How reliable is the resurrection claim? And if the short ending of Mark is easily understood, why were so many long endings written?

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How plausible would a resurrection be? And how hard would it be to make a compelling case for one?

This is the last article in this three-part response to William Lane Craig. Part 1 is here.

Eyewitness testimony

Craig said:

I’ve already emphasized that the argument for the historicity of the empty tomb or Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t depend on Matthew’s being an eyewitness. Rather, it depends upon the reliability of the traditions that Matthew hands on.

I agree—the gospel authors don’t have to be eyewitnesses. I never said they did. But didn’t you say they were eyewitnesses? You said, “The dominant view is that the passion narratives are early and based on eyewitness testimony.”

In your quote above, you said, “[The strength of the gospel story] depends upon the reliability of the traditions that Matthew hands on.” That’s right—but that tradition isn’t strong.

We’re talking about someone being raised from the dead. How skeptical would you be if you read about such a claim, from some tradition besides Christianity, happening just last week? I’m guessing very, very skeptical.

Look at the tenuous links in the chain of Christian claims: first, the inherent unlikelihood of a resurrection. Then the decades of oral history until the first gospel records the story. Then the centuries that separate the original documents from our oldest copies. Then the many ecumenical councils that hammered out doctrinal questions that are essential but oddly not made clear in the Bible such as the Trinity.

Or, see it from the other direction. Finish this sentence: “The Resurrection is likely a historical event because ….” Now imagine a different religion that beats your Christian argument on every point. Would you adopt this religion?

Do Christians believe because they were raised as Christians? Or because their religion comforts them? If so, then stop saying that weighing the evidence without bias will make you a Christian.

Alternatively, do Christians believe because the evidence points to the Bible as a reliable historical record? But if historical reliability is your goal, you should become a Mormon, because at a tenth the age of Christianity, Mormonism’s historical record is much more reliable.

See also: 25,000 New Testament Manuscripts? Big Deal.

Independent attestation

Craig said:

With respect to the empty tomb, as I’ve shown, we have in the traditions behind the Gospels (which these authors mediate) multiple independent attestation to the fact of the empty tomb.

“Independent attestation”? Matthew and Luke borrow enormous amounts from Mark. In fact, only three percent of Mark is not borrowed by Matthew, Luke, or both. And what about John—how certain can we be that its author had never read one of the other three gospels?

I see little to support your claim of independent attestation.

The ending of Mark

Craig also pushed back against my observation about Mark’s abrupt ending, where the women are terrified after seeing an angel and run from the tomb. They tell no one. Craig said:

Now, as for Mark’s account, the fact that the Gospel ends as we have it today with verse 8—that they ran from the tomb in fear and trembling and said nothing to anyone—doesn’t mean, I think, obviously that the women never, ever told anybody about what happened when they visited the tomb that Sunday morning.

Craig grants himself a lot of leeway in interpreting the Bible. With everyone interpreting confusing, bothersome, or contradictory passages as they see fit, it’s no wonder there are thousands of denominations. I can’t imagine Craig is this generous with everyone else’s religious works.

Craig continues:

It simply meant that the women didn’t tell anybody as they fled to return to the disciples where they were staying and to tell them what they had experienced just as we read in the other Gospels. So I think that Bob has seriously misunderstood Mark’s intent here.

I’m the one who misunderstands? If there is a single, neat interpretation of Mark 16:8, why were four longer endings invented for Mark?! It sure looks like many people had trouble with that ending, even if Craig didn’t.

Here’s the ending in the most reliable versions of Mark: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (NIV). And that’s where it ends.

Make sense of Mark by letting it speak for itself. Drop the assumption that the entire New Testament must unite into a single, unambiguous jigsaw puzzle. It’s a human book, not a book that fell from heaven.

If historical reliability is your goal, you should become a Mormon.


Dr. Craig’s cohost is Kevin Harris, and he wrapped up the video response with a little homework for me. Here he’s speaking to Craig:

I would encourage [Bob] to read your work, Gary Habermas’ work, and the work on it. He’s got his work cut out for him and a lot of material to cover to deal with his work. But don’t just go with these little superficial things. If you want to know about it (the criterion of embarrassment and these things), dig into the work.

I assume he’s thinking of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Habermas and Licona. I read that ten years ago, and I’ve lost count of the articles I’ve read on the subject. I’ve seen Habermas lecture in person at Christian conferences. I honestly don’t think the problem here is a lack of understanding of the Christian position on my part.

The naturalistic explanation of nature is sufficient, leaving God out of a job.

Man must surely be mad!
He cannot make a worm,
but he makes Gods by the dozen.
— Michael Montaigne

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...