Friday, 10 April 2015

"Jesus: Dead or Alive? Evaluating the evidence for the Resurrection (2013)" by Neil J Foster

This is looking at a paper I came across recently, and seems topic as it is kind of Easter or thereabouts. The paper can be found here:

We have almost exactly the same material to make a decision about the events of the first Easter. Of course that happened a long time ago, probably in 33 AD, nearly 2000 years ago. But we have a plethora of reports and evidence of the same sort- works written by eyewitnesses, works written by people who interviewed eyewitnesses, things we can dig up from the same era. And what this article suggests is that that evidence can be assessed and weighed up, and supported as reliable, by the legal principles used in courts every day to make key decisions about people’s lives.
Big claims. Do we really have "works written by eyewitnesses"? I think not. Do we have evidence anyone "interviewed eyewitnesses"? Not that I am aware of. Has anything that has been dug up from that era ever given credence to the resurrection? Not that I have heard of.
In[it] is submitted here that, when we apply the principles of evidence law to the evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, there is more than enough evidence to justify the strongest belief being given to the fact that this happened.
We shall see.
In relation to the documents of the New Testament, we have a large and absolutely convincing body of evidence that shows that we have access to the text of what was originally written, through the large numbers of copies of the documents that are available. We don’t have the “autographs”, the original pieces of paper; but then again no historical document from this era has survived intact. But we have enough copies, and enough copies from clearly different sources and places, to have confidence that we can read today what was written in the 1st century.
Really? I am dubious about that, but what is troubling here is that the author gives the impression that the gospels we have today are accurate translations of what was in them in AD 100. That is definitely not the case; the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman was not in John until centuries later and of more importance here the second half of Mark 16 was also a later addition.
We might summarise the issues at stake as those of the general reliability of the witness; whether or not there was some reason for him or her not to have properly observed the event; whether or not time has intervened to change the recollection; whether or not the events recounted are inherently improbable; and whether or not there is a motive to tell other than the truth.
Good points. He goes on to say:
But what motive did they have for telling the story of the resurrection other than that they believed in the truth of it?
The author is colouring this in black and white. I accept the authors believed the resurrection, nevertheless, I think it likely that they embellished the narrative for apologetic purposes. Let us go back to what he said earlier. Was there some reason why he did not properly observe the event? Absolutely! The NT authors were not present at the resurrection. Has time intervened? Absolutely! Mark was written 40 years later, the other gospels later still. Is there a motive to tell other than the truth? Absolutely! The author wants to get others into the faith, and so has a motive to embellish to counter anti-Christian sentiment (the addition of the guards on the tomb, Jesus eating fish, Doubting Thomas examining the wounds).

In all three ways the accounts tick the boxes for unreliable.

The paper then goes through each "witness".

The First Witness: John
So who was John? There seems no doubt that he was one of Jesus’ closest disciples. This is so despite the fact that he is not named in the book he has written. But what we find is that, apparently in accordance with a literary convention, he talks of himself in the 3rd person, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.
In fact, modern scholarship very much doubts the Gospel of John was written by the disciple of that name.

The first questions we must address are the questions of authorship and the date this Gospel account was written. Today most modern Biblical scholars do not accept that John (Yehohanan) the Apostle, son of Zebedee, brother of James the Greater, and Bishop of Ephesus is the author of the fourth Gospel despite the fact that the Fathers of the Church unanimously identified the Apostle John as the inspired writer.

See also here:
What seems clear from these passages is that it is regarded as important by John that the readers of his account know that these matters are presented by someone who was himself a witness to them, and who writes with the aim of conveying that truth. He is not writing a “religious fable”; he is claiming to present actually what happened.
Thus it is particularly damning that the author was not actually a witness.

A Second Witness- Matthew

The author says little of this gospel, but acknowledges:
But his account doesn’t read so strongly as that of an eyewitness.

A Third Witness- Peter

The author assumes the disciple Peter was the author of 1 Peter and 2 Peter, and this is far from established.

Furthermore, the only mention of the resurrection in 1 Peter and 2 Peter is this verse:

1 Peter 1:21 Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

It gives no indication Peter was present or indeed there were any witnesses at all; or that the resurrection was physical/bodily as the gospels claim, or even that it was on Earth rather than in heaven.

A Fourth Witness- Paul

The author puts Paul forward as a witness, but then admits:
Paul never puts himself forward as a primary witness of Jesus’ resurrection.
Paul did not witness the events the surrounding the resurrection, he supposedly saw something else entirely. He is not a witness, it is as simple as that.


The author goes on to discuss hearsay, to support Mark and Luke. The problems, however, are the same. Sure Mark and Luke believed the resurrection, but that does not imply that they were beyond embellishing the accounts to improve the apologetics. It is worth pointing out that in the original account, Mark 16:1-8, the figure in the tomb says Jesus has gone on ahead and will appear to the disciples in Galilee some days travel away, and yet we have accounts of Jesus being seen by the disciples in Jerusalem later that same day. To me it looks like the Jerusalem sightings were later additions to the narrative.

