Download Free Bonus Content
Sign up for the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter and be the first to see new episodes a whole week before they release! Plus you’ll also gain access to our bonus content archive packed with exclusive content and show updates.
This includes the ebook edition of Bart Ehrman’s debate with Peter J Williams: Can We trust The Story of Jesus?
About this episode:
The rise of Christianity has shaped the modern world, but are its historical origins best explained in purely naturalistic terms, or the explanation the first followers gave – that Jesus had risen from the dead?
New Testament historian Bart Ehrman doesn’t believe in the miraculous claims of the New Testament, including the resurrection of Jesus. New Testament scholar Justin Bass argues in his book ‘The Bedrock of Christianity’ for a number of facts concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus, that point to its truth. They debate scripture, history and the resurrection.
Share this episode:
More from this season:
- Episode 2: Christianity, the Sexual Revolution and the future of the West
- Episode 3: Can Science and Religion Tell us What it Means to be Human?
- Episode 4: Do Consciousness and Near Death Experiences Point to an Afterlife?
- Episode 5: The Robot Race, Part I: Could AI ever replace humanity?
- Episode 6: The Robot Race, Part II: How should humanity flourish in an AI world?
- Episode 7: Is Religion Good or Bad for Society?
Justin Brierley (JB), Justin Bass (JBS) & Bart Ehrman (BE)
JB: Hello and welcome to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable, brought to you in partnership with the John Templeton Foundation. I’m your host, Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation is all about conversations on science, faith, philosophy and culture with some of the biggest thinkers across the belief spectrum. Today we are discussing the central claim of Christian faith: Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead? The rise of Christianity, of course, has shaped the modern world but are its historical origins best explained by naturalistic means or is the explanation the first followers gave, that Jesus had risen from the dead, still a plausible option for people today?
Well, Bart Ehrman is a well-known New Testament historian whose books include, ‘Misquoting Jesus’, ‘The Triumph of Christianity’, and ‘Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife’. Bart is an agnostic. He doesn’t believe in the miraculous claims of the bible, including the resurrection of Jesus. But he’s always happy to discuss it with those who do. One of those is Justin Bass, a New Testament scholar who’s taught at various institutions including in Jordan in the Middle East. Justin is a Christian and in his book, ‘The Bedrock of Christianity’, he argues there are a number of bedrock facts concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus agreed upon by the majority of New Testament scholars. And today he’s going to be explaining why he believes the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the best explanation of both Scripture and history.
So Justin and Bart, welcome to the show. I hope it won’t be too confusing for you, Bart, having two Justins in front of you?
BE: I do feel like I’m being ganged up on. But it’s ok, I can handle it.
JB: You guys have met before, haven’t you? Do you remember your last outing with each other?
BE: Oh yes, yes I do. We had a public debate.
JB: What was it on?
BE: I don’t know, what was it on?
JBS: Did the historical Jesus claim to be divine? I picked it so I would remember it.
BE: I know which side we took!
JBS: I didn’t convince Bart, I tried my hardest.
JB: Well, you’ve got a second go. You’ve got a second chance.
(BE: This is round two, here we go…)
JBS: And hopefully there won’t be a round three, this will be the day of salvation for Bart.
BE: Well, I’m hoping that for you too.
JB: We shall see. I can see this is going to be a fun one.
But it’s a serious topic, you know, this is an issue that obviously is at the centre of the Christian faith. We’ve heard your story before, Bart, but essentially you did at once believe these claims but obviously through a process of time and various experiences decided actually ultimately you believe the bible is ultimately just a work of human history and not of divine origin.
Obviously, Justin, you’ve come to different conclusions yourself. I think, in a sense, because you’re making the positive case today for the resurrection we’ll start with you, Justin, if that’s ok. Can you just give us a thumbnail sketch of how you make the case for the resurrection in your book?
JBS: Yes, and thanks again for having me on. Thanks for doing it again with me, Bart, this is really great. As Bart well knows, New Testament scholars today and over the last 250 years of biblical scholarship disagree on tens of thousands of things. But what they agree on I think is fascinating and I think, you know, we should focus on those things. These are important things to look at. And I think it’s valuable to know what is it they agree on, what’s kind of the common ground?
And so my book is basically the goal is to capture where that agreement is among scholars and to put it simply on these issues, It’s Paul. So Paul, being a bedrock eye witness, that he believed he saw the risen Jesus, this has not been denied across the board throughout history. When it comes to his sources, when it comes to Paul’s early letters, when it comes to traditions that he is quoting within the letters, it’s agreed upon that he wrote those letters. It’s agreed upon that he’s getting these traditions from early on, probably when he hung out with Peter for two weeks, with James the Lord’s brother.
And then we get bedrock facts that I focus on concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection that come forth from those bedrock sources. And those are namely these: Jesus’s crucifixion, then we have the claim, the actual claim of Jesus’ resurrection – I think that alone is just an innovative, unparalleled, unique idea that had not been known. Nobody was expecting a resurrected Messiah, let alone a crucified Messiah in the middle of history. The third is the appearances, which largely are catalogued in 1 Corinthians 15, one of these early traditions. And then the fourth would be – I could use the title from Bart’s book, ‘The Triumph of Christianity’ – so the fourth is basically how the early Christians, starting in Jerusalem, the very place that Jesus was crucified, went on, launched from there and went on to transform the Roman Empire, went on to transform many nations, laid the foundations of Western civilisation and ultimately still today is the largest religion on the planet. And, all the peer research shows, throughout the 21st century it’s going to continue to be. We have a religious future, a religious landscape of the world in our future. So that’s some bare facts and sources to lay out.
JB: It’s a helpful one. Now, we’re not going to cover in depth all of those facts on this conversation and I thought we might specifically focus in on maybe the last two that you mentioned, particularly the appearances and the rise of Christianity.
Let’s just briefly touch at least on those others; the fact that Jesus died and the claim of the resurrection. Now, presumably, you don’t contest that both of those things happened – Jesus’s death on the cross, Bart, and indeed people claimed that a Messiah had been resurrected in history? Do you want to add any thoughts?
BE: Well, I might. I mean, the problem with saying that every historian agrees on something is problematic because, of course, there are people who deny that Jesus existed. The weird thing that… (JBS: And I mock them well in the book. I quote you.) The strange thing is some of the people who think that Jesus didn’t exist do think that he was crucified. That’s an oddity! So I think just about every historian whose really worth their weight would say yes, absolutely. They would say more things about Jesus that they would agree on. But they certainly agree that he was crucified and they certainly agree that afterward the disciples claim he was raised from the dead, absolutely.
JB: Ok, great. Well, we’ve got a measure of agreement to start with. And I suppose what we want to know is ultimately how do we put these facts together? And I think that means probably just sketching out a little bit more about… well, why don’t we start with the appearances, Justin? So, tell us about these appearances, let’s find out where Bart agrees or disagrees with you concerning the nature of them and what was reported and then we’ll go from there.
JBS: Thanks Justin. Here’s a way to think about the appearances; I love Acts 17, I’m sure Bart loves this chapter, one of my favourite chapters in maybe the entire New Testament when Paul goes to Athens and he’s preaching on the Areopagus. But before that it actually says that Paul was interacting daily with those who happened to be there in the market place and on the streets. And so here Paul is a street preacher and I love the idea of him engaging with pagans and I like to imagine, how did Paul engage with them? What was the content? We’re not told the content of those conversations. And so I like to think, in light of the appearances, I think the appearances probably would have been one of the things that he would have presented to a pagan as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. He probably would have said something like, “Hey, Jesus appeared to me and I hated him! I believed he was cursed of God on the cross. I believed his movement needed to be wiped out. I was on my way to arrest Christians and ultimately he appeared to me and he loved me and he forgave me and he can forgive you.” And then maybe the pagan was kind of like a Bart Ehrman sceptic and said something like, “why should I believe you, Paul”? And Paul would say, “Well, what about Peter? Peter was his chief disciple and Jesus appeared to him, I can introduce you to him. And what about James, his brother? And what about a group of disciples that ultimately were with Jesus for three years that he appeared to them multiple times and also 500 people even Jesus appeared to at one time. And hundreds of them – I’ve met many of them – hundreds of them are still alive and you can go and investigate and talk to them about what it was like to see Jesus.” I like to just imagine that it was something like that. But, you know, I find that compelling. And I think that, you know, that kind of layout is what Luke means in the beginning of Acts when he refers to the convincing proofs. He says there were these convincing proofs, tekmerion, this great Greek word that was used for irrefutable statements in rhetorical Greek documents. And these convincing proofs were probably the appearances and I think that really has been what’s convincing to Christians throughout the last 2,000 years.
