Let’s conclude our critique of Mike Licona’s “Top 10 Myths About Jesus’ Resurrection” (part 1 here).
(Blue text is the supposed myth, green is Licona’s rejection of the myth, and black is my response to Licona.)
Myth 9: Not enough evidence
There’s not enough evidence to support the conclusion that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Caesar Augustus was Rome’s greatest emperor . . . but how do we know? We have only six sources. One is a funerary inscription. The others are dated 90–200 years later. Contrast this with the gospels: they were written 20–65 years after the event.
Note that “Augustus was Rome’s greatest emperor” is a natural claim. That there would be one greatest emperor of Rome’s many emperors is not startling, and Augustus is a leading candidate. We have statues of him. The coin that Jesus used as an example in the “Render unto Caesar” story has a reference to Caesar Augustus as a god. Heck, we have a month named after Caesar Augustus. Yeah, I think we have evidence to back up that claim.
Knowing that we have only meager evidence (and that being written evidence) for the Greatest Story Ever Told, Licona wants to focus on just the written evidence for Augustus. All right—that’s not a fair comparison, but let’s go there. If the Augustus-was-the-greatest claim was overturned because of poor written evidence, no one would much care. The claim has no impact on the average person’s life. But the remarkable claim of Jesus as the son of God is, if true, far more consequential and needs much more than stories written down and poorly transmitted to us over 2000 years. (More on the relevance of the importance of a claim here.)
Licona also slips in conservative dating for the gospels. No, the consensus is that the earliest gospel was written forty years after the events. But this is a small matter. If the supernatural claims in the gospels were committed to papyrus even the day after the events they claim to document, they would still be unbelievable.
We also have Paul, who was an eyewitness of the risen Jesus.
The “risen Jesus” appeared to Paul as an apparition! And the word Paul used to indicate that Jesus “appeared” to him is the same that he uses to describe how Jesus appeared to the other disciples. Paul isn’t much of a friend to your side if he thought that no one, not even the disciples, met a physical Jesus.
“When we subject it to the typical criteria for the best explanation, the resurrection hypothesis is by far the best explanation for the historical data, and thus we should regard it as an event that happened in history.”
This is what passes for scholarship within the evangelical camp? Licona will have us believe that the supernatural explanation beats all the natural hypotheses, from the slightly farfetched (hallucinations) to the eminently reasonable (legend). Christians should feel insulted that he treats his audience as so stupid that they’ll buy this empty declaration.
Myth 10: Lost gospels
What about the noncanonical gospels like the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Philip, or Mary that aren’t in the Bible but see the resurrection in a different way? For example, the Gospel of Thomas says that it was immaterial or calls it “enlightenment.”
Let’s not give the Gospel of Thomas much weight. Dates for authorship vary, with some scholars dating it to a century later than the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
And some date it to be roughly concurrent with the canonical gospels! The key thing about the Gospel of Thomas is the lack of interest in the resurrection and that salvation comes through understanding the teachings of Jesus, not faith.
There are lots of noncanonical gospels, many dating to the second century. Some scholars date the canonical gospels to the second century as well (because the references to apocalyptic destruction seem to fit the third Jewish-Roman war of 132–136 CE better than the first war in 70 CE), but that’s a minority opinion so let’s set that aside. The authorship of the noncanonical gospels is significantly later than that for the four canonical gospels, though it’s not like their authorship in the late first century was especially close to the events they claim to document. Any complaint that noncanonical gospels are late must apply to a large extent to the canonical gospels as well.
The liberals in the Jesus Seminar don’t think the Gospel of Thomas contains the authentic words of Jesus.
Yeah, and they don’t think much of the canonical gospels, either. You can say that the Gospel of Thomas is legendary, but it’s just built on top of the prior legend in the canonical gospels.
“The New Testament literature provides us with the very best information on what the early Christians claimed and believed pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus.”
Which isn’t saying much. This does nothing to argue for the accuracy of the outlandish resurrection claim.
And let’s not assume that first-century Christians held only the beliefs that survived to be included in the New Testament. Early Christianity was much broader than you would think looking only at the New Testament, and other branches (Marcionites, Gnostics, Ebionites, and perhaps others) have been pruned away.
Let me admit that Licona’s videos were quite short, and I’m sure he could’ve added a lot to each one. Nevertheless, I felt comfortable attacking these arguments without restraint because I’ve never seen longer arguments that are any more convincing.
Parable of the lost keys
These weak arguments remind me of the guy in an empty parking lot at night looking for something under a streetlight. Someone comes over to ask him what he’s looking for.
“I lost my keys over there.” He gestures to a dark part of the parking lot.
“Then why aren’t you looking for them over there?”
“The light’s better here.”
This is what apologists do. It’s hard to attack actual atheist positions, so they spend lots of time focusing on hallucinations or the swoon theory or the disciples went to the wrong tomb or the body was stolen, because they think they can make progress knocking over those arguments.
They never consider whether their own explanation is ridiculous; they’d rather sneak up on their preferred explanation through a process of elimination. This kind of argument can be distilled to, “We have alternatives A vs. B, but option A is unlikely so therefore B wins!” without showing that option B is any more likely. Or, in this case, “We have Jesus as legend vs. Jesus as universe-creating god, but legend is unlikely, so therefore Jesus must be a god!”
But to say that, they must ignore the best response to the resurrection claim, that it is legendary. What does it say about the Christian position that they must focus on the feeble arguments instead?
than to dabble in delusions,
however charming they may be.
Almost invariably, the truth turns out to be
far more strange and wonderful than the wildest fantasy.
— Arthur C. Clarke
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 3/30/16.)
Image from Wikimedia, CC license