Resolving Controversies Surrounding Joseph of Arimathea and the Women who Discovered Jesus’ Empty Tomb

Many atheists whom I have encountered on social media dispute the accounts of Jesus’ empty tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb by women, and the owner of the empty tomb, Joseph of Arimathea. One such atheist refers to himself as Kaimatai on social media. Kaimatai is a word that means “biologist” or “specialist,” which is likely Kaimatai’s occupation. The following blog is a response to Kaimatai’s blog with respect to the aforementioned topics, followed by his original blog.

CHRISTIAN APOLOGIST:

Kaimatai presents four general arguments against the authenticity of various events in the New Testament. He questions (1) the timing of the writing of the New Testament, calling into question its authenticity; (2) inconsistencies in the accounts of the empty tomb and the number of women discovering same; (3) conflicts with Roman practices; and (4) whether Joseph of Arimathea was a real person. I will address each of these.

1. Timing (and authenticity of the New Testament and Empty Tomb)

Timing and Authenticity of the New Testament

The overarching premise that Kaimatai has adopted is that the New Testament was written as a propaganda tool, used to “convince people that Jesus was the Messiah and of divine origin.” To fully understand this premise, we must unpack some of the context of early Christian history.

To do so, we first note that until 313 A.D., Christians practiced illegally. Those who were exposed by zealots such as Saul (when he was a Christian persecutor) risked being tortured, burned, crucified, or jailed (cf. Tacitus, Paul, and Luke), so the motivation to practice in the open and intentionally create a propaganda tool was not there.

Similarly, the difficulty associated with transcriptions presented challenges because (1) transcriptions were costly, as they were written either on parchment, which is stretched and smoothed leather, or papyrus from a reed plant; (2) the risk of being identified for practicing Christianity illegally was significant; (3) most of the population (~ 97% according to some estimates) was illiterate, so the oral tradition was revered and perhaps preferred; and (4) scribes were often needed and used to record oral traditions (Bar-Ilan, 2017).

Such challenges help to explain why we do not have hundreds of extra-Biblical sources within 150 years of 33 A.D. when Jesus was crucified. However, despite significant challenges, we do have 42 extra-Biblical sources confirming biblical events within this time period (including nine non-Christian sources, along with the independent sources from within the New Testament (Habermas & Licona, 2004). As an example, we have five non-Christian sources who confirm Jesus’ death via the crucifixion. These are Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and Talmud (Habermas & Licona, 2004). We have seven sources pointing to multiple, very early and eyewitness testimonies to the disciples’ claims of witnessing the risen Jesus who all note that early disciples were willing to suffer for their beliefs in Jesus: Luke – in Acts, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen (Habermas & Licona, 2004). Finally, we have eyewitness testimonies from disciples Peter, Mark, Matthew, Paul, James and Jude, along with the testimony of Luke, who authored the book of Luke and Acts. In Acts, Luke refers to himself in the first person when traveling with Paul (who knew Peter and James), which suggests he was well-aware and had first-hand knowledge of the testimonies of (at least) Peter, James, and Paul.

Kaimatai makes the assertion that the Gospels were written in sequence from Mark to Luke and Matthew to John over a period of thirty to forty years. This assertion is in conformity with Christian estimates. He adds that the Gospels were written after the fall of Rome in 70 A.D., which is not consistent with Christian estimates.

J. Warner Wallace offers the following evidence for earlier dating of the New Testament: (1) The New Testament fails to describe the destruction of the temple during the fall of Rome in 70 A.D.; (2) The New Testament fails to describe the siege of Jerusalem; (3) Luke said nothing about the deaths of Paul and Peter in 64 A.D. and 65 A.D., respectively; (4) Luke said nothing about the death of James in 62 A.D.; (5) Luke’s Gospel predates the Book of Acts, as noted in its words to Theophilus; (6) Paul quoted Luke’s Gospel in his letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:17-18) and his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-25); (7) Paul echoed the claims of the Gospel writers (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Galatians 1:15-19; Galatians 2:1); Luke quoted Mark and Matthew repeatedly (Luke 1:1-4). Furthermore, Luke refers to Mark’s Gospel when he notes that “it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order” (Luke 1:3). J. Warner Wallace suggests the following timeline for the authorship of the New Testament:

  • Mark                           45 – 55 A.D.
  • Luke                            50 – 53 A.D.
  • Paul quotes Luke      53 – 57 A.D.
  • Luke writes Acts       57 – 60 A.D.

