Simon Greenleaf on the Rules of Evidence and the Christian Religion

Simon Greenleaf died on this date, October 6, in 1853. He was an American jurist who wrote an influential three-volume Treatise on the Law of Evidence.

Greenleaf believed that lawyers have a responsibility to evaluate the evidences of the Christian religion using the standards of evidence demanded in their professional lives. Accordingly, Greenleaf detailed the results of his own investigation in an 1846 work titled An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists, by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice. With an Account of the Trial of Jesus., he set forth the following basic principles for governing any responsible investigation:

In examining the evidences of the Christian religion, it is essential to the discovery of truth that we bring to the investigation a mind freed, as far as possible, from existing prejudice and open to conviction. There should be a readiness, on our part, to investigate with candor, to follow the truth wherever it may lead us, and to submit, without reserve or objection, to all the teachings of this religion, if it be found to be of divine origin. (p. 21)

Here, in brief, is the conclusion Greenleaf reached regarding the testimony of the gospel writers concerning the resurrection of Jesus:

The great truths which the apostles declared, were, that Christ had risen from the dead, and that only through repentance from sin, and faith in him, could men hope for salvation. This doctrine they asserted with one voice everywhere, not only under the greatest discouragements, but in the face of the most appalling terrors that can be presented to the mind of man. Their master had recently perished as a malefactor, by the sentence of a public tribunal. His religion sought to overthrow the religions of the whole world. The laws of every country were against the teachings of his disciples. The interests and passion of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them. The fashion of the world was against them. Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecutions, stripes, imprisonments, torments and cruel deaths. Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay, rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution. . . . They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted; and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency. It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certain as they knew any other fact. (p. 53; italics added)

Suppose it were possible that Jesus’ disciples could have persisted in their public claims concerning Jesus and his resurrection even if Jesus had not risen. What seems most unlikely is that they would have persisted in this if they did not believe with grave conviction that Jesus had indeed risen. And this fact of their belief surely demands some plausible explanation, given their readiness to endure such persecution.

Greenleaf’s book still makes for stimulating reading. Its arguments deserve the attention of sincere inquirers today.

An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists is in the public domain. It can be read online here.

Arnold Lunn (1888-1974) – Skiing Expert, Agnostic, and Christian Apologist

Arnold Lunn was born to a Methodist minister, but he was himself agnostic and a critic of Christianity—until he was 45 years old, when he converted to the faith. Today is the anniversary of his death in 1974.

Lunn was a professional skier and full-time enthusiast. He founded the Alpine Ski Club and the Kandahar Ski Club. He brought slalom skiing to the racing world, and he’s the namesake for a double black diamond ski trail at Taos Ski Valley.

Lunn credited his agnosticism to the wholly unconvincing cause of Anglicanism. He looked in vain for persuasive arguments for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. Later he Book Cover-Arnold Lunn-The Third Daywould say that “an odd hour or two at the end of a boy’s school life might not be unprofitably spend in armouring him against the half-baked dupes of ill informed secularists” (The Third Day, xvii). He wrote in criticism of the faith and debated Christianity’s prominent defenders.

Despite his religiously agnostic stance, Lunn found that problems for scientific naturalism proved equally recalcitrant. This created a dilemma for him. But his vigorous opposition to Christianity was guided by an intellectual honesty that was helpless before the evidence he exhumed. In due course he gave up and converted to Christianity. All the energy he had devoted in the cause against Christianity he now mustered on behalf of Christianity. He published several books in support of Christian belief.

He famously debated two major critics, C. E. M. Joad and J. B. S. Haldane. The inside flap of his book The Third Day observes that Lunn was an effective apologist “because he has learnt apologetics in the controversial arena.” But Lunn is unusual for having taken alternate sides in this arena. As he wrote in a pamphlet, “I can imagine no better training for the Church than to spend, as I did, a year arguing the case against Catholicism with a Catholic, and a second year in defending the Catholic position against an agnostic.”

Lunn was prolific. He wrote manuals in skiing and mountaineering, fiction, memoirs, and popular books of Christian evidences. Personal letters between himself and both Joad (Is Christianity True?, 1933) and Haldane (Science and the Supernatural, 1935) were published, as well.

