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Put Me Down For Myth
by Farrell Till


1996 / July-August



On April 2, 1996, I attended the Horner-Barker Debate at Northern Iowa University, at which time I had the opportunity to meet Matthew Perman with whom I had been corresponding by e-mail for several weeks. Prior to the debate, I spent about four hours with Matthew and two of his friends talking about various issues related to biblical inerrancy. I found them to be particularly intense about their Christian beliefs, and it was very evident throughout our conversations that they had been thoroughly indoctrinated in fundamentalist Christian ideology. In many ways, Matthew, who was the most vocal of the three, reminded me of how I was at that age, i.e., young and idealistic and completely entrenched in inerrantist thinking.

At the debate, survey cards were distributed that among other things offered a complimentary article about the resurrection. I indicated that I would like to receive it, and two days later, the foregoing article arrived in the mail. When I requested it, I had no idea that it had been written by none other than Matthew Perman. It was a pleasant surprise.

There is certainly nothing new in the article, which is simply a rehashing of the same discredited arguments of Josh McDowell, F. F. Bruce, Gary Habermas, and other evangelical "apologists," so an exhaustive rebuttal of Perman's arguments should assure readers of his article that the very best evidence Christians can present for the foundation doctrine of their religion is woefully inadequate to convince rational people that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact.

Close to the end of his article, Perman asked, "How else would you explain ALL of these facts?" By using the word *facts* rather than *claims,* Perman begged an important question, because he is asking his readers to assume that certain claims that the New Testament and Christians make about the resurrection are facts, when in reality they are merely matters of belief for which there is nothing close to the kind of evidence that would be necessary to establish them as facts. The death of Jesus, the empty tomb, the postresurrection appearances, the willingness of the apostles to die for their beliefs--these are all touted as historical facts when in reality they are nothing more than beliefs that Christians base on an unjustified assumption that the New Testament documents are historically accurate in everything they reported.

I will have more to say about this later, but first I want to answer Perman's question and show how all of his "facts" can be explained more rationally than does his assumption that Jesus literally died and was bodily resurrected to life. This explanation was very ably presented as Perman, his friends, and I sat together during the Horner-Barker Debate. Dan Barker devoted most of his first speech to the development of the argument, which Horner largely ignored the rest of the night. Perhaps Mr. Perman would like to respond to the argument. If so, I will publish his reply in a later issue.

When they are debating the resurrection issue, inerrantists like to forget the principle of argumentation that says, "He who asserts must prove." They insist that their opponents have an obligation to prove that the resurrection did NOT happen or at least to offer a better hypothesis for the "data" than their claim that the resurrection literally happened. In his first speech, Barker met this challenge and presented an alternative hypothesis that explains the so-called "data" much better than the Christian claim that a resurrection literally occurred.

Starting with an analysis of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Barker showed that the Christian belief in a bodily resurrection was a result of doctrinal evolution that had begun with belief in only a spiritual resurrection. He noted that Paul's statement in this passage is recognized by most biblical scholars, including evangelical apologists, to be the earliest known statement about the resurrection, which had probably been transmitted orally, possibly in hymns or poems, until Paul finally wrote it down in his famous defense of the resurrection. Barker noted that this earliest account of the resurrection makes no references to many of the elements that are found in the gospel accounts, which were written much later. There were no references to an earthquake and empty tomb, to women, to angels, etc. Why did this earliest account of the resurrection leave out such important events as these if they were so widely known as part of the resurrection story? It isn't at all unreasonable to assume that they were not mentioned for the simple reason that they were traditions that had not yet developed when Paul wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians. This, however, is merely a hypothesis for which reasonable evidence should be presented, and Barker more than satisfied this requirement of logical argumentation.