JB: And your contention is that most New Testament historians, be they Christian or not, agree that these claims happened; that people said that they had seen the risen Jesus or had met the risen Jesus at some point?
JBS: Yea, let me get specific because I get specific in the book. So there’s actually, by my count, thirteen appearances of Jesus; four individual appearances to individuals and nine to groups. But four of those – the four individuals that’s one to probably discuss here – the four individuals are the ones that are pretty much bedrock. Virtually all will accept that Peter believed that Jesus appeared to him, James the brother of Jesus believed he appeared to him, Paul obviously believed he appeared to him and then we can bring in Mary Magdalene as I’m pretty sure Bart – he can correct me if I’m wrong – believes Mary Magdalene also had that experience. She’s accounted for in all four gospels being the first to actually witness the risen Jesus. So those four would be kind of the bedrock eye witnesses.
JB: Well what if we stick with those specific ones and get your take on that, Bart. To what degree do you agree that at least people claimed to have seen the risen Jesus?
BE: I think it’s probably right. Paul certainly, Paul tells us that he did. The problem with these others, of course, is that they don’t tell us that. So we don’t have… Peter didn’t leave us writing where he said, I saw Jesus. James didn’t leave us writings. We don’t know who the 500 were. So what historians tend to do, of course, is to examine their sources of information. And the most important thing is to know what the sources are, to determine whether they are reliable or not, and to see what they say. So we infer… I think that Peter probably did say that he saw Jesus and I think James probably did. I don’t know about the 500, they come out of nowhere in 1 Corinthians 15.
JBS: Mary Magdalene?
BE: Well, we don’t have anything from her either, obviously.
JBS: But do you believe she had an experience?
BE: Yes, I do. And I believe that in a lot of religious traditions you get reports like that. And so my issue with this kind of bedrock thing is whether it’s appropriate to consider these kinds of claims outside of other claims for other religious figures. Do we treat them equally, or do we provide a kind of a… do we say it’s more likely true if it’s in the bible and less likely true if it’s in the Mormon tradition? Or if it’s in the Muslim tradition? Or it’s in Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, or not just mythology, Ancient Greek and Roman history? And so do you give equal weight to everything and, if so, why is it that you prefer these witnesses to the others?
JBS: That’s a great question. What is the evidence? So my question would be, what is the evidence? You brought up Islam, you brought up Mormonism. Well, in Islam, the only supernatural claim is to Muhammed. It’s one eye witness. And I agree with Deuteronomy, we shouldn’t trust anything unless it’s at least two or three witnesses. So we have four that you agree with in Christianity. When it comes to Mormonism, again, Joseph Smith is the only person to say that Moroni appeared to him and he sent Jesus and God the Father and a lot of other strange things. But only one person, only one eye witness in both those cases, both those religions you brought up. I’d like to hear the evidence for the Greek and Roman…
BE: I don’t know if you’ve studied Mormonism very much… there are eleven eye witnesses.
JBS: To the golden plates
JBS: So we’re going to compare the golden plates to the resurrection of Jesus?
BE: No, I’m just saying if you’re a historian and what you’re doing is you’re saying we’re going to trust eye witnesses…
JBS: Ok, I’m fine with them seeing golden plates but what does that tell us?
BE: Four of them say they saw Moroni give them to him. Four saw him. Who actually signed affidavits.
JBS: Half of them left the faith.
BE: They left, no, they left Joseph Smith, but when they abandoned Joseph Smith they continued to say that they saw Moroni. So, do you credit those?
JBS: Ok, well that would only be three. But to abandon Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith is the foundational prophet.
BE: It’s four plus Joseph Smith, that’s five. I’m just saying are you being impartial. Are you saying it’s more likely because these are biblical witnesses? In those cases, by the way, we actually have their testimony and it’s within 100 years. So with the New Testament you don’t have Peter’s testimony or James’s testimony or the 500… so you don’t have four. You’ve got Paul.
JBS: But what we have is good enough to convince you. For the New Testament eye witnesses, you’ve already agreed that Jesus appeared to them.
BE: I believe they claimed it. But that isn’t proof that it happened.
JBS: Who else has Moroni appeared to, other than those people, in history?
BE: We’re talking about a particular event; was Jesus raised from the dead?
JBS: But other things can support another event, right? So if Jesus is appearing to people, for example, all throughout history…
BE: That’s a separate argument. I think we have to take one argument at a time because if you start piling arguments we have to consider each of those arguments in turn.
JBS: Ok, well I’m just giving you my reasoning why Moroni is not convincing.
BE: I understand but I don’t think you’ve listened to my case here. You are basing everything you said…
JBS: I’m not basing everything. We are starting with appearances. This isn’t my only argument.
BE: You said the bedrock is Paul because Paul gives us the information about Cephas and James, correct?
JBS: I said Paul is the bedrock in the sense that the vast majority of scholars agree when it comes to Paul. That’s what I mean by bedrock.
BE: How many ancient Christian writings do we have by somebody who says in those writings that he saw Jesus?
JBS: Directly, Paul.
BE: Thank you.
JBS: We have Peter. I would say Peter wrote 1 and 2 Peter and in 2 Peter, Peter says he saw the transfiguration.
BE: That’s not the resurrection.
JBS: John saw the risen Jesus, at least in heaven, in Revelation.
BE: Are you counting that as a historical source?
JBS: Of seeing Jesus again? That would contribute to the argument. Again, that’s the point, these things go back to the original miraculous claim.
BE: Ok, let me try again, because I want us to be clear of what we’re talking about.
JBS: You have nothing beyond those three witnesses with Moroni, nothing.
BE: Let me finish. You’re saying that Paul gives us the evidence for himself he saw Jesus. But none of the others, you think Peter wrote 1 and 2 Peter and…ok. But that would be two. I’m saying that in the case of Moroni giving Joseph Smith the plates we have four. So if the idea is that you trust eye witnesses who swear to what they saw and that were doing this impartially as historians, in other words we’re not trying to back up our faith, we’re not trying to prove we’re right about something. Historians don’t do that. Historians try to figure out what happened in the past. And they evaluate their sources. So what I’m saying is if you’re going to take the sources that agree with you and you’re saying that they’re probably right, not because they agree with you but because they are reliable sources, because you’ve got Paul and you’ve got Peter, say. Ok, well I’ve got four people for Moroni giving the plates and these people are highly religious people whose religiosity was never questioned. I am not saying that I think that it happened. I don’t think it happened. On the way you’re mounting an argument for Paul and Peter I don’t see how you can exclude the argument for Moroni.
JB: So let’s hear from Justin. So essentially, Justin, is the question here is there better evidence that the resurrection claims of the first followers of Jesus are better evidence than other claims from other religious traditions like Mormonism and so on where they also claim to have been eye witnesses to something miraculous?
JBS: Exactly. And what I was saying with… when it comes to the four eye witnesses, one of them is Joseph Smith.
BE: No, no, no. There’s four in addition to Joseph Smith who claim they saw him. So there is five.
JB: Ok, well, regardless, I guess I want to hear if you do regard them as different in some way to the Mormon claim?
JBS: Because they’re claiming a supernatural being named Moroni appeared to them. And so who else then has this Moroni figure appeared to? Because there’s been other people that have claimed supernatural things have happened but see one of the things that I would say, well, who else have they appeared to? And who else has Moroni appeared to other than those four?
BE: So now I just want you to agree that’s a separate argument now?
JBS: I build a case with multiple arguments, it’s not just one.
BE: So when it comes to corroborative evidence of later witnesses what about the mother Mary? Now, Mary appears regularly to people, it’s completely well documented. Thousands of people claim this happens and I’m going to assume that since you’re not Catholic you don’t think these appearances happened?