Here are a few excerpts from his book in defense of the resurrection of Jesus:

Substantial Truth Under Circumstantial Variety

William Paley pointed out that human testimony is generally to be accepted when the “substantial truth” of witnesses survives despite “circumstantial variety.” This principle is practiced in courts of law when evaluating testimonial evidence presented during trial. The rule applies also in weighing the testimony of eyewitnesses to Jesus following his resurrection from the dead. Arnold Lunn puts the point this way:

If it could be proved that the various accounts which we possess of the events of the first Easter Sunday and of the subsequent appearances of Jesus to the disciples were not wholly consistent so far as details are concerned, this fact might be difficult to reconcile with any theory of direct inspiration or Biblical inerrancy but would not invalidate the evidence so far as the central fact of the Resurrection is concerned. (70-71)

Lunn is not conceding anything. He is not supposing that there are real contradictions in the eyewitness testimony. His point is that even if there were discrepancies, this would not disqualify their common testimony that Jesus did rise from the dead.

The “Collective Hallucination” Hypothesis

Lunn writes with good humor when he responds to a longstanding objection to the resurrection claim.

The anti-miraculist does not deny that the disciples believed that they had seen the risen Lord, but he asserts that they were victims of ‘collective hallucinations’. Anti-miraculists suffer from the collective illusion that a polysyllabic phrase is a satisfactory substitute, both for proof and for explanation (74, with italics added here).

So, was it the risen Lord whom the disciples saw in the flesh, or did they merely imagine that they did?

To begin, circumstances must be abnormal for any normal person to hallucinate, and more so for groups of people. Next, eyewitnesses were slow to acknowledge that it was Jesus whom they had encountered during his post-resurrection appearances. It is a curious thing that Mary Magdalen, for example “saw our Lord and mistook him for the gardener” (75). This happened, as well, when a group of disciples encountered Jesus on their way to Emmaus. The disciples in the Upper Room thought they saw a ghost. In each case, those who were present had to be persuaded that it was, in fact, Jesus who appeared to them. Whatever it was that did the trick for them, it wasn’t some hallucinatory experience. Their initial experiences did not immediately issue in recognition or faint apprehension. For they had no genuine expectation that Jesus would be raised from the dead. “They didn’t run away with their first impressions, and tell unauthenticated stories of a miracle. They examined their first impressions and only by examination learned of their miraculous truth” (75). The disciple Thomas (the “doubter”) sought to preserve the utmost sobriety in consideration of evidence and would not even accept the testimony of his closest peers without firsthand experience.

It is indeed ironical that those who cannot accept the Resurrection of Jesus because it is unique are driven to postulate something no less unique, a ‘collective hallucination’ of a type not paralleled in all the records of human illusion, an illusion which has had an infinitely greater effect on the course of history than any admitted fact. (77)

The Origin of Primitive Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus

The real difficulty for any critic is to make sense of “the origin of a belief so contrary . . . to human experience” and to the expectations of Jesus’ disciples. They would have to have been desperate fanatics to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus before the gaze of those who had crucified their Lord, and to endure physical persecution and martyrdom. Somehow they managed to rock their world with their message, as countless numbers came to believe on the basis of their testimony.

The Empty Tomb

It has always impressed me that, though the tomb of Jesus was well-known to his disciples, there is no evidence of veneration, such as you would expect from family and friends with deep affection for a charismatic leader. As Lunn says, “From the moment that the women return from the Garden the tomb of Jesus passes, historically, into complete oblivion” (The Third Day, 83). If the disciples had not been convinced of the resurrection, they might well have regarded it as a shrine; they would have remained in Jerusalem rather than devote themselves to worldwide proclamation of a gospel they knew to be false.

Lunn examines several anti-miraculist hypotheses meant to explain the empty tomb. He calls these “anti-miraculist” because they are, without exception, motivated by a positive denial of the supernatural:

  1. Jesus did not die on the cross, but recovered in the tomb from which he subsequently escaped.
  2. The women made a mistake and went to the wrong tomb.
  3. The sepulchre in which Jesus was first buried was never intended to be a permanent tomb. Joseph of Arithmathea removed the body and transferred it to another sepulchre.
  4. Strauss’s proposal: It is quite possible that it [the body] was thrown into some dishonourable place with those of other executed criminals, and in this case his disciples may have, at first, had no opportunity of seeing the body. Later, when they preached the Resurrection, even their opponents would have found it difficult to recognise his body and to provide proofs of its identity.
  5. The disciples stole the body from the tomb.

