Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ehrman vs. Craig in Worcester, MA

William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman debated the question "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus" at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts (mp3, transcript). This debate featured a fair bit of poisoning the well and a few genetic fallacies (from both sides) but we'll overlook that for the moment.

Craig made his usual argument, firstly, to the establishment of the following four historical facts:
  1. Jesus' burial

  2. His empty tomb

  3. Post-mortem appearances

  4. Disciples' belief in resurrection.

From there, Craig goes on to argue that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for these four facts.

Ehrman attempts to refute this argument by showing that any of these facts might easily have had a perfectly natural explanation. The third point, for example, might be explained by enthusiastic religious visions or by the possibility that grief stricken followers may have mistaken someone else for their beloved rabbi, cruelly taken from them. Interestingly, both of these hypotheses enjoy some support in the Christian Scriptures, the former in the writings of Paul (who claimed to have personal visions of Jesus and who counseled his parishioners in the proper methods of receiving divine revelation while in communal meetings) and the latter in a handful of gospel pericopes in which Jesus' forlorn disciples do not recognize him at first but later come to believe they had seen him.

For the empty tomb, Ehrman comes up with an off-the-cuff scenario which is too good to pass up:

Jesus gets buried by Joseph of Arimathea. Two of Jesus' family members are upset that an unknown Jewish leader has buried the body. In the dead of night, these two family members raid the tomb, taking the body off to bury it for themselves. But Roman soldiers on the lookout see them carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets, they confront them, and they kill them on the spot. They throw all three bodies into a common burial plot, where within three days these bodies are decomposed beyond recognition.

This seems perfectly plausible to me, although we do not have any evidence one way or the other. Once an empty tomb is actually found, it is only a matter of time until the resurrection rumors and claims of personal revelation start flying around the community of those who once followed Jesus and considered him to be the Messiah promised of God.

Ehrman comes up with a few other naturalistic scenarios, few of which Craig even seriously considers even for a moment. When he does do so, however, he does so badly. Here is an example:

Well, look at these other hypotheses. Perhaps, for example, family members of Jesus stole the body. Isn't that more probable?" I don't think so. Notice there's no motive in that case for stealing the body; the family members of Jesus didn't believe in him during his lifetime. Nobody else other than Joseph and his servants and the women disciples even knew where the body had been interred. The time was insufficient for such a conspiracy to be hatched and launched between Friday night and Sunday morning. Also the grave clothes in the tomb disprove the hypothesis of tomb robbery; nobody would undress the body before taking it away.

Here, Craig assumes facts quite apart from those which he established earlier as part of a widespread scholarly consensus, such as the grave clothes in the tomb. Earlier in this same debate, Craig maintained that "the presence of inconsistencies in a later, less reliable source does nothing to undermine the credibility of an earlier, more credible source" but fails to note that the earlier more credible source in this case is that of Mark, which makes no mention whatsoever of grave clothes lying in the tomb! He also seems

Possibly the most unique part of this debate was an admirable but quixotic attempt at Bayesian maths by Dr. Craig. He gets the basic idea right, but mischaracterizes how the formulae ought should apply to his own position as well as that of his opponent. I'm boring myself just recounting this part, so I'll move on.

I'd give each debater 4.5 stars on substance, with -0.5 for snarkiness and circumstantial ad hom. Overall, this was a four-star debate.

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