JBS: I’m open to the evidence and I do think some of the stories (…18.25?) Mary is compelling.
BE: So you think she does appear to people?
JBS: I don’t know.
BE: You just said the evidence was compelling.
JBS: I said it’s something to look into. I’m saying it’s enough to look into.
BE: Why don’t you look into it?
JBS: I have looked into it. But let me answer; I think it lacks the unexpectedness. So… and it normally happens in Catholic contexts…
BE: No, no this is completely wrong.
JB: Let’s let Justin finish his point.
JBS: It normally happens in Catholic contexts, ok. And so people who are already Catholic… so they pray to Mary regularly, they pray to saints, they expect this kind of thing. And it’s happened in only a handful of situations that have actually been confirmed by the Church. But I ask you, if Mary is actually appearing to people, would that support the resurrection or not support the resurrection?
BE: I will answer that question by telling you that we have better evidence for Mary appearing to people, many groups of people in the modern period, than we have for Jesus appearing to people in the modern period. By your criteria, that would mean that it’s more likely that Mary is showing up. By your criteria. By my criteria, neither one happens.
JBS: Ok, but if Mary is appearing to people, does it more support the resurrection or not?
BE: Yes, if Mary is showing up to people then that would support… (19:52?)
JBS: So your example, to parallel, to support the evidence of the resurrection would actually support the resurrection?
BE: No, you’re not understanding my argument. I’m saying that…
JBS: But that’s true, right? What I’ve just said is true. (BE: No.) You’ve just admitted that. You said if Mary is appearing to people and you think there’s a lot of evidence for it – I don’t think so, I think it lacks the unexpectedness the apostles, these people like Paul, Peter, Mary were in no way expecting Jesus to appear to them. In no way – so, Catholics who have an expectation for this type of thing, it makes sense why it would happen. So the arguments for the…
BE: You’re arguing three or four things at once. I don’t think you’ve read the literature on Mary because in many, many instances… (JBS: I’ve read a lot of it.) Then you know full well that many times it’s not expected. Because, if you’ve read the literature…
JBS: No, of course it’s expected, that’s the point.
BE: Then you haven’t read the literature. There are many testimonies of people who don’t expect it and can’t believe it.
JBS: But they know about Christianity, they know about people appearing to people, they know about the resurrection of Jesus. That’s what I’m saying.
BE: And is that different from Jesus showing up to people?
JBS: Yea, where was the expectation for Jesus appearing to people?
BE: You mean by people who knew him?
JBS: Yea, what was the expectation?
BE: Where is the expectation for Mary? They’re not expecting her to show up and she does.
JBS: But they’re in a worldview that allows that.
BE: They are too in a worldview. They are in an apocalyptic worldview that expects there is a Messiah.
JBS: Where was there an expectation of a Messiah rising from the dead, tell me that.
BE: That isn’t what generated the appearances. They thought they saw Jesus afterwards. Then they concluded he was the Messiah. They weren’t expecting the Messiah to rise. And they weren’t expecting Mary to appear.
JBS: Ok, then how did they believe Jesus appeared to them?
BE: They saw him.
JBS: Ok. So what did they see?
BE: How do we know? What do they see when they see Mary? You don’t think they see Mary.
JBS: Well that’s what I’m saying, I think some of the evidence of Mary is that they saw something.
BE: Well I think they saw something with Jesus too, of course. I’ve never argued against that.
JBS: But that’s the thing it lead them to say something that was completely unexpected. So I think it’s compelling evidence that it actually is the raised Jesus.
JB: You guys are going ten to the dozen here and for the sake of the viewer or listener I just want to be really clear on this point that you’re making at this point, Justin, as there are a lot of different points being thrown out here. But it’s that you say that the idea of a resurrected Messiah who had been crucified and resurrected was completely unexpected in that Jewish culture and therefore… is all you’re essentially saying is it’s unlikely they would have made something like that up? There had to be some kind of experience that came behind that claim because it was such an unexpected claim.
Whereas, I think what I understand you saying, appearances of the Virgin Mary, although they may not have been expected in that moment or whatever by the people experiencing them, there is a general expectation in Catholicism that that sort of thing happens and therefore it’s not so hard to believe that it’s been generated… I just wanted to make sure we got that really clear.
BE: No, I think it’s a good clarification and I think that’s absolutely right. And I think it’s what happened with the followers of Jesus as well. They did not expect a Messiah to be raised from the dead. There is no expectation that a Messiah was going to die and raise from the dead so they didn’t expect that. The question is what happened to generate that belief? My view is it’s absolutely right that Peter probably, Mary probably, Paul, certainly I would say, thought they saw Jesus alive afterwards. Something happened to them to make them think that Jesus was alive. It’s not because they are expecting the Messiah to rise from the dead.
What we don’t know is who else had these experiences. What we know is that there are claims that other people did after the first people claimed it. And so once you have a follower of Jesus like Peter say, “I saw the Lord”, it’s not implausible, in fact it’s… others start saying, “Oh I saw him too”.
JB: So it’s a bit of a copycat scenario?
BE: So it’s the same thing with Mary. It’s exactly the same thing. And so my point is not that that proves that Mary was raised from the dead or anything. My point is that if that’s the kind of argument you want to make about Jesus you can make it about other people that is just as plausible.
JB: Is the historical issue here then that you think that this claim that Messiah had been raised was a post facto kind of rationalisation of these experiences they had?
BE: Absolutely. They thought he was the Messiah before he died in my judgement.
JB: Right, so they did think he was the Messiah…
BE: They weren’t expecting him to die. He died. One of them, two of them, three of them said, “I’ve seen the Lord”. And then they had to figure out, how does that work? And if he’s alive again it must mean that God’s raised him from the dead. These are apocalyptic Jews. Apocalyptic Jews, the only way they can imagine life after death is an embodied existence. They don’t believe the soul lives on after death. Jews believe that the body and soul are one thing and that afterlife, if there is an afterlife, it’s body and soul. So that if they see Jesus alive afterwards it must mean that his souls come back into his body. How does that happen? It can only happen when God does it. God has raised him from the dead. Once they say he raised him from the dead and they already knew he was the Messiah that’s when they start saying the Messiah was raised.
JB: Quick response and we’ll go to a break.
JBS: I’d say that there’s other categories that they could have, as Jews, thought of. The Maccabees died horrible deaths and they believed they lived on exalted in the heaven. You have many other examples of this kind of disembodied, continuing to live on, but they will rise again at the final resurrection. But what the early Christians said is that Jesus had risen again now and that the resurrection had already begun. Bart agrees with that. But where did that idea come from? That’s the unexpectedness.
BE: It came from apocalyptic Judaism.
JBS: Right, but you’re saying they put it together? You’re saying they’re the geniuses that put together this innovative, unparalleled idea that changed the world? That all goes back to the brain of Mary Magdalene?
BE: Changing the world has nothing to do with it. The issue is what does an apocalyptic Jew think if they see somebody who had died who’s alive now? Now, when you see your grandmother in your bedroom two weeks after she died – typically today this happens a lot. 1 out of 8 people in our country have a vision of a deceased loved one and are convinced they are alive again or that they are alive – In our context, we believe that the body and the soul are separable and the soul lives on afterwards. So when you see your grandmother in your bedroom as one 1 out of 8 people do – not necessarily a gran but some beloved one – typically what you think it their soul has gone to heaven they have come down to visit me. Because that is our mentality of an afterlife. Apocalypticists don’t have that view. Their view is that if somebody is alive after they’ve died it has to be a resurrection because the soul doesn’t exist outside the body. So when they see Jesus he’s got to have a soul back in a body which means God has raised him from the dead. That’s the first thing they know and they don’t have any theology about it, it’s just, “Oh my God, he’s come back from the dead”! And then they work it out.
JB: Quick response and we’ll move to our break.
JBS: Josephus, for example, definitely believes souls exist outside…
BE: He’s not an apocalyptic Jew. He’s anti-apocalyptic. I don’t know if you’ve studied Josephus. Josephus is famously anti-apocalyptic. We’re talking about apocalyptic Jews.
JBS: Bart assumes that they just saw something but he hasn’t explained to us what they saw. And whatever they saw changed their complete worldview.
