Response to William Lane Craig – Part 4

Response to William Lane Craig – Part 4 November 14, 2015

I have criticized William Craig’s case for the resurrection on the grounds that he fails to show that Jesus died on the cross, and that apart from proving this to be a fact, his case for the resurrection of Jesus is a complete failure.

Craig’s primary response to this criticism is that the death of Jesus on the cross is uncontroversial among biblical scholars:

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.  (viewed 11/11/15)

Craig then quotes two biblical scholars in order to support his point:  Luke Timothy Johnson and Robert Funk, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.

In the second post in this series, I presented my main response to this point by Craig: many biblical scholars do not believe that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, less than 48 hours after Jesus was (allegedly) crucified.”   But Craig believes it to be an historical fact that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, so his background assumptions are very different from the background assumptions of these more skeptical biblical scholars.  Because of this difference in background assumptions, the judgment of such skeptical scholars that it is highly probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross is irrelevant to Craig’s case for the physical resurrection of Jesus.

In the third post in this series, I began to develop my second main response to Craig’s point about the death of Jesus by crucifixion being uncontroversial among biblical scholars.  Since Craig pointed to Luke Johnson as an example of a biblical scholar who has great confidence in this historical claim about Jesus, I have focused in on the thinking of Johnson behind his view on this matter.   I argued that Johnson’s skeptical view of the Gosopels is such that he does not think that the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and death of Jesus are sufficient to show that it is nearly certain or highly probable that Jesus was crucified and that Jesus died on the cross.

However, Johnson still asserts that these historical claims are highly probable on the basis of converging lines of evidence from historical sources other than the Gospels that support key points in the Gospel accounts, such as that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross:

Sober consideration of such difficulties ought to reduce expectations of how much real historical knowledge can be gained about the year (or few years) of Jesus’ ministry and the circumstances of his death.  Complete historical skepticism, however, is equally unwarranted.  A careful examination of all the evidence offered by outsider and insider sources justifies making certain statements about Jesus that have an impressively high level of probability.

Such statements do not concern details, specific incidents, or the sequence of events. …But they can speak to the most basic and important questions concerning the historical existence of Jesus and the movement deriving from him, as well as to some sense of his characteristic activity.  (The Real Jesus, 1st paperback edition, p.111-112; hereafter: TRJ)

Here is how Johnson explains his method:

The method used to establish the historical framework [of historical claims about Jesus] is one of locating converging lines of evidence.  It is a simple method, based on the assumption that when witnesses disagree across a wide range of issues, their agreement on something tends to increase the probability of its having happened.  When ten witnesses disagree vehemently on whether the noise they heard at midnight was a car backfire,  a gunshot, or a firecracker, it becomes highly probable that a loud percussive sound occurred about that time.

Likewise in the case of Jesus, the convergence on one or two points by witnesses who disagree on everything else is all the more valuable.  This is the case especially when the testimony comes either from outsiders or from insiders who are not creating but rather are alluding to narrative traditions.  In the following pages, then, I will suggest some of these lines of convergence and the kinds of historical assertions about Jesus they allow.  (TRJ, p.112)

The example of ten different “witnesses” disagreeing about the specific cause of a loud noise, but agreeing about the time and place of the loud noise makes sense, but this example is misleading and does not correspond well with the “converging lines of evidence” that Johnson has to offer for historical claims about Jesus.  In the case of the loud noise the “witnesses” are eyewitnesses, or more specifically, earwitnesses, and their “testimony” concerns direct observations of the event in question.  But this does not fit with the case of evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus, as another skeptical bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, makes clear:

…we do not have a single reference to Jesus by anyone–pagan, Jew, or Christian–who was a contemporary eyewitness, who recorded things he said and did.  (Did Jesus Exist? p.46)

As far as I can tell, Luke Johnson would agree with Ehrman on this point.  I quote Ehrman here because he makes this point very clearly and succintly.  There can be no “agreement” between eyewitness accounts of the life or death of Jesus, because there are NO EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS of the life or death of Jesus, period.

Apparently, Johnson is using the word “witness” to mean any writer who makes a comment about Jesus around the first or second century, and by “testimony” he means whatever such writers say about what Jesus did or said or experienced, no matter how the information was obtained in the first place.  It is not clear how this is analogous to a comparison of eyewitness accounts of an event where the “witnesses” related what they directly observed concerning that event.

After reviewing examples of “outsider” (i.e. non-Christian) writings from the first and second centuries that mention Jesus and that relate to some key claim or event found in the Gospels, and after reviewing examples of “insider” (i.e. Christian) non-narrative writings in the New Testament that mention Jesus and relate to some key claim or event found in the Gospels, Johnson provides a table that summarizes the evidence used in his “method of convergence” to evaluate the probability of those events.

