Barker's Blunders. Dan Barker has argued that the story of Jesus' resurrection evolved over several decades. But are his arguments sound?

Barker’s Blunders:

A Response to Dan Barker’s “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?”

By David Wood

Just as Dan Barker is a classic example of what can happen when Christians aren’t given a strong intellectual foundation, so also his writings are classic examples of what can happen when a skeptic strays from the path of sound reason. As you may know, Dan was a Christian evangelist for a time, but he eventually became an atheist after finding himself unable to cope with some of the standard arguments against the Bible and theism. Now a prominent skeptic, Dan lays out his most up-to-date case against Christianity in his recent essay, “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead.”[1]

As any well-informed and objective reader familiar with Dan’s essay will know, a full analysis of the historical and logical mistakes contained in his critique would require a book-length discussion and is therefore beyond the scope of this short response. Many of his contentions are simply false, but most of the flaws have been repeatedly pointed out to him in debates and writings. For this reason, my sole purpose in this assessment will be to state and evaluate what I feel to be Dan’s most persuasive argument, namely, his contention that the resurrection accounts developed through a process of doctrinal evolution. This position is also held by the majority of critical scholars, including some evangelicals, but I’ve chosen to respond to Dan’s essay because of his accessibility and concise points.

Dan’s Argument

Dan argues that the resurrection passages, especially the later ones, are legends. “When we look at the documents of the resurrection of Jesus, we see that the earliest accounts are very simple, later retellings are more complex, and the latest tales are fantastic. In other words, they look exactly like a legend.”[2] He offers three lines of evidence in support of his hypothesis.

First, the number of “extraordinary” events in the resurrection stories increases as the amount of time from the actual events increases. In 1 Corinthians 15, our earliest account, there are no extraordinary events. In Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, we see only one. Then, as we enter the latter part of the first century, we see a dramatic increase in this number. In Matthew there are four, we have five in Luke, and in John we have at least eight.[3]

Second, the number of messengers at the tomb and the certainty of their angelic nature increase over time. We find no angels in 1 Corinthians, one young man in Mark, one angel in Matthew, two men in Luke, and two angels in John.

Third, while there are no bodily appearances in the earliest accounts, the appearances become physical in the later narratives. When this is considered alongside the increase in miraculous events and angelic messengers, it seems we have strong evidence of legendary development.

Of course, this argument only works so long as it remains untested. But no true freethinker would suggest that we blindly accept any argument, even one meant to confound Christianity. Christians and atheists alike can agree that positions must be tested, evidence must be weighed, and flimsy arguments must be discarded. With this common footing in mind, I will first explore some of the obvious difficulties in Dan’s position, minor to significant problems that I call surface problems. I will then proceed to depth problems, i.e. difficulties that undermine his entire argument and render his position powerless.[4]

Surface Problems

Dan achieves an increase in the number of miraculous events by employing a very creative (and inconsistent) method of counting. He begins by counting the number of extraordinary events in Paul’s account, and he sets the number firmly at zero. It seems that the numerous appearances of a man who had recently died do not qualify as “extraordinary events.” This is Dan’s First Rule of Counting:[5] Appearances of the risen Christ (Paul lists six) are not extraordinary.

Dan’s Second Rule of Counting is that neither the purpose of the author nor the genre of the writing is to be considered when determining the number of miraculous events. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul isn’t giving a resurrection narrative. He’s presenting a formal creed that includes a list of various witnesses who had seen the risen Christ. Yet Dan urges us to “notice how simple it is, this earliest resurrection story. No angelic messages, no mourning women, no earthquakes, no miracles, no spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds.”[6] Thus, Dan criticizes the account on the grounds that Paul doesn’t give a complete resurrection narrative and for not providing some of the details found in the Gospels. But an exhaustive resurrection story was never Paul’s intent. Indeed, it would have been completely out of place in 1 Corinthians. Paul provides the creed in response to certain people in Corinth who maintained that the dead do not rise from the grave. He lists the witnesses to refute this position. Dan might as well criticize the makers of the Vietnam Memorial for including the names of the fallen soldiers without also including a narrative of their efforts. Creeds are designed to be concise so that they can be easily memorized and communicated to others. If the “simplicity” of the creed in 1 Corinthians means that Paul is unaware of the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection, then the simplicity of the Nicene Creed (fourth century AD) should mean that the writers are unaware of the Gospel narratives.[7]

