Why no “unbiased corroboration” for the resurrection?

April 30, 2012

Yesterday’s sermon—part 2 of my “Reason to Believe” series—was a dialogue between me and a lawyer friend who posed skeptical questions about the resurrection. The conversation was canned in the sense that we planned it out in advance (who do you think I am, William Lane Craig?), but I did take questions from the congregation.

One question was, “What did actual historians have to say about the resurrection at or near the time of Jesus’ resurrection?” The premise behind the question is that the opinion of a neutral, objective, unbiased historian about the evidence for the resurrection would carry more weight than someone writing about the event who is already convinced by the evidence, i.e., already Christian.

It seems reasonable at first blush. This is, after all, how we’re supposed to write history today. While I’m sure it’s impossible for any historian to be unbiased or neutral—”The winners write the history books,” etc—it’s a worthy goal.

As I said yesterday, No, we don’t have historians (whether the Evangelists who wrote the gospels or later Church Fathers) writing about the resurrection who weren’t already in the church.

To one prominent anti-Christian writer, Richard Carrier, this is a damning critique. After all, he says, one reason we can know that Caesar crossed Rubicon is because Caesar’s own enemies acknowledged as much. Where are the enemies, or even neutral observers, agreeing that Jesus was resurrected?

You see the problem, right?

Regardless, I’m relieved that there are very smart Christian thinkers like Dr. Glenn Peoples, who have the time and patience to trudge through the muck and overgrown weeds of contemporary atheist literature and respond. In this lengthy blog post, Dr. Peoples writes the following,

For an enemy of Caesar to believe that the Rubicon crossing took place, therefore, is not a case of a hostile witness, and has no particular significance one way or the other compared to a friend of Caesar believing in the Rubicon crossing. The issue of bias does not even arise here, and is a red herring…

Whereas being a friend or enemy of Caesar has no important bearing on believing in the Rubicon crossing or not believing in the Rubicon crossing (something overlooked by Carrier), by contrast, being persuaded that Jesus rose from the dead has everything to do with whether or not a source is going to be regarded as biased in favour of Jesus. While it is easy to imagine a miffed Italian thinking “That so-called emperor Caesar, whom I despise, crossed the Rubicon and invaded my country,” or “That Julius whom I would gladly murder and replace invaded Rome by force,” it is much more difficult to imagine a first century Palestinian saying “that false pretender, the mere man Jesus of Nazareth, was actually raised from the dead in a great act of God.” The mere acceptance that Jesus rose from the dead is itself a major step towards the Christian movement (if not an embracing of it), so the complaint that we have no written testimony in favour of the resurrection from a person who did not accept that it had happened (i.e. a non-Christian or an enemy) is not significant, and is in fact precisely what we should expect.

“Precisely what we should expect.” As I said yesterday, the evidence we have for the resurrection is exactly the evidence we should expect to have. Or, as Peoples says (emphasis mine):

The relevant question to ask is what type of evidence we should expect if Jesus did rise from the dead, and then to ask whether or not that evidence exists. In the context in which Christianity is believed to have arisen, we would expect that there be written accounts by people who did in fact believe that the resurrection had taken place and who were in a position to know that it had taken place, and we would expect an increase in the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, again, by people who were in a position to know, and who showed signs that their belief was genuine, coupled with an argument that this belief is best explained if in fact Jesus bodily rose from the dead (and argument I will come to later when assessing Carrier’s argument about a spiritual resurrection). From those who did not in fact believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we would expect evidence of the growth of the Christian movement, either with a stance of indifference or of animosity towards that movement.

Obviously, people indifferent to the miraculous claims of a tiny Jewish sect in a backwater province of the Roman Empire aren’t going to bother writing about it for the sake of history.

Nevertheless, as even the most hardened skeptic knows, the powers-that-be in Rome would start writing about the Christian movement soon enough.

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