Tom Gilson

The First Easter: Historical Consensus

Series: Evidences for the Resurrection

The events surrounding the first Easter are not all as hotly disputed nor are they as much in doubt as some think. In a comment on the Independent Attestation thread earlier in this series, Dave noted that the historical tide on NT scholarship is turning. John A. T. Robinson is one example of a scholar who had been skeptical of early dates for the NT documents, but who by the force of evidence came to conclude that all of them were produced between AD 50 and 70.

He represents a growing stream. Whereas once it was considered scholarly consensus that we could know little to nothing about the life of Christ, and especially his death and the events following, now that consensus is shattered. The well-known Jesus Seminar, for example, is now considered old-school and generally disregarded among serious scholars.

This is not to say that everyone believes that Jesus rose from the grave by the power of God. William Lane Craig points out in Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics that we can distinguish two kinds of questions: what can we know historically about the events of those several weeks, and what do those events mean?

Craig demonstrates the new historical consensus by pointing to skeptics who agree to the reality of many of the events recorded in the New Testament. The already-mentioned John A.T. Robinson (1919-1983) is one of those: though a bishop, he was of the liberal, secularizing camp; hardly an evangelical apologist.

Bart Ehrman has detailed his skepticism in many publications, yet in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (published by Oxford University Press in 1999), he acknowledges,

Historians … have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For 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.

The source from which I obtained that quote is Craig’s book, already mentioned (page 350). Note that word “soon.” Craig later writes (p. 351),

Indeed, Ehrman himself, after expressing initial skepticism concerning some of these facts, came to regard them all as historically well founded.

The facts in question here are Jesus’ burial in a tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, the finding of the empty tomb by women on the third day, and that some of Jesus’ actual disciples claimed to have seen him alive after that.

In fact most New Testament critics, including John A.T. Robinson, now accept that Jesus was executed by the Romans and buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb. Craig quantifies this by referring (pp. 370-371) to Gary Habermas’s study of “over 2,200 publications on the resurrection in English, French and German since 1975,” in which

Habermas found that 75% of scholars accepted the historicity of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb. The evidence is so compelling that even a number of Jewish scholars … have declared themselves convinced on the basis of the evidence that the tomb was empty.”

Then there were the appearances of Christ to his disciples. The skeptical scholar Gerd Lüdemann, would hardly accept that Jesus made genuine resurrection appearances, yet still he wrote,

It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.

The late University of Chicago redaction critic (i.e., NT skeptic) Norman Perrin wrote,

The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear on which they are based.

(The prior two quotes are taken from Craig, p. 381.)

And no one doubts that the Christian faith originated in Jerusalem in the first century. Rodney Stark showed (as Dave has already noted) that it had spread to at least thirteen cities by AD 100.

My first three posts in this series have explored how that last fact — the origination of Christianity in the specific form it took — relates to the claims of the resurrection. A large portion of the discussion in response was of the form, “but we don’t really know what happened, do we?” The answer to that is an unqualified, qualified yes. Let me explain. We do know for sure that Jesus lived, died, and was buried in a grave provided by Joseph of Arimathea. We know for sure that the grave was found empty by several women on the following Sunday, and that several of Jesus’ disciples had experiences that they took to be the risen Christ appearing to them. We know for sure that within a few decades Christianity had spread to at least twelve cities outside Jerusalem. Those are facts that historians regard to be true, with little or no qualification.

What do these facts mean? That’s where the dispute still continues.

In future posts I intend to follow Craig and other authors in detailing how it is that we know these things so confidently, based on sound historical methods. I am not a historian myself (neither are those who have said, “we don’t really know what happened”) but the explanations for these things are transparent. They have convinced skeptics.

Do I expect this to convince skeptics here that the resurrection genuinely happened? That’s not the topic right now. Only after we recognize that the above-mentioned events really happened will we turn to the question, “Is the resurrection the best explanation for them?” We will consider various alternate explanations for them at that time. For now, I am hoping simply to put to rest the canard, long since rejected among serious scholars, that we are operating in the dark. We do know at least some of what happened, and we know it with a high degree of confidence.


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16 thoughts on “The First Easter: Historical Consensus

  1. For now, I am hoping simply to put to rest the canard, long since rejected among serious scholars, that we are operating in the dark. We do know at least some of what happened, and we know it with a high degree of confidence.

    Bravo!!



  2. Historians … have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For 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.

    The source from which I obtained that quote is Craig’s book, already mentioned (page 350). Note that word “soon.”

