Debating Atheists: Arrival of Jesus (part 5/5)

tomb#4 The Arrival of Jesus

Ancient history is a funny thing. We depend on the information, but no one was there to see it. Historians meet this challenge with the standard method of historiography.

Historiography is scientific in a sense, albeit different than the hard sciences like physics and chemistry. In both cases, absolute certainty still evades us. Historians seek only to identify what events are more likely than not to have happened. Famous religion skeptic Bart Ehrman says human events that occurred in the past are always a matter of what probably did or did not happen [1].

History’s witnesses contain lore and exaggeration but also facts. It’s inherently problematic that there’s much about the ancient world we’ll never know. In fact, an overwhelming majority of events and people left without a trace. When it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, however; there’s little else we can know so well.

Surprised? It turns out there are a few facts about his life, death, and post-death events that aren’t even contested among historians today. So, it’s safe to say we can know with relative historical certainty that these things actually happened. Don’t take our word for it, but see what the scholars who reject Christianity say about him.

  1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion in first century Palestine

“Jesus death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” – Atheist Gerd Ludemann [2]

“The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life.” – Atheist Bart Ehrman [3]

We can take it “absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate” Skeptic John Dominic Crossan [4]

Jewish scholar Paula Fredrickson tells us “the crucifixion is the single strongest fact we have about Jesus” [5].

Even the radical and anti-supernatural Jesus Seminar claims that the crucifixion is “one indisputable fact” [6]. Finally, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg articulates for us:

“[S]ome judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated. …. We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world” [7].

With such strong endorsement by non-Christian scholars who may otherwise be inclined to dismiss this fact, it seems as though no one would oppose it. Nonetheless, there are a few who do. Muslims, of course, are theologically committed to reject this fact at the outset. There are also a handful of scholars who argue the crucifixion was an allegorical story based on pagan mythology. An excellent rebuttal to this view by Greg Koukl can be found here [8]. The interested reader is encouraged to look into the reasons these scholars have for or against all three of these facts about Jesus [9]. The point of this article is to show basic facts most non-Christian scholars concede to when everything is considered.

Surprising as it may be, non-Christian scholars accept most of Paul’s letters and much of the gospel narrative as authentic. Honest historians apply the same standard to the New Testament as they give other available textual witnesses. Almost all scholars give credit to Paul for at least 7 of his 12 letters which give us more than enough for all three points in this post by itself.

Even non-Christian historians don’t dismiss the gospels which provide independent and early accounts. It’s important to realize the passion narratives that provide an account of the crucifixion have distinct differences even among the “synoptic” gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This indicates the written narrative comes from a unique prior source even when other parts of the gospels may share a common tradition. Additionally, the crucifixion is presumed as historical in non-canonical material such as the Shepherd of Hermas and two letters of Clement, Gnostic texts, and the writings of early church fathers.

Contemporary non-Christian sources help too. Admittedly, some Christian apologists have overstated ancient witnesses that mention Christ, but others have dismissed them too quickly (the latter possibly due to the former). At the very least, the extant material left from ancient writers who mentioned Jesus relayed what they took to be contemporary common knowledge. Non-Christians Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar Serapion, and Josephus each have different reasons for mentioning Jesus of Nazareth, but they all assume his execution to be a fact taken for granted by their first century audience. It is also worth noting that ancient writings of the time confirm specific crucifixion details described in the gospels and no ancient source contradict this was Jesus’ fate [10].

  1. Jesus had followers who had experiences they believed to be the risen Jesus

Once again, this point can be made by those who we would expect to disagree. Mike Licona points out that Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide in his work titled, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, gives a case that the post-resurrection appearances in the New Testament originate from the apostles themselves [11].

Atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann thinks the appearance narratives were so well attested that Paul cited them to support his argument. Commenting on the famous appearance narrative in 1 Cor 15, Ludemann thinks Paul referenced the 500 witnesses to encourage his audience to go interview them [12]. Skeptic Robert Funk reports the findings of the hypercritical “Jesus Seminar” who believe the 500 witnesses actually had an appearance, albeit a visionary one [13]. From this and many other passages, we know that the followers sincerely believed Jesus appeared to them both individually and in group settings – both to disciples who knew him well and those who did not – both to friend and to foe alike. The accounts are so well attested one scholar who even proposes the idea that Jesus never existed concedes this point (yes, you read that right). The skeptic Richard Carrier puts it this way…”Obviously, I also agree there were appearances, but I argue the appearances were hallucinations” [14].

