Resurrection Debate #2: Date of Jesus’ Death

Resurrection Debate #2: Date of Jesus’ Death April 17, 2021

. . . Including the Analogy of Historical Skepticism Against Many Renowned Persons from the Hebrew Bible

Michael J. Alter is the author of the copiously researched, 913-page volume, The Resurrection: a Critical Inquiry (2015). I initially offered  59 “brief” replies to as many alleged New Testament contradictions (March 2021). We later engaged in amiable correspondence and decided to enter into a major ongoing dialogue about his book. He graciously sent me a PDF file of it, free of charge, for my review, and has committed himself to counter-response as well: a very rare trait these days. All of this is, I think, mightily impressive.

Mike describes himself as “of the Jewish faith” but is quick to point out that labels are often “misleading” and “divisive” (I agree to a large extent). He continues to be influenced by, for example, “Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad” variants of Judaism and learns “from those of other faiths, the secular, the non-theists, etc.” Fair enough. I have a great many influences, too, am very ecumenical, and am a great admirer of Judaism, as I told Michael in a combox comment on my blog.

He says his book “can be described as Jewish apologetics” and one that provides reasons for “why members of the Jewish community should not convert to Christianity.” I will be writing many critiques of the book and we’ll be engaging in ongoing discussion for likely a long time. I’m quite excited about it and eagerly enjoy the dialogue and debate. This is a rare opportunity these days and I am most grateful for Mike’s willingness to interact, minus any personal hostility.

His words will be in blue.

*****

Michael Alter devotes 18 pages (pp. 31-48) to the date that Jesus was killed. I contend that it’s all to no avail in the end because the New Testament (like the Hebrew Bible) exhibits virtually no concern for actual dates and precise, exact chronology. That sort of thinking is largely inherited from Roman culture. On page 34, Alter announces CONTRADICTION #1: The Year Jesus Was Crucified.” But it’s not a biblical contradiction at all because the date is never asserted. Therefore, what he is describing as a “contradiction” is only the usual, inevitable differences and disputes among historians, archaeologists, and various sorts of Bible scholars. That can hardly even be called a “contradiction” since it’s one of thousands of disagreements that scholars have amongst themselves. Alter states precisely that:

Theologians, New Testament scholars, historians, standard reference sources, evangelicals, and even evangelical organizations are divided regarding the exact “year” Jesus was crucified and resurrected. (p. 34)

To which I say: “ho hum” and “so what?”

Alter — in his usual excruciating and impressive detail (he read about 5,000 books and articles in the course of his research) — goes through all the various theories for different dates, summarizing their rationales. Most of the “eleven selected years” (p. 34) have one or only a few advocates: at least judging by the ones he references in his book. Three dates have quite a few more listed proponents: AD 29, 30, and 33. But Alter opines about the year 29:

The year 29 can absolutely be eliminated because in that year the Passover occurred at the beginning of the week. In addition, the date assumes a one year ministry. Consequently, this cannot be reconciled with any of the other evidence. The Passover cannot occur that early. (p. 40)

Prima facie, this sounds good enough for me. So that leaves two likely years, according to Alter’s survey of many scholars. He cites (on p. 41) a bunch of scholars who opt for AD 30. Finally, he concludes about AD 33: “Perhaps AD 33 is one of the most often cited years for Jesus’s death” (p. 43). Then he states in the objections section: “Others argue that year 33, with a Friday crucifixion does not provide for a literal seventy-two hours in the tomb” (p. 44). But 72 hours aren’t required to fulfill the saying, “three days and three nights”: according to how the ancient Jews construed time and these sorts of statements (as I have written about). In other words, it’ not a literal 72 hours being referred to. That’s our modern, precise Greek- and Roman- influenced thinking about time and sequence: not Hebraic thought.

In his Conclusion for the chapter he observes:

It must be remembered that Christian apologists . . . maintain that the year Jesus died and was resurrected is the most important and significant event in the history of mankind. (p. 47)

Sure; but again we must remember that it is not the exact year that is important; it’s the event. The above sentence ought to read (I submit): “Christian apologists maintain that Jesus’ death and Resurrection are the most important and significant events in the history of mankind.”

