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Gary R. Habermas’s “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus”

In R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History
Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997

Reviewed by Robert M. Price




Gary Habermas is the closest thing to a New Testament critic one will ever find teaching in the hallowed, but far from hollow, halls of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Exceedingly well read, Professor Habermas is the epitome of what James Barr called the “maximal conservative” approach to New Testament scholarship. The maximal conservative proposes to examine an issue in a neutral scholarly way but always comes out defending the traditional view, often explicitly appealing to the (inappropriate) rationale: “innocent until proven guilty,” as if the orthodox view of any matter must claim the benefit of the doubt. That is to say, he poses as an objective researcher into open questions regarding the early Christian literature and history, but his conclusions are determined in advance by a dogmatic agenda. As a member of the Liberty University faculty, Dr. Habermas is honor-bound to believe in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, the dogma that the Bible is free from all historical errors, and even that its authors never expressed differences of opinion on religious matters. The inerrantist believes either that the text of the Bible was verbally dictated by the Almighty (whether or not the human penman knew it at the time) or that at least the result was the same as if God had dictated it, even if “all” he did was to oversee the writing process providentially. Someone with a view like this adopts the posture of the biblical critic not because he or she believes it will shed new light on ancient texts but rather in order to defend traditional, orthodox readings of the text from “heretical” new research that threatens by its very nature to render such readings obsolete, depriving orthodox dogma of its seeming proof texts. The unstated goal is to beat the genuine critic at his own game so as to defend the party line. That is the business Gary Habermas is in. That is the approach of the many books he has written. They are all exercises in apologetics, the scholastic defense of the faith. The position is an ironic one, since such attempts to clamp the lid on the open Bible are just the sort of bold, open-ended investigation that led to the Protestant Reformation and the Biblical Theology Movement.

Three major difficulties beset this erudite and clearly written essay. The first is the character of the whole as essentially an exercise in the fallacious argument of appeal to the majority. Habermas does not want to commit this logical sin, so he admits in the beginning that the mere fact of the (supposed) consensus of scholarly opinion to which he repeatedly appeals does not settle anything, and as if to head off the charge I have just made, he says he supplies sufficient clues in his endnotes to enable the interested reader to follow up the original scholars’ arguments, which, he admits, must bear the brunt of the analysis. I’m sorry, but that is simple misdirection like that practiced by a sleight-of-hand artist. You can say you reject the appeal to consensus fallacy, but that makes no difference if all you do afterward is to cite “big names” on the subject. And that is what happens here.

            The second besetting sin is Habermas’s neglect of much recent scholarship that has put well into the shade much of the reasoning of Joachim Jeremias, C.H. Dodd, and even Rudolf Bultmann, to which he appeals. I am not trying to play posturing here, as if to score points against Professor Habermas. For all I know, he is quite conversant with these works and is just not impressed by them. Who knows? All I am saying is that I am impressed by them. And if you are, too, you will know that contemporary studies of Acts are increasingly inclined to treat the narrative as a tissue of second-century fictions and legends no different in principle and little different in degree from the Apocryphal Acts, though it is better written than these others (see Richard I. Pervo, Profit With Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles, 1987). You will know that J.C. O’Neill (The Theology of Acts in its Historical Setting, 1961) and others regard the supposed bits of early tradition found in the speeches in Acts to be signs of a late date, of the Christology and theology of the Apostolic Fathers, not of the primitive church. You will know that many regard the so-called Semitic flavor of Acts not as a sign of an underlying early Aramaic tradition, but as an attempt to pastiche the Septuagint and so lend the book a biblical flavor. You will be familiar with the fact that a number of scholars (not just me!) have spotlighted the appearance list in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a later interpolation into the text, an alternate explanation for all the non-Pauline linguistic features Habermas invokes as evidence that Paul is quoting early tradition (Arthur Drews, Winsome Munro, R. Joseph Hoffmann, William O. Walker, J.C. O’Neill, G.A. Wells). And perhaps most important, you would realize that, as Burton L. Mack, Jonathan Z. Smith and their school argue, the very idea of Christianity beginning with a Big Bang of startling visions of Jesus on Easter morning is highly dubious, very likely the fruit, not the root, of Christian theological evolution, alongside other versions of early Jesus movements and Christ cults that had no need for or belief in a resurrection. You would know that there may be quite a gap between whomever and whatever the earliest Christians may have been (if you can even draw a firm line where proto-Christianity split off from “Essenism” or the Mystery Religions). Like Habermas, I must be content to recommend these writings, but I am not trying to win an argument here, merely to challenge Habermas’s contention that there is a safe consensus among today’s scholars on these issues. There is no substitute for studying the issues oneself.

