Timothy J. McGrew versus Edward T. Babinski on the reliability of the New Testament / the Resurrection

Tim McGrew

Dr. Timothy McGrew is Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. He also is directing the development of an online Library of Historical Apologetics, and has a number of Christian apologetic publications to his credit including a recent article titled The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, composed with Lydia McGrew that appeared in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 2009.

Like Vic Reppert, who initiated this discussion, all three of us happen to be past and/or present chess enthusiasts. One note, Vic titled this as a “versus” match of sorts, and Iʼve copied Vicʼs title (lengthening it a bit), but Iʼd sooner think of this simply as a discussion and seek to avoid heat in favor of light.

Vic published my original blog comments followed by Tim McGrewʼs replies, and now I am replying in turn to TMʼs first few lines, nothing more at present. Though I suspect the discussion may involve both of us pointing out each otherʼs assumptions behind our replies/rationalizations, back and forth, such that neither of us convinces the other of much except how many questions remain concerning “the otherʼs” assumptions/rationalization — though such a discussion might help demonstrate the lack of convincing proof concerning this topic, a topic that philosophers, theologians, and members of different religions have debated for centuries. If only “many saints” were raised from graves on different occasions throughout history, and each case witnessed to the truth only of Christianity, or, Jesus showed himself in some undeniable form to all, then maybe McGrew could strike some solid blows for dogmas and doctrines that he believe sum up whatʼs behind the metaphysical curtain. But for myself, more questions remain than answers, and the metaphysical curtain remains opaque, or the evidence for what lay behind it (NDEʼs, visions, miracles) points in diverse directions.

Anyway, here is a reply to Tim McGrewʼs first few lines as they appeared this evening at Vicʼs blog:

EB: 1 Cor. is the earliest and also the most sparse example. All it tells us is that “Jesus appeared.”

TM: … to Peter, and to the twelve, and to five hundred people at once, and to James — all of which means just what it sounds like it means.

EB [Further Reply]: What does the word “appeared” mean exactly? I read in Carnelyʼs book on the resurrection that the term can apply to something less than physical.

As for appearing to Peter first of all, thatʼs not in the Gospels. Neither is a lone appearance to James. (Neither is an appearance to over 500. But more on that below.)

Letʼs say that Jesusʼ core group of initial followers returned to Galilee, mourning the loss of their leader, and Peter had a post-mortum appearance-experience (not unheard of), and the rest of the apostles WENT ALONG with it, saying, “Oh yes, the Lord appeared to Peter and the rest of us also.” And perhaps by saying such a thing they originally only meant that THEY BELIEVED that the Lord had appeared to Peter and he was their leader? And suppose other followers of Jesus tended to view James as a leader at least equal to Peter, and they saw how the notion of an “appearance” to Peter rallied the Jesus movement round him, and so a story arose that James saw the Lord too—“and then the apostles,” just as in the case of Peter, making them equal. In other words Iʼm suggesting that an early story grew, prompted by questions of leadership. As for the idea of miracle stories growing, an examination of the NT itself provides prima facie evidence of the addition, growth and change of miracle stories over time. If TM wishes to disavow my case and instead conduct his own based on harmonizing tales, thatʼs his prerogative. But Iʼd say from my perspective that the prima facie evidence and each question raised by such evidence, comes first.

And what I meant by sparse evidence in the beginning is that no description is given of WHERE such appearances took place, nor WHEN, nor any particulars beyond saying they saw “Jesus,” nor any description of anything being SAID by the alleged appearances of Jesus. Speaking of sparse, neither Paul nor Josephus mention an “empty tomb.” So all we have are some very non-descript stories concerning “appearances” in 1 Cor. Thatʼs our earliest chronological starting point:

  • to Cephas,

  • then [he appeared] to the Twelve,

  • then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time,

  • most of whom are still alive,

  • though some have fallen asleep,

  • then he appeared to James,

  • then [he appeared] to all the apostles.

Dr. Robert M. Price also notes that a host of questions have been raised by theologians concerning the above passage in 1 Cor.

Price states:

Since the focus of the tradition seems to be on notable leaders of the community [Peter, James, the Twelve], the mention of the 500 anonymous brethren seems to be an intrusion [sandwiched as it is between appearances to Peter & James, as if Jesus would have shown himself to five hundred anonymous brethren before appearing to James--ETB]. Beyond this, though, the reference to the 500, most still available for questioning, raises another question: what was the intended function of the list? Was it, as Bultmann holds, a piece of apologetics trying to prove the resurrection? Or is Wilckens right, in which case the list is a list of credentials? One who claimed an apostolate had better have seen the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1). These had. The reference to the 500 unnamed witnesses certainly implies, as Sider argues, that the list is an apologetical device, especially with the note of most of the crowd still being available for corroboration. But the focus on community leaders seems to me to demand Wilckensʼs view. It is therefore not unlikely that the list began as a list of credentials for Cephas, the Twelve, James, and the other apostles, but that subsequently someone, reading the list as evidence for the resurrection, inserted the reference to the 500 brethren.

Price continues:

I judge the very notion of a resurrection appearance to 500 at one time to be a late piece of apocrypha, reminiscent of the extravagances of the Acts of Pilate. If the claim of 500 witnesses were early tradition, can anyone explain its total absence from the gospel tradition? E. L. Allen sees the problem here:

Why did not the evangelists include the appearances of 1 Cor. XV? It is difficult to understand why the tradition behind 1Cor. XV should be passed over if it was known. Was it then lost?

