We're still waiting

By DOUG SHAVER
August 2008
Revised September 11, 2011

(Note: On August 29, 2009, I was informed of a purported response to Barker's challenge posted at http://theologicaldiscourse.net23.net/Frameset.htm. My comments appear after the main article, here.)

Dan Barker first published his "Easter Challenge" in 1990. It remains unsolved. Here it is in Barker's own words:

The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul's tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened. Five New Testament authors -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul -- had something to say about certain events that were supposed to have happened during the 40 days following Jesus' death. Their accounts are not entirely consistent. It is not possible that everything they reported happened just the way they said it happened.

The crucial element of the challenge is in the phrase "without omitting a single detail." If a few bits and pieces of the various accounts can be overlooked, then lots of problems can be made to go away. But if you include them all, you get a narrative that defies logic.

This is not necessarily a problem for Christianity. Any apologist could dispense with it in a heartbeat simply by saying something like the following.

Very well. At least one of the writers made a mistake. So what? They were only human. Eyewitness testimony is not supposed to be perfect. Still, they all five agree that Jesus was seen alive by several of his followers over a period of at least several days after he was buried. It is therefore reasonable to believe, on the basis of their testimony where it is consistent, that Jesus rose from the dead.

For evangelicals, though, such an argument would be anathema, because according to evangelical dogma, it is not sufficient to believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead. It is also necessary to believe that the men who wrote Bible wrote infallibly. According to that dogma, it is not possible to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ without believing also in scriptural inerrancy.

The reason for this is apparent enough, of course. Practically nobody but an inerrantist can believe there was any resurrection. It is common knowledge that dead people don't come back to life. Conceivably, at one moment in history an exception could have occurred, but why should we believe that any exception ever did occur? We have some ancient documents that say it happened. Should we just take the writers' word for it, or should we think they could have been mistaken? Most people would allow that just maybe they were wrong. Evangelicals have to insist, therefore, that they could not have been wrong -- not any of them, and not about anything.

Of course Barker does not believe in the resurrection, and neither do I, though we both did at one time in our lives. But the point of the Easter Challenge is not to refute the resurrection. It is to refute the dogma of inerrancy. If there are no errors in the Bible, then the challenge could be met. That no inerrantist has met the challenge ought to say something about that dogma.

This is not to say that apologists have ignored the challenge, although most of them have. Rather, of those who have addressed it, the response has been designed not to solve the problem but to tell their fellow believers why they don't have to worry about the problem. A prime example was produced by Glenn Miller, publisher of the Web site Christian Think Tank. One of Miller's Christian readers wrote in with the following (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/ordorise.html).

My attention has been drawn to a thing from the freedom from religion group... An atheist friend has challenged me to take this one gentleman's challenge, which is an extensive project at best. The challenge is this, using all the information given in the Bible, construct a chronological timeline of the events leading to, during and closely following the resurrection, up until the ascension, i think he wants. he says it can't be done. I already know he is not taking into account the fact that John is not a synoptic gospel, and therefore will not fit in a chronological reconstruction. Any way, this guy at freedom from religion has issued this challenge to any and all Christians. He says he will accept estimates for some things, and any plausible explanations, but apparently some have been sent in, and he does not accept them.

Two things should be noted right away. First, the italicized paraphrase of the challenge ignores the key criterion: "without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts." It is trivially easy to write a narrative and declare, "This is what the Bible says happened." It is something else entirely to include every detail of every incident reported by all five writers and still have a coherent account. Second, we should be looking, in Miller's response, for some hint as to why Barker "does not accept" any of the proposed solutions that have come his way.

After much background discussion (most of it entirely beside the point), Miller offers no fewer than eight "harmonizations" that, he would have the reader think, meet the challenge. As he observes, "Most of these harmonizations will differ in some details, indicating the reality that there are MULTIPLE WAYS to harmonize the accounts!" That is fair enough, but not one of them in fact includes every detail mentioned by the New Testament writers. Therefore none of them actually meets the challenge.

According to Miller, there are five points that Christians should keep in mind and which, one supposes, skeptics in their pigheadedness either ignore or misunderstand. They are:

  1. The absolute necessity of conjecture in historical reconstructions;
  2. The significance of different details in the accounts (from the standpoint of evidence)
  3. The legitimacy of harmonization attempts relative to historical material;
  4. The issue of "plausibility" of explanations.
  5. Several specific reconstructions/sequencing of the post-resurrection events (or appearances of Christ).