    Yes, I took particular notice of that word—as its one whose meaning depends rather a great deal on the context in which its used. If I’m on the phone with my girlfriend and I tell her I’m on the way over to her house to pick her up and go to dinner and will be there soon (me living less then 10 minutes away) she’s likely to be mightily upset with me if I show up 4 hours later.

    On the other hand, a historian might well say something like “the temple was destroyed soon after the death of Jesus” and be talking about decades.

    So we need to know a bit more before it can be decided Ehrman meant that the “soon” he’s referring to there being a historical consensus about is, say, a few years (or even a few weeks) and not several decades. The latter of which few of us skeptics would dispute. Although even the former does rather little to establish the resurrection as historical fact (since its what we would expect on the fraud hypothesis that was discussed earlier).

    Much more later, this is a fertile topic for discussion, but I have a test to study for so I’ll leave it to the rest of you to hash out for the time being.

  3. Hmm. You seem to have swept an awful lot under the rug here.

    Not sure what you mean exactly by the word “scholar,” but I assume you to mean NT scholar – a self-selecting group if ever there were. I am sure we can get a similar (or even better) consensus for the historicity of the texts of Islam, Mormonism, etc. were we to conduct a scientific test on their publications.

    The real test, if one is going to put any value in consensus (which I don’t advise whenever the audience is capable of understanding the arguments, which in this case I think we are) for the historicity of events like the Resurrection would be ask trained historians how much credence they place in the supernatural events of the New Testament.

    We do know for sure that Jesus lived, died, and was buried in a grave provided by Joseph of Arimathea.

    This appears to be a breathtaking misrepresentation of the previous discussions. “We” would be inclusive of the participants in the previous discussions, and a quick glance at those discussions would reveal that no such consensus emerged.

    We know for sure that the grave was found empty by several women on the following Sunday, and that several of Jesus’ disciples had experiences that they took to be the risen Christ appearing to them.

    I don’t recall this being discussed as described above, and that again this is not an accurate summation of the conclusions reached by “we.”

    I am not a historian myself (neither are those who have said, “we don’t really know what happened”) but the explanations for these things are transparent.

    I took part in the last discussion and I have a degree in history from an Ivy League University, including courses in Late Antiquity, Roman History, Medieval Europe, Near Eastern History, and two years of Latin. While this hardly qualifies me as an expert in the field, it does quality me to say that the above is patently false.


  4. Craig demonstrates the new historical consensus by pointing to skeptics who agree to the reality of many of the events recorded in the New Testament.

    You don’t establish historical consensus concerning a claim made by a religion by pointing out nonbelievers in that religion that agree with the believers regarding the particular claim.

    We need more information than that. To be precise, we need to know what percentage of nonbelieving experts agree with the believers on that point. We’d also want to know what percentage of believing experts agree on the point so that we can compare the two.

    That’s just for starters. There are other considerations as well (like how its determined that an individual is an expert–to name just one).

    Its useful, to avoid bias, to approach this sort of issue using less contentious examples.

    Take parapsychology. Suppose there’s a large consensus among parapsychologist that psychic phenomena are real (the self-selection Tony mentioned is, I think, going on here—as it almost certainly is in regard to NT scholars as well).

    But suppose most of the rest of the scientific community think the experts in the field of parapsychology employ faulty methodology. Suppose also that professional magicians can fool these experts into thinking they’re real psychics.

    This is, I think, based on my reading from the time when I was strongly interested in parapsychology, a reasonable description of the state of affairs in regard to parapsychology (though, admittedly, this was years ago–there could be new research that I’m not aware of).

    In the above scenario, we’d be reasonable to reject the consensus of parapsychologists based on the competing consensus among scientists in general and among professional stage magicians (who’re often more expert in forms of trickery scientists would likely be unfamiliar with).

    In other words, evaluating the consensus of experts can be a far from simple thing. This is a complex issue—one that warrants in depth discussion and examination.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the book. I’ll see if it can be read at google books (though that’s a tedious process for me—it loads very slowly on my computer).

    I assume Tom’s read or is reading it. Anyone else?

    If so, what did you think? And did it address my question about the percentage of both kinds of experts (christian and nonchristian) and the criteria for calling someone an expert?


  5. …..if one is going to put any value in consensus (which I don’t advise whenever the audience is capable of understanding the arguments, which in this case I think we are)…..

    An important point. This issue is not like the question of whether Fermat’s Last Theorem has been solved. Most of us are incompetent to answer that question for ourselves and would probably remain so without years of study.

    How much we need defer to the consensus of experts is inversely related to our own competence to evaluate the issue at question for ourselves.

