you an analogy. What if I wanted to prove to you that the moon was made out of green cheese. I know you aren’t going to believe me. So, in order to prove it to you, I give you a hypothetical. What if the U.S. decided again to send an astronaut to the moon, and this time he brought back a rather suspicious collection of rocks. These rocks, when tested, all turned out to be made of green cheese. There is no way these rocks are anything other than what was found on the surface of the moon: we have videotapes of the astronaut collecting them and storing them and bringing them back. And there is no doubt that when examined, they really did turn out to be green cheese. And so the moon really is made of green cheese! Don’t you agree?
If the hypothetical is something that never, ever could occur, then in fact it does not have any persuasive force. That’s true not only of cheese moon rocks, but also of reanimated bodies of beheaded Christian apologists.
The Resurrection of Jesus
I have said a lot about the traditions surrounding the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection in a number of my books, most especially How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014). I don’t need to repeat all that here, for which we can all be grateful. The biggest point of all is the one that I just made: historians, when acting like historians, cannot discuss a miracle of God as the most probable explanation for what happened in the past. I know that Mike really wants historians to be able to do that. But the fact remains that they can’t. And they don’t. They just don’t. And for very good reasons, some of which I’ve already pointed out.
Let me also note that Mike agrees that there are times when historians simply can’t know what caused a historical event (e.g., the death of King Ludwig). That’s exactly right. And if God caused a historical event, that’s something a historian can’t know, using the tools available to him or her as a historian. It may be too bad that that’s the case, but it’s the case.
I think Mike is a bit disingenuous when he gets to this issue in his statement, where he indicates that someone could maintain that Jesus really was raised from the dead without believing that God had done it. How would that work exactly? This is where Mike (it’s near the end of his discussion, three paragraphs before his conclusion) gets extremely vague: maybe a historian could say Jesus was raised “without being able to identify the cause”! Or maybe the historian could “posit a theoretical entity” such as God, to explain it. Or maybe a historian could conclude it was a near-death experience.
There are all sorts of problems with these “maybe’s.” In the end, they wind up being the same thing, though: Mike is confusing historical data with personal conclusions. There are certain historical data that in principle historians could talk about. They could talk about whether, for example, three days after Jesus was placed in a tomb the tomb was discovered to be empty. Or they could talk about whether some time after Jesus’s death his disciples claimed they saw him alive afterward. There can be historical explanations for both of these phenomena — assuming they are historical phenomena. (I’m personally not sure the empty tomb is a historical datum. It’s worth remembering, for example, that Paul — our first author to refer to Jesus’s resurrection — doesn’t know anything about an empty tomb; and it’s not hard at all — contrary to what Mike says — to figure out who might have come up with the story of women visiting the tomb and finding it empty. Women might have come up with the story, for example! Or, as I show in my book, since the view coincides perfectly with what Mark has to say about men and women throughout his Gospel, Mark, or someone like him, may easily have come up with it.
And as to hallucinations, if Mike really and truly believes that groups of people cannot have hallucinations, I would love to know how he explains the fact that we have extremely well-documented instances of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing to large groups of her followers — within the past few decades!)
But when Mike starts in on his “maybe’s,” he is not asking about how maybe we could explain these data. He’s asking how maybe we could explain the personal conclusion that Mike himself, and many others, draw from these data. The conclusion he reaches is that Jesus really was physically raised from the dead, and he wonders if there are ways to account for that without believing in God. And that’s what makes him suggest those maybe’s.
But historians do not come up with causalities to explain conclusions they have already drawn from an examination of the data. The conclusions they draw are causal explanations for the data. Mike has gotten the matter reversed. The only way to conclude that Jesus was raised from the dead is to believe in some kind of supernatural power that raised him. That’s not part of the data. That’s part of the causal explanation that Mike is using to make sense of the data.
This becomes clear when you consider any one of Mike’s “maybe’s.” For example, he suggests that maybe Jesus was not raised from the dead, but that he had a “near-death experience,” as people sometimes have. This is an interesting thesis, and I wonder if Mike would be willing to pursue it. It would be possible, of course, for historians to make this argument (some have!) — that Jesus’s return from “the dead” was from being “nearly dead,” since near-death experiences do not require the existence of the supernatural (you may think they do, but they don’t; neurologists have given various completely natural explanations for why these things happen; you may not agree with the scientific explanations, but my point is that they exist and you don’t need to believe in the supernatural to think that some people have these experiences for completely natural reasons). And so, is Mike seriously proposing this as an alternative to the idea that God raised Jesus from the dead? Does he really think that it’s possible that Jesus did not really die on the cross? That he simply woke up in the tomb, just as some people wake up on the operating table? If that is his view, I’d like to see him explain it more fully. If it’s not his view, I’d like to know why he rejects it.
