The women at the tomb, and other conundrums

Question from Mr Brown:
This isn’t so much an atheist question but a question concerning the validity, or lack there of, of the resurrection.
In Matthew 27:65-66 the author tells us how several women who went to Yeshua’s (Jesus) tomb to anoint his body with spices after he was crucified.
My first question is how did two women (three in the gospel of Mark) plan on unsealing a sealed tomb guarded by Roman guards and sealed by a large stone tomb?
Second question: Why didn’t his disciples go to anoint his body, particularly his brothers James and his twin Jude?
Third question: After Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24:36 Jesus is able to walk through walls (appear in sealed rooms John 20:19) why was there a need to roll the stone from his tomb?

One last question not concerning the resurrection.
If the accounts of Jesus are true how could both his family and disciples doubt he was the messiah after seeing, people brought back to life, angels, the ability to control nature, healing the blind, terminally ill, crippled, and other unearthly phenomena?

Answer by SmartLX:
The thing about asking obvious questions about the resurrection story is that people have had two thousand years to plug holes in the narrative through re-translation, re-interpretation or plain old guesswork. Of course, if you assume temporarily that certain parts of the story were true and others weren’t, other reasons practically suggest themselves.

– When the women set out to anoint Jesus, they might not have known about the stone. They would probably have expected the guards to let them access the body, as long as they didn’t try to steal it. (As it happened in the story, the women were left alone with the open tomb after the tremor, and the Romans hadn’t checked inside, so if the body were still there that would have been a great time to move it.)
– Perhaps anointing was women’s work (it certainly didn’t take a holy man, or the women wouldn’t even have tried) or the eleven remaining disciples were too afraid of their own disillusioned followers to go near the place. (They didn’t yet have the resurrection story to redeem themselves in the eyes of true believers, and avoid getting lynched.)
– Apologists get a great deal of mileage out of the mere existence of the Empty Tomb (assuming that even that existed). If the stone hadn’t been moved, the tomb might not have been found empty – and without prior knowledge of an empty tomb, appearances of Jesus might have had less impact. (To view it more cynically, if the stone hadn’t been moved it wouldn’t have been possible for anyone besides an undead Jesus to empty the tomb.)
– You’ve got me on that last one. I haven’t heard a good reason why Jesus’ prior miracles seemed to account for so little if they actually happened.

Look, if I don’t tell you, someone else will: you’re asking the wrong guy if you actually want to hear the accepted answers to these questions. Go ask some Christians. (Better yet, see how many different rationalisations you can collect from different Christians.)

32 thoughts on “The women at the tomb, and other conundrums”

  1. First of let me thank you for answering my questions so quickly. As a former christian who is now Agnostic, I wasn’t really looking for the typical religious answer, which is what I would have got if I asked a pastor or theologian. I was looking for an answer given from a purely objective point of view from a free thinking individual, which is what you gave me, thank you.

    A quick side note, the bible says the women know about the stone prier to going. Initially I too thought they must not have known about the stone but it clearly states in Matthew 27:61 they sat opposite the tomb as Jesus was secretly burred and sealed.
    I’m not sure if anointing a body was women work. According to John 19:39 Jesus’ body was anointed by Joseph of arimathea and Nicodemus two men. Which perhaps brings us to the obvious question. Why were women going to anoint a body already anointed in John but not anointed in Matthew, but well let the christens deal with that one.

  2. Some interesting questions here. The women clearly did know about the stone, as you say. Mark even records that they were wondering who was going to move the stone for them. So it seems that in their grief, they just set out in hope that there would be people to help them.
    And maybe they didn’t know that Joseph had done his own anointing before they independently set off.
    But here’s an interesting cultural point: at the time, women’s testimony was not accepted as evidence (!). So it’s very striking that Mark should end his account with nothing more than women’s testimony about the empty tomb. If you were going to make it up, you would have men every time. The male disciples come off looking pretty bad – they were too scared to leave their hideout.

  3. I’d like to know how we know about the invalidity of women’s testimony among Palestinians in the first century, RP, if you have links to any historical references to that. It’s something I’ve seen asserted rather a lot. I don’t really doubt it, I’d just like to know whether it has an actual source.

    Anyway, I’ve yet to see anyone claim that the Gospels are women’s testimony. Parts of them are testimony about women, but if men wrote about the actions of women it held water.

    What was the first thing the women did after they saw Jesus? They went and told the men, and were disbelieved, and had little to do after that. Mary Magdalene vanishes from the New Testament at that point.

    And what was the first thing Jesus did after he appeared to those who had kindly paid him a visit? He went and appeared to the men, thus generating some credible testimony for the masses. He didn’t rely on women’s testimony, and neither did the disciples, and neither did the authors of the Gospels. From the perspective of all three, the women’s privileged revelations were a token gesture.

  4. I’m making no comment about what happened afterwards. I’m merely saying that Mark’s gospel finishes with their report. Which makes no sense if Mark was concocting a false account designed to persuade the masses. ie it points strongly (though not conclusively, I accept) to Mark’s sincerity and integrity in his writing.

    For a very thorough and thoughtful consideration of many of the matters raised in the original question (AND some historical basis for the way in which women’s testimony was viewed) I would recommend Richard Bauckham:

  5. Thanks for the link. Regarding women’s testimony, it simply asserts its weakness given the patriarchies of the times. I’d love to know how we know that this was a particular legal effect.