Some claim the Gospels were anonymous, yet “no one in antiquity ever attributed the Gospels to anyone other than the four traditionally accepted authors” (Wallace, p. 172). Papias, who lived in the 1st century and early 2nd century is an example of a person who attributed authorship to the four traditionally accepted authors. Furthermore, the Gospels are not the only ancient documents that do not identify the author, as evidenced in Tacitus’ Annals.

Authenticity of the Empty Tomb Account

According to Kaimatai, accounts of the empty tomb are only present in the Gospels, yet we have evidence suggesting Paul was well aware of the empty tomb and the Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. In 1 Corinthians 15 3b-5, Paul cites an old Christian formula, which originated in the Jerusalem church within the first five years of Jesus’ crucifixion (Craig, 1985):

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve.”

Kaimatai is correct in his assertion that Paul does not specifically mention the empty tomb, yet does this omission mean that the tomb was not empty? If I knew that Suzie left her house to join me for lunch, yet I only said that Suzie joined me for lunch, does it mean that she did not leave her house? If I said Justin came home from college to stay with us for the weekend and I knew that he left his single-occupancy dorm along the way, yet did not mention that he left his dorm in my account of the weekend, can I assume that Justin’s dorm would be without Justin over the weekend? Such simple logic suggests that while Paul did not mention the empty tomb specifically, he was well aware of the empty tomb.

As for the Jewish polemic, Matthew’s account about the guard at the tomb (Matthew 27: 62-66; 28: 11-15) was written to refute the widespread assertion that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.

Matthew 28:11-15 “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among Jews to this very day.”

Further information on these arguments can be found here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-historicity-of-the-empty-tomb-of-jesus

2. Inconsistencies (in accounts of the empty tomb)

All four Gospels identify Mary Magdalene as one of the persons to first discover Jesus’ empty tomb. Yet the Gospels appear to vary in accounts of those who accompanied her in this discovery. Mark (16:1) says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb. Matthew (28:1) says that Mary and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. Luke (24:10) says “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the Mother of James, and the others with them who told the apostles.” John (20:1) only mentions Mary Magdalene, yet includes her statement referring to “we:” (20:2) “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him.”

Does failure to mention all of the women who discovered the empty tomb suggest that all of the women weren’t present? If I said, “Peyton Manning threw a touchdown pass and the Colts won the football game,” does it imply that Peyton Manning was alone on the field? No, it instead suggests my emphasis on Peyton Manning and his role in the game. The same can be said of John’s reference to only Mary Magdalene and the other disciples’ references to various women.

Reconciling the Accounts

The following takes the four accounts of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb and marries them into a single account. Very minor discrepancies have been eliminated.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothes were as white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise,* Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, Joanna, and Salome took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. While they were on their way to the tomb, they asked each other ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

They entered the tomb while they were wondering about this, when suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. One of the men, who was dressed in a white robe and on the right side of the tomb, said, “Don’t be alarmed, for I know you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where they laid Him. Then go quickly and tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He has risen from the dead and He is going ahead of you in Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.”

In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen! Remember how He told you, while He was still with you in Galilee; ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified, and on the third day be raised again.’ Then they remembered His words.