But my (rather educated guess) is that Mike doesn’t think this for a second and doesn’t think it’s even plausible. If that’s the case — if the explanation is not plausible — then it’s not clear to me why he thinks that historians should maybe draw it as a conclusion. Mike will be able to cite good reasons for doubting that Jesus simply awoke in the tomb and came back to life, only to die again some days, months, or years later. That’s what a near-death experience is. The person always dies again. But the Christian belief in the resurrection is the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to heaven where he lives forever more, never again to die. Does Mike think that a historian can demonstrate that? How could a historian possibly demonstrate that? That’s a theological/religious claim about Jesus. It is not a historical datum. If Mike thinks that it is something that can be historically proved, I need to tell him — and you — that there’s not a reputable, professional historian in the universe who would agree that it is within the purview of the historical disciplines to show that Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God.
An Important Final Point
Let me conclude this Response by making just one major point, a point that is completely obvious to most historians but that often strikes others (including most of my students!) as very odd indeed. It is this. HISTORY IS NOT THE PAST. And, one could add, THE PAST IS NOT HISTORY.
Here is the difference. The past is everything that has happened before now. Over the past five seconds, trillions of things happened just in my town of Durham, NC. All of it is in the past. How much of it is history? Very little. History is what historians can show probably happened in the past.
The past has always happened. But history is the process of showing what happened. Doing history is always a probability game. Sometimes, probabilities are really good. It is probable that last night in the NCAA basketball tournament my North Carolina Tar Heels beat the Indiana Hoosiers (and that I won a very nice bottle of wine from a Hoosier fan as a result!). I can pretty much show that this probably happened.
There are other things in the past — the hugely vast majority of things — that we simply cannot show happened. They are parts of the past. But they are not parts of history. History is only what we can show (probably) happened.
Sometimes, we can’t show what happened because we just don’t have sources of information. That’s usually the case. Very rarely do we have sources of information for the trillions of things that happen every second of the day. It’s no one’s fault. History just can’t accommodate all of the past. There are some things that are simply inaccessible to us, even if they are in the past.
Suppose you believe in God. In fact, I’m sure that almost all of you do. And suppose that you think God has acted in the past, intervened in history, affected how things happened and what happened. Suppose you think God was directing the Europeans to “discover” America; or that God determined that the Allies would win WWII; or, on a personal level, that your sick child would recover or that you would find a job after experiencing unemployment or any of the other hundreds of things you are grateful to God for. Suppose you think all these things, and suppose you are right. I’m not saying you’re wrong — let’s say you’re right. If you are, then these acts of God would be in the past. But they would not be part of what historians call “history.” You might think that is unfortunate, but it’s simply the way it is, and here is why.
The historical disciplines are forced by the very nature of things to build their case about what happened in the past on shared assumptions — shared by everyone engaged in the investigation. There are certain assumptions that everyone in the field can be expected to have: for example, that there is a past, that things really did happen before now, that evidence survives that can demonstrate what happened before now. Historians share those views.
There are other things that historians do not share. Historians do not necessarily share the same aesthetic sensitivities. And so historians cannot demonstrate, using the historical disciplines, that a particular Emily Dickinson poem is beautiful. They may certainly think so — but it is not a historical judgment. (They can show that a poem contained elements that people have long considered beautiful; but that’s not the same thing). So too, historians do not necessarily share moral judgments. And so historians cannot demonstrate, on historical grounds, that Ronald Reagan was a good man. They may think so, but there are no specifically historical criteria (as opposed to ethical or moral criteria) that can demonstrate it. (You can show that he did things that are widely perceived to be good, but that’s a different matter.) And so, too, historians do not necessarily share religious beliefs. That means that historians — using historical methods — cannot show that the Christian God has intervened in history in order to accomplish his will. They may think so, some of them. But belief in the Christian God is not one of the assumptions that historians share, and so when doing history, it cannot be part of the equation.