The third big problem with the essay is the lamentable leap in logic whereby, like a Scientific Creationist, Habermas seems to assume that the (supposed) absence of viable naturalistic explanations of the first resurrection-sightings proves the objective reality of the resurrection. This is to pull the reins of scientific investigation much too quickly! And in fact one may never yank them in the name of miracle, for that is a total abdication of the scientific method itself, which never proceeds except on the assumption that a next, traceable, i.e., naturalistic, step may be found. And if it never is, then science must confess itself forever stymied. To do otherwise, as Habermas does, is to join the ranks of the credulous who leap from the seeming improbabilities of ancient Egyptians engineering the Pyramids to concluding that space aliens built them with tractor beams! But let us go back and examine some of Habermas’s claims in detail.


Habermas’s Ennead

Our apologist lays out a hand of trump cards he thinks will justify him gathering up all the stakes. But does he win the game? We need to take a closer look at his cards. First, “There is little doubt, even in critical circles, that the apostle Paul is the author of the book of 1 Corinthians. Rarely is this conclusion questioned” (p. 264) But there is reason to question it, and this is where the appeal to the majority is so misleading. Bruno Bauer and a whole subsequent school of New Testament critics including Samuel Adrian Naber, A.D. Loman, Allard Pierson, W.C. van Manen, G.A. van den Bergh van Eysinga, Thomas Whittaker, and L. Gordon Rylands all rejected the authenticity of 1 Corinthians as a Pauline epistle. And they did so with astonishing arguments that remain unanswered to this day, the major strategy of those few “consensus” scholars who even deigned to mention them being to laugh them off as a priori outrageous. These arguments have been revived and carried further today by Hermann Detering, Darrell J. Doughty, and myself. Again, appealing to authoritative names in the manner of an exorcism is vain in scholarly matters. I mean only to indicate that there are real and open issues here, and that one must not over-simplify the debate by taking important things for granted.   

            Second, “Virtually all scholars agree that in this text [1 Corinthians 15:3ff] Paul recorded an ancient tradition(s) about the origins of the Christian gospel. Numerous evidences indicate that this report is much earlier than the date of the book in which it appears” (ibid.) This is not really a separate argument from the next two following, but let us briefly note the oddity of the whole notion of Paul, if he is indeed the author, passing down a “tradition,” much less an “ancient” one (though perhaps Habermas means ancient in relation to us, but then that’s true of the whole epistle, isn’t it?). Habermas has set foot on one of the land mines in Van Manen’s territory: the anachronism of the picture of Paul, a founder of Christianity, already being able to appeal to hoary traditions, much less creedal formulae! All this demands a date long after Paul.

Not only that, but as Harnack showed long ago, the 1 Corinthians 15 list is clearly a composite of pieces of two competing lists, one making Cephas the prince of apostles, the other according that dignity to James the Just. The conflation of the lists (to say nothing of the addition of gross apocryphal elements like the appearance to the half-thousand!) presupposes much historical water under the bridge, way too much for Paul.

            Third, “The vast majority of critical scholars concur on an extremely early origin for this report. Most frequently, it is declared that Paul received the formula between two and eight years after the crucifixion, around A.D. 32-38” (ibid.) because…

            Fourth, “Researchers usually conclude that Paul received this material shortly after his conversion during his stay in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Gal 1:18-19), who are both included in Paul’s list of individuals to whom Jesus appeared (1 Cor 15:5, 7)” (ibid.).

