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Earl Doherty

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CHALLENGING THE VERDICT
A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ
[Excerpts from the book by Earl Doherty]

PART THREE: Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

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Excerpt from
Chapter Eleven: Suffering and Death on the Cross
A Cross-Examination of Dr. Alexander Metherell and "The Medical Evidence"

    While we’re on the subject of literary invention, Dr. Metherell, Mr. Strobel brought up the question of the breaking of the legs. This was a standard practice by the Romans, was it not?
    "If they wanted to speed up death—and with the Sabbath and Passover coming, the Jewish leaders certainly wanted to get this over before sundown—the Romans would use the steel shaft of a short Roman spear to shatter the victim’s lower leg bones. This would prevent him from pushing up with his legs so he could breathe, and death by asphyxiation would result in a matter of minutes." [200]
    Yes, and this leads us into a very muddled situation between the various passion accounts which you have very neatly glossed over. Mr. Strobel said this: "The gospels say the soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals being crucified with Jesus." [200] This is not accurate. In fact, only the Gospel of John makes any reference to the breaking of legs, that it was done to the two thieves but not to Jesus. If John makes such a to-do about this, one wonders why no other evangelist breathes a word of it. One is led to think that perhaps we have yet another case of literary invention by a single evangelist. But perhaps you can clarify for us why it was done to the thieves and not to Jesus.
    "[W]e’re told in the New Testament that Jesus’ legs were not broken, because the soldiers had already determined that he was dead, and they just used the spear to confirm it." [200]
    Again, Dr. Metherell, let me remind you that it is misleading the court to imply that the New Testament as a whole mentions the matter of the breaking of legs, when it is only the Gospel of John which does so. But you appeal to the spear. That was used how?
    "[W]hen the Roman soldier came around and, being fairly certain that Jesus was dead, confirmed it by thrusting a spear into his right side." [199]
    Yes. And you are aware, are you not, that this element is also confined to the Gospel of John. It was a necessary adjunct to the statement that Jesus did not have his legs broken. It was needed to explain why there was no breaking of the legs. What you have not explained is how the soldier was "fairly certain" that Jesus was dead.
    "[W]ith his heart beating erratically, Jesus would have known that he was at the moment of death, which is when he was able to say, ‘Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ And then he died of cardiac arrest." [199]
    Well, Dr. Metherell, first of all, those words are the final words spoken by Jesus solely in the Gospel of Luke. Not only do all the other evangelists fail to record them, including John, but they provide different last words of their own. Apparently, in some respects, accurate traditions reached the Gospel writers, while in others they did not, and one wonders how we are to choose between such inconsistent and contradictory accounts, or how anything in them can be relied upon at all. Of course, if we simply have three later authors drawing on and reworking the first one’s story according to their own tastes and needs, composing their own ingredients, then we solve the problem and don’t have to worry about making decisions on historical accuracy.
    As those last words, Mark chose for his version—the original one—the opening verse of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Shortly thereafter, he tells us, Jesus "gave a loud cry and died." That apparently satisfied Matthew, for he reproduces both elements. Luke inserts between the cry and the dying, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." John declares that Jesus’ last words were, "It is finished." In fact, there is not a single saying by Jesus on the cross in John which is found in any of the other three Gospels. There is not a single saying by Jesus on the cross in Luke which is found in any of the other three Gospels. Matthew repeats the sole saying found in Mark, which is not reproduced in either Luke or John. Either we have a very erratic transmission of oral tradition, or we have four different authors picking, choosing, and inventing for their own versions of the story.
    Now, I have no doubt that Jesus could have been aware that he had reached the point of death. But even if he did die of cardiac arrest, how would the soldier have been sure that he could distinguish this from mere fainting? Certainly, he wasn’t a doctor. And why would a spear in the side indicate death in any conclusive way?
    "Even before he died, the hypovolemic shock would have caused a sustained rapid heart rate that would have contributed to heart failure, resulting in the collection of fluid in the membrane around the heart, called a pericardial effusion, as well as around the lungs, which is called a pleural effusion…The spear apparently went through the right lung and into the heart, so when the spear was pulled out, some fluid—the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion—came out. This would have the appearance of a clear fluid, like water, followed by a large volume of blood, as the eyewitness John described in his gospel." [199]
