The Shame and Embarrassment of a Crucified Messiah


It is that time of the year when many people will attend a Good Friday service this weekend. Also, since many of us think the Messiah is the fulfillment of Passover, some of us may attend a Passover event as well. But as many of us gather to remember the death of the Messiah and all that He has accomplished for humanity, it made me think of the following: How many cross necklaces have you seen around the necks of people? What about the crosses that are seen on the necks of movie stars and sports figures? If you ask the average person who is wearing a cross what it means, they may say the following:

” Jesus died for me on the cross”

” The cross is a symbol of love”

“The cross saved me”

The First Century

I don’t doubt the sincerity of some of these people. But what is interesting is that many of us don’t know how the cross was viewed in the first century. Roman crucifixion was viewed as a punishment for those a lower status- dangerous criminals, slaves, or anyone who caused a threat to Roman order and authority. According to Cicero (Vern. 2.5.168) and Josephus (J. W. 7.203), crucifixion was the worst form of death. Given that Jewish nationalism was quite prevalent in the first century, the Romans also used crucifixion to end the uprising of any revolts. Thus, the primary political and social purpose of crucifixion was deterrence. The concept of deterrence has two key assumptions: The first is that specific punishments imposed on offenders will “deter” or prevent them from committing further crimes. The second is that fear of punishment will prevent others from committing similar crimes.

But for the Jewish person, there is a relevant verse about crucifixion in Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

“If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

The context of this verse is describing the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. The New Testament writers expanded this theme to include persons who had been crucified (Acts 5:30; 13:29; Gal 3:13;1 Pet.2:24). To say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:13-14 is rather telling:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith

The very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not to be the Anointed One of God. So what is seen in these verses is not the execution itself but what is done to the body after the person is executed–it is displayed as a warning to others. For Jewish people at the time of Paul, the crucified victim could be viewed as either a victim or a villain. If it is the latter, the person being condemned as a criminal would be considered cursed by God because of their actions.

Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor.1:21-22)

 Even well known skeptical scholar Bart Ehmran says:

“Christians who wanted to proclaim Jesus as messiah would not have invented the notion that he was crucified because his crucifixion created such a scandal. Indeed, the apostle Paul calls it the chief “stumbling block” for Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). Where did the tradition come from? It must have actually happened” (2) 

A Dead Messiah and Sheol

In light of what Jewish people knew about Sheol  (the realm of the dead), a dead Messiah was an absurdity. In the Jewish Scriptures, the pictures of the fate of the wicked are presented as consciously suffering in Sheol, or the grave. It is also described as the place that both the righteous and the unrighteous are expected to go upon death (Ps. 89:48). God does no wonders for those that are in Sheol; those that are there cannot praise God. Let’s look at some of these passages:

1. “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?” (Ps. 6:5).


2. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?” (Ps. 30:9).


3. “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah. Will Your loving-kindness be declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Abaddon?” (Ps. 88:10-11).


4. “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17).


5. “For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness (Isa. 38:18).”

It can be concluded that any attempt to proclaim a dead Messiah who had been consigned to Sheol would have created a tremendous barrier for a Jewish person in Second Temple Period. Furthermore, a dead Messiah would have extinguished any hopes of the restoration of the Davidic Dynasty.

Blessing and Curses

In the context of the covenant of Israel, the Near Eastern pattern was of both blessing and curse. The blessing is for those who obey the stipulations of the covenant while the curse is upon those who violate the stipulations.

Deuteronomy 27:6 says “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all the commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God” (Deut. 28:1-2).

For a Jewish person to be blessed was to be in the presence of God and enjoy his presence and all the benefits that this entailed.  The blessing was to experience God’s shalom in one’s life. In contrast to blessing, to be cursed was to be outside the presence of God. To be declared “unclean” or defiled meant was an offense to the Jewish people. So for the Messiah to die on a crucifixion stake was not a sign of blessing from God. If anything, it was the opposite.


“And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “- Luke 9: 23

The death of the Messiah may be viewed as a symbol of love. But when we look at the first century context, to a Jewish person, a Messiah who was crucified was not a badge of honor. In reality it was a sign of rejection and embarrassment. When the disciples heard Jesus talk about the cross and self-denial here, they knew to make Jesus the Lord of their lives was going to be a life of commitment and an abandonment of autonomy.


1. Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 144-145).

2. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Third Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004),  221-222.


What Did The Disciples Mean When They Said “Jesus is Risen!”

When it comes to the Christian faith, there is no doctrine more important than the resurrection of Jesus. Biblical faith is not simply centered in ethical and religious teachings. Instead, it is founded on the person and work of Jesus. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, we as His followers are still dead in our sins (1 Cor.15:7). Explanations try to show how something happened. That is, what is the cause for something that has happened. As I have noted elsewhere, the resurrection story started very, very, early. Also, there is an excellent post on the empty tomb issue over at Wintery Knight’s blog.

Anyway, let’s take a look at what explains the resurrection appearances. First, let’s observe the list of appearances:

• Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, shortly after his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18)
• Jesus appears to the women returning from the empty tomb (Matthew 28:8-10)
• Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12,13; Luke 24:13-35)
• Jesus appears to Peter ( Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5)
• Jesus appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. (Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23).
• Jesus again appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. At this time Thomas is present (John 20:24-29).
• Jesus appears to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 28:16; John 21:1,2)
• Jesus is seen by 500 believers at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6)
• Jesus appears to James ( 1 Corinthians 15:7)
• Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).
• He appeared to his disciples (Luke 24:50-53).
• He appeared to Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:8).

I will go ahead and offer some comments from various scholars and what they say about the appearances and the experiences of the disciples:

E.P. Sanders:

That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it.”[1]

Bart Ehrman:

It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.[2]

Ehrman also says:

We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.[3]

 Ehrman also goes onto say:  

 Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record.[4]

Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19).[5]

Reginald Fuller:

The disciples thought that they had witnessed Jesus’ appearances, which, however they are explained, “is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree.[6]

Fuller goes onto say:

Even the most skeptical historian” must do one more thing: “postulate some other event” that is not the disciples’ faith, but the reason for their faith, in order to account for their experiences.  Of course, both natural and supernatural options have been proposed. [7]

What did the disciples see? Let’s now look at some of the comments by how some scholars account for the appearances:

Marcus Borg

The historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death. In the early Christian community, these experiences included visions or apparitions of Jesus. [8]

Rudolph Bultmann

The real Easter faith is faith in the word of preaching which brings illumination. If the event of Easter is in any sense in historical event additional to the event of the Cross, it is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord, since is was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is that the first disciples came to believe the resurrection.[9]

John Dominic Crossan

When the evangelists spoke about the resurrection of Jesus, they told stories about apparitions or visions. People have visions…. there is nothing impossible about that. But were these post-resurrection stories accounts of historical visions or apparitions? What sort of narratives were they? Were they histories or parables? [10]

Gerd Lüdemann

At the heart of the Christian religion lies a vision described in Greek by Paul as ōphthē—-“he was seen.” And Paul himself, who claims to have witnessed an appearance asserted repeatedly “I have seen the Lord.” So Paul is the main source of the thesis that a vision is the origin of the belief in resurrection….When we talk about visions, we must include something that we experience every night when we dream. That’s our subconscious was of dealing with reality. A vision of that sort was at the heart of the Christian religion; and that vision, reinforced by enthusiasm, was contagious and led to many more visions, until we have an appearance to more than five hundred people. [11]

So having read these comments, keep in mind that several early followers of Jesus certainly did experience supernatural visions such as Stephen (Acts 7:55–56), Peter (see Acts 10), see Paul (Acts 16:8; 18;9).  Remember, a subjective vision is a specific type of dream or hallucination in that it has a religious subject. Nevertheless, it is still simply “a product of our minds and has no cause or reality outside of our mind (see Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), pp. 111–112.