    Anyway, firstly, just because the women’s reports are in the last chapter of Mark doesn’t mean it finishes with them; it makes damn sure that the men get their own independent visits to report before the end (Mark 16:14 onwards). The author, and Jesus through him, recognises that the male disciples are the witnesses who will count. “Mark” (whoever he was) was designing an account to persuade the masses, whether or not it was false.

    Secondly, the Gospel of Mark does not simply relay the testimony of the women; it describes what supposedly happened to the women before they tried to testify about it. It is, strictly speaking, the testimony of a presumably male author about the women and their contact with Jesus. That’s why even this part of the Gospel would have been more intentionally credible to its first-century audiences than you or Bauckham seem to think.

  6. Interestingly, the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel end at verse 8, with nothing more than the account of the women’s experience. Language scholars note the difference in style of what was then added (which difference is fairly obvious even in an English translation). The fact that someone later added the stuff about men’s testimony only reinforces the fact that to them, only to refer to the women was very unsatisfactory!

    You make a good point that this was written by a man, and as such is in the first instance a man’s testimony. Nevertheless, the only way he could have relayed what happened to the women was on the basis of their accounts (whether 1st or 2nd hand). Mark is widely regarded as having accompanied Peter and recorded Peter’s account in writing (hence the Peter-centric nature of the narrative at several points). Peter would have heard it from the women. To have a man reporting women’s testimony (without trying to disguise his source, note) was no more persuasive than hearing it directly from the women – if anything, it would merely cast doubt on the MAN’s credibility!

    Peripheral issues, really. But these details run against the grain of the argument that says “these were lies written to deceive the masses”.

  7. Well, so much for all the apologists who laud the amazing consistency of the Bible across all its copies and translations. If the experiences of the men were demonstrably tacked onto the end of Mark, apparently to make the account more credible, what else could have been changed for the same purpose before what’s now the earliest available manuscript? What, even of the less obviously patched parts, could in fact be early edits to shore up the story?

    The above notwithstanding, according to the “extended” Mark 16 the experiences of the women were the testimony of Jesus himself. Verse 14: “Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.” Jesus is the one man through whom the women’s testimony could be filtered whose own credibility would not be diminished, at least if you buy everything else.

    If they were lies, they needn’t have been fabricated right at the point of writing the gospels. As I said, the author is writing to persuade the masses, whether or not he also means to deceive. Perhaps he was sincere in passing on the story, and the lie was older than his ability to write.

  8. No, this doesn’t show all sorts of inconsistencies. In fact, it shows just how much we DO know about the ancient copies. It is the desire for transparency and accuracy that means that modern versions have footnotes highlighting that some of the earliest manuscripts don’t include those verses. The number and the geographical spread of the earliest manuscripts available made consistent editing across all of them utterly impossible. The “Chinese whispers” or gradual editing theory that you put forward above is a historical impossibility. What is clear is that in the book that Mark had copied and circulated, his commitment was first and foremost to TRUTH, no to persuasiveness (hence his being willing to stop at v8).

    And even if v9 onwards were later additions, that doesn’t make them automatically untrue. We know enough from the other accounts and from the apostles’ early preaching and from Paul’s letters to know that Jesus appeared in person to many people on many occasions. You don’t believe that’s possible, so of course you cast doubt a priori on any document that supports it.

  9. You’re right, it doesn’t show all sorts of inconsistencies. It shows one, between “Mark” and the “editor” who added Mark 16:9-20 (or an earlier editor who removed it, before it was restored). It’s a minor inconsistency, but it’s one more than many apologists will admit exists. And I never suggested “Chinese whispers”; I know how proud Christians are of the constancy of the Bible, once it was widely available. However, part of my job involves tech writing and another involves programming, and I know it only takes one undocumented change to throw what is truly the case (and who wrote what) up in the air. As you say, the Mark 16 that goes up to verse 8 is the earliest available, and it’s about four centuries after the fact.

    I’m not about to establish anything as “automatically untrue”, not even the resurrection itself to which I’m apparently so averse. My a priori position during my Catholic school education was to accept the Gospel without question, and I really didn’t see a problem with that until the year I switched to secular. Without the constant reinforcement, my belief faded so fast I didn’t feel it go. It doesn’t take a priori dismissal to reject the Gospels, merely a lull in one’s a priori acceptance of them.

    What we “know” is that some people claimed to have seen Jesus post-crucifixion. You only get to “many people” by including those who are claimed to have claimed to have seen Jesus, including Mary’s anointing party and the mysterious unnamed five hundred.

    It is indeed possible that Jesus came back to life just like the Gospels say he did. That possibility, however, must compete with the myriad of possible scenarios in which someone along the line was mistaken, or not entirely truthful – even if he (or she) meant to be. To be taken seriously, a genuine resurrection has to be more likely than every other possibility put together. I honestly don’t think it is, not least because it’s the only scenario ever even considered which requires the supernatural.

  10. Oh yeah, I remember you’re alternatives. How Saul was going along the Damascus road and someone leapt out and caused an explosion which blinded him (but not them or those with him), whilst managing to fake Jesus’ voice from the sky and fooling all of them, and somehow making it so that his blindness would last long enough so that some guy in town could “heal” it, and how Saul then managed to concoct exactly the same stories as the other apostles even though they didn’t properly meet for another 14 years. I admire your faith!

