Jason Engwer Responds to Evaluating the Evidence

Jason Engwer at Triablogue has taken the time to respond to my post on evaluating the evidence for the resurrection. He thinks I have dramatically understated the evidential value of the time of the first surviving reports, and he thinks that the parallel to Homeric epic is not significant. I’ll give him credit for taking time to address the issues, but I think there are significant problems with his analysis.

Time between the reports and the events
One of the issues he emphasizes is that Craig’s claim is that legend would not “prevail” over a core historic tradition:
"In Bill's quote of William Craig, Craig (who's citing A.N. Sherwin-White) uses the word "prevail". He's referring to widespread acceptance of an account. He isn't saying that there aren't any individuals or groups that accept unhistorical accounts of recent history. Rather, he's arguing that an unhistorical account isn't likely to be widely accepted early on if it's a claim that was of significant interest to people (a "core" fact). Thus, Bill's use of examples like Roswell and Benny Hinn are insignificant. The accounts of Roswell and Benny Hinn that Bill considers unhistorical were widely opposed early on. They didn't "prevail", to use Craig and Sherwin-White's term."

Ironically, I agree that legend has not “prevailed” over the core historic tradition in case of the Gospels. I think the core that has been preserved is the fact that there was an apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who claimed to be the messiah who was crucified. However, I don’t think that Craig (or White) have demonstrated their claim that legend doesn’t typically overcome core historic fact within three generations. Even more significant they have not shown that a surviving report within 50 years of the reported event is evidence for historicity.

Consider the problem of determining if the date of a first report of an event counts as evidence for historicity or legend (Let us say T = time between first report and the event in question). One should endeavor to determine both the distribution on T for known legends, and for known historical events. In other words, White and Craig should provided tables from which P(T | known historical reports) and P( T | Legend) can be determined as a function of T. Admittedly, this could be a fairly large study.

Now I haven’t undertaken this study either (nor has Jason), but White’s examination of selected writing of Herodotus does not accomplish this. What was striking to me is that Herodotus recording of the temple of Delphi’s defense of itself (within 55 years of the recorded event) didn’t serve to qualify the statements that Craig makes. This report in itself is enough to make me think that P(T = 40 to 50 years | Legend) is not necessarily low. The legendary developments associated with the events at Roswell seem to be about a perfect match for the timelines of the gospels.

Another significant shortcoming in the Craig’s analysis is that he didn’t analyze P(T | historicity). There is good reason to think that P(T = 40 to 50 years | historical report for an eclipse) is low. Matthew 27 states:

45 From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. 52 The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God!"

It seems extremely unlikely that such earth shattering events would have been unmentioned by Seneca, Pliny, Josephus, and other historians of the era. I think this indicates that P(T = 40 to 50 | historicity of report) is much lower than I indicated in my previous assessment. If anything I overstated my estimate of P(T | Historicity)/P(T | Legend).

Chief Priest's need of Judas
Jason presented a rationale for the chief priest’s need of Judas.:
Bill Curry".. asks why Judas would have needed to identify Jesus when He was arrested, since Jesus was such a public figure. But how do we know that all of the people with Judas had seen Jesus before? We don't. They were going to arrest a man at night, and they were expecting other people (Jesus' disciples and perhaps others in the area) to be with that man. Since people might flee once the arrest was being attempted (as Jesus' disciples did), and since they would want everybody (not just the people who knew what Jesus looked like ahead of time) to know which man needed to be arrested, and since Judas would know the relevant details (how Jesus was dressed, where He tended to go, etc.) better than others would, it would be helpful to have somebody who could quickly single out the man who needed to be arrested. To conclude that Mark's gospel is significantly unhistorical, on the basis of Judas' coming along to identify Jesus, is absurd. To then go on to argue that this element of Mark's gospel carries more weight than the earliness of the Christian claims about Jesus is likewise absurd."

One issue that I would like to emphasize is that it is not enough to present a potential solution and consider the issue settled. The plausibility of the evidence on both hypotheses must be considered before the evidential value is determined. Now Jason is presenting why he thinks why it is sensible for the chief priest to need Judas.

However, if the report is historical, it raises many questions. Before accepting Judas’ help, it must be kept in mind that Judas could have potentially betrayed the chief priest as well. This is all the more likely since he was known to be a member of Jesus’ inner circle. The information Judas was providing doesn’t seem to me to have that much value relative to the risk incurred. Keep in mind that there were many who had debated Jesus and would have are able to identify him. To think that they were all unavailable seems implausible. Note I am not saying that it is impossible, it is merely surprising.

