Sunday, April 12, 2009

Was Jesus' Resurrection an Urban Legend?

Last Easter I argued that Jesus' resurrection cannot be explained in terms of mythology. But I also pointed out that people who think Jesus is a myth equivocate between whether they mean "mythology" or "urban legend." While mythology takes a long time to develop, urban legends are just stories that have been passed along throughout society. Since they do not result from a long process of mythologization -- where at some point the story is misinterpreted or corrupted -- either the person(s) who first told the story experienced something they misunderstood for something else, or they didn't. If they didn't, they must have known that they didn't (i.e. they made it up), although I suppose insanity could be a possible explanation as well. If they did experience something which they subsequently misunderstood, it was either something outside the person or it was something inside the person's mind (i.e. a hallucination). Thus an urban legend must have at least one of the following causes: the person who originally told the the story 1. simply made it up (for example, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster); 2. was insane; 3. hallucinated; or 4. experienced something which he mistook for something else (such as Elvis and UFO sightings).

Now the problem with saying that Jesus' resurrection was an urban legend is that it cannot fit into any of these categories.

1. There are two reasons mitigating against the idea that the early Christians made up the resurrection: first, the resurrection of Jesus was significantly different from the Jewish concept of resurrection, not to mention pagan concepts of the afterlife. The Jewish concept was that everyone who has ever lived would be resurrected at the end of the world. Jesus' resurrection is that of an individual man in the midst of history. No one has ever explained how the idea of Jesus' resurrection would even occur to anyone if it hadn't actually happened.

Second, the people who claimed to have seen Jesus alive from the dead were willing to experience horrific deaths rather than deny that it happened. If they just made it up, what possible motivation could they have had for this?

2. The writings of the early Christians show no signs of mental instability. On the contrary, they make up some of the most inspirational writings ever written. Paul is widely considered one of the greatest minds of the ancient world.

3. The first reason why Jesus' resurrection appearances cannot be ascribed to hallucination is the same as the first reason why the early Christians couldn't have just made it up: Jesus' resurrection contradicted the fundamental Jewish concept of resurrection. Hallucinations are projections of the mind; one cannot hallucinate something that isn't already present in the mind. So it's a straightforward syllogism:

a) Hallucinations can only be of what is already conceived.
b) The early Christians could not have conceived of Jesus' resurrection (because it contradicted the Jewish concept of resurrection).
c) Therefore, the early Christians could not have hallucinated Jesus' resurrection.

As William Lane Craig has written, if the disciples were to hallucinate Jesus after his death, they would have hallucinated something that fit into the religious paradigm they accepted, such as Jesus having been assumed into heaven. They wouldn't have had hallucinations of Jesus risen from the dead.

The second reason the hallucination theory doesn't work is more obvious: Jesus appeared to groups of people. Hallucinations are individual experiences, there is no such thing as a collective hallucination. Again, a hallucination is a projection of the mind. For more than one person to hallucinate the exact same thing at the exact same time is implausible in the extreme.

4. There are two reasons countering the idea that people experienced something which they mistakenly took to be Jesus alive from the dead. First is that these weren't brief glimpses experienced by people who didn't personally know Jesus. They were groups of people who knew him intimately, and they spoke with and physically touched "whatever it was." It is a category mistake to compare Jesus' resurrection appearances with catching a brief glimpse of someone with long sideburns in a crowd and thinking it's Elvis, or seeing nondescript lights in the sky and thinking that they're alien spacecraft.

For example, virtually all New Testament scholars agree that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul is quoting a creed which dates to within a few years of Jesus' crucifixion. This creed claims, among other things, that after Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to the apostles, to Jesus' brother James, and to a group of 500 people at once. The appearance to the apostles has multiple independent attestation, being further described in the Gospels of Luke and John. James opposed his brother during his ministry, but something convinced him that his brother rose from the dead, since he preferred to be put to death rather than deny it. And Elvis never appeared to 500 people at once after his death.