He focused our attention on the words *buried, raised,* and *appeared* in Paul's text and analyzed each as they were used in the Greek text of the New Testament. The word *thapto* (bury) meant to inter or bury and carried no necessary connotations of entombment, so this would be entirely consistent with the known practice of taking the bodies of crucifixion victims and burying them in a common grave. The word translated *rose* or *raised* in English translations of this passage was *egeiro,* which meant to "arouse" or "awaken." Barker noted that this was the word that Paul used in referring to the resurrection in such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:15 and that it was the word used in Ephesians 5:14, where Paul said, "Awake (*egeiro*), thou that sleepest and arise (*anistemi*) from the dead." The latter word, which meant "arise" or "raise up," is the word used in reference to resurrection, but *egeiro* (awake) is the word that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 15:4, 12 in speaking of Christ's arising.

*Egeiro* (awake) was used by Paul eleven other times in 1 Corinthians 15: 15-52, as he spoke about the apostles being false witnesses if the dead are not *raised,* faith being dead if the dead are not *raised,* and seed and bodies being sown in corruption but *raised* in incorruption, etc. That Paul believed only in a spiritual resurrection of Jesus is very evident from a careful analysis of this passage:

But someone will say, "How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?" Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. *And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be,* but mere grain--perhaps wheat or some other grain" (vv:35-37).

We have to give Paul an "F" in botany for what he said here, because practically any elementary science student today would know that nothing can grow from a dead seed. The important thing to notice, however, is that in analogizing the resurrection of the dead with the planting of seeds, he clearly said, "*You do not sow that body that shall be.*" That is a view diametrically opposed to the subsequent doctrine of a bodily resurrection that was based on the gospel accounts. This doctrine proclaims that the physical body that was "sown" (buried) was the same body that was resurrected, but in Paul's analogy he said the body that was sown was not the body that would be.

More evidence that Paul believed only in a spiritual resurrection of Jesus is found farther along in the text. After declaring that there are different kinds of flesh, he argued that there are also different kinds of bodies:

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. *So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in CORRUPTION, it is raised in INCORRUPTION. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.* IT IS SOWN A NATURAL BODY, IT IS RAISED A *SPIRITUAL* BODY. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body (vv:40-44, emphasis added).

The statements emphasized in italics and bold print are clear enough to show that Paul believed that the body that is raised is different from the body that was buried. Since the statements were made in a context in which Paul was arguing that Christ had been raised, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that Paul believed that the natural body of Christ was "sown" when he was buried but that a spiritual body was resurrected.

A favorite expression of Mr. Perman seemed to be "most scholars" as he talked about what "most scholars" think or believe. In his case, of course, he meant "most fundamentalists," because, as we will see, most scholars--and by this, I mean most true scholars and not evangelical apologists--decidedly do NOT believe many of the things that he attributed to "most scholars." At any rate, since he brought up the subject of what "most scholars" think, he can't object if I point out that most scholars--and I mean recognized scholars and not evangelical preachers whose books are published in Grand Rapids, Michigan--have dated the gospels anywhere from 15 to 70 years after Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. By that time, legend had built the spiritual awakening that Paul taught and preached into a resurrection of the natural or physical body, which is exactly the kind of resurrection that Paul said had not happened.

This doctrinal transition from a spiritual arising to a bodily resurrection led to the writing of the gospels, which put the resurrection into a specific historical setting with tales of an empty tomb and postresurrection appearances in which disciples actually touched the physical body of the resurrected savior. Perman asked how else ALL of "these facts" could be explained, and this hypothesis explains it much more sensibly than his irrational belief that all of the fabulous claims in the resurrection narratives literally happened. More likely, they didn't happen. They are simply legends that developed around the story of a savior-god who had arisen spiritually after his death. If Perman wants to dispute this, he can argue with his beloved apostle Paul, who clearly said, "It is sown a *natural* body; it is raised a *spiritual* body" (1 Cor. 15:44). Then he can try to explain to us why if Paul said that Jesus had risen spiritually, the gospel writers later said that he had risen bodily.