BE: I don’t know what you see when you see your grandmother either.
JBS: Ok, but I definitely don’t say she’s raised from the dead.
BE: You say she’s still alive.
JBS: But she’s still dead though, right?
BE: In Jesus case, my point is…
JBS: In our case, if you’re going to use that parallel, in our case, when we see someone in the afterlife, yes, we think they are still alive in heaven but we say they are dead here on earth. (BE: We say the body is dead). But that’s not what the early Christians said. They said Jesus had risen from the dead. A crucified man had risen from the dead.
BE: Yes, you need to listen to why that is. We say the body is dead and the souls is alive because we believe in the difference between the body and the soul. Apocalyptic Jews did not. They could not say that a soul is still living because his body can’t be alive unless his soul come back into it. They don’t have our view of the separation of body and soul.
JBS: I disagree with you… (28:49…?)
JB: We’re going to take a break and we’ll come back to this. We can keep going on the appearances or we can… it might naturally segue into the next bedrock fact which Justin has which is the rise of Christianity itself which you think was unique, this claim being made, unlike other Jewish revolutionary movements, the Jesus movement was different to those. So we’ll talk about that.
We’re talking here at The Big Conversation about the central claim of Christianity that Jesus rose from the dead. My two guests are Bart Ehrman and Justin Bass, we’ll be back in just a moment.
Welcome back to The Big Conversation, we’re talking to Bart Ehrman and Justin Bass today asking the central question; Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead? And just in that last section, Bart, you were obviously going at it with Justin there as to whether this constitutes evidence for a resurrection or whether it’s just a post hoc rationalisation by apocalyptic Jews of the fact that they had some kind of an experience.
Now what do you say those experiences were? They say it was of a physically resurrected Messiah. What do you say they probably actually experienced from your perspective?
BE: So we have lots of records, of course, of people being seen after they’re dead. It happens, as I was saying earlier, just today it happens for 1 out of 8 people. They see something and they think it’s that person. Or they hear, or they touch, they can feel them and all sort of experiences like that. And throughout history there have been all of these thousands of appearances of Mother Mary.
And we have eye witnesses to Romulus being raised from the dead, people saw him after he died. Apollonius of Tyana, you know, we have all the… so, in every instance you do have to ask, of course, the historian wants to know what really happened. And in most cases, all you can do is come up with options. There’s no way of knowing what they saw partly because they don’t tell us. In this case, we only have one person who actually said he saw Jesus and that’s Paul, but he doesn’t actually say what he saw. He says that God revealed his Son to me and he says, ‘I saw Jesus’, but he doesn’t give us any details so we don’t know. But it’s quite easy to come up with a list of things that have led to that kind of claim over the centuries and are still there today; some people have a dream, they think that they were awake when they saw it. Some people have hallucinations, some people see somebody that looks similar and they mistake him, somebody sees something at a distance. So what happened in the case of Peter or Paul, we can’t say. Just as we can’t say for any of the others and that’s my point.
JB: You don’t think they were just inventing it, they had some kind of an experience? (BE: Some people think so) But not the one that they claimed to have had?
BE: I really don’t think that Paul was making things up, I really don’t. I don’t think he was lying about it. He really thought that he saw Jesus.
JBS: And I’ll just add, Bart says this is happening all the time. Where does someone project an enemy apparition?
BE: Well, it happens sometimes. If you feel guilty, for example. If you feel guilty about what you’ve done to somebody leading to…
JBS: Give me an example.
BE: Well, if you read the psychological literature on visions you actually find a bit of it…
JBS: Anything specific?
BE: Well, they aren’t names, they’re just people…
JBS: Pretty sure, not in the literature, no. There is no projection of enemies in the literature.
BE: So what I’d say is that some people have hypothesised that Paul felt very guilty, that Peter sorry felt very guilty about his denial of Jesus and that he started out… and so because of his guilt he saw something. It’s very common, one of the most common reasons for seeing a bereaved or loved one is because you felt like you mistreated them before they died and the guilt creates a… and so…
JBS: Again that doesn’t guarantee saying an unparalleled claim of resurrection of a Messiah that was crucified. He could have felt like he forgave him but it doesn’t mean he would have said that.
BE: And not only that but I never said it. And so that isn’t my claim.
JBS: You said that’s what caused Peter’s claim.
BE: Peter did not have…
JBS: He didn’t claim Jesus rose from the dead?
BE: Ok. What I’ve been saying is Peter did not claim that the Messiah got raised from the dead the second he saw Jesus. What he thought was Jesus had come back to life.
JBS: You’re saying he figured it out as an apocalyptic Jew?
BE: I’m going with your argument.
JBS: But Paul; how does Paul imagine a crucified man rising from the dead that he hates, that he thinks is cursed by God, appearing to him? I’m looking forward to that one.
JB: Ok, go ahead, Bart.
BE: So, Paul did not get this information from Peter and James. Paul was persecuting Christians before he ever met Peter and James. So he knows the Christian claims already. There have been a lot of psychological analyses about what might have happened to somebody who feels guilt over what they’re doing to these people that would generate a vision and to have a conversion. As you probably know, there are instances in which people who are enemies of Christ have visions in which they get converted. And so Paul would be in that category.
JBS: But, again, Sundar Singh by the way would be a great example of this, this was an Indian who became a great missionary. He was burning bibles, he was persecuting Christians in the early 1900s, and ultimately he had a vision of Jesus and he was transformed like Paul. But, again, that happened after the Christian claim has already been made.
BE: So did Paul. That’s my point, it’s exactly, the same, so you can’t say it doesn’t happen to enemies.
JBS: So you think he understood this?
BE: Because you just gave the example of an enemy where it happened.
JBS: So you think he understood the Christian claim clearly as he was persecuting?
BE: He understood they were saying that Jesus got raised from the dead, absolutely.
BE: Why else would he persecute them?
JBS: And then he imagined on the Damascus Road… it was all his imagination?
BE: I didn’t say he imagined anything on the Damascus Road.
JBS: Well, what happened on the Damascus Road?
BE: I just said that there are lots of options and that we don’t know because he doesn’t tell us.
JBS: He said he saw the Lord Jesus, that’s what he said.
BE: Ok, where did he see him? When did he see him? How did he see him? How close was he? Did they talk? Did they spend a week together?
JBS: Seeing him is good enough, right?
BE: He thought he saw Jesus. I’ve been saying that all along.
JBS: I’m asking why you don’t believe him. Why do you think Paul is wrong?
BE: Why don’t I think a person got raised from the dead?
JBS: Why don’t you think Jesus got raised from the dead?
BE: I don’t think anybody gets raised from the dead.
JBS: Not anybody?
BE: Because it violates laws of nature.
JBS: So you have a materialist, fundamentalist view of…
BE: Well, let me ask this; I mean, you think God raised Jesus from the dead, right? Do you think God can break the laws of mathematics?
JBS: God can’t contradict himself, no. Because He is… mathematics is his language.
BE: That’s right. The other language he uses is physics. Can he break the laws of physics?
JBS: I think we’re getting off…
BE: No, this is precisely… you asked me why I don’t believe it. And the reason I don’t believe it is because it violates the laws of physics and I don’t think God…
JBS: He feed things into a system, for sure.
BE: I don’t think God can break the law of physics any more than he can break the law of mathematics.
JBS: Feeding things into a system to bring a dead person to life is not the same thing as making two plus two five. They’re completely different things.
BE: They are both laws that have never been broken in history.
JBS: Except in the case of Jesus, right?
BE: So, here’s the question, this is a very big question because what you are arguing is that the most probable event that happened to Jesus – because Paul and Peter said it happened – the most probable thing is the violation of a law of physics that has never been violated in 13.8 billion years. Never. Except in this one instance. If you’re a historian, historians don’t argue that something that happened only once in all of history is the most probable occurrence because somebody said it happened.
JBS: Unless there is incredible evidence to demonstrate…
BE: The incredible evidence is that Paul said so?
JBS: Not just that. We’re just getting started.
JB: What’s interesting here for me, Bart, though is that presumably, on the face of it, if you do believe that – if there is a God, let’s say – that that God would never break the law of physics then on the face of it then no amount of evidence can persuade you of a miraculous claim? You’ve decided that before you’ve come to the table. Is that fair?