    But you have just indicated that this phenomenon could develop even before death. And a spear in the side producing blood would have been a natural occurrence in a still-live man, as I’m sure any soldier could attest. I doubt that a mix of blood and water would have told him anything different. The man would hardly have had your degree of medical knowledge.
    If they had been instructed to get the thing over with and make sure the three were dead, and the standard procedure for ensuring this was breaking the legs so that asphyxiation would immediately follow, why would the soldier not simply perform the same operation on all three? You yourself pointed out to Mr. Strobel that if the soldiers made a mistake and a prisoner who wasn’t actually dead subsequently escaped, they could pay with their lives. Why would any soldier take a chance on being wrong? He’d simply perform the standard procedure on Jesus and not take any risk. There would have been no reason not to break his legs as well.
    "This fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah, which is that his bones would remain unbroken." [200]
    Ah, yes, and there we have it, do we not, Dr. Metherell? That’s why John works this entire leg-breaking element into his scene, when no one else does. He wanted the occasion to fit the prophecy—or what he perceived as a prophecy. He realized that the breaking of the legs was standard procedure, and he wanted to demonstrate that this was not done, so that the prophecy would be preserved.
    This is not historical tradition. Nor is it singular eyewitness. It is literary construction, determined by the evangelist’s own ideas and preferences.
    The court will remember that we addressed this particular point about scripture during our session with Mr. Lapides. There is in fact no verse in the Old Testament which says that anyone, including Jesus or the Jewish Messiah, should not have his legs or his bones broken. Psalm 34:19-20 says that God will see to it that the bones of "the good man" will not be broken, but this passage fits less well with John’s language. Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12, as we saw earlier, have prohibitions against breaking the bones of the sacrificial Passover lamb. Apparently the other evangelists did not regard this in terms of a prophecy, since they make no mention of it, and are not concerned with the matter in their crucifixion scenes. Only John sees it that way, and he spells it out for us: "For this happened in fulfillment of scripture: ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken.’ "
    Now, in those two Old Testament passages, the proscription is applied to the Passover lamb. In translations of the Hebrew original, this is evident in the usual ‘not a bone of it shall be broken.’ In the Greek Septuagint, the word for "of it" is the same as for "of him." The word for the paschal lamb in Greek is neuter in gender, so translations should reflect "it" and not "him." I suggest that no prophecy can be in mind here, or else God is a more subtle game player than we ought to expect. Rather, this reflects the workings of John the evangelist’s mind. It is he who has equated Jesus with the sacrificial paschal lamb, and has labeled the proscriptions found in Exodus and Numbers as prophecies of the crucifixion.
    And that, Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, has landed us right in the middle of the muddle.
    Dr. Metherell, you said earlier that the Jewish leaders wanted to get this over before sundown, because the Passover and Sabbath were coming. Which was it? Passover or Sabbath? Or was it both? In the Gospel of John, this is the case. You see, John has the crucifixion take place on Passover Eve. While Jesus is being led out to be crucified, the paschal lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple in preparation for Passover which begins that evening. John, at the start of his Gospel, has the Baptist declare Jesus the "Lamb of God," a term never used of Jesus in the synoptics. That symbolic equation of Jesus with the lamb comes from the mind of John. Sundown, after Jesus’ death, will therefore see the start of both the first day of Passover and the Sabbath.
    But that is not the case with the synoptic Gospels. While their crucifixion, as in John, takes place on the eve of the Sabbath, it is already the first day of Passover. For them, Passover Eve has fallen the day before, prior to sundown and the Last Supper. That Supper shared between Jesus and his disciples was the Passover meal, celebrated on the festival’s first night. John’s supper, on the other hand, is not labeled the Passover meal. Such a meal, as John schedules the crucifixion, could only have taken place after Jesus was dead.
    Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, these are blatant and significant contradictions, which Dr. Metherell has quietly tiptoed around. They provide strong evidence that the Gospel stories are controlled not by tradition but by their authors. John’s arrangement of events cannot be reconciled with that of the synoptics. Not only is there a contradiction in the Gospels themselves, which would preclude inerrancy, we have to ask how Christian traditions about such key events of the faith could have become so confused. Since John’s placement of the crucifixion conforms to the paschal theology evident in his Gospel, our conclusion must be that his chronology is determined by his own design, and not by some conflicting tradition to that of the others. We are finding this sort of conclusion at every turn. The tale of Jesus is the product of its authors, not of history.