Now Mary Magdalene stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw the two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put Him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking He was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have put Him and I will get Him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward Him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’

So the women hurried away from the tomb afraid, yet filled with joy, and ran to the disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” He said. They came to Him, clasped His feet and worshipped Him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

When they came back from the tomb, the women told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. Mary Magdalene said, “I have seen the Lord!” But the disciples did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb and the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally, the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead). Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

*A note must be made about the Gospel of John. John reports that when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, it was still dark. Given the timing in the early hours of the morning, it seems reasonable to assume that the darkness turned to light while on her journey at some point undisclosed. The Gospel of John further offers an overall summary of the empty tomb account, which included Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb and subsequent visit to the disciples (John 20: 1-10), followed by a detailed account of what occurred at the empty tomb during Mary Magdalene’s visit (John 20: 11-18).

In summary, when taken together, the accounts offer a more vivid picture of the events surrounding the empty tomb. As pointed out by J. Warner Wallace, the gospels fit together like a puzzle.

3. Jesus’ burial conflicts with Roman practice

According to Bart Ehrman, criminals considered “enemies of the state” were not allowed decent burials. However, at least one source (a Jewish philosopher called Philo of Alexandria, Egypt) stated that Romans had a practice of allowing burials under “various circumstances.” Furthermore, such an allowance is consistent with Jewish beliefs, as per Deuteronomy 21:22-23, and Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, which was predominantly Jewish.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 “If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.”

Josephus explains Jewish ethical obligations as follows: “We must furnish fire, water, food, to all who ask for them, point out the road, not to leave a corpse unburied…show consideration even to declared enemies (Against Apion, 2:29; 211; cf., 2:26; 205) (Evans, 2017). Given the fact that Jesus was crucified (1) in Jerusalem, a hub for the Jews; and (2) during peacetime on the eve of the Passover in which thousands of Jews would be visiting the next day, it seems unlikely that Jesus’ body would be left on the cross for all men, women, and children traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday to see.

Kaimatai states “As far as we can tell Romans did not normally allow crucified victims to get buried in tombs.”

Jesus was not a “normal” sort of victim, so how can one assert that He should be buried as one? Kaimatai’s assertion suggests that Jesus was not unlike the thieves who were at either side of Him on crosses. Unlike such thieves, Jesus presented such a significant threat to the Jewish high priests that they traded Him for Barabbas, who was mentioned in all four gospels and who had been imprisoned on death row for “an insurrection in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19). Jesus’ significant following, likely a product of His bold and knowledgeable teachings, His miracles, and the fact that He forgave people, were likely what threatened the Jewish high priests who did not want their own power to be infringed upon. They labeled Him the “King of the Jews,” which posed a threat to Roman power, helping to justify their decision to crucify Him.

Furthermore, we have at least four independent sources attesting to Jesus’ burial: Luke in Acts (2:29; 13:36); Paul (1 Corinthians 15:4), Matthew, Mark, and John. Historians have documented much of early history with one or two sources, so having four sources enhances the validity and historicity of the burial account.

4. Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea is described as a wealthy man who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, which was located in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin was the Jewish high court, which consisted of seventy of the leading authorities on Judaism. Given that the Sanhedrin was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, early Christian views on the Sanhedrin were likely quite hostile. Given that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, all of whom (according to Mark) voted to condemn Jesus, Joseph was the last person Christians would “invent” if the account were merely fiction. According to the late New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “very probable” since it is “almost inexplicable” for Christians to make up a story about a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right by Jesus. Even Bart Ehrman affirms that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the evidence presented above serves to diffuse readers’ “problems” with (1) the timing and accuracy of the accounts of the empty tomb, (2) the “inconsistencies” between the Gospel accounts of same, (3) the conflicts with Roman practices, and (4) the doubts about Joseph of Arimathea.

Thank you for investing the time to read this article.

REFERENCES:

Bar-Ilan, Meir (2017). Illiteracy in the land of Israel in the first centuries c.e. Accessed May 20, 2017 at https://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/illitera.html. References include: J. Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1968; J. Baines, ‘Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society’, Man (ns), 18 (1983), pp. 572-599 (includes bibliography); Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989.

Craig, W.L. (1985). The historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus. New Testament Studies, 31: 39-67.