  6. Okay, I give up. Discussion with both of you, Tony and David, has turned from interesting and sometimes challenging to merely hopeless, absurd, and a waste of time.

    Tony, you wrote,

    Not sure what you mean exactly by the word “scholar,” but I assume you to mean NT scholar – a self-selecting group if ever there were.

    That’s just ridiculously self-serving on your part, and ignorant of the field. The fact that the scholars I specifically pointed to were skeptical of NT supernaturalism meant not one whit to you.

    The real test … would be ask trained historians how much credence they place in the supernatural events of the New Testament.

    What do you think NT scholars are? What do you think N.T. Wright is?

    This appears to be a breathtaking misrepresentation of the previous discussions. “We” would be inclusive of the participants in the previous discussions, and a quick glance at those discussions would reveal that no such consensus emerged.

    That would be a breathtaking misrepresentation of what I wrote. I was using the word “we” in a far more inclusive sense all through the blog post. The first use was, “William Lane Craig points out in Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics that we can distinguish two kinds of questions: what can we know historically about the events of those several weeks, and what do those events mean?”

    I am not a historian myself (neither are those who have said, “we don’t really know what happened”) but the explanations for these things are transparent.

    I took part in the last discussion and I have a degree in history from an Ivy League University, including courses in Late Antiquity, Roman History, Medieval Europe, Near Eastern History, and two years of Latin. While this hardly qualifies me as an expert in the field, it does quality me to say that the above is patently false.

    How could you know that it’s false when I haven’t made the case for it yet? I said, “In future posts I intend to follow Craig and other authors in detailing how it is that we know these things so confidently, based on sound historical methods.”

    David, you said,

    We need more information than that. To be precise, we need to know what percentage of nonbelieving experts agree with the believers on that point. We’d also want to know what percentage of believing experts agree on the point so that we can compare the two.

    I gave you a quantified answer in the blog post. No credit granted for that!? Don’t you have any conception of the field? Habermas surveyed all of the documents in three languages since 1975. Do you really think everyone writing in German was a Southern Baptist? Your skepticism is completely unwarranted and smacks of an unthinking knee-jerk, “I-don’t-care-what-the-hell-Tom-says,-I’m-going-to-disagree-with-him-no-matter-what!” Even if I have to ignore what he wrote in order to do it. You did it on the last post, too.

    How much we need defer to the consensus of experts is inversely related to our own competence to evaluate the issue at question for ourselves.

    Good point. The consensus of experts at this point, though, would be that your expertise in the matter, such as it is, is decades behind the times.

    But you’re both going to disagree with me regardless of the evidence. I will keep presenting my case, but I’ll present it in blog posts, not in comments. You are unwilling to give the slighthest credence to what I write, so why would I care what you write?

    Or I could use your tactics instead: irrelevant analogies (parapsychology?!), ignoring your arguments, taking half-sentences and responding to them as if they were your whole point while ignoring the rest of the sentence (as you did in the previous thread, David), and pseudo-intelligent platitudes like “How much we need defer to the consensus of experts is inversely related to our own competence to evaluate the issue at question for ourselves.”

    I could do that, but it would be a tragic waste of my time.

  7. I am entirely confident that a fair reading of David’s or my comments here would reveal nothing more than the fair questions demanded of one who chooses to publicly argue the case for his faith’s rationality.

    You have chosen to characterize our calls for intellectual honesty, and a willingness to engage in debate on topics you choose for discussion, as somehow evincing bad faith on our parts.

    I will not take the time to dispute your last set of charges, but invite anyone to read our past discussions here (in particular any of David Ellis’s) and compare them against of what you accuse us.

  8. As an aside, Tom, I agree that in many cases your commenting will be a waste of your time. If somehow something of interest comes up in the comments and is worth much of your time spent answering it makes sense your making a post of it.


  9. I gave you a quantified answer in the blog post. No credit granted for that!? Don’t you have any conception of the field? Habermas surveyed all of the documents in three languages since 1975. Do you really think everyone writing in German was a Southern Baptist?

    A. Germany is a nation in which Christianity, to the best of my knowledge, is the dominant religion (correct me if I’m mistaken). And even if it weren’t we’d still expect Christians in that nation to be more likely to be drawn to devote their careers to NT scholarship (again, if I’m wrong I be happy to see data correcting my misconception).

    B. Your post said that Habermas surveyed 2200 documents published since 1975–not that he surveyed all documents published on the topic since 1975. These 2200 may have been everything published but that’s not what you said and there was no reason to assume that’s what you meant. A relatively minor point—other than to point out that its an alteration in your claim.