Ehrman has released another book on Christology.

In the book  he devotes two chapters to the resurrection. He tends to lean on the Lüdemann hypothesis that the disciples had visionary experiences. In it he says:

It is undisputable that some of the followers of Jesus came to think that he had been raised from the dead, and that something had to have happened to make them think so. Our earliest records are consistent on this point, and I think they provide us with the historically reliable information in one key aspect: the disciples’ belief in the resurrection was based on visionary experiences. I should stress it was visions, and nothing else, that led to the first disciples to believe in the resurrection. -Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: Harper One, 2014),  183-184.

So here Ehrman sides with the visionary language that Crossan, Borg and Lüdemann use. The good news is that Ehrman goes onto to define what he means by “visions” of Jesus. He describes visions as something that are either “veridical” or “nonveridical.”  Veridical visions means people tend to see things that are really there while nonveridical visions the opposite-what a person sees is not based any kind of external reality.  It is the latter that leads to what is called the hallucination hypothesis. In other words, skeptics assert that nonveridical visions can be attributed to some sort of psychological explanation. Ehrman then punts to his agnosticism again and says he doesn’t care if the appearances can be attributed to either “veridical” or “nonveridical” visionary experiences or anything else. This is rather confusing in that Ehrman first says it is visions that can explain the resurrection appearances. Given Ehrman and others like Lüdemann punt to the vision hypothesis, Bryan goes on to say the following about the quotes from Bultmann, Borg, and Crossan.

In his book The Resurrection of the Messiah, Christopher Bryan responds to Lüdemann:

One may grant that such visions as Lüdemann describes were common in antiquity and are so still—I  will confess to having had two such experiences myself. Yet however common such visions may have been or are (and in sense, the commoner they were or are, the stronger this objection becomes) neither in antiquity nor in the present are they normally regarded as evidence of resurrection. On the contrary they are taken to be at worst hallucinations, and at best (as I take them to be) genuine communications of the comfort about the departed from beyond the grave. But in neither case are they considered to be declarations that the departed one has risen from the dead. That, however, is what the texts claim about Jesus. That is what Peter and Paul actually do say. Why do they do that? Lüdemann’s hypothesis leaves that question unanswered. Hence, it does not explain what Ludemann himself says needs to be explained. [12]

Bryan goes on to say the following about the quotes from Bultmann, Borg, and Crossan:

If the experience of the first Christians was the kind of experience that Bultmann, Borg, and Crossan suggest—visionary and internal, simply the conversion of their hearts to God’s truth and the real meaning of Jesus life and death—then why on earth did they not say so? The language to describe such experiences was clearly available, so why did the first Christians not use it? Why did they choose instead to use the language of resurrection, words such as egeiro and anistemi, words which, we have noted, were normally used in quite different connections and whose use here was therefore inviting misunderstanding of experiences that would, in fact, have been perfectly acceptable to many in the ancient world who found resurrection ridiculous?”  Why did the first Christians bring “resurrection” into their proclamation at all (other than future open)—unless they genuinely believed that something had happened that could be only be spoken of in this way? [13]

Building on what Bryan says, Peter Walker says:

“Resurrection” (anastasia) in Greek was a word which has already developed a  clear meaning. It referred to a physical raising back to life within this world of those whom God chose –“the resurrection of the just” “on the last day” (cf. Matthew 22:28; John 11:24). So when the disciples claimed Resurrection for Jesus, they were claiming that God  had done for one man what they were expecting him to do for all his faithful people at the end of time (what Paul refers to as the “hope” of Israel [Acts 23;26:6]. If they had meant merely that Jesus was a good fellow who did not deserve  to die and whose effect on people would surely continue beyond his  death, they would have used some other word. They would not have dared to use this word, which meant one thing and only one thing—God’s act of raising from physical death. That is what they meant. And that is what they would have been heard  to mean. [14]

Furthermore, the use of the word “ōphthē” (the Greek word for appeared) shows the Gospel writers did believe that Jesus appeared physically. “There you will see ( ōphthē) him” (Matt. 28:7); “The Lord has risen and has appeared (ōphthē) to Simon” (Luke 24:24). When they used “ōphthē” here, it means that He appeared physically to them. So when Paul gives his list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, the issue becomes whether the appearance to him is the same as it was to the disciples. Bryan says:

There is no indication that he wants  to regard the last item in that series as essentially different from the others. Second, he uses the word “ ōphthē” of the appearances to himself as he uses of the appearances to the others. He regards it as the same kind.  He saw the risen Lord as they did.  There is no doubt the post resurrection body of Jesus (after the ascension) had to be somewhat different than the body the disciples saw. [15]

So in other words, Paul employs the same Greek verb as the tradition, (“he was seen”), to describe his personal experience of the risen Christ.  Hence, Paul’s experience was the same in character as that of the preceding disciples. To see more, see our post called “What Did Paul See?”

Let’s return to Bryan’s comment: “Why did the first Christians bring “resurrection” into their proclamation at all (other than future open)—unless they genuinely believed that something had happened that could be only be spoken of in this way?”

Were there other options on the table other than “resurrection”? Let’s look at some of them:


We just saw some like Borg and Crossan postulate the possibility of apparitions or visions. Apparitions is a word used for visual, paranormal related manifestations of deceased loved ones. People in the ancient world as well were familiar with apparitions. Therefore, the witnesses to the resurrection could of described the appearances of Jesus as apparitions. Most of this is discussed in Dale C. Allision’s Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters. As far as apparitions Allison says, “I am sure that the disciples saw Jesus after his death. [16] But he concludes that the apparitions of the dead do not explain completely these appearances.[17] He goes onto say: “Typical encounters with the recently deceased do not issue in claims about an empty tomb, nor do they lead to the founding of a new religion. And they certainly do not typically eat and drink, and they are not seen by crowds of up to five hundred people.” [18]

Ironically, Crosssan says in his book with Jonathan Reed that resurrection is not the same thing as apparitions. They say:

Resurrection is not the same thing as apparition. The question is not whether apparitions or visions occur or how they are to be explained. The ancient world assumed their possibility; for example the slain Hector appears to Anchises at the end of the Trojan War and the start of Virgil’s Aenied. The modern world does too; for example, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders-IV judges them not as mental disorders but as common characteristics of uncomplicated grief. That might be especially so, then and now, after the sudden, tragic , or terrible death or disappearance of a beloved person. Even if, therefore, no Christian texts had mentioned apparitions or visions of Jesus after his crucifixion, we could have safely postulated their occurrence. But, and this is not the point, apparition is not the same as resurrection or anything like enough to invoke its presence. (19)