Lunn demonstrates that “a reconstruction of the situation” answers each of these objections and reveals them to be due to an anti-miraculist bias.

Secularism and the Decline of Morality

Lunn had a way with the pen. “If a man be nothing more than first cousin to the chimpanzee, he has no logical ground of complaint if he is put behind bars” (The Third Day, xi; italics are mine). As religion declines, so too does morality decline. Atheism dooms humanity to a denial of what makes human persons human and worthy of moral respect. Even if true, the effect is most unpleasant. I would add that if we are little more than a bundle of nerves and their impulses, operating mechanically in a purely physical and deterministic world, it should come as a a real surprise that we are capable of noticing this “fact” and finding it disturbing.

The “Aesthetics of Argument”

Lunn lamented the Revolt Against Reason (the title of a book published in DATE), manifest not only among notional Christians but also by scientific materialists. He happily owned the accusation that he was a Christian rationalist. Evidence was, for him, the only sure path to responsible belief. Emotionalism and the general neglect of reason exact a costly loss of confidence and a failure of witness.

To counter this trend, Lunn called for what he termed an “aesthetic of argument.” He says, in the introduction to his book that details the case for the resurrection, that his aim is to convert the unconverted. He was converted under the pressure of evidence, and ever after it was his lifelong ambition to assist others along that path. He was convinced that public debate, especially at universities, was a valuable investment in this cause. For it ensured that more would attend to the arguments out of curiosity about the outcome of a debate than they would at a church-sponsored meeting.

This has been my experience, too.

* * *

For any young person who aspires to the work of an apologist, I cannot recommend enough a close study of the life and work of Arnold Lunn. One could do with more admirable leaders in this field of Christian theology and practice.


  1. There is a brief interesting review of the Lunn-Joad correspondence in here.
  2. C. E. M. Joad, a vociferous critic of Christianity, later converted to Christianity, and subsequently was, in his own way, a defender of the faith. See The Recovery of Belief (1952).
  3. There is an inspiring brief biography, written by Bernard O’Connor, Archibishop of Melbourne. Here’s the link to my own marked copy.
  4. A review of Lunn’s book The Third Day is to be found in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 35.137 (March 1946): 118-21.
  5. Science and the Supernatural, a compilation of the letters between Lunn and Haldane, is available online here.

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Other posts in this series . . .

Crossing the Heath with William Paley (1743-1805)

On this date in 1805, the Christian church lost one of its ablest and most-remembered defenders. William Paley—Anglican minister, professor, and author—is permanently associated with the analogy of a watchmaker and the God of personal theism. He wrote that “the contrivances of nature . . . are not less evidently mechanical, not less evidently contrivances, not less accommodated to their end or suited to their office, than are the most perfect productions of human ingenuity” (Natural Theology, 1802). Paley mined the riches of biology for samples of such contrivance. In his day, the state of scientific knowledge in the field of biology permitted comparatively easy inference to the appearance of teleology in the natural world. Critics today forget this. The

William Paley, Natural Theology

William Paley, Natural Theology

“demise” of Paley’s design argument for the existence of God is credited especially to a development that was to happen some 60 years later—the emergence of the new theory of evolution, beginning with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Paley’s major work—Natural Theology; or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Collected from the Appearances of Nature—enjoyed a pretty good “survival” record itself. His work was considered essential reading at universities for a hundred or more years. Also, some critics maintain that David Hume dealt a decisive blow to Paley’s argument. Never mind that Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion appeared posthumously in 1779, that Paley was thoroughly familiar with the Dialogues, that Paley developed his argument in express response to Hume’s critique, and that Paley was thought to have bested Hume by many of Paley’s contemporaries. He was not entirely unsuccessful in this endeavor, though some, like John Stuart Mill, believed that they had detected formal weaknesses in his argument. Here is the famous passage from Paley’s Natural Theology:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.

Paley then produces examples of these components in a watch:

To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts, and of their offices, all tending to one result: We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavour to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain (artificially wrought for the sake of flexure) communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in, and apply to each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance, and from the balance to the pointer; and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion, as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work; but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

This truly economical and accurate description of a watch and its function is impressive. It is described in meticulous detail for a reason, to bring it into comparison with “contrivances of nature”:

For every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the world of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean, that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtilty, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety: yet, in a multitude of cases, are not less evidently contrivances, not less evidently accommodated to their end, or suited to their office, than are the most perfect products of human ingenuity.