Miller then applies these points to a few of the problems most often cited by skeptics. That is all well and good. If Miller or anyone else ever writes a narrative that meets the Easter Challenge, then presumably it will take these points and maybe several others into consideration. Barker puts no constraints on the apologetic techniques that may be employed. He does not say that the resulting narrative has to be plausible to skeptics. All he asks is that it be complete and in chronological order. To my knowledge, and apparently to Miller's as well, no one has ever written such a narrative.

But then, what about those five points?

The absolute necessity of conjecture in historical reconstructions

Miller starts right off the bat with a straw man: "Anybody that has 'done' any history knows that the 'just the facts' position above is simply absurd." But Barker is not asking for a "just the facts" narrative. He is asking for a narrative that includes all the facts alleged by the five authors, but not only those facts. To meet the challenge, it is necessary also to add details of place and time to each incident: Where did it happen, and when did it happen? Most alleged harmonizations omit them, but if there is no way to add them without introducing a contradiction, then the stories cannot all be factually accurate. It does not matter if the details must be added by pure guesswork. The challenge allows that. The challenge is only to say that it could have happened this way, not that it must have happened this way.

Miller quotes a few historians who explain how history is largely a matter of making inferences from incomplete factual data. Fine. I don't know any skeptic who has a problem with that. Miller mentions "constructing a history of Tiberius from the disparate and wildly divergent sources of Tacitus, Suetonius, Velleius Paterculus, and Dio Cassius." Funny he should mention how they are "disparate and wildly divergent." Would Miller ever insist that, notwithstanding their disparities and divergences, every last statement made by those four authors must have been factually correct? Of course not. Those writers are allowed to make mistakes just like all other human beings, because their writings were never canonized.

The significance of different details in the accounts (from the standpoint of evidence)

Miller assures his Christian readers: "While it might seem odd to a reader to say that the apparent discrepancies between the narratives ENHANCES THE CREDIBILITY of those narratives(!), this is exactly what experts in evidence say."

Actually, that is not exactly what most experts say. It is true that in a courtroom, two or more witnesses will lose credibility if they sound too much alike. It does not follow that if they contradict each other, they are both presumed to be telling the truth. Miller quotes a Christian lawyer saying, "people who conspire to testify to a falsehood rehearse carefully to avoid contradictions." OK, but that does not mean that where there are contradictions, there can be no falsehoods. It is a fundamental principle of logic that given two contradictory statements, at least one must be false.

Like all inerrantists, Miller insists that there are no real contradictions in the Bible, but only "apparent" contradictions. But he does admit that they are quite apparent. Indeed, several of his sources concede that the resurrection stories in the four gospels seem, prima facie, to be inconsistent. Herbert C. Casteel, the lawyer just quoted, says, "When we first read these accounts it appears they are in hopeless contradiction." Miller also quotes a "biblical scholar," John Wenham, thus:

Indeed I was impressed in my early studies of the resurrection stories by the seemingly intractable nature of the discrepancies. [Emphasis Miller's.]

It is by no means easy to see how these things can be fitted together while remaining strictly faithful to what the writers say.

Let us now back up a moment. Why, in a court of law, are we supposed to be suspicious when two witnesses are in perfect agreement?

To begin the answer: We are not always suspicious. It depends on the level of detail on which they agree. If two witnesses to a traffic accident both say that a red Ford hit a blue Chevy, and that the blue Chevy had an NRA bumper sticker, no lawyer is going to try to impeach their credibility for that. We would get suspicious only if they agreed on numerous minutiae that people ordinarily pay no attention to. One bystander might have noticed that the Ford was missing a lug nut on the left front wheel. If five bystanders were to mention the missing lug nut to investigators, that would be cause for suspicion that some kind of collaboration was going on.

To continue the answer: The problem, when there is one, is not just with what people notice. It is also with what people are capable of remembering even of what they may be expected to notice. In other words, we don't expect perfect agreement because we don't expect people to have infallible memories. We expect them to forget minor details, and we expect them, when they do remember minor details, at least sometimes to remember them incorrectly. Witnesses may agree up to a point without arousing suspicion. The point at which suspicion becomes justified is the point at which the agreement becomes too good to be true, and that is the point at which their testimony, if true, would imply their infallibility. Credible testimony has to be fallible testimony. Multiple witnesses are not credible if the assumption that they were all telling the truth would imply their collective infallibility. To put it another way: Witnesses do not establish credibility by disagreeing, but they can lose it by agreeing too much.