Translation is seen in Elijah and Enoch –they did not die, but were simply  translated to heaven (2 Kings 2:11; Genesis 5:24).  Jews were no doubt familiar with the translation stories. Also, within the extra-canonical Jewish writing called Testament of Job 40, an account of translation was given as a category to describe recently deceased people as well as to the living. Translation is defined as the bodily assumption of someone out of this world into heaven. But the witnesses to the resurrection didn’t utilize the translation category. Once again, Cross and Reed agree that Resurrection isn’t the same thing as exaltation. They say:

Resurrection is not the same as exaltation. Within Jewish tradition, certainly very holy persons were taken up to God rather than being consigned to an earthly tomb, for example, Enoch from among the Patriarchs or Elijah form among the prophets. The Greco Roman equivalent was apotheosis; for example, Augustan coins showed Julius Caesar’s spirit ascending like an upward shooting star to take its place among the heavenly divinities. Those were uniquely individual cases and had no relationship to the fate of others. If one wanted to say that about Jesus, the proper terms were exaltation, ascension, apotheosis, not resurrection. Put  another way, with regard to Jesus, you could not have resurrection without exaltation, but you could have  exaltation without resurrection. Jesus could be at the right hand of God without ever mentioning resurrection. (20)

On top of these comments, it should be noted that within the Jewish martyrdom tradition in 2 Maccabees 7 it tells the story of  the torture and execution of the seven brothers, who refuse to violate the Torah.  One of the brothers says to Antiochus, “The King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (v. 9). Another brother warns the tyrant, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life” (v. 14).  In this case, we see that their martyrdom should lead to their exaltation. Thus, the Jewish martyrs in 2 Macc 7 believed they would be raised on the last day when God came. However, Jesus predicted His imminent death and resurrection, ahead of the general resurrection. This is unique. Also,  Paul said “Christ is the first fruits of those who sleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Hence, Jesus was not another Jewish martyr who had been vindicated by God. Instead, His resurrection was the first of its kind.

Immortality of the Soul

Paul nor the other witnesses refer to the resurrection of Jesus as immortality of the soul. And if Paul and others were trying to attract non Jews to the Jesus movement, it would have been pointless to push a material resurrection on them.  As Ben Witherington says:

It is sometimes claimed that the stress on the physicality of the resurrection of Jesus is pure apologetics. I have always been mystified by this claim. If the gospels were written in the last third of the first century, when the church not only had a viable Gentile mission but also was already well on the way to being a largely Gentile community, why would a community trying to attract Gentiles make up a resurrection story, much less emphasize the material resurrection of Jesus? This notion was not a regular part of the pagan lexicon of the afterlife at all, as even a cursory study of the relevant passages in the Greek and Latin classics shows. Indeed, as Acts 17 suggests, pagans were more likely than not to ridicule such an idea. I can understand the apologetic theory if, and only if, the Gospels were directed largely to Pharisaic Jews or their sympathizers. I know of no scholar, however, who has argued such a case.[21]


I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence . . . Is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another. . . . In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted, but encouraged.”–Atheist Richard Carrier―The Spiritual Body of Christ‖ in Empty Tomb, pg. 184.

To posit the hallucination hypothesis, this puts us back to something like the apparition category. As N.T Wright says:

Everybody knew about ghosts, spirits, visions, hallucinations, and so on. Most people in the ancient world believed in some such things. They were quite clear that that wasn’t what they meant by resurrection. While Herod reportedly thought Jesus might be John the Baptist raised from the dead, he didn’t think he was a ghost. Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense. An important conclusion follows from all this, before we look at the Jewish material. When the early Christians said that Jesus had risen from the dead, they knew they were saying that something had happened to him that had happened to nobody else and that nobody had expected to happen. They were not talking about Jesus’s soul going into heavenly bliss. Nor were they saying, confusedly, that Jesus had now become divine. That is simply not what the words meant; there was no implicit connection for either Jews or pagans between resurrection and divinization.  (22)


Also, remember that resurrection is not the same thing as resuscitation. As Crossan and Reed say:

It did not mean that an almost revived Jesus had been revived once taken down from the cross. Individuals could survive an interrupted crucifixion, as Josephus mentions in his Life. He begged Titus for three acquaintances already on crosses after the destruction of Jerusalem , in 70 C.E. and, although, “two of them died in the physicians hands, the third survived.” (421). So also could criminals hung by strangulation be taken down from London’s eighteenth century Tyburn Tree and resuscitated (“resurrected” as they put it). But the Christian traditions’ on “after three days” or “on the third day” is its way of emphasizing that Jesus was really and truly dead. Only a visit to the tomb after such an initial period could certify the person was actually dead. That is why in John 11:17 notes that ‘when Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.” He was, in other words, certainly and securely dead. (23)

 Back to Resurrection

It seems that no matter how hard scholars or skeptics punt to subjective visions, apparitions, or hallucinations, the real question at hand is why the early Jesus movement stuck with the resurrection category.  Perhaps they stuck  with “resurrection” because that is exactly what happened  to Jesus!  (John 11:25). As Crossan and Reed say,

To say Jesus had been raised from the dead was to assert that the general resurrection had begun. Only for such an assertion was “resurrection’ or “raised from the dead” the proper terminology. The general resurrection was, it were, the grand finale of apocalypse, the final moment when a god of justice publicly and visibly justified the world, turned it from a  place of evil and violence to one of goodness and peace. To announce the resurrection of Jesus was to claim such an event had already started. (24)

One final thought: The lesson here is to try to attempt to understand the context of the resurrection claim. If we actually attempt to do this, false analogies like Big Foot, Elvis, and UFO sightings will begin to look incredibly silly!

Also, see our post Answering 15 Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus


[1] E.P. Sanders , The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993),  279-280.

[2] Bart Ehrman,  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, (Third  Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 276.

 [3] Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University, 1999), 230

 (4] Ibid, 231.

 [5] Ehrman,  The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 282.

 [6] Reginald  Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology (New York: Scribner’s, 1965), 142.

[7] Reginald Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: Macmillan, 1980),

[8] Ibid, 2, 169, 181.

 [9]  Rudolph Bultmann, “The New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (London: S.P.C.K, 1953-62), 38, 42.

 [10] John Dominic Crossan, A Long Way from Tipperary: A Memoir (San Francisco: HarperSanFransisco, 2000), 164-165.

[11] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM, 1994 (1994), 97, 100.

[12] Christopher Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford University Press, USA, 2011), 163-164.

[13] Ibid, 169-170.

 [14] P.W. Walker, The Weekend That Changed the World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 63.

 [15] Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah, 53.

 [16] Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 283-284.

 [17] Ibid.

 [18] Ibid.

19. J.D. Crossan & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts 9New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 259-260.

20. Crossan and Reed, 259-260.

21. Ben Witherington III. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001, 165.

22. N. T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 62.

23. Crossan and Reed, 260-261.


A Hypothetical Discussion Between a Skeptic and a Christian about the Minimal Facts Argument

The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by [Habermas, Gary R., Licona, Michael R.]

This is a hypothetical discussion based on a discussion of the Minimal Facts argument that has been put forward in the book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona and Gary Habermas.

Please note I have already discussed this topic a bit in a post called The Metaphysical Hurdle and The Minimal Facts Argument.