Mark’s intent is also ignored. Mark ends his Gospel with women fleeing the tomb after hearing the triumphant angelic proclamation that Jesus had risen from the dead and would meet with the disciples in Galilee.[8] I consider this to be the perfect ending to Mark’s short Gospel. However, Dan concludes that since Mark gives no description of the resurrection appearances, such stories must not have existed in his day:

Mark’s story is more elaborate than Paul’s, but still very simple, almost blunt. If we consider the young man at the sepulcher “clothed in a long white garment” to be an angel, then we have one extraordinary event. Just one. There are no earthquakes, no post-mortem appearances, and no ascension. In fact, there is no belief in the resurrection, and no preaching of a risen Christ.[9]

Apparently, Dan feels that as long as the other Gospel writers include details about Jesus’ appearances, Mark should include such details as well. It’s perfectly fine for Dan to feel this way, but to base an argument on his feeling is an entirely different matter. Dan may one day decide that all the Gospel writers should have incorporated the details about Pentecost found in Acts, or the conversion of Paul, or the death of James. In reality, they were free to include any number of details from the life of history’s most miraculous individual, and to end the story wherever they thought best. Mark reports the angelic proclamation to show that Jesus’ predictions that he would rise from the dead had been fulfilled.[10] Only a modern skeptic would look at the account and say, “Well, the angel said that Jesus had risen from the dead and that he would appear to his followers, but the story doesn’t include the appearances, so there must have been no belief in the resurrection.” The angel’s proclamation showed that Jesus’ claims were true, which is one of the main purposes of Mark’s Gospel. An extended resurrection narrative from Mark would be nice, but it is by no means necessary.

Thus, neither Paul nor Mark is trying to give a detailed account of what happened after Jesus rose from the dead. In fact, none of the writers attempts a complete account. Nevertheless, Matthew, Luke, and John all give details of Jesus’ appearances, so if Dan can show that there is a clear pattern of evolution in these stories, perhaps he will have a worthy argument. Dan claims that such a pattern does exist, but, as a closer look will show, the striking increase in extraordinary events is actually a product of his creative counting. To illustrate, let’s consider how he arrives at his numbers for the last three Gospels.

In Matthew there is (1) the appearance of “many holy people” who had been raised to life, (2) a “violent earthquake,” (3) an angel, and (4) the rolling away of the stone at the entrance to the tomb.[11] This does indeed add up to four.

Luke records (1, 2) two angels at the tomb, which Dan counts as two separate miraculous events, (3) Jesus’ disappearance from the home of one of the Emmaus disciples, (4) Jesus’ appearance to the disciples (though counting this appearance contradicts Dan’s First Rule of Counting),[12] and (5) the ascension.[13] Based on his counting of the angels we can formulate Dan’s Third Rule of Counting: A single appearance of multiple individuals counts as multiple extraordinary events. This rule, as we shall soon see, can only backfire.

John narrates (1, 2) a single appearance of two angels, which, again, counts as two events, (3) Jesus’ sudden appearance inside a locked room, (4) the catching of 153 fish, (5) an ascension, which Dan has on his list but for some reason doesn’t occur in John’s Gospel,[14] and (6, 7, 8) at least three unnamed “miraculous signs.”[15] Dan bases these last three events on a verse in John that says, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.”[16] Here we have his final rules. Dan’s Fourth Rule of Counting is that events don’t have to be explicitly narrated in the Gospels in order to be counted along with the miraculous events that the Gospels describe. Dan’s Fifth Rule of Counting is that “many” means “at least three” (his most reasonable rule).

Now that we’ve seen how his numbering system works, let’s go through some of the surface problems. First, since events simply have to be mentioned and don’t necessarily need to occur in the text to be counted, we have at least one resurrection appearance in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus predicted on three occasions that he would rise from the dead.[17] The angel confirmed that it had occurred, and both Jesus and the angel said that he would appear to the disciples in Galilee. Thus, Dan’s own rule refutes his statement that there are “no post-mortem appearances” in Mark. Using his rules of counting, we have appearances of the risen Christ in all four Gospels as well as in the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Next, Dan doesn’t count appearances as extraordinary, so consistency demands that the appearance in Luke be stricken from his list. This means we have only four extraordinary events in Luke.

Third, there is no ascension in John, so unless Dan invents a rule that would allow him to declare that any event occurs in any book, regardless of whether it really appears in the text, the count of miraculous events in John is down to seven.

Fourth, since the statement that “Jesus did many other miraculous signs” need not exclusively refer to post-resurrection events, perhaps these signs shouldn’t be counted along with the other events. The text may be saying, “During Jesus’ three year ministry, the disciples witnessed a lot of miracles, far more than the ones I’m listing here.” If we take out these three events, we’re down to just four extraordinary events in John.