  11. Oh, that old thing? If I actually believed in my flash-bomb scenario, to the exclusion of all others, I’d have faith for you to admire. It’s just the first one I came up with when I did Saul the unnecessary courtesy of supposing that he reported the event entirely accurately from his own perspective, including his own blindness. There are many possible reasons why he might not have.

    As I said at the time the alternatives aren’t limited to what I alone can imagine. Strictly speaking, no alternatives are needed at all; to say that Jesus really did appear to Saul after his own death because one doesn’t know of a non-supernatural scenario that results in Saul and the others writing the same stories is a classic (and a Classical) argument from ignorance. The thought of other possibilities just makes this more obvious.

    Incidentally, even if Paul met the apostles 14 years after the crucial events, it would still be at least that long again before the first canonical Gospel was completed. That’s a lot of time to compare notes. And didn’t he meet Peter and James in Jerusalem after only 3 years, according to Galatians?

  12. That’s where you let yourself down. An alternative that you don’t believe in is really no alternative at all. To be intellectually thorough you need to decide what it is you actually believe happened. But I get the impression you’re not worried about getting to that depth of investigation. And of course, you’re absolutely free to do that.

    The other thing that you just don’t seem to get (or just avoid) is that it isn’t enough just to imagine bizarre alternatives for specific, individual events if those alternatives don’t fit with the rest of the unfolding story and 1st/2nd century history. So again, a string of bizarre, logically incoherent “alternatives” is really no alternative at all.

    What is apparent looking at your views on here is that you will believe just about anything (hence the far-fetched alternatives…) so long as it doesn’t involve God. Which suggests that your apparently open-minded definition of “atheism” is rather too generous. It is not so much “a-theism” as “athe-ism”, if that makes any sense. Not the lack of belief in a God, but the active belief that there is no God.

    You will no doubt contest that. But it’s all over these pages.

  13. Just curious…is that you, Rob?

    Earlier in this thread, you pointed out the hypocrisy in the idea that I as an atheist supposedly believed arbitrarily in a particular scenario (the flash-bomb). Now you say I “need” to do just that. I daresay it would make proselytising easier for you, because then we would both have ignored the false dilemma of my new specific belief versus your existing one.

    Carrying out all possible investigation is important, but deciding to believe in one specific scenario out of a potentially infinite number before there’s any available substantive evidence one way or another – let alone making that belief the linchpin of one’s entire life – is exactly what one should not do. The reasonable course is to judge probabilities, but reserve decisive judgement until a total landslide.

    As I said in the other exchange, supernatural explanations for a given event are unlikely even if you suppose that there is a god, given the total lack of established precedent. Competing with these, natural alternatives are in with a chance even if they do look “bizarre” at first glance. As we’ve found, many tend to look a bit less bizarre or “logically incoherent” at second glance, for instance the truth of how long Paul would actually have had to compare notes with the apostles.

    Finally, as I said two posts ago, the existence of alternatives only serves to highlight the unprivileged position of the official scenario, not establish it. “Really no alternative at all” just brings us back to the original argument from ignorance. I don’t know that the Resurrection didn’t happen, fine, but how do you know something else didn’t happen instead of a genuine Resurrection?

  14. Yeah, it’s me! Back after a few months to see if you’ve made any progress (joke) and to give my grey matter a work out…

    I’m not saying you NEED to believe that particular scenario. I’m saying that you need to believe SOMETHING. Because whatever you think about Jesus, it’s pretty clear that something remarkable must have happened in 1st century Palestine. Both the non-Christian writings and the existence of the New Testament documents is evidence of SOMETHING. I would hope we agree on that. So all I’m saying is that if you want to be really thorough in the way you think about this, you need to have a coherent alternative for who this man was and what happened in the wake of his life. To me, once you allow for the POSSIBILITY of the existence of God, then the coherence and depth of Chritian teaching is very persuasive. It is more than human conspiracy could have managed. If you are indeed open-minded, then you can’t exclude that possibility.

    And while you say that we need to hold off making a decision, the fact is that in the meantime you HAVE made a decision. You’ve decided that God doesn’t exist and so you’re going to live according to that. That is not the reasonable, waiting-for-proof, “neutral position”, as you seem to want it to be.

    As for the lack of established precedent, you reject any precedent before it can be established! Arguing about this is seemingly doomed (and yet here I am!) because in you worldview there is only matter and energy and there cannot be anything beyond that, whereas in mine the very fact that we’re here is established precedent that something must exist outside the material cosmos where cause and effect rules. Something that is not governed by cause and effect (therefore not of the “material”) to bring something out of nothing. Not to mention bring about beings who are rational and moral (to me, way more than we can reasonably expect from an irrational, random cosmos).

    But there we go. I suspect we both begin to get “head vs brick wall” sensations at some point…

    What’s your name, anyway (since my precious anonymity has been blown away for all cyberspace to see!)?

  15. It’s Alex, Rob. SmartLX is a pun on both that and “smart-alec”. Don’t worry, you’re still no less anonymous than when you were here the first time. No need to change handles, really; the only guy I ever asked to butt out had bypassed the site and contacted me directly and persistently (my email was up on the old site without my knowledge). Dude was starting to worry me.