Please note that while I have had similar discussions on this topic on college campuses,  I am well a skeptic could bring up all kinds of issues other than the ones discussed here. That’s why it is called a “hypothetical” discussion.  Other issues can come up that are discussed in our 16 objections to the resurrection of Jesus post. Also, see our clip here:

Also note our chart here:

A Hypothetical Discussion:

Professing Christian: “Do you agree that if God wants humanity to know his plans and purposes for them, it makes sense He would communicate to us somewhere within the context human history?”

Skeptic: “Yes, I think that does make sense. But where in history has he done this?”

Professing Christian:  “He has communicated to us through the work of Jesus of Nazareth. Our central claim is that he rose from the dead to confirm He is the full revelation of God to humanity.”

Skeptic: “What’s your evidence Jesus rose from the dead?”

Professing Christian: “Have you ever considered what is called the “Minimal Facts Argument”

Skeptic: “No, I’ve never heard of it.”

Professing Christian:  “There are certain aspects of the resurrection of Jesus that many critical scholars agree on. This includes atheists and historians who are not Orthodox Christians etc.”

Skeptic: “Are you saying just because a bunch of scholars agree on these things, that I should just accept it. That seems like an appeal to an authority.”

Professing Christian: “Do you think that majority of scientists accept the Neo-Darwinian model is an appeal to an authority?”

Skeptic: “Well, I guess not. The reason they accept it is because there is strong evidence for the Neo-Darwinian model.”

Professing Christian: “Okay, well we can debate the evidence for the Neo-Darwinian model another time. But for now, may I show you the evidence for the minimal facts argument.”

Skeptic: “Okay, I am willing to listen.”

Professing Christian: “Okay, here are the minimal facts”

Minimal Fact #1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion

“One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.” Bart Ehrman (Agnostic)  [1]

“Jesus’s death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Yeshua had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.” John Dominic Crossan [2]

“The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward. It need not be discussed further here.” Gerd  Lüdemann (Atheist) [3]

Skeptic: “Okay, so I see agnostic scholars think Jesuswas crucified. But why are they so sure of their position?”

Professing Christian:  “Historians like numerous and early sources to be extensive in scope. In an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each other’s had to say, at least on the major points if not all the details. Let’s look at the sources for the crucifixion of Jesus.”

  1. All four Gospels (written before the first century) say Jesus was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate. The gospels are not always independent of each other. Matthew and Luke, for example, are likely dependent on Mark. To see evidence for the Gospels, see here: To see evidence for the Pilate Inscription, click here: 
  2. Paul’s Letters (written from AD 48 to AD 64) speaks of the death of Jesus  and that He was crucified (1 Corinthians 1:13, 23, 2:2, 8, 2 Corinthians 13:4, Galatians 3:1, Philippians 2:8 Romans 5:6, 8, 106:3, 5, 9-10, 8:34, 14:9 15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 11: 26, 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Galatians 2:21 Philippians 2:8, 3:10, Colossians 1:22, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 5:10). There is little doubt that Paul authored Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon—the “undisputed” epistles. To see evidence for the reliability of Paul’s Letters, see the section with the heading Paul and the Earliest Records for the Jesus Story
  3. The Book of Acts (dated 62-65 AD): Jesus  was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23) and that He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:2). To see materials on the reliability of Acts, see the heading,  Reliability of the Gospels: Canon Issue/The Book of Acts.
  4. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was employed by the Romans and wrote during the time of Christ. He would write, “When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified . . .” (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63–64. 10.). To see common objections to Josephus, click here: 
  5. Tacitus, who is generally regarded as the greatest of the Roman historians. He was the proconsul of Asia from AD 112 to 113. His last work, The Annals, was written circa AD 116–117 and included, “Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). To see common objections to Tacitus, click here: 
  6. Roman source Lucian: He was a second-century playwright who wrote, “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.” (Lucian of Samosata, The Works of Lucian of Samosata, trans. H. W. Fowler (, 472.
  7. The collection of Jewish teaching known as the Talmud reports that “on the eve of the Passover, Yeshua was hanged.” Yeshua is “Joshua” in Hebrew (translated “Yeshua” in Greek). Being hung on a tree was used to describe crucifixion in antiquity. ( Jacob Neusner, trans. The Talmud of Babylonia: Sanhedrin).
  8. The apologetic work called Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (2nd century): Justin Martyr, the Palestinian Christian debates Trypho the Jew. Trypho is not persuaded Jesus is the Messiah. In one part of this work, He replies:“It has indeed been proved sufficiently by your Scriptural quotations that it was predicted in the Scriptures that Christ should suffer. . . . But what we want you to prove to us is that he was to be crucified and be subjected to so disgraceful and shameful a death. . . . We find it impossible to think this could be so.” [4]

NOTE: For an evaluation for sources for Jesus outside the NT, see R. V. Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Studying the Historical Jesus) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament ( London: Hodder & Stoughton Religious, 1984); G.A. Boyd and P. R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case for The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).

Minimal Fact #2 “The birth of the early Christian/Jesus movement wouldn’t exist without the resurrection of Jesus.”

Professing Christian: “You know it is highly improbable that any Jewish person would have kept following Jesus and spread his message if Jesus had only died by Roman crucifixion.”

Skeptic: “What do you mean?”

Professing Christian: “Jewish people knew from their own writings that anyone what was crucified and left hanging on a Roman crucifixion stake was considered to be cursed by God. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 gives specific instructions concerning one who has been executed on account of a capital offense:

“If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”

In the context of the covenant of Israel, the Near Eastern pattern was of both blessing and curse.  The blessing was for those who obeyed the stipulations of the covenant:

“Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the LORD your God” (Deut. 28:1-2).

For a Jewish person, to be blessed was to be in the presence of God, enjoying His presence and all the benefits it entailed. The blessing was to experience God’s shalom in one’s life. In contrast to blessing, the curse was upon those who violated the stipulations of the covenant. So, for them, for Jesus to be crucified was not something that would motivate them to follow him.

Furthermore, it has been documented that Jewish people who led messianic revolts such as Judas the Galilean, Simon, Athronges, Eleazar ben Deinaus and Alexander, Menahem, Simon bar Giora, and bar-Kochba were all defeated. [5] Faced with the defeat of their leader, followers of such figures would either be rounded up as well or melt away into the undergrowth. So if Jesus  only died, why would any Jewish person in the first century continue to follow him?” N.T. Wright says the following:

If your Messiah is killed, you conclude that he was not the Messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family (But note: Nobody ever said that James, the brother of Yeshua, was the Messiah.) Such groups did not go around saying that their Messiah had been raised from the dead. What is more, I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless they were telling the truth. [6]

Minimal Fact #3: “Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus  had been resurrected and had appeared to them.”

Let’s observe the list of appearances:

  1. Jesus  appears to Mary Magdalene (Matthew 28:1-10; John 20:14-18)
  2. Jesus appears to several female disciples (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11)
  3.  Jesus  appears to Simon Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5; John 21:1-24)
  4. Jesus appears to James, John, Thomas, Nathaniel, and two others (John 21:1-24)
  5. Jesus  appears to the eleven disciples as a group (Matthew 28:16-20; John 20:19-29)
  6. Jesus  appears to Cleopas and one unnamed disciple (Luke 24:13-35)
  7. Jesus appears to more than five hundred “brothers” at once (1 Corinthians 15:6)
  8. Jesus appears to James (a.k.a. “the Lord’s brother”) (1 Corinthians 15:7; compare Galatians 2:19)
  9. Jesus  appears to Saul of Tarsus (a.k.a. Paul) (1 Corinthians 15:8).