    C. Perhaps most importantly in regard to my questions, I don’t know from any of this information what percentage of the scholars writing those 2200 documents were Christians and how many weren’t. You quote Habermas as saying 75% of them accept the historicity of the empty tomb. But that doesn’t help at all with my question about the relative percentage of Christian vs non-christian scholars.

    It would not surprise me at all to hear that something near 75% of NT scholars are Christians. If that’s the case then a 75% affirmation is far from impressive attestation that even among non-christian NT scholars there’s an impressive consensus regarding the historicity of the empty tomb.

    Nor, of course, do we know from the data you mention what percentage of the 75% pro were non-christian vs what percent of the 25% not sharing that opinion.

    You act as if I should have, by way of common knowledge, a fair idea of the relative percentage of Christian to non-christian NT scholars or, at least, that I should know that it wouldn’t be near the 75%.

    I don’t. I suspect most people don’t. And I’d honestly like to know. You’re the one who has the book. What does it say on this?

    You’re claiming there’s an impressive consensus, even among nonsupernaturalist NT scholars, that many of the claims in the NT are historical fact (like the empty tomb).

    All I’m doing as asking questions essential to knowing if this is actually the case and which you haven’t yet addressed.

  10. Given that we know of non-Christian, Jewish, agnostic and skeptical scholars who accept the facts as Tom laid them out, and I gave you an archaeologist just the other day who arrives at the same conclusion, and we know of skeptics who went to study the historicity and became Christians, what if it is the same 75%, David Ellis?

  11. The whole point Tom seems to be making is that there’s a strong consensus even among non-christian scholars. Are you disagreeing that this is the case.

    If that’s not the point and all that’s being said is that there’s a strong consensus among Christian scholars and a handful of non-christians who agree then so what? How impressed would you be by similar claims made by a Muslim or Mormon?

    And if you’re going to point to those who studied these topics and converted to Christianity as relevant evidence then we should also ask how many studied them and deconverted.

    After all, we wouldn’t want to succumb to confirmation bias, would we?

  12. I am entirely confident that a fair reading of David’s or my comments here would reveal nothing more than the fair questions demanded of one who chooses to publicly argue the case for his faith’s rationality.

    Wrong. Has no one noticed the blatant Genetic Fallacy being used here… and used so often on previous occasions by these guys? Here’s just ONE example by Tony (I have a good mind to go back and count the number of times fallacies were used these past two posts):

    Not sure what you mean exactly by the word “scholar,” but I assume you to mean NT scholar – a self-selecting group if ever there were. I am sure we can get a similar (or even better) consensus for the historicity of the texts of Islam, Mormonism, etc. were we to conduct a scientific test on their publications.

    In other words, the person or group proposing the arguments/evidence are automatically suspect if they are Christians. The merits of the argument mean nothing. The truth content of the evidence means nothing. Here’s another example by David:

    Germany is a nation in which Christianity, to the best of my knowledge, is the dominant religion (correct me if I’m mistaken). And even if it weren’t we’d still expect Christians in that nation to be more likely to be drawn to devote their careers to NT scholarship (again, if I’m wrong I be happy to see data correcting my misconception).

    Then there’s David’s hysterical attempt to apply percentages, as if the relative number of scholars of a particular world view decides the truth!

    What relevance does that have as to the truth content of the evidence presented by Christian scholars? None. It doesn’t matter what the genesis of the argument/evidence is: the only thing that matters is the truth… except, of course, to atheists…

    … These are as blatant an examples of intellectual dishonesty as one can get: refusing to consider the other arguments by applying the genetic fallacy. To then to try to turn the tables (a rhetorical fallacy) by Tony (comment 7) only serves to amplify the weakness of their position.

    Can you imagine the roar of protests if Tom responded to atheist claims with the following: “Not sure what you mean exactly by the word “scholar,” but I assume you to mean atheist scholars—a self-selecting group if ever there were.”

    And, this is part of my bigger point: atheists will not consider the evidence and arguments of people of faith—especially from Christians, they will repeatedly rely on misinterpretation, fallacies, obfuscation, selective inattention, and crude imposition to avoid facing what threatens to undermine their worldview. Atheism is a direct and intentional violation of the First Commandment, and as such it is a grave sin. The result of sin is to cripple our human nature—which includes the capacity to reason honestly and correctly. Pure and simple: one cannot trust an atheist to argue in good faith… because it is simply not a concern of his.