Alter then contrasts (on p. 47) this uncertainty with several events of known dates, such as the deaths of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Caligula, and the birth dates of Julius Caesar, Tiberias, etc. Most of the people and events mentioned were Roman. They kept precise dates. And this is my point. They thought like the Greeks, because they emulated them in many respects. But the Hebrews did not follow Greek thought. They had been Hellenized, it’s true, but they maintained key aspects of their culture and ways of thinking through the New Testament period.

Since Alter provided us with this chart of 16 precise dates, I’d like to share a lot of imprecise dates (even among the Greeks themselves), in order to show that this particular aspect of the debate is quite a mixed bag:

1) Strabo, Greek geographer and historian, died at some unknown date after AD 20.

2) Herodotus, the Greek “father of history” died around 408 BC.

3) Xenophon, Greek historian, died around 359 BC.

4) Aristophanes, Greek comic poet, died around 380 BC.

5) Thales, Greek philosopher, died around 546 BC.

6) Pythagoras, Greek philosopher and Mathematician, died around 495 BC.

When it comes to founders of some other religions, it gets far more inaccurate:

7) Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), according to Wikipedia, is said to have been born in “c. 563 BCE or 480 BCE” and died “c. 483 BCE or 400 BCE.”

8) About Lao-Tze or Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, it is stated in Wikipedia: “A semi-legendary figure, Lao Tzu was usually portrayed as a 6th-century BC contemporary of Confucius, but some modern historians consider him to have lived during the Warring States period of the 4th century BC.”

9) As for Zoroaster or Zarathustra: founder of Zoroastrianism, Wikipedia pitifully declares:

There is no scholarly consensus on when he lived. Some scholars, using linguistic and socio-cultural evidence, suggest a dating to somewhere in the second millennium BCE. Other scholars date him in the 7th and 6th century BCE . . . By any modern standard of historiography, no evidence can place him into a fixed period and the historicization surrounding him may be a part of a trend from before the 10th century CE that historicizes legends and myths.

How about the famous and influential figures in the Hebrew Bible and Judaism? How much do historians agree about them?:

10) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: if Jonathan wants to rely on historians for his arguments, and regard them as the “last word” when it comes to Christianity, let’s see how these three patriarchs of Judaism fare. Wikipedia (“Abraham”) summarizes:

In the early and middle 20th century, leading archaeologists such as William F. Albright and biblical scholars such as Albrecht Alt believed that the patriarchs and matriarchs were either real individuals or believable composites of people who lived in the “patriarchal age“, the 2nd millennium BCE. But, in the 1970s, new arguments concerning Israel’s past and the biblical texts challenged these views; these arguments can be found in Thomas L. Thompson‘s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974), and John Van Seters‘ Abraham in History and Tradition (1975). Thompson, a literary scholar, based his argument on archaeology and ancient texts. His thesis centered on the lack of compelling evidence that the patriarchs lived in the 2nd millennium BCE, and noted how certain biblical texts reflected first millennium conditions and concerns. Van Seters examined the patriarchal stories and argued that their names, social milieu, and messages strongly suggested that they were Iron Age creations. By the beginning of the 21st century, archaeologists had given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac or Jacob credible historical figures.

There we go. If modern scholarship is the “hill we want to die on” then we have to die on it across the board. I don’t accept the research of the more skeptical historians and archaeologists (Albright being the quintessential “non-skeptical” example), because it’s based on erroneous premises. I stood in Israel in the place where Abraham is said to have met Melchizedek (according to our guide). I stood as close as I could get to the rock where Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac: where the first temple (and perhaps the later temples) stood. I’ve also written about possible archaeological evidences for Sodom and Gomorrah.

11) Moses: it’s the same as with Abraham: so declares Wikipedia (maybe even worse):

The modern scholarly consensus is that the biblical person of Moses is a mythical figure while also holding that “a Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in the southern Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century B.C.” and that archeology is unable to confirm either way. Even though his name is Egyptian, no references to Moses appear in any Egyptian sources prior to the fourth century BCE, long after he is believed to have lived. No contemporary Egyptian sources mention Moses or the events of Exodus–Deuteronomy, nor has any archaeological evidence been discovered in Egypt or the Sinai wilderness to support the story in which he is the central figure.

I have argued that archaeology has not disproven the Exodus, as part of my apologetics replies to atheists, and I have also presented stunning archaeological evidence for Joshua’s altar on Mt. Ebal.