Let’s look at what moderate and even agnostic scholars say about the resurrection appearances:

That Jesus’s followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. [7] —E.P. Sanders, New Testament Scholar and Former Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke University

It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death.  Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus , not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.[8] — Bart Ehrman, New Testament Scholar and James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ehrman goes onto say:

We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.[9]

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’s resurrection, since this is a matter of public record.[10]

Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this.[11]

It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ. It seems to be historically certain that Mary Magdalene experienced an appearance of the risen Jesus. The only thing we can certainly say to be historical is that there were resurrection appearances in Galilee (and in Jerusalem) soon after Jesus’ death. These appearances cannot be denied. But did the Risen Jesus in fact reveal himself in them? [12] —Atheist Gerd Lüdemann, Chair of History and Literature of Early Christianity at University of Göttingen

I know in their own terms, what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Yeshua. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know as an historian, that they must have seen something. The disciples’ conviction that they had seen the risen Christ, their relocation to Jerusalem, their principled inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles – all these are historical bedrock, facts known past doubting about the earliest community after Jesus’ death.[13] —Paula Fredrickson, Historian and Scholar of Religious Studies, William Goodwin Aurelio Chair Emerita of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

The disciples thought that they had witnessed Jesus’ appearances, which, however they are explained, “is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree. [14] Even the most skeptical historian” must do one more thing: “postulate some other event” that is not the disciples’ faith, but the reason for their faith, in order to account for their experiences.  Of course, both natural and supernatural options have been proposed. [15] –— Reginald Fuller, Former Biblical Scholar and Professor Emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary

 Skeptic: “Okay, so a lot of scholars agree the disciples had experiences that they perceived as the risen Jesus. But why do they all believe this? Do they believe this just because it is recorded in the NT?”

Professing Christian:  “Well, first, it is recorded very early. 1 Cor 15:3-8 contains a creed that is probably one of the earliest records we have of the resurrection appearances.

Here it is:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Cor. 15:3-8).

Paul says the information about the resurrection was something he “received.”  While the word “received” can also be used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine, it also means “to receive from another.” One of the clues as to where Paul got his information, is that, within the creed, he calls Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. Hence, it seems likely that he received this information in either Galilee or Judea, one of the two places where people spoke Aramaic. Therefore, Paul possibly received the oral history of 1 Cor. 15:3-7 during his visit to Jerusalem.

In Galatians 1:18 Paul says, “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.1 Cor 15: 3-8 is dated 50-55 A.D. But Paul received this information at an earlier date.” To see more about the early creed, see here: 

“Second, the reason these scholars think the disciples all had these experiences that they perceived as the resurrected Jesus  is because they proclaimed it and were at least willing to be martyred for it. People lie for three reasons: 1) Money, 2) Sex, 3) Power. Do you see any evidence that the disciples, or apostles were motivated to lie for these three reasons?

Third, remember, historians want to know not only what happened, but what caused it to happen. In other words, historians look for cause and effect. In this case, they look for the cause of the early Christian movement in the first century. We already discussed the challenge of a crucified messiah. The resurrection appearances help explain why the disciples/Apostles continued to follow Jesus after he died.

 Minimal Fact #4 “Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul, was a harsh opponent of the early Jesus movement. But he was transformed into a defender of the faith after he believed he encountered the risen Jesus.”

 “There is no doubt that [Paul] believed that he saw Jesus’ real but glorified body raised from the dead.” – Bart Ehrman, (see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 301)

  1.   Paul saw a blinding light (Acts 9:3; 22:6; 26:13; cf. 2 Cor 4:6), but equally he saw the just One and heard the voice from his mouth (Acts 22:14; cf. 1 Cor 9:1); “the Lord Jesus … appeared to [Paul] on the road” (Acts 9:17; cf. 1 Cor 15:8).
  2. There was no greater enemy to the young movement than him. For Paul, the crucified Jesus  was “accursed” (by God). When Paul knew of the messianic claims the disciples were making about Jesus, he must have immediately reached an opposite conclusion, that he was a false messiah. Imagine someone like Richard Dawkins coming to faith and becoming a champion for Jesus.
  3. Paul interacts with eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus and pass their testimonies on to us (1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1 and 2). He described how he met James, the brother of Jesus – John; and Peter, where “I presented to them the gospel that I preach” (Galatians 2:2)
  4. Paul was willing to suffer and die for the movement he had previously persecuted. He was martyred by Nero in AD 64. Imagine Saul, a Roman citizen, willfully submitting to forgo an advantage that status gave him and volunteering to suffer the ultimate punishment of the death penalty all because he refused to deny that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead and, therefore, the promised Messiah. “This point is well documented, reported by Paul himself, as well as Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth, and Origen. Also, see the post, “What did Paul See?” 

    Skeptic: “Wait a minute. So what’s the big deal about Paul?  Don’t people change their beliefs all the time?”

Christian: “Yes, people do switch beliefs. But Paul became a follower of Jesus based on his own testimony of encountering the risen Jesus. Two passages in 1 Corinthians are connected and are to be read together. “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (1 Cor. 9:1) and “Last of all, as to one untimely born he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Cor 15:8-9).  Paul implies a sequence of events: first he persecuted the church of God; then he saw the risen Lord; then he became and is the apostle who, along with other apostles, preaches the crucified, buried, and raised-up Christ (cf. 15:11). Also, see the article, The Resurrection of Jesus: a Clinical Review of Psychiatric Hypotheses for the Biblical Story of Easter Joseph W. Bergeron, M.D. and Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D.

What is the Best Explanation for these Minimal Facts?

Skeptic: Okay, well these minimal facts seem to be strong. But none of us were there. Hence, we can’t be sure about what really happened.”

Christian: “Do you know the difference between direct and circumstantial or indirect evidence?”

  1. Direct evidence: Evidence that is simply unavailable to those of us who are studying historical events in the Bible: This is called “direct evidence.” We were not present to directly witness the events in the Bible.
  2. Almost all of historical evidence, science, as well as cold case investigations are built on “circumstantial or indirect evidence.”

Also, we must utilize what is called “Inference to the most reasonable explanation” (Abduction)

  1. Inference refers to the process of collecting data and then drawing conclusions on the basis of this evidence.
  2. We compare the evidence to the potential explanations and determined which explanation was, in fact, the most reasonable inference in light of the evidence.
  3. The best explanation will cover all the data.

 Potential Explanations other than the Resurrection Explanation:

  1. Remember, whatever someone proposes as an alternative explanation, it has to be able to adequately explain all the minimal facts (i.e., the death of Jesus the birth of the Jesus movement, the experiences of the disciples with the risen Jesus, Paul coming to faith, etc).
  2. Explanations can’t be ad hoc: People make up explanations, despite the fact that we have no real evidence for what they are making up. Remember, an assertion is the act of asserting something without evidence. Evidence is facts or observations presented in support of an assertion.
  3. Examples of assertions: “Aliens raised Jesus  from the dead.” “Maybe the disciples ate some bad mushrooms and freaked out.”
  4. Also, to say ‘well this is a possibility” and ” this could be a possibility” really doesn’t help at all. Possibilities need to be backed up by first century evidence. And what is possible  to believe is not always probable and reasonable. Staying in the land of possibilities is the same thing as saying “I will stay agnostic because I don’t have to commit.”

