A few days ago, I posted an article entitled Evidence for Teleportation, and my friend Glenn Peoples (author of the Right Reason blog) has subsequently written a critique. This post constitutes my response to Glenn, but also goes into more detail on a few issues. I recommend first reading both my original article and Glenn’s response in order to get the most out of the current post.
The current post is organised as follows. First, I’ll refresh our memories about how the Minimal Facts approach to the resurrection works. Next, I’ll mention a few things I did not say in my article. Then I’ll briefly remind the reader of what my article did say. After that, I’ll address the points Glenn made in his critique. As it turns out, Glenn did not really address the main argument I made. Instead, he complained that I did not present certain other arguments that I quite clearly stated I would do in subsequent posts, and he asserted that I said several things I simply did not say, before attacking those (unsaid) things; as we’ll see, most of Glenn’s criticisms were levelled at positions I clearly stated that I do not hold.
The Minimal Facts approach in a nutshell.
Glenn provided a very simple version of the argument, and this is it (with a couple of extra words added):
P1. If certain proposed “minimal facts” are true, then the resurrection happened.
P2. The proposed “minimal facts” are true.
P3. Therefore, the resurrection happened.
I think this is a very good summary of the argument. It clearly sets out the two premises that must be established, and the conclusion that would inevitably follow. The proposed “minimal facts” are, essentially, that Jesus was crucified, that Jesus was buried in a tomb, that this tomb was later found empty, and that people claimed to see Jesus alive after his death. (Note that the last proposed “fact” is that people claimed to see Jesus after his death. If the proposed “fact” was instead that people actually did see the physical Jesus alive again after his death, then this alone would quite clearly demonstrate the resurrection, but it would be virtually impossible for the apologist to prove.)
Of course, this is just the bare bones of the argument; the apologist typically attempts to support the premises P1 and P2 by means of other arguments. It should also be noted that the word “probably” should really be included in both of the premises and the conclusion, as we are talking about historical inquiry here, but I’ll postpone a discussion about how this affects the argument to a later post. (A simple example calculation would suffice to explain the basic point. If we knew that P1 and P2 are both, say, 70% likely to be true, then we can only deduce that the conclusion is true with 49% probability – here we are moving from premises that are probably true to a conclusion that is not probably true.)
What didn’t I say?
I didn’t say much about the first premise, P1, apart from promising to explain in subsequent posts why I think it is doubtful. For some reason, as we’ll see below, Glenn asserts that I accept this premise. I have absolutely no idea why he does this. I most certainly do not accept the premise, and stated so in no uncertain terms in the article:
“I’ll argue in future posts that, even if [the proposed “minimal facts”] are all true, the resurrection is still far from the most likely explanation.”
I also didn’t engage with what apologists have said in defense of the second premise, P2, except to say that I contest their reasons for accepting it, and would explain why in subsequent posts.
Although he didn’t say this in his blog post, Glenn’s first comments to me in an online conversation was:
“James, what you’ve presented is the hypothesis that the facts were concocted. The disciples made them up.”
The problem with this assertion is that I had stated quite clearly in the article that I do not claim that the proposed “minimal facts” were concocted by the disciples (or anyone else). Indeed, P2 could be wrong by virtue of certain people being mistaken, rather than dishonest. Far from trying to give myself a “back door escape” (as Glenn asserts later on), I just do not think that the negation of “A, B, C, D are true” is “somebody made up A, B, C, D”. (Glenn also mistakenly claimed in a couple of places that to disprove P2, one would have to show that each of the proposed “minimal facts” did not obtain. Actually, all one would have to do is show that at least one did not obtain. Here, Glenn is guilty of mis-applying De Morgan’s Law. In fact, since the proponent of the Minimal Facts Argument has the burden of proof, all an opponent of P2 must do is show that the proponent has not successfully demonstrated the truth of (at least one of) the proposed “minimal facts”.)
What did I say?
