In my previous post on this topic, I argued that although I do not consider myself to be a scholar, I do have an extensive background in philosophy that qualifies me as being a well-informed intellectual (BA in philosophy from Sonoma State University, MA in philosophy from the University of Windsor, and completion of all requirements for a PhD in philosophy, except for the dissertation, at UC Santa Barbara).
William Craig’s Main Point
I’m now going to respond to the main point made by William Craig, which he stated up front, at the beginning of his response to my criticism of his case for the resurrection of Jesus:
The reason that I personally have not devoted any space to a discussion of the death of Jesus by crucifixion is that this fact is not in dispute. This historical fact is not one that is controversial among biblical scholars.
Craig continues by giving some examples to support his claim about biblical scholars:
For example, Luke Johnson, who is a New Testament scholar of some renown at Emory University says, “The support for the mode of his death, its agents, and perhaps its coagents, is overwhelming: Jesus faced a trial before his death, was condemned and executed by crucifixion.” In fact, the death of Jesus is so well established that according to Robert Funk, who was the co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, the crucifixion was “one indisputable fact” that neither the early Christians nor their opponents could deny. That remains similar today. The crucifixion and the death of Jesus is something that is simply not in dispute by historians today.
Consensus of Scholars vs. Strength of Evidence
A consensus among biblical scholars is rare, so if there is a consensus among biblical scholars that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross, then that is clearly a point in favor of Craig’s view. However, what is most important is not that there is consensus, but the strength of the evidence and reasons that form the basis of the judgments of these biblical scholars. If the evidence and reasons are weak, then the consensus of scholars does not magically make the evidence strong. A consensus of biblical scholars suggests that the evidence is strong, but does not by itself prove that the evidence is strong. I prefer to look at the evidence for myself, and to do my own thinking.
Funk is NOT as Confident in Jesus’ Death and Crucifixion as Craig Implies
There is no date or specific reference for the quote attributed to Robert Funk about the crucifixion of Jesus (Craig’s footnote says only this: “Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.”), so I cannot assess the meaning and significance of that quotation in context. But I do have a copy of Robert Funk’s book Honest to Jesus (HarperCollins, 1996; hereafter: HTJ), in which he discusses his views on the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus:
There is nothing in the Christian story, so far as I can see, that is immune from doubt. The crucifixion of Jesus is not entirely beyond question. …We do not know for a fact that he was buried. His body may have been left to rot on the cross, to become carrion for dogs and crows. What we have come to call the resurrection…is nowhere narrated directly, except in the highly imaginative account in the Gospel of Peter. The reports of his appearances vary so widely with respect to location, time, and witness that we cannot particularize what sort of an event those appearances were. And very few scholars believe that the birth stories are anything other than attempts to claim that Jesus was a remarkable person. Even the existence of Jesus has been challenged more than once and not without some justification. We should begin by admitting that all of these myths and legends may rest on nothing other than the fertile imagination of early believers. (HTJ, p.219-220)
Funk admits that even the existence of Jesus is subject to rational doubts, and he admits that the “crucifixion of Jesus is not entirely beyond question.” Furthermore, Funk makes comments about the crucifixion of Jesus that support a skeptical viewpoint about it:
We know very few things for certain about the death of Jesus and the events that led up to it. (HTJ, p.220)
Most of Jesus’ followers fled during or after his arrest, but a few, especially the women, and Mary of Magdala in particular, may have witnessed the crucifixion. We do not know how their memories came to inform the creation of a passion narrative many decades later, if indeed that narrative reflects any eyewitness observations at all. (HTJ, p.220)
So, from Funk’s point of view, the twelve apostles were NOT eyewitnesses of the crucifixion, and furthermore, although some women “may have” witnessed the crucifixion, we don’t know whether the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus reflect “any eyewitness observations at all.” Given these skeptical assumptions, it is difficult to see how Funk could be certain or even highly confident in the claim that “Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.”