BE: No, what you have to do is you’d have to have evidence from physicists that these laws don’t apply.
JB: Ok, so you’d have to go to the physicist rather than the historian to…
BE: Well, if you’re going to say that the laws of physics have been broken one time in the history of the human race, then you need pretty good evidence and the evidence that somebody said they saw somebody…
JBS: But that’s not the only evidence. We’re going to talk about more. But that’s not the only evidence. We were talking about the appearances and the appearances I think – and you’ve said this and I’ve appreciated you’ve said this in ‘How Jesus Became God’; you talk about how basically the evidence is consistent with if Jesus did rise from the dead. And I appreciated that because if you’re saying if Jesus rose from the dead basically the evidence we have looks the same. It would look the same. You don’t believe that he rose from the dead but the evidence does support the miracle. Do you agree with that?
BE: No, of course I don’t. Let me put it this way; there is a famous Jewish holy man, Baal Shem Tov, who eye witnesses have told us – he lived in the 18th century – told us he could heal the sick, he could cast out demons, he could raise the dead. We have eye witness accounts of this. And my suspicion is that you don’t think it really happened because you’d be suspicious of those reports.
JBS: I think the fact that nobody outside of Hasidic Jews think it happened is quite interesting.
BE: Ok, who outside of Christians think Jesus was raised from the dead?
JBS: Pinchas Lapide, he was a Jewish historian and scholar. He wrote a book called, ‘The Resurrection of Jesus’, you should read it, it’s actually really good. He actually was convinced by the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.
JB: I guess the point is if you come to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead physically it’s quite likely you will become a Christian…
EH: And if you believe in the miracles of Baal Shem Tov then you become a Hasidic Jew. So that isn’t evidence that Baal Shem Tov really did these things because somebody believes and then converts. That’s not evidence.
JBS: And I would also add that there are scholars that I appreciate, people like E P Sanders – I know you respect E P Sanders – like in ‘Jesus and Judaism’, the way he ends is basically saying, I don’t know what happened. But he admits the evidence is pretty strong.
BE: There are people that admit the evidence is strong but they still don’t go all the way.
JB: I guess my question is if you…
JBS: I think the evidence though is strong.
BE: All you’ve cited so far are eye witnesses. And you’ve agreed that eye witnesses in other cases don’t work for you, including Baal Shem Tov. And so I’d like to know why do you choose some eye witnesses over others?
JBS: Again, this goes back to Moroni. Nobody outside of those few people believed Moroni appeared to them. Nobody outside of certain Hasidic Jews believed that Ball Shem Tov did miracles.
BE: How about Mormons?
JBS: How about Christians?
BE: How about Mormons?
JBS: I just said, nobody believes those miraculous claims happened outside.
BE: Yes, well, nobody outside the Christian faith thinks that Jesus is the Son of God who was raised from the dead.
JBS: But people like Paul, for example, is an enemy that got convinced that Jesus rose from the dead. Who is the Paul for Baal Shem Tov, tell me who he is?
BE: Well, there are a lot of Hasidic Jews who didn’t start out as Hasidic Jews who read those stories and get convinced.
JBS: But who was Paul? Who was someone who was persecuting the Hasidic Jews and then got convinced by the Baal Shem Tov miracles? You bring these people up but it’s insane. Jesus is completely unparalleled, completely different…
BE: Exactly, you are a Christian. You’ve always been a Christian, of course you think that Jesus is the greatest thing ever.
JBS: You’ve almost said that; that you think Jesus is the most compassionate, the most influential, amazing person, you’ve said that he’s close to that.
BE: So, you’re in the Christian tradition and you want to show that you’re right. And that’s ok. But you’re not doing this as an historian…
JBS: I want to just demonstrate that Jesus… because he died for our sins, I want people to know that.
BE: Exactly! You’re a theologian and that’s fine. I’ve no qualms with you as a theologian. What I have qualms with is you claiming that you’re doing this on disinterested historical grounds.
JBS: It’s an historical religion. If it didn’t happen in history it didn’t happen.
BE: But if you’re going to be an historian you have to treat every religion equally, not giving superiority to your particular faith you were raised in.
JBS: But if you’re going to be an historian you need to be open minded to miracles.
BE: Yes, you are open minded to everything. I am open minded, yes.
JBS: But you said that the physics can’t be defied.
BE: I didn’t say that; no. you didn’t hear me. I said you’re saying it happened once in the entire human race. How many people have lived? I don’t know how many people have lived, billions of people, there are 8 billion people alive today, none of them are going to rise from the dead. How many people have risen from the dead in your judgement? One out of 20 billion who have lived or something. How many people have mistaken something they’ve seen? How many people have had a dream that they thought was something that was real? How many people have had a vision of a deceased one afterwards? Millions!
JB: This is basically Hume’s argument isn’t’ it; against miracles. That essentially it’s far more likely…
BE: So I’m different from Hume. I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. I’m saying that…
JBS: So you’re saying an historian can discover miracles in history then?
BE: I wish you wouldn’t put words on my lips.
JBS: Because I said you seem to be closed minded…
BE: I said… let me repeat it because I don’t think you heard it. I’m saying that historians establish what probably happened in the past on the basis of probabilities. If the probability is 1 out of 800 billion or something verses 1 out of 8, what do historians think about that? Do they think it’s more likely that the laws of physics were broken… do they say it did happen in this one instance because we have these three people who said it happened, or do they say, maybe they miss saw something?
JB: Justin, and then we’ll move on to your next bedrock fact.
JBS: You know, we talked about 107 billion people that have walked the planet. That’s fine. Out of those 107 billion people, how many of those people, those human beings, are worshipped by billions of people and called Lord and God today?
BE: You know, I don’t know what the number is.
JBS: Why? One.
BE: So 107 billion, so how many of those have been…
JBS: Please let me finish my point, this is my turn. Jesus is the only person (BE: You asked me a question, you wanted to know how many and I was trying to answer your question.)
JBS: Name someone else other than Jesus that’s worshipped by billions?
BE: I was answering by asking you…
JBS: No, see so you weren’t answering the question (43:31?)
BE: So let me answer the question. Of those 107 billion you can’t say that more people worship Jesus now therefore he was raised from the dead because… you say 107 billion and since more people worship Jesus now that’s evidence…
JBS: No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying, what we have here is an extraordinary – by these exact odds that you’re talking about – we’ve an extraordinary anomaly. We have one human being who walked this earth from the last billions of years, however long humans have been on the earth, out of 107 billion this one human being is worshipped by billions and called Lord and God. I’m saying that is an extraordinary anomaly and so I’m saying that’s something that historians would go, wow, that kind of is amazing. If Jesus achieved that extraordinary anomaly, one out of 107 billion on that point, maybe he achieved another extraordinary anomaly. Maybe he rose from the dead?
BE: Are you really using that as an historical argument?
JBS: I’m using it as an argument for the resurrection. Whatever you want to call it.
BE: What kind of argument would you call it?
JB: What’s your problem with the argument?
JBS: Well, isn’t it an extraordinary anomaly that Jesus is worshipped by billions? How is a crucified…
BE: It’s not an anomaly at all. I wrote an entire book explaining how it happened.
JBS: Ok, how does a crucified man in his mid-30s, how is he worshipped by billions of people today? I mean, you don’t think that that’s not an extraordinary anomaly?
BE: It’s not an anomaly…
JBS: It’s by definition, at mathematics, 1 out of 107 billion.
BE: Why does that prove that he was raised from the dead? It’s proof that people were convinced he was raised from the dead.
JBS: I said it was a good argument against this idea that you were making that, oh you’re telling me only one person out of all the 107 billion rose from the dead? An historian can’t say that. That’s not good enough evidence. Well, here’s another point on that same person that is an extraordinary anomaly.
BE: But you can explain that one. You can explain why there are so many billions of Christians in the world, it’s not hard to explain. Without a miraculous explanation. I don’t understand why you are arguing this.
JBS: But this single individual has had this kind of impact…
BE: Yes, it’s fantastic.
JBS: So it’s normal for crucified men in the ancient world (BE: Of course it’s not normal) that are Jews to be worshipped by billions… laid the foundations of Western civilisation. This is normal?
