XFiles Friday: The Events They Wouldn’t Have InventedNovember 21, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 11.)
In apologetics, a little bit of truth can sometimes go a long way, but in Chapter 11, it doesn’t go quite as far as Drs. Geisler and Turek would like. They’re trying to convince us that the New Testament writers must have been telling the truth about the resurrection because we can reasonably conclude that they probably told the truth about things that were not miraculous. It’s an appeal to put our faith in the words of men, because ultimately, that’s all Geisler and Turek have to offer: the words of men.
This week we look at point #5 on their “top ten” list of reasons why we ought to believe everything the NT writers tell us.
5. The New Testament Writers Include Events Related to the Resurrection That They Would Not Have Invented.
In addition to the inclusion of embarrassing details regarding themselves and Jesus, the New Testament writers record events related to the Resurrection that they would not have inserted if they had invented the story.
Once again, Geisler and Turek ask us to just take their word for what a clever myth-maker would or would not have invented, and once again it’s really a strawman argument, since they present their case as though the only possible alternative to the Gospel being literally true is if the NT writers deliberately and maliciously invented it to deceive us. The actual evidence they present, however, suggests a much more plausible, third alternative.
The first example G&T offer as being an event that would not have been invented is the burial of Jesus.
The New Testament writers record that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish ruling council that had sentenced Jesus to die for blasphemy. This is not an event they would have made up. Considering the bitterness some Christians harbored against the Jewish authorities, why would they put a member of the Sanhedrin in such a favorable light?
Indeed. I tend to agree with Geisler and Turek here, though of course not to the point of suggesting that the Resurrection must necessarily be true just because Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb. What’s especially interesting is that this particular fact provides at least some Christians with a plausible motive for moving Jesus’ body, possibly without the permission or knowledge of the apostles or other disciples.
The second “uninventable” event proposed by Geisler and Turek is the fact that the first “witnesses” of the resurrection were women.
All four Gospels say women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb and the first to learn of the Resurrection. One of those women was Mary Magdalene, who Luke admits had been demon-possessed (Luke 8:2). This would never be inserted in a made-up story. Not only would a once-demon-possessed person make a questionable witness, but women in general were not considered reliable witnesses in that first-century culture.
This time Geisler and Turek’s argument doesn’t quite add up. According to the Gospels, at least some of the disciples found the women’s testimony believable enough to justify a trip to the tomb to check it out. But even if the women’s testimony were unreliable, there were others (male others) who backed them up. Granted, the NT writers would be unlikely to invent a story in which women were the only witnesses. But they didn’t. The Gospels claim that the menfolk went back and checked and confirmed the women’s story. The order of who saw what first is neither here nor there.
But let’s consider what the Gospels tell us about this “discovery” by the women. According to Matthew, the first thing that happened as they approached the tomb was that there was an earthquake, and they saw an angel come down and roll away the stone and incidentally frighten the guards into a dead faint. In some very plain terms, the angel told Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” that Jesus had risen from the dead and was therefore not in the tomb. He then sent them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, but before they could deliver their message, they met Jesus himself, who basically confirmed the angel’s message.
In Mark’s Gospel, the earthquake and guards are missing, and the “angel” is merely a young man in a white robe. The message is roughly the same as in Matthew, but this time the women do not meet Jesus on their way, nor do they actually deliver their message, being too afraid to tell anyone what they had seen (which wasn’t much more than an empty tomb and a young man).
Luke tells us that the women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James) first discovered the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, and then were accosted by not one, but two angels, who (again) told them quite plainly that Jesus had risen from the dead and wanted them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.
John, meanwhile, has Mary Magdalene going to the tomb, finding it empty, and running back to tell the disciples. Peter and “the other disciple” (i.e. John) run back and confirm that the tomb is empty, and return mystified (though paradoxically it states that John “believed” at that point, even though he did not understand that Jesus had to rise, somehow). Mary, meanwhile, is left alone at the tomb, wondering where Jesus’ body is, and has a vision of two angels in the tomb, sitting on the slab where the body had been. Instead of declaring that Jesus had risen, they merely ask her why she is crying, and when she protests that she doesn’t know where the body is, Jesus appears behind her, only somehow unrecognizable. She mistakes him for the gardener and asks for the body, then recognizes him, worships him, and he tells her to tell the disciples that he is returning to the Father. No mention of meeting them in Galilee.