But as Miller acknowledges, there are discrepancies and then there are discrepancies. He notes: "Now, this credibility can only 'last so long' as the accounts can still be reasonably and honestly synchronized." Ah, but how much sychronization is needed? Back to the traffic accident. If one witness says a red Ford hit a blue Chevy and another says that a red Ford hit a red Chevy, must we insist that neither of them can possibly be mistaken? Must we go to any explanatory length in order to prove that each of them is giving an accurate description of the Chevy? Are we being unreasonable if we assume that at least one of them is wrong about what color the Chevy was?

We certainly do not have to insist that their disagreement is only an "apparent disagreement." Neither should we infer that in light of their disagreement, the accident must not really have happened in the first place. If the two witnesses are otherwise credible, any reasonable person may conclude that (1) a Ford hit a Chevy, (2) the Ford was red, and (3) it is not certain what color the Chevy was. What he may not conclude is that "The Chevy was blue" and "The Chevy was red" are both true.

Now, what if we find the Chevy and discover that it was two-toned, painted both blue and red? In that case, we have explained the discrepancy, but we have not eliminated it. If the witnesses had both been accurate, both would have said that it was a red-and-blue Chevy. We can excuse them if each noticed (or remembered) only one color. They are only human, and humans make mistakes like that all the time. But it is still a mistake. It is not strictly true that a red-and-blue car is a red car, and it is not strictly true that it is a blue car.

And, the explanation must come from independent information. If we have never seen the car, we are not justified in assuming that because one person said it was red and another said it was, then it must have been a red-and-blue car. We may speculate that it could have been, but we cannot conclude on the sole basis of discrepant testimony that it must have been. The only reasonable conclusion, until we can examine the car ourselves, is that at least one witness was probably mistaken.

It should not be forgotten, too, that we're not talking about any actual witness testimony here. What we're talking about is what five writers who were not themselves witnesses claim was reported by some people who were witnesses. Furthermore, it is not known whether any of those writers personally interviewed any of those witnesses. Inerrantists of course insist that they did, but this is not supported by any compelling evidence, and in particular is not supported by the writers' own testimony.

The legitimacy of harmonization attempts relative to historical material

Miller begins this section: "We have already seen above that building an 'imaginary narrative' that is essentially integrative, from 'all the confusing phenomena,' is the essence of historical method." I'll allow him the hyperbole about methodological essences, but even allowing for that, just what is his point? Are we to think that historians routinely assume that all their sources are inerrant? Does harmonization normally mean proving that all witnesses to a historical event are really saying the same thing, regardless of how "apparently" contradictory their testimonies are?

Real historians do not work that way. They never assume any document to be inerrant, and they never assume any witness to be infallible. They might conclude after sufficient investigation that a particular document does not happen to have any errors. They might conclude after sufficient investigation that a particular witness did not happen to make any mistakes in his or her report of some event. Such conclusions must follow the investigations, though, not drive them.

Miller seems to agree that "Make the gospels agree at any cost" is not good apologetics. "Evangelicals agree that forced harmonizing (of which there are many, many comical and/or deplorable examples!) is illegitimate," he says, and he quotes an authority who agrees with him: "Forced harmonizing is worthless. The tendency today, however, is the opposite--to force the New Testament writings into disharmony." But where would that tendency come from? Earlier in his essay, Miller admitted that contradictions are readily apparent to anyone reading the gospels for the first time. That being so, disharmony requires no forcing at all. It is the harmony that needs at least some forcing. The only question is whether it takes too much forcing in order to make the gospels perfectly consistent. Can the gospels, with only a reasonable effort, be made to say the same things about the same events?

Well, here is Miller's notion of a reasonable effort:

As an example of harmonization 'done right,' let's look at an example by Wenham himself (EE:p.128):

Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the burial and as setting out for the tomb. The angel speaks to "the women," who "ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them."(27:55f.,61;28:1,5,8f.) If we had only Matthew we should take "the women" and "them" to be the Marys. But complicated movements of five women were apparently involved--Mary Magdalene left before the women entered the tomb, and the notifying of disciples required visits both to John's house and to Bethany. Probably only "the other Mary" was present at every point in the story and "the women" and "them" do not refer precisely to the two mentioned by name.

Well, maybe. Or maybe Matthew made a mistake. Or maybe one of the other gospel authors made a mistake. Those who would argue that it is not possible for any of them to have made a mistake have to prove it. Or, if they wish, they can just assume it, but they cannot fault anyone else for not assuming it if they cannot prove it. Miller says Wenham's account "does NOT assume that the authors were under some kind of constraint to provide a list of all the incidental characters in the story." Very well, but Wenham's account does assume, without presenting any justification, that none of the authors could have made a mistake.