The table has seventeen claims, and indicates the various writings and types of writings other than the Gospels that support each particular claim.  The items in parentheses refer to “insider” (i.e. Christian) non-narrative New Testament writings, and the asterisk indicates that one or more “outsider” (i.e. non-Christian) writing supports the claim:


1. Jesus was a human person  (Paul, Hebrews)*

2.  Jesus was a Jew  (Paul, Hebrews)*

3.  Jesus was of the tribe of Judah  (Hebrews)

4.  Jesus was a descendant of David  (Paul)

5.  Jesus’ mission was to the Jews  (Paul)*

6.  Jesus was a teacher  (Paul, James)*

7.  Jesus was tested  (Hebrews)

8.  Jesus prayed using the word Abba  (Paul)

9. Jesus prayed for deliverance from death (Hebrews)

10.  Jesus suffered  (Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter)

11.  Jesus interpreted his last meal with reference to his death  (Paul [by implication in Tacitus and Josephus])

12.  Jesus underwent a trial (Paul)*

13.  Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate (Paul)*

14.  Jesus’ end involved some Jews  (Paul)*

15.  Jesus was crucified  (Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter)*

16. Jesus was buried  (Paul)

17. Jesus appeared to witnesses after his death  (Paul)

(The Real Jesus, p.121-122)


Many of these claims seem trivial and insignificant:

1. Jesus was a human person.  –  Just like every other religous leader who has ever lived, and just like every other supposed prophet or messiah!

2.  Jesus was a Jew. – If someone claims to be “the messiah” or is believed by others to be “the messiah”, then being a Jew seems like an obvious requirement.  So if someone heard that “Jesus claimed to be the messiah” or “Jesus’ followers claimed he was the messiah”, then they could easily infer that Jesus was a Jew, since the concept of a “messiah” was a Jewish concept, and since the Jews hoped for and expected the messiah to be a Jew.

Furthermore, one need not even have heard that “Jesus claimed to be the messiah” in order to infer that “Jesus was a Jew”  because the very name “Jesus” gives this fact away.  The Jewish prophet from Galilee was not actually named “Jesus” because “Jesus” is a name in ENGLISH, and the English language did not exist two thousand years ago.  The Gospels were written in Greek, and the Gospels give his name as Iesous, which is  “the Greek translation of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua.’ “ (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, p.366).  The actual name of the prophet from Galilee was Yeshua, which is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew name that we translate into English as “Joshua”.

So, Jesus was apparently named after the famous military leader of the Israelites who led the army of Israel in the conquest of the “promised land” after Moses died.  Jesus was named after a very famous Jewish leader, as were many of his fellow Jews in Palestine.  “Jesus” (or Yeshua) was a very common name for Jewish males in Palestine in the first century, so anyone familiar with common Jewish names, and common Roman names, and common names of other groups, could easily infer that a man named “Jesus” was probably a Jew.

4.  Jesus was a descendant of David. – How could anyone KNOW whether this was true or not back in Jesus’ day?  The only thing that someone could actually know along these lines is that Jesus CLAIMED to be a descendant of David, or that Jesus BELIEVED himself to be a descendant of David, and this is precisely what we would reasonably expect any Jew of that time who claimed to be the messiah to say or to believe.

7.  Jesus was tested.  – I suppose this means that Jesus was tempted.  Has any normal adult human being ever lived for a year or longer and NOT been seriously tempted to do something wrong?  This claim applies to virtually every adult human being.

9. Jesus prayed for deliverance from death.  – Has any normal adult who believes in God ever NOT prayed for deliverance from death when their life was in danger?  Even atheists are thought to make such prayers when their lives are put into serious danger.  This claim applies to virtually every adult human being (who believes in God).

10.  Jesus suffered.  – We all suffer at one time or another in one way or another.  This is like a vacuous “fortune” from a fortune cookie: “You are going to suffer.”  This claim applies to virtually every human being.

12.  Jesus underwent a trial.  – I just recently went on trial for a traffic violation.  I prepared my own defense, argued my case, and the charge was dismissed by the judge.  Lots of people experience being on trial.  This is a very common experience.

14.  Jesus’ end involved some Jews.  – Perhaps Johnson was just being a bit too vague here, but given that person X is a Jew, it is only to be expected that person X’s end would likely have “involved some Jews”.  If someone is sick or dying, then we would expect friends or family members to care for or visit that person.  If someone dies, we would expect friends or family member to bury that person.  Jews are usually from Jewish families, just like mexicans are usually from mexican families (nationality/ethnicity), and just like Christians are usually from Christian families (religion/culture).  And people generally form friendships with others of similar ethnic backgrounds and similar religious beliefs as themselves.

16.  Jesus was buried.  – Like nearly everyone else who has ever died, particularly at that point in history, when a proper burial for the dead was considered to be of great importance.