Fifth, we could reasonably count a single appearance of two angels as a single miraculous event,[18] which would give us a grand total of three events in John. Counting the angels as a single event would also bring the total in Luke down to three, giving us a surprisingly different pattern from the one we find in Dan’s essay: four extraordinary events in Matthew, three in Luke, and three in John. This is hardly a clear pattern of evolution.

Sixth, even if we give Dan the benefit of the doubt and count John 20:30 as three events, and if we also consider two angels to be two distinct events, Dan’s counting method still causes problems for his own argument. For example, Matthew records that “many holy people” were raised to life and that they appeared in Jerusalem after the resurrection.[19] Dan counts this as a single event. But according to his own counting rules, “many” means at least three, and individuals are to be counted as separate events. This would mean that we have not just one event here, but at least three. This brings the total in Matthew to at least six. Hence, if we consistently employ Dan’s rules, we arrive at a final count of six events in Matthew, four in Luke, and seven in John. This gives us an average of 5.67 miraculous events per story, with only a minor deviation. Dan’s position is looking weaker and weaker.

Putting it all together, if we’re going to look for an increase in the number of post-resurrection miraculous events occurring in a group of texts, we must begin by using texts whose purpose includes the narration of post-resurrection miraculous events. Keeping this in mind, we see that Paul and Mark are not in this category. Matthew, Luke, and John do fit this criterion, but even if we unquestioningly accept all of Dan’s counting rules, we still don’t have any clear evidence of evolution. Further, Dan’s contention that bodily appearances are absent from the earliest accounts is simply false. The Jewish concept of resurrection always involved the body.[20] Paul certainly believed in a physical resurrection,[21] so, in the absence of good evidence to the contrary, it makes sense to think that the appearances he lists are physical. Dan correctly points out that there are no bodily appearances in Mark, but it would be just as correct to say that there are no non-bodily appearances in Mark.[22] Mark doesn’t narrate Jesus’ appearances, so it’s completely out of place to say that the appearances that Mark doesn’t narrate aren’t physical. Mark does say that the tomb was empty, and this indicates a bodily resurrection. Dan’s best argument is that the number of angels increases from one angel in Mark and Matthew to two angels in Luke and John.[23] This isn’t much evidence, but it’s at least something that fits his theory.

However, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Nothing in Dan’s argument can demonstrate that the resurrection story is evolving, for he has employed a faulty method of investigation. In fact, in the following section, I’m willing to grant that his reasoning has been impeccable up to this point. Let’s suppose that there really is a tremendous increase in the number of miraculous signs as time moves forward. We’ll even include Paul and Mark in the reckoning, and we’ll assume that they were doing their best to produce a resurrection narrative, but failed miserably in their attempts. Let us imagine that Dan’s counting system is flawless and that the number of extraordinary events in the narratives increases from zero, to one, to four, to five, to more than eight (I’m even granting the appearance in Luke and the missing ascension in John). I think that’s about as generous as we can be with his essay, but, as we shall see, Dan’s argument falls short even under the most favorable circumstances.

Depth Problems

Inductive arguments,[24] by definition, are always empirical. That is, the conclusion of an inductive argument is always open to confirmation or disconfirmation as new data is brought to light. To illustrate, consider my mother-in-law. She is Filipino, and she is a phenomenal cook. Over the past few years, I’ve been to many dinners at other Filipino households, and I’ve noticed that every last meal has been delicious. Based on this data, perhaps I make a generalization: Filipino mothers are good cooks. This may or may not be true, but my conclusion must be open to the evidence. If I make my generalization too quickly (i.e. after visiting only two Filipino households), or if I base it on a distorted sample population (only the Filipinos in my own neighborhood), or if I disregard evidence that is contrary to my conclusion (perhaps an awful dinner at a Filipino graduation party), I will have committed an inductive fallacy.

Of particular interest for the purposes of this response is a fallacy known as neglect of negative instances. “One ‘neglects negative instances’ when one presents cases that seem to support a favorite ‘inductive generalization’ while ‘turning a blind eye to’ those that seem to undermine it.”[25] For instance, suppose one day I step on a large crack in the sidewalk, and, a few moments later, I hear my cell phone ring. It’s one of my brothers calling to tell me that a piano fell on our poor mother and broke her back. I suddenly recall the saying, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” and it no longer seems like silly superstition. For the rest of my life, I watch my steps carefully so that I won’t cause further injury to my mother. The error I will have committed in concluding that stepping on a crack somehow hurt my mother is that I will have ignored the million or so times I’ve stepped on cracks without a piano falling on her. Quite simply, as humans we have a tendency to focus on the events that confirm our positions, while disregarding data that proves us wrong. This, of course, brings us back to Dan.