An astonishing array of natural objects are observed and described next. The inference, of course, is that, there being an analogy between (a) an artifact of the sort that a watch is and (b) objects in the natural world such as the ones he has cataloged, there is an “artificer,” or designer, of the natural world. Darwin was not impressed. He was convinced that the natural phenomena in Paley’s inventory could be accounted for by a process of purely natural selection. But it was not clear when Darwin introduced his thesis, and it is not clear even now, that the full range of natural phenomena are best explained in terms of natural selection. There isn’t space here to defend Paley in detail. But it is key to his argument that close observation and deep understanding of an object may be needed to pick out what is best explained by the design hypothesis. Darwin’s theory entails that fully formed organisms that function in complex ways are the by-products of a long, slow, unguided process. And yet, for many organisms under observation today, at various stages in their developmental history, they lack functional utility. On the Darwinian hypothesis, nothing draws them toward functionality. And for some such organisms, nothing is extraneous to their function once they reach a capacity for function. This is Paley’s basic insight. It has been exploited more recently by Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, where the human “contrivance” he uses to make the same basic point is even simpler than a watch; it is the common mousetrap.

William Paley

William Paley

While Paley is best known, and most commonly chastised, for his teleological argument, he made other important contributions to the cause of Christian apologetics. His earlier work A View of the Evidences of Christianity, investigates the special evidence that supports apostolic testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ and defends the historicity of their accounts of Jesus in the Gospels. Those who follow the work of today’s apologists in defense of these claims will recognize the influence of William Paley. (See, for example, William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, chapter 8.) Paley’s critics have been altogether too dismissive of his extraordinary achievement. I feel sure that most have never examined his two major works for themselves. These skeptics are as likely as not to have rendered a negative verdict on the basis of brief snippets of Paley’s teleological argument, lifted from context and reprinted in some classroom anthology, or on the basis of hearsay, which is guilty of the same. And many Christian apologists today have neglected the riches of William Paley’s methodical and systematic work. I commend fresh consideration of his writings. Who knows what a ramble in the heath with this great thinker might turn up?



  • Paley’s Natural Theology (Oxford World’s Classics series) is avaliable at Amazon here.
  • A free Kindle edition of Paley’s A View of the Evidences of Christianity can be obtained here.

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Other posts in this series . . .

The Docetist Heresy—Implications for the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus

A question about christology was posted in the “About Doug” section of this website. It seems fitting to copy my reply here.

That questions seems to assume a view about Jesus Christ known as “Docetism.” Docetism is a heresy that confronted the early Christian church and was summarily condemned at the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Convened by Emperor Constantine, this Council took place in modern-day Turkey at a place called Bithynia.

A major sector of Docetists held that the man born to Mary in Bethlehem was merely a man, and that the Spirit of God, after some fashion, imbued this man with divinity. Some held that Jesus only appeared to be human. (The word “Docetism” derives from the Greek word <em>dokeo</em>, meaning “to seem”.) Docetism was deemed a heresy because the traditional and orthodox doctrine is that Jesus, one and the same person, had two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, so that he was fully God and fully man at the same time from the beginning.

There is evidence that an incipient form of Docetism was already at large during the first century. 1 John 4:1-3 and 2 John 7 address the threat that some deceivers deny the literal incarnation of Jesus Christ, holding that as the divine Son he had not come in the flesh. This is probably the first heresy to be addressed by the Christian church. Through the prevailing influence of Gnosticism, Docetism and other heresies continued to flourish in some quarters. By the 4th century it was clear that official condemnation of the heresy was needed. This would curtail attempts by Docetists to pass their doctrines off as the truth about Jesus Christ.

Thus, it was the physical body of Jesus Christ, who was fully God and fully man, that was literally raised from the dead. This is the teaching of Scripture and so it has been the orthodox position of the Christian church from the beginning.


Some early converts to Christianity may well have been Docetists before their conversion. Perhaps they had heard of “Christ,” and, under Gnostic influence, did not then associate the Christ with the man Jesus.

Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria, had known of Jesus and preached about Jesus in the synagogue at Ephesus. Though much of what he preached was accurate, some things were amiss. We don’t know what these things were, but two Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, “took him aside and explained the way of God more accurately.” It’s said in the Acts of the Apostles, a New Testament book, that he left with their blessing to preach that “the Christ was Jesus.” See Acts 18:24-28. So it’s possible that Apollos had been confused on this point. But he was persuaded of the truth through his association with the church at Ephesus, and he left, with their blessing, for Achaia to preach this truth from the Scriptures. This was in refutation of Jews he encountered along the way, and so, apparently, many of them had misunderstand the truth about Christ.

I speculate that because Gnosticism was well-ensconced in the region, when Christ was preached some simply accommodated this preaching to their Gnostic perspective. Others who were not Gnostics, but who lived surrounded by the ideology of Gnosticism, assumed that the Christ was somehow to be understood in gnostic terms. Apollos may have been one of these, and yet had accepted much that he had heard about Jesus. And other Jews, who were more reluctant to accept the official story about Jesus that had been filtered by the Gnostic community, were not prepared to believe any of it. Having been set straight about Jesus Christ, Apollos then began to preach to fellow Jews, by appealing to their Scriptures, that “the Christ was Jesus.”

Mind you, this is speculation about the details of the situation. But Apollos, a Jew who anticipated the arrival of the Messiah, was familiar with the preaching of John the Baptist about Jesus. (See Acts 18:25.) But his knowledge of Scripture and his understanding of Jesus were somewhat confused, until Apollos’ meetup with believers at Ephesus.

Just a short time later in Acts, we’re told about a group of twelve individuals who also had heard and believed the message of John the Baptist. See Acts 19:1-7. There they are called “disciples,” but they may only, at the time, have been disciples of John the Baptist, or, because they soon came to believe the truth about Jesus Christ, and were to become disciples, they are here called disciples because that is what they were at the time of Luke’s account of what happened. It appears that Paul had doubts that they had yet believed the Gospel. Or at least he wanted to be sure that they understood the Gospel. So he asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered something like this, “The Holy Spirit? What Holy Spirit?” Subsequently Paul learned that their knowledge had up to then been limited to what they knew of John the Baptist’s message, which, of course, preceded the message Jesus delivered during his earthly life. Though they were expecting the Messiah, and likely would have known prophesies in their Bibles of the future outpouring of the Holy Spirit, these men probably had not even heard of Jesus. It was time they knew the rest of the story!

John the Baptist had foretold the soon arrival of the Christ, that is, the Messiah, so they were naturally anticipating this. Apparently, they had not yet heard that John’s words had already been fulfilled in Jesus, and that his Spirit had been given at Pentecost. Imagine the thrill it must have been for them to hear such news! Right there on the spot, it says, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” And thus they received the Holy Spirit.

What these men had believed exactly, prior to their encounter with Paul, is not quite clear. But apparently they hadn’t quite gotten it sorted it out yet that Jesus was the Christ.

I’m not suggesting that they had accepted a heresy up to that point. Rather, I recount these facts to indicate that at the outset Jesus Christ was known by the church to be God’s Messiah in the flesh.

There were others, though—under the influence of Gnosticism, I believe—who knew of Jesus and claimed to believe in the Christ, but had explicitly dissociated the two. This is suggested in a non-canonical book known as 2 Clement. Paul had spoken of a “Christ-party” in his first and second letters to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 2:12; 2 Cor. 11:13, 23). Without true belief about Jesus, these were false prophets who disguised themselves as apostles of Christ. This, one may think, suggests that they misrepresented Jesus Christ in their preaching. More likely, they preached Christ without reference to Jesus, and the church of Jesus Christ was being disturbed by their activities.

In any case, it didn’t take a 4th-century council to set things straight about Jesus Christ and his nature.

Resurrection Belief Discussed by Scott at Serene Musings

“The Epistemology of Resurrection Belief” is the title of an essay I wrote for the book The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue. Scott, over at Serene Musings, has read my essay carefully and made a couple of critical comments that I thought I might respond to here.

I want to say, first, that I appreciate the respectful tone of Scott’s comments. He doesn’t hesitate to say where he agrees with me, and he disagrees in a spirit of good will.