As I said above, my detailed assessment of the reasons apologists have given in support of P2 will be given in a future post. But my article did have something to say about P2. I used the example of a claimed teleportation to illustrate the (quite obvious) fact that stories involving supernatural claims will generally also involve natural elements that are absolutely essential for the story to even be seen as a serious claim. And, if the only sources we have for these natural elements are the sources that make the supernatural claim itself, we have a bit of a dilemma. If the sources (whether the sources we actually possess, or other sources they might be based on) have a motive to make up the supernatural claim, then they have a motive to make up the natural elements that support it. I am not saying that the disciples (or whoever started telling the resurrection story) must have concocted the details, but that any resurrection story that is meant to be taken seriously must include these details, whether they are made up or not.
What did Glenn say?
As it turns out, Glenn really did not address the above argument at all. Everything Glenn said can be categorised into two types:
Type 1. Complaining that I didn’t make some other argument.
Type 2. Mis-characterising my position and then attacking that. (See the Straw Man fallacy.)
So, let’s go through Glenn’s complaints in the order they appear. After giving his summary of my post, Glenn said:
This is where things started to break down somewhat. In clarifying his position in our discussion about his claims, James said that “If the story is a fabrication then we should expect that the minimal facts would be there – whether they are concocted themselves or not.” We should expect that the minimal facts would be there even if the whole story was untrue (and how an actual fact could also be concocted is far from obvious)? This is surely false. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then there is no reason at all why we should expect, say, the empty tomb, or the post-resurrection appearances. Indeed, this statement is the opposite of the central thesis of his article, which claims that “The natural elements of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection are exactly the kinds of natural elements that would have to be fabricated if the resurrection itself was fabricated.” On the supposition that the article probably represents his more thought-out position, while the comments in conversation likely represent muddled remarks that one can sometimes make when being challenged.
Contrary to Glenn’s assertions here, I never said that we would expect the proposed “minimal facts” to be true even if the resurrection didn’t happen. Even the words Glenn quoted here do not say that. Rather, I said (quite a few times) that we would expect the proposed “minimal facts” to be present in any serious story about the resurrection, even if the story was not true. In other words, “be there” in the above quote means “be there in the story”, as should be quite apparent from the context. I corrected Glenn on his misunderstanding in our discussion, so I’m surprised that he spent a whole paragraph talking about it. In fact, I’m even more surprised that he acknowledges here that there might have been a misunderstanding, yet claims that I said this in order to “clarify my position”. Glenn continues:
Just how good is the above argument? Strikingly poor! Compare the two scenarios: In the teleportation scenario, you have the word of one person supplying literally all of the details. If the minimal facts case supporting the resurrection was like this, it would go something as follows: Jesus was crucified. One person reports that he was buried, and the same person reports that he was alive later, and this person assured his friends that if they were to visit the tomb (although nobody knew where it was so they couldn’t visit it), they would find it empty, and they should take his word that although he never saw fit to reveal himself alive again to anybody but him, and even though there’s no reason why Jewish believers (like all the disciples he’s trying to win over) should have thought that their Messiah would die and rise again, he’s really telling the truth, Jesus is alive again, somewhere, and he’s the Messiah, and the disciples should all go out and start telling everyone, and they shouldn’t back away from the story, even if they’re thrown in prison or threatened with death!
There are quite a few things wrong with this paragraph.
First, in the teleportation scenario, we do not in fact “have the word of one person supplying literally all of the details” – I quite clearly said that the whereabouts of Bob (the alleged teleporter) were backed up by witnesses. In the teleportation scenario, we have contemporary eyewitnesses, still alive and able to be interviewed. What’s more, if one wanted to, one could re-formulate the scenario so that there were more witnesses (I leave this as an exercise for the reader).
Second, if the case supporting the teleportation scenario was like the resurrection, it would go something as follows. We have four internally and externally contradictory narratives of the teleportation story, written by anonymous non-eyewitnesses living in different countries, reporting on stories that had been circulating for 30-60 years, long after most or all of the supposed witnesses had died. We also have scant references to small parts of the story (mostly just the full claim that Bob teleported) in letters of another non-eyewitness writing 20 years after the supposed event. Some of the sources claim the event happened in the morning, and another claimed it was in the afternoon. One even claimed that the witnesses did not tell anybody about what they saw. I could go on…
Next, the idea that the Jews were not expecting a dying-and-rising messiah has no bearing on the historicity of the resurrection. It has some relevance to the question of Jesus’ existence as a historical figure – I agree it would seem strange to invent a dying-and-rising messiah whole cloth. But it does nothing to suggest that the disciples (or whoever started telling the resurrection story) had no motive to make up the resurrection itself. Indeed, suppose Jesus gathered a group of followers during his life, who believed he might actually be the messiah. But then he died. Just as modern cults seek an alternate explanation for failed end-of-world predictions, and typically remain just as faithful as ever, so too may Jesus’ followers have looked for an explanation of his death. Some kind of resurrection would be a reasonably logical thing to consider. If one (or more) of his followers actually had some kind of dream or vision of Jesus after his death, this might have given them a very understandable reason to start thinking along these lines.