BE: You are not listening to me. The resurrection of Jesus would be a miracle of God. You can’t use the fact that many people became convinced of that miracle to prove that the miracle happened. You can only use that to show that people were convinced it happened. There are other reasons people get convinced by things other than the fact that God intervened in history.
JBS: Ok, but don’t you see the point that if Jesus did rise from the dead that would be a pretty good answer to why he has had this extraordinary impact in the world?
BE: No, I don’t think it has any relevance to it.
JBS: No relevance?
BE: No relevance. I mean, ok, let me put it like this. So, the Mormon church – back to the Mormons for a second – the early Christian movement from the days of Paul up to when Constantine converted it grew, if you actually just crunch the numbers, like you start out say right after the resurrection there are like 20 people who believe. You get the 11 disciples, you get a handful… say there’s 20 people.
JBS: Turned into 3 billion.
BE: So by the time you get to Constantine, by the time he converts, there’s probably 5 or 6 million Christians in the world. So if you crunch the growth rate, what would it take to get from 20 to 5 or 6 million at that time? It’s about 30 per cent every decade. And so the question is, does that require a miracle or can you explain it on natural grounds? And the Mormon church has grown at that rate since it was founded by Joseph Smith. Now, I wouldn’t want to say that Mormonism is necessarily true because it grew at that rate or that the angel Moroni necessarily revealed the golden plates because it grew at that rate. If Christianity had continued to grow at that rate after Constantine, by the end of the 4th century, there would have been more Christians than humans in the world. So, the rate of growth or the number of people who come to believe in something is not an indication of the miraculous beginnings of the faith.
JBS: But I didn’t say that. You did not give me an extraordinary anomaly for Mormonism. I gave you an extraordinary anomaly for Jesus of Nazareth.
BE: The extraordinary anomaly is that the Angel Moroni showed Joseph Smith these plates. That’s never happened before. Out of the 107 billion people in the world that has never happened to anybody.
JBS: We’re back to the same point. Nobody outside of those people believe that. Moroni has not appeared to anyone else.
BE: The people who believe in Jesus’s resurrection are Christians.
JBS: No, sceptics and unbelievers all around the world have been convinced by the resurrection of Jesus.
BE: They’ve been converted. And they’ve been converted to Mormonism.
JBS: In Utah, yeah.
BE: No, you’re not hearing me again. 30 per cent growth rate.
JBS: On that point, they are working off Christian capital. It’s a cult of Christianity so they’re working off Christian capital.
BE: Well, you could argue that Christianity is working off of Jewish capital.
JBS: Judaism didn’t spread…
JB: I know we’ve just of wandered into this final bedrock fact but I just wanted you to establish it though just for the listening and watching audience, Justin. Just talk about this, why you believe that the rise of Christianity, or as you put it the rise of the Nazarene, constitutes not just a fact of history but something that points towards the truth of the resurrection?
JBS: Well I think one point that I wanted to make that centres around that is again, Jesus. Again, we are dealing with a person, not just anybody that rose from the dead, but the most influential… the most sung about, the most painted, the most written about, great moral teacher, the most compassionate, the most extraordinary figure who’s ever lived. And so I think that’s an important point to make that this is who we are saying rose from the dead, right? We’re not just saying any old Joe rose from the dead. And so, again, I think that’s why Jesus keeps ticking the boxes for all these extraordinary anomalies.
JB: So are you saying it’s a combination of things; it’s that they claim this unprecedented claim in that Jewish culture that a crucified Messiah had been raised from the dead, the fact that people truly believed they had seen that, the fact that it happened to someone who has had this extraordinary influence on culture, human rights, everything else. And that that movement now comprises easily a third of the world’s population or whatever it is?
JBS: Just to help your confusion on this, Bart. When it comes to this forth bedrock fact there are many lines of argument, but let me give you one. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this. So, we know what Jesus in the New Testament, before he died and as the risen Jesus – I know you wouldn’t think that he said these things as a risen Jesus – but we know what he wanted. We know what, let’s say, this apparition, this supernatural coming back from the dead human being wanted. He wanted the gospel to go to all nations. He said, make disciples of all nations. He said, you will begin here in Jerusalem, you go to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth – I haven’t done the exact coordinates, but maybe Papa New Guinea would be something like the end of the world – and interestingly, Papa New Guinea has over 90 per cent of people that profess Christianity. I just find that amazing that it was said by Jesus in the first century on the Mount of Olives that this message will go to all nations, it’s made it to the other side of the world. But, 195 nations; how many of those have Christians in them? So, you’ll call this a happy accident I presume, but I would say, wow, what Jesus wanted, what the raised Jesus wanted, actually came to fruition. And, of course, to have that accomplished it took dominating the Roman Empire, it took dominating Western civilisation, it took all of that. And this looks to me like a raised Jesus, Lord of the world, directing his church. What say you?
BE: This is your view of the historical argument for the resurrection? Is that what you’re saying, that this is evidence?
JBS: I’m saying this is a clear counter factual. The Christian movement didn’t have to survive. It could have not gone to the ends of the earth. It could have stayed in one part of the world for the last 2,000 years.
BE: I understand as a Christian that this is very important to you.
JBS: But you don’t have to be a Christian to believe…
BE: I’m just asking you if you see this as evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead? Was this the sort of thing that you would publish in an historical journal as an argument that Jesus was resurrected? If it’s something else, it’s fine.
JBS: I’m saying it’s one of the lines of evidence that Jesus…
BE: I’m asking you if this is the sort of thing you would publish in an historical journal as evidence of what happened to Jesus body?
JBS: I would definitely publish it as something that is a line of evidence for the raised Jesus and the fact that he is Lord of the world and is still directing his church.
BE: Ok, here’s my view; this is an argument that would be convincing to people who are already convinced. It’s an argument that will carry zero weight with anybody who is not convinced because it is a theological argument. And I’ve no problems with theological arguments because they have their place. The mistake is thinking that…
JBS: It’s an historical fact though, it’s not a theological argument. Jesus made this claim in the New Testament…
BE: Ok, let me finish. I’m saying that the argument that Christianity succeeded is not a historical argument for what happened to Jesus body. The question of the resurrection is what happened to Jesus body; was it brought back to life? Now, I’m assuming you don’t think he was brought back to life – you could… it’s easy to argue, by the way, that one of the things that happened or what most people today would say is that it was a near death experience, right? He died and so people saw him and so that would be another explanation, you could argue that. You could argue most anything but the fact that billions of people today are convinced… When you go out on your mission in Jordan and you convince somebody. Ok, suppose you convince an entire household, And suppose they convince 100 people that Jesus was raised from the dead. How does the fact that those 100 people now believe show what happened to Jesus body?
JBS: Ok, I feel like you’re missing my argument. I would agree with you, that doesn’t prove it. That’s not what I’m saying.
BE: So if convincing people doesn’t prove it then the fact that so many people have been convinced does not prove it.
JBS: It’s not necessarily that so many people have been convinced it’s that we know what the raised Jesus desired and what he desired we now have 20:20 hindsight and we can say, look, what he desired has happened. And so let me give you an example. If Moroni had said, I want the Mormon message to eventually dominate America and America to be completely Mormon, ok. And let’s say we’re sitting at a table in some future time and all of America was completely Mormon. I would say, yeah, you know what, that looks like some evidence that Moroni might have had… there may be something to him. So, in the same way, if Jesus says, my gospel will go to all nations and now 2,000 years later it has and we can think of 1,000s of counter factual where it didn’t have to do that, the Christian movement could have died and disappeared…
JB: And one of the things you point out is that there were other Jewish Messianic movements which did peter out when the Messiah got killed it stopped. But your point is this was the only one in which the leader said it will go to the end of the earth and it actually did and therefore that’s some kind of evidence.
BE: I absolutely don’t think Jesus said that. Of course it’s in the gospel so we could have that argument too.
JBS: But whoever said that – just to make the point – whoever said that, it still was said in the context of Christianity being, what, thousands of people? So it’s still an amazing claim and fulfilment.
BE: I’m sorry, this is not an historical argument for the resurrection. You can’t claim that the rate of growth of religion is an indication of its truthfulness.
