Wednesday, March 17, 2010

We get email: the resurrection yet again

Not all the email we get from theists is totally marinated in crazysauce. Often we get a good letter from someone who doesn't understand a few basic concepts, and is asking sincere questions. Here's a recent email from a fellow trying to make the case that the contradictory Gospel accounts of the resurrection — which I dissected in this post from last year — help to support, rather than discredit, the story.

Whenever I hear atheists talking about contradictions in the Bible (The New Testament specifically) I just don't understand why they think that this is evidence against the veracity of the main message in the Bible. For example, the story of the empty tomb and the contradictions that surround it, is often cited as reason to doubt the stories of the gospel. However contradictions are to be expected! Take the case of a car accident. You could have many different eye witnesses there, and it is almost guaranteed that they will all have some variation in their account of the accident. The same goes for the tomb account. Contradictions due to memory lapses, additions deletions, incidental changes, etc. are to be expected, but ultimately the main message is still there. This in my mind points not to an undermining of the Bible, but rather to the authenticity of it.

Another example that provides evidence for the authenticity of the story is the fact that a woman/women were first on the scene. If the empty tomb was a fictional story then why would they have a women first, when in those days women were not seen as first class citizens or trusted to be reliable.

Anyways I'm just curious as to why these contradictions are used as evidence to doubt the truth of the bible as I have seen done on your show before. (If I remember correctly it was around the time of Easter and Jeff Dee was either the host or co-host)

Okay, fair enough, but our correspondent is missing some basic points. First off, he's not the first fellow to have thought of this. The Rashomon scenario is a common one: different eyewitness accounts, different versions, who do you trust? But there's a little more going on here than that.

When you are faced with different versions of the same basic story, then the question you ask is: how can I verify any of these stories? What evidence can I examine independently, to determine whose version is closest to the truth? The problem with the resurrection story is the same problem faced by all other Biblical accounts of miracles. There is no evidence to examine either way. So you are left with conflicting accounts.

Fine, you say. But that's true of all historical accounts of the ancient world. There's no way to confirm what any of the Egyptian pharoahs did either. So how can you trust all those temple engravings? The thing is, historians aren't dumb, and they know you can't, completely. In the past, just like today, people wrote through the filter of their own biases. Accounts of ancient pharoahs are full of events that enhance their deeds to make them seem godlike. So you basically have to take these things with a grain of salt and see where you're led by what little evidence you can actually dig up.

But getting back to the resurrection, there are problems with the story that emerge even before you talk about the contradictions, and the big one is this: what is being claimed is that a man came back from the dead. Right there, the story moves out of the realm of ordinary historical accounts (like "Caesar led his armies against the Gauls"), and into the realm of extraordinary claims. And extraordinary claims, as the saying goes, require extraordinary evidence. Most historians wouldn't have a problem accepting accounts of Caesar's military campaigns based on routine scholarship. But if someone started claiming that Caesar could teleport and frequently visited his Galactic Overlords at their secret base on Neptune to discuss battle plans, then you've got some red flags going up.

So the problem with the resurrection account is bigger than the problem faced by other, more conventional historical claims. Basically, it's this: You have a book claiming a dead man who was actually a god returned to life after his execution, and the book itself is claimed to the be divinely inspired word of an infallible perfect deity, yet it contains confused and contradictory accounts despite this. For anyone not already so immersed in the faith that they're beyond questioning its claims, you're already into that "Caesar on Neptune" red flag zone even before you start talking about the specific contradictions.

What we're being asked to accept is that, at one point in history, one dead body behaved in a manner no dead body has behaved before or since. And we're not only asked to accept this without hard evidence, but all we're given as a scholarly account is a holy book written by numerous hands, who can't even get their accounts straight.

Where this fellow sees these differing accounts as somehow confirming the truth of the event, I see mythmaking in action. The Gospels were not written until at least a generation after Jesus's death, by which time Paul was already actively engaged in promoting the Christian faith as an act of political rebellion against Rome. It's easy to see how a mythology surrounding an otherwise unexceptional Jewish rabbi (who, as most rabble rousers living in dictatorships often do, got himself executed for being a pain in the ass) would have captured some momentum. It also helps to remember that there are far more manuscripts claiming to be eyewitness gospels that didn't make it into the NT than those that did, and the NT we have didn't really take shape until the beginning of 4th century.

So yeah, there are far more reasons to be skeptical of the resurrection account than there are to accept it. The contradictions are an interesting detail to discuss (mostly in the context of replying to claims about the Bible's infallibility), but they're just a bonus.


  1. Great post, what a clear explanation of why the gospels accounts can't be taken seriously. Thanks for this

  2. Well said Martin. I don't think it could be said better than that.

  3. I've always said this: "What's more likely? That somebody with magic powers was executed and came back from the dead?....or that somebody just made it all up?"