Finally, as I explained in my article, Did the disciples die for their beliefs?, there is absolutely no evidence to support the oft-made claim that the disciples died for their beliefs. In our online discussion, I invited Glenn to provide some evidence to back up his claim. As you can see, no evidence was forthcoming.
Clearly it is ludicrous to compare these two defences. One of the strengths of the minimal facts argument is the fact of multiple attestation. In his article James comments, apparently negatively, on the fact that the minimal facts are recorded in the Gospels themselves, but this betrays a failure to recognise what the biblical literature is. It is not just one source, like James as an alleged witness to teleportation. In the synoptic Gospels we have at least two sources (depending on which view one takes about the order in which they were written and the sources from which they were drawn). John we have a third source, and in Paul we have an earlier source (and Paul himself reproduces a much earlier formalised statement of belief on this used by other disciples). James does try to avoid this major difference between the two cases by introducing witnesses, but here too it is clear that the analogy breaks down. His few witnesses only claim that they saw Bob before and after, and they are unable to say with certainty whether or not there was enough time for Bob to get to the new location by other means. This hardly compares well to witnesses who genuinely believed (on pain of punishment or even death) that they had seen Jesus alive again after they had seen him publicly executed. Just how many seconds or minutes have passed is an easy thing to forget. Perhaps they weren’t paying attention. However, not remembering that your close friend has just been publicly crucified the next time you see him is another matter altogether!
First of all, I did not “fail to recognise what biblical literature is”. I never claimed the Bible is one source, or that the resurrection and teleportation scenarios need to be seen as the same in this way.
Second, the kind of “multiple attestation” present in the biblical sources is rather different from the kind of multiple attestation where we have two (or more) eyewitness accounts of an event, or of various parts of an event. Rather, we have four authors retelling a story that had already been in circulation for several decades, and Paul mentioning the barest of details a couple of decades after the alleged event. These were people (who believed the story) telling the story. These were not eyewitnesses providing independent evidence for distinct events that, taken together, support the grander claim of the resurrection. I’ll have more to say about multiple attestation when I consider the apologists’ cases in subsequent posts.
Third, Glenn complains that the eyewitnesses in the teleportation story could not supply accurate enough details as to the exact time (to the nearest second) that they saw Bob. This is an interesting point to raise, given that the sources for the resurrection could not even agree whether the crucifixion happened in the morning or the evening. The other contradictions and discrepancies between the sources for the resurrection are numerous, and will be dealt with in another post. Again, the teleportation scenario could be trivially re-formulated to include some of the other witnesses noting the exact time – maybe they heard beeps on a radio or something.
Finally, note that Glenn again makes the unjustified (unjusifiable?) claim that the disciples professed to believe the resurrection “on pain of death”. If Glenn wishes to continue making this claim, then he will need to provide evidence that the people who began to circulate the resurrection story were executed for their beliefs, but had the opportunity to save their lives by saying that they had made it up.
Suggesting in passing that the minimal facts are not well established (as James does in his article by noting the source of these claims) simply fails to interact with the case for the minimal facts, and as such does not need to be addressed. If James thinks that the arguments for the minimal facts fails somewhere, then he is welcome to make his case.
I did not just “suggest in passing that the minimal facts are not well established”. I said quite clearly that I would be “interacting with the case for the minimal facts” in future posts.
James’s argument as a whole is a case of putting the cart before the horse. The minimal facts argument is roughly as follows:
1) These facts are agreed on as our starting point.
2) There is a variety of explanations of these facts, including the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.
