Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia
In this post, I will pull together the various threads to summarize why the resurrection is not accepted. To a large extent, people talk past each other, with, for example, Christians dismissing other faiths and at the same time expressing their frustration that their faith is dismissed in the same way. But I want to be clear that I am engaging with the evidence and find it wanting.
A couple of points up front though. There is an asymmetry in what is required to accept the claims. To accept a claim of resurrection would require absolutely extraordinary evidence. It is hard even to imagine how good the evidence would have to be, or if it is even possible in principle to reach this standard. On the other hand, anything short of this would require you to shrug your shoulders and say that you are not convinced. If you are not convinced by a claim you should maintain a healthy skepticism, which is the atheist position. In other words, anything less than absolutely and completely convincing should have you reject an extraordinary claim.
Note that this is a very unremarkable standard in all other arenas. But Christianity has a number of attributes that cause this standard to be abandoned, even by otherwise rational people. Jesus’s warning to “doubting Thomas”, who showed a healthy skepticism of the claims of people he knew very well (the same people we are meant to trust though we know almost nothing about them), is a classic example: “blessed are those who believe without seeing me” (John 20:29). The severity of the consequence of lack of belief is another.
A second, related point is that you do not get credit for the occasional truth. If you are caught out in a falsehood, everything you say from then on ought to be treated with suspicion. That does not mean that everything you say from then on is false. It simply means that a truthful, normal claim does not verify a later, wild claim.
I will refer simply to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, but it is not known who the actual authors are, so take these as short hand for “the anonymous author of the book of…” when I refer to them.
With this as background, I want to look at the five primary sources for the claim of the resurrection (Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), and then at a couple of claims that are sometimes made to enhance the credibility of these sources. As we shall see, all of them have significant issues in terms of credibility, and therefore, we should not accept their claims without independent corroboration, which does not exist.
Firstly, we have Paul. Paul claims to be a witness to the resurrection, but he is not since he only saw Jesus in a vision. A vision, invisible to those around him, is simply not evidence at all for the claim that Jesus had a physical resurrection. It has nothing to do with the historicity of the resurrection as understood by the majority of modern Christians.
Paul also quotes what is generally believed to be a creed in the early verses of 1 Corinthians 15, where he lists a number of other witnesses. But he does not distinguish between their experience and his, so again this must be discounted as no better than his own. Note also that Paul never refers to an empty tomb, or a trial by Herod or any other specific historical detail relating to the story as modern Christians understand it. His witness is far more aligned with a vision, which is all that he claims to have had. This is enough to remain skeptical of using this as evidence of the resurrection.
Next up, in terms of the order in which it is written, is Mark. The earliest manuscripts of Mark do not have any resurrection appearances. The book ends with the women finding the empty tomb, being afraid and saying nothing. So Mark would also appear not to be evidence for the resurrection.
It is clear that Luke does not think of Mark as a credible witness, since he “corrects” Mark’s claim that the angels in the tomb said that Jesus would appear in Galilee. This tells us that even at the time Mark was not regarded as reliable. Why should our position be stronger than Luke’s?
A second issue with Mark is the literary doublets. The classic example is the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44) immediately followed by the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-13). Reading these two stories, it is clear that they originate from the same story, since so many of the words are the same and the disciples are presented as being surprised the second time around (Mark 8:4: “His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”). This demonstrates that Mark was not himself an eye-witness and nor was he interviewing an eye-witness.
The later manuscripts of Mark have a few resurrection appearances, but it is hard to take these seriously, since they are added in later and they have a fable quality to them. It starts by reporting that Jesus woke early, but who is supposed to have witnessed that? Then he appears to Mary who is not believed which again means we have only her word for it and those who knew her did not find her credible enough. Next he appears “in a different form” to two others (who are also not believed). Appearing in a different form cannot be taken as evidence. Finally he appear to the eleven where he is reported to say that believers can handle snakes and drink poison, which spoils what might have been the best bit in this late addition to a non-eyewitness account.
