RESPONSE TO JAMES PATRICK HOLDING
by Keith Parsons
Those who raise skeptical doubts about Christian claims quickly confront the limitations of “Christian charity.” It seldom extends to the treatment of doubters with generosity or even with civility. James Patrick Holding’s on-line response to my critique of Kreeft and Tacelli in my essay from The Empty Tomb is a case in point (“Do You See What I See;” Tektonics Apologetics Ministries). He concludes a series of animadversions with the claim “…Parsons merely waves off the data of the rolled-off stone, the empty tomb, and so on with a vague comparison to UFO phenomena (not any sort of actual case study) and an assertion of his right as a Skeptic to dismiss whatever he pleases, which is a convenience I imagine we’d all appreciate being able to take advantage of…”
Apparently, attacking a straw man whenever he pleases is a convenience that Mr. Holding likes to take advantage of. I never make any assertion of that nature. Here is what I really said:
…Kreeft and Tacelli try to saddle the skeptic with the burden of explaining every detail of every appearance story (the stone rolled away, etc.,) in terms of hallucinations. There is no reason the skeptic should accept such a burden for the simple reason that skeptics do not have to accept the appearance stories as 100 percent accurate. Apologists are constantly assuming as “data” what skeptics rightly regard as hearsay (p. 448).
I think even the practitioner of the most recherché postmodernist lit-crit analyses would be hard pressed to find in this statement a blanket claim of carte blanche authority to dismiss whatever one pleases.
I think that my meaning in the passage was plain, but, one of Murphy’s Laws states, “Whenever you speak so clearly that no one can misunderstand you, then someone [willfully or not] will misunderstand you.” Let me try again: Kreeft and Tacelli charge that the hallucination hypothesis is wrong because it fails to explain every aspect of every appearance story. But if it didn’t happen, there is nothing there to explain, and so no burden to explain it. It simply begs the question to assume what skeptics deny, namely, that every detail of every appearance story is established historical fact.
I hope my meaning is now clear. I’m not asserting that skeptics have the right to dismiss whatever they please. I’m denying that apologists have the right to beg whatever questions they please.
Holding complains that I vaguely invoke UFO phenomena to dismiss the purported evidence for the resurrection. From what he says, you would never guess the point I was really making. Here it is: Kreeft and Tacelli contend that only a genuine resurrection could account for all the purported data, such as the rolled-away stone, the empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances, etc. They offer this argument as their final point; clearly, they consider it their “clincher.” I satirize their argument by pointing out that ufologists could make exactly the same claim. Only real E.T.’s in real extraterrestrial spacecraft could account for all the weird phenomena associated with the UFO myth—vivid abduction experiences, “close encounters,” crashed saucer stories, lights in the sky, cattle mutilations, etc.
Interestingly enough, Holding does not even challenge the vast majority of my points against Kreeft and Tacelli. He apparently does not regard their case with much more respect than I do, since he says that he would not use most of their arguments and that they do not even use the one that he thinks is best. Holding says that one argument shows that the hallucination theory is “totally untenable”:
“…expectation plays the coordinating role in collective hallucinations.” The critical problem here is that the disciples were not expecting a resurrection; any hallucination of Jesus would be interpreted as, if anything, his “guardian angel” (an exact twin), but not as a ghost of Jesus himself, not especially as Jesus resurrected.”
In other words, even if the Disciples had experienced a hallucination of Jesus after his death, they would not have interpreted it as a resurrection, but as something entirely different. So, the belief in the resurrection cannot have been due to hallucinations experienced by the Disciples.
Holding says that I do not reply adequately to this argument. Since he says that Kreeft and Tacelli do not even use this argument, and since my essay was a response to the arguments of Kreeft and Tacelli, this is a rather odd objection.
Actually, I have replied to an argument of this sort, one used by William Lane Craig. My critique of that argument is published in my Why I am not a Christian, which has a link from this site. For the sake of convenience, I shall quote myself here:
Professor Craig's third main piece of evidence for the Resurrection is the origin of the Christian faith itself. He argues that the Christian faith in a resurrected Jesus has no precedent in Jewish thought. The Jewish conception of resurrection is a general raising of the dead at the end of time, not the raising to glory of a single individual as an event in history. Further, the Christian idea that the resurrection of the righteous will somehow hinge on the Messiah's resurrection, was wholly unknown. Professor Craig concludes that these new Christian ideas were so radical that only the actual Resurrection of Jesus can account for so extreme a conceptual shift.
But according to the gospels, Jesus's ministry contained many heretical elements. In Mark chapter 2 Jesus claims authority for the forgiveness of sins, which elicits a charge of blasphemy from the scribes. In Mark 7, he sets aside the traditional dietary distinctions between clean and unclean foods. In Mark 2:28 he even claims to be sovereign over the Sabbath. Further, Jesus's preaching was full of apocalyptic content. He famously said "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."--Mark 9:1. In Mark 8:31 and 10:34 he predicts that the Son of Man will die and rise three days afterward.
Given the heretical and apocalyptic nature of their master's teachings, and the experiences, whatever they were, that convinced them that Jesus had risen, the emergence of radically new concepts in the disciples' minds hardly seems to require supernatural explanation. For the early Christians, the Resurrection of Jesus was the first eschatological event, an event that ushered in the New Age, the coming of the Kingdom. They believed that they were in the end times. As a standard textbook puts it:
[Christianity]...shared with much of Judaism the hopes for the New Age that God had promised through the prophets and seers. But it differed from the rest of Judaism in one crucial point: It was convinced that the New Age had already begun to dawn. More specifically, it believed that God had acted in Jesus of Nazareth to inaugurate the New Age, and that the community itself was the nucleus of the People of the New Age. The basis for this conviction was the belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead (Kee, Young, and Froelich, pp. 52-53).