[1]. B. Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford: 2008), 261-262

[2].  John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper Collins. 1991), 145

[3].  Gerd Lüdemann,, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004), 50.

[4]. S. J. Martyr, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Thomas B. Falls (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc., 1949), 208, 291.

[5]. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 110. An extensive consideration of all these figures is given in. Wright’s book The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1992), 1:170-81

[6]. Robert  B.Stewart, The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2006), 71.

[7].  E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books. 1993), 279-280.

[8]. B. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University. 1999), 231.

[9]. Ibid, 230.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. B. Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2009), 177.

[12]. G. Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent: Westminster John Knox. 1995), 8.

[13]. Fredriksen’s comments came during an interview with the late ABC journalist Peter Jennings for his documentary The Search for Yeshua, which first aired in July 2000. Emphasis added.

[14]. R. Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology (New York: Scribner’s, 1965), 142

[15]. R. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: Macmillan. 1980), 181.



The Resurrection of Jesus and the Cognitive Dissonance Hypothesis

Cognitive Dissonance is all the rage these days. In other words, more and more skeptics are trying to postulate that the birth of the Jesus movement is the result of cognitive dissonance. As N.T Wright says:

“One theory which would go against this conclusion [that the rise of Christianity is best explained by Jesus’ bodily resurrection] was very popular a few years ago but is now widely discredited. Some sociologists suggested that the disciples had been suffering from ‘cognitive dissonance’, the phenomenon whereby people who believe something strongly go on saying it all the more shrilly when faced with contrary evidence. Failing to take the negative signs on board, they go deeper and deeper into denial, and can only sustain their position by shouting louder and trying to persuade others to join them. Whatever the likely occurrence of this in other circumstances, there is simply no chance of it being the right explanation for the rise of the early church. Nobody was expecting anyone, least of all a Messiah, to rise from the dead. A crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah. When Simeon ben Koshiba was killed by the Romans in AD 135, nobody went around afterwards saying he really was the Messiah after all, however much they had wanted to believe that he had been. God’s kingdom was something that had to happen in real life, not in some fantasy-land.

Nor was it the case, as some writers are fond of saying, that the idea of ‘resurrection’ was found in religions all over the ancient Near East. Dying and rising ‘gods’, yes; corn-kings, fertility deities, and the like. But – even supposing Jesus’ very Jewish followers knew any traditions like that – nobody in those religions ever supposed it actually happened to individual humans. No. The best explanation by far for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus really did reappear, not as a battered, bleeding survivor, not as a ghost (the stories are very clear about that), but as a living, bodily human being”-From Tom Wright’s ‘Simply Christian’, p.96-97

Despite Wright’s comments about the cognitive dissonance theory, it is no surprise that it still seems to be quite popular in skeptical circles.

We see the following features of this theory:

  1. The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance begins with an expectation (arising out of a deep longing or yearning) for some particular state of affairs that is followed by a disappointment of that expectation.
  2. The group cannot reconcile itself to the fact that its deepest yearning has been disappointed, and so it perpetuates a state of denial that then provokes it to reorganize its view of reality to conform to this denied state of affairs.
  3. Suppose the early disciples experienced cognitive dissonance; that is, they really wanted Jesus  to be the Messiah, and they were very disappointed when Jesus was crucified.
  4. Being unable to reconcile themselves to this fact, they reorganized their reality to resolve their dissonance and disappointment by projecting His resurrection into their reality. They further reinforced their perspective by adding converts to their ranks. (see R.J. Spitzer, God So Loved The World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus: Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence-Book 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2016), 171-172.

Thus, what we see here is that since there was no real, physical, raised Jesus, and out of their deep longing for Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, the disciples created the resurrection appearances stories out of their need to help them cope with their disappointment. There is no doubt this takes us right back to the problems with the false testimonies and hallucination hypothesis. There is also a reply to William Lane Craig’s podcast to the cognitive dissonance topic on Infidel’s website called The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins: A Cordial Reply to Dr. William Craig. After reading the response to Craig (feel free to read it), my thoughts are the following:

1.The resurrection claim was very, very, early. It was something proclaimed from the very start. Therefore, if the disciples/Paul invented the resurrection story (based on a cognitive dissonance issue), they did it from the very start. It was not something invented much later.

2.To posit any kind of cognitive dissonance explanation, we are back to some sort of conspiracy theory. In other words, Jesus did not really (literally) rise from the dead in a physical body. The disciples must have made up the appearance accounts because they were faced with contrary evidence. But what is the contrary evidence? Jesus was really still dead in a tomb since his body was somewhere else? This puts us back to the problem of why the Jewish leadership or the Roman leadership would not have known where the body was. Or, why would the disciples hide the body and then say Jesus has risen. Furthermore, to cope with their disappointment, why did the say “Jesus is risen.” They had other categories to chose from.

3. The cognitive dissonance explanation would still need to explain the various mutations that took place. 

I find it interesting that many New Testament scholars/historians agree that the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

Allow me to mention a few quotes here:

“We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg 230).

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” (E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280)

“That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever can agree.” (Reginald H. Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology, 142)

Therefore, the cognitive dissonance theory has to rely on the hallucination hypothesis.But this has problems and has been dealt with elsewhere.

Or, see N.T. Wright’s 3 part series on this topic:
Part One: 
Part Two:
Part Three:

3.The cognitive dissonance hypothesis would have to posit an adequate explanation for the resurrection category itself. I talk more about this here.

4. To posit a cognitive dissonance hypothesis, one must assume in order to deal with the contrary evidence (Jesus was dead), they also made up something else that was radically different: a Messiah that was divine. The birth of the Jesus movement and the birth of Christology are inseparable. Paul’s Letters are the earliest records we have about Christology and it is here we see that that the earliest Christology was something from the start. It was not something that evolved over time. And the Christology we see did not stem from the disciples flirtation with religious syncretism, Hellenism, or Polytheism. It is true Jews don’t follow a dead Messiah (as mentioned in the Infidels article). However, is it true the followers of Jesus really punted to some sort of cognitive dissonance?

If we read the Gospels, we see the case for Jesus being divine even before he was crucified. It is not as if the disciples were presented with contrary evidence and they created a deified Jesus. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. If this is true, why was Jesus accused of blasphemy?

According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself.

Also, many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2: 1-12). Forgiving sins was something that was designated for God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9) and it was something that was done only in the Temple along with the proper sacrifice. So it can be seen that Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person.

5. The Infidel’s article touched on Jewish messianism. But just because someone leads a messianic revolt does not qualify them as “the Messiah” (notice the capital “M”). Here are some of the figures who claimed royal prerogatives between 4 B.C.E and 68-70 C.E but are not called “the” or “a” Messiah:

1. In Galilee 4 B.C.E.: Judas, son of bandit leader Ezekias (War 2.56;Ant.17.271-72)
2. In Perea 4 B.C.E.: Simon the Herodian slave (War 2.57-59;Ant 17.273-77)
3. In Judea 4 B.C.E.: Athronges, the shepherd (War 2.60-65;Ant 17.278-84)
4. Menahem: grandson of Judas the Galilean (War 2.433-34, 444)
5. Simon, son of Gioras (bar Giora) (War 2.521, 625-54;4.503-10, 529;7.26-36, 154

As far as I know, none of them (as well as the Jewish leader named Bar Kohba) were accused of blasphemy (as Jesus was). By the way, the Sabbatean movement (something mentioned in the Infidels article) is a movement that borrows heavily from the Jesus story (see Boyd/Eddy’s The Jesus Legend, pgs, 154-156). So trying to compare it to the resurrection story is grasping for straws.