Matthew makes a number of wild claims that are uncorroborated even by the rest of the Bible, and therefore he cannot be taken as a serious witness of the resurrection. I will mention a few, but note that I am not just saying that these events are improbable; I am saying that Matthew is not credible because he makes claims that are improbable on their own and are not supported elsewhere. We would therefore need more evidence before we accepted anything else he said.
Matthew frequently used language stating that something happened to fulfill scripture. This awareness of the scripture during the narrative is very suspicious. But he also gets its wrong on a number of occasions. In the birth narrative, for example, Matthew has the family living in their home in Bethlehem when Mary gets/falls pregnant. An angel visits Joseph and says that he is to be called Jesus. Matthew tells us that this happens to fulfill Isaiah in which his name is to be Immanuel. Jesus is then never, ever called Immanuel, not even in Matthew.
Matthew tells us that the family leave their home of Bethlehem because of the slaughter of the innocent by Herod. This is uncorroborated anywhere else including Josephus, who kept an eye on Herod for that sort of activity. But the real issue is the implausibility of Herod not being able to find a house over which a star was hanging earlier, at least according to Matthew (again improbably).
Next Matthew has the family flee to Egypt (again a long detour explicitly made to fulfill scripture and not related elsewhere) and then return to Nazareth, to fulfill “what was said through the prophets”, even though no such scripture exists (Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament or the apocrypha at all).
Matthew alone has the implausible story of the guards, including the angel descending to open the tomb even though Jesus had supposedly already escaped somehow; the guards are bribed to never mention it and that works? The elders are able to put it right with the governor? None of this is plausible, and Matthew admits that the story is there to counter the objection that the body was stolen.
Matthew alone has the saints rising from their tombs and wandering around Jerusalem, without anyone else commenting on it (Matthew 27:52). He has the ability to have narrative between Herod and his wife about her dreams. These elements get me rapidly to the point where I will simply not believe anything he says without independent verification.
Luke explicitly points out that he is not an eyewitness (Luke 1:2 – note the distinction between “us” and “those who from the first were eyewitnesses”). Both Matthew and Luke draw heavily and sometimes verbatim from Mark, which also indicates that neither is an eyewitness.
Luke has Jesus’s parents living in Nazareth and being compelled to go to Bethlehem by a Roman census. It explicitly states that this is because Joseph is from the line and house of David. There was no such census and the Romans certainly did not require people to move to a different place to be counted: they counted them at their home. It’s hard to imagine why the Romans would care about a truly ancient Jewish ancestor. This is immediately not a reliable source. He probably did not make up the story, but he certainly was not a critical historian.
On the census, there was a census under Quirinius in A.D. 6, but Herod dies in 4 B.C. This immediately throws Luke’s dating into disarray. Luke also relates a scene in which Gamaliel reviews the previous Messianic figure of Theudas (Acts 5). But from Josephus we know that Theudas was active when Fadus was procurator, about a decade after Gamaliel was speaking. Some Christians simply postulate a second Theudas, but it clearly presents a problem for Luke’s scholarship.
Compare also Mark 13:14 with Luke 21:20-21. Mark writes (13:14): “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong…” drawing from Daniel. Luke changes this to (21:20) “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.” This suggests that by the time Luke is writing, Jerusalem has already fallen.
An objective witness reading John 1 need read no further if trying to establish historical truth. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made.” These are not historical claims in any meaningful sense, and tell us that the author of John has a theological motive rather than an historical one. Any author who writes like this cannot be taken seriously as a sober historian.
John also has the issue of the double ending. John appears to end after the Jerusalem appearances in 20:30-31 (”Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”). It then proceeds with John 21 with a sighting in Galilee, in this case the miraculous catch of fish. It is widely believed that this chapter is written later.
There are a number of anachronisms in John, which further support the idea that this was not written by eyewitnesses. John 9:22, 12:42, 16:2 all discuss the notion that the Pharisees would put people out of the synagogue if they acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah (both in Jesus’s lifetime and predicting the future). This was not the practice of the synagogue during Jesus’s lifetime, and the Pharisees were a lay movement who had no such judicial powers. John 11:57 suggests that the Pharisees had powers of arrest, but they did not at that time. In Jesus’s lifetime, the Sadducees (who are represented as opponents of Jesus in Mark and Matthew) were the priestly class, but they are not even mentioned by John. When the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, the Sadducees disappeared, while the Pharisees survived and grew in power. In other words, John is anachronistically writing Jesus into the world as it was after the destruction of the temple.