12) Joseph: let’s follow the scholars and “higher critics” to see what they think of this great biblical figure. Wikipedia summarizes:

The historicity of the Joseph narrative cannot be demonstrated. [footnote: “The majority of current scholars believe that the historicity of the Egyptian sojourn, exodus, and wilderness wandering that the Bible remembers cannot be demonstrated by historical methods.”] . . .

Hermann GunkelHugo Gressmann and Gerhard von Rad identified the story of Joseph as a literary composition, in the genre of romance, or the novella. As a novella, it is read as reworking legends and myths, in particular the motifs of his reburial in Canaan, associated with the Egyptian god Osiris. Others compare the burial of his bones at Shechem, with the disposal of Dionysus‘s bones at Delphi. For Schenke, the tradition of Joseph’s burial at Shechem is understood as a secondary, Israelitic historical interpretation woven around a more ancient Canaanite shrine in that area.

13) King David is barely considered as historical, and even when he is, for most of these “skeptical” / ultra-“critical” scholars neither he nor events related to him are anything like what the Bible describes; that is, if we are “gullible” enough to believe that they ever happened at all (see Wikipedia for the gory details).

Christians like myself, on the other hand, fully believe that he reigned over a significant kingdom starting around 1000 BC. I visited my namesake’s original city in 2014 when I visited Jerusalem. I walked beside the hill where ancient Jerusalem was and kept looking up at it in awe. I saw where David battled Goliath and collected stones from where he would have gotten them (souvenirs for my kids). I visited Khirbet Qeiyafa: a town from his time, and collected pottery there that may be 3,000 years old. So I believe it, because I believe the Bible, which has been shown to be historically accurate times without number. But the bulk of scholars apparently don’t (so we are now told).

Mr. Alter (here’s the thing) can’t have it both ways: accept the Hebrew Bible and Judaism in some semblance of traditional fashion, and at the same time the “word” of a head count of scholars, which he recruits for the purpose of skepticism towards the New Testament accounts of Jesus. The two don’t mix very well. If he wants to enlist them to question events in Jesus’ life, then all the more will they also take “down and out” pivotal events and people in Judaism.

14) Daniel: Wikipedia: “The consensus of modern scholars is that Daniel never existed, . . .”

All of this is going on with these skeptical, anti-biblical scholars and Michael Alter thinks it is significant and a “contradiction” that the bulk of scholars have basically concluded that Jesus died in either 30 or 33 AD? Seriously?

The uncertain dates extend well into the current era also. For example, I have compiled three books of quotations from the Church fathers: eminent men and teachers from the first to the eighth centuries. Oftentimes, the dates of their deaths and/or births are not known with certainty. I list 52 in one of my books. Out of those, 45 (an astonishing 87%) have dates of death or birth that are uncertain. Here they are:

Pope Clement of Rome (d. c. 101)

Ignatius of Antioch (50 – c. 110)

Theophilus (fl. 185-191)

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215)

Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225)

Hippolytus (d.c. 236)

Origen (c. 185-c. 254)

Dionysius of Alexandria (d.c. 264)

Lactantius (c. 240-c. 320)

Eusebius of Caesaria [Church historian] (c. 265-c. 340)

Aphraates (c. 280-c. 345)

Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-368)

Athanasius (c. 297-373)

Ephraem (c. 306-373)

Basil the Great (c. 330-379)

Optatus of Milevis (c. 320-c. 385)

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-387)

Gregory Nazianzen (c. 330-c. 390)

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c. 394)

Ambrose (c. 336-397)

Epiphanius (c. 315-403)

John Chrysostom (c. 345-407)

Jerome (c. 343-420)

Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428)

John Cassian (c. 360-c. 435)

Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444)

Theodotus (d.c. 445)

Sozomen [Church historian] (c. 375-c. 447)

Socrates Scholasticus [Church historian] (c. 379-c. 450)

Vincent of Lerins (d.c. 450)

Peter Chrysologus (c. 405-450)

Prosper of Aquitane (d.c. 455)

Patrick (c. 390-c. 460)

Pope Leo the Great (c. 400-461)

Theodoret of Cyr (c. 393-c. 466)

Caesar of Arles (c. 470-542)