    Whatever specific scenario I believed in, I’d have the same kind of unsupported faith you accused me of in the flash-bomb case. From a practical perspective, if I don’t accept that the Resurrection was genuine, the specifics are irrelevant to my life. Knowing exactly what happened, as long as it wasn’t a Resurrection, wouldn’t actually help me or inform my actions.

    Look at it this way. What, specifically, do you think really happened on the day of Mohammed’s supposed journey on a winged horse, subsequent ascension to heaven and conversation with Jesus? Have you decided what his real itinerary was? Or, since you don’t think any of the supernatural parts happened, and there are ways in which the Quran could have been written the same way if they didn’t, and therefore there’s no need for you to become a Muslim, does it simply not matter to you exactly what went on?

    Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni – same basic question assuming you’re not a Mormon. In how much detail have you bothered to work out how Smith pulled it off, so to speak? Or are you content to think simply that there was no angel involved, and therefore the Book of Mormon is probably false one way or another and you don’t need a plane ticket to Utah? (Smith’s account is also compatible with your belief in the Resurrection, unlike the Quran which denies it. Mormons are still Christians.)

    I insist that I don’t rule out the Resurrection entirely. I just think the probability that it happened is so low as to be negligible, so I live my life as if it didn’t happen. You got that part right. I have to live my life some way, and as I see it I’m more likely to anger the real god (if any) by worshipping just one version of the Abrahamic God than to turn out to have backed the one right horse in an infinite field. I’m not that lucky.

    As Tim Minchin said in Storm, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic. Areas such as the origin of the universe (if you want to dig into this, go comment on my Cosmological Argument piece) or of rationality (my Transcendental Argument piece) or of humans (my Design piece) or of morality (surprise, my Morality piece) where the supernatural might still be required are not only still in the realm of mystery, but are part of the same religious question and cannot be used as precedent without assuming your desired conclusion – “begging the question”.

    Head vs brick wall discussions can still be useful, I think, to others if not to us. If folks read responses to what they’re currently thinking, wherever they’re up to in the logic, it makes them think some more.

  16. Ok, well I promise to spare you any further stalker incidents (at least on my part!)…

    That’s an interesting point about other religions. I think what swung it for me is that Christianity is has certain unique characteristics compared with the other beliefs you mentioned. In both Mormonism and Islam, the big question is whether Smith and Mohammed respectively were telling the truth. It turns on the form of revelation that is alleged. What they claimed to have received, they received alone and in a form which didn’t affect the events of the time one way or the other.

    For that reason, there’s limited scope for any inquiry into the truthfulness of what they said happened. One thing we could do is read what they wrote and make a judgement on that basis (and I’m not going to comment further on that, although I would have some issues with calling Mormons “Christians”, even if that’s what they themselves try to do. That’s for another day!). But ultimately there’s nothing else to check it against. The people who first believed them had nothing else to go on other than their word.

    Christianity, on the other hand, is based on revelation in a PERSON. And so you get a series of events that happened over three years or so, usually before large crowds, culminating in a very public execution and then an alleged empty tomb. Even after the resurrection there are all sorts of remarkable things that happened and were written about (again in public). And so in the case of Christianity, the people who first believed had far more to go on than just an account of a vision. Many of them had seen Jesus face to face, heard him teach, seen him perform miracles.

    And the resurrection itself, where we began this discussion, is not an event that was claimed to have happened high up a hill in an unseen cave with no witnesses, but involved a guarded tomb and all manner of subsequent witnesses. The witnesses themselves are then utterly changed by that experience too, and are prepared to die proclaiming what they have seen.

    Now you can stick the word “alleged” in front of all of these things if you want (and I’m guessing you do!). But the fact remains that by its very nature, Christianity lays itself open to inquiry because it points to historical events: public events in real towns at specific times over a sustained period of time. A consistent body of teaching from not just one, but multiple witnesses. And if one wants to claim the THEY were lying, then once again there is the difficulty that they were lying about things that they said happened so publicly. Those sorts of lies die early deaths, thankfully.

    So if I disbelieve what Mohammed or Smith wrote, that doesn’t leave me with any historical events (which seem to fit with their veracity) to explain away – the only historical “event” would have been that they wrote/said it, and some people chose to believe it and others didn’t.

    But if I disbelieve the Christian claims about Jesus’ life, then I ought to have a coherent alternative that fits with what happened in the 1st century in Palestine. Christianity has at its heart a chain of connected and public events, which makes it the most verifiable or falsifiable of all beliefs.

    Incidentally, if I find the Christian claims to be true, then I am spared the need for detailed investigation into other religions other than to see what they say about Jesus. For example, the Quran would say Jesus was just a prophet, and that he didn’t die, which I would be satisfied is historically wrong. In terms of evidence, I might want to ask the question whether 1st/2nd-hand eye-witness testimony written within 30-60 years after Jesus’ death is more or less reliable than the thoughts of one man in a cave some 600 years later. (I’m starting to value my anonymity having just typed that!!).

  17. I tend to favour “supposed” over “alleged”, but yeah, that’s me. If you have to question whether Smith and Mohammed were telling the truth, the authors of the Gospels aren’t immune from this type of examination. The different authors and their separation is something you don’t get in other single texts, sure, but a lot – enough – can happen in 30 plus years to make it all cohere. Roughly. And it looks like they all met up in the end.

