Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate the triumphant entry into Jerusalem of our lord and savior. Or not.
This week leading up to Easter is a good time to critique “Top 10 Myths About Jesus’ Resurrection,” ten brief videos by Dr. Mike Licona covering what he claims are false beliefs about the resurrection. Let’s take a look and see where the facts point us. (I’ve written about Licona before, and I analyze where he got on the wrong side of fundamentalist scholars here.)
Myth 1: Contradictions in the Gospels. “The gospels contradict themselves and so therefore we can’t believe them on the resurrection of Jesus.”
Licona rejects this: “No credible historian believes that contradictions within an account discredit the account itself.” (I’ll use blue for the myth, green for Licona’s rejection of the myth, and black for my response to Licona.)
Contradictions don’t discredit a historical account? Surely you admit that contradictions must discredit it somewhat and that a contradiction-free account is more credible than the equivalent story full of contradictions.
Licona gives the sinking of the Titanic as an example. Some witnesses say that the ship broke in two before sinking (correct) while others say that it sank intact, but historians didn’t conclude from this contradiction that the Titanic didn’t sink.
Since the witnesses were unanimous that it did sink, a sinking ship is a well-understood event, and the event is well documented, that sounds like a reasonable conclusion for historians to reach. Disagreements over details didn’t change the fact that the genre of the Titanic account is history, but disagreements between the gospels make one wonder if historical or journalistic accuracy was even the goal.
While a ship sinking isn’t especially incredible, the story of a man rising from the dead must default to the “mythology” or “legend” categories. We’ll call that history only after being convinced by very good evidence. The 100% natural Titanic story is a poor analogy to a supernatural tale.
Licona says that he won’t admit to any contradictions in the Bible and that any there could be explained away.
Harmonizing the facts to support something you know for certain happened is fine, but first you must show that it happened. Licona has it backwards—he wants to assume the accuracy of the Bible first and then select the facts of the world to support that presumption.
And, of course, if there are contradictions in an account, you must first ask yourself if that account should be discarded as unreliable. Richard Carrier addresses this with his summary of Stephen Law’s Argument from Contamination:
Law’s argument is that in documents with a disturbingly high quantity of unbelievable claims, we have no reason to trust the mundane claims in those documents either, without some reliable external corroboration (the bogus material thus “contaminates” the rest with heightened suspicion). …
Law is not saying any history or biography that blends legendary with mundane claims warrants skepticism. He is saying any history or biography that is loaded with legendary claims, as in has an unusual amount of them central to the story, warrants sweeping skepticism. …
Law’s actual principle is obviously correct and obviously one real historians routinely employ.
I can accept that a single contradiction can’t justify the dismissal of a source, but contradictions must affect the reliably to some extent. And the Argument from Contamination is a nice encapsulation of how unbelievable claims, like the supernatural, must color our view of the remainder.
Licona argues that any contradictions are in peripheral details. The gospels agree on the important claims: that Jesus died, was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, was raised on the third day, and appeared to others.
We have several copies of the Gilgamesh epic, which must also disagree on some details. Are we entitled to consider as history the supernatural claims agreed to in all copies as Licona does for the claims common among the gospels? Or suppose that a future historian is trying to make sense of our contradictory stories about Superman from radio shows, TV, movies, and other media. Suppose he selects just the common features—Superman came as a baby in a rocket from Krypton, he grew up in Smallville, he could lift cars, he disguised himself as Clark Kent, and so on. Must that amalgam be historical?
Licona has given no rule that allows him to capture Christianity but reject Gilgamesh, Superman, and other fanciful tales.
Myth 2: Pagan Parallels in Mystery Religions. “How can it be that you have so many accounts of dying and rising gods and heroes within pagan accounts—isn’t Christianity just another example of this?”
Licona says that there is almost unanimous consensus by scholars that virtually all of these accounts postdate the gospels. In fact, it’s the pagans who are copying the Christians!
This is a red herring. If there are accounts that postdate the gospels, we should obviously discard them. But that leaves us with plenty of precedents for the Jesus resurrection: Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Baal. My favorite is Dionysus, the love child of one of Zeus’s many affairs. His jealous wife Hera had the infant Dionysus eaten by Titans, but Zeus brought him back to life through the mortal woman Semele.
Dead, and then born by a mortal. Brought back to life by the ruler of the gods. Sounds like there’s overlap with the gospel story.
Unlike Licona, second-century Christian Justin Martyr was happy to acknowledge commonalities between Jesus and Greek gods such as a virgin birth and resurrecting from the dead. He simply says that Satan placed the precedent back in time to trick us.
The Jesus story arose in a culture suffused with the idea of dying and rising gods, and resurrection envy nicely explains the resurrection.
Licona warns us that many popular internet examples are nonsense, such as the claim that Krishna was crucified and rose from the dead. “There are no accounts period of Krishna being crucified or rising from the dead three days later.”
I suppose he’s thinking of sources like The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves (1875) or Zeitgeist: the Movie, which have been attacked for poor scholarship. But, like his complaints about the existence of dying-and-rising gods that postdated the gospels, historical examples that don’t fit can simply be ignored. Time spent warning us away from examples that aren’t relevant doesn’t help him dismiss the ones that are.
As for Krishna, it’s true that there is no crucifixion or three-day delay, but those are insignificant details. What’s common is the important thing: that, like Jesus, Krishna arose from the dead and returned to his place in heaven!
Continue with part 2.
Forget Jesus—stars died so you could be here today.
— Lawrence Krauss
Image credit: Camilo Rueda López, flickr, CC