Occasionally, a Christian friend who knows that I’ve abandoned Christianity will try to “help” me in a nice sort of way (and sometimes in a not so nice sort of way, but that’s another story). I had one of the nice experiences yesterday, when someone gave me a small book to read called The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? by Richard Bewes. I decided to read it carefully, just to see if I had anything new to learn on the subject of the validity of Christianity.
The author begins with a short chapter called “Just Supposing” in which he describes a conversation with a man who feels sorry for Christians, i.e. wasting your lives on an afterlife pipedream. This was excuse for the author to present a “what if you’re wrong?” argument, i.e. there’s a God you’ve ignored your whole life that you’ll have to deal with. This chapter was pointless, and was a hairsbreadth away from the emotionally manipulative fear-mongering that is characteristic of religion.
The author’s brief argument for the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts relies on noting how closely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John resemble each other. He makes no mention of the fact that it’s actually Matthew, Mark, and Luke that are similar, and John is quite different. He claims that since three different people, Matthew, Mark and Luke (if those were the authors) individually told the same account with a high degree of overlap, then the account must be true. He doesn’t mention the highly plausible theory that Matthew, Mark and Luke are all sourced from a single earlier document known by scholars as Proto-Mark, which could equally account for the accuracy, regardless of how genuine or otherwise Proto-Mark was.
The author admits that the earliest fragment of any New Testament book is a piece of John dating from around 125 AD, ninety-five years after the alleged resurrection of Christ, and yet he is happy to state that we possess eyewitness accounts of the resurrection. Let me illustrate the problem. Imagine I were taking the stand in a court case and said, “I have an eyewitness account that the deed was done.” When asked to present this eyewitness account, I would then have to say, “Well, Fred saw it happen, but he didn’t write anything down for twenty years. And I only have someone else’s say-so that it was Fred who wrote it. And I don’t actually have what Fred wrote. What he wrote is long gone. Oh, but somebody else copied it before it was destroyed. No, I don’t have that copy either, but I have another one – or a piece of it anyway. This was from 95 years after Fred witnessed the deed. There you go: your eyewitness account.” I would be laughed out of court! Christians ought not to be making this outrageous statement about eyewitness accounts when they are continually relying on second-hand information.
From this point on, the author assumes his readers are on the same page and that every word of the Gospel accounts can be taken as truth. The Bible says the tomb of Jesus was empty, so it must be true. The Bible says that people saw Jesus afterwards, so this must be true. This is called evidence for the resurrection, and it is the only “evidence” presented. The author goes on to say, “Not even the smallest dent would have been made upon the world unless the disciples had been changed.” He’s saying the resurrection must have happened, because it changed the world. In other words, Christianity must be true, because if it weren’t it couldn’t have grown so big. Well, how about the impact of other major world religions? The impact of Islam is nothing to be sniffed at, for instance. Also, no mention is made of such factors as Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity to be the state religion of Rome in the 4th century. I think that might have had something to do with Christianity’s expansion across the world.
The author mentions the writings of Jewish historian Josephus as further evidence of Jesus as a historical character. Josephus wrote The Antiquities of the Jews in the late 1st century, and the volume states:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
The authenticity of the above passage been disputed since the 17th century, and by the mid 18th century the consensus view was that it had at a minimum been altered by Christian scribes, and possibly was outright forgery. Think about it. We’re reading a Jewish historian admitting that Jesus was the Christ, and Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Christ, otherwise they would be Christians, wouldn’t they? Something smells off. Yet it doesn’t stop Richard Bewes, with his personal agenda, from quoting Josephus and completely disregarding the consensus view of historians on the matter.
Instead of using the available space in the book to provide detailed arguments, the author wastes space by accusing non-Christian readers of having a moral barrier to Christianity. He says it’s not a matter of evidence but a matter of willingness, because we may find the idea of converting to Christianity upsetting. In reality, the Christian is as suspectible as the non-Christian in being swayed by his personal desires. How about people who convert to Christianity for purely emotional reasons, in the absence of evidence? When a belief system is demanding your mind, body and soul, evidence is paramount. Smart people, Christian or otherwise, rule their emotions and don’t allow themselves to be ruled by them.
Doubting Thomas gets the limelight towards the end of the book, Thomas being the man who would not believe the resurrection unless he saw Jesus for himself. The author’s argument is that Thomas should have been able to trust the words of the people he had been living among, those who witnessed the risen Christ. And to us, he likewise says: “The reports of the original first-hand witnesses are enough for faith.” Oh yeah, that would be those first-hand witnesses that we don’t have.
The final page of the book is headed “Check the facts!” and is a list of Bible verses from the New Testament. I think it’s fair to say that the only evidence for the resurrection of Jesus are the writings of the New Testament. Beyond that there is nothing. Are the Gospel accounts real history? That’s the big question, isn’t it? I have yet to hear a convincing argument that they are history. There is certainly no corroborating evidence from other 1st century sources to say that Jesus was a real person. And there’s even a case for the view that the story of Jesus is a retelling of a much older myth of life, death and rebirth. History is full of such saviour God stories which have high degrees of overlap. Even the Old Testament account of Joseph appears to have remarkable similaries to the account of Jesus’ life.
The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? is a borderline dishonest book, presenting flimsy arguments that bear no weight when scrutinised. The Christian who uses a book like this can walk away feeling that his faith has been strengthened, as long as he doesn’t think too deeply about statements like “We have eyewitness accounts of the resurrection.”