Here Carrier supports the most common critical view in contrast to the resurrection hypothesis. His biased approach of methodological naturalism rules out the existence of God thereby excluding the resurrection option from the start. He’s so committed to avoid the resurrection that he proposes contradictory theories and admits he doesn’t intend to provide a plausible alternative theory – only something that’s possible. In his view (akin to Hume and Ehrman), miracles are the least probable event regardless of the evidence, so any alternative to the resurrection is more likely. The implicit assumption is this: since God isn’t an option, anything else will work better. He can then lob spaghetti at the wall and take whatever sticks because he took the supernatural noodles out before the toss.

  1. Hostile skeptics Paul and James changed from hostile critics to teach the resurrection as their central message and lived an increasingly hostile life of suffering and ultimately faced a violent death for it.


Admittedly the weaker of the “minimal facts” gleaned from his exhaustive study, Dr. Gary Habermas cites the conversion of James as a fact supported by the writings of a majority of scholars who are published on the topic in English, French, or German since 1975. In his book co-authored by Mike Licona, he lists four reasons given by the skeptics:

  • James rejected Jesus’ ministry (Mk 3:21, 31; 6:3-4; John 7:5)
  • 1 Cor 15:3-7 believed by skeptics to be authentic lists James as a witness to the risen Jesus
  • James becomes a Christian leader (Acts 15:12-21; Gal 1:19)
  • James died as a martyr for being a Christian leader (Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria) [15]

Flavious Josephus was a contemporary to both James and Paul and was a Jewish historian financed by the Roman Emperor. His familial heritage was of Jewish elite in the capital city of Jerusalem where he lived while these events were unfolding. If anyone would have known about the early Christian movement, Josephus would. So, what he says about James the Just, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth and leader of the Jerusalem church carries some weight:

Having such a character, Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have the proper opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, he brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, whose name was James, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned [16].

The testimony of James is affirmed by Christian and non-Christian sources alike.


The fact that Paul was a skeptic who converted to Christianity is so uncontroversial that we can take it directly from the source, Paul himself. There’s no need to do otherwise since the non-Christian scholars endorse his authorship to his testimony. According to skeptic John Dominic Crossan, Paul’s personal testimony exceeds even the events recorded in Acts [17]. Paul writes of his personal conversion experience in Galatians, 1 Cor, Philemon, and 1 Timothy. It’s also accounted for in a separate source on two different occasions in the book of Acts, which ironically, is also the book that most vividly speaks of his prior violent opposition. Virtually no scholar goes against the overwhelming majority consensus that Paul once was a skeptic who became a believer. Given the drastic shift in position, that is a tremendous understatement. Even atheist philosopher Michael Martin has concluded this [18].


In closing, let’s review what we can know from these facts that non-Christians support: 1) Jesus was crucified, 2) apostles had post-resurrection appearances, and 3) Hostile critics Paul and James converted. Which explanation best accounts for these three facts? Skeptics have offered a range of theories, but far and away, the most common naturalistic explanation offered is grief hallucinations. This is the most common way to avoid a supernatural explanation, but fitting the skeptic’s prior presupposition is where the advantages end.

Hallucinations fail to account for group appearances granted as historical by skeptics and doesn’t work for hostile witnesses like Paul who didn’t even know Jesus but wanted to kill his followers. The best explanation is the one offered by Christianity: that Jesus rose from the dead. The only reason to keep it off the table is if you take God off the table before you start looking.

Dr. Shapiro mentioned many things about the life of Jesus but didn’t face any of these three facts. Instead, he cited clearly inaccurate information to lead the audience astray. For example, he said Jesus may never have existed at all. To this point, scholar and skeptic Bart Ehman pulls no punches. In a friendly crowd, receiving an award from Freedom from Religion Foundation president Dan Barker, Ehrman said:

There is so much evidence that….this is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity…There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches Classics, Ancient History, New Testament, early Christianity, any related field who doubts that Jesus existed…That is not evidence…but if you want to know about the theory of evolution vs the theory of creationism and every scholar in every reputable institution in the world believes in evolution. It may not be evidence, but if you have a different opinion you’d better have a pretty good piece of evidence yourself…The reason for thinking Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources…Early and independent sources certainly indicate that Jesus existed…One author we know about knew Jesus’ brother…I’m sorry, I respect your disbelief, but if you want to go where the evidence goes…I think that atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism, because frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world [15].

