In a debate on the Christian show ‘Unbelievable’ the atheist Matt Dillahunty charges that he doubts the resurrection evidence because “the bible is the claim. It’s not the evidence for the claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and what we have with the Bible are anonymous texts, non originals, written by non-eyewitnesses of claims that we cannot verify.” This is very much the general sort of challenge that Christians will face when debating the historicity of the resurrection. However, how does it stand after some scrutiny?
1. “The Bible is the claim. It’s not the evidence for the claim”
Dillahunty is essentially arguing that we can’t use the New Testament historical documents as evidence to argue for Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, since the Bible says Jesus was resurrected from the dead as an act of God then one can’t use “the Bible” as evidence. My response would be that this challenge would stand if the Bible was just a single book of which it isn’t. However, because “the Bible” is a substantial library of historical documents and claims it can be matched and corroborated against other biblical texts. The historian, for example, can put the Gospel of Mark against the Gospel of John, or Paul against Acts, or 1 Peter against 1 Timothy etc., in order to review the history behind them, and whether that history is corroborated and so on. What do these texts have to say about early Christian belief in Jesus? What do they say about the societies in which they were penned? In this way it’s matching history against history, and thus I believe Dillahunty’s claim of “the Bible” as a singular entity is unwarranted.
Secondly, the Bible is not just one monolithic claim. It makes many claims surrounding Jesus. It documents a whole movement in the early church that follows on from him, the ancient Judaism that preceded him, and so on. Thus Dillahunty’s dismissal would have us reject a rich reservoir of history. He would have us simply dismiss the gospel accounts, the Apostle Paul’s own letters, and the many other letters of the New Testament. But that is clearly irrational for someone like Dillahunty who is all about evidence, reason, and inquiry. No historian throws out historical evidence as Dillahunty suggests that we should do. My contention is that the New Testament provides evidence for early Christianity and the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. Historians would agree with me on this basic fact. Thus, can the New Testament, as part of “the Bible”, be used as evidence for the resurrection? Yes, it can.
Thirdly, something that stood out for me, is just because a specific thing (a text, a document, book etc.) is a claim doesn’t make the claim false. That has to be argued on other grounds. Say, for instance, that we find a text saying how God opened some portal for Jack, and that Jack was taken to heaven through that portal. Does the fact that this single text which makes the claim that Jack was teleported to heaven false? No, the text could be true even though it is making a claim about itself. So I don’t think that Dillahunty’s claim is necessarily a good one.
2. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
This line is quite problematic when we actually look closer at it. On a first note extraordinary claims (say a miracle) do not require extraordinary evidence, rather they require sufficient evidence. An extraordinary claim may very well be the best explanation for a set of data and if so it would be silly to simply dismiss it. Secondly, this is another blind dismissal by Dillahunty. What I really get from this line is that Dillahunty simply raises the bar of what constitutes evidence so high that it merely dismisses all evidence that doesn’t agree with his own atheistic presuppositions. So whenever he is confronted with evidence that threatens his atheism he will simply retort that the evidence is not “extraordinary enough.” That’s hardly openminded to evidence and reason. Thirdly, Dillahunty’s standard is very subjective. What constitutes “extraordinary evidence?” Who is the arbitrator? Who gets to decide?
Finally, consider probability theory. Apologists routinely point out that Jesus’ resurrection is best explained by a set of facts known as the minimal facts. The minimal facts approach only considers historical data that the majority of historians and critical scholars accept. Four of these facts are quite pertinent, namely that -1- Jesus died via crucifixion, -2- that he was buried, -3- that three days later the tomb Jesus was placed in was found empty, and -4- that the disciples, the persecutor Paul, the doubting brother James, and others had post-mortem experiences of the resurrected Jesus. This are facts accepted by the overwhelming majority of historians. Now, if we were to apply probability theory to these four basic facts we would need to then ask “What would the probability be of the resurrection not happening given these four facts?” To which philosopher William Craig answers: “It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence [four facts] if the resurrection had not occurred” (1). So really Dillahunty’s challenge experiences a 180 degree turn.