Gregory of Tours (538-c. 594)

Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604)

Augustine of Canterbury (d. c. 605)

Sophronius of Jerusalem (c. 560-638)

Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662)

Germanus of Constantinople (c. 634-c. 733)

Venerable Bede (c. 673-735)

Andrew of Crete (c. 660-740)

John Damascene (c. 645-c. 749)

Nor does it stop there. I wrote in one of my articles about 23 Catholic “proto-scientists” of the 12th and 13th centuries. Again, we find the same lack of precision: with uncertain birth or death dates or both for 17 of the 23 (74% ): including many men who are quite famous (e.g., St. Albert the Great and Roger Bacon). I could find many more historical examples, but I trust that my point is adequately made by now.

Alter states:

In fact, the precise year that Jesus died as well as the date or day of his birth is not known. Obviously the date of these occurrences should be
the most knowable events of the history of mankind, yet how is it possible that the dates of . . . the supreme events in the history of our world are totally unknown? . . . 

From this issue it is clear that nobody has the faintest idea when Jesus died! The year of Jesus’s crucifixion is unknown, . . . (p. 48)

Not the “faintest” idea? Is this not quite a bit of rhetorical exaggeration? Good ol’ Wikipedia informs us, after all, that, regarding the date of Jesus’ birth, “a majority of scholars assume a date between 6 BC and 4 BC.” So we have (even among our blessed scholars) a range of three years and two likely and plausible dates for His death  (30 or 33) and a range of three years for His birth. In light of everything else we have seen above, that’s very good.

And since the Bible never asserted either date as such, and doesn’t “care” about such things generally speaking, I contend that it is a non-issue altogether. We know enough. Yes, Christians indeed regard the events of His life as “supreme events in the history of our world” but it doesn’t follow at all (not in the slightest) that we must know the exact dates when they occurred in order to rationally believe them. We know more than enough, and according to biblical thinking the things themselves are far more important than exactly when they happened.

The analogy of Judaism is again instructive. Observant Jews for over 3,000 years have devoutly celebrated Passover every year. It commemorates an actual event (and a supernatural one at that), that occurred about the time of the Exodus. Yet the “consensus” of historians is that we have no evidence of the Exodus or that (even more strongly) it never happened at all, and they (and we) don’t know exactly when Moses was born or died.

Needless to say, these same historians would mock and deny the notion of Moses going up to a holy mountain, talking to God and receiving tablets with the Ten Commandments written by God Himself; as well as receiving also a great deal of oral tradition from God, to be passed down for thousands of years, as it has turned out. They would laugh about and deride what they consider foolish notions such as a parting of the Red Sea, the several plague miracles in Egypt, pillars of smoke and fire leading the Hebrews through the desert, manna falling from the sky, and Moses going up to Mt. Nebo and being buried by God. Nor would they believe that God was specially present above the ark of the covenant, between the wings of the golden cherubim. It’s all nonsense and mythology to them.

Does this historical skepticism stop Jews from observing Passover and the more traditional ones from continuing to painstakingly keep all 613 commandments of the Law of Moses: assuming all the while that both things are based on real history and a real person: Moses, who had a unique relationship with God? No. Why, then, is a date discrepancy (in opinions) of two or three years for Jesus’ birth and death supposedly an “issue” or a “contradiction”? I confess that I cannot for the life of me comprehend such an argument.

I believe all these things recorded in the Hebrew Bible, and it matters not a whit to me whether a bunch of hyper-critical, anti-supernaturalist, sometimes secular or atheist historians (and even less traditional adherents of Judaism), operating on a host of false and unsubstantiated (and often downright hostile) premises disbelieve all of them or not. There are also historians and archaeologists who do not deny these things, or at least take a neutral / non-hostile approach. It all depends on the premises that one chooses to accept and assume, in doing historiographical research.

Likewise, Jews celebrate Hannukah, or Chanuka every year, which commemorates a miracle when the temple was rededicated: most likely in 164 BC. It’s precisely the miraculous [historical] event that occurred, which is recalled and celebrated. The Talmud states:

For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest), but which contained sufficient [oil] for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein, and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. (Shabbat 21b)

Yet the Wikipedia article on this Jewish holy day informs us that “The miracle of the oil is widely regarded as a legend and its authenticity has been questioned since the Middle Ages.” Once again, then, Judaism finds itself clashing with the all-knowing, unquestionable skeptical historians. Which is to be believed? I go with the reported miracle and Jewish religious belief and practice.