Now on the hypothesis that Mark was writing legend, Judas’ betrayal makes perfect sense. If Mark were using Homeric epic as inspiration, it is not surprising that he would write that account regardless of what it did to the believability of his account.

Jason has not (yet) disputed my assessment of the initial implausiblity of the resurrection. In order to make the case that belief in the resurrection is reasonable, he has a very high evidential burden. He must keep in mind that offering potential scenario that make the resurrection possible is not good enough. He has to show that the some aspects of the resurrection reports are extremely unlikely under legendary development. I don't think he has come close to making the case that the "time between the reports and the event" is unlikely if the report were a legend. Similary, I certainly don't think he has made the case that the chief priest's need of Judas is unsurprising.


Steven Carr said...

I hope Jason does not underestimate the short gap between reports of the death of Elvis and the first reported sightings of Elvis still being alive.

Krystalline Apostate said...

I think Jason's analysis is underscored by a # of poor points.
As Carr pointed out, the Elvis legend still thrives. This in a day & age where we have all sorts of datastream to draw on, people STILL believe the goofiest possible ideas, predicated on that 'warm fuzzy feeling'.
As for legends persisting, a perfect example is Lizzie Borden. Acquitted by a trial by her peers, she still to this day is known as 'lizzie borden took an axe", thereby proving that a verbal meme is just as strong in the 19th CE as it was in the 1st CE.
& the scientology cult proves that belief need not be corroborated by fact.
Legends can indeed take root overnight, as it were.

Krystalline Apostate said...

I think Jason's analysis is underscored by a # of poor points.
As Carr pointed out, the Elvis legend still thrives. This in a day & age where we have all sorts of datastream to draw on, people STILL believe the goofiest possible ideas, predicated on that 'warm fuzzy feeling'.
As for legends persisting, a perfect example is Lizzie Borden. Acquitted by a trial by her peers, she still to this day is known as 'lizzie borden took an axe", thereby proving that a verbal meme is just as strong in the 19th CE as it was in the 1st CE.
& the scientology cult proves that belief need not be corroborated by fact.
Legends can indeed take root overnight, as it were.

Bill Curry said...

Thanks for the comments. I am responding to Jason over at triablogue as well.

One of the ways that some Christians try to espace the legendary claim is to say legend can't overcoming the core historical facts in a generation. To prove that a mythical account developed shortly I would obviously have to use an account that Jason now recognize was a myth. Then it hasn't overcome the core historical facts. If I am not sure an account is myth, they can say it isn't myth.

Maybe the hope is that this argument can shield them from whatever evidence is provided. But then again, it is supposed to be positive evidence in their favor. It is less persuasive if the evidence is only allowed to point one way.

The Lizzie Borden tale and Elvis sightings are good examples.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

You state that "there was an apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who claimed to be the messiah." I have to question this. (I base my questioning on three main sources, Enslin's CHRISTIAN BEGINNINGS, Guignebert's JESUS, and, for a Jewish perspective, Dimont's THE INDESTRUCTIBLE JEWS -- I wish I had handy a better Jewish source, but I am limited by my own library and haven't the time to spend days checking other sources.

It is most interesting that none of these sources describe a picture of 'the Messiah" that has any resemblance to who Jesus was, or what he claimed in what must be the small fragment of his preaching that has come down to us through the Gospels. (I believe Guignebert states that the entire 'words of Jesus" contained in the Gospels could be spoken in a period of about three hours. Since he preached over a period of at least a few months, unless he repeated himself more than a politician making a standard 'stump speech' there seems little likelihood that we have any more than a miniscule selection of what he said during his career.)

Enslin, in fact -- and he is the only one of the three to specifically declare himself a believing Christian, though not of a type a fundamentalist would recognize -- specifically states (p138ff.)
"In the Old Testament the term Messiah -- anointed -- is not a noun. That is, it is not the title limited to one specific figure destined to appear in the future for a certain and definite purpose....
"In both the canonical books of the Old Testament and in the Apocrypha the noteworthy thing is that there is no mention at all of what we are wont to speak of as 'the Messiah."

(Enslin's whole section desrves reading, particularly his idea that this is another case where essentially Zoroastrian -- he uses the word "Persian" -- ideas had crept into Judaism and been partially absorbed.)