Part of Dan Barker's argument in the debate was an analysis of the word "appear" to show that Paul and other New Testament writers had used it in visionary senses. In Matthew 17:3, Moses and Elijah "appeared" at the time of the transfiguration, and the Greek word here is the same one that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 in listing the appearances that Jesus made to Cephas, to the twelve, to the 500 brethren, to James, and finally to Paul himself. There is nothing in the text of Matthew that even remotely hints that Moses and Elijah had been bodily resurrected in their appearances at the transfiguration. In Acts 16:9, "a vision *appeared* [same word as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8] to Paul in the night in which a man from Macedonia stood praying for Paul to come there to help them. Since the same word for "appear" was used in 1 Corinthians 15:8, where Paul said, "And last of all, as to the child untimely born, he *appeared* to me also," Barker argued that there is sufficient reason to assume that the other appearances were like the appearance to Paul. Barker then showed that the only records that exist of the appearance of Jesus to Paul show clearly that this was just a vision that Paul had and that he had actually not even seen Jesus in the vision. He heard only a voice speaking from a bright light (Acts 9:3-8; 22:6-11; 26:12-18), and the men who were with him saw only the light but didn't hear the voice (according to one of the accounts). So if this was the way that Paul "saw" Jesus, and since the same word for *see* or *appear* (depending on translation) was used for all of the appearances that Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, why should we believe that Paul considered these "appearances" any more than just the same kind of visionary appearance that he had experienced on the road to Damascus?

If there is still doubt that Paul had experienced only a visionary appearance of Jesus, we can let him settle the matter for us. In Acts 26, he related to King Agrippa the story of Christ's appearance to him, after which he said, "Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the HEAVENLY VISION" (v:19), so if Luke told the story right, Paul himself said that he had seen Jesus in a heavenly vision, and as noted above, it was a type of appearance that none of the other men with Paul were able to see. That doesn't sound very much like a bodily appearance.

So the "facts" of the New Testament records indicate that Christians first believed in a spiritual resurrection of Christ and that the claims of bodily appearances came much later in the gospel narratives. Even then the gospel narratives presented these appearances in a composite manner. In some ways, these postresurrection appearances of Jesus were physical in that he had a body that could be touched and examined, but in other ways, it was a spiritual body that could be teletransported, appear suddenly, and even pass through closed doors. The most rational explanation for these divergent views of the resurrection depicted in the New Testament is the one that Barker presented in his debate with Michael Horner. Christians first believed in a spiritually resurrected Jesus, but this doctrine gradually evolved into a belief in a physically resurrected savior. So if Perman is really sincere in asking if the resurrection of Christ was myth or reality, he should see that Occam's razor favors those of us who think it was myth. This will become even more obvious as I take the points in his article and show that none of them proves anything.

Having satisfied Mr. Perman's request for a better explanation of the "facts," I can now discuss his arguments individually and show that they prove exactly nothing. His first major point was that "Jesus Christ died from the rigors of crucifixion and was buried in a tomb." The only way that anyone can know this is to assume the historical accuracy of the New Testament records, because there are certainly no contemporary extrabiblical records that Perman can cite to corroborate the gospel claims, and even if such records did exist to confirm that Jesus died from crucifixion and was buried, they would prove nothing except that Jesus died from crucifixion and was buried. Lots of people were crucified in those times, but I doubt if even Perman would argue that their deaths and burials in any way constituted proof that they were later resurrected.

Of course, Perman thinks he has found "extrabiblical sources" in the discredited argument that Thallus, "a non-Christian Samaritan historian," verified the three-hour period of darkness that the synoptic writers claimed in their gospel accounts. The front-page article in this issue of *TSR* ("Did Marco Polo Lie?") discusses this alleged nonbiblical reference, so there is no reason to rehash it. Suffice it to say that Perman will have to find more than dubious secondhand references to darkness in nonextant writings before he can hope to convince rational people that any such event actually occurred. Edward Gibbon is a highly respected historian, and we have already seen his assessment of Matthew's claim that three hours of darkness covered "all the land" while Jesus was on the cross.

