Saturday, July 21, 2012

William Lane Craig versus Richard Carrier on the Resurrection of Jesus

This is a video of a debate between William Lane Craig and Richard Carrier, held at Northwest Missouri State University (March 18, 2009), on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.

Needless to say, I find the position of Craig utterly unconvincing. What is most strange is the lazy assumption that Craig takes from the beginning that the Judeo-Christian god exists! If this does not give his ridiculous apologetic game away, then nothing will.

I provide my own critique of Craig here:

(1) Craig’s first “fact” is the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. This is not a “fact” at all: it is merely assertion in the gospel of Mark, and there is no necessary reason why it must be true. The Christians might have invented this to give Jesus an “honourable,” rather than a shameful, burial. Furthermore, Craig commits a gross non sequitur: even if it were true that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a tomb, it simply does not follow that the location of the tomb was known by his disciples. One astonishing datum is that there was no known veneration of Jesus’s tomb in early Christianity: it is most probable that they had no idea where he was buried.

There is good reason to think that the gospel of Mark (the earliest gospel) is already filled with legends and fictions, and that the empty tomb story is one fiction of Mark (Collins 1989; Collins 1993; Lüdemann 1994). Moreover, it is quite likely that the author of Mark composed his empty tomb story as part of his literary mimesis or midrashic rewriting of certain Old Testament texts like Daniel 6:6–23 (Goulder 1976; Helms 1988: 135–136).

Despite Craig, even Jesus’s alleged rising on the third day in 1 Corinthians 15:3–6 is said to be in accordance with the scriptures, not with any eyewitness accounts, which suggests that the belief that Jesus rose on the third day could have come from nothing more than exegesis of an Old Testament passage in Hosea 6.2 (as Gerd Lüdemann 1994: 47 argues).

(2) Craig’s attempt to claim that Matthew and John are independent attestations of the empty tomb story is unconvincing. They are no such thing, but secondary and redactional stories from Mark. Nor does Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3–6 require an empty tomb story at all. There is no direct evidence for any empty tomb in Paul. There are no multiple, independent sources for the empty tomb story: it is all dependent on Mark, and there is a good case he invented it (Collins 1989).

Contrary to Craig, the presence of women in the gospel of Mark as eyewitnesses to the empty tomb makes perfect sense if this was an invention of the author of that gospel. For the earliest tradition suggests that the male disciples had fled Jerusalem and returned to Galilee (so the women were plausible people to use in the empty tomb fiction), and the ending of the gospel of Mark tells us that the women told nobody of their discovery (Mark 16.8), which is exactly in accord with the more misogynist attitudes to women in the ancient world.

Moreover, it is a bad error to assert that women were never trusted as witnesses in the ancient Greek and Roman world. The gospel of Mark was clearly a work of Pauline Christianity and had its natural home in Gentile Greek and Roman Christian communities. While it was considered disreputable for high status women to appear in public in roles usually reserved for men in Greece and Rome, Richard Carrier has shown that women were perfectly able to give testimony in court: Cicero used women as witnesses against the corrupt Roman governor Verres (Cicero, Against Verres 2.1.94; 4.99), and an Oxyrhynchus Papyrus (P.Oxy. 1.37) preserves the testimony of a woman in court from Roman Egypt.

When early Christians heard the ending of the gospel of Mark, with the empty tomb, they will have asked: “Why have I never heard this before?” Michael Goulder has explained how some misogynist Christian men would have understood Mark 16.8:
“You know what women are like, brethren: they were seized with panic and hysteria, and kept the whole thing quiet. That is why people have not heard all this before.” (Goulder 1996: 58).
Thus it is not that the testimony of women would have been rejected per se, but their reliability in transmitting what they had seen and heard. Despite Craig and apologists like Craig, that is a very convincing explanation of why Mark used women.

(3) Despite Craig, the earliest tradition in Mark and taken over by Matthew is that the earliest resurrection “appearances”/hallucinations of Jesus were in Galilee, not in Jerusalem. This may well be true, and it suggests that the disciples fled back to Galilee after the death of Jesus. That is precisely why Mark has women go to an empty tomb in his ending, because in the tradition Mark received the disciples had fled. The stories of resurrection “appearances” at Jerusalem in Luke and John are therefore fictions. If these gospel writers could write fiction (such as the absurd fantasies one reads in the gospel of Matthew 28:1-3), then why not Mark in the empty tomb story?

(4) Craig asserts that there was no belief in a dying and rising Messiah in first century Judaism. That may well be true, but provides no serious evidence for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. As Robert M. Price has argued, when Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676), a Jewish rabbi who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah in the 17th century, apostatized, his movement did not collapse and there were Jewish believers in Sabbatai Zevi as the Messiah for at least two centuries following his apostasy! Even Nathan of Gaza, his leading disciple, continued to think Sabbatai was the Messiah.

Anyway, it is clear that Christianity - before it became a Gentile religion as developed by the apostle Paul - remained a minority sect within Judaism.

Is that not precisely what one would expect if early Christian ideas about a crucified Messiah were peculiar and an innovation?


Collins, Adela Yarbro. 1989. The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Fortress Press, Minneapolis.

Collins, Adela. 1993. “The Empty Tomb in the Gospel According to Mark,” in Eleonore Stump and Thomas P. Flint (eds.), Hermes and Athena: Biblical Exegesis and Philosophical Theology, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, In. 107–140.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. 2009. “Ancient Notions of Transferal and Apotheosis in Relation to the Empty Tomb Story in Mark,” in T. K. Seim and J. Okland (eds.), Metamorphoses. Resurrection, Body and Transformative Practices in Early Christianity, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York. 41–58.

Goulder, Michael. 1976. “The Empty Tomb,” Theology 79: 206–214.

Goulder, Michael. 1996. “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa (ed.), Resurrection Reconsidered, Oneworld, Oxford. 48–61.

Helms, Randel. 1988. Gospel Fictions. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, N.Y.

Lüdemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (trans. John Bowden), SCM Press, London.


  1. I really cant stand Craig. Even more so, when Christians appeal to Craig's arguments like they are somehow irrefutable

    1. I agree.

      Listening to him debate, what one hears is a stream of fallacies, and above all his lazy appeals to invalid authority (i.e., the usual line up of fellow Christian New Testament scholars).

    2. You should do a post on the ontological argument for the existence of God. I heard this argument first presented earlier this year in one of my philosophy classes, which my professor thought this argument to be to end all argument for the existence of god, since he could not see a fallacy in it. This actually tempted me to write my final paper on the argument. I received a good grade on my paper, but I doubt I convinced him to think more skeptically.

  2. In defense of Christians, in spite of whatever fallacious arguments **some** Christian debaters may make, many such Christians at least see their religion as deserving of rational and scholarly analysis and discussion.

    Say, during one talk on Saudi national TV, an Islamic scholar refused to debate a secular Saudi woman further, saying, "There is no point in rebuking you, since you have already blasphemed against the Prophet and God." With this sort of attitude, everything from the Koran to the life of Mohammed is placed out of bounds of discussion with those who don't agree with them in the first place.

    It is an inspiring thing to see Christians willing to have the Gospels and their very religion be deconstructed to the smallest details. A very progressive mentality.

    That said, "I presuppose the existence of God as demonstrated by natural theology" said by Craig is a very bad starting point for this discussion.

  3. This is a fair point: Christianity has been through the Enlightenment. The a presumption of rational proof in debate, at least in any serious debate.

    Some liberal types of Christianity are even willing to strip away and dispense with virtually everything supernatural: think of some the Jesus Seminar scholars (e.g. Shelby Spong).