Evans, C. (2017). Jewish burial traditions and the resurrection of Jesus. Accessed May 20, 2017 at http://craigaevans.com/Burial_Traditions.pdf

Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Wallace, J.W. (2013). Cold Case Christianity. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook

KAIMATAI:

Introduction

Well, Easter has come and gone again.  That seems to be a good time to talk about the resurrection. Because many Christians have been talking about it.  How else can we explain the empty tomb if Jesus wasn’t magically resurrected via the power of an ancient bloodgod? It’s the only explanation that makes sense! (rolls eyes). The problem with the question is its loaded nature.  The empty tomb is presented as a fact.  This has some major credibility problems.

Problem 1: Timing

The empty tomb isn’t used as proof of Jesus’ divinity and resurrection until we get to the gospels.  The (genuine) letters we have from Paul do not mention it. Nor is it present in other early NT letters.  For something that’s supposed to convince us all that Jesus was divine and resurrected, its absence for decades in early Christianity literature is astonishing.  The gospels are generally reckoned to be written after Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans (70 CE) because they’re not referenced in earlier Christian documents. Paul seems completely unaware of them.  And prophecies of Jerusalem being sacked are always easier to make after the event… The sequence for the gospels is usually reckoned as Mark, followed by Luke and Matthew, and finally John.  This spans around 30-40 years.  And all are long after the alleged event. The gap between when the empty tomb alleged occurred and when it’s first mentioned is extraordinarily large.

Problem 2: Inconsistencies

Despite the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) patently using the same sources, they can’t keep the empty tomb story straight. Throw in John and it gets worse.  The number of women who went to the tomb, when they went, what they saw at the tomb, what they did afterward, whether they were believed or not are all inconsistent across the gospels.  The Apologist gambit is to assert that this is what we expect with eye-witness accounts.  No. It’s consistent with a bunch of people who didn’t balk at making things up to sell their religion.

Problem 3: It conflicts with Roman practice

As far as we can tell Romans did not normally allow crucified victims to get buried in tombs. Crassus left thousands of ex-slaves rotting on crosses after the suppression of the Slave revolt.  Normally crucified victims were left aloft to be picked clean by birds and the like.   To be buried, and buried ceremoniously instead of in a common pit, is a deviation that begs for explanation.

Problem 4: Joseph of Arimathea

It has always struck me how much of a Deus ex Machina Joseph plays.  In order to get Jesus from the cross, into a tomb and in the time available, requires a very powerful and capable character.  There’s nobody in the disciples capable of pulling this off. Enter Joseph.  He fixes all the problems with the plot.  First, he’s politically powerful.  He’s part of the council that condemned Jesus.  But like all superhero fiction, he has a secret identity.  He’s also a disciple of Jesus.  He’s influential enough to persuade Pilate to take the body off the cross.  He’s also rich.  This is also necessary for the plot.  They have to buy linen cloth and 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe that evening.  He’s also already got a tomb ready.   Every plot-hole (bar one) is immediately fixed.  Evening might be approaching when he asked Pilate for the body, but Jesus is lying in a shroud, in a tomb, with a stone covering the entrance in time for his resurrection. Phew! The remaining plot hole of course, is there isn’t enough time to get this all done in the time available.  Joseph’s appearance in the story is dramatic.  He’s not mentioned in the gospels before this.  And he disappears just as dramatically. He’s never mentioned again.  He’s not mentioned in Acts, he’s not mentioned in any of the letters preceding the gospels.  Paul, Peter and James have no recollection of him at all. He’s a powerful and connected guy with massive influence, and nobody mentions him?! Amazing.   Joseph only has one job.  He appears at exactly the right time to fill in a bunch of critical plot-holes, and then disappears.  He has the traits of a literary invention that appears decades later when the empty tomb story gets added to the Jesus legend- not the traits of an historic person.  (If you want a much deeper analysis of Joseph of Arimathea, I recommend John Loftus’ blog).