As further "evidence" that Jesus died on the cross, Perman cited the notorious article in the *Journal of the American Medical Society.* This article, of course, had to assume that the New Testament documents were accurate in what they reported, because there simply are no references to the death of Jesus in the nonbiblical records of that time. So if one is going to assume the absolute accuracy of the New Testament documents, what is there to argue about? They obviously claim that Jesus died on the cross. However, an honest investigation of an issue like this would not beg a question that needs to be proven. How can we know that blatantly biased documents like the gospel accounts were accurate in everything they reported? Perman would not assume that the Koran is historically inerrant. He would not assume that the Book of Mormon is historically inerrant. He would not assume that the Zoroastrian Avesta is historically inerrant. So why does he insist on according the Bible privileged status? He does so because of a wishful bias that makes him want to believe that his religion is the "true" one. This bias was evident several times in his article as he labored to explain why Christianity must be considered "unique" and Jesus the "only way to God." Is this any way to conduct honest historical research?

As for the medical-journal article itself, I will just ask Perman if he knows of any competent forensic pathologist who thinks that death can be determined without examining the body, yet this is exactly what the authors of the article in question have presumed to do. Without examining the body of Jesus, they have concluded that he had to have been dead. The only "evidence" they could possibly base that conclusion on is what the New Testament says, and so that brings us right back to square one: they have assumed the accuracy of the New Testament documents.

We have all read in newspapers stories about people who were pronounced dead by attending physicians but later were found to be alive when movement was noticed as the bodies were lying in the morgue. If such as this can happen in modern times after competent physicians have declared people dead, how can Perman or anyone argue that it is possible for physicians today to know definitively that a man who was crucified almost 2,000 years ago was dead when he was taken down from the cross? Of all the arguments for the resurrection that I have heard, this one ranks high on my list of the silliest.

*Jesus's tomb was empty just a few days later.* Again we have an argument that is based on the assumption that the New Testament records are historically accurate. Perman can cite no contemporary nonbiblical records that refer to an empty tomb, and even if he could, they would not prove that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. An empty tomb could have several explanations, and probably the last one that would occur to a rational person would be that the body buried in it had been resurrected.

Perman said, "If what the apostles were preaching had been false, it would have been evident to the people in Jerusalem and Christianity more than likely would not have begun," but I must keep reminding readers that Perman always argues from the assumption that the New Testament records are historically accurate. Except for what the New Testament says, how does Perman know when the apostles started preaching? For that matter, how does he know that the apostles were actual historical characters? Secular history is strangely silent about these apostles who, according to the New Testament, played such prominent roles in founding Christianity. Perman spoke about how Christianity "suddenly burst to life, spread like wildfire, and changed the world," but for some reason secular history was silent about the men who were responsible for this spreading wildfire. Everywhere Paul went, he seemed to stir up civil and religious unrest. According to Acts 14, he and Barnabas were overwhelmed by a mob intent on worshiping them as the gods Hermes and Zeus. In Antioch of Pisidia, Paul preached a stirring sermon in the synagogue, and "the next sabbath almost the whole city was gathered together to hear the word of God" (Acts 13:14-44). At Philippi, Paul and Silas were arrested and thrown into prison for having driven a "spirit of divination" from a young slave girl who was thereby rendered unprofitable to her masters (Acts 16:16-40). In the province of Asia, Paul was almost lynched by a mob that was angry because his many conversions had almost destroyed the worship of Diana and Jupiter (Acts 19:22-41). On his return to Jerusalem, the captain of the temple had to rescue him from an angry mob (Acts 21:27-36). Paul was arrested and made appearances before Felix and Agrippa and eventually was taken to Rome, where one tradition says that he was tried and executed, but according to another early church tradition, Paul was released and went to Spain.

All of these remarkable events surrounded Paul, but for some reason (known perhaps to Mr. Perman) secular history left no record of his exploits. We find him mentioned only in biased New Testament and early Christian documents. Secular records don't refer to any of the other apostles either, so what are we to make of this? Could it just possibly be that the spread of Christianity was not exactly the wildfire that Perman claims it was?

