As I write about the topic of Jesus’ resurrection, I’ll be looking at the Resurrection Debate between John Twisleton and James Hollingsworth, on the one hand, and Steven Carr, on the other. Steven Carr has commented on my blog before, particularly when I write about N.T. Wright and the resurrection. He is a skeptic of religion, yet he doesn’t allow his skepticism to blind him. For example, he has expressed doubts about the new “risen Messiah” stone, which concerns some Christians because it appears to undermine Christianity’s originality. He also appears to have a solid knowledge of the Scriptures. Like the atheist writer John W. Loftus, he may have a solid Christian background (I’m not sure).
I want to comment on Resurrection Debate before I get into some details (more specifically in my next post). John Twistleton and James Hollingsworth pull some of the usual tactics that are popular with a number of evangelicals. I had to roll my eyes when Twistleton cited Harvard Law Professor Simon Greenleaf, who wrote in the nineteenth century that the resurrection of Jesus could be proven in a court of law. That reminds me of a movie I saw on TBN (which starred Mr. T), in which the Antichrist was dragging Christians before a large kangaroo court, and one of them was stumping her persecutors with the “Simon Greenleaf went to Harvard, and he believed in Jesus’ resurrection” argument. In fact, Jimmy Swaggart used that same defense in his debate with a Muslim. But name-dropping doesn’t work with everyone, especially not in a debate. (To his credit, Twistleton at least cites one of Greenleaf’s arguments: that the differences among the Gospels’ resurrection accounts show their historical reliability).
Twistleton also mentions a former “Lord Chief Justice” who accepted the arguments for the resurrection but did not become a Christian. That reminds me of this one Christian book I read, which said there was an American court of law that found the Bible to be true. Seriously, is that a good argument? In America (at least), the jurors would be pelted with tomatoes if they concluded otherwise (at least in certain parts of the country).
It’s not that I disliked everything Twistleton and Hollingsworth wrote, for they could be rather thoughtful and learned in their homiletical musings. That’s fine with me, since life should be about more than hard-core rationalism. There’s room for reflection and imagination, but it doesn’t go that far in a formal debate. Occasionally, they made pretty decent arguments, but, overall, they didn’t know how to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
The two sides differed on which sources deserved the most focus. Steven Carr was looking mostly on Paul, particularly his statements in I Corinthians 15 and II Corinthians 5. Carr was trying to demonstrate that Paul believed Jesus rose with a spiritual body, which was completely discontinuous from his physical, earthly body. My impression is that Carr was taking this exegesis in a certain direction: For him, Jesus’ disciples could have proclaimed on the basis of a vision or hallucination that Christ was risen from the dead, even while Jesus’ corpse remained in the tomb. That counters the argument of N.T. Wright and other Christian apologists that the empty tomb supports the reality of Jesus’ resurrection (see The Empty Tomb’s Importance). As far as Carr is concerned, the tomb could have been full, and the early Christians would have still proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection (based on their subjective, unreliable experience).
“Why do you focus on Paul so much?,” Twistleton asked Carr (my paraphrase). Or, to actually quote him:
“[A] frustration for me is how Steven is not as keen as I am to engage with the wider aspects, scientific, philosophical, metaphysical, legal, and experiential of resurrection debating. For myself I am not so keen to split hairs over Pauline symbols of clothing in the resurrection because I am more interested in the reality Paul speaks of both in this world and the next.”
Why does Steven focus on Paul so much? The reason is that Paul is the earliest New Testament writer, with access to early New Testament traditions. As Steven writes: “John complains that I use Paul. I do because Paul’s letters are primary sources – the sort of sources that historians value most.”
Consequently, I’ll be interacting with Steven’s interpretation of Paul. But I want to comment briefly on Steven’s treatment of the Gospels. Steven makes a good point when he distinguishes the four Gospels from most histories of the ancient world. The Gospels are anonymous, and they do not explicitly document their sources, so they differ from (say) Josephus. At the same time, most New Testament scholars–liberal and conservative–are reluctant to completely dismiss the Gospels’ historical value, for even the ultra-liberal Jesus seminar has criteria to determine which of Jesus’ Gospel sayings are historical.
In addition, scholar Richard Baukham has recently argued that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony. I have not yet studied his arguments, but Chris Tilling summarizes them in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
In my next post, I’ll interact with Steven’s interpretation of Paul. I’ll admit at the outset that I’m not exactly a championship debater, and there are many things that I may overlook at any given time. But my goal is just to articulate my present reactions to Steven’s arguments.