3. “…what we have with the Bible are anonymous texts, non originals, written by non-eyewitnesses…”
Now, there is quite a lot here. Dillahunty essentially wants to undermine the biblical testimony that provides evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. First he says that “what we have with the Bible are anonymous texts…” We shall accept that this is the consensus view of scholarship. The majority of scholars identify the gospel authors as anonymous. But, yet again, historians will not agree with Dillahunty that anonymity equates with unreliability, or that because they are anonymous they must somehow be questionable. Firstly, anonymity doesn’t equate to total ignorance. The fact that we don’t know who penned the Gospel of John doesn’t mean we don’t know things about the author. We may never know his name but we can know a number of things about him. Based on internal evidence we can know that he was a Jew, that he wrote for a Jewish audience, and that he knew about Jewish customs, Jerusalem & Jesus’ ministry. Although he was a Jew he is also evidently hostile to the Jewish enemies of Jesus. We can also know approximately when he, and our other gospel authors penned their works. In reference to Matthew’s author it is likely that he was a Christian Jew, that he was familiar with Jewish history, customs, ideas, and the classes of people as well as with Palestinian geography. Luke’s author was clearly educated, probably lived in the city, wasn’t a Jew or a Palestinian, and was a person who respected manual work. Mark wrote for a Greek & a gentile audience as seen in the author’s need to explain Jewish traditions and translate Aramaic terms. This audience was likely made up of Greek-speaking Christians probably in Rome although Galilee, Antioch, and southern Syria have also been suggested as alternatives. So anonymity does not equate to totally being in the dark. In this light the actual names of the authors do not matter one bit. Whether John’s author was named Jack or Sam really doesn’t matter given what we can know about the author.
Then Dillahunty says that the gospels accounts are based on “non-eyewitnesses of claims.” Firstly, it is simply false on at least one front. Mark’s gospel makes use of a pre-Markan Passion narrative, “The idea of a pre-Markan passion narrative continues to seem probable to a majority of scholars” (2). Exegete and philosopher William Lane Craig provides a fuller examination, “Most scholars today agree with this [that Mark had a source he used]. Any reconstruction of this source is controversial, and not widely accepted. That is to say, did verse 5 of chapter 15 belong to the pre contents of the pre-Markan passion source may be in debate, the actual existence of this source is readily accepted… That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony” (3). In other words, it is very probable that we have eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ passion, the empty tomb (4), the burial (5), and several of Jesus’ miracles (6). That’s really good historical information in any historian’s book.
Secondly, again the conclusion just does not follow. Because the gospels rely on second-hand testimony does not mean that the testimony is unreliable. The real question is whether or not the historical traditions the gospel authors make use of is worthy of consideration or not. Most historians would say that we should consider the testimony of the gospel authors. According to Bart Ehrman, Christianity’s biggest critic in historical scholarship, to accept the historical nature of the gospels “is not for religious or theological reasons… these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” (7). This is because historians have a criteria through which they judge the reliability of historical texts. And when we vet the New Testament texts through this process they are as good as any other historical evidence, and oftentimes in the context of earliness and manuscript attestation, far better. And besides that second hand testimony is actually not bad testimony since it is evidently testimony that is very close to the original. Historians are able to confidently reconstruct historical events that are based upon third, fourth and so on hand testimony. First hand testimony is always the best but it isn’t the only standard for measuring reliability.
4. “…claims that we cannot verify.”
I suspect Dillahunty is promoting a naive empiricism in the way he is equating the historical method with scientific certainty. If so, then he is really contrasting apples and oranges. Historiography is very much grounded upon probability. Unlike a scientific experiment historians cannot repeat events of the past. Instead, they have to make sense of evidence of another kind that comes down to them through history. In this way it is a question that touches on the philosophy of history especially in the context of “the problem of historical knowledge.” But that might derail us if we go further down that trail. However, on one hand I actually agree with Dillahunty. When we approach history, and especially Jesus’ resurrection, we cannot set it up again, observe it, and then empirically verify it. However, what we do have is historical textual evidence that we need to consider. In this way it comes down to probability concerning that evidence. Although we cannot achieve absolute certainty we can obtain a high or a good degree of probability. My contention then is that it is far more probable, given the historical evidence at our disposal, that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. It is thus no good for Dillahunty to merely dismiss this evidence because it cannot be scientifically verified.
5. The Biblical texts are “non originals.”
Dillahunty is seemingly naive when it comes to history if this is the argument he wishes to use. Nearly no autographs (the first text/document penned by an original author as opposed to a copyist) from the ancient world exists for historians to use. Instead, historians look at the manuscript evidence and from there try to determine what the original documents would have said. We have this manuscript attestation in abundance for the New Testament. For instance, we have over 5000 copies in the original language of Greek (8) which surpasses anything else we have from other ancient Greco-Roman works. Habermas captures this well, “What is usually meant is that the New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing…In this regard, the classics are not as well attested. While this doesn’t guarantee truthfulness, it means that it is much easier to reconstruct the New Testament text” (9). So, that’s the real question, namely, can we reconstruct what the original autographs would have said? Historians will say that we can. So it isn’t a problem that we do not have the originals.
1. Craig, W. 2012. Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Available.
2. Early Christian Writings. The Passion Narrative.
3. Craig, W. 2011. Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus.
4. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources For Jesus Burial and Empty Tomb.
5. Craig, W. Doctrine of Christ (part 18).
6. Meier, P. 1991. A Marginal Jew. p. 620.
7. Ehrman, Bart. 2008. The New Testament. p. 229.
8. Elliott, K. & Moir, I. 2000. Manuscripts and the Text of the New Testament. p. 1.
9. Habermas, G. Dr. Habermas Answers Important Questions.