Guignebert's section is, as is usual with this skeptical and highly wordy author, too lengthy to be summarized. (It is Part 2 Chapter III) He accepts the possibility of a Jewish idea of a Messiah but states that there was no room in Judaism for the concept of a 'pacifistic and suffering Messiah.') Again, if Jesus did claim such a role, it has to have been in speeches and ideas that have not come down to us.
Dimont too accepts the idea that there were ideas of a Messiah common in Judaism, and lists any number of 'false Messiahs' of the time and later, most particularly Bar-Kochba and Theudas. But again the idea of the Messiah is NOT a religious figure but a 'warrior-king' sent to establish a new Jewish Kingdom -- under the guidance of God, yes, and frequently accompanied by a religious figure who could testify to his Messiahship, but not himself a spiritual figure. Dimont states that, rather than a Messiah bringing the 'messianic age' it was thought that a messianic age would call forth a Messiah.

(Certainly at no point in the concept of a Messiah was this figure viewed as, in any way, 'Divine' or as partaking in 'godhood' as a part of a Trinity or in any other way. The idea would have been a horrifying heresy to Judaism, and probably to Jesus, whose teachings -- as far as we have them --were never entirely ouside of the limits of Orthodox Judaism.

As for the argument that there is in any way 'proof' of the Resurrection, Guignebert's long section, Part 3, Chapter 5 discusses the problems with the sources and the likely back-writing of ideas. But even more telling is that Enslin, in his entire book, makes no mention of the idea as even a suggestion to be disproven.

Bill Curry said...


Are you questioning the historicity of the Jesus character entirely, or do you think that there was a Jesus who claimed to be a "messiah" in a Jewish/non-divine sense? I am not familiar with many of the sources you cite. I have really only begun reading Jewish and skeptical authors over the last year.

I have heard that Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier don't believe that there was a historical Jesus. I haven't examined their arguments yet (although their arguments seem complex).

I know Hyam MacCoby thinks that there was a historical Jesus who was an orthodox Pharisee. He implies that a historical Jesus make sense of some of the recorded stories in Luke and Acts that seem contrary to Christians' interests. MacCoby says that Jesus was a figure who wanted to drive out the Roman authorities and restore a Jewish monarchy. He further claims that Jesus was not a militarist and expected God to bring about that effect.

Anyway, I would be happy if you would fill out your position.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

First, as far as my position. I believe that there WAS a historical Jesus -- it might be better to call him Yeshua bar-Joseph, since this is what he would have been referred to by contemporaries. What I have seen of the arguments against this position strike me as very weak. I am unfamiliar with MacCoby, but his argument seems to mirror Guignebert's position, and mine, that a purely 'invented' Jesus would have been more consistent, and have less statements 'against interest.'

I think the most important statement is that ANY conjecture as to what he actually preached is precisely that, a conjecture. There just aren't enough words quoted, and so many of them could have been the result of later redaction, that we can't put a coherent picture to his preaching. But he does seem to have been a specifically Jewish reformer, who most likely taught an impending 'new Age' in which God would be worshipped by the entire world, possibly after some great catastrophe. I do not think, in any other way, he can be considered a 'universalist' with a message for the entire world, and I certainly believe he did not see himself as in anyway divine.

It seems possible that there was a strongly political and anti-Roman part of his message that was later concealed, but this is even more conjectural, based only on the grounds that, of the various revolutionary Jewish preachers, he is the only one we know of who was crucified -- though I am hardly sure even of this.

I am one of those who believes that Paul 'invented Christianity' restructuring the original message in a way that Yeshua wouldn't have recognized, and somehow -- and this is the hardest for me to understand -- convinced the followers, including Yeshua's brother James that this HAD been his message.

As for the sources I quoted, they are all rather old. Guignebert was a French historian of religion who wrote mostly in the thirties. The book, JESUS, is the only work of his I am familiar with, but he wrote many. Morton Scott Enslin was an American writer, again from the 30s, a very liberal Christian. (The work I mention was used as the main textbook in a course on the New Testament I took at Columbia about 40 years ago -- taught by the then Chaplain of the University --, I came across the Guignebert in doing research for the class, and finally, last year, I was finally able to find copies of both again for my own library. Dimont was a reform Jew who wrote two particularly well know books, JEWS, GOD, AND HISTORY, and the sequel, (weaker, but I didn't have the first, I keep buying copies and loaning them to friends) THE INDESTRUCTIBLE JEWS.
All 3 authors are worth knowing.