This past Friday I had the privilege of seeing in person one of the greatest living apologists defend the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. About four hundred believers and skeptics gathered at an unlikely venue, a Dallas tavern called the Door, to hear William Lane Craig articulate why the majority of biblical scholars–from fundamentalists to atheists–accept the following four facts concerning Easter weekend:
- FACT #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
- FACT #2: On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
- FACT #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
- FACT #4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
If you’ve read anything I’ve recently written about the anti-vaccination or anti-evolution or Jesus-mythicist movements, you know I tend to respect the consensus of experts in a given field, so Craig’s appeal to majority scholarly opinion on these four points does give me food for thought. It’s not that experts are infallible; it’s that I as a layperson am even more fallible, on average, than the experts. If I take a contrary position, odds are I’m going to be wrong and the experts are going to be right. It’s laughable to me how many Internet hobbyists or ideologues with an ax to grind defy the consensus of expert historians, scholars, and scientists in asserting that the Holocaust didn’t happen, than 9/11 was an inside job, that the Earth is younger than 10,000 years old, that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, that vaccinations cause more harm than good, that homeopathy is effective, that human-caused global warming isn’t a significant issue, or that GMO foods cause cancer.
After Craig’s presentation, attendees were given a chance to ask questions, alternating between Christians who had formed a line on the left and non-Christians who had lined up on the right. One of the Christians asked a question I was curious about: What is the exact percentage of scholars who hold to each of the four facts? Craig replied that, according to a study by apologist Gary Habermas, 75% of scholars accept Fact #2 (the empty tomb), while almost all scholars accept Facts #3 and #4. (I didn’t catch the percentage for Fact #1).
As I ruminated over these things relatively late during the Q&A period, I decided to queue up with the nonbelievers to pose a question that came to mind. I stood behind half a dozen other skeptics waiting their turn to challenge Craig (and in many cases to be roasted by him, sharp intellectual that he is), but time ran out before I had my turn.
So since I wasn’t able to ask him my question in person, I figure the next best thing is to pose it on my blog in the hope that someone who knows Craig better than I do might be able to answer on his behalf. In all honestly, it’s somewhat of a rhetorical question, but I still would be genuinely interested in knowing how he would respond to it. Without further ado, here’s the question:
Do you agree with the clear majority of the experts (scholars, historians, and scientists) on the following points?
- The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was not written by Moses, but was compiled in the sixth century BCE from various sources spanning hundreds of years.
- We are descended from earlier ape-like primates through naturalistic processes
- The Earth’s temperature is rising as a result of human activities
- There was no mass exodus of Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land
- The book of Daniel was written after the events it purports to predict
- Jesus was not born in Bethlehem
- The Gospels were all written no earlier than 70 CE
- The epistle of 2 Peter was not written by Peter as it claims itself to be
- The epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not written by Paul as they claim themselves to be
I am willing to entertain the likelihood that at least some of Craig’s four facts are true, especially those for which there really is a scholarly consensus. Fact #2 (the empty tomb), though it’s held by 75% of scholars, isn’t as compelling to me as the facts that enjoy unanimity. I’d be interested in reading more about the reasons the 25% give for parting from the 75%*.
In any case, if Craig considers a 75% scholarly majority a boon to the empty tomb, then I wonder whether he considers the >99% consensus of practicing biologists a boon to naturalistic evolution, for example. It’s my understanding that at least 75% (in many cases, it’s above 90%**) of critical scholars or experts in their field hold to the points above; is Craig swayed by any of them? If not, it seems his appeal to the experts is selective. As is mine, if I come to conclude that the tomb was not empty. But the 25% minority of scholars that dispute the empty tomb is far greater than the <1% minority of biologists who deny evolution, if we want to count noses.
Note: In this blog post, I’m not in any way seeking to establish that Jesus’ resurrection didn’t happen or to rebut all apologetic arguments in its favor. My intent here is much more narrow: to point out the selectivity of just one line of apologetic argumentation, that of William Lane Craig’s appeal to scholarly consensus.
* I understand Dr. Bart Ehrman formerly accepted Fact #2 but has relatively recently abandoned it. He accepts that a number of disciples did experience visions of Jesus, and later followers (writing the Gospels anonymously decades later) retroactively filled in the details that they imagined must have accounted for these visions: the appearance of Jesus’ real physical body after the women discovered the empty tomb. (Why women? It was their traditional responsibility to bring the spices to the body, all the more so because the men had fled the area.)
** “…by the end of the twentieth century, New Testament scholarship was virtually unanimous in affirming that the Pastoral Epistles were written some time after Paul’s death” (from 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus: A Commentary“, page 4, by Raymond Collins).