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Excerpt from
Chapter Twelve: Burial and an Empty Tomb
A Cross-Examination of Dr. William Lane Craig and "The Evidence of the Missing Body"

    It’s also clear that Paul cannot be used to support Mark’s women at the tomb. Neither he nor anyone else in the first century epistles so much as mentions their existence. They are not on the radar screen in the picture of the early church presented by the first hundred years of Christian correspondence. So not only must we question whether their placement on the scene is historical, we have to ask if they existed at all. Mary Magdalene and the others may simply be a literary invention of Mark.
    But let’s look at the question Mr. Strobel raised. Is Mark’s story feasible as is, that women should have been accorded the role of discoverers of the empty tomb?
    "Women were on a very low rung of the social ladder in first-century Palestine…Women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren’t even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of law. In light of this, it’s absolutely remarkable that the chief witnesses to the empty tomb are these women who were friends of Jesus. Any later legendary account would have certainly portrayed male disciples as discovering the tomb—Peter or John, for example. The fact that women are the first witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly explained by the reality that—like it or not—they were the discoverers of the empty tomb! This shows that the gospel writers faithfully recorded what happened, even if it was embarrassing. This bespeaks the historicity of this tradition rather than its legendary status." [217-18]
    But Dr. Craig, we have just noted that in Mark’s Gospel the women do not witness to anything. They run away from the tomb and the angel and tell nothing to anyone. In fact, Mark is portraying them exactly as you say women were regarded in first-century Palestine. They are worthless as witnesses. All they can do is react in fear and terror. They can’t be trusted even to carry out the directions of an angel.
    Now, they are witnesses to the empty tomb within Mark’s story. That is, they serve the purpose of telling the story of the empty tomb to the reader. We are not forced to deduce, as you did earlier, that they must have told someone, else Mark couldn’t have written the story, because that story was a fictional creation. And if we have concluded that it may not have been Mark’s intention to convey that Jesus had risen in flesh, to appear to people on earth in that form—especially since he doesn’t provide any examples of such a phenomenon—then there is nothing at all embarrassing about the role the women play.
    So we have to ask, why did Mark choose these characters as the ones who would find his empty tomb? There had to be a reason to bring someone there. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any feasible motive for the male disciples to go. Mark has purposely portrayed them as a bunch of cowards, in any case. They had fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest and didn’t even attend the crucifixion. It would have put them out of character for Mark to bring them to the tomb, whose location they would not have been expected to know, and possibly face exposure to guards or Jewish authorities who might have been hanging around. In contrast, Mark makes it a point to have various women followers present at the crucifixion, and to notice where Jesus is laid for burial. Here Mark is setting up his plot structure so that the visit to the tomb on Sunday morning will follow naturally.
    And the purpose of their visit? To anoint the body. Perhaps this was the only rationale Mark could come up with, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense anointing the body two days later or expecting that they could get into the tomb past the stone. Anointing the body would not have been something the male disciples would do. Thus the whole thing fits Mark’s plot line rather well, and he’s crafted it to make sense. Nothing embarrassing there.
    The one sour note is that expectation about getting into the tomb. But Mark does his best to deal with it by telling the reader that the women were aware of the problem and were wondering what they were going to do about removing the stone. I notice Mr. Stobel raised that very point with you, Dr. Craig.
    "For people who are grieving, who have lost someone they desperately loved and followed, to want to go to the tomb in a forlorn hope of anointing the body—I just don’t think some later critic can treat them like robots and say, ‘They shouldn’t have gone.’ " [218]
    No, we don’t always act rationally in emotional situations. But I wonder, then, why the male disciples didn’t feel the same way, and show up at Jesus’ burial site, if only to mourn his passing. Considering that they weren’t present at the funeral, they could at least have visited the cemetery.