Conclusion

I don’t feel that I need to explain the empty tomb, because I don’t think there was one.  Early Christendom was plagued with doctrinal problems.  Hints of this are preserved in the letters of Paul, James and others.  This also created a range of heretical sects, such as the Arians.   The gospels weren’t written to be histories.  They were written to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah and of divine origin.  And by drawing on the authority of Jesus and the early disciples, they could be used to resolve doctrinal disputes.  Was the resurrection a mostly spiritual or personal visionary event?  Or was it a physical event?  For anyone who believed in a physical resurrection, the canonical Gospels make a perfect argument. And they get more elaborate the later the gospel is composed. It’s the last gospel, Johns, that introduces Thomas as the clincher for the physical resurrection.  So either major scientific laws were broken to miraculously bring the offspring of an ancient god and virgin back to life.  Or the belief that the resurrection was a physical event evolved slowly in a community that was willing to add embellishments that showed this, in retelling, over decades.  It’s not really difficult deciding what’s the least plausible.

Why Were Early Christians So Brave?

The intention of the following blog is to offer support for Christians who encounter people who believe Jesus is merely a myth, perpetuated by the early Church. One such mythicist is Dr. Richard Carrier. I have had a number of delightful interactions with Carrier on Twitter, which alerted me to his thoughts on Christianity, Jesus, and the Bible. He is an historian with a Ph.D. from Columbia University who has written numerous books and blog posts refuting the existence of Jesus.

Unlike Carrier, supporters of major world religions outside of Christianity do not question Jesus’ existence. For example, Jews and Muslims do not claim that Jesus didn’t exist. While Jews do not accept Jesus’ divinity, they acknowledge His existence and crucifixion. According to Muhammad, Muslims consider Jesus a prophet whom God took to heaven prior to the crucifixion (leading some to conclude that someone else took Jesus’ place on the cross). Carrier denies Jesus walked the earth, stating in his Twitter posts that Christianity was born out of a “hallucination” by Paul of a “celestial Jesus.”

According to Carrier’s webpage, his research focus is on the “origins of Christianity,” yet he has tweeted that the Bible is “propaganda” and the only historical texts one can rely upon are extra-Biblical.

Let’s consider that point. If I were going to write books on the “origins of Muslims,” wouldn’t it make sense for me to incorporate the Quran? If I were going to craft a history of any countries within the Arab region, wouldn’t I want to take the Quran into account? The Quran certainly offers historical accounts of Muhammad, Muslim beliefs, and Sharia law. Muhammad is an extremely influential prophet among Muslims, so excluding him from any discussions about Arab history seems nonsensical. Applying Carrier’s logic to this situation would require that I obtain extra-Quran accounts of Muhammad’s life before admitting he even lived.

Note that the Guinness Book of World Records has indicated: “Although it is impossible to obtain exact figures, there is little doubt that the Bible is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. A survey by the Bible Society concluded that around 2.5 billion copies were printed between 1815 and 1975, but more recent estimates put the number at more than 5 billion” (www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/best-selling-book-of-non-fiction). Furthermore, the Bible has been translated into 349 languages. Such figures indicate strong support for the Bible from all over the globe.

William Lane Craig’s website includes the following comment: “Archaeology is the greatest defender of the accuracy of the Bible. Archaeologists, when in Israel, still rely on the Bible to determine the location of tell sites which reliance has proved to be remarkably accurate. Historians have long acknowledged the accuracy of place names and events recorded in the Bible despite so-called “higher criticism” and skepticism. In fact, the Bible is now a standard historical text for archaeologists in the Middle East, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Macedonia. The great names of Archaeology, including Dr. Flinders Petrie, Dr. William Albright, Dr. J.O. Kinnaman, Ira M. Price, Professor Sayce of Oxford, and Sir William Ramsay have gone on record to say that archaeology confirms the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. Dr. William Albright, who was not a friend of Christianity and was probably the foremost authority in Middle East archaeology in his time, said this about the Bible: ‘There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament.’”

“Sir William Ramsey, one of the greatest archaeologists of all time, spent 30 years of his life trying to disprove the New Testament, especially Luke’s writings. After much intensive research with many expecting a thorough refutation of Christianity, Ramsey concluded that Luke was one of the greatest historians of all time and became a Christian based on his archaeological findings.”