But back to Jesus: the view that He never existed is still considered fringe and extreme and is held by very few historians, though (oblivious to such trifles) atheists are currently becoming increasingly enthralled with this ultra-ludicrous mythology. It’s also obvious to one and all that we basically know when Jesus was born, too, because our entire system of determining what year it is (the “BC” and “AD” system) is derived from His life (specifically, the approximate year of His birth). The very terminology of “CVE” and “BCE” was designed to extricate itself from the historical connection to Jesus. As Wikipedia explains:

The term “Common Era” . . . became more widely used in the mid-19th century by Jewish religious scholars. Since the later 20th century, CE and BCE are popular in academic and scientific publications as culturally neutral terms. They are used by others who wish to be sensitive to non-Christians by not explicitly referring to Jesus as “Christ” nor as Dominus (“Lord”) through use of the other abbreviations.

I say that monotheists need to stick together and defend the Hebrew Bible against the atheists and radical secularists who only wish to tear it (along with the faith of traditional religious people) down. Abraham is regarded as a “father” by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Are they all supposed to believe (because a bunch of pointy-headed historians “concluded”) that Abraham (along with many other notable biblical figures) was a mere mythical or legendary figure: akin to Odysseus, Hercules, Thor, Odin, or King Arthur? Do we really want to go down that road? The whole point of him being a father and patriarch is that he actually existed.

This is what Michael Alter is left with (by logical reduction and consistent logic across the board) if he insists on the “magisterium of the head count of scholars.” Given all of the massive skepticism outlined above, dates of Jesus’ birth and death within a range of just three or four years for both are almost literally “nothing” in comparison. I’ve scarcely given it a moment’s thought and I dare say that is probably true of 99.999% of all Christians who have ever lived.

In the same manner, every devout Jew observes Passover, without knowing what date the Exodus occurred, or the dates of Moses’ birth and death. All they care about is that the Passover miracle and the glorious Exodus actually happened in history, and were wrought by the hand of God. The lack of knowledge of exact dates are neither essentially important, nor any kind of “contradiction” against or disproof of Jewish religious belief in the actuality of this person and these events.

This is why I have no plans to write a book called, The Passover [or, Abraham or Moses, etc.]: A Critical Inquiry. But if I were, hypothetically, to write such a book, then I could use precisely the same “counting the heads of scholars” method that Mr. Alter uses to critique Christianity. And that ought to give him great pause, because it also demolishes any of his own Jewish beliefs (whatever the particulars of those may be) that claim to be based on historical events.

I would strongly contend that the historical component is altogether essential to Judaism — in any of its variant forms — and can’t possibly be removed from it, anymore than it can be removed from Christianity. Judaism minus the traditionally believed history is no longer Judaism at all, just as the New Testament ceased to be itself when Thomas Jefferson (a Unitarian) ridiculously took the scissors to it and removed all the miracles. A non-miraculous Christianity is no longer Christianity at all because (above all) if Jesus’ Resurrection is removed (as Michael Alter agrees), it is deprived of its essence. The same is true of a hollowed-out “Judaism” without the historical Exodus, God’s giving of the law specifically to the ancient Hebrews (in time and history), and historical persons Abraham and Moses.

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Photo credit: Selva Rasalingam as Jesus in the The Gospel of Luke (2016, Netflix USA) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]

Summary: In “Resurrection Debate #2” Michael Alter makes an issue out of the inexact date of Jesus’ death. I retort that the Bible is indifferent and do a reductio ad absurdum of skeptical scholars and what they think of the historicity of figures from the Hebrew Bible.

Tags: alleged Bible contradictions, alleged Resurrection contradictions, Bible “contradictions”, Bible “difficulties”, Bible Only, biblical inspiration, biblical prooftexts, biblical skeptics, biblical theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, Holy Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, Jewish anti-Christian polemics, Jewish apologetics, Jewish critique of Christianity, Jewish-Christian discussion, Michael J. Alter, New Testament, New Testament critics, New Testament skepticism, Resurrection “Contradictions”, Resurrection of Jesus, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry

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