Jon Stovell’s Notebook


On Wright’s historical arguments regarding Jesus’ resurrection

Some posts in reply to the discussion topic, “Strongest skeptical responses to NT Wright?” which discussed Wright’s historical arguments about how the first Christians came to believe that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.

Ooo, this is a fun topic! :)

I think part of the problem here is that Wright’s argument is more subtle and robust than the attempted summary you’ve given above, @Daniel L Heck. In The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright argues using a version of the double criterion of similarity and dissimilarity. On the one hand, resurrection was indeed a prevalent concept in Second Temple Judaism and was therefore available to the first Christians as a tool to try to explain what they believed they had experienced regarding Jesus after his death. The dissimilar bit, on the other hand, was the idea that one person might be resurrected in advance of everyone else. That’s the unprecedented and incongruous part, which we see the early church struggling to make sense of in their earliest traditions and writings. So, Wright says, the fact that they used the notion of resurrection makes sense and is not very remarkable—indeed, if that were all that was going on here, the counter-arguments you bring up would be patent. In contrast, the notion of one being resurrected when everyone else has not (yet) been was evidently so disruptive and required so much reconfiguration of the eschatological schema that it strains credulity to suggest that it arose as a development out of pre-existing ideas about the resurrection.

Wright does not claim that this proves that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, but he does demonstrate quite convincingly that “It’s just a permutation of the existing ideas,” doesn’t hold water. To my knowledge there hasn’t been a solid refutation of this argument published yet, although I will confess that I haven’t been actively looking recently. The fact that Wright hasn’t felt the need to write anything more significant than that one essay in order to rebut counter-arguments suggests to me that I am probably safe in this assumption. The questions addressed in that essay all appear to be targeted at ancillary issues or to make attempts to circumvent the core argument, rather than refuting the argument itself.

Does that help?

There are basically three credible alternative scenarios set forth by sceptics to explain the early Christians’ proclamation that Jesus had risen from the dead: fraud, self-delusion, or miscommunication.1

The first is that his disciples (or some subset thereof) invented the story for whatever reason: charlatanism, attempting to avoid public shame, or something along those lines. This falls down because what we know of the apostles lives and deaths is inconsistent with their testimony being fraudulent. Fraudsters have the goal of attaining and/or keeping something they desire. Maintaining a fraudulent claim when doing so will cost you your life makes no sense: renounce your claim and you lose whatever that something is, or refuse to renounce it and you still lose it and everything else, too.

The second scenario is that his disciples deluded themselves into believing this. The idea that the disciples had visionary experiences which they came to interpret as concrete resurrection fits into this category, though there are other variations. This is generally seen to be the most credible of the sceptical options these days, since it allows one to say that the disciples really did believe Jesus was raised from the dead and acted consistently with that without admitting that they were correct to believe so. As you note, Wright focusses his attention primarily on this objection and has done a pretty good job addressing it. His reply to the objection that this is simply an instance of substantial human creativity is that such creativity is usually deployed in order to resolve problems and questions, whereas this served to create them. The Gospels show us the disciples responding exactly as we would expect humans to respond, variously staying in dejected fellowship or wandering off on their own as they all try to deal with the recognition that “Well, I guess we were wrong to think he was the Messiah.” The introduction of “Wait, he’s alive again,” knocks everything out of whack and puts them into a position where very little makes sense anymore. It doesn’t resolve the tension between their experience and their theological categories. It just deconstructs more of their categories and makes them more confused. Sure, they are happy, but as much if not more terrified and bewildered. It is a solution to their crisis of faith in Jesus as Messiah about as much as a gas explosion is a solution to not being able to squeeze your new couch into your living room. Yes, you can get it into the space now, but is it really a living room anymore, or the tangled remains of a half destroyed house that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up?