Extensive evidence of the Bible’s historicity exists, derived from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stone inscriptions, and archeological findings from regions described in the Bible. For a more extensive review, visit http://www.reasonablefaith.org/two-recent-archaeological-discoveries#ixzz4XfDkyKvG

In addition to the support from archeologists, secular historians support the historicity of the Bible. One example of a history book in which the history of early Christianity and Jesus is documented is “Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World” written by forty-five academic contributors from prestigious universities from all over the globe.

The Historical Atlas states: “In fact, it came to pass that Jesus’ death was the foundation of Christianity as we know it. Rather than running scared, Jesus’ followers grew into thousands. This early ‘church’ ran into very strong opposition in Jerusalem and around 35CE great persecution took place there. Around this time, one of the most decisive turning points in world history occurred. The early church began to accept those who were not of Jewish origin- the Gentiles” (Wawro, 2008, page 84).

Carrier’s blog opines that the apostles “died for a vision.” He then proceeds to refer to a debate he had with Bass, stating that “He couldn’t even establish that they could have avoided their deaths by recanting. Or even that what they died for was their belief in the resurrection, rather than their moral vision for society, or (I could have added) some other belief they wouldn’t recant—such as their already-Jewish refusal to worship pagan gods, the only thing Pliny really ever killed Christians for (the resurrection was never even at issue); and that’s the only explicitly eyewitness account we have of any Christians being killed for anything in the whole first hundred years of the religion.”

As reported by Wawro (2008) in the Historical Atlas, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus reported that “Nero punished Christians for their role in the April 64 CE fire in Rome’s Circus Maximus using the following means:

  • He had them covered with animal skins and let them be eaten by dogs.
  • He had them nailed to crosses.
  • He had them burned as torches for light after sundown” (Wawro, 2008, page 85)

In the Tacitus Annals 15,44, Tacitus states “Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dross of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.”

In fact, suffering and martyrdom of the early Christian disciples has been documented by a variety of extra-Biblical sources. Eusebius, the first church historian, wrote Ecclesiastical History in which he speaks to the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. He cites Dionysius of Corinth (~ 170 A.D.), Tertullian (~ 200 A.D.) and Origen (~ 240 A.D.) to back his assertions. He also cites Josephus (~ 95 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (~ 200 A.D.), and Hegesippus (~ 170 A.D.) on the martyrdom of James, the half brother of Jesus (Habermas & Licona, 2004).

“Despite persecutions for the next 150 years, the new Christian Church spread into France, Spain, North Africa, and Mesopotamia. The once small sect devoted to Jesus Christ grew to between 5 and 6 million by 300 CE. By 350 CE, the number of Christians in the Roman Empire was over 33 million, and Christianity had become a universal religion” (Wawro 2008, page 85). In other words, between 5 and 6 million Christians were willing to worship Jesus illegally in the first few hundred years following Jesus’ resurrection. In 312 AD, Constantine had a vision of a Christian symbol, which led to a battle victory and the legalization of Christianity, ending the persecutions of early Christians.

Does it seem reasonable to determine that millions of early Christians would risk their lives by worshipping illegally to follow a “vision” or “hallucination” by a tentmaker named Paul? Additionally, Paul’s supposed hallucination did not include the gospel accounts of Jesus and accounts of the many miracles He performed, including the Resurrection. It is the miracles, including the Resurrection, which drove Christians to risk their lives. Paul’s supposed vision, or hallucination, of a celestial Jesus obviously excluded same.

Below I’ve listed some of Jesus’ miracles:

  1. Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-12)
  2. Jesus heals an official’s son without going to see the boy (John 4:46-54).
  3. Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath (John 5:1-17).
  4. Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:19-21; Mark 6:30-34; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14).
  5. Jesus walks on water (Matthew 14:22-32; Mark 6:47-52; John 6:16-21).
  6. Jesus heals a man born blind (John 9:1-41).
  7. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).
  8. Jesus heals a bleeding woman (Matthew 9:2-7; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48).
  9. Jesus calms a storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:37-41; Luke 8:22-25).
  10. Jesus heals a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:2-7; Mark 2:3-12; Luke 5:18-26).
  11. Jesus resurrected from the dead (Matthew 28:5-6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24; John 20).