We know only that the New Testament claims that the apostles began to preach the resurrection on the day of Pentecost following the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 2). This would have been 50 days later. Because of the long delay between that time and the writing of the gospels and the book of Acts, we must recognize the possibility that some accounts of the apostles' activities were at least exaggerations if not outright legends. However, even if we assume a high degree of accuracy in the book of Acts, this would mean that Jesus was crucified 50 days before the apostles began to preach that he had been resurrected. How then would it have been possible for the Jewish authorities "to waste no time in producing the body of Jesus from the proper tomb"? After a body has been dead that long, a forensic expert would have been needed to establish the identity with certitude.

We must also recognize the distinct possibility that the early Christian movement was so insignificant in its influence that no organized opposition to it even developed at that time. Mr. Perman likes to think in terms of rapidly spreading wildfire, but he can find no historical support for this theory. As noted in the front-page article of this issue, the father of Josephus was a priest in Jerusalem at the very time the book of Acts presented the Jewish leaders as a hand-wringing opposition anguishedly wondering what it could possibly do to counteract the influence that the preaching of the apostles was having on the people. If that picture is even halfway accurate, why wouldn't Josephus have known about it? He made references in his works to various Messianic groups and rebels whom history has almost completely forgotten, but he didn't even mention the Christian movement that, according to Perman, was spreading like "wildfire." How reasonable is it to believe that? It would be as if someone should write a socio-political history of mid-19th century America and not even mention the abolitionist movement and its underground railroads.

Furthermore, if Barker's doctrinal-evolution argument is true, then it is likely that a bodily resurrection of Jesus wasn't even preached until long after the time that he was allegedly crucified. That being the case, there would have been no "corpse to put on a cart and wheel through Jerusalem." Since the gospels were written in Greek for Hellenistic readers well after the time the crucifixion presumably happened, it is likely that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was first proclaimed in places far removed from Jerusalem. This is why there is no merit at all to Paul Althaus's claim that the resurrection proclamation "could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as fact for all concerned." Without assuming the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents, Althaus cannot even know when the bodily resurrection of Jesus was first preached or even if it was first preached in Jerusalem.

*Early Jewish testimony admits the empty tomb.* Perman asserted this and tried to prove it by Matthew's claim that the chief priests bribed the Roman guard into saying that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus and that "this story was still being spread at the time when he [Matthew] was writing." Yes, this is exactly what Matthew reported (28:11-15), but Perman's appeal to this passage is a flagrant assumption that Matthew's record is historically accurate. If we assume that the crucifixion and burial really did happen, how does Perman know that the disciples didn't steal the body and that Matthew fabricated a story about the bribing of the guard as a way of counteracting the truth about what had happened? Perman seems to be an admirer of John Wenham's *Easter Enigma,* which is a highly speculative attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in the resurrection narratives, and in this book Wenham admits that Matthew's story of the Roman guard "bristles with improbabilities at every point" (*Easter Enigma,* Academie Books, 1984, p. 79). Wenham cited the guards' reporting to the chief priests and their accepting a bribe to tell their officers that the body had been stolen while they had fallen asleep on duty as major improbabilities in the story.

So did Wenham find the improbabilities too hard to swallow? Certainly not, because the aim of his book was to defend the accuracy of the resurrection narratives despite their "apparent" inconsistencies. "It is a worthless piece of Christian apologetic at whatever date it was written," Wenham concluded, "*unless it happens to be undeniably true*" (Ibid., original emphasis). So there you have it. "It is so absurd that it just has to be true," Wenham was arguing. Well, I hope he and Matthew Perman will forgive me for saying that it is so absurd I cannot believe it, and that is a much more rational reaction to an implausible story like this..