    There were no witnesses to the resurrection, even in your version of the story. It supposedly happened in a sealed tomb. The only named person who saw Jesus and hadn’t followed him before that point (i.e. had no clear short-term reason to lie if no real miracle) was Saul, and he didn’t even know what Jesus looked like. Never mind the flash-bomb; a stroke could have given him his Road to Damascus moment, complete with hallucinations and temporary blindness, in full view of his companions.

    Now let’s say I really believed, without evidence, that that’s really what happened to Saul to make him Paul. I’d be a hypocrite, for starters, but how would you then argue with me? How does a supernatural event compete with an uncommon natural event? How do you gauge the relative probabilities, if you know strokes happen but you don’t know miracles do (and most of the time, they don’t)?

    A few other things.
    – Muslims will tell you Mohammed didn’t write the Quran himself, even that he was illiterate. You may even have claims of witnesses for the part with the winged horse (“al-Buraq”).
    – The reason I followed Mohammed with Smith is that I suspected you might dismiss other religions solely because they contradict the core of the New Testament. You can’t reasonably pull that with Mormonism, any more than a Jew can dismiss the New Testament just by comparing it to the Old. You may not like what it adds, but it doesn’t take much away.
    – You might be in danger if you bagged Mohammed on a random website and you were a former Muslim. We lifelong infidel barely register while there are apostates like Ayaan Hirsi Ali waiting to be killed. Don’t worry too much.

  18. No, of course they’re not immune. But it’s a whole lot harder for them to lie: it’s like the difference between saying “Mum, I saw a fox while I was in the garden yesterday” and addressing a whole school assembly and telling them about the fox they all saw running through the crowded playground yesterday. If you’re lying in both cases, your only reasonable chance of being believed is in the first scenario. As for the coherence of their accounts, it’s far more than just agreeing a story between them, which may just have been possible: it’s theological coherence with the OT in unexpected but brilliant ways; it’s coherence with the reality of the human condition that shows unprecedented insight; and it’s coherence with what would happen in the future. It gets to a point where this is too much to expect of a bunch of terrified fishermen acting on their own initiative.
    And the 30 year gap wasn’t really a gap. They were preaching in Jerusalem within two weeks of the resurrection. (Paul, for example, already had plenty of people to persecute before the time of his conversion – the teaching of the church and the church itself was fairly widespread before anything was written down).

    I don’t understand why you say that there were no witnesses to the resurrection. Seeing the risen Jesus is to be a witness of the fact of the resurrection, and we’re splitting hairs if we start saying that is inadequate to verify the event. That would be like disputing the birth of a child on the ground that no one was there at delivery, even when people saw the child itself…

    I’m not sure I would bother arguing with you if you really believed Saul was converted etc by means of a stroke! Life is short… But…I guess I would be stuck if the whole of the Christian faith was based solely and entirely on that event. But given that it’s based on so much more besides, and given the nature of what Paul was able to do and to write AFTER that event, I might ask you to look at those things and reconsider. Beyond that, I think my conscience could be clear that I had done what I could. Although if we wanted to keep the debate in the realm of things that are familiar and that we understand, I could (if I were rich and bored) get an expert in strokes to tell you what does and doesn’t happen after a stroke.

    And again, I don’t think this is about probabilities. Of COURSE it’s highly unusual. I’m not ever going to try to present these accounts as things which are likely or to be expected in the ordinary course of life. Let’s be honest, if we’re talking about the possibility of God intervening in space/time history, then we’re in the realm of extraordinary events, aren’t we? You would surely complain if there was NO report of anything unusual and yet we were trying to claim nonetheless that God lived on earth in human form. So I’m unembarrassed to stand with accounts of extraordinary events. Miracles are by definition unusual, else they’re not miracles at all. Are miracles IMPOSSIBLE? Not as long as there’s a possibility that God exists.

    It’s not about likelihood. But it can still be about EVIDENCE. And if the evidence points to something highly unusual happening, then yes we may be right to ask extra questions, but ultimately we ought to be prepared to follow it. If lots of people thought they saw miracles and reacted as if they’d seen miracles, and were changed in the way that a miracle would have caused etc etc…then it might just be that a miracle happened.

    I don’t know much about the origins of the Quran. But in my conversations with Muslim friends, I have realised that they’re not really interested in the historicity of it. And that kinda makes sense, because its subject matter stands somewhat apart from the events of history. Instead, they ARE taught far more about the history of the NT, because their beliefs REQUIRE that it has been corrupted over time (to allow for the inconsistencies with the Quran). Some of them have been very shocked to hear about the oldest manuscripts etc because that evidence contradicts what they are taught.

    As for Mormonism, don’t underestimate how serious it is to add to the NT. Adding more stuff is necessarily to reject the authority of the NT to some extent. Especially given some of the content of what they teach, which is at odds with the NT. It is a question of the authority of scripture as handed down to us. Mormonism places Smith’s writings as authoritative over the NT. Whilst superficially one might think they “don’t take much away”, to take authority away is essentially to stick two fingers up to God. Not clever. (This is different to OT/NT, by the way, since in that case the OT finishes quite open-ended, full of promises awaiting fulfilment, and so the NT fulfills and complements the OT.)

  19. You know, if a kid did claim the fox story to his whole school, as long as not everybody was there to see the fox not run through there’s a good chance that a few other kids would believe it. In a matter of months it could become a serviceable urban legend. It would do even better if those kids who did pass it on had a skilled orator as a teacher, even if that teacher was no longer at the school. You don’t have to convince everybody, just keep it going until there’s some distance between the listeners and the event. From then on it’s easier to claim and harder to disprove.