Another point is that the miracles in John are all bigger than they are in the synoptics, pointing to a growing legend rather than an historical account. In John 6:21 Jesus walks across the whole lake; the blind man who is healed was blind from birth (9:1); Lazarus has been dead for four days and has already started to smell (11:39). These miracles are all a little bigger than the corresponding examples in the synoptic gospels.
Summary of the Biblical evidence
If atheists and other religions dismiss the evidence of the Bible, the reason is simply that it lacks credibility. You will note that in the above discussion I have not looked at the dating of these books or the discrepancies between the accounts (though both are problematic for the Christian). I have looked at each account on its own and judged it to be not credible on its own merits. I am not saying that every detail is inaccurate, and some of the setting details are surely correct (though not all as we saw in the discussions on Luke and John). I am not here trying to explain where the gospels came from. In that case I would consider the order in which the books were written, and the apparent evolution of the ideas. But that is not important – if the books are unreliable then we cannot trust them as evidence of something extraordinary.
Another argument that is often made is that the discrepancies enhance the credibility because they point to a lack of collusion. That approach may have merit in some circumstances, but if each witness independently is lacking in credibility then discrepancies are irrelevant. In this instance we know that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, so there is no doubt that there was collusion. That they still managed to have discrepancies makes it worse, not better. Discrepancies are not good by themselves: they are only good if they point to a lack of collusion. I also think that this excuse is a little unnuanced: it surely depends on the discrepancy and the circumstances.
But they were willing to die
A final appeal often made is that the people who made these claims were willing to die for them. This almost certainly means that they believed them, but this does not improve the reliability of the actual accounts that we have. We do not have eyewitness accounts, and the accounts we have are distinctly lacking in credibility. It is beyond dispute that people have believed the accounts, and fervently, but that belief does not improve the quality of the evidence that we actually have. We also know that people have been willing to die for all manner of beliefs. Though impressive, this willingness to die for an idea without evidence means that martyrdom is no substitute for evidence if truth is our objective.
If we consider the twelve disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, only three of the surviving eleven (after Judas has died) are anything more than names in the book of Acts. These are Peter, James and his brother John.
The martyrs mentioned in the Bible are as follows: John the Baptist, who died before the resurrection (Matthew 14:1-12); Stephen, who was stoned for preaching the gospel (Acts 7:54-60), but was not a witness of the resurrection; and James the brother of John, who is killed by King Herod (Acts 12:2) and is a witness recorded in the gospels. Interestingly, the Bible does not directly record the deaths of Paul or Peter, but there is a tradition of it that comes later. In any event, that leaves us with Paul, Peter, and James the brother of John.
Paul is not a witness of the resurrection, since he only saw Jesus in a vision. It is unclear whether Peter was ever martyred, or whether Peter wrote the epistles of Peter. But the epistles do not describe any resurrection appearances, so it does not much matter. There is a tradition that the author of Mark was interviewing Peter, but Mark does not have any resurrection appearances either, and the tradition is highly suspect anyway, requiring Peter to be in Rome which is also in doubt. There are various James, but the one who was martyred in Acts is probably not the one who wrote the epistle of James, and this epistle also does not record any resurrection appearances. So we are left only with second hand information. No eyewitness account of the resurrection exists for us at all.
In the final analysis, we have in Christianity a religion based on inadequate evidence. The credibility of the writings that tell us of the resurrection is suspect, and that is all that is needed. We can accept that the authors believed it, but they were not eyewitnesses to it, and for us this cannot constitute sufficient evidence to accept the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection. The genesis of religions even to this day shows patterns and evidence of a similar nature, which we also do not accept. The above discussion shows that Christianity does not distinguish itself in terms of credibility from these.