    So the difficulty, Dr. Craig, does not lie with Mark. Within the limits of his Gospel, the women posed no problem or embarrassment. They were a good device to present the final element of his story. The problem arose when the later evangelists took up Mark and decided that Jesus had risen in flesh, and they were going to provide proof. Each one of them came up with resurrection appearances of his own, but they had to work with Mark’s women. And they had to change Mark’s ending. It wouldn’t do to have the women remain afraid and silent if Jesus was going to actually appear to people. Both Matthew and Luke have them run to tell the disciples; in Matthew they encounter Jesus himself on the way, and he rather redundantly repeats the angel’s directive. Matthew goes on to have that directive fulfilled by bringing the disciples to Galilee where Jesus makes his appearance. Luke ignores the words of Mark’s angel and sets up a series of appearances by Jesus to a variety of people, all of them in the neighborhood of Jerusalem—a significant contradiction, by the way, which I will address in the next cross-examination.
    John decides to take Mark’s female witness and truly develop it. He is clearly partial to Mary Magdalene and gives her a greater role in his Gospel. She is given an extended scene as the first to see and speak to the risen Jesus. After that, John elaborates several encounters between Jesus and the disciples, far beyond anything Mark could ever have envisioned.
                   So the later evangelists have simply taken Mark’s ball and run with it. Whether they felt any misgivings about the role this was giving to the women, those wretched witnesses in the mind of contemporary Jewish culture and legal practice, is impossible to say. Don’t forget that most if not all of the evangelists were probably not Jews themselves, so they may not have shared the usual Jewish prejudices toward women; neither would their readers, if they were part of largely gentile communities. All in all, Dr. Craig, the role of the women in the empty tomb story cannot be used to guarantee any degree of historicity.
    . . . .
    "Fifth, the unanimous testimony that the empty tomb was discovered by women argues for the authenticity of the story, because this would have been embarrassing for the disciples to admit and most certainly would have been covered up if this were a legend." [220]
    That argument is regularly used to explain why Paul says nothing about the women at the tomb: it was too embarrassing or offensive to the early church that women should be the first to witness to the fact that Jesus had been resurrected and even be the first to see him. Sexist motives were operating to produce one of the biggest cover-ups in religious history, apparently with the cooperation of the Deity himself, if we regard the letters of Paul as holy scripture and the reliable word of God. Be that as it may, if the early church could suppress embarrassing features in something that Dr. Craig regards as an actual creed, and at a time when Jesus had scarcely departed from the scene, why didn’t that same embarrassment operate to produce a similar suppression in Mark, especially since the Gospel comes from a time when there would have been fewer "eyewitnesses" around to expose such a cover-up? The simple answer is that the women in the Gospel story were not an embarrassment, and they don’t appear in Paul’s version of events because they hadn’t been invented yet.
    But I ask the court to consider this. If it is claimed that an empty tomb story, presumably accompanied by Gospel appearance traditions, goes back to a time that is earlier than Paul—Dr. Craig claims that a passion narrative was written by 37 CE—how could such stories be circulating at the same time as the 1 Corinthians so-called creed? The two versions of events would have been mutually incompatible, contradicting each other as to who had seen the risen Christ. Wouldn’t that have occasioned an outcry from those who would condemn the creed as inaccurate, since it left out the women entirely and declared Peter to be the first to see Jesus?
    Even if no earlier version of Mark’s story existed at the same time, this purported creed would have been circulating at a time when there would have been a lot of people who could point out its inaccuracy. "Where are the women in this creed?" is the cry that would have been raised by many Christians. The scenario Dr. Craig and others claim about Jewish objections to Christian claims would equally arise for Christian objections to those claims.
    I suggest to the court that drawing conclusions based on wishful thinking rather than derived from the evidence can get one into a lot of trouble.