  4. There is another point that mucks up the car-accident-eye-witnesses scenario. The Bible is claimed by Christians to be inerrant. So you have a car accident, where there are four testimonies that are wildly different and mutually exclusive at times, and yet are all absolutely true.

  5. We don't have a known crime with eyewitness accounts contradicting in their details. We have an unknown event with contradicting reports of it. "Honey, where did you put my keys?"--"I never touched your keys"--"You must have, because I put them right here and now they're gone!"----"Uh, dad, I used the keys and put them on the kitchen counter". The better conclusion is that at least one of the eyewitnesses has actually misinterpreted significant portions of the event. None of their accounts can be trusted, individually or collectively.

    Furthermore, we don't even have eyewitness reports. We have descriptions of eyewitness reports, and those descriptions are decades removed from the event. The author got to choose which eyewitness reports to preserve and which to reject, an option we no longer have. We need to assess the author's objectivity before we can reasonably accept his account.

    Also, there are higher level contradictions. It's not just a few details that the eyewitnesses disagree on. It really is the "main message" of the bible that is in doubt. The email writer himself is filtering the eyewitnesses. A larger sample of eyewitnesses would have us believing Apollo rose from the dead, Thor did something awesome, Vishnu did something amazing, etc. Asserting that Jesus rose from the dead contradicts the "main message" of every other religion. So, what world view remains when one rejects all of the contradictions? ...

  6. Here it is:

    Em said:I can read contradictions into any piece of literature quite easily.

    Me: But the whole point EM is that you don't think of the bible as 'any piece of literature'. You flip back and forth between comparing the bible to 'any piece of literature' and being 'inspired by God' when it suits. The whole reason this topic started is because if your book is God inspired there should (surely???) not be any discrepencies and contradictions. I believe it IS just a piece of literature and therefore the contradictions make perfect sense to me. You have to make excuses.

    Q:Who went to the tomb?"
    EM:At least: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and Salome, and maybe a couple of others.

    Luke disagrees - no mention of Salome
    Mark disagrees - just the 2 Marys and Salome
    Matthew disagrees - just the 2 Marys
    John disagrees - Mary Magdalene and 2 disciples
    How uninspired!!

    Q:Was anyone there?
    EM:Yes, two male angelic figures.

    Luke agrees - 2 men appeared suddenly
    Mark disagrees - one man sat on the right side (very specific!)
    Matthew disagrees - one man who opened the tomb
    John agrees - but the events are very different from the others
    again...not very inspired and very contradictory.

    Q:Was the stone rolled back or not?
    EM:Yes it was by the time the women got there.

    Not according to Matthew...was he lying? Mistaken? Uninspired? You choose.
    (Thats another contradiction by the way)

    Q:Did they talk to anyone?
    EM:Yes. Mary spoke to at least one of the angelic figures and the Risen Jesus.

    Luke disagrees - Just 1 angel and then the apostles - no sight of Jesus by Mary at all and no mention of her for the rest of his story!
    Mark disagreesish - Just 1 (the only) angel/young man and Jesus later on by herself
    Matthew disagreesish - Just 1 (the only) angel and Jesus later on who met everyone at once
    John agrees - she saw him at the tomb on her own though she thought he was the gardener!!!
    (thats some presence he has, its only been 3 days and she forgot what he looked like!)

    Q:Did they see Jesus?
    EM:Mary Magdalene did at least, at the tomb on the hasty journey back from the tomb.

    At the tomb on the hasty journey back from the tomb? Later that day? With her mates? On her own?
    Both? All? One or the other? Not at all (Is Luke lying?)

    Me:"If you give me answers to these questions you are thereby ignoring the CONTRADICTORY answers from the other authors."
    EM:Of course, it must mean that, because you said so? It is evident. Though having to spell this out as if you were 3 should not be necessary. if I can answer your questions it can only mean that I'm ignoring the obvious contradictions.

    Clearly. The actual (honest) answer to all these questions is 'I don't know'. Certainly they do not seem inspired.

    EM:Hmmm. It couldn't possibly mean that these separate accounts are actually complementary, each one contributing parts to the whole picture, while none of them actually contain the full account, but must be taken together.

    Nope. What about after the first gospel was written? What were people supposed to believe if the full account was not there? What about after the 2nd? What about the fact that you don't even know what the original scripture said? What about the additions, translations and alterations?

    What about the fact that you believe an omni-everthing deity thinks the best way for people to know about his existence and what they have to do not to incur his infinte wrath and punishment is to believe this human written, multi parted, unoriginal, translated, revised and altered text?

    Faith is not the word I would use. Incredulity would be closer.

    I am done on this subject EM, I don't think I can make my case any stronger.