Perhaps Johnson could fix some of these trivial claims by sharpening the claims up and making them less vague, but as they stand, many of these claims are vacuous or trivial.  It looks like about half of the “claims” in Johnson’s list are either vacuous or very vague or are easily inferred from little or no factual data.  Providing “evidence” for such claims does very little to provide support the “historical framework” of the Gospel accounts.

Claims (13) and (15), however, are more specific and more significant.  So, let’s focus on these claims to see how well Johnson’s method of convergence does in supporting these two claims:

13.  Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate (Paul)*

15.  Jesus was crucified  (Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter)*

Note that most of the claims in Johnson’s chart only have one or two “insider” sources, and that only two claims have three insider sources: claim (10) and claim (15). Claim (15), the claim about Jesus being crucified, also has an asterisk, indicating that one or more “outsider” sources support this claim.  No other claim in the chart has three “insider” sources and also one or more “outsider” sources.  Furthermore,  Johnson reviews the “outsider” sources for (15), and there are multiple such sources.  Since there are three “insider” sources and multiple “outsider” sources supporting (15), Johnson draws the conclusion that (15) is highly probable:

…certain fundamental points on which all the Gospels agree, when taken together with confirming lines of convergence from outsider testimony and non-narrative New Testament evidence, can be regarded as historical with a high degree of probability.  Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus…was executed  by crucifixion under the prefect Pontious Pilate, and continued to have followers after his death.  These assertions are not mathematically or metaphysically certain, for certainty is not within the reach of history.  But they enjoy a very high level of probability. (TRJ, p.122-123)

Johnson goes on to say that some claims about Jesus have “only slightly less probability”, for example, claim (14) that “Jesus end involved some Jews”, and claim  (5) that “Jesus’ mission was to the Jews.”  Note that these claims have support from both “insider” and “outsider” sources, but that there is only one “insider” source (Paul) for each of these two claims, as compared with three “insider” sources for the claim that “Jesus was crucified”.  It appears that having just one “insider” source (as opposed to three) makes these two claims less probable than claim (15) about Jesus being crucified.

Although Johnson does not spell this out explicitly, it seems fairly obvious that he is basing his probability judgments here on something like the following assumptions:

A claim about Jesus that has support from all four canonical Gospels and both good “insider” sources and good “outsider” sources should be considered to be probable, and the more good “insider” and good “outsider” sources support the point, the stronger the probability.  A claim about Jesus that is supported by all four canonical  Gospels plus three good “insider” sources and two or three good “outsider” sources should be considered to be highly probable.

I have used the vague word “good” to qualify the sources, because it is obvious that not just any source would be acceptable to provide significant historical support for a Gospel claim about life or death of Jesus.

For example, Johnson quotes sources that are early, sources that date to the first or second centuries.  A source from the fourth or fifth century would clearly not provide any significant support for Gospel claims about Jesus.  In fact, in the paragraph immediately following his table of seventeen claims about Jesus, Johnson does indicate the importance of the earliness of a source, in a comment about “insider” (i.e. Christian) sources used to support Gospel claims about Jesus:

To repeat, non-narrative New Testament writings datable with some degree of probability before the year 70 testify to traditions circulating within the Christian movement concerning Jesus that correspond to important points within the Gospel narratives.  Such traditions do not, by themselves, demonstrate historicity.  But they indicate that memories concerning Jesus were in fairly wide circulation.  This makes it less likely that the corresponding points in the Gospels were the invention of a single author or group.  (TRJ, p.122)

Why does Johnson focus on “the year 70”?  He does not say, but it seems fairly obvious that this year is significant because it is the year that most biblical scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was written (plus-or-minus a few years).  The Gospel of Mark is believed by most biblical scholars to have been the first Gospel to be composed.  Presumably,  “insider” sources that were written BEFORE the year 70 CE would not have been influenced by the Gospel of Mark, and thus would provide a source of information that was INDEPENDENT of the Gospel of Mark (as well as the other canonical Gospels).

If a person read about the (alleged) crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, and then later wrote a letter that mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus, this letter would NOT provide information about Jesus crucifixion that was INDEPENDENT of the Gospel of Mark (or at least it would be reasonable to assume that this information came from the Gospel of Mark).  Therefore, it is very reasonable to use the year 70 CE as a cutoff point, and to generally presume that “insider” sources written after 70 CE are DEPENDENT on one or more of the canonical Gospels.  One requirement for something to be a GOOD “insider” source is that it was written BEFORE 70 CE.