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Excerpt from
Chapter Thirteen: Appearing in the Flesh
A Cross-Examination of Dr. Gary Habermas and "The Evidence of Appearances"

    Now, Dr. Habermas, Mr. Strobel raised a controversial and troubling question about the appearances: namely, that there are none to be found in the Gospel of Mark. And yet Mark is generally acknowledged to have been the first one written. Mr. Strobel asked if it bothered you that the earliest Gospel doesn’t report any post-resurrection appearances at all, since it is agreed that it originally ended at 16:8.
    "I don’t have a problem with that whatsoever…Even if Mark does end there, which not everyone believes, you still have him reporting that the tomb is empty, and a young man proclaiming, ‘He is risen!’ and telling the women that there will be appearances. So you have, first, a proclamation that the Resurrection has occurred, and second, a prediction that appearances will follow…He ends with the women being told that Jesus will appear in Galilee, and then others later confirm that he did." [236]
    As to the correct point of ending, I don’t think you would find a single critical scholar who has any doubt that Mark originally ended at 16:8. Verses 9-20 are a very clumsy attempt by some later copyist or church authority to cover up the embarrassing silence. They are a transparent pasting together of bits and pieces from the appearance accounts of the other Gospels.
    In any case, Dr. Habermas, you are missing the point. One would agree that Mark does anticipate appearances, although as I mentioned earlier, it is not clear whether he is referring to immediate ones, in flesh, or to the anticipated Parousia, when Jesus would arrive from heaven in spirit form. The point is, is there any conceivable reason, especially if he knew of appearances and predicted them, why Mark would fail to provide examples of such things for his readers? What possible reason could he have had for not doing so?
    In fact, I will suggest one for the court’s consideration. Mark doesn’t provide any because he doesn’t know of any. Would this be feasible if the Christian movement was formed, and had based itself for decades, on the belief that Jesus had risen from his tomb? Could such a belief have existed for that long and yet not have given rise to any traditions, real or invented, about concrete resurrection appearances to specific people in specific places? That would be highly unlikely. Would Mark’s silence be feasible if he had any familiarity with the appearances which Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, especially if they were physical? That, too, would be highly unlikely.
    So what scenario best explains this perplexing state of affairs? I suggest that no traditions about physical resurrection appearances existed when Mark was writing. The ones in Paul relate to visionary experiences of the spirit of Christ, were not in flesh, and not following an historical death on earth—although I don’t have to insist on that last point here. Whether an historical Jesus died in Jerusalem or not, Mark was essentially writing an allegory, a symbolic story, one based on Old Testament precedents and midrashic use of scriptural verses. He didn’t provide resurrection appearances not only because he didn’t know of any, but because he wasn’t purporting to tell history. It was sufficient in his mind to say that Jesus had risen and that he would appear to his followers. The women run off and don’t tell anyone because they don’t need to. In fiction, the writer tells the readers, and Mark has told us. The problem is, that wasn’t good enough for the later redactors of Mark.
    If Mark had any knowledge of Paul’s ‘creed’ and felt it was of any relevance to his story, there seems little doubt he would have wanted to embody such appearances in his Gospel. Mr. Strobel brought up the fact that if Mark were Peter’s companion, it is near inexplicable that he would not have chosen to record the appearance to Peter—
    "[N]ote that Mark does single out Peter. Mark 16:7 says, ‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter, "He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you." This agrees with 1 Corinthians 15:5, which confirms that Jesus did appear to Peter, and Luke 24:34, another early creed, which says, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon,’ or Peter. So what Mark predicts about Peter is reported to have been fulfilled, in two early and very reliable creeds of the church." [236-7]
    These creeds are proving remarkably prolific, Dr. Habermas, even to conversational statements. But I would like to suggest that we are slipping even deeper into the morass of uncertainty and contradiction. You have just pointed out that Mark predicted an appearance to Peter, and to the rest of the apostles, in Galilee. Just a few moments ago, you said that Mark "ends with the women being told that Jesus will appear in Galilee, and then others later confirm that he did." However, one might wonder if that ‘confirmation’ is simply a case of Matthew following Mark’s lead. He places his scene with the risen Jesus in Galilee because that is where Mark predicted it would be. As for John’s final appearance scene in Galilee, that one is hardly to be thought of as confirming Mark or Matthew, since it has quite clearly been tacked on to the finished Gospel at a later time.