His answer is, “The Gospel narratives of the Resurrection are governed by another set of needs and meet another situation than those of the first kerygma” but this is unsatisfactory on his own accounting, since all the apologetical and liturgical motives Allen sees at play in the gospels may be paralleled in the various functions suggested by scholars for the 1 Corinthians 15 list itself. Again, “If we suppose, as we well may, that this incident [the appearance to the 500] is to be located in Galilee, it is not difficult to imagine why it was not taken up into the mainstream of tradition.” But clearly the whole point of 1 Cor 15:11, and at least the clear implication of verses 5-7, is that the quoted creed is the mainstream of the tradition.

Barrett, on the other hand, counsels that “it may be better to recognize that the Pauline list and the gospel narratives of resurrection appearances cannot be harmonized into a neat chronological sequence.” But Barrettʼs agnosticism itself functions as a harmonization. It implies there is a great cloud of unknown circumstance: if we knew more we might be able to see where it all fits in. But in fact we know enough. It must at least be clear that if such an overwhelmingly potent proof of the resurrection had ever occurred it would have been widely repeated from the first. Surely no selection of resurrection appearances would have left it out. The story of the apparition to the 500 can only stem from a time posterior to the composition of the gospel tradition, and this latter, in comparison with Paul, is already very late.

True, ever since Christian Hermann Weisse some scholars have tried to see the episode of the 500 dimly reflected in the Pentecost story of Acts 2. Fuller, representing this position, asks, “Could it not be that, at an earlier stage of the tradition, the [Pentecost] pericope narrated an appearance of the Risen One in which he imparted the Spirit to the +500, as in the appearance to the disciples in John 20:19-23?” But despite the considerable expenditure of scholarly ink the suggestion has generated, including its recent espousal by Gerd Lüdemann, its epitaph must be the words of C. H. Dodd: “it remains a pure speculation.”

In fact, would it not be far more natural to suppose that if any connection existed between the two passages, the relation must be just the opposite? That, rather, an originally subjective pneumatic ecstasy on the part of a smaller number at Pentecost has been concretized into the appearance of the Risen Lord to a larger group on Easter? But then we are simply underscoring more heavily the apocryphal character of the result. Lüdemann unwittingly confirms this: “The number ‘more than 500 brethren’ is to be understood as ‘an enormous number’, i.e., not taken literally. (Who could have counted?)” It is just this sort of detail that denotes the fictive character of a narrative. It is like asking how the narrator knew the inner thoughts of a character: he knows them because he made them up! No more successful is the suggestion that the appearance to the 500 be identified with Luke 24:36ff. The same question presents itself: if there were as many as 500 present on that occasion, how can the evangelist have thought this “detail” unworthy of mention? And if we suppose he did include it, what copyist in his right mind would have omitted it?

Some might challenge my ascription of the 500 brethren note to a later period in view of the challenge to the reader to confirm the testimony of the 500 for himself. But the whole point is that the interpolation is Paulinist pseudepigraphy; the actual author (the anonymous interpolator) did not intend for the actual reader to interview the 500 in his own day. His invitation is issued by the narrator (Paul) to the narratees, the fictive readers, the first-century Corinthians. His point is that had the actual readers been lucky enough to live in Paulʼs day, we might have checked for ourselves.

End of Price quotation, though his entire article, that also examines the appearances to Cephas and James, is online.

For literalists, let me add that when Paul states that Jesus “appeared” to “over 500 brethren at once” (1Cor. 15:6), that would have been to a greater number of “brethren” than were mentioned at the time of Jesusʼ alleged bodily ascension into heaven because Acts 1:9,14-15,22 mentions only “120 brethren” meeting together in Jerusalem just prior to Jesusʼ bodily ascension. Acts also limits the number of people who saw the body of Jesus ascend into heaven to just the apostles (Luke 24:49-53 & Acts 1:2-9 ). But I donʼt want to rush to discussing Luke-Acts since we still havenʼt discussed Mark and Matthewʼs tales of the post-resurrection Jesus yet, which most scholars would admit were probably composed sometime between 1 Cor. and Luke-Acts.

TM: It isnʼt the point of a creed to give a lengthy description of all that Jesus did and said after his resurrection. This one circulated in the 30s; one of the purposes, plainly, was to list the people of whom one might inquire.

EB [Further Reply]: The point is not that it was an “early creed,” the point is How Can We Know For Sure How Such A Creed Originated? We canʼt know, we donʼt have any evidence BUT this early creed. And it is sparse evidence indeed. So unless you are assuming a harmonization stance to begin with, you donʼt know either. My view considers the evidence in chronological order, and the most obvious questions that come to mind — prima facie evidence of what appears to be legendary additions, growth, changes in the story over time. For further reading along such lines I suggest:

Dr. Habermas - Babinski: Final Letter On The Resurrection Sent To Dr. Habermas Dr. Gary Habermas is a Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Liberty University, and also the author of Did Jesus Rise from the Dead (a book that arose from a debate Dr. Habermas had with the famed British philosopher Antony Flew). Edward T. Babinski is the editor of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists.

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