Additionally, does it seem reasonable that a tentmaker invent his own tale of Christianity when the rewards of crafting such a story did not exist? Paul boasted about his suffering because he truly believed in a greater purpose, which was glorifying Jesus and advancing in heaven. Paul suffered great peril, as documented in the books he wrote. This suffering occurred after his conversion from a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian persecuted by Jews.

Paul, the author of thirteen New Testament books, offers one of the most compelling stories of a transformation. Paul (known as Saul) was on the road to Damascus in his effort to identify and arrest early Christians for illegal worship. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9-1-6). Paul immediately converted to the Way and became one of its most ardent followers who was beaten, imprisoned, and eventually beheaded all in Jesus’ name.

In 2 Corinthians 16:26-27, Paul states: “I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 2 Corinthians 12:10 adds: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Clearly, Paul was not living an easy life once he decided to follow Jesus.

As C.S. Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy.’ I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Carrier points to times in history in which people have been “gullible,” thereby generalizing all gullible people into a basket of gullibles into which he throws early Christians. He implies that the gullible within the “Heaven’s Gate Cult” are similar to early Christians and that all Christians are “gullible.”

I agree that some people are gullible within every group, as were the adherents to atheist despots like Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, and Stalin, yet I would never make the assertion that the gullibility of Stalin’s followers applies to atheists today (following Carrier’s logic that all atheists are “gullible”). I also know that the vast majority of atheists today abhor the acts of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung, so I would never throw them into a basket of atheists with Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung.

Carrier states: “Thus countless people die for a ‘lie’ in the sense that they don’t know that what they are dying for is false. This is most obviously true for non-eyewitnesses, who die merely for trusting someone else’s word (many religions have many examples of this happening, from Mormonism to Islam to Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, and beyond). But it’s also true for “eyewitnesses,” whose own minds have lied to them. And also, of course, eyewitnesses who are being conned (and indeed many a person has been fully convinced of something that was in fact a perpetrated sham). And also witnesses who aren’t sure of what they saw, but who believe they will gain eternal life if what they saw is what they are told it was, or want it to be—convincing themselves it must be true, merely to avoid personal despair.”

Rather than dig into the psychology behind the movement of early Christians, Carrier implies that their minds have lied to them, they are following a perpetrated sham, and that the early Christians (who, again, were burned and nailed to crosses), believed to “avoid personal despair.” Other more honest atheists with whom I’ve had these conversations acknowledge that early Christians truly believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Early Christians weren’t merely following the hallucination of Paul. They believed Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. Jesus’ birth was predicted in the scriptures, as noted here:

Isaiah 9:6 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:1-2: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled the scriptures, as noted here:

Isaiah 53:5 “But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.

  1. Isaiah 53:11 “After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied, by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities.”
  2. Psalm 16:9-11 “Because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You will make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
  3. Psalm 118:22 “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
  4. Isaiah 53: 9-10 “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the LORD makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand.”

Roman history books included references to Jesus, as noted here (Miller, 2007, page 346):

  1. Antiquities of the Jews, by Joseph (about 93-94). “There was a wise man who was called Jesus, and His conduct was good…Pilate condemned Him to be crucified…His disciples didn’t abandon their loyalty to Him. They reported that He appeared to them three days after His crucifixion that He was alive.”
  2. Annals of Imperial Rome, by Tacitus (about 55 – 120). “Christ suffered the ultimate penalty at the hands of procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor of Rome.”
  3. The Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius (about 70-130). “Chrestus caused the riots in Rome in AD 49. This is probably a reference to Christ and to the hostility that erupted when traditional Jews clashed with Jews who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah. Acts 18:2 supports this theory, reporting that Claudius Caesar expelled all Jews from Rome during this time.