Identifying the Scene of the Crime

    You speak about a confirmation of Mark, Dr. Habermas. But here we run up against a huge problem, a monumental discrepancy, one which you and Mr. Strobel have not given us a whisper of, and yet it should be evident to all. Mark points to Galilee as the site of Jesus’ future appearance. Matthew, as I said, follows his lead and has Jesus appear on a mountain in Galilee, where he charges his apostles to preach to all the nations.
    But where do Luke and John place their appearances? That little conversational creed you point to in Luke ‘confirms’ that Jesus appeared to Peter, but where? Certainly not in Galilee. All of Luke’s varied appearance anecdotes are set in Jerusalem and its environs. Luke hammers that point home by saying, in 24:49, that the apostles must "stay here in this city until you are armed with the power from above." That rules out going off to Galilee to receive further appearances.
    This instruction of Luke’s Jesus, by the way, clearly looks forward to the account in Acts, in which the Holy Spirit is visited upon the assembled apostles at the time of Pentecost. Considering that there is no reference in Paul or any other early record to such a dramatic and collective visitation, we may conclude that the incident is an artificial creation, probably by the writer of Acts. If it preceded him, it may have developed as a legendary symbol of the early movement’s broader activities and inspiration ‘by the Spirit,’ the engine of the faith to which Paul and others regularly attest. The line at the end of Luke I have just quoted is then best seen as an insertion by the final redactor of Luke, who was also the writer of Acts, to make the end of the Gospel point forward to the beginning of its sequel. A good literary device, marking the writer as a competent craftsman.
    Then there’s John. He, too, places his appearance stories in Jerusalem. Later, as I said, an extended appearance story was added to the Fourth Gospel, set in Galilee. Whether this was partly motivated by a desire to harmonize with Mark can’t be said, but it’s clear that it also served to focus on a number of motifs, including the manner of Peter’s death as developed in later tradition, and the so-called beloved disciple (who always remains unnamed) which the Johannine community came to invent for itself as a direct link to Jesus. He is also made to claim authorship of the Gospel.
    Such links and such claims were a widespread pattern in the second century, once an historical Jesus was developed and rival communities and theologies sought to establish authoritative connections back to him. This one episode in John more than adequately illustrates the wholesale invention practiced by the Gospel writers and redactors, and particularly in regard to the post-resurrection appearances.
    But before I am chastised for carrying the court off at a tangent again, let’s return to the main point. I have called that point a monumental discrepancy. For not only do we have post-resurrection appearances which don’t agree between the Gospels, we have them set in diametrically different locations. At least we can say that Paul was not guilty of such shameless inconsistency.
    What do you think would happen in a criminal trial, Dr. Habermas, if an attorney were to present a case to judge and jury which failed on such a fundamental point of evidence? How much respect would the prosecution gain if the D.A. told the court that the deceased’s body was found on the city’s waterfront, while the coroner testified it was found in his driveway? What would be the reaction if the defense attorney placed one witness on the stand who gave the defendant an alibi in Baltimore, followed by another witness who gave him one in Toledo?
    In the case before this court, it is evident that we are led to an inescapable conclusion. The various accounts of Jesus’ appearances bear no relation to history. They are the invention of the evangelists, each with his own agenda. Luke places them in Jerusalem as part of his overall schema. At least, it is the schema of the Gospel’s final redactor and the writer of Acts. Those constructed events, from Galilee to Jerusalem to Rome itself, where Acts concludes in triumph—omitting the negative aspect of a death for Paul—are one great symbolic representation of the supposed progression of the faith, from Palestine to Rome, from Jew to gentile, from the old covenant to the new.
    The Gospels are a curious mix of the crude and the subtle, the obvious and the deceptive. But take them out of the closet of faith and expose them to the light of rational examination, and they’re clear enough.