    January 6, 2010 5:44 AM

  7. On this subject - here is the end of my conversation with a guy with the moniker 'Ephemeral Mortal' who was inststing there were no contradictions regards to the ressurection and was using the pathetic car crash analogy (and forgetting that this was god inspired when it suited him to do so!). I didn;t hear back from him after this...which is annoying!...

  8. Eric:

    >Furthermore, we don't even have eyewitness reports. We have descriptions of eyewitness reports...

    It's even worse than that. For example, Luke talks about investigating the events and talking to witnesses. However, he gives no mention of how he differentiated actual witnesses from people who were just attention-hounds ready to spin their "I saw this, too!" yarn to anyone willing to lend an ear.

    When I took anthropology, some of the most humorous stories were about field studies in which anthropologists had been "pranked" by the cultures they were researching. Serious, studious, educated researchers, were utterly duped by tribesmen who didn't so much as know what the moon really was.

    In one paper, a researcher was trying to sort out local lineages. He was interviewing people one-on-one and asking them about their relatives and how they were related. He was also putting together a record of their language, which was not written, only spoken. In doing his work, he found problems, such as these people had no words to differentiate "father" from "uncle" or "male cousin," and so on. They had one word that meant something like "male relation."

    The villagers were all very anxious to talk to him, and went on and on about so-and-so in the next village who was their "relative"--and that this woman in this village is married to so-and-so, and they have this daughter...and all the while they were providing names of individuals.

    As his research progressed, it turned out he finally discovered the fun, which was that these "names" were actually very juvenile, bathroom-humor words--not real names. So, I might go to speak to him, as a tribeswoman, and talk about Martin, and say to this man--who doesn't have quite a grasp on the language--"Yes, that guy over there is Moron Asshole, he's related to Dickweed in the next village."

    I mean, imagine the amount of work just down the tubes when you discover this is what you've been recording througout your research!? Frustrating--but really, who can't see the humor?

    And if this can happen to a real modern researcher--what would Luke have believed?!

  9. Great explanation of the reasons to be skeptical of the story in the bible.

    But I suspect the writer is going to be unconvinced because you didn't address his bigger question: Why do the contradictions cast doubt on the "truth" of the bible? He obviously is not referring to accuracy of the story telling when he thinks of the "truth" of the bible. What I believe he is asking is how can you discount teachings such as "be good to each other" based on contradictions of the story.

    I would find it interesting to hear you address that part of his question. My opinion is that he, and others like him, are attracted to those "truths" because we find those "truths" appealing. They are so appealing that many humans are willing to cherry pick that good stuff, gloss over the inane stuff, and unfortunately stumble handicapped through life with a flawed method of problem solving.

    It is this flawed problem solving that theism promotes that effects the rest of his life, and this is the reason to get his "truths" from reason and not from the bible.

  10. "Not all the email we get from theists is totally marinated in crazysauce."

    I don't care *who* you are; that's FUNNY, right there!

  11. You must tell us what this person's response is to your answer!

  12. Well said. If this was the single greatest event in the history of mankind, couldn't god have done better with the presentation?

  13. I just finished reading “Jesus Interrupted” which has great discussion of this stuff,
    recommended reading, for sure.

    However, there’s an aspect of this that I haven’t seen raised - Who were the witnesses? The stories are all told from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. without identifying the fly. As far as I can see, the only witnesses were the women themselves. Did they tell this story to the gospel writers?

    This is the most important event in Christianity, and the only source we have is the eyewitness accounts of ... who? The
    accounts never discuss this, in fact, one of the versions says the women were so frightened by what they saw that they didn’t talk to anybody about it! So where do the tales come from? I’m a private investigator, and one of the first things we always look at in examining testimonial evidence is attribution. Who said it? What is the source of
    your information?

  14. Phar·aoh
       /ˈfɛəroʊ, ˈfæroʊ, ˈfeɪroʊ/ Show Spelled[fair-oh, far-oh, fey-roh] Show IPA
    a title of an ancient Egyptian king

    bef. 900; ME Pharao, OE Pharaon < L pharaō < Gk pharaṓ (s. pharaōn-) < Heb phārʿōh < Egyptian pr house + ʿʾ great; orig. a designation for the palace, but used to refer to the king from the time of Akhenaton (14th cent. b.c.); -h restored from Heb


    nope, no pharoah. ;)

  15. I would say that story about Ceasar on Neptune WOULD be proof of something going on, since Neptune wasn't discoverd yet in those days :P

  16. He didn't mean the planet. He meant they camped out in the cleft of Neptune, GOD OF THE SEAS AND EARTHQUAKES's chin.

  17. Great post. It is funny, as I recently argued on an internet forum about the historicity of the Gospels to someone who used all those flawed arguments he read from "historians": two of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses, there is evidence external to the Bible to back it up, etc. It gets tiredsome very quickly, as the believer thinks he knows anything about history or research methods because he read the claims of apologists.


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