3) All of these explanations fail to have the explanatory scope or power for all of the facts, apart from the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.
4) There is no compelling reason to exclude the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.
5) Therefore (probably) Jesus rose from the dead.
In case it is not clear already, I do not accept the first and third premises of this argument. (The second and fourth are not really premises, but more background information – I accept both of those.) Regarding the first premise, I absolutely do not agree that the proposed “minimal facts” are true. They might be true (the crucifixion certainly seems likely to be true), but some or all might be false – I do not claim to know one way or the other. If they are false, they might have been the result of dishonest trickery, or honest mistakes – again, I do not claim to know one way or the other. This is not because I am trying to create a “back door” (contrary to Glenn’s accusations later in his post), but simply because I do not have enough information to know, and am therefore reserving my judgement. I will say more about the third premise in future posts, but for now let me just say that I disagree quite thoroughly. And just because the “Jesus really was resurrected” hypothesis is the simplest hypothesis to state, and trivially explains the proposed “minimal facts”, this does not in any way increase its likelihood of being true.
The truth is, there is no reason to expect these facts to obtain if Jesus did not rise from the dead, and indeed if the above argument works, then all of the facts would not have obtained had Jesus not risen from the dead. This is implied by the minimal facts argument itself. In extremely simplified form, the argument is:
1) If the minimal facts, then Jesus rose from the dead.
2) The minimal facts
3) Therefore Jesus rose from the dead
(I know, I said it was extremely simplified.) This is the logical form known as modus ponens (If A then B. A, therefore B). But of course, premise 1) logically entails the following, if we start with the claim that Jesus did not rise from the dead. This is a modus tollens argument (If A then B. Not B, therefore not A):
1) If the minimal facts, then Jesus rose from the dead.
5) Jesus did not rise from the dead
6) Therefore – not the minimal facts
And this, if spelled out clearly, is James’ position.
First of all, I agree that “there is no reason to expect [the proposed “minimal facts”] to obtain if Jesus did not rise from the dead”. But this is precisely why I never said anything about expecting the proposed “minimal facts” to obtain if Jesus did not rise from the dead. The statement I did make is that we have every reason to expect the proposed “minimal facts” (or something like them) to be present in a story that is supposed to provide a compelling account of the resurrection. When I say “or something like them”, I mean that any claimed resurrection must have a few elements in order to even appear to be a serious resurrection claim: the story should include the claim that the person really died, that the person was later missing from his resting place, and that the person was seen again after his death – if any of these claims are missing, then the person making the resurrection claim will find it hard to get anyone to take him seriously.
But is this my position? Absolutely not! Not even close! How could I have been any clearer in saying that I do not accept Glenn’s first premise? Let me quote, again, what I said in my original post:
“I’ll argue in future posts that, even if [the proposed “minimal facts”] are all true, the resurrection is still far from the most likely explanation”
How Glenn could read that and decide that I support his first premise is absolutely beyond me.
If the resurrection story is false, he says, then “The natural elements of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection are exactly the kinds of natural elements that would have to be fabricated.” Indeed they would, for if genuine, they are adequate evidence for the resurrection.
No, I do not think that “if genuine, [the proposed “minimal facts”] are adequate evidence for the resurrection”. As I quite clearly stated, the proposed “minimal facts” (or something like them) would have to be fabricated (or at least the ones that were not already true – I do not claim that they were all fabricated) in order for the story to even look like a genuine resurrection claim – not because I think the proposed “minimal facts” would entail the resurrection. Glenn is again assuming that I accept his first premise. It is also possible that Glenn misunderstands my use of the phrase “would have to be fabricated”. Here I do not mean that it would have to be the case that the natural elements were fabricated, but, rather, that the disciples (or whoever first began to tell the stories) would need to fabricate them.
I also could have made my point clearer by saying instead “the natural elements of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection are exactly the kinds of natural elements that would have to be fabricated (or at least the ones that were not already true)”. For example, I do think Jesus was crucified, so I am not claiming that the disciples (or whoever started telling the story) made up the crucifixion. In any case, I trust that it should be quite obvious that I meant this.