Dan has concluded that the resurrection narratives evolved over a period of several decades. His evidence is that (1) the number of extraordinary events increases over time, (2) the number of angels present at the empty tomb increases over time, and (3) the appearances are bodily only in the later Gospels. But in forming his conclusion, he has selected three cases that confirm his hypothesis while “turning a blind eye” to numerous other cases that disconfirm it. Let’s examine seven such cases.

First, let’s consider the number of witnesses who saw the risen Christ. If the story of Jesus’ resurrection evolved over time, we would expect the number of witnesses in the story to increase as the story evolved. Mark tells us that Jesus was about to appear to the disciples, so we’ll say that, in Mark, Jesus was about to appear to at least the eleven apostles. Matthew, Luke, and John rarely give exact numbers, so it’s difficult to determine precisely how many witnesses are indicated. John gives no hint that anyone besides Mary Magdalene and the apostles saw Jesus, so we’ll say that there are at least twelve witnesses in John. Matthew describes an appearance to “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” in Jerusalem and to the Eleven in Galilee. The appearance on the mountain suggests that a much larger group may have been present, but we know that Jesus appeared to a minimum of thirteen people. In Luke we have the two Emmaus disciples returning to find “the Eleven and those with them.”[26] This would be two, plus eleven, plus at least two others, for a total of at least fifteen.[27] Paul, unlike the other writers, is giving an official list of witnesses, and he records an appearance of Jesus to “more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time.”[28] Thus, if the resurrection narratives are evolving, Paul is by far the most evolved. Yet, according to Dan, Paul is the earliest of the resurrection accounts and the simplest story of all. Notice also that our ordering of the evolving texts has changed dramatically. Mark is first, John is second, Matthew is third, Luke is fourth, and Paul is last. Dan ignores this in his discussion of the evolution of the resurrection story, making his essay a textbook example of neglect of negative instances.

Second, what about the number of appearances? Mark cites one appearance of Jesus, Matthew lists two, Luke gives us three, John records four, and, amazingly, Paul lists six.[29] This, just as the number of witnesses, places Paul last (as the most evolved), yet Dan again neglects the data. It’s interesting that Dan, referring to Paul’s report, suggests we “notice how simple it is, this earliest resurrection story.” When it comes to the number of witnesses and appearances, Paul’s letter is far from simple. Indeed, it is much more complex than the Gospels.

Third, we have different records of the women at the tomb, which allows us to examine the differences in the texts. Paul doesn’t list any women, John lists one, Matthew two, Mark three, and Luke records three plus “others.” Again, we get a very different order from the one put forth by Dan, and the process of evolution seems to be functioning in a very odd manner.

Fourth, there are certain details in the accounts that would most likely have been preserved by later authors if they were embellishing earlier stories. For example, all the Gospels record the presence of a stone at the tomb’s entrance, but Matthew reports that it was “a big stone” and Mark says that it “was very large.”[30] If the story is evolving, it should evolve from a stone, to a big stone, and finally to a very large stone. But this would place Mark last! Further, only Matthew records the presence of guards at the tomb. If John and Luke are building upon former accounts, they should build upon this story as well. As a result, when it comes to certain details involving the empty tomb, Mark and Matthew are the most evolved. Yet these were probably the first two Gospels.

Fifth, Dan bases his argument on the number of extraordinary events, but he should also address just how extraordinary those events are. In other words, the later Gospels should contain events that are more spectacular than the ones we find in the earlier reports. But this isn’t the case. In John we find an impressive amount of fish in the net, and Jesus appears in a locked room. Luke is more stunning, with Jesus vanishing instantly and later ascending into heaven. Matthew is the most spectacular, however. He records a violent earthquake, an angel grabbing the stone and rolling it back, and several dead people coming back to life and roaming the streets of Jerusalem. Notice that the pattern of evolution proceeds in exactly the opposite direction required by Dan’s theory.

Sixth, the resurrection narratives do not occur in a vacuum. The resurrection story is part of a larger story that includes the death of Jesus on the cross. We should therefore expect the number of miraculous events occurring during the crucifixion to increase over time. But this isn’t what we find. John records no miraculous events during the crucifixion. Mark and Luke record the darkness that came over the land and the curtain being torn. Matthew confirms the darkness and the tearing of the curtain, but adds that there was an earthquake and that people were raised from the dead. This changes our order to (1) John, (2, 3) Mark/Luke, and (4) Matthew.