Obviously, there are some substantial inconsistencies in these four stories—much more than you would find in conflicting eyewitness accounts of a car crash, for instance. These aren’t confused perceptions caused by a sudden, explosive, traumatic event, these are details drawn out over a relatively lengthy period of time, with early events in some stories that preclude the later events of other accounts.
For example, Mary Magdalene would hardly have run back to say “We don’t know where Jesus is” if her first experience at the tomb had been to meet an angel declaring the Resurrection, and especially if her second experience had been to meet the risen Jesus himself. Nor would she have been in a group of women wondering who was going to roll away the stone if she already knew, from an earlier (solo) excursion that the stone was already rolled away.
On the other hand, suppose a handful of disciples, outraged at the thought of their Master lying in a rich man’s tomb, and encouraged by Jesus’ own “flexible” view of what could be done on the Sabbath, snuck in before the guard was posted and removed the body without the other disciples’ knowledge or permission. The women, finding an empty tomb the next day, might indeed have behaved as John describes, seeking out the disciples and inspiring at least one of them to jump to the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead.
The “window dressing” details like the earthquake and the angel (no, make that two angels!) and the command to go to Galilee, could very easily be later embellishments, as the story spread through the crowds and produced the different variants that eventually became the distinct (and inconsistent) Gospel accounts, codified and formalized into separate oral traditions. And, since the disciples were used to the idea that “spiritual truth” was deeper and more meaningful than mundane appearances, it wouldn’t really matter whether the missing physical body was ever found or not. Once the disciples “knew” that Jesus rose, minor details like the inconsistent resurrection stories simply would not register.
But I digress. The next event that the NT writers would allegedly not invent is the conversion of Jewish priests to Christianity. This argument gives Geisler and Turek an excuse to neatly duck a potentially embarrassing problem.
“Why didn’t the risen Jesus appear to the Pharisees?” is a popular question asked by skeptics. The answer might be that it wasn’t necessary. This is often overlooked, but many priests in Jerusalem became believers.
Ooo, nicely dodged. The meat of the skeptics’ question is the curious fact that the “risen” Jesus somehow only seemed to be able to make himself visible to those who really and truly wanted him to be a resurrected savior. Had he shown up in material reality, as an actual, physical manifestation, he would have been perceptible to all, regardless of religious beliefs. It’s not a question of being “necessary,” it’s a question of curious coincidence: Jesus behavior is exactly what would be required if his “resurrection” were a spiritual truth that happened only in the hearts of those gullible faithful enough to perceive it.
Geisler and Turek’s fourth and last example is their worst: the story of the “bribed” guards.
The Jewish explanation for the empty tomb is recorded in the last chapter of Matthew.
While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Notice that Matthew makes it very clear that his readers already knew about this Jewish explanation for the empty tomb because “this story has been widely circulated to this very day.” That means Matthew’s readers (and certainly the Jews themselves) wold know whether or not he was telling the truth. If Matthew were making up the empty tomb story, why would he give his readers such an easy way to expose his lies? The only plausible explanation is that the tomb must really have been empty…
You have to admire the finesse with which Geisler and Turek accomplish this classic bit of misdirection. Suppose some disciples (not necessarily the apostles) did remove the body from the tomb, what would be the inevitable result? The story would eventually leak out, no matter how secretive the ones responsible. The other disciples might be preaching that Jesus rose from the dead and that the tomb was empty because he walked out of it, but back in Palestine it would be readily verifiable that people knew the body had simply been removed. Not necessarily by the apostles, but by ordinary disciples.
Matthew’s story is almost certainly fiction, a cleverly-devised tale intended to discredit the testimony of the eyewitnesses who knew the body had simply been removed. Notice that Matthew was not a member of the Sanhedrin, nor was he a member of the guard, nor does he cite any sources from either the Sanhedrin or the guard or even from divine inspiration. If the guards had been bribed, there would have been no way for Matthew to find out about it. He simply did what Christian apologists always do when confronted by inconvenient facts: he made up a plausible sounding story to defend the gospel and shift the blame.
Geisler and Turek want us to believe that everything the NT writers tell us should be taken as, well, the Gospel truth. It’s a futile effort, since we already know, from the CS Lewis quote in Chapter 8, that “the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of [God's] scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.”
Clearly, God cannot go so far past “the faintest and most mitigated degree” that it would take more faith to be an atheist. The Resurrection, therefore, could not have happened, and we know they did not happen, and the stories told by the NT writers merely prove that we should not trust them.
So much for that “top ten” list.