The third option is that the apostles really only ever meant to teach that Jesus’ was “spiritually raised” in incorporeal form, and that the transmutation of this idea to a physical resurrection was a subsequent development born out of misunderstanding, wishful thinking, aggrandizement, or something of that sort on the part of their hearers. The idea of a split between Pauline Christianity and Jewish Christianity over this matter is one variant of this. This option falls down quite quickly when subjected to historical examination, since the universal attestation of the early Christian documents is to belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection. One has to suggest that Gnostic Christianity (which was certainly not Jewish) preserved the original tradition whereas the rest of the early Christian documents were subject to massive, conspiracy-theory level of revision. While an ardent supporter of the authenticity of the Gospel of Thomas might make a move towards the first part of that, the second part is on par with The DaVinci Code. Not surprisingly, this option has few adherents, and it barely even counts as a credible option.

I forgot to mention the option of denying that Jesus died. In this category there’s the old swoon theory, which is based on the notion that both the Romans, who were quite expert at killing people by crucifixion, and the disciples, who prepared and entombed his body, were incompetent to tell the difference between an unconscious man and a dead one. And there’s the theory that Simon the Cyrene or a thief or somebody was crucified in Jesus’ place, which is only an issue if one is engaged in apologetics with Muslims rather than sceptics.

Ah, now I see what is going on. I was thinking of this in terms of what Wright is actually trying to do, not in terms of the use some Christian apologists might want to make of his argument to prove that the resurrection is the more probable explanation. Wright isn’t trying to make a probabilistic argument about what happened, and it is an abuse of his arguments to try to press them into such service. Wright is fending off some of the sceptical arguments and instead positing one that seems to do a very good job of accounting for all the historical data available. He is arguing that the Christian claim is historically plausible and coherent, and indeed more so than the alternatives, if one does not rule out the possibility of the resurrection to begin with. If one has already ruled that out, then discussion of the history is moot. At that point, the Christian apologist really needs to be dealing with the Humean argument against the possibility of miracles and go consult the likes of @Jeffrey Koperski. It is only once the philosophical a priori arguments have been cleared away and the possibility that the resurrection is a real option on the table that one can then ask which explanation does the best job of explaining all the data.

And that brings us to the main flaw in the sceptic’s probabilistic argument. The issue is not one of probabilities, but of what really happened. The most plausible explanation is the one that does the best job of explaining all the available data. Having a plurality of alternative views, none of which can account for all the data, does not amount to besting the one that does. Neither singly nor together (in the case of ones that are not incompatible) do these alternatives provide a better, fuller explanation for the actual events in the development of early Christianity. One can invent alternative scenarios to any claimed historical event ad infinitum, but their sheer number doesn’t render the truth any less convincing. When one encounters alternative accounts that both seem plausible prima facie, one has to investigate them to see which is best able to account for everything and remains coherent under extended scrutiny. Because as police detectives, border security officers, and insurance adjusters, and other such investigators will tell us, even the best constructed fictions eventually unravel, but the truth is bottomless.

Looking at the stories of the apostles and their martyrdoms, for example, reveals that they don’t actually resemble the stories of, say, prisoners maintaining their innocence or people giving up their lives for a “noble lie” (e.g. a national myth) when one gets into the details. It is only by abstracting away from the details that one can build an argument that the cases are similar.

  • The apostles’ actions do not look like those of people protesting that they shouldn’t be in the situation they find themselves in. They didn’t claim that they shouldn’t be in this situation, but fully acknowledged why they were in this situation and refused to recant regardless, which makes them like a political prisoner who candidly and fervently acknowledges her “crime” and insists that she would do it again because it was the right thing to do.
  • Neither do their actions look like those of people sacrificing themselves to protect a greater good that they value from a harmful revelation of truth. A vassal sacrificing himself under false pretences in order to prevent his lord’s honour from being besmirched by an unpleasant revelation of the truth does so because he considers the lordship of said lord to be real and worth preserving, or that having him as lord is better for the nation, which is real and worth preserving. In contrast, whether or not Jesus was had in fact been vindicated by God as the Messiah was precisely the matter at issue in this case. If Jesus was not raised, there was no lordship to sacrifice oneself in order to protect. Neither was there some great ideal from his teaching that required this kind of protection. “Love your neighbour as yourself,” for example, had a long history before Jesus ever came on the scene and hadn’t required such measures to safeguard it. No, the key, driving theme of Jesus’ proclamation was that the kingdom of God was coming in and through his ministry, and if that proved false by his death, there was nothing else in it that required a noble lie to preserve. Neither was the community of disciples itself worth saving in this way. With neither a lord nor an ideal to serve, the community as such had no raison d’être and therefore nothing about it that would warrant lying and then dying to preserve.