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Excerpt from
Chapter Fourteen: Looking at the Effects
A Cross-Examination of Dr. J. P. Moreland and "The Circumstantial Evidence"

Exhibit 1: The Disciples Died for their Beliefs

    Mr. Strobel summed up the first item this way: the changed lives of the disciples and their willingness to die for their conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. [246] Is this point in fact true and reliable, Dr. Moreland?
    "When Jesus was crucified, his followers were discouraged and depressed…So they dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks. Then, after a short period of time, we see them abandoning their occupations, regathering, and committing themselves to spreading a very specific message—that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God who died on a cross, returned to life, and was seen alive by them. And they were willing to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming this, without any payoff from a human point of view…They faced a life of hardship. They often went without food, slept exposed to the elements, were ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned. And finally, most of them were executed in torturous ways…What you can’t explain is how this particular group of men came up with this particular belief without having had an experience of the resurrected Christ. There’s no other adequate explanation." [246-7]
    But is the picture you’ve just presented to us an accurate one, Dr. Moreland? Is this circumstantial evidence you call upon reliable? Or is it at least partly a construction out of later mythology about the early movement? Let’s see how much of it is borne out in the actual record.
    What about the "dispersal" and "regathering"? Is such activity on the part of the apostles following the supposed death of Jesus mentioned anywhere by Paul, or any other epistle writer? No, it is not. Such a dramatic about-face in the fortunes of the movement should soon have entered the traditional picture. We don’t see anything like that before the Gospels. What about the message you say they committed themselves to preaching, that Jesus Christ, referring to a recent human man, was the Messiah of God? Nowhere does Paul or any other epistle writer make such a statement. In fact, it’s conspicuous by its absence. Paul and the others talk about a Messiah and Son of God, almost exclusively in divine spiritual terms, but they never equate him with a recent human being, much less the Jesus of Nazareth known to later generations from the Gospels and Acts. As I have pointed out earlier, and will do so again, Acts can in no way be relied upon either as an early record or as preserving early traditions. It followed the Gospel of Luke and is dependent on Gospel ideas.
    Hardship? Beating, ridicule, imprisonment? Yes, Paul outlines all those things. In 1 Corinthians 4:11, he says: "To this day we go hungry and thirsty in rags, we are roughly treated, we are homeless…When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly." But where are the deaths of the apostles? Paul is writing at least two and a half decades into the faith movement, and he nowhere refers to the execution of a single apostle. In 2 Corinthians 11:23, he says, "Are they servants of Christ? So am I…More overworked than they, scourged more severely, often imprisoned, many a time face to face with death." But there is no mention of actual death, particularly at the hands of the authorities, as a common or even an occasional occurrence in the missionary movement.
    Where can one find mention in the epistles of the execution of James, son of Zebedee, as outlined in Acts 12? Nowhere. Where, for that matter, is there any mention by Paul in his letters about the imprisonment of Peter, described in that same chapter of Acts? And what of the most dramatic death of all attributed to the early period, the trial and stoning of Stephen, as described in chapter 7 of Acts? No reference to it can be found in the entire early record of Christianity, not even in Paul at whose feet Acts says this stoning took place. When Paul speaks of the fate suffered by apostles of the Christ, could he possibly leave out such a vivid and personally-experienced example? Stephen himself is not to be found anywhere in the early record, and it is very possible that he is simply a fictional character.
    As for the martyrdoms which later tradition attributed to key figures like Peter and Paul, I have already pointed out that there is very little evidence to indicate that even those deaths took place as tradition says. The writer of 1 Clement, at the end of the first century, speaks vaguely of Peter and Paul’s life and death in the service of the faith, but he fails to bring either of them to Rome, or to mention an execution for them in that city.
    So one sees, Dr. Moreland, that your circumstantial evidence is in fact not evidence at all, but the product of later legend-making. In any case, as Mr. Strobel pointed out, many believers in history have been willing to martyr themselves for their convictions and beliefs, even if those beliefs were not rooted in reality. The early Christian apostles may indeed have had an "experience of the resurrected Christ," but it doesn’t seem to have been in the flesh.