Seventh, the resurrection and crucifixion stories are parts of larger works. If the resurrection narratives are evolving from simpler stories, we should see the same pattern in the Gospels as a whole. Of course, this isn’t what we see at all. There are many aspects we could consider, but, since Dan is fond of counting, let us reflect on the number of miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospels. An evolving Gospel story should contain a steadily increasing number of Jesus’ miracles. John lists seven miracles performed by Jesus, Mark records eighteen, and Matthew and Luke each record twenty. Dan’s theory doesn’t account for any of this.

Thus, there are at least seven aspects of the Gospels that militate against Dan’s theory, yet he addresses none of them. This is enough to discredit his entire position, but we can bring further difficulties to light by applying the scientific method (the most reliable method we have for understanding and explaining phenomena). The five steps are:

Step One: Make observations and describe what is seen.
Step Two: Form a hypothesis that explains the observations.
Step Three: Make predictions based on this hypothesis.
Step Four: Test the predictions and modify the hypothesis based on the results of the testing.
Step Five: Repeat steps Three and Four until the modified hypothesis is confirmed by all the available data.

Dan carries out the first two steps, but he stops there. He makes observations, forms a hypothesis, and then states his hypothesis as if it were a fact. Somehow, the testing gets left out. It appears, then, that he doesn’t merely neglect data that goes against his theories; he also neglects methods that would prove his theories wrong. But we can apply the scientific method properly right here. In fact, we’ll form two competing hypotheses and test them both to see which one best explains the phenomena.

Step One—Observations. One day while reading the Bible, Dan notices that, if he employs an enormously creative method of counting, he can get the number of extraordinary events in the resurrection stories to increase steadily over time.

Step Two—Hypotheses. Based on this observation, Dan formulates his hypothesis: The resurrection story was repeatedly embellished by the early Christians. We’ll call this Dan’s Hypothesis. An alternate hypothesis would be: The resurrection accounts were written by different individuals who had different personalities, writing styles, purposes, and interests, and so they recorded things differently. We’ll call this Dave’s Hypothesis.

Step Three—Predictions. Using Dan’s Hypothesis as our guide, we would make the following predictions:

(1) First Corinthians 15, as the earliest of the accounts, should be the simplest in all (or at least most) important respects.
(2) We should see a steady exaggeration of these details in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
(3) The various features of John (the latest account) should be more complex than the other reports.
Using Dave’s Hypothesis, our predictions would be a little different:
(1) Depending on an individual’s style, purpose, and theological emphases, we should see the various authors stress different elements as they see fit.
(2) We would expect later writers who are familiar with an earlier writer’s work to insert additional details that they hold to be important, but not to embellish the story.
(3) For the most part, the level of complexity in a given account should not depend on the date of the writing.

Step Four—Testing. So how do predictions based on Dan’s Hypothesis fare with the data? First, Paul is by no means the simplest of the accounts. When it comes to the number of witnesses and the number of appearances, Paul is certainly the most complex. Further, Paul is the only account to relate the appearance to the five hundred (though Matthew may be describing the same appearance); only Paul mentions an appearance to James; and, with the exception of Luke, Paul is the only writer to relate the appearance to Peter.

Second, there is no exaggeration at all of these details in later accounts. If the story is evolving, we should see six or seven hundred witnesses in Mark, and thousands in John. We should have details of ten or twelve appearances in Matthew and Luke. Everyone should mention the appearances to James and Peter. Clearly, these details aren’t being embellished.

Finally, while John’s Gospel may be the most complex regarding the number of post-resurrection extraordinary events and the number of angels at the tomb, it is the least complex when it comes to miraculous events during the crucifixion and the number of miracles performed by Jesus. Additionally, among the Gospel writers, John lists the lowest number of women at the empty tomb (one), he has the second lowest overall number of witnesses, the events he describes are less spectacular than the events in Matthew and Luke, and he leaves out important details that are depicted by earlier writers.

Even a cursory examination of the data shows that Dave’s Hypothesis is more compatible with the facts. First, the various authors evidently had different purposes and styles, and this affected their selection of the facts they would communicate. For example, Paul records the greatest number of witnesses because his purpose requires that he give an official list of witnesses. Mark tells us that the stone was very large because he considered this to be an important detail. Matthew writes about the Roman soldiers because he wanted to remind people that the disciples couldn’t have stolen the body. Different writers drew attention to certain aspects because these aspects stood out to them for some reason. There is no evolution or embellishment here.