    Seeing a person you think is Jesus, or seeing Jesus who you think was dead, isn’t the same as watching the man come back to life. If the Resurrection itself had happened in public, the impostor scenario and the faked-death scenario could be ruled out much more easily. Hence the distinction.

    After his conversion, Paul was able to essentially perform like a modern-day evangelist (distinct from “evangelical”). Some of them are in terrible health (Chuck Smith, E. Lorraine Langham and Tony Campolo have had strokes) but it doesn’t stop them preaching in megachurches, exorcising supposed demons and faith-healing hundreds. They may be following Paul’s example in more ways than they know.

    It’s all about probabilities as long as the central miracles aren’t proven to be the only possible events (and that would take more than eliminating a few specific alternatives). What you’re claiming is that the Resurrection, for instance, is the most probable thing to have happened on that particular occasion which led to the birth of Christianity. I just don’t see the reasoning behind judging the probability of an event with no known precedent to be over 0.5, alternatives or no.

    I’ll accept what you say about Muslims and Mormons; you’ve probably talked to more of both. As for the brilliant alignment of the NT with the OT, that’s a whole other subject already in play here.

  20. I was merely pointing out an initial difference between assessing the veracity of the Christian testimony and that of Islam/Mormonism. You’ve taken my half-baked analogy and stretched its application way beyond the point I was trying to make. Maybe I asked for that. (although I note you’re quite happy to drop your allegiance to probabilities in this scenario!).

    If there had been witnesses of the ACT of the resurrection, then I’m fairly certain you would merely transfer your scepticism on to that part of their account. To them it was no less convincing to see Jesus, listen to his teaching again, eat with him; not least because they saw the wounds etc (John 20, for example).

    I wasn’t saying that a stroke would stop Paul from being active in his work, and I’ve no doubt that there are many industrious evangelists now who labour through all manner of physical weakness. Rather, I’m casting serious doubt (puttting it mildly) on the the theory that a stroke caused the greatest enemy of the church to become its foremost human servant.

    Maybe I’m not being very clear on the probability thing. But again, you’re saying it’s improbable because there’s no precedent, which is a dead-end approach for looking into a situation where we’re dealing with things which, if true, are by their very nature UNIQUE. On the basis of your logic, we could NEVER believe in a divine being walking the planet. No matter how many amazing deeds he did to prove it, no matter how well they were attested to, each of those bits of evidence would, under your approach, be thrown out on the ground of lack of precedent. That’s absurd. It a line of “inquiry” that will only ever reach one conclusion. As you seem to recognise: the probability will never be above 0.5 EVEN IF THERE ARE NO ALTERNATIVES. Do you see the problem with that?

    Once Jesus claims to be God, then we’re on the lookout for things to back up that claim. We’re expecting something UNPRECEDENTED, otherwise he’s just another man with an ego problem.

  21. Of course I stretched the analogy beyond the point you were trying to make. I was making a different point: that even claims blatantly contrary to reality may find believers if they reach a large enough audience and are repeated over time. Also, as with religious pseudo-histories, the low probability of the fox is apparent but it wouldn’t stop some people from believing because some people either don’t understand or don’t care about the odds (witness your Muslims).

    To the witnesses it was apparently just as convincing to see what they thought was the risen Jesus, yes, and that’s important. It means they didn’t need to see a resurrection to be convinced, just a man with holes who didn’t appear or say much for very long at a time – and could claim to have been changed extensively by his supposed experience.

    Above all I think it would have been guilt that turned Paul into a Christian, whether or not Jesus actually appeared to him. He had a change of heart, which could only have been helped along by the thought of all the people he’d persecuted. Whether by stroke, other hallucination or genuine divine vision, his experience convinced him to say he’d been backing the wrong horse and either made him feel guilty (or fearful of his own sin, which is closely related) or capitalised on existing guilt.

    At least now we’re agreed that there’s no applicable precedent to the Resurrection for the purposes of determining its likelihood. The effect on its probability is solely a lack of positive influence, but you’ve got to have something else to go on.

    If a divine being walked the planet and did amazing, supernatural deeds which could be verified, even repeated (e.g. did a Lazarus on someone who’d been declared dead by a doctor four days previously, or made the shrine at Lourdes actually work and cure dozens of cancer in a day) then he/she/it would set the precedent and other stories of miracles would be worth a fresh look. Jesus could actually have set a precedent for his own resurrection if he performed real miracles, but as we discussed we have no evidence for those even to the extent of the “evidence” for the Resurrection itself.

    So the question is, in the absence of established supernatural precedent, how is one to reasonably conclude that a claimed supernatural event is more likely than an unknown natural event? Is my opinion according to you actually roughly correct and the perceived probability won’t rise above 0.5 even if there are no known alternatives? (It would be a different story if there were no possible alternatives.)

  22. Those arguments are based on the premise that the apostles and gospel writers were lying, which I’ve discussed before on here and won’t go over again (not least because you’re evidently quite happy to disregard all I said last time!)…

    The risen Jesus did far more with them than you say (see the end of Luke, beginning of Acts, for example). And of course, they DID witness Jesus’ ascension, which is arguably even more impressive than the resurrection!