Second, if the early followers merely mistook something else for Jesus alive from the dead, what exactly was it? The difficulty of anything other than Jesus himself giving the early Christians the impression of Jesus raised from the dead has led to absurdities. One philosopher (not a New Testament scholar) has suggested that Jesus must have had an evil twin. If that's the alternative to believing in the resurrection, then there's just no contest.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)


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14 comments:

Jamierobertson said...

Addedumn to point one: even before being executed for their claims, the first disciples had an enormous amount to lose by writing the gospels as they did. The criticism of people in influence; the rather dunderheaded/faithless/unreliable way the disciples themselves are often portrayed; the worthless social background of Jesus ("can anything good come out of Nazareth?!"); the exclusivity of the gospel message; and the prominent role of women in the gospels would all be a major turn-off to potential converts. As a result, we have to ask why such highly embarassing/diffcult details were included at all, apart from the simple reason that the authors were brutally honest. A gospel writer who was happy to take liberties with the truth simply wouldn't put this stuff in.

bvgdez said...

Very interesting post. I was discussing this question with my son today after he heard the Easter gospel on the radio today. I'd just like to ask which witnesses of Jesus' resurrection became martyrs, how well documetnted this is and whether we can be sure they could have saved themselves form death by recanting.

Matthew said...

One philosopher (not a New Testament scholar) has suggested that Jesus must have had an evil twin. If that's the alternative to believing in the resurrection, then there's just no contest.

That was in the Lowder and Price book "The Empty Tomb". I stopped reading it at that point.
Later, I found two critiques (one by Stve Hays, "This Joyful Eastertide", one by J.P. Holding on "tekton apologetics"). I read the book and then I read the critiques.

Honestly, some of the stuff in it was even more wacky than the evil-twin theory.

Humphrey said...

Evil twin theory eh?. What is is called?, 'The Mechagodzilla hypothesis' or something?.

I wish they would revive the 19th century 'swoon' theory.

Jim S. said...

bvgdez: The certainty of how the apostles died varies from one to another. Peter's death is referred to in many early Christian documents, but some of the others (like Bartholomew/Nathaniel) are not mentioned until you get to Eusebius. What isn't in question is that the early Church experienced violent oppression with frequent martyrdom.

Steven Carr said...

I had a debate on the resurrection with Canon Michael Cole at Easter.

He got slaughtered, of course.

Has anybody explained why Christians would make up stories of the infant Jesus killing people, if such things had never happened?

That would be a major turn-off to potential converts. The only reason is that the authors of such stories must have been brutally honest.

Steven Carr said...

'The writings of the early Christians show no signs of mental instability. '

Of course not.

Why it is perfectly normal to have visions of food and think that you could actually eat them.

Or imagine you have been on a trip to Heaven.

Or see people in a vision and think a real person from Macedonia has visited you.

Or think you are being tormented by an angel from Satan and have a revelation of Jesus telling you to put up with it.

Steven Carr said...

Not one person in history ever named himself as seeing a flesh and bone resurrected Jesus....

All there are are myths and legends which are lapped up by Christians as gullible now as they were 2000 years ago, when even Paul complained about Christians being all too ready to accept false Jesus's

Eugene Curry said...

"Not one person in history ever named himself as seeing a flesh and bone resurrected Jesus"

This is clearly false, Steven, Paul of Tarsus is a named person and he claimed to have seen a flesh and bone resurrected Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:8.

Steven Carr said...

'Steven, Paul of Tarsus is a named person and he claimed to have seen a flesh and bone resurrected Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:8.'

Only in the sense that he never does claim to have seen a flesh and bone resurrected Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:8, and reminds the people scoffing at the idea of their god choosing to raise corpses that 'the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.'

Eugene Curry said...

I don't quite understand what you're trying to say, Steven.

Are you asserting that Paul didn't claim to have seen the resurrected Jesus at all? Or are you asserting that while Paul did make such a claim, Paul didn't believe that the risen Jesus that he saw was "flesh and bone"?