JBS: It’s fulfilling a specific claim that Jesus made. How do you not see that?
JB: So respond to that specific then, Bart.
BE: Jesus never made this claim.
JBS: Then whoever wrote Luke and whoever wrote Acts and whoever wrote Matthew, they made the claim. Were they proved right?
BE: I think you’ve read my book. You know I don’t think that.
JBS: Ok. I’m saying, whoever wrote Matthew… I’m assuming an anonymous authorship on these books. I’m saying whoever wrote them, they made these claims. According to you they put them on the lips of Jesus, but when they made these claims…
BE: As you know from my books that’s never what I’ve said. Matthew didn’t make this up. Matthew is living in a community that’s living 40, 50, 60 years after Jesus. There have been story tellers about Jesus all along.
JBS: But my point, somebody made this claim. And it ended up on the lips of Jesus – I think Jesus made the claim – but according to you somebody made the claim. But whoever made the claim in the 1st century, somehow 2,000 years later it’s been fulfilled. Who is that guy, we’ve got to find him. He’s the genius!
JB: Ok, we’re going to go to a break after Bart’s responded.
BE: I would just like to know if it was to go to the entire world why hasn’t the whole world been… I don’t think this is an historical argument at all. This is a theological argument which I am happy to talk with you about if you want to talk theology instead of history. But if that is your theology, that it had to go to the whole world, why in your theological view hasn’t the whole world converted?
JBS: I think many do reject the claims of the gospel and I think many have not heard the claims of the gospel.
BE: Why? If it’s supposed to go to the whole world why hasn’t it gone to the whole world?
JBS: Well, that’s the thing, it has.
BE: It hasn’t. You just said many people haven’t heard.
JBS: But that’s what I’m saying; based on the evidence of the last 2,000 years, do you think it will ultimately go to all? We’re talking about tribes that just haven’t heard. We’re talking about people in South America, in Africa…
BE: You’re talking about millions of people. Billions of people.
JBS: Yea, in faraway tribes.
BE: If this is proof that God’s behind it why hasn’t it happened? You said Jesus said he would make it happen, why hasn’t it happened?
JBS: Well, let’s stick with what he said. He said he’s going to return, right? So will it happen before he returns? What do you think? Based on the last 2,000 years of evidence?
BE: I think the answer is no.
JB: Well look, we’re going to take a break there and we’ll be back for the final thrilling part of this debate on whether Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. My guests are Bart Ehrman and Justin Bass. We’ll be back in just a moment.
BE: Is the exciting part when we arm-wrestle? [Everyone laughs]
Welcome back to The Big Conversation, the final part of today’s discussion between Bart Ehrman and Justin Bass: Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead? It’s been an exciting debate between you two, I haven’t sat in the middle of quite such a pugnacious interaction in a little while. It’s been fun.
Look, final segment, so why don’t we go to one more of your particular lines of evidence from this fourth fact about the rise of Christianity. Give us another one and let’s do another few minutes with Bart on this.
JBS: Thanks Justin. I happen to be writing a book on this one, this is my next book, so I’m interested to hear what Bart thinks about it. So this one really has to do with the dreams and visions of Jesus and really my passion for this came as a result of my time in Jordan. So I got to actually meet a number of Muslims who have had dreams of this… man in white; he’s full of light and he quotes scripture, and, you know, it’s a dream or a vision and ultimately they convert to Christianity. Usually they are led to a church or something. And this is happening for Muslims in Syria, from Iraq, from Jordan, from Lebanon, all over the Middle East, this is kind of a phenomenon.
And if you talk to missionaries, it’s amazing they’re even putting up signs that say, ‘if you’ve seen the man in white, call this number.’ So it’s happening so often that Muslims are responding to that. And an interesting thing, but as I’ve gotten into the book what I’m fascinated with throughout church history is I actually have examples from every century for the last 2,000 years of people who have believed that Jesus appeared to them in some… and I do think these are distinct from the resurrection appearances which I think ended with Paul, but I think these are the continuation, just as we see in the book of Acts Jesus still continued to appear to Paul like in Corinth and encouraged him and things like that. These kind of visions are happening, whether dreams or visions, and they’re happening to people all over the world, every nation, for the last 2,000 years. And so, to me, again, this is another line of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and is still appearing to people. It goes back to what he desires. He desires to seek and to save the lost and so I think Jesus is seeking and saving because even unbelievers are having these visions and are transformed.
JB: I’m going to anticipate what Bart is going to say but Bart, you can correct me, but doesn’t this happen in other religions? This isn’t exclusive to Christianity. People claim they have all kinds of visions in other religions. It doesn’t prove that the religion is true necessarily?
JBS: Yea, I would say this is unique to Christianity. So I hate bringing back Moroni, I think we’ve talked about Moroni more in this discussion than any time Moroni has ever been talked about outside of Utah. But the fact that Jesus is appearing all over the world, almost every nation, for the last 2,000 years to Hindus, to Buddhists, to Muslims, to Jews and they’re converting. I don’t know of any other faith that could make such a claim. So this, I think, is a unique phenomenon. There’s even a – I think Bart’s aware of this because you referenced Phillip Wiebe’s book, ‘Visions of Jesus’, which I enjoyed reading in preparation for my book – and he talks about how there’s even a separate study in the psychological understanding of the paranormal and of these type of things called ‘Christic Visions’ because they’re so common and there are so many… this is happening so often. So that’s what I would say is it’s truly a unique phenomenon with the person of Jesus. This is just another line of evidence to add to all these others that we’ve been talking about that I think suggests this Jesus rose from the dead.
BE: Well, I don’t really have anything to say about it.
JB: I’m pretty sure you do, Bart!
BE: No, I really don’t because I don’t think it’s evidence of anything. People have dreams about all sorts of things, it doesn’t mean the thing is real. I’m sorry, I’ve never thought about it, studied it. I read this book and it’s very weird, very strange, I don’t believe it really happened. You know the film, ‘Disappeared’…
JBS: Just so you know, he’s talking about a film that they believed they saw Jesus, I don’t buy that either. But there were 32 individuals he interviewed that gave very… people from Canada, people from Australia, people from America that gave powerful… I was convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus.
JB: The fact that people have dream and visions of something like Christ…
BE: That’s not true it only happens in Christianity, of course. It’s very famous in the Ancient World. One of the great healing gods of the Greeks was Asclepius and the way the healing rituals worked is that there’s a shrine of Asclepius, he was a Greek divine being, who could heal people. And people who had a problem, they had breast cancer or they had a maimed limb, or they had cancer, they had whatever they had, they were blind. They go to an Asclepium and they would… the way it worked is you would go to sleep in there and Asclepius would come to the person and heal them. And we have abundant testimony, hundreds of testimonies, that this worked. And we actually have a number of these Asclepiums that have been dug up by archaeologists that – they’re actually pretty interesting because they would make a representation of the body part that got healed and so you’d have the walls covered with breasts and penises and arms and eyes and ears depending on what…- and so it was all based on a dream cult and Asclepius isn’t the only one. We have all sorts of cults involving Zeus for example. So throughout history, of course, there have been lots of cults that claimed that the person is being dreamed up and healing them.
JBS: That is fascinating history, I’ve learned a lot about Asclepius, but I just have to ask you, Bart. Who has Asclepius appeared to lately?
BE: I just last night had a really interesting dream and it proves that Asclepius is raised from the dead because I dreamed about it.
JBS: Let me ask you this; if people from all over the world started thinking that Asclepius was appearing to them or Apollonius of Tyana, or Moroni or any of them, wouldn’t that be something? Wouldn’t you go, wow, there may be something to this?
BE: That would be something.
JBS: But it’s happening with Jesus.
BE: I don’t think so.
JBS: No, it’s a fact that it’s happening it’s just whether or not he is actually appearing to them.
BE: No, it’s not. There are 8 billion people in the world. The people who have never heard of Jesus do not have dreams of him.