The issue of "plausibility" of explanations.

OK, if you're a Christian, you're going to find some things plausible that I don't, and I will find some things plausible that you don't. That's just part of the human condition, right?

Well, so what? It's not a problem, usually, at least not in modern pluralistic societies. We accept such differences, or at least tolerate them. Live and let live, yada yada. We don't burn heretics any more. We don't even jail them or deny them the right to vote. But it becomes a problem for some Christians' credibility. According to evangelical dogma, that kind of forbearance lasts only until the moment you die. If at that moment you did not think scriptural inerrancy was plausible, then you burn. In hell. Forever.

Miller concedes: "Oxford dictionaries define 'plausible' as 'seeming reasonable or probable', but this will not get us very far. What seems 'reasonable' to one may seem unreasonable to another." He then dissects in great detail two commentaries on the women's visit to the empty tomb, by Robert Price and Farrell Till, in order to demonstrate . . . well, it's hard to say just what he thinks he has demonstrated, except that if you assume the gospels to be inerrant, then that assumption will have some bearing on what you think is plausible, reasonable, or probable.

Several specific reconstructions/sequencing of the post-resurrection events (or appearances of Christ).

Miller here is saying simply, "It's been done." The challenge has been met, and Christians can therefore stop worrying about it. We've proven that those pigheaded skeptics just don't get it.

But no, it has not been done. Miller's examples do not meet the conditions Barker specified.

Some of them do not come even close to including every scriptural detail, and for Miller to offer them up as if they were contenders for meeting the challenge is just disingenous. The Archer version at least is lengthy and detailed enough to seem complete. Nevertheless, it is not, as a careful enough reading will disclose. For two examples: Archer does not say when or where the appearances to "the twelve" or to James, both mentioned by Paul, happened.

Trivial? Yes. If apologists would simply admit that Paul made a couple of trivial mistakes, then we could move on. But as long as they insist that Paul made no mistakes whatsoever, then the Easter Challenge remains unmet.

Update

September 11, 2009

(This is my commentary on a purported response to Barker's challenge posted at
http://theologicaldiscourse.net23.net/Frameset.htm).

The challenge is to fill in the who, what, when, and where for each event reported by the 5 writers. This requires adding details that the writers omitted from their narratives. Mere copying and pasting from the scriptures in some allegedly chronological order is not sufficient. There is no commitment to say that everything must have happened at the time and place specified. All that is required is that it could, consistently with the scriptural account, have happened then and there. The point of the exercise simply to demonstrate some way that all of it could have happened in exactly the way all the canonical writers say it happened.

The narrative at theologicaldiscourse.net23.net (hereafter "TD") omits the time or place of several incidents and so fails to meet Barker's conditions. For just one example of several, TD includes this:

After Jesus reinstated Peter the disciples saw him and they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

TD's narrative does not say when or where this happened. In a separate explanation, TD notes that the meeting was reported in Matthew 28:17-20. In the preceding verse, Matthew suggests that the meeting occurred on a hillside in Galilee. TD's narrative needs to include this datum and add a suggested time for when it might have happened -- so many days after the resurrection.

This incident is immediately followed, in TD's narrative, by:

Then Jesus led them out to the vicinity of Bethany. When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.

So, according to TD, Jesus accompanied the disciples while they traveled from Galilee to Bethany, which is near Jerusalem. That trip, on foot, would have taken four days or so. I'm not saying it couldn't have happened, but if TD thinks it did, then he needs to say so in order to meet Barker's challenge -- to say when they left Galilee and when they arrived in Bethany.

Also according to TD, when Paul mentions the appearance to "the twelve," he means the second appearance recorded in John, the one at which Thomas was present. TD says the twelfth disciple was Matthias, who is not mentioned in the gospels but in Acts. There, sometime on or after the 40th day, he is chosen to replace Judas. The author of Acts states: "when the lot fell on Matthias, he was added to the eleven apostles." It is clear that before that time, he was not regarded as a member of the "the twelve."

Who, in Paul's mind, were "the twelve?" Everyone assumes that this is a reference to the Twelve Disciples. But there were not 12 disciples between the time Jesus rose and sometime after his ascension. There were only 11. Of course, it is possible that it was customary among Christians to refer to that group of men as "the twelve" even when they were missing someone. I would certainly have no problem with that explanation. TD is trying another explanation, making Matthias's membership in the group retroactive. I don't find it as credible, but this is less about credibility than about mere possibility, and I can think of no reason to disqualify it. But, as noted, TD's narrative fails on other accounts.