Second, Mark does seem to be the earliest Gospel, and much of Mark’s material was probably incorporated into Matthew and Luke, who expanded Mark’s account to include other material. This is exactly what we would expect. If I were a companion of Christ (or if I knew a companion of Christ), and someone wrote about his life, and I thought that some additional details would help, I would undoubtedly write a modified version. This, again, is a far cry from evolution.

Third, the complexity of the resurrection stories has little to do with the dating of the stories. Paul is the most complex when it comes to witnesses, Matthew is the most complex if our focus is the magnificence of the post-resurrection events, and John is the most complex if we’re on a television show called “Counting Events with Dan Barker.” Yet these represent the first, middle, and last of the resurrection stories. There doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern here, at least not a pattern that would support Dan’s fanciful claims.

Step Five—Repeat. While we may need to refine Dave’s Hypothesis in light of further study, it is clear that Dan’s Hypothesis is to be thoroughly rejected. It is inconsistent with the known data and fails the tests that would support it. Since a good hypothesis must account for the facts gleaned from experience, Dan, if he is at all concerned with valid scholarship, should commit his hypothesis to the flames.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite the many problems in Dan’s essay, there are a few insights we can gain from our study of his position. First, his argument has been shown to be fundamentally flawed at the logical level and inconsistent even with his own rules of counting. He refuses to test his hypothesis against the known data, choosing instead to operate under the assumption that his position must be true. I personally find this method of argumentation appalling, yet it is extremely popular in certain circles, such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Atheists Inc. In fact, Dan’s essay seemed so persuasive to Editor Russ Kick that it was included in the book, Abuse Your Illusions: The Disinformation Guide to Media Mirages and Establishment Lies (2003). This says something about the quality of essays we can expect to find in Russ’s book, and it also says something about the absurdities that some naturalists are willing to accept as sound reasoning.

Second, although the members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation are content with Dan’s reasoning when it’s being used to attack Christianity, they would never allow Christians to base arguments on similar logical fallacies. To demonstrate what I mean, allow me to use Dan’s method for a moment. Skeptics often contend that the Gospels were written too late in the first century to be reliable, and perhaps one day I decide that I would like to refute their position. I look at the resurrection passages, and, selecting only the details that further my purpose, I notice that 1 Corinthians 15 is the most advanced in several respects. Based on this data, I formulate my argument and send Russ Kick an essay in which I propose the following:

There is clearly a pattern of evolution in the various resurrection accounts. Based on the number of witnesses and appearances, in addition to the appearances to James and Peter, the creed in 1 Corinthians is obviously the most evolved. Further, since the legal testimony of women was regarded as worthless in first century Jewish courts, we can see why the presence of women at the tomb was deemphasized as the years went by. By the time we get to John, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned, and in Paul we have no mention of women. This is further support that the creed is the latest of the accounts. Of course, the creed in 1 Corinthians can be dated to within five years of the death of Christ,[31] which places it before the year AD 35.[32] Since the other accounts are less evolved and therefore earlier, we can confidently place Mark at AD 31, Matthew at AD 32, Luke at AD 33, and John at AD 34. Accordingly, all the Gospels were written within four years of the death of Jesus, and they provide us with exceptionally early material that should not be ignored.

No one in the known universe would allow this conclusion, but notice I’ve made the same mistakes Dan has made. If his colleagues think his method of criticism is acceptable, they should have no problem dating the Gospels before AD 35. If they have a problem with my dates, they should have a problem with Dan’s essay as well.

Third, the fact that Dan’s group wholeheartedly accepts faulty reasoning as long as it is being used to attack Christianity should make us all (both Christians and atheists) stop and think for a moment. Why are some people so desperate to assault Christianity? If Christianity is just one belief system among others in an ultimately meaningless world, why go so far as to sacrifice logic in order to refute the Christian? In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton says he noticed this very problem in the writings of the skeptics. He claims that it wasn’t Christian apologists who convinced him to become a Christian; rather, it was the skeptics, forever contradicting themselves, who brought him back to orthodox theology.[33]

As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. . . . It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. . . . What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves? [34]

Much like the skeptics of Chesterton’s day, Dan Barker is so anxious to prove that Christianity is illogical that he’s willing to be illogical himself. But this makes no sense. If atheism is true, who cares what other people believe? Theists and atheists will all die the same, so it doesn’t really matter if the world believes in atheism or not. Why assault Christianity? Someone like Dan may respond, “I attack Christianity in the name of Truth!” Well, if the truth is on your side, shouldn’t you be able to prove it without committing massive logical errors?