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Toward the end of the home page of Age of Reason Publications I quote my 'homily' from the conclusion of the Final Summation, in response to Lee Strobel's own. Instead of repeating that here, I would like to close with a special excerpt from the end of Chapter Eleven of Challenging the Verdict. There are many things I personally find irrational and outdated about Christian doctrine and the foundations of its salvation system, but none so objectionable as what lies at the very heart of that system. I have tried to sum up in a few paragraphs why we need to let it all go. . . .

Choosing a Salvation

    At the conclusion of my cross-examination of this witness, I would like to leave the court with a radical thought.
    Mr. Strobel, a remark you made at the onset of your interview with Dr. Metherell involved a stark contrast, and on many believers, I am sure, it has a dramatic and emotional effect. Yes, we sit in our homes and offices on balmy spring evenings amid warm breezes, safe and comfortable, and we talk about and contemplate the experiences which Jesus, according to the Gospels, underwent, and we react in horror. You characterized it this way: "a topic of unimaginable brutality: a beating so barbarous that it shocks the conscience, and a form of capital punishment so depraved that it stands as wretched testimony to man’s inhumanity to man." [193]
    Throughout the Roman empire, many thousands underwent those barbarous beatings and that very depraved form of capital punishment. In other times and places, cruelties of equal barbarism have been practiced. All of it is indeed a wretched testimony that is terrible to contemplate, and especially terrible that it applies to ourselves. But when we apply it in the Gospels and within the context of Christian faith, does it not become infinitely more terrible? Is not the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus a testimony to God’s ‘inhumanity’—if I may borrow the term—to his own Son, or to put it another way, to a part of himself?
    How can we think of the God of the universe, a God of love—if such a being exists—operating in this fashion, requiring that such a depraved death be inflicted on even a human being, let alone a divine one, choosing blood sacrifice as the means of our salvation? How can we envision a plan for the redemption of humanity that must entail the performance of such a hideous deed? Are we not reinforcing the wretched testimony we all lament? Is love and forbearance taught through an act of cruelty and hate?
    I suggest that this concept speaks not of eternal truths but of times and modes of thinking which were on a far more primitive level than our own. Blood sacrifice goes back into prehistoric times, as a means of placating and entreating the gods, and to perpetuate the idea that God needs such a thing in order to forgive our sins is to condemn the concept of Deity to a degree of enlightenment much inferior to the one we have reached ourselves. To perpetuate it is to condemn our society and our own minds to a continued enslavement to those primitive times and ideas. There must surely be a better way, and a better philosophy by which to conduct our lives and on which to base our hopes.
    Mr. Strobel, I ask you to change your image, your contrast. I would ask you to envision yourself not in your comfortable home, but standing in the streets of Jerusalem and on the hillside of Calvary, and watching those horrific events unfold. And then I would ask you to ask yourself: are these the workings of a God?


Challenging the Verdict: Available through this website and from Amazon.com

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