It is simply not available for James to give himself a back door at the end of his article, tacking on “I’m not claiming to know that these details were fabrications.” If he is not here denying any facts or offering any reason to think that they should not be explained via the resurrection, then all he has left is the rather mundane claim that any complete version of the resurrection story would include the minimal facts. And clearly this claim is compatible with the minimal facts argument for the resurrection, including its conclusion, so how could it serve as a criticism of the argument?
As I said above, admitting that I do not know whether the details were fabricated or not is not attempting to “give myself a back door” – it is simply saying “I do not know that they were fabricated”. I did not “deny any facts or offer any reason to think that they should not be explained via the resurrection” in my original article because, as I stated quite clearly, I would be doing this in subsequent posts. Glenn is again complaining that I did not give other arguments.
Glenn may think the claim is mundane, but it is of crucial significance. I agree that the claimed “minimal facts” would indeed be present in any complete version of the resurrection story – whether the resurrection is true or not. But that is precisely the point. The key observation is that the presence of the claimed “minimal facts” in the stories is perfectly compatible with the resurrection being a fabrication, so we should not be particularly impressed that we find the claims in the stories. We’d find the claims (or something like them) in the story, whether it was true or false. In other words, the presence of the claimed “minimal facts” does nothing to distinguish a true resurrection story from a fabricated resurrection story (or a resurrection story based on a mistake). Crucially – and I agree with Glenn on this point – we need to determine whether there are good reasons for thinking the claimed “minimal facts” are true. But, since the only sources for these proposed “minimal facts” are the very sources that claim the resurrection itself, and since there is ample motivation for the resurrection to have been fabricated, we have good reason to approach the claimed “minimal facts” with caution.
I give James more credit than to suppose that he would offer something like that as a critique of the minimal facts argument. Obviously James does deny that Jesus rose from the dead, so he is logically committed, by this argument, to claiming that at least some of the minimal facts are missing. They are not facts, period.
I would only be “logically committed” to that claim if I accepted Glenn’s first premise. But I do not.
If he wishes to resist this, he can only do so by rejecting 1), namely the claim that the minimal facts provide adequate grounds to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And without that, he does not yet have an argument. He does allude to a denial of the burial, and to the hallucination hypothesis, but never defends either claim (each of which have been dealt fairly heavy blows in the past), so I cannot analyse his defence of those theories.
Again, Glenn is complaining that I have not yet made additional arguments that I already said I would make in future posts. Glenn also now says something about the possibility of rejecting the first premise of his arguments. I am very surprised that he did not realise I reject this premise, given that I quite clearly said that I reject it. Glenn also overestimates the weight of the blows that have been dealt to various alternative hypotheses – see for example the compilation, The empty tomb: Jesus beyond the grave, for some work by modern historians who do not accept the resurrection story.
The problem with the argument 1-5-6, however, is that the minimal facts argument includes a defence of the minimal facts themselves. This gives us grounds to reject 6), which in turn calls 5), “Jesus did not rise from the dead,” into question.
As I have said, I will critique the standard defences of the proposed “minimal facts” in future posts.
There is just no getting around it. In order for James’s argument to have any force at all against the minimal facts argument, we must think that the resurrection story is false, thus giving us grounds for insisting that the minimal facts do not obtain after all.
This would only be true if I accepted the first premise of Glenn’s arguments. Since I do not, Glenn’s claim here is false.
But since it is the minimal facts themselves that are defended in the minimal facts argument, the only real options are to argue either 1) that the minimal facts do not obtain, or else 2) they do obtain, but they do not give us a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. James promises to offer an argument for the latter in the future. Until that happens, the case he has presented offers no challenge at all to the minimal facts argument for the resurrection, for this is an argument that trades entirely on arguments that haven’t yet been offered.
I await the argument with interest
No, one is not required to show that “the minimal facts do not obtain”. As I said above, this is just a logical mistake caused by an incorrect application of De Morgan’s Law. To repeat what I said above, since the proponent of the Minimal Facts argument has the burden of proof, all the opponent must do is show that (at least) one of the proposed “minimal facts” has not been adequately defended. And that is if the opponent is attacking Premise P2 of the original argument. It is also open to the opponent of the argument to attack Premise P1. As I have said once or twice now, I will be attacking both premises in future posts.