    You can think that about Paul if you want to. A bit odd, though, that after this extraordinary “attack of conscience”, he was happy nonetheless to LIE massively about his conversion and base his subsequent ministry on that same deceit. And “change of heart” hardly covers the sudden depth of theological knowledge and insight which previously had clashed so strongly with his theology…

    Here’s the thing: Jesus did the very things you’ve described (apart from Lourdes, obviously!). The point is, your logic would ALWAYS lead you to disbelieve what this “divine being” had done, because you would apply your “no precedent” rule to each instance of supernatural activity. The precedent you demand could, by definition, NEVER be set, because the first occurrence of it would NEVER be believed.

    There IS evidence for the other miracles: recorded, eye-witness accounts of acts done IN PUBLIC over a period af three years or more, and of his teaching, and of his character. I don’t know what you’re holding out for – some physical proof that’s lasted 2000 years?

    There’s no point in going over this again, so please spare yourself the effort of replying. The fact is, it’s very easy for you to set evidentiary demands that you KNOW can’t be met, because that will allow you to continue living life in rebellion against God, which is what human nature longs to do.

    I listened to a talk on hell yesterday – “how could a God of love send people to hell?” was the title. And here’s the thing. I don’t WANT hell to be real, or for that future to lie ahead for so many of my family and friends. But the warnings are there. And the thought of friends turning to me then, and saying “you KNEW about this? And you said nothing?” is…well you can imagine.

    My worry for you, and I’ve said this before, is that you now identify so strongly with this belief system that you will defend it no matter what. But it’s not worth it. Hell is real…

    Am I trying to scare you? Yes (although I’m sure I’m not). Is it WRONG of me to try to scare you? Not if the danger is real. Christians should apologise collectively for not talking about hell MORE; for if we truly care about people, it should be often on our lips.

    Thanks, Alex. I guess I’ll be back in a year or so!

  23. Oh, that’s not fair. You can’t put a bunch of QUESTIONS in there!! I’m trying to get away! This is kind of addictive (perhaps because we’re both too freakin stubborn to let things go…)

    I don’t know about the preaching thing. Sorry if you find that offensive. If anything, I think you should be more upset with Christians who DON’T ever put this stuff before you, because that’s when we show that either we don’t care about you, or we don’t really believe it’s true. But if someone says “ok, you’ve said your piece, now leave me alone”, then I’ll do that. And that’s the vibe I’m getting, so…I’ll leave it.

    As for previous discussions, my point is that there’s no point going over it again, since you made it abundantly clear that you wouldn’t budge on it. We were both equally unpersuaded by the other, so best spare the head any further blows on that particular brick wall.

    The evidence we’ve been discussing has proved and continues to prove to be enough for many people in the “modern audience”, so this must be about something other than modernity, whatever that is. And they’re not ALL dumbasses, either. Worth remembering that the people who killed Jesus had seen him in action and heard him teach. So it’s clearly about more than JUST evidence, too, if there was such division even then.

    And so to your question. It’s self-evident that my worldview includes a God who made and rules the universe (although it didn’t always). So I guess as I seek to hold to that consistently, I can only ever see an atheist as someone who is living at odds with that fact. I can see why subjectively YOU wouldn’t see it as rebellion (although out of interest, would you say that you PREFER the idea that there’s no God? Would you LIKE there to be persuasive evidence for his existence? Those are genuine questions, not supposed to sound antagonistic – I’m curious to know what you’d say). Perhaps it’s simpler if I say that you reject Jesus when HE claims to be God and king over all (in whatever form that claim has reached you)? I’m guessing you would agree with that, but see it as a matter of no importance or consequence, no more serious than “rebelling” against anyone else who died 2000 years ago…

  24. I figured you’d come back if you wanted to answer the questions about you, but I would have been happy to continue to wonder. I’m not actively trying to claw you back.

    I don’t find preaching offensive. I reckon I’d preach if I were you, because that would be what I thought I was commanded to do and was the best thing I could do for others. I was just pointing out the all-roads-lead-to-Rome nature of it.

    Since roughly the same arguments and documents have both convinced and not convinced people from the first century up to the present, “modernity” probably isn’t that relevant. And nobody has to be a dumbass to accept something false as true or vice versa. You don’t think all atheists are dumbasses, and all two billion nominal Christians couldn’t be dumbasses without redefining the average IQ.

    I reject the claim that Jesus was God, regardless of what he himself claimed, for lack of available substantive evidence for either God or the divinity of Jesus. I would prefer no god at all to the Christian God, given for example how precarious life was for the mortals in the Bible as a direct result of the God character’s machinations. That said, if that or any god were actually real I would want to know, and know which, as soon as possible because I wouldn’t want the real god as an enemy.

  25. It all leads to preaching in the end, doesn’t it?

    If it makes you feel any better, I’m not going to the trouble of replying just for your benefit. There’s actually a chance that someone else might read this.

    In case you haven’t noticed I’ve been referring back to our previous discussion with several links, so it would be difficult to disregard what you said there. You never accepted the plausibility of either a Jesus double or lying apostles (in fact, you may never have explicitly accepted so much as the possibility of any alternative), but we certainly didn’t rule them out together. The supposed fact of a genuine resurrection must compete with the relatively mundane on its apparently undefinable merit as a supernatural event.