We need go no further than the peer-reviewed literature published by skeptics who should otherwise be inclined not to say such things. To be fair, these very same critics don’t conclude the resurrection best explains the facts, but conclusions about things with such weighty implications don’t happen in a vacuum. All sorts of factors influence our conclusions. Remember, history is a science of discovering what most probably happened so the urge is strong to wedge in other factors such as philosophical presuppositions, lifestyle habits, emotional attachment, upbringing, social setting, academic pressure, wealth, and recognition. No matter where we fall on the resurrection question, a variety of influences come into play. It’s at this point where we must part with the skeptics cited above with whom we’ve agreed with so far on key matters of science, ethics, human experience, and history. For those following their desires, just about any theory can be made to fit. For the rest of us who go where the evidence leads, there’s the hope eternal in the resurrection of Jesus.

[1] Bart Ehrman quoted in How to Defend the Christian Faith: Advice from an Atheist

By John W. Loftus, Peter Boghossian viewed in Google Books preview

[2]  Gerd Ludemann, 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. p50 quoted by James Bishop here

[3] Bart Ehrman, http://ehrmanblog.org/why-was-jesus-killed-for-members/)

[4] John Dominic Crossan quoted by R. Stewart & Gary Habermas in Memories of Jesus. p282 quoted by James Bishop here

[5] Paula Frederickson, remark during discussion at the meeting of “The Historical Jesus” section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 22, 1999 as cited at ReasonableFaith.org

[6] Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape as cited by James Bishop here

[7] Marcus Borg, 1999. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. Chapter 5: Why was Jesus killed? as cited by James Bishop here

[8] Greg Koukl, Jesus Recycled Redeemer, Solid Ground, September 1, 2009 http://www.str.org/publications/recycled-redeemer#.WJajTVMrLIU

[9] A great resource on the most current peer-reviewed literature on the topic is by Micheal R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, IVP Academic, 2010

[10] ibid, pp303-318

[11] ibid, pp323-324 – citing Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, 2002, p99

[12] Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry, 2004, p41

[13] Licona (2010), p321 – citing Funk and the Jesus Seminar (1998)

[14] Richard Carrier, March 18, 2009, Missouri State University debate with William Lane Craig at approximately 47 min 23 sec.

[15] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, (2004) Kregel. Grand Rapids, MI. p68

[16] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:200

[17] Licona (2010), p396

[18] Gary Habermas “The Case for Christ’s Resurrection” in To Everyone an Answer: The Case for the Christian Worldview. “[W]e have only one con­temporary eyewitness account of a postresurrection appearance of Jesus, namely Paul’s.” found here http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/inbook_to-everyone-an-answer/habermas_case-for-xp-res.htm

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  1. Jerry Kotab says:

    Marcus Borg was a Christian. Perhaps not your kind of Christian, but a Christian nonetheless.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks, Jerry. I don’t think I said he was a non-Christian. From what I’ve read of his, I thought it fair to describe him as “anti-supernatural.”

  2. thom waters says:

    The weakness of this article begins with the very first of your “facts”. This, of course, is your reference to the crucifixion of Jesus and his death. There seems to be little to question regarding the crucifixion of Jesus. It is, however, the statement of his death becomes questionable as it relates to his death being a “fact”. Here is your problem. Crucifixion was not a beheading. If you could establish that someone was, in fact, beheaded, their subsequent death becomes a matter of fact, not simply an inference. Your death of Jesus as a fact is nothing more than an inference. This happens because of the irregularities among other things surrounding this crucifixion. An inference is not a fact. It might be a reasonable inference, but it still falls short of being a “fact”. With regard to the Resurrection story it becomes a necessary “belief”. Hard to have a resurrection without a death. The death of Jesus is something that you need in order to continue the story. It is a necessary element. However, as a “fact” the story of the crucifixion falls woefully short of being established as such. Leave Jesus on the cross for three days, have scavenger birds ravage the body, as was the case for most crucifixions and now you have the makings of a crucifixion that most probably resulted in the death of the victim and becomes “fact”.
    Certainly much closer than what this story suggests. It must be remembered that unlike a beheading that was and is a true execution, a crucifixion involved the elements of torture and humiliation which ultimately if allowed to continue to its “normal” conclusion resulted in death. And how long might a crucified person survive? The accounts and history suggest the possibility of a victim surviving for several days. And how soon might death occur? After five minutes, twenty minutes, one hour, two hours? The book is open we know so little about this form of torture and execution. Much more could be said here concerning this particular crucifixion. I’m not saying that Jesus did not die. I am simply pointing out two things: 1) the death of Jesus is not and cannot be established as a “fact”. If you want to infer it as reasonable, then feel free. His crucifixion is a “fact” to which the historical evidence points. His death does not meet that same criteria and that can be easily argued and supported from the New Testament documents alone. Much could be said here, but I stop.
    2) the weakness to your argument comes from your bias. You need the death of Jesus in order to have a resurrection claim. As a result you are unable to objectively analyze and investigate the evidence, that is, all the evidence at hand. You try to establish without any meaningful evidence the death of Jesus and quickly move on. By citing certain scholars you hope to dissuade any dissent by suggesting that such dissenters are either biased themselves or simply kooks. I am neither a Muslim or someone else predisposed to a bias or am I a kook. In fact, if you look at the scholars you cite only one talks about the death of Jesus. All the others refer simply to the “fact” of his crucifixion. I agree to that, but resist the temptation and mistake of claiming the death of Jesus as a “fact” which can be easily argued against. Just because you want or need something to be true does not make it such or a “fact”. This just begins the challenge to your “facts” especially the first. I believe you would find a dialogue or debate most fascinating. You must resist the temptation to confuse belief with fact. Thanks for your time.

    • mike says:

      the death of Jesus is not and cannot be established as a “fact”. If you want to infer it as reasonable, then feel free. His crucifixion is a “fact” to which the historical evidence points. His death does not meet that same criteria and that can be easily argued and supported from the New Testament documents alone. Much could be said here, but I stop.—what would constitute as fact for you in this situation ? They did not have official medical records with a TOD stamp. By your argument, no one in that are of that time died. even though your going to claim that he was seen later does not prove he didnt die. you are just dismissing eyewitness testimony correct ? Your going to believe in people at that time were not smart enough to know when something dies? or that when something dies it usually doesnt come back? you claim it could be reasonable but not fact….arent facts rooted in what is reasonable and logical ? what about this : http://life.liegeman.org/christn/historymaker/death/

      2) everyone’s biased, the key is not to be blinded by your bias and follow truth and facts grounded in logic and reason. Common sense dictates you have to start out with a view to investigate, so you start at some sort of biased to begin with. It seems to me you are the one that is letting your bias block the evidence we do have about the death and resurrection…you never once brought up any evidence believers have of death to resurrection to argue against ! No temptation here to confuse claiming facts, there is evidence, examined, concluded to a reasonable conclusion . Its interesting how you claim “it could be reasonable” then you abandon reason to draw a conclusion.

  3. Vinny says:

    I often wonder why Jesus’ crucifixion is considered such an indisputable fact. It seems to me that if a person is seen alive, that provides a pretty good reason to think not only that he is not dead, but also, that he never has been dead. The fact that people claimed to have seen Jesus alive after he was allegedly put to death would seem to at least raise the possibility that he wasn’t crucified at all.

    • Dan says:

      That’s why I cited these well-respected non-Christian thinkers. The fact of the crucifixion was granted by scholars who have every reason to NOT concede points like this. Why they do this is a separate question.

      • thom waters says:

        Here again you go back to the fact of crucifixion. I’m more than willing to grant that “fact”. You still are left with nothing more than an inference regarding his death. You have the story of life, crucifixion, burial, death, and Resurrection but at what point and to what lengths are you willing to go to establish the “facts” to this story. And the internal evidence or testimony of the documents themselves is incredibly flimsy to say the least in establishing certain parts of the story as “facts”. Even the “burial” is problematic at best. Bury the body in the ground six feet down and authenticate that the body was there three days and that would go a long way in establishing death as a matter of “fact”. But with this story we have a rock cave or hole in the hill or mountain that people can walk in and out of hardly establishes that. The evidentialists from Habermas, Craig, and Wallace need to be confronted with their so-called “facts”. Infer all you want but it seems less than forthright to call beliefs “facts”. The haste with which they deal with certain matters should raise an immediate red flag. The oldest gospel that we have, Mark, should serve as a guide of some kind or so it seems. If you were a “cub” reporter and you wrote Mark’s Gospel as your story, it hardly seems like a story that would appear on the front page of your newspaper. More likely to be buried on page 8. It seems somewhat fanciful to imagine that the other gospel writers, who used Mark, didn’t see the need to enhance or embellish the story. They become, if you will, rewrites made to sound and seem more complete and, yes, more believable. The core of the “story” stays the same, but the details, which are many, become expanded upon. After all, it’s rather hard to claim a resurrection without appearances. Better have, at least, some of those or claims to such. Just getting started. Time to stop. Remember, I’m not saying that Jesus did not die. I”m not even saying that he wasn’t resurrected. I’m simply beginning to question the claim at the point where the apologists and evidentialists want me to confront it. Perhaps it is an attempt to agree with Barth and maintain the belief in the story as belonging to the realm of Faith. Thanks again.

        • thom waters says:

          Something I meant to mention earlier but forgot. It pertains to your quoting a number of scholars regarding the crucifixion. I feel it germane because it comes from no less a scholar and apologist than Michael Licona, who you reference in your essay. In his massive work “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” he states on page 64, “We need to be reminded every so often that a consensus of scholars does not establish the objectivity or truth of their conclusion.” While this very thinking can be applied to your insistence on quoting scholars regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, I’m willing to grant you the crucifixion something that hyper-critical skeptics are not willing to do. I think it historically probable and convincing. What I am not willing to do is to grant you the inference of death, since that is a different matter all together. We can certainly debate the possible evidence you might have to support that inference. Such evidence can be easily argued against including the physical condition of Jesus prior to the cross which is often nothing more than

  4. thom waters says:

    an obvious attempt at eisegesis to support an already arrived at conclusion. Statements from Jesus on the cross become pertinent at this point. We can also discuss the so-called spear thrust, the account of which is easily questioned from the documents we have, that is, the gospels, especially if we cross reference them. We can even use I John, the epistle. Much to say here. Anyway, thanks again.

  5. gary says:

    How are the group appearances of Jesus to the first Christians any different from the group appearances of the angel Moroni to the first Mormons?


    • Dan says:

      Too many to mention but I’ll try a short answer. First, the Jesus appearances were witnessed and attested by multiple independent sources. Moroni had one. Second, the Jesus appearances happened about 1800 years earlier which Joseph Smith, Jr was very familiar with. If he wanted to copy a good story, what better one was there? He also copied large portions of many other biblical accounts in the Book of Mormon, for example. Third, as previously stated in point one, the witnesses of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances were documented by at least three early witnesses while Mormonism had one. The 3/11 alleged witnesses cited by JS2 either left the church, were kicked out, or had close family ties. On the contrary, lives of Peter, Paul, James, and John were full of hardship directly due to preaching the resurrection event. Beyond this, there’s no account of an self-proclaimed eyewitness recanting. Mormonism has 6 of 11. Not a good percentage and far from a parallel. Lastly, let’s assume the parallels are an exact match – which we know isn’t the case. What would that prove? I convict bad guys all the time. They often have almost the exact story. What should we do with all those convictions? The answer is obvious. They are all looked at individually. It would be unfair to do otherwise.

  6. thom waters says:


    That’s an interesting question especially since the Gospel of Matthew even suggests that “some doubted.” What did they doubt exactly? It also brings into the question Paul’s reference to the appearance before 500 mentioned in I Corinthains 15. What was this? Was it a receiving line of some kind? Shake a hand, and what do you think? It also brings to light Paul’s exclusion of the so-called appearances to the women at the tomb. Paul excludes these so-called appearances and one must confront this omission forthrightly and openly. If one suggests that Paul excludes them for the purposes of eliminating embarassment then one must logically conclude that the so-called appearances to the 500 where to men only. Women please excuse yourselves before the appearance. The real challenge is trying to determine just what the heck was going on during this time from so long ago. Apparently it really just comes down to faith, that’s it. The failure of the evidentialists to build an historical case worthy of belief seems to fall flat. However, the conferences will continue and the doctrinaire approaches and positions will continue to be accepted. Nothing really wrong with that, I suppose. Where’s the harm in believing in life everlasting? Nothing, unless you are willing to condemn those who disagree with everlasting torment and damnation. But who would possibly do that?

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