I argue in my essay that N. T. Wright, a Christian theist, aims for methodological neutrality in his historical analysis of the evidence for and against a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus in the first century; in contrast, Dom Crossan’s methodology is inherently naturalistic. Whereas Wright explicitly endorses classical Christian theism, Crossan explicitly denies classical Christian theism. Their metaphysical commitments are quite different. Crossan’s metaphysical commitments play a greater role in his analysis of the historical evidence than do Wright’s metaphysical commitments in his analysis of the same evidence. I believe that Wright’s method is more properly historical than Crossan’s, though I’m less confident than Wright that the historical evidence alone warrants belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Scott argues that Wright and Crossan are equally biased by their respective metaphysical commitments in their appraisal of the historical evidence.

Wright believes that the historical evidence strongly indicates that Jesus died, was buried in a tomb, and rose again. Crossan believes that Jesus died by crucifixion, was not entombed, and did not rise from the dead. Wright and Crossan agree that first century believers affirmed the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus and that a significant number of them also claimed to have seen Jesus alive again following his death and burial. Wright and Crossan also agree that these would-be eyewitnesses were sincere in their testimony and were not hallucinating.

So what explains the difference in their respective conclusions about the resurrection of Jesus? The answer lies in Crossan’s explanation of the facts agreed upon. Crossan maintains that those who claimed to see Jesus alive again were actually having apparitional experiences, typical of those who grieve at the loss of a loved one. In other words, Crossan extrapolates from recent cases of this type of experience to the nature of the experiences by those who believed they had seen Jesus alive again after his crucifixion.

There are a number of problems with Crossan’s proposal that I don’t get into in my essay. A special psychological phenomenon plays a key role in his explanation of the testimonial evidence. But Crossan’s description of this phenomenon is sketchy. More important, Crossan fails to acknowledge the relevance of the fact that this phenomenon does not occur in all instances of grief over the loss of a loved one. It is far more likely that it will not be experienced than that it will. Those who attest to having “apparitional” experiences of a deceased person do not generally conclude that the person had literally risen from the dead. Apparitional experiences of the kind Crossan attributes to alleged eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus would differ in detail from one person to the next, if they were to happen to several individuals at the same time and in the same place (which is unlikely in itself). Also, since it is reported that many were witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, it is likely that some, at least, were less intimately acquainted with Jesus prior to his crucifixion, and so were unlikely candidates for apparitional experiences of him following his death. Finally, there is no special evidence that what the alleged eyewitnesses actually experienced was apparitional in character. People of that time period were no strangers to death, and many of those who claimed to see Jesus alive would have been intimately acquainted with others who had died. This makes it very unlikely that they mistook an apparitional experience for a literal resurrection, and continued to believe in a literal resurrection for the rest of their days.

So why does Crossan find his explanation so attractive? The main point I make against Crossan is that his explanation of the agreed upon facts is motivated by a kind of naturalism. He can think of no other possible explanation because he denies theism.

In contrast, Wright, who is a theist, is open to a fuller range of possibilities. This need not be because he is a theist. Any historian who sought to investigate the evidence for and against the resurrection might conclude that it is likely that Jesus rose from the dead. Even a naturalist might come to such a conclusion. Of course, the question arises, What is the best explanation for the resurrection, if Jesus did in fact rise from the dead? Some Christian theists, as I note in my essay, argue that the best explanation is that God raised Jesus from the dead. I myself believe this would be the best explanation, unless there was strong independent evidence for the non-existence of God.

But I argue further in my essay that, because the event of the resurrection of Jesus would be a historical singularity, it would be difficult to settle the matter in favor of a literal resurrection on the basis of historical evidence alone. So on the basis of such evidence, a historian might acknowledge that there is considerable evidence that a resurrection occurred, but remain agnostic unless and until evidence of some other kind could warrant belief in the occurrence of such a singularity. Thus, if there was strong evidence for the existence of God, and especially of a kind that suggested that God might favor Jesus in some special way, then the historical evidence, in combination with this evidence for theism, might justify belief in the resurrection for people living in the modern era.

Oddly, I think, Wright does not consider theism to be such a superior explanation for the resurrection of Jesus that one who believes Jesus rose from the dead should also believe in God. Conceding the first, one should, I think, infer the other. But a confident judgment regarding the actual occurrence of the resurrection, however strong the historical evidence may be, may depend on the availability of independent evidence for the existence of God. It is on this point that Wright and I disagree.


In response to Scott’s blog, a comment was posted by someone identified as “G.P.” That person seems to have explained my position remarkably well, without having read my essay. Thank you, G.P., whoever you are!

And thank you, Scott, for getting the discussion going!

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