If atheism is true, it is irrational for Dan to employ ridiculous arguments in his effort to disprove Christianity. Indeed, it makes no sense for him to want to disprove Christianity at all. On the other hand, if Christianity is true, it makes perfect sense for Dan to lash out using any means necessary. If God exists, and Dan has chosen to rebel against Him, why should he bother with logic? The goal is to attack God, not to be reasonable. It seems, then, that his actions are more compatible with a Christian universe than with an atheistic universe. This leads me to believe that Chesterton was right. Dan’s blunders are outstanding evidence in support of Christian truth claims.


[1] Dan Barker, “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” in Abuse Your Illusions: The Disinformation Guide to Media Mirages and Establishment Lies, ed. Russ Kick (New York: The Disinformation Company Ltd., 2003), 311-320. The essay can also be accessed at
[2] Barker, 314.
[3] Dan also includes the non-canonical “Gospel of Peter” in his essay, which I am not including in my response because it was written in the second century AD. My main concern is to examine Dan’s contention that the canonical Gospels show evidence of legendary development. The resurrection story in the Gospel of Peter, in my opinion, was embellished, but this doesn’t affect our discussion of the first century Gospels.
[4] By “surface problems” I mean problems that a careful reader with no background in logic may find by examining the essay and references. Factual errors and minor inconsistencies would be included in this category. By “depth problems” I mean those problems that may be very difficult to unearth without a foundation in logic and the scientific method.
[5] These aren’t official rules. Rather, they are my clarifications of the techniques used by Dan.
[6] Barker, 316.
[7] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a “creed” as “a brief authoritative formula of religious belief” (11th Edition). Dan argues that the creed in 1 Corinthians lacks the detail found in the Gospels. Well, since it’s a creed, it would have to, wouldn’t it? The Nicene Creed states that Jesus “suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven.” When it comes to details surrounding the resurrection, this is much simpler than even the 1 Corinthians creed. This doesn’t mean that the writers of the Nicene Creed knew nothing about the Gospels.
[8] See Mark 16:1-8. Verses 9 through 20 were probably not originally a part of Mark’s Gospel.
[9] Barker, 317 (emphasis his).
[10] See Mark 9:9-10, 31; 10:33-34.
[11] See Matthew 27:52-53; 28:2.
[12] I’m not sure why Dan counts this as an extraordinary event. He calls it a “now you see him” appearance, which he defines as “Jesus appearing out of thin air” (Barker, 315). But Luke doesn’t say that Jesus materialized in front of the disciples. While the disappearance of Jesus in Luke’s narrative (“and he disappeared from their sight”) and the appearance in John (“with the doors locked for fear of the Jews”) seem extraordinary by Dan’s standards, there is nothing in Jesus’ “now you see him” appearance in Luke that makes it more extraordinary than other Gospel appearances. The passage reads:
[The Emmaus disciples] got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:33-36).
[13] See Luke 24:4, 31, 36, 51.
[14] Dan may be interpreting John 20:17 as a prediction of Jesus’ ascension. The NIV translates it, “Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ ” The King James Version translates the passage, “Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” However, we would only interpret this as a miraculous physical ascension of Jesus into the clouds if we had Luke 24:51 in the back of our minds. But Dan believes we shouldn’t view texts through the lens of other texts:
The mistake many modern Christians make is to view 30 CE backward through the distorted lens of 80-100 CE, more than a half century later. They forcibly superimpose the extraordinary tales of the late Gospels anachronistically upon the plainer views of the first Christians, pretending naively that all Christians believed exactly the same thing across the entire first century (Barker, 315).
Jesus’ statement that he would return to the Father is only extraordinary if we view it through the lens of Luke 24:51. Nevertheless, if we decide to count the statement as a physical ascension into the clouds, this lends further credence to my argument that we have at least one resurrection appearance in Mark (as I am about to explain).
[15] See John 20:12, 19, 30; 21:1-11.
[16] John 20:30.
[17] See Note 9.
[18] One may ask if the appearance of “a great company” of angels in Luke 2:13 qualifies as “a great company” of miraculous events. If so, the number of miracles contained in the Bible is rapidly increasing.
[19] Matthew 27:52-53. Several scholars hold that Matthew is using apocalyptic language here and is not reporting the actual revival of corpses. This event has been a sore spot in New Testament criticism, for it seems amazing that the other Gospel writers didn’t also mention it. Some maintain that understanding the verses as apocalyptic takes away the difficulty. For instance, in The Death of the Messiah: Volume 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), Raymond Brown states:
When one appreciates the symbolic, poetic, and popular apocalyptic character of the four lines of 27:51b-52b with the phenomena they describe, they offer no major problem. They are clearly attached to the death of Jesus on Friday afternoon, whence the ominous judgmental tone that precedes the raising of the holy ones (p. 1126).
However, it may be too hasty to conclude that these events were not historical. From the limited information we can gather, the events were considered historical in the early church. For example, Ignatius reports that Jesus raised prophets who had “waited for him in the spirit as their teacher” (Letter to the Magnesians 9:2, Hoole Translation).
As it would be foolish to attempt an adequate discussion of such a difficult topic in a footnote, perhaps we should move on after pondering the words of N. T. Wright: “[I]t is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened” (The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003], 636).
[20] “Resurrection, we must again insist, meant life after ‘life after death’: a two-stage future hope, as opposed to the single-stage expectation of those who believed in a non-bodily future life” (Wright, 130). It was “the reversal or undoing or defeat of death, restoring to some kind of bodily life those who had already passed through that first stage” (p. 201) .
[21] Paul states that “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). Our bodies, therefore, will not ultimately be discarded. Rather, they will be given new life. “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). Paul’s concept of resurrection clearly includes the body.
[22] The problem here should be fairly obvious. If the absence of bodily appearances is evidence that Mark is thinking of a nonphysical resurrection (as Dan speculates), the absence of non-bodily appearances should be evidence that Mark has a physical resurrection in mind. Neither argument is valid. Mark doesn’t record the appearances, so it is senseless to argue that he is thinking of a spiritual resurrection (a concept totally foreign to first century Jews). Unless Mark breaks with tradition and says that Jesus rose in a nonphysical manner, we have to go with what we know about Jewish beliefs.
[23] As Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe note in When Critics Ask (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), p. 365, it is important for us to understand that this is not a contradiction:
Matthew does not say there was only one angel. John says there were two, and wherever there are two there is always one; it never fails! The critic has to add the word ‘only’ to Matthew’s account in order to make it contradictory. But in this case, the problem is not with what the Bible actually says, but with what the critic adds to it.
Matthew probably focuses on the one who spoke and ‘said to the women, “Do not be afraid”’ (Matt. 28:5). John referred to how many angels they saw; ‘and she saw two angels’ (John 20:12).
[24] An inductive argument is to be distinguished from a deductive argument. In inductive reasoning, the conclusion becomes more and more probable as it is confirmed by the evidence. That is, if the premises of an inductive argument are true, the conclusion is probably true. My response to Dan Barker, for example, is largely inductive. My conclusion is that Dan’s position is illogical. I show this conclusion to be probable by providing numerous examples of Dan’s flawed reasoning. But even if all my premises are true, my conclusion may be proven false by future experience (i.e. if some new evidence shows that the Gospels really are legends).
In deductive reasoning, the conclusion is necessarily true as long as the premises are true and the reasoning is valid. For instance, the following argument is deductive:

1. All conclusions based on fallacious arguments are to be rejected.
2. Dan’s conclusion is based on fallacious arguments.
3. Therefore, Dan’s conclusion is to be rejected.

By virtue of this argument’s form, as long as the two premises are true, the conclusion has to be true also.
[25] William H. Brenner, Logic and Philosophy: An Integrated Introduction (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 69.
[26] Luke 24:33.
[27] If we harmonize the major appearance in Luke with the first appearance to the apostles in John, we must conclude that Thomas was not present at this encounter. Our count for Luke would then be fourteen.
[28] 1 Corinthians 15:6.
[29] If we count the appearance to Paul himself.
[30] Matthew 27:60; Mark 16:4.
[31] 1 Corinthians 15 was written around AD 55, but the creed contained in verses 3-7 is much earlier. In Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), James D. G. Dunn states: “This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death” (p. 855, emphasis his). In The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1999), Robert Funk, co-founder of the notoriously liberal “Jesus Seminar,” says that the creed must have been formulated within “two or three years at most” (p. 466). For a detailed discussion of the dating of the creed, see Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin: College Press, 2001), 152-157. See also Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 52-53, 259.
[32] Scholars are divided on whether Jesus died in AD 30 or AD 33. I’m using the former as my starting point. If we were to use the latter, we would simply move all of the following dates forward by three years.
[33] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image Books, 1990), 85.
[34] Chesterton, 85, 89.

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