*Did the disciples steal the body?* "If so," Perman argued, "then the men who delivered to the world the highest moral standards it has ever known were frauds, liars, and hypocrites. Is this credible to believe?" I'm sorry, but I can't share Perman's enthusiasm for Christian morality. I see things in Christianity that I would consider being far from "the highest moral standards" the world has ever known. Be that as it may, let's consider the merits of his claim. Mormonism requires an extremely high moral code of its members. They can't use tobacco or drink beverages that contain alcohol or caffeine, and their "clean" lifestyle probably explains the increased longevity that they enjoy. Do the high moral standards of this religious group in any way prove that Joseph Smith's claims of special revelations from God have to be true? If not, then are we to believe that a "fraud, liar, and hypocrite" gave to the world an extremely high moral standard? Or should we just recognize the complexity of human nature that results in almost all people having both their good and bad qualities? Why should we think that the early leaders of Christianity would have been any different? I would say that the burden is on Matthew Perman to prove that it just isn't possible for "frauds, liars, and hypocrites" to teach high moral standards. Indeed, we have witnessed many times "frauds, liars, and hypocrites," who preach high standards of morality from the pulpit but are later caught in acts that show them to be frauds, liars, and hypocrites. Does anyone really consider this a convincing argument?

*The disciples had real experiences with one who they believed was the risen Christ.* Again, I must point out that this is an argument that is based on an assumption that the New Testament is historically accurate in everything it says. These "real experiences" that Perman referred to were the appearances that Jesus allegedly made to his disciples after his resurrection. Perman claimed that the gospel accounts of these appearances are reliable, because they "claim to have been written by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus and by those who recorded eyewitness testimony." Oh, is that so? Just where did the writer of Matthew claim that he had been an eyewitness of the things that he wrote about? Where did the writer of Mark claim that he had been an eyewitness? The author of Mark didn't identify himself, and only tradition says that it was written by John Mark. If this tradition is true, then he wasn't an eyewitness, so everything that he said has to be recognized as hearsay testimony. John Singleton Copley may think that he knows "pretty well what evidence is," but if his "legal mind" was half as great as Perman claimed it was, then he surely must have known that hearsay testimony is not even permitted in most courtroom situations.

If Perman wants to talk about what "critical scholars" believe, why doesn't he consider that formidable body of critical works that reject the notion that the gospels were written by the individuals whose names have been associated with them? If, for example, the apostle Matthew really wrote the book that bears his name, then why did he feel the need to copy 90% of the gospel of Mark, which was written by someone who wasn't even an eyewitness? Does Perman have a logical explanation for why someone who was an eyewitness to the life and deeds of Jesus felt the need to copy much of his gospel from the work of someone who wasn't an eyewitness? These are matters that Mr. Perman needs to give serious consideration to.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, Cleopas, the "twelve," Cephas, James, the 500 brethren--none of these left any firsthand testimony of their alleged experiences with the risen Christ. All of their "testimony" has been filtered to us through second- and thirdhand sources, and Paul admitted that he had experienced Jesus only in a vision in which he saw a bright light and heard a voice. That is hardly solid evidence regardless of what John Singleton Copley may think.

*The disciples of Jesus were transformed into bold witnesses who died for their belief in the resurrection.* Says who? Well, of course, the New Testament indicates that the disciples were transformed into "bold witnesses," but James was the only apostle whose death was mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 12:1-2). As I noted earlier, stories about the martyrdom of the apostles "for what they believed" are largely legendary and highly inconsistent. So now we have Perman arguing from the assumption that both the New Testament records and church traditions are historically accurate.

For the sake of argument, let's just assume that the traditions are true and that the apostles all died horrible deaths as martyrs for what they believed. What would this prove? If martyrdom proves the truth of what a martyr dies for, then practically every religion on earth can lay claim to being the only "true" religion. Martyrdom is as old as religion itself, so the logical axiom that says, "What proves too much proves nothing at all," shows that there is no merit at all to the argument that the martyrdom of the apostles and earlier disciples proves the truth of what they believed.

Perman made other points that I would like to comment on, but space will not allow it. Perhaps I can address them in a future article. Meanwhile, if he wants to respond to this article, we will publish it.
 



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