None of these counter-counter-arguments proves that something along these lines didn’t happen, but to say “or something along these lines” is not to give an explanation. In order to unseat the claim that Jesus really was resurrected from its position as the best possible explanation of the historical data, it will be necessary to find and articulate an alternative scenario that really does a better job than that claim even when the possibility that it is true is taken seriously.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that I consider it one of the great strengths of the Christian faith that it is truly susceptible to historical falsification. I really do think it is possible to show Christianity to be false and remain always open to the possibility that someone might one day produce the necessary evidence to falsify it. To date I have not encountered any evidence or argument that has done so, but if someone does produce that one day, I want to know. The fact that no one has yet produced any does lend a weight of credibility to the Christian claim in my mind, and so I acknowledge that if such evidence or argument comes to light I will probably respond with suspicion at first, but I think that I would accept it if it proved true. So for me, the possibility of historical falsification is a real point of vulnerability of the Christian faith. Yet as I said, this is also one of its great strengths. It means that Christianity’s truth claim is not just to be the best interpretive grid to explain reality with, but that it is also a fundamentally factual claim that needs to be explained. This means Christianity can never just be true in our heads, but is also either concretely true or concretely false as part of reality “out there”—and therefore offers a concrete hope for reality out there. Being possibly historically false means it is also possibly historically true.

To this, I should add that the Biblical witness itself comes into question among most skeptics, so you can’t unproblematically say that it gives us a clear sense of what really happened. So I think that if you accept the terms of the critical-historical apologetic game, you need to proceed from a more minimal set of facts than you use here. (For example, Wright’s argument has the apologetic virtue of proceeding from nothing but the empty tomb and the post-resurrection sightings, both of which are much more widely accepted than the Biblical narrative as a whole).

Daniel L Heck, December 11, 2014, 09:30:09 PM

Perhaps I didn’t communicate clearly enough. I wasn’t building on the biblical testimony here. I was suggesting that human responses to situations where one’s faith is shattered invariably do look like what is described there and so it is reasonable to suppose that something much like it did happen because these are human being we are talking about.

I should have tagged @Jeffrey Koperski sooner! :)

I suppose I’ve been talking about probability in a fuzzily defined way, and I’m glad to have our resident analytic philosopher improve on that.

Returning to the key point about Hume, the arguments our imaginary sceptic keeps deploying here are precisely those of Hume. The argument again and again is that there are other more probable scenarios available and we should always favour the more probable over the less probable. Hume wanted to turn this into a maxim so that miracles were always outside the bounds of credibility. The problem here is that probability on its own is not a sufficient criterion to evaluate a claim by. One should use the criterion of probability in a secondary capacity to judge between claims of equal explanatory power, not as the primary criterion.

I’ll grant that our sceptic is not ruling out the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection a priori, but her use of probability as a primary criterion to evaluate truth claims is functionally equivalent. (As an aside, if she were being consistent in her use of criteria above, she should not have granted that a DaVinci Code-style conspiracy was less likely than that a man came back to life, walked through walls, and then flew away; the conspiracy is highly improbable but still less so than the resurrection.) If probability can outweigh explanatory value as she seems to suggest, then one ought always to choose the most probable scenario even if that doesn’t explain our actual experience well. But that’s absurd. Followed through consistently, it would lead to the conclusion that one ought to expect a homogeneous reality and that one should reject as incredible any experience that disturbed our expectations that actual events will always be the most probable events.

Returning to Wright, my recollection is that somewhere in Resurrection he briefly addresses this subject, just enough to contextualize his own argument as taking place within the assumption that the occurrence of Jesus’ resurrection as a historical event is a valid option not already ruled out by its improbability. Assuming my memory is correct, then it is fair to assume that when Wright makes comments about the relative strengths of the various alternatives, he means them within that context even if he doesn’t spell it out every time. I think his vacillation between caution and confidence can be explained fairly consistently within that context: cautious when facing the fact that a more powerful explanation could appear, confident when arguing that none of the currently available alternatives are so.