            First, one may ask concerning all this what it is that Paul was supposed to have been preaching prior to this visit, since 1 Corinthians 15:1 makes the list the very content of his initial preaching to the Corinthian church! The text as we read it gives no hint that Paul is supposed to be citing some older material (though I agree the material is alien to the context, not being the writer’s own words. I just make it a later interpolation, not a Pauline citation of prior material. It’s just that the text does not mean to let on to this). But if he does regard the list as a piece of earlier material, he leaves no interval between the beginning of his apostolic preaching and the learning of this so-crucial list. Ouch.

            Nor should we forget how Galatians tells us in no uncertain terms that the gospel message of Paul was in no way mediated through any human agency, which would just not be true if he was simply handing on tradition “like a plastered cistern that loses not a drop.”   

Besides this, it is sheer surmise that Paul would have memorized this text at the behest of Peter and James when he was in their company in Jerusalem on the occasion mentioned in Galatians. In fact, to bring the list and the visit together in the same breath is already a piece of harmonization after the manner of hybridizing Mark with Luke by saying one of Luke’s angels was out buying a lottery ticket when Mark got there, pen in hand. It is like pegging the visionary ascent to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-10) as the same as the Damascus Road encounter of Acts. Purely gratuitous.

To make things worse, there is the serious question of whether the fortnight’s visit of Paul to Jerusalem in Galatians 1:18-24 is original to the text either. It bristles with odd vocabulary, even in so short a text!, and neither Tertullian’s text nor Marcion’s seems to have contained it. It looks like a Catholicizing interpolation trying to shorten the span between Paul’s conversion and his first encounter with the Jerusalem apostles, fourteen years after (Galatians 2:1).

I realize that evangelical readers will be snickering by this time. They have been led to scoff at this way of scrutinizing the text for interpolations too early for the extant manuscript sources to attest them. I recommend William O. Walker’s Interpolations in the Pauline Letters as a good introduction to this methodology and its inherent plausibility. Conservatives have elevated to a dogma the premature and groundless judgment that we can take for granted that no important interpolations crept into the text during that early period for which there is absolutely no manuscript evidence either way.

Fifth, Habermas takes it as independent corroboration of Paul’s (= the list’s) claim that various people saw the Risen Jesus that Paul got the creed from James and Peter: “if critical scholars are correct that Paul received the creedal material in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. from Peter and James in Jerusalem in the early 30s A.D., then we have strong evidence that the reported appearances of the risen Jesus came from the original apostles.” (p. 267). If they gave him the list, they must have drawn up the list to begin with, or at least informed those who did. I don’t see how this follows. And the whole scenario reminds me too much of the old legend that the Apostles Creed was written, an article at a time, as each apostle added on his favorite tenet.

Habermas points to Galatians 1:18-20, the mention of Paul heading for Jerusalem to seek Peter’s expertise, presumably on the main features of his gospel or about the life of Jesus: if they had told him something very different concerning the resurrection than we read in Paul, wouldn’t he have said so? But again, this is part of that harmonizing interpolation, inserted just to make things easier for apologists like Habermas himself.

And in general, we must recognize that references to what the apostles may or may not have said, occurring not in writings by them but rather in writings by a different author have no independent historical value. We might as well invoke John the Baptist’s endorsement of Jesus from the gospels as independent evidence for the historical Jesus!

Sixth, Paul (= the list) includes an appearance to Paul himself. I think the interpolated list mentioned Paul in the third person, and that the redactor (inevitably) made it first person, an adaptation the interpolator of 2 Corinthians 12:1-0 could not competently carry through. In any case, if it is an interpolation, it is post-Pauline and pseudepigraphical, so this one depends on a prior decision as to authorship.

Habermas notes that the three accounts in Acts of Paul’s encounter with the Risen One on the road to Damascus tend to corroborate the statement of the 1 Corinthians 15 list about a Pauline appearance. This is ironic, since Luke seems instead to want to ring down the curtain on the resurrection appearances with the ascension, allowing Paul and Stephen to have mere visions afterward. This he does to rebut claims for their non-twelve apostleship. And, as Detering notes, the element of Paul being blinded (borrowed ultimately from the conversion of Heliodorus in 2 Maccabees 3) surely means to deny that Paul saw the Risen Jesus in any manner analogous to the twelve, who, after all, had tea with the Risen Savior on more than one occasion.