So then, what about Cephas? According to Paul, he saw the risen Christ before the twelve did. TD says he did, but he fails to provide the when and where.

Practically everyone takes it for granted Cephas is an alternate name for Simon Peter, and so Paul is saying that Jesus appeared to Simon before he appeared to the disciples collectively. And, this seems to be corroborated by John. Cleopas and an unidentified companion, upon arriving in Jerusalem and meeting the assembled disciples before Jesus had appeared to any of them, tell the assembly, "He has appeared to Simon." But we now have two questions. When and where did Jesus first appear to Simon, and how did Cleopas and his companion know about it before the disciples knew?

This really ought to be a trivial exercise for any apologist. As they never tire of reminding us, just because a writer didn't mention an incident doesn't mean the incident didn't happen. John doesn't say that anybody accompanied Mary Magdalene to the tomb, but that doesn't mean nobody went to the tomb with her. Very well. None of the gospel authors directly mentions a meeting between Jesus and Simon occurring before Jesus appeared to the assembled disciples. That doesn't mean there was no such meeting.

Here is a scenario that, I think, contradicts nothing in the canonical accounts.

Peter was walking along a street in Jerusalem on his way join the other disciples when, about 8:30 p.m., Jesus appeared at his side. Jesus assured Peter that his denial had been forgiven, and they discussed other matters for a few minutes. Then Jesus disappeared and Peter continued walking toward the house. He arrived around 9:00, at the same time Cleopas and his friend got there after walking from Emmaus. They told each other of their meetings with Jesus, then entered the house, where Cleopas told everyone the news.

This is only one of many possibilities. There are plenty of other scenarios to choose from. Again: We're not not looking for "This is how it had to have happened." All we're looking for is "This is how it possibly could have happened." Another possibility could, perhaps, be extrapolated from the assumption that Cleopas's companion's name was Simon. Or perhaps not. I'm not the one claiming that every one of the five writers was correct in every last detail that he mentioned.

Here is another issue. John describes three appearances. The last is beside the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee, and he says on that occasion, "This was now the third time that Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after he had been raised from the dead." John makes it seem as though the previous appearance, at which Thomas saw Jesus, was in the same room where Jesus had appeared to the other 10 disciples eight days earlier. But in that case the appearance reported by Matthew, on a hillside in Galilee, was at least the fourth, occurring sometime after the appearance beside the sea. Also, Matthew says some still doubted, and that seems inconsistent with John's narrative. We must infer, then, that Matthew is giving us his version of the assembly at which Thomas was convinced -- the second appearance to the disciples. Matthew says it was on a mountain in Galilee, not in a room in Jerusalem, but John does not say on that occasion that the room was in Jerusalem and Matthew does not say there were no buildings with rooms on that mountain. His claim that "some doubted" suggests that Thomas wasn't the only doubter (ordinarily, "some" means "more than one"), even though John chose not to mention that anyone other than Thomas had doubts.

Of course, this then raises the question of whether we are to believe that Matthew saw fit to mention that some doubted without explaining how Jesus, by inviting Thomas to feel his wounds, put their doubts to rest. On the other hand, if this was the fourth meeting, then we must believe that some continued to doubt even after seeing Jesus on three separate occasions. But, as already noted, the point is not whether skeptics find the narrative credible. The point is for Christians to produce a narrative that is possible. So, when did the appearance reported by Matthew happen, and what else, if anything, happened that Matthew did not include in his narrative? A purely relative chronology (after A and before C) will not meet Barker's criteria. We need specifics. On which day did it happen, and if anything else happened on that same day, about what time did each occur?

The appearances to the 500 and to James could have happened at practically any time and any place, and the appearance to "all the apostles" was probably the final meeting that ended with the ascension, as TD suggests. And so those parts of Paul's chronology are not very problematic. It is clear that the ascension occurred on the 40th day after the resurrection, on the Mount of Olives near Bethany. Jesus could have appeared to the 500 on the 15th day in a field in Galilee, and he could have appeared to James at his home in Jerusalem on the 25th day. Whatever. To meet the challenge, though, the apologist has to pick a time and place for each appearance that Paul mentions. It may be easy in some instances, but the challenge has not been met until this is done.

(I have some further comments on the challenge in "Easter Challenge followup.")


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