Many Biblical Scholars Do NOT Believe that Jesus was Alive and Walking Around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday
It is interesting that the first two examples of biblical scholars that Craig points to are scholars who DON’T BELIEVE that Jesus rose from the dead. More specifically, neither Luke Johnson nor Robert Funk believe that Jesus PHYSICALLY rose from the dead. So, neither Johnson nor Funk believe that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after Jesus was (allegedly) crucified.” Funk makes it clear that he does not believe that Jesus PHYSICALLY came back to life:
The Jesus Seminar decided not to duck this issue [of whether Jesus rose PHYSICALLY from the dead]: The fellows reached a fairly firm consensus: Belief in Jesus’ resurrection did not depend on what happened to his corpse. They are supported in this by the judgment of many contemporary scholars. Jesus’ resurrection did not involve the resuscitation of a dead body. About three-fourths of the Fellows believe that Jesus’ followers did not know what happened to his body. (HTJ, p.259)
Luke Johnson is more vague and less straightforward (than Funk), and it is harder to pin down his beliefs about the resurrection, but in his book The Writings of the New Testament (revised edition, Fortress Press, 1999: hereafter: WONT) he seems to hold a view that is similar to that of Funk and the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar:
The resurrection faith, then, was not the conviction that Jesus had resumed his life for a time and appeared to some of his followers. It was a conviction, corroborated by the present experience of his power even years after his death, that he was alive in a new and powerful way; that he shared, indeed, God’s life. (WONT, p.117)
The experience of the resurrection is not about vague and vaporous visions. It is not a belief that Jesus was resuscitated and then resumed his former way of living. It does not derive from insights into Jesus’ life. The Christian witness of the resurrection does not say that Jesus was spotted in passing by a few people before disappearing. …
It is clear, then, that the resurrection experience cannot be confined to the narratives of the Gospels, for the fundamental experience and conviction were available to those who neither saw the tomb nor had a vision of Jesus. The experience of his powerful presence was possible because he was alive and caused it. (WONT, p.114)
For Johnson, the “resurrection” refers not to an event in which the dead body of Jesus comes back to life, but to a religious experience of the “powerful presence” of Jesus that is available to any Christian believer at any point in history. Note also that Johnson contrasts this common sort of religious experience not with the ordinary sensory experiences of the apostles who (allegedly) saw, touched, and talked with a living, walking, talking, and physically embodied Jesus, but rather with having a “vision of Jesus”. In other words, the apostles did not experience a living Jesus in a physical body on Easter Sunday. On Johnson’s view, the apostles had various visions of Jesus, not sensory experiences of a living and embodied Jesus (see also p.133-136 of The Real Jesus by Luke Johnson)
I suspect that Craig is aware that neither Johnson nor Funk believe that Jesus’s body came back to life on Easter Sunday, and that this is partly why he chose to quote Johnson and Funk. If instead of quoting these more skeptical biblical scholars, Craig had quoted the opinion of an Evangelical biblical scholar (e.g. Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, D.A. Carson, Robert Gundry, Craig Keener, Robert Stein), I and other skeptics would respond that “Of course so-and-so believes that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross; he is an Evangelical Christian scholar, and so he believes that whatever the Gospel accounts say must be true.” The fact that there is a consensus among Evangelical Christian scholars that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross does not carry much weight. Thus, Craig quotes from more skeptical biblical scholars who are outside of the Evangelical Christian fold, in order to give examples that carry more weight and significance.
But the views of more skeptical and more liberal biblical scholars on this issue are ALSO problematic, and are ALSO generally lacking weight and significance. Craig fails to notice that there is a crucially important difference between his point of view, and the point of view of skeptical biblical scholars like Luke Johnson and Robert Funk: they DO NOT BELIEVE that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after Jesus was (allegedly) crucified.” Craig not only believes this to be true, he believes that this is an historical FACT, or that it can be firmly established on the basis of historical facts. Since, Johnson and Funk do not believe this, they have NO SPECIFIC REASON to doubt that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross. If they did believe it to be an historical fact that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, then they might well be much LESS confident about the claim that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross on the Friday prior to Easter Sunday.
The probability of a claim is always relative to the information and assumptions that one takes into consideration. There is a fundamental and critical difference between the information and assumptions that Johnson and Funk take into consideration when making a judgment about the probability of the claim “Jesus was crucified and died on the cross” as compared with the information and assumptions that Craig takes into consideration (or should take into consideration) when making a judgment about the probability of this claim about the death of Jesus. Craig assumes that it is an HISTORICAL FACT that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after Jesus was (allegedly) crucified” but Johnson and Funk make no such assumption, and thus they DO NOT take this claim into consideration when making a judgment of the probability of the claim that “Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.”
The relevant question at issue has NOT YET been considered by either Johnson or Funk:
IF you became convinced that it was an historical FACT that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after the Friday when he was (allegedly) crucified, THEN would you still judge it to be nearly certain or highly probable that Jesus was crucified on Friday and that Jesus died on the cross that same day?
Unless and until biblical scholars issue judgments on THIS QUESTION, their judgments are of little significance to the view that William Craig is defending (i.e. belief in the PHYSICAL resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday).
The Devil is in the Details
Although biblical scholars who are more skeptical about the Gospels (than Evangelical Christian biblical scholars) do sometimes make general statements about the crucifixion and death of Jesus being highly probable or nearly certain, when we look into the details of their views about the Gospels and about the stories about Jesus being crucified, we see that they don’t actually have adequate grounds for their confident judgments that Jesus’ crucifixion and death on the cross are firmly established historical facts.
This will be the main issue covered in my next post on this topic.
Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.