Can any historical information be taken from the New Testament, at all?

I hear this a lot from skeptics: If you try to give historical evidence for anything in Christianity, you can’t use the Bible. It’s circular, for one thing, using the Bible to prove itself. And another thing, it’s just a bunch of fables with no historical worth. Only people who believe in the Bible already will accept it. That is, only people who already accept the Bible as the Word of God will be convinced (and unfortunately so).

So if someone were to try to present historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection using texts from the Bible, skeptics would likely object as I just have above.

Is the above a good argument? I don’t think it is. For one, it seems in danger of a logical fallacy — False Dilemma. In dilemma-style arguments, the arguer presents two options, one of which is obviously unacceptable, forcing us to accept the other option. The fallacy occurs when there are more than two options. Here the skeptic seems to argue that either you accept the Bible as the Word of God, or you have to reject it completely. Since the former is unacceptable, the Bible must be rejected completely.  But these two aren’t the only options. One could believe the New Testament to be partially true, for one thing. Another thing, one could accept certain claims made by the Bible without claiming it’s the Word of God.

Still, there’s more to the above argument than this. The argument might be that the Bible has so many obviously irrational claims, that nothing in the book can be trusted. Would you believe anything said by a schizophrenic who thinks he’s Napoleon, or the Real Donald Trump (the one you see on TV and Twitter is an impostor, placed there by the space-alien-supported Illuminati)? Probably not. That’s how we should treat the Bible.

Or, maybe less harshly, the book is really, really, old. It was written back when people weren’t as careful as they are today. They jumped to supernatural conclusions, were much less disposed to critical thinking, more gullible, more ignorant, and so on. Given the unbelievable nature of much of what’s in the book (numerous miracles, for instance), we can’t trust the book at all.

It’s an inductive argument: since the New Testament contains many things that are unbelievable, we can infer that everything in the book is unbelievable.

Another, perhaps more careful, argument along the above lines is this; the Bible is full of unbelievable claims. And although these alone don’t prove that everything in the Bible is false, there is a big burden of proof now placed on all claims in the Bible. There may, indeed, be some ordinary facts described in the Bible that really happened, but unless they are independently corroborated, we can’t rationally accept them. That is, if it’s in the Bible, it’s guilty until proven innocent, given all the other nonsense the Bible says.

William Lane Craig, a philosopher and resurrection specialist, doesn’t accept this argument (the last one was made, more or less, by Richard Carrier regarding the Gospels in his debate with Craig on the Resurrection). One reason that he doesn’t accept it is that the New Testament isn’t just one document. The New Testament is a compilation of separate writings. Each of the Gospels, furthermore, are themselves compilations, writings that include other writings and oral testimony. In fact, a whole discipline has arisen to try to figure out all the different underlying sources behind the Gospels. The many sources gleaned from the Gospels, plus references in other parts of the New Testament, serve as independent corroboration.

A lot of skeptics wouldn’t consider this corroboration at all. For it’s all from the Bible. But it would be begging the question to assume that we can’t take as corroboration different passages from different authors or books in the Bible, without knowing that everything in the Bible is untrustworthy in advance. They are separate sources, complied decades/centuries after they were written.

However, skeptics could reply that the Gospel authors, and all the other New Testament authors, had discrediting ulterior motives. They were concerned with aiding the fledgling Christian movement in one way or another. They cannot be trusted.

This is an ad hominem against the Gospel authors. Ad hominems reject claims because of some feature of the person(s) making the claim. They had such and such motivations is one. But what they say might still be true, and their arguments may still be good (e.g., a defense attorney has a motive to defend her client — that alone doesn’t mean her claims are false or her arguments are bad).

Still, there are all those miracles and other unbelievables in the Bible. And there are the apparent inconsistencies. So there still is that inductive argument. My reply to this is a counter-example. It’s one that Craig uses in his debates about the Resurrection. Consider Matthew 28:

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Look at the last line: “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” Even if we don’t accept that Jesus rose from the dead,  don’t accept miracles or God or the supernatural, couldn’t we acknowledge that it’s plausible to believe that the story of the stolen body was widespread among Jews at that time? If it wasn’t so, the entire motivation for writing this passage is gone, even if the author of Matthew was just a fanatic trying serve the young Christian movement. If it weren’t true, moreover, including it would probably dissuade Matthew’s audience, for his audience would know whether such a story was currently widely circulated (his audience was probably Jewish). It makes much more sense to say that he and other Jews of his time knew about the story and that he needed to provide some kind of answer to it to defend his movement.

I don’t know if you would accept this reasoning, but doesn’t it at least seem possibly rational to reason this way about a passage in the New Testament and accept a claim in it, even without confirmation from outside the Bible?

This reasoning was used by Craig to support the claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty, which, in turn, was used to support the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. However, even if skeptics disagree with the last use, I think the claim about the empty tomb itself is reasonable.

I should clarify. In the above I was not trying to argue that everything in the Bible should believed. What I was arguing against is the view that nothing in the Bible should be believed.

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Why Historians Reject the Resurrection of Jesus: It’s a Miracle

David Hume, a pillar of skepticism
David Hume, a pillar of skepticism

For a little background, check out this debate between Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig and the skeptical historian Bart Ehrman. Craig argues that Jesus rose from the dead, claiming that God raising Jesus from the dead is the best explanation for these facts:

1. Jesus’ burial
2. the discovery of the empty tomb
3. his postmortem appearances (at least in the minds of the disciples)
4. the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection

What is interesting is that in the debates against Craig, the core of the response of Craig’s opponents isn’t about disputing these facts (Richard Carrier was an exception — he believes that no useful historical information can be taken from the New Testament). Their main argument is that God’s raising Jesus from the dead (call this the Resurrection Hypothesis, or RH) is not historical because it is a miracle claim.