Carrier goes on to state that “it’s also possible for people to die for what they know is a lie.”

Yes, this is possible if the death were unexpected, yet for Carrier to suggest that early Christians, whom either expected or acknowledged the possibility of death, beatings, or imprisonment, knew in their minds that what they were doing was in vain obliterates any rational theories of human behavior and psychology.

  1. People of sound minds make decisions that maximize their outcomes.
  2. People of sound minds weigh benefits against drawbacks when making decisions.
  3. Early Christians wanted to maximize their chances of going to heaven by following Jesus.
  4. Early Christians weighed the benefits of going to heaven and following Jesus against the risks of imprisonment and death.
  5. Had early Christians determined the risks outweighed the benefits (and considered it all a lie), they would have recanted their testimonies in support of Jesus.

“In the centuries that followed, the believers in Jesus, called Christians, braved horrible persecution to found communities across the Roman Empire” (Belt, 2014).

Carrier then questions whether saints such as Peter, Jesus half-brother James, Stephen were (1) martyred and if they indeed were martyred, he questions whether they (2) were martyred for what they believed or for what they saw.

According to the Antiquities of the Jews, written around Flavius Josephus mentions the death by stoning the brother of James the Just, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”

According to Acts 12:2, King Herod put the apostle James to death with the sword.

According to Acts 7:55-58, Stephen was stoned. “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him.”

Other accounts of the deaths of the disciples are based on tradition. The most commonly accepted traditions are as follows: (https://www.gotquestions.org/apostles-die.html unless otherwise noted).

  • Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia, killed by a sword.
  • Bartholomew was flayed to death by a whip (Johns, 2014).
  • Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece. The cross is now known as the cross of St. Andrew (Johns, 2014).
  • Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India
  • Paul was tortured and beheaded by the Emperor Nero in 67 AD.
  • Peter was crucified upside-down, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy (John 21:18).
  • James the Lesser was either beaten or stoned to death, while praying for his attackers (Johns, 2014).
  • Philip was reportedly crucified upside-down in Hierapolis, Turkey. In 2011, archeologists in Hierapolis discovered what they believed to be Philip’s tomb (Johns, 2014).
  • Matthias reportedly preached in the “land of the cannibals” (Johns, 2014).

Though we only have traditions that offer glimpses of the specific ways that most of the early Christian disciples died, we can infer from the fact that Christianity was considered illegal and Christians were persecuted that no matter the means by which they passed, their lives were not easy and their faith in the way, the truth, and the life was strong.

The disciples preached, despite the risks, because they believed that a humble carpenter is the Son of Man and Savior of the world. Had they not seen Him resurrect, they wouldn’t have preached that He resurrected. Had they not seen Him perform miracles, they wouldn’t have preached that He performed miracles. Had they not been filled with the Holy Spirit, they would not have been so brave.

It’s humbling when one considers the way a humble carpenter, a tax collector, several fishermen, a tentmaker, and others were able to change the world. And their timing could not have been more perfect. Despite the age of the earth, the Population Reference Bureau has determined that the number of people who have ever lived on this planet is around 105 billion and only 2% lived before Christ’s time. 98% have lived and are living under the New Covenant. Amen.

Thank you for your time.

“The great difficulty is to get audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity simply because you happen to think it true.” – CS Lewis

References

Richard Carrier’s full blog is available at http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/9978

Belt, D. (2014). Life in the time of Jesus. National Geographic. Jesus and the Apostles. Christianity’s early rise. Special Issue.

Craig, W.L. (2016) Two recent archeological discoveries. Accessed February 3, 2017 at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/two-recent-archaeological-discoveries

Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Kregel  Publications: Grand Rapids, MI.

Johns, C. (2014). Life in the time of Jesus. National Geographic. Jesus and the Apostles. Christianity’s early rise. Special Issue.

Miller, S.M. (2007). The Complete Guide to the Bible. Barbour: Phoenix, AZ. USA.

Wawro, G. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Millennium House: Elanora Heights, Australia