Steven Carr said...

Which part of 'became a spirit' means flesh and bone?

Even according to Acts, hardly unbiased,Paul never saw a flesh and bone Jesus.

I thought Jesus had flown into the sky before Paul got to see him.

Eugene Curry said...

While you didn’t quite answer my question I’m going to assume on the basis of what you did say that you grant that Paul claims to have seen Jesus. Your assertion is that that Paul didn’t see Jesus as “flesh and bone” but as a spirit.

To answer your question, obviously no part of “became a spirit” (it’s actually “became a life-giving spirit” in 1 Cor. 15:45, by the way) can be pressed to establish that Paul saw a “flesh and bone” Jesus. But so what? That one short string of words taken from 1 Corinthians doesn’t in itself provide evidence for a hypothesis doesn’t mean that such evidence can’t be found elsewhere in the letter—let alone the rest of the Pauline corpus. And that evidence is readily available in the immediate context of your proffered phrase: the very meaning of the word “resurrection” in a 1st century context, the contrast of burial and resurrection in 1 Cor. 15:4 with a three day interim, the metaphor of the sown seed in 1 Cor. 15:36-38 & 42 ff. which undergoes intrinsic change taken in conjunction with Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor. 15:20 that Jesus’ resurrection is paradigmatic of the general resurrection, and the further emphasis laid on this intrinsic change found in 1 Cor. 15:51 ff.

Now I can’t really prove that Paul thought that the risen Jesus’ body was a little squishy on the outside and that, inside the squishiness, there were harder parts made out of calcium. After all, Paul clearly believes that the resurrection transforms a person’s body in some way (as do all the gospel narrative that describe Jesus’ risen body in any detail; e.g. Luke & John). But that Paul believed that the risen Jesus he saw was in possession of a physical body—and that that physical body itself had at one time been a corpse made of squishy flesh and calcium-based bones—seems indisputable.

As for your invocation of Luke/Acts with reference to Paul’s conversion experience and Jesus’ ascension, do you believe that Luke/Acts accurately records the events that it narrates? If you do then we now have a great many more named individuals whom we know saw a “flesh and bone” risen Jesus. But if you don’t then you can’t honestly appeal to these works in order to inform and nuance Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15.

Gary said...

Were Jesus' disciples capable of differentiating between a vivid dream and reality?

In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph twice, once to tell him that he should go ahead and marry Mary, even though she is pregnant (not by him), and then again a couple of years later to warn him of Herod's plan to kill Jesus and that he should take the family to Egypt. The author of Matthew tells us that both of these "appearances" occurred in dreams.

The question is: Did Joseph believe that God had sent a real angel to him to give him real messages?

If first century Jews were truly able to distinguish dreams/visions from reality, why would Joseph marry a woman who had been impregnated by someone else just because an angel "appeared" to him in a dream? If first century Jews knew that dreams are not reality, Joseph would have ignored the imaginary angel and his imaginary message. For Joseph to go through with his marriage to a pregnant Mary was a very rare exception to the behavior of people in an Honor-Shame society. His act of obeying an angel in a dream is solid proof that he believed that the angel was real and the message was real.

And if Joseph understood that dreams are not reality, why would he move his family to a foreign country based only on a dream?

And how about Paul's dream/vision? Paul saw and heard a talking bright light in a dream. Paul saw the men accompanying him to Damascus collapse to the ground with him...in a dream. Paul reported that these men also saw the light but didn't hear the voice...or heard some kind of noise but didn't see the light...in a dream....depending which passage of Acts you read.

So it is obvious that first century Jews were just as likely to believe that a dream is reality as some people do today! People have been seeing angels, bright lights and dead people for thousands of years...in their dreams...and have believed that these events are reality.

So the fact that four, anonymous, first century books contain stories of people "seeing" dead people and even "seeing" large groups of people "seeing" dead people, should come as no surprise.

They were vivid dreams. Visions. Nothing more.