Saturday, April 11, 2009

Was Jesus' Resurrection an Urban Legend?

Last Easter I argued that Jesus' resurrection cannot be explained in terms of mythology. But I also pointed out that people who think Jesus is a myth equivocate between whether they mean "mythology" or "urban legend." While mythology takes a long time to develop, urban legends are just stories that have been passed along throughout society. Since they do not result from a long process of mythologization -- where at some point the story is misinterpreted or corrupted -- either the person(s) who first told the story experienced something they misunderstood for something else, or they didn't. If they didn't, they must have known that they didn't (i.e. they made it up), although I suppose insanity could be a possible explanation as well. If they did experience something which they subsequently misunderstood, it was either something outside the person or it was something inside the person's mind (i.e. a hallucination). Thus an urban legend must have at least one of the following causes: the person who originally told the the story 1. simply made it up (for example, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster); 2. was insane; 3. hallucinated; or 4. experienced something which he mistook for something else (such as Elvis and UFO sightings).

Now the problem with saying that Jesus' resurrection was an urban legend is that it cannot fit into any of these categories.

1. There are two reasons mitigating against the idea that the early Christians made up the resurrection: first, the resurrection of Jesus was significantly different from the Jewish concept of resurrection, not to mention pagan concepts of the afterlife. The Jewish concept was that everyone who has ever lived would be resurrected at the end of the world. Jesus' resurrection is that of an individual man in the midst of history. No one has ever explained how the idea of Jesus' resurrection would even occur to anyone if it hadn't actually happened.

Second, the people who claimed to have seen Jesus alive from the dead were willing to experience horrific deaths rather than deny that it happened. If they just made it up, what possible motivation could they have had for this?

2. The writings of the early Christians show no signs of mental instability. On the contrary, they make up some of the most inspirational writings ever written. Paul is widely considered one of the greatest minds of the ancient world.

3. The first reason why Jesus' resurrection appearances cannot be ascribed to hallucination is the same as the first reason why the early Christians couldn't have just made it up: Jesus' resurrection contradicted the fundamental Jewish concept of resurrection. Hallucinations are projections of the mind; one cannot hallucinate something that isn't already present in the mind. So it's a straightforward syllogism:

a) Hallucinations can only be of what is already conceived.
b) The early Christians could not have conceived of Jesus' resurrection (because it contradicted the Jewish concept of resurrection).
c) Therefore, the early Christians could not have hallucinated Jesus' resurrection.

As William Lane Craig has written, if the disciples were to hallucinate Jesus after his death, they would have hallucinated something that fit into the religious paradigm they accepted, such as Jesus having been assumed into heaven. They wouldn't have had hallucinations of Jesus risen from the dead.

The second reason the hallucination theory doesn't work is more obvious: Jesus appeared to groups of people. Hallucinations are individual experiences, there is no such thing as a collective hallucination. Again, a hallucination is a projection of the mind. For more than one person to hallucinate the exact same thing at the exact same time is implausible in the extreme.

4. There are two reasons countering the idea that people experienced something which they mistakenly took to be Jesus alive from the dead. First is that these weren't brief glimpses experienced by people who didn't personally know Jesus. They were groups of people who knew him intimately, and they spoke with and physically touched "whatever it was." It is a category mistake to compare Jesus' resurrection appearances with catching a brief glimpse of someone with long sideburns in a crowd and thinking it's Elvis, or seeing nondescript lights in the sky and thinking that they're alien spacecraft.

For example, virtually all New Testament scholars agree that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul is quoting a creed which dates to within a few years of Jesus' crucifixion. This creed claims, among other things, that after Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to the apostles, to Jesus' brother James, and to a group of 500 people at once. The appearance to the apostles has multiple independent attestation, being further described in the Gospels of Luke and John. James opposed his brother during his ministry, but something convinced him that his brother rose from the dead, since he preferred to be put to death rather than deny it. And Elvis never appeared to 500 people at once after his death.

Second, if the early followers merely mistook something else for Jesus alive from the dead, what exactly was it? The difficulty of anything other than Jesus himself giving the early Christians the impression of Jesus raised from the dead has led to absurdities. One philosopher (not a New Testament scholar) has suggested that Jesus must have had an evil twin. If that's the alternative to believing in the resurrection, then there's just no contest.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


Anonymous said...

"While mythology takes a long time to develop"

Please state the evidence on which this odd statement is based – or shall we agree the claim itself is more mythology?

Bino Bolumai

/ In Bino Veritas >

Jim S. said...

Hi Bino, thanks for the comment.