    The thing about clashing with theology is that you learn a great deal about the theology with which you clash. I didn’t really know anything about Christianity until I was an atheist. Saul of Tarsus would have learned enough about his enemies while hunting them down to hit the ground running when he joined them as Paul the Apostle.

    Jesus’ miracles are chronicled by the same people who described his resurrection (and his ascension) and are therefore in the same boat evidence-wise, except that apologists don’t spend nearly as much time on them.

    I was trying to say earlier that if there is substantive evidence for the supernatural then it doesn’t need precedent, it becomes the precedent. There’s no surviving physical evidence of Jesus himself, let alone his miracles, but one could start with more recent miracles and work back. Even that would be hard if you’re a Cessationist, but one has to start somewhere if one wants to validate the supernatural in principle for a modern audience.

    I wonder whether you fully realise that you don’t believe I’m an atheist. One can’t rebel against God if one doesn’t think there is a God, and yet that’s what you think I’m doing. The last discussion ended a bit like this too. Is there even such a thing as a true atheist in your worldview? Perhaps not.

    It’s wishful thinking, a false insight which would make things so much easier for you if it were true, the source of a constant hope that the embers of my old faith will re-ignite, stop my arguing altogether and bring me to my knees in tears. My faithdrawal symptoms had faded by the end of 2007, and I doubt very much that a relapse is on the cards.

    See you when I see you.

  26. Someone else does read these. Not a dumbass but not nearly as well read. Thank you for the entertainment. In my opinion a “true” atheist doesn’t bother with trying to disprove something they don’t believe in. Seems to me you’re rebelling something and don’t even realize it. Maybe you’ll have a Saul moment and all your guilt will be redirected and you’ll become the greatest apologist the world has ever known. Miracles could happen.

    1. Sure they could, but as the nature of the event would naturally dictate, I’ll believe it when it does happen.

      I challenge belief in God and Jesus because I think that they are not only unjustified but harmful on the whole, in other words humanity would be better off if it voluntarily abandoned beliefs such as these. Arguments based on the “empty tomb” and the behaviour of the characters in the Gospels are intended to make people believe, or at least to strengthen the belief of those who already believe (they are far more effective at the latter). Not just the arguments themselves, but the claims that the arguments are unassailable, for people who don’t bother reading the nitty-gritty. I think countering this effort to any extent is a good use of my time.

      1. Harmful on the whole, in what way? There are many helpful Christian organizations and groups. Unless you mean the “disillusionment” that is harmful.

        1. “On the whole” means on balance. It is not entirely without benefit; it can make people feel secure, it creates communities, it inspires charity and so on.

          You’ll be somewhat familiar with the atheist perspective on the “evils” of religion: the magical thinking can carry over to all aspects of life, horrible deeds are done in its name, fear of God and especially Hell can be a lasting psychological trauma especially after early childhood indoctrination, it helps polilticians feel justified in legislating specifically to force others to conform to their moral dictates, yada yada yada.

          Not only do I think the bad outweighs the good with respect to religion’s current effect on general human welfare (and easily so with respect to the welfare of nonbelievers) but the “good” parts can be achieved perfectly well without religion – charity, community, etc. If the supernatural claims aren’t true, religion has no unique benefits.

          1. I’m not sure if the “good” parts can be achieved. Or rather, that they will be achieved. I think that society is declining and that its coming from the straying of past morals. If religion specifically Christianity were to disappear, I think it would decline sharply without a sort of moral backbone. Many evil things have been done in many names, but I would say that the people doing them, rarely ever live out whatever the name of the thing dictates. For instance if I kill someone in the name of God, I would be going against His commandments. Am I truly doing it in His name, if I am going against Him? I don’t think I have ever rested in science. Faith is different then science and helps with different needs. If it disappears to help the people afraid of it, how many people are lost without something to believe in?

            1. Look at the areas where Christian politicians are fighting those moral battles right now: abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, euthanasia, comprehensive sex education. I think all of these should be freely available to those who choose them, and I’m certainly not alone. Restricting these inflicts great pain, injury and sorrow, and in some cases has the opposite effect of what’s intended (e.g. it’s proven over and over again that abstinence-only sex education increases teen pregnancies, and therefore abortions, compared to full sex ed).

              You’re damn right that society has strayed from “past morals”. It was only at a certain point that our society accepted that slavery is wrong, or that interracial marriage is okay, for some really blunt examples. The moral zeitgeist has shifted in favour of tolerance, freedom and personal agency and the major religions have only ever been dragged along behind, when they’ve budged at all. They claim to be champions of morality when they’re on the wrong side of just about any controversial issue and dig in until it is no longer an issue for anyone but them.

              If you kill someone in the name of God because you honestly believe you are justified by scripture or by your supposed personal interactions with God, and others continue to do so in the same spirit, and most importantly if you would not do so otherwise, then the religion is causing death regardless of what scripture actually says. Christianity’s most visible current problems in this respect are probably religiously motivated violence and prejudice against Jews and more recently Muslims, and inter-Christian animosity in the UK and Europe (e.g. Northern Ireland).

              What you think people would lose if they lost their faith (purpose, reassurance, etc.) can be replaced. People naturally find other answers to the Big Questions when their faith fades, especially if they have access to a community of apostates who’ve taken the same journey and can save them a bit of searching. I’ve provided exactly this kind of assistance to many right here.

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