Documentary evidence

Then he looks at the documentary evidence, which he takes to be external documents.

We have clear corroboration of the events recorded in the New Testament from a couple of Greek and Roman authors. The historian Thallos (whose works are recorded in later sources, but seems to have been writing about AD 55) records a darkening of the sun when Jesus was crucified (as noted in three of the four gospels, Mk 15:33/Lk 23:44-45/Matt 27:45). He explained it away as an eclipse rather than as a supernatural event (but of course it could have been both.)
Actually it cannot be both an eclipse at the crucifixion, as this was at the passover, necessarily at a full moon. The moon was on exactly the wrong side of the Earth for an eclipse.

The author calls this "clear corroboration" but that is quite a stretch, given what we know about Thallos. This is from a Christian web site:

Thallos was historian of which little remain. His three volume work on the history of the Mediterranean from the fall of Troy to about 50 was lost as was the book by the Christian writer, Sextus Julius Africanus, in his own history (c.220) which was subsequently lost. The only reference we have to this book is found 7 centures after it was written as quoted by the Byzantine historian Georgius Syncellus. According to this historian, Africanus, in writing about the darkness at the death of Christ, refers to Thallos’ work:

In the third of his histories, Thallos calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun, which seems to me to be wrong.

In fact, a fuller quote reveals that even Africanus realised there could be no eclipse at Jesus' crucifixion:

This event followed each of his deeds, and healings of body and soul, and knowledge of hidden things, and his resurrection from the dead, all sufficiently proven to the disciples before us and to his apostles: after the most dreadful darkness fell over the whole world, the rocks were torn apart by an earthquake and much of Judaea and the rest of the land was torn down. Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun in the third book of his Histories, without reason it seems to me. are we to believe that an eclipse happened when the moon was diametrically opposite the sun?

We really have little idea what Thallos was talking about. Where was the darkness seen? What year? What century even seems to be unclear.

More of Thallos here:

The author continues:
The famous Roman historian Tacitus, in his Annals 15.44, writing sometime in the second half of the 1st century, notes in passing that there was a group of people called “Christians” in Rome, that they took their name from one “Christ” who was executed under Tiberius by Pontius Pilate, and that what Tacitus called their “superstition”, briefly checked, “broke out afresh” in Judea and then in Rome.
This is evidence for the resurrection how exactly? He cites Pliny the Younger and Seutonius, both give evidence that there were Christians, but there is no mention of the resurrection. Sure, it is likely those Christians believed the resurrection, but none of these Roman authors say that, and furthermore I do not dispute they believed in the resurrection.

The author quotes Josephus:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Evidence Jesus was crucified, but not he was resurrected.

Incidental archaeology regularly confirms the fact that Jerusalem in the 1st century was just as we see it described in the eyewitness accounts of the gospels.
Sure, because the authors were familiar with 1st century Jerusalem. But we do not think modern novels are true because the author got the setting right.

Circumstantial evidence

So much for "Things", now the circumstantial evidence. The author starts with the many supposed prophecies.
In Isaiah there is a prophecy of someone called the “Servant of God” who is clearly the promised Messiah of the family of David. In precise detail (astonishing when compared with what actually happened to Jesus hundreds of years later) Isaiah ch 53 speaks of this one as a “Suffering Servant”. And yet, after recording his death as a sacrifice, we read in Is 53:10-11
When his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days… Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see the light and be satisfied.
This, like so many supposed prophecies of Jesus, is a distortion of the original text. In this case, the "suffering servant" is the people of Israel, as early chapters make clear.

The author says:
The second type of prospectant evidence is this: that while he was still alive, Jesus, knowing the Old Testament, told his disciples that this was exactly what was going to happen- that he would die, and rise again (see for example Mk 8:31 and others.)
We know Jesus said this how? Because Mark, writing forty years after it supposedly happened, tells us it did. Again, the author is obliged to assume that Mark recorded everything accurately - despite Mark not being present when Jesus supposedly said it and having a clear motive to make it up.
The empty tomb itself is a massive piece of circumstantial evidence. Indeed, it is not often observed that in fact we don’t have in the New Testament a single piece of eyewitness testimony of the actual event of Jesus rising.
And the evidence for the empty tomb is what? Again, we are obliged to take Mark's word for it. Paul, the earliest writer, does not mention it. And Mark is quite clear that the women who found the tomb was empty never told anyone!
So, consider the question of the missing body. What are the other explanations if the resurrection is not the right one? ...
Mark made it up is the best explanation, and the later gospel writers copied him. He made up the woman finding it and not telling anyone to explain why no one until then had mentioned the empty tomb.
But the book of Acts shows the continuing impact of the resurrected Jesus on the 1st-century world.
No, the book of Acts show the continued impact of the belief in the resurrection. I do not doubt there was a belief in the resurrection. I doubt the resurrection.

The author presents his evidence as though this was a court of law, citing legal precedents every now and again. The fact is, however, that in a court of law his case would fail; his argument is based on unwarranted assumptions and weak evidence.