JBS: One of the examples in my book is Samuel Morris, a guy from Liberia, and he heard the voice of Jesus, he went to Taylor University – they had a statue for him, they dedicated a whole hall for him – he had never heard of Jesus, he heard the voice of Jesus, he survived this tribal attack, it’s an amazing story. Again, like Lapide, you should look into these they are powerful. But there definitely are people who have never heard of Jesus and they have these visions, they have these dreams and it’s…
BE: Why do you think it doesn’t – so, again, I don’t think this is an historical argument – but just out of curiosity, why do you think it’s taken so long and why don’t you think Jesus just appears to everybody?
JBS: Well, I agree with Blasé Pascal, he said, ‘God isn’t interested – I’m paraphrasing – God isn’t interested in just convincing the intellect, he wants to incline the will’. So I think he wants to humble us. So I think he wants people to not just be convinced, he could easily do that, he could do something wild in the sky and convince all of us…
JB: If He could break the laws of physics, you could tell us about that!
JBS: He could do that at any point. But I think the God of the bible, and Jesus, they want us to humble ourselves. They want us… Jesus wants us to come to Him and seek Him with all our heart and He’ll respond.
BE: Ok, so why does he show up to some people then if He… why does he show up to some people and not others?
JBS: I can’t say exactly why Jesus appears to this person or not but I would say maybe it’s because that person has a more open heart and they’re responding in some way? Kind of like Cornelius in Acts; he’s seeking the true God and what happens, an angel appears to Peter and Peter brings the gospel to Cornelius.
BE: So people with an open heart have dreams of Jesus and then they convert and people who don’t’, don’t. And so, ok. That’s fine. If that’s your theological view that’s fine. It’s a religious point of view.
JBS: I didn’t say I know for sure but I’m just saying it’s likely that it would… you know very well from the bible that depending on someone’s response in their heart, if they are seeking or if they’re hardening their heart, a lot of times that depends on their interaction and how God is…
BE: That’s fine, it’s a religious view, that’s fine. It’s not the sort of view that an historian would use to argue for something that happened in the past.
JB: Where I think you are trying to tie it to something historical, Justin, is that for you it seems to be that this happens in today’s world, let’s say, for Christianity. People from other worldviews aren’t having visions of the prophet Mohammed here in the UK. They are not having visions of…
BE: I don’t know if that’s true.
JBS: I’ll say it this way; people of other religions, they do have visions. But across the way that doesn’t happen. And it’s amazing, I mean, you can even go to google and search – I’ve done it, and YouTube -…
BE: Oh goodness (1:07…?) of trust. Especially the internet, especially if you have a Wikipedia page, I’m there.
JBS: But you can’t find… Christians are not having visions of Mohammed and Krishna and Buddha. Buddhists are not having visions of Krishna.
JB: But you’re saying Muslims are having visions of Jesus?
JBS: And here’s the amazing thing; Muslims aren’t having visions of Joseph Smith and then saying, oh, Mormonism’s true! That’s never happened.
BE: No, I don’t know if it’s true or not and I think that’s incredible. I think it’s literally incredible but I think it’s incredible…
JBS: I’m going to send my book, you’re going to endorse this book!
BE: Well, if you promise to let me print my own blurb on the back I’ll definitely write an endorsement!
JBS: I believe in freedom of speech but not on my books.
JB: We obviously, Bart, you feel that where Justin takes his argument strays beyond the realm on history. But in any case, it strikes me that even when you go back to the things where you were happy to agree on some of those bedrock facts; the death of Jesus, the fact that there was a claim, the fact that people claimed that they had the appearances and so on. Even so, it doesn’t sound to me like that could ever amount to enough for the resurrection to be an explanation because at the end of the day, people don’t rise from the dead, that seems to be what you’re saying. Because you’re saying you can’t break the laws of physics, people can’t rise from the dead…
BE: That’s not quite what I’m saying. He’s given five claims so far, right; the crucifixion, the unparalleled claim that you’re calling it, the appearances, the triumph of Christianity over the earth and now dreams. Ok, so of those five I would say one of them could be considered historical evidence for the resurrection.
JB: Which one? The appearances?
BE: Yes. Because the crucifixion obviously isn’t a proof of the resurrection.
JB: Well, you have to be dead to be resurrected, but yes.
BE: That’s not proof of the resurrection it’s just proof of the death. And unprecedented claims, I don’t think that’s an argument because the claim was not, oh, the Messiah has been raised from the dead. The claim was we have seen Jesus. And that claim is not unprecedented, we have lots and lots, thousands and millions of people claim to see someone who is dead who’s alive now. So that’s not evidence. The appearances is evidence.
JB: But how many appearances would you need before you changed… because didn’t you say…
BE: Just let me get there. The triumph is not evidence, and the dreams are not evidence. They’re not historical evidence. They might confirm you in your religious belief. So it’s really the appearances. So the question is; what kind of appearances would it take to convince somebody? And so the way I usually put it is this. In terms of the laws of physics, if you take a cup of coffee or, in this country, tea, and you pour some cream in it and you stir it up, because of the second law of thermal dynamics, the cream disperses throughout the coffee or tea and no matter how much you stir it you can’t put the cream back, right? The law of thermal dynamics, it’s not a theory it’s not a hypothesis, it’s the law of thermal dynamics. That’s what happens. Because entropy always increases in a closed system. Ok, so that’s a law. Which means, to our knowledge, it has never been violated. Now, suppose that there is somebody who says that in 1920, suppose you have five people, suppose you have ten people who say in 1920 they saw a guy put cream in his coffee and he stirred it till it dispersed and he kept stirring and then the cream came to the top just like that. How many historians would trust those ten people? None! And, in fact, it’s not just… I wouldn’t believe them. They said they saw it. Ok, they said they saw it, people say they see things that are not true. And so if you’ve got something like that that has never happened you need more than a few people saying they saw it. That’s my view.
JB: Final thoughts and we’ll close this up.
JBS: If I can ask just one more question? I was going to throw out the 500, we didn’t get to talk about the 500, you make an offhand comment I thought was interesting, I think it’s in ‘How Jesus Became God’. You said there was a certain force in the argument. I was just curious; if the 500 claim, if that’s historical, if there were 500 people that Paul maybe knew some of them, would you consider that at least forceful argument?
BE: I would consider it to be the same level of evidence as the 1,000 people who saw the Mother Mary on a cliff. Which happens, is completely well documented that Mary appeared to over 500 people on numerous occasions so I think you have to take it into account and figure out well what really probably happened. But I don’t know any historians who are non-Catholic who would say, yes, therefore Mary genuinely appeared, they’d say well they saw something.
JB: We’re running out of time so we’ll have final thoughts. Go ahead, Justin.
JBS: I would just say this has been great and thank you, Bart, again. I would just say follow the evidence where it leads and I think if you look at the appearances, if you look at what has transpired over the last 2,000 years and especially I think these points that what Jesus wanted to happen has happened, the fact that Jesus is still appearing to people in dreams and visions all over the world. I think all this points – I mean, where there is a lot of smoke there is a fire. And I think when you look at all the things that have happened around the world I think we see all the smoke, it must go back to a fire. If Bart is correct it would just smoke all the way down. And I don’t think so, I think there was a fire.
JB: Final thought, Bart?
BE: I think the big issue in Christian apologetics is that apologists are doing theology claiming to do history. And I’ve no trouble with people doing theology. I have no with people believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. History is actually two things and I think apologists tend to get it confused, I think that’s what’s going on here. The two things are; history in one sense is anything that happened in the past. The other sense of history, the way historians use history, is what you can establish as having happened in the past where you have evidence. And for that you need historical argument. You can’t have religious argument you have to have historical argument. Just like you can’t have mathematical arguments to prove philosophy. There are different realms of discourse and theology and history are different realms of discourse. If you pretend you are doing history when in fact you’re doing theology, I just don’t think it’s right. And you’re trying to convince people because they don’t know and it sounds like its history. No, it is not history. To claim that something is historical requires a critical evaluation of all the sources and all the information and to establish levels of probability. It isn’t simply to tell people what they want to hear and say here’s my evidence for it.
JB: Well you can go and look for yourselves in the books that have been mentioned already. Justin’s book is, ‘The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection’. There are many books published by Bart Ehrman as well where he deals with these issues.
But it’s been a really thrilling discussion to be part of today. Thank you Bart, thank you Justin. Good to see you and hope we can do this again sometime.