In other words, early Christians believed that they were in the end times and that the Resurrection of Jesus was the eschatological event that ushered in the New Age, the coming of the Kingdom. Further, Jesus's Resurrection was not conceived as an event separate from the general resurrection, but only as the first resurrection, soon to be followed by the others at the time of Christ's Second Coming. Thus Paul calls Jesus as the "firstfruits of the harvest of the dead (I Corinthians 15:20)." Paul continues: "As in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but each in his own proper place: Christ the firstfruits, and afterwards, at his coming, those who belong to Christ (I Corinthians 15: 22-3)."
In all honesty, I simply do not see a gaping, unbridgeable conceptual chasm between belief in a general resurrection at the end of time and the belief that Jesus's Resurrection was the first event of the coming of the end times. In the presently fashionable lingo, paradigm shifts do occur. If Professor Craig insists that, nonetheless, such a conceptual shift requires supernatural intervention, I simply have to ask: What are his criteria? At what point are concepts so alien that it would require a miracle for someone to shift from one to the other? We need some such guidelines before the discussion can proceed.
Holding’s only other criticism is directed at my treatment of Kreeft and Tacelli’s argument that the Jewish authorities could have stopped Christianity in its tracks simply by producing the body of Jesus and so confounding the Disciples’ claim that he had been raised. I objected that nobody knows how long a period passed before the Disciples’ preaching had succeeding in irritating the Jewish authorities sufficiently to motivate them to produce the body if they could get it. Even if only a few months had passed, the body would have been in such a state of decay that it would have been unidentifiable and the Disciples could simply have denied that the body was Jesus’s. Holding objects that the body would indeed still be identifiable:
And what of the identification problems? 50 days, or even two thousand years later (as we know from finding the remains of another crucifixion victim from the same era), there were plenty of ways to identify the remains as those of Jesus. Who needs modern forensics? If the skeleton taken out of Joe’s [sic: Joseph of Arimathea’s] tomb showed evidence of crucifixion that even an amateur could discern (i.e., nails still in their places; scratched and scraped bones, or bones stretched out of their sockets—but NO breaking of the legs!)…
Still identifiable 2000 years later? Hmmmm. This suggests a thought experiment: What if we found the body today? What if, as Holding imagines, we found a body in an authentic first century tomb just outside of Jerusalem with all the identifying characteristics Holding mentions? Would the world’s 2 billion Christians immediately abandon their faith? Of course not. Naturally, such a find would give people like Mr. Holding a hotfoot, and they would scramble to debunk it, adamantly denying that the body was Jesus’s despite all the “identifying” features. The vast majority of believers would simply ignore it. (As the old hymn said: “You ask me how I know He lives: He lives within my heart!”). If producing the body wouldn’t stop (or even slow down) Christianity today, why should it have done so 2000 years ago?
Thought experiments aside, the whole “Well, why didn’t they just produce the body?” objection is based on a number of very dubious assumptions: (1) It assumes that the Sanhedrin had the authority to exhume and display the body. Jesus’s execution was an official act of the Roman authority. Joseph of Arimathea had to ask for Pilate’s permission to take down and bury the body (Matthew 27:58). Wouldn’t the Jewish authorities have had to ask permission to dig it up again and display it? What would the Romans have thought of such a bizarre request? (2) The argument assumes that the authorities could have gotten hold of the body, but, even if we assume that they knew the site of Jesus’s tomb, the body could have been missing for non-supernatural reasons. (3) The argument assumes that the Jewish authorities would have been sufficiently impressed by the first Christians even to bother refuting them. To the Jewish authorities, if they even noticed the Apostles’ preaching, yet another ragtag band of loudmouthed preachers (and Jerusalem had plenty of those) would hardly create an intellectual problem, one that would have needed confutation with argument and empirical evidence. Did any authorities of our government bother trying to refute the Branch Davidians? Why give publicity to some tiny, nutty group (as the authorities would have perceived them), when in all likelihood they would just go away if ignored?
Holding is far too quick in asserting that Jesus’s decayed body would have been identifiable. Who knows how many crucified bodies, roughly similar to Jesus’s, would have been available at that time? Remember, by the way, that breaking of the legs of the victims of crucifixion was unusual; it was done only to speed up death, and the Romans generally preferred it slow and agonizing. Most crucified bodies would have had unbroken legs. So, again, the Apostles could easily have dismissed any purported corpus delicti as a fake. Further, exhuming and displaying the decayed body of a victim of crucifixion would have been an intensely shameful and repellent task for a first century Jew, an act far beneath the dignity of the distinguished members of the Sanhedrin. Such an act would have so scandalized the Jewish community (most of whom no doubt pitied Jews executed by the Romans) that it would probably have backfired and created a popular wave of sympathy for the Christians. The upshot is that the Jewish authorities very likely either could not or would not have displayed the body of Jesus in an attempt, most likely futile, to shut up the first Christians.
The above two paragraphs assume for the sake of argument that Jesus’s resurrection would have required an empty tomb. But there is no evidence that the empty tomb story was even a part of the earliest Christian preaching. Paul never mentions it. Further, Richard Carrier argues at length in his contribution to The Empty Tomb that the earliest Christians, including Paul, held a view of resurrection that was compatible with the earthly body having been left behind in the tomb. If Carrier’s claim is correct, any display of Jesus’s body by the authorities would have been entirely futile and simply dismissed as irrelevant by the Apostles. Now, I’m sure that Richard’s argument has been viciously attacked by sites like Tektonics. But if his critics did no better job on his arguments than Mr. Holding did on mine, he has nothing to worry about.