One might think that this is just anti-religious prejudice. But they do offer a philosophical argument for the prejudice. It’s the 18th century philosopher David Hume’s argument against belief in miracles (Ehrman in the above debate denies this, but his argument is pretty much a simplified version of Hume’s argument).

What is Hume’s argument? Here’s a quote:

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (Hume 1748/2000: 87–88)

There is much dispute between Hume scholars about what this argument amounts to (see this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). But let’s consider this question using probability theory.

I have two versions of what follows, hard, and easy. Here’s hard (skip if you don’t want to go through the math):

Consider one formulation of Bayes’ Theorem:

P(RH|E) = P(RH) × P(E|RH)/P(E)

I’ll describe what this means. RH = God raised Jesus from the dead. E is the evidence now under consideration (background information understood to be always there and is not included in the formula). P(RH) is the probability of RH just in itself, without considering the evidence at hand (This is called the “prior probability”). P(RH|E) is the probability of RH given E (the probability of RH given the evidence). P(E|RH) is the probability of the evidence occurring if RH is true. This term is about the explanatory power of RH — RH accounts for E if RH gives one reason to expect E. That is, if RH gives us reason to expect E, then E’s occurring is evidence for RH. Finally, P(E) is the probability of E just given the background information. It is to normalize the equation. There is also the intuition that P(E|RH), even if high, wouldn’t mean much if we would expect E to happen anyway. Thus we divide P(E|RH) by P(E).

My own view is that Hume’s argument amounts to this: P(RH) is extremely low. That is, the probability of a miracle occurring, given our background information (including all of science), is low, for miracles are, by definition, a violation of the regularities of experience. Thus all of experience stands against them. If that’s true, then P(E|RH)/P(E) would have to be extraordinarily high to compensate if the Resurrection is to have any real probability of happening. In the real world no one could supply such evidence.

Here’s easy:

Two main things go into how probable some statement is given the evidence. The first is how inherently likely the statement is, without considering evidence. Let’s call this the prior probability. The second is how much does the evidence support the statement. With miracles, skeptics, like Hume, argue that their prior probability is sooooo low that no amount of evidence can make them reasonable to accept. The Resurrection of Jesus is no exception. We could grant that the evidence does give some support for the claim, but still reject the claim because it’s so inherently unlikely. It’s like trying to prove that someone saw an alien. The evidence that would be enough for an ordinary event wouldn’t be enough for something extraordinary like the appearance of an alien. As atheists and skeptics often say, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

Back to the main topic:

Though skeptics might admit that natural alternative explanations of the data surrounding Jesus’ resurrection have so far been disappointing, they would insist that even the worst of these is better than the Resurrection (Ehrman was explicit about this), presumably because of the Resurrection’s low prior probability.

Craig admits that, just by itself, the Resurrection is very improbable. Craig asserts, however, that he isn’t arguing merely that Jesus rose from the dead, but that God raised Jesus from the dead.1 This latter statement, at first, seems to have a higher prior probability: God would have the power to do something that has no precedent in experience. A skeptic, however, could reply that adding God into the hypothesis makes it more complex, lowering the prior probability. The more ad hoc additions we make to a theory, the worse it is in terms of prior probability.

Notwithstanding, Craig spends most of his time arguing for a high value for P(E|RH)/P(E) (arguing that the evidence is well explained by the hypothesis) — he argues that the evidence given above is far more probable on the Resurrection than on any natural hypothesis. But all this falls on deaf ears because of the low value of P(RH) (low prior probability).

What can be said? I think that P(RH) (the Resurrection’s prior probability) is low given naturalism. Adding God to the hypothesis seems ad hoc. But what if we had independent evidence for God’s existence? If God exists, then, given His goodness and the evil in the world, we might expect some sort of action on his part to address this evil. In particular, we could expect some sort of revelation. And for us to know the revelation was from God, we might expect some sort of miracle to validate the revelation. So we would be expecting something like RH (the Resurrection Hypotheis).2 This wouldn’t show that Jesus rose from the dead, but it would mitigate the low prior probability for RH: God wouldn’t just be some add on, but something independently supported. Then evidence for the Resurrection could be taken more seriously.

Thus I think that the case for Jesus’ resurrection by God needs to be made as part of a comprehensive case for Christianity. This would include a case for God’s existence as the best way to account for all the data of our experience (including our apprehension of a realm of value, our experience of ourselves as immaterial beings, the existence and fine-tuning of the universe, etc). This is, of course, what Craig does in God debates. However, I don’t think it appropriate to use Jesus’ resurrection as evidence for God (as Craig does) simply because Jesus’ resurrection would only be the best explanation for the facts he presents as evidence if we already knew that God exits. It would be a circular (or pretty close to circular) argument. I would instead try to argue for God’s existence, then, if successful, use evidence for the Resurrection to support the truth of Christianity.

  1. Craig also denies that Bayes’ theorem is applicable to historical analysis, as these probabilities cannot be determined. See his debate with Greg Cavin here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rmxi9o_xqkc.
  2. Similar ideas are worked out in Richard Swinburne’s Revelation.