The most blatant evidence is in Herodotus' writings which show the degree to and rate at which legendary accretion can take place. Virtually all studies on this have demonstrated that two generations is too short a time for anything like a belief in Jesus' resurrection to be attached to a historical person and be widely believed. There are no known examples of mythology (not urban legend) developing this quickly. A good book on this is A. N. Sherwin-White's Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament. In fact were this not the case, we would virtually have to abandon the field of ancient history, since almost no ancient historical writings were written close in time to the events they narrate.

This is a well established fact that has been acknowledged by the consensus of scholarship for several decades. I don't mean this offensively, but the fact that you find this claim "odd" indicates that you are not familiar with the literature. I think you may be confusing mythology with urban legend, which is precisely why I distinguish them in this and my earlier post. Urban legend does not take this amount of time to develop for the reasons I gave in this post, but it has its own problems. I dealt with the problems of treating Jesus' resurrection as mythological in the earlier post which I linked at the top of this one.

Vinny said...

Have you actually read Sherwin-White's book? Craig badly misrepresents his conclusions.

Jim S. said...

Hi Vinny. I have read Sherwin-White's book, but it was several years ago. I certainly did not at all get the impression that Craig misrepresented his conclusions at all. As a further point (that I made in the earlier post), when the mythology hypothesis took off in the 19th century, it was assumed that no book of the NT was written until AD 150. Part of their basis for this was that it would take at least that long for the mythology to develop.

But again, that's mythology, not urban legend. I addressed the former in the other post.

Vinny said...

If you look at the example from Herodotus cited by Sherwin-White, you would find that a very widely believed legend had sprung up within a couple of generations of the actual events. However, Herodotus was still able to record the actual events in his history. Sherwin-White’s point was not that myths cannot develop that quickly. His point was that memory of the true events does not fade that quickly. Sherwin-White concedes that legends can spring up pretty quickly; however, he finds that accurate memories are preserved as well. I think he is suggesting something more like separate streams of transmission being maintained for the legend and the truth with each stream having its own dynamics.

Jim S. said...

Oh, OK! That's an important qualification: it's not about the myths arising that takes so much time, it's about their replacing the original story, so that the latter is lost.

Craig makes this point, though, in Reasonable Faith; I actually quote this in the earlier post:

"The letters of Barnabus and Clement refer to Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. Polycarp mentions the resurrection of Christ, and Irenaeus relates that he had heard Polycarp tell of Jesus’ miracles. Ignatius speaks of the resurrection. Quadratus reports that persons were still living who had been healed by Jesus. Justin Martyr mentions the miracles of Christ. No relic of a nonmiraculous story exists. That the original story should be lost and replaced by another goes beyond any known example of corruption of even oral tradition, not to speak of the experience of written transmissions. These facts show that the story in the Gospels was in substance the same story that Christians had at the beginning."

Anyway, thanks for that. I was too sloppy in writing that "mythology takes a long time to develop"; I should have written "mythology takes a long time to replace the historical core" or something similar.

Vinny said...

Fair enough.

However, the fact that the true story might still have been accessible at the time the gospels were written does not by itself tell us whether the gospel writers were recording it or some myth that might have already arisen.

Jim S. said...

By itself, I fully agree. Thanks.

siehjin said...

hi jim,

thank you for this post. i am engaged in a conversation with an atheist friend, and when i claimed that the time lapse between Jesus' death and the writing of the gospels was insufficient for myth to have developed, he accused me of making up an imaginary time frame for the development of myth.

i searched online and found this very informative blog post about the resurrection of Jesus not being urban legend, as well as the previous one about it not being myth. so i have directed my friend here and i hope that he wil find your points as pertinent as i did.

God bless you! =)

Paul.M said...

Hello . as a Christian and educated in the Catholic schools & now an X Catholic Somehow i could never believe in the Virgin Myth of Mary or Jesus Resurrection from the dead. it all sounded like the stories taken from the old Mythical Greek & Egyptian and other pagan Religions before Christianity. Ispoke to an old class mate who is now a Jesuit Priest and he told me all things that are written in the Gospel have been tampered with. by early scribes and church Fathers. not all the stories of Jesus are from people people who knew him . some are Myths that Grew as the church grew so more people would be attracted to the church and a lot of pagan Myths came with those people. he also said the church knows now a lot of the stories about Jesus and what he said were not his. we now know that John the Baptist was in fact the true Messiah and jesus was only one of his followers at first Jesus took over from John. and said. John was the Most Holy Man ever born of a women and no other man was as holy to walked the Earth.