    I’ve asked this before: why is anyone surprised by David’s and Tony’s nonsensical and disingenuous approach? And I ask this again: if someone intentionally argues fallaciously despite numerous times they’ve been called on it, doesn’t this merit sanction?

  13. It was Tom who brought up non-believing NT scholars as support for the idea that there is a consensus not built on religious bias. All I’m doing is asking questions we need to address if we’re to conclude this consensus actually exists.

    Even disregarding the question of the religious affiliation (or lack thereof) of NT scholars Tom has told us that, in a survey of papers and documents by scholars relating to the subject, 75% believe the empty tomb to be fact.

    This hardly supports Tom’s claim, only a little further in his post, that:

    “We do know for sure that Jesus lived, died, and was buried in a grave provided by Joseph of Arimathea. We know for sure that the grave was found empty by several women on the following Sunday….”

    We know for sure? Even if we disregard possible bias 75% is not an overwhelming consensus. How did we get from the claim that three quarters of experts believe it to “we know for sure”?

    And, again asking a question that needs asking if confirmation bias is to be avoided, how many Christian scholars who believe in the resurrection DON’T accept that the empty tomb is established by the historical evidence as fact (after all, one may believe on other grounds—what Craig refers to as the “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit” being the most obvious example).

    Has it even occurred to you to ask that question?

  14. Yes, I’m aware of that question, David, and I’m also aware that it’s irrelevant to what I’m working on. You could stretch your point and actually demonstrate that it actually has something to do with confirmation bias, but what you would likely end up with (among N.T. scholars, that is) is some kind of neo-orthodox belief in the resurrection as a “spiritual” event rather than an historical event, which is what N.T. Wright shows is out of the question historically, and which is not what I’m talking about anyway.

    The “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit” is not used in scholarship in the manner you suggest.

    You’re reaching again.

    I’m willing to qualify my previous statement: rather than “we do know for sure…” I am willing to say, “we do know ….” Let that be my concession to the fact that there do exist still a minority of scholars who disagree.

    German NT criticism has been overwhelmingly skeptical for 100+ years, by the way. France is one of the most atheistic countries on the planet. I guess I thought you might have known that. I’m sorry for my mistake on that.


  15. The “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit” is not used in scholarship in the manner you suggest.

    Who said anything about it being used in scholarship? I was referring to it as the basis of their private religious convictions–not something they use in their scholarship.


    German NT criticism has been overwhelmingly skeptical for 100+ years, by the way.

    I’m aware mostly of 19th century German scholarship’s skepticism regarding traditional beliefs about Jesus. I’m not familiar with more recent German scholarship. For all I know the skepticism of past German scholars could have motivated more conservative German Christians to pursue careers in the field. Regardless, I, in fact and by free admission, know next to nothing about the degree of religiosity vs religious skepticism among contemporary German (or French) NT scholars. I’m not sure why you’d expect I would.

    And if you have any information on the subject I’d be happy to hear it.

    But while you’re chastising me for my unfamiliarity with the religious affiliations of foreign NT scholars I note you’ve not said much about the issues that have been raised.

    What percentage of the writers of those 2200 documents were Christians? What percentage were non-Christians?

    How many of the former group fall into the category of the 75% who consider the empty tomb established fact? How many non-christians? And is there support for this 75% figure other than Habermas.

    If we are to say that, even among nonbelieving NT scholars, there is a strong consensus for the empty tomb’s historicity as being beyond reasonable doubt then we need answers to such questions (not that I find 75% to be that strong a consensus—if only 75% of biologists believed in evolution conservative Christians would shout it from the rooftops).

    Another thing. You said that, according to Habermas, “75% of scholars accepted the historicity of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb”.

    But accepting the historicity of the empty tomb isn’t the same as being convinced that its a topic on which there can’t be reasonable disagreement. That 75% can include historians who are personally convinced it’s fact but also think that historians holding the opposing position can do so reasonably and make a decent case.

    To illustrate what I mean think of the age of the earth. Nearly all experts in the relevant fields don’t just think the earth is billions of years old. They think this is beyond reasonable doubt and anyone in the field saying its less than 10,000 years old they would view as a crank.

    On the other hand, a majority of experts in cosmology favor the “big freeze” view of the fate of the universe—that it will continue to expand and entropy grow until its a cold, lifeless, near-total void. But they don’t necessarily think those holding to one of the other options are unreasonable.

    So this consensus we’re talking about, is it that 75% accept the empty tomb or that 75% think the empty tomb established fact beyond reasonable doubt. They’re far from the same thing.

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