This is one point at which we find the devil in the details.  The three “insider” sources shown for claim (15) in Johnson’s “method of convergence” table are:  Paul, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.  The problem is that we don’t know when Hebrews was written, so by Johnson’s own assumptions, this is NOT a good “insider” source of information that can be used to provide significant support for Gospel claims about Jesus:

It is therefore virtually impossible to suggest a date for Hebrews…  (Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, p.1453)

Thus the most frequent range suggested for the writing of Heb [i.e. Hebrews] is AD 60 to 90, with scholars divided as to whether it should be dated before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (hence to the 60s) or after (hence to the 80s).

…Nothing conclusive can be decided about dating, but in my judgment the discussion about the addressees into which we now enter favors the 80s.  (An Introduction to the New Testament, by Raymond Brown, p.696-697)

The general range within which Hebrews was written runs from ca. A.D. 60 to ca. 95.  The earlier date is suggested by the author’s reference to himself and his community as second-generation Christians (2:3-4). …The upper end of the date range  is often anchored in the use of Hebrews by 1 Clement. …That letter from the leadership of the Roman church to Corinth is normally dated to A.D. 95-96, although that date is hardly secure, and the work could have been written anytime between A.D. 75 and 120.  This provides an upper end for the date of Hebrews of about A.D. 110.  ( HarperCollins Bible Commentary, revised edition, p.1149)

In addition to the biblical scholars who wrote commentaries on Hebrews that I have quoted above, there is another biblical scholar that Luke Johnson will have difficulty arguing against, namely himself:

Hebrews was composed early enough to be quoted extensively by 1 Clement, written to the Corinthian church around 95 C.E. …The sermon [i.e. Hebrews] could therefore have been written any time between 35 and 95 C.E.  (The Writings of the New Testament, revised edition, 1999, p.461)

We don’t know that Hebrews was written BEFORE 70 CE, so we don’t know whether Hebrews is INDEPENDENT from the Gospels.  So, there are, at most, only two good “insider” sources that support claim (15): Paul and 1 Peter.

Another point where the devil is hiding in the details is that the date of composition of 1 Peter is as problematic as Hebrews, so it also cannot be considered to be a good “insider” source for use to confirm claims about Jesus from the Gospels:

 All this points to a date [for 1 Peter] somewhere between 70 and 100 CE (so Best 1971; Balch 1981; Elliot 1982; on the inconclusiveness of some of this evidence, however, see Achtemeier 1996).  (The Oxford Bible Commentary, p.1263)

The date of the letter [i.e. 1 Peter] cannot be settled readily, but it is more likely to have been written shortly after the beginning of Domitian’s reign in AD 81 than either earlier or later.  (Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, p.1495)

If Peter wrote the letter [i.e. 1 Peter], the possible date range would be 60-65.  If the letter is pseudonymous, written by a disciple, the range would be 70-100. …the two ranges can be reduced to 60-63 and 70-90.  Pastoral care for Asia Minor exercised from Rome would be more intelligible after 70.  Similarly the use of ‘Bablylon’ as a name for Rome makes better sense after 70, when the Romans had destroyed the second Temple…; all the other attestations of this symbolic use of the name occur in the post-70 period.  The best parallels to the church structure portrayed in 1 Pet 5:1-4 are found in works written after 70… . All this tilts the scales in favor of 70-90, which now seems to be the majority scholarly view.  (An Introduction to the New Testament, by Raymond Brown, p.721-722)

 In summary, 1 Peter is a general letter, probably written from Rome around the end of the first century, by follower(s) of the apostle Peter… (HarperCollins Bible Commentary, p.1168)

Many scholars…believe that the letter [i.e. 1 Peter] is pseudonymous, coming from a ‘Petrine circle’ in Rome in the last quarter of the 1st century. (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p.1037).

Another biblical scholar that Luke Johnson could learn from is a scholar named Luke Johnson:

An even greater problem [than the problem of establishing dates for the Gospels] is presented by writings that are occasional in nature but cannot be fitted within the Pauline chronology.  There is simply no way to date Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation with any certainty.  (TRJ, p.91)

Most scholars, however, consider it [1 Peter] to have been written near the end of the first century.  (TRJ, p.164)

In that case we cannot determine “with any certainty” that 1 Peter was composed before 70 CE, and thus we cannot determine “with any certainty” that 1 Peter is a good “insider” source to use as evidence to confirm events or claims from the Gospels.

There are various arguments against Peter the apostle being the author of 1 Peter, and Johnson raises objections to these arguments to show that it is POSSIBLE that Peter is the author (see The Writings of the New Testament, revised edition, p. 479-484), but Johnson never argues that it is PROBABLE that Peter wrote this letter.

Given that there are many biblical scholars who date 1 Peter to the “last quarter of the 1st century” we can hardly be confident that this is a good “insider” source that can provide significant support for Gospel claims about Jesus.  So, because of the devil in the details, we are now down to just one good “insider” source supporting claim (15): the letters of Paul.

To be continued…


Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.

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