I could go on more here. But it seems to me that the cognitive dissonance theory hypothesis turns into a similar argument that we hear when theists are accused of using a “God of the gaps” argument or atheists are accused of using a “nature of the gaps” argument. Hence, we have a gap in our knowledge and look for an explanation. So now it seems we can punt to the “cognitive dissonance of the gaps.” I also should mention that the cognitive dissonance theory has been discussed in detail in Mike Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographal Approach.


Tips in Dealing with Doubt

Whenever I teach an apologetics class, I always clarify the relationship between faith, doubts, and questions. It is important to remember that asking questions about what you believe is not necessarily the same thing as doubt. For example, when I was a new Christian, I had all kinds of questions. And I still have questions to this day. Asking questions is a part of spiritual growth.

Believe it or not, all of us are doubters. You may say “But I believe with all my heart that Jesus is the Lord.” But think about this: Are you skeptical of Islam, Mormonism, Spiritualism, Hinduism, or another belief system? Probably so. In other words, you probably have doubts about the truthfulness of these various faiths. Doubt can be a valuable element in honest, and rational inquiry because it helps prevents us from jumping to conclusions or making commitments to unreliable and untrustworthy sources

Daniel L. Aiken says in Baker’s Evangelical Online Dictionary the following about doubt:

“It is possible to have questions (or doubts) about persons, propositions, or objects. Doubt has been deemed a valuable element in honest, rational inquiry. It prevents us from reaching hasty conclusions or making commitments to unreliable and untrustworthy sources. A suspension of judgment until sufficient inquiry is made and adequate evidence is presented is judged to be admirable. In this light, doubt is not an enemy of faith. This seems to be the attitude of the Bereans in Acts 17:11. Questioning or doubting motivates us to search further and deeper in an understanding of faith. However, doubt in Scripture can be seen to be characteristic of both believers and unbelievers. In believers it is usually a weakness of faith, a wavering in the face of God’s promises. In the unbeliever doubt is virtually synonymous with unbelief. Scripture, as would be expected, does not look at doubt philosophically or epistemologically. Doubt is viewed practically and spiritually as it relates to our trust in the Lord. For this reason, doubt is not deemed as valuable or commendable.”

So having said this, here are some few tips when dealing with doubt.

First, identify the type of doubt.  Second, be honest with God about your doubt. Many of God’s servants have dealt with the same issues for centuries. As far as types of doubt,  perhaps we can ask some questions:

  • It is emotional doubt? Does God’s presence seem to be quite distant at times?
  • Does God seem painfully absent?
  • Is it an unanswered prayer issue?
  • It is factual doubt?

Remember, the following about emotional doubt: In Deut. 6: 4-9, we see who our God is and how we should respond to him. It should be a holistic commitment towards him. We love our God with our emotions, our actions, our entire beings (including our minds).  “Heart” (Heb. lebab/leb, Gk. kardia) occurs over one thousand times in the Bible, making it the most common anthropological term in the Scripture. It denotes a person’s center for both physical and emotional-intellectual-moral activities.

 John Piper says in his essay on Faith and Reason:

Paul said in Ephesians 4:18: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” In other words, at the bottom of human irrationality and spiritual ignorance is hardness of heart. That is, our self-centered hearts distort our reason to the point where we cannot use it to draw true inferences from what is really there. If we don’t want God to be God, our sensory faculties and our rational faculties will not be able to infer that he is God.

In 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul says the mind is “hardened” (epōrōthē). In 1 Timothy 6:5 he calls the mind “depraved” (diephtharmenōn). And in Romans 1:21, he says that thinking has become “futile” (emaraiōthēsan) and “darkened” (eskotisthē) and “foolish” (asunetos) because men “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). In other words, unrighteousness disorders the capacity to see the truth. The corruption of our hearts is the root of our irrationality.

Note: You can download Piper’s book THINK right here.

I bring this up because from a biblical perspective, there is no way to separate our emotions, rational faculties and our wills. Sin has a way of impacting all our being. We have to examine our hearts and ask if the condition of our hearts is tied to our emotional doubts with God.

Remember that when it comes to factual doubt, there is no need for exhaustive knowledgeAs Paul Copan says in his article, How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? A Response to SkepticismBeing less than 100% certain doesn’t mean we can’t truly know. We can have highly plausible or probable knowledge, even if it’s not 100% certain.”

In order for a judgment to belong in the realm of certitude, it must meet the following criteria:

(1)  It cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation

(2) It can’t be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.

Remember, a judgment is subject to doubt if there is any possibility at all (1) of its being challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or (2) of its being criticized on the basis of more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning.

How many of our claims past the test of certitude? Not many! Does this mean we are left to blind faith? No! There are two kinds of defeaters: rationality defeaters (that provide grounds that undermine the rationality of a basing a belief on certain grounds) and knowledge defeaters (that provide grounds that undermine the legitimacy of a claim to knowledge on behalf of a belief based on certain grounds). The two kinds are not mutually exclusive: some defeaters function at both levels, including those that challenge the objective alethic reliability of one’s actual grounds (see Robert C. Koons and George Bealer, Epistemological Objections to Materialism in The Waning of Materialism).

Why do I bring this up? You can read all kinds of arguments on both sides. Both sides will present defeaters. It never ends.So at some point,you will have to get over the need for certitude or exhaustive knowledge.

You can work on your issues of factual doubt and try to answer defeaters. But in the end, you need to ask yourself the question: Am I looking for reasons to leave the Christian faith because there is some sin that’s appealing to me? Or, am I looking to grow more confident in my faith so I can be equipped to share and defend it in the public square? Only God knows the issues of your heart. He can see what’s really going on.

For an in depth treatment of the subject of doubt, see these two free online resources:

Gary Habermas: Dealing with Doubt

Gary Habermas: The Thomas Factor: Using Your Doubts to Draw Closer to God


The Challenge of Islam: Does Early Testimony Matter to Muslims?

Just this past week I had the opportunity to speak to some Muslims about one of the largest differences in our faith and their faith. For Christians, the death and resurrection is central to the Gospel message. After all, the “Kerygma” in the Book of Acts is the Messiah was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23) and that He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:23). But for Muslims, they think Jesus didn’t die. Instead, the early disciples were deceived and Allah delivered Jesus. It says in Sura 4:156-157:

“And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.”

As historians evaluate the sources available for the resurrection of Jesus, a critical question is the dating of the sources. In relation to early testimony, historian David Hacket Fisher says, “An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” (1) In a previous post, I pointed out the earliest record for the death and resurrection of Jesus is 1 Cor. 15:3-8.

Over the years, I have talked to Muslims about this issue. As I just said, Islam states Jesus was never crucified, and therefore, never risen. The Qur’an was written some six hundred years or more after the life of Jesus which makes it a much later source of information than the New Testament. It seems the evidence tells us that the historical content of the Gospel (Jesus’ death and resurrection) was circulating very early among the Christian community. As I just said, historians look for the records that are closest to the date of event. Given the early date of 1 Cor. 15: 3-8 as well as other sources,  it is quite evident that this document is a more reliable resource than the Qur’an.

Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth, took on the Christ-myther issue. It should be no surprise that this book was scolded by many atheists. As I have said before, even though I find Ehrman to be very inconsistent on many issues, I still have respect for him. One part of the book I found rather interesting is the section where Ehrman discusses the kinds of resources historians look for when they are trying to establish the past existence of a person. Let me go over a few of these and see how this criteria helps make a case for Jesus:

First, Ehrman says,

“Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two. The more, obviously the better. If there were only two or two sources you might suspect that the stories were made up. But if there are lots of sources—just as when there are lots of eyewitnesses to a car accident-then it is hard to claim that any of them just happened to make it up.”-pg 40-41

How does this request hold up on what we have for Jesus? Well, we certainly have some early sources (40 to 60 ad) that being Paul’s Letters. Paul’s creed in 1 Cor 15. is a very early creed about the death and resurrection of Jesus. While not extensive in scope, Paul’s Letters mention some historical aspects of the life of Jesus such as:

1. Jesus’ Jewish ancestry (Gal 3:16) 2. Jesus’ Davidic descent (Rom 1:3) 3. Jesus being born of a woman (Gal 4:4) 4. Jesus’ life under the Jewish law (Gal 4:4) 5. Jesus’ Brothers (1 Cor 9:5) 6. Jesus’ 12 Disciples (1 Cor 15: 7) 7. One of whom was named James (1 Cor 15: 7) 8. That some had wives (1 Cor 9: 5) 9. Paul knew Peter and James (Gal 1:18-2:16) 10. Jesus’ poverty ( 2 Cor 8:9) 11. Jesus’ humility ( Phil. 1:5-7) 12. Jesus Meekness and Gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1) 13. Abuse by Others (Rom 15:3) 14. Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11) 15. On paying wages of ministers (1 Cor 9:14) 16. On paying taxes ( Rom 13: 6-7) 17. On the duty to love one’s neighbors (Rom 13: 9) 18. On Jewish ceremonial uncleanliness ( Rom 14: 14) 19. Jesus’ titles to deity ( Rom 1: 3-4; 10:9) 20. On vigilance in view of Jesus’ second coming ( 1 Thess: 4: 15) 21. On the Lord’s Supper ( 1 Cor. 11: 23-25) 22. Jesus’ Sinless Life ( 2 Cor. 5:21) 23. Jesus’ death on a cross ( Rom 4:24; 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor 15: 3) 24. Specifically by crucifixion ( Rom 6: 6; Gal 2:20) 25. By Jewish instigation ( 1Thess. 2:14-15) 26. Jesus’ burial (1 Cor. 15: 4) 27. Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” (1 Cor.15:4) 28. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the apostles ( 1 Cor.15:5-8) 29. And to other eyewitnesses (1 Cor 15:6); and 30. Jesus’ position at God’s right hand ( Rom 8:34). To see common objections to Paul, see our post here.

Let’s look at this point. Ehrman also says:

“Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each other’s had to say, at least on the major points if not all the details.”-pg 41

Do we see this in the Gospels? Mark Roberts mentions this issue in his book Can We Trust the Gospels? Roberts notes a list of some of the details about Jesus’s life and ministry that are found in all four gospels, yes, including John:

• Jesus was a Jewish man.
• Jesus ministered during the time when Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (around A.D. 27 to A.D. 37).
• Jesus had a close connection with John the Baptist, and his ministry superceded that of John.
• John the Baptist was involved with the descent of the Spirit on Jesus.
• Jesus’s ministry took place in Galilee, especially early in his ministry
• Jesus’s ministry concluded in Jerusalem.
• Jesus gathered disciples around him. (This is important, because Jewish teachers in the time of Jesus didn’t recruit their own students, but rather the students came to them.)
• The brothers, Andrew and Simon (Peter), were among Jesus’s first disciples.
• The followers of Jesus referred to him as “rabbi.”
• Jesus taught women, and they were included among the larger group of his followers. (This, by the way, sets Jesus apart from other Jewish teachers of his day.)
• Jesus taught in Jewish synagogues.
• Jesus was popular with the masses.
• At times, however, Jesus left the crowds to be alone.
• Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God (in Matthew, more commonly the “kingdom of heaven”).
• Jesus called people to believe in God and in God’s saving activity.
• The ministry of Jesus involved conflict with supernatural evil powers, including Satan and demons.
• Jesus used the cryptic title “Son of Man” in reference to Himself and in order to explain His mission. (Jesus’s fondness for and use of this title was very unusual in his day, and was not picked up by the early church.)
• Jesus saw his mission as the Son of Man as leading to his death. (This was unprecedented in Judaism. Even among Jesus’s followers it was both unexpected and unwelcome.)
• Jesus, though apparently understanding himself to be Israel’s promised Messiah, was curiously circumspect about this identification. (This is striking, given the early and widespread confession of Christians that Jesus was the Messiah.)
• Jesus did various sorts of miracles, including healings and nature miracles.
• One of Jesus’s miracles involved the multiplication of food so that thousands could eat when they were hungry.
• Jesus even raised the dead.
• The miracles of Jesus were understood as signs of God’s power that pointed to truth beyond the miracle itself.
• Jesus was misunderstood by almost everybody, including his own disciples.
• Jewish opponents of Jesus accused him of being empowered by supernatural evil.
• Jesus experienced conflict with many Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees and ultimately the temple-centered leadership in Jerusalem.
• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that undermined the temple in Jerusalem.
• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that implied He had a unique connection with God.
• Jesus referred to God as Father, thus claiming unusual intimacy with God.
• Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, at the time of Passover, under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. (There are quite a few more details concerning the death of Jesus that are shared by all four gospels.)
• Most of Jesus’s followers either abandoned him or denied him during his crucifixion.
• Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week.

As Roberts notes,

“This is certainly an impressive list of similarities shared by all four gospels. It’s especially significant because I’ve included the Gospel of John here, even though it is the most unusual among the biblical gospels. It shows that John shares with the synoptics the same basic narrative. Thus the four biblical testimonies about Jesus are impressively similar at the core. Because Matthew and Luke used Mark, their witnesses aren’t independent, but they do corroborate Mark’s account. Thus the fact that there are four gospels contributes significantly to our confidence in their historical accuracy.”- pg 100

This last week I showed this picture above to a Muslim.  They said if they agreed that Jesus actually died, they would no longer be a Muslim. So he agreed that he could not accept the facts. So yes, it is sad that I have had very little success when pointing this out to Muslims. But why? The answer is simple: Most Muslims think that Muhammad’s claim that the angel Gabriel visited him and that it was during these angelic visitations that the angel purportedly revealed to Muhammad the words of Allah. These dictated revelations compose the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. Therefore, that settles it. If a perfect dictation is all we need, it doesn’t matter if Muhammad never lived in the first century nor for that matter it doesn’t matter that he never had any contact with the apostles/disciples.  It seems historical apologetics and the need for early testimony (as pointed out above) is no match for verbal dictation. Thus, the Qur’an is perfect and who cares if it came on the scene some six hundred years later.

1. Hacket Fisher, D.H., Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1970, 62.