Seventh, Habermas cites Paul’s Jerusalem visit in Galatians 2:1-10, which issued in an A plus report card, as further evidence that Paul and the Jerusalem apostles had no serious disagreement. Suffice it to say that the text is very clear on the point at issue in these discussions: not resurrection but rather circumcision of the Gentiles. We simply do not know if the question of the resurrection came up on that occasion. There is no point in pretending we do, or we are making it up as we go along. Habermas warns: “rather than highlight what many contemporary scholars think cannot be known about the New Testament testimony, I want to concentrate on the evidence that we do have” (p. 262). But this isn’t part of it.

Eighth, “After recounting the creed and listing key witnesses to the appearances of Jesus, Paul declared that all the other apostles were currently preaching the same message concerning Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor 15:11-15). In other words, we have it on Paul’s authority that these resurrection appearances were also being proclaimed by the original apostles” (p. 267). But we cannot say we know they were preaching the same list or the same listed appearances until we read some other document by one of them that has the list in common with 1 Corinthians 15. And we have no such text. You can’t blithely quote Paul as evidence for what others were saying. The 1 Corinthians text does not take us out of the range of what Paul is saying—unless we recognize that the material is interpolated! And then the point is that it is a Catholicizing gloss, rewriting history to make it look like Paul agreed with the Jerusalem apostles when in fact he hadn’t.

Ninth, “Another indicator of the appearances to the original apostles is the Gospel accounts… Even from a critical viewpoint, it can be shown that several of the appearance narratives report early tradition [an apologetical euphemism for “early rumor”] as Dodd argues after a careful analytical study. He contends that the appearance narratives in Matthew 28:8-10, 16-20 and John 20:19-21, and, to a lesser extent, Luke 24:36-49, are based on early material [again: apologetical euphemism—“material”!]. The remaining Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are lacking in typical mythical tendencies and likewise merit careful consideration” (p. 268). Now isn’t that special?

It is hard to stop cringing and to know where to begin after this fusillade of fustian. Matthew 28:8-10—based on early tradition? This is simply part of Matthew’s fictive add-on to Mark’s empty tomb narrative which itself does not manage to make Dodd’s list! Not only that, it represents editorial rewriting and contradiction of the Markan original! Likewise, 16-20 are a mere pastiche-summary of a resurrection-commission narrative, as if the evangelist knew more or less what this kind of story sounded like but couldn’t quite pull it off, much like the inept paraphrase of earlier materials in the Longer Ending of Mark. The disciples meet Jesus on the mountain he had specified—where? And when did he tell them? This is a reference back to something he forgot to include in his story, like somebody getting ahead of himself and spoiling the ending of a joke. Verse 17 means to have the epiphany of Christ quell all doubt, but instead the narrator rushes through it with the incoherent “they worshipped him though they doubted” (masked by translations because it wouldn’t sound good in Easter sermons). Some of the language is Matthean (“unto the consummation of the age;” “to disciple”); the rest is derived from both the Septuagint and Theodotion’s translation of Daniel 7, as Randel Helms (Gospel Fictions, 1988) has shown. And then what is left?

Habermas says Dodd valued John 20:19-21 above the parallel Luke 24:36-49, though I think the evidence points to John’s version being a redaction of Luke’s (and not just of the “underlying tradition” as apologists would prefer, trying to maintain some semblance of the old notion of the gospels being independent reports). John has omitted Luke’s redactional material in Luke 24:44-49, retaining only a paraphrase of the Great Commission (“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”). And let’s get it straight: vv. 44-49 are not “independent L tradition,” which is to appropriate source criticism as apologetics. No, Luke just made it up, as one can see from the material’s similarity to the speech in 24:25-27 as well many of the speeches in Acts, also Lukan compositions (see Earl Richard, Acts 6:1-8:4. The Author’s Method of Composition, 1978; Marion L. Soards, The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Context, and Concerns, 1994).

But beyond this, John has edited Luke so that Jesus no longer offers just his (corporeal) hands and feet, but now his wounded (only in John) hands and side. This fits with John’s having added the piercing of Jesus’ side and anticipates Doubting Thomas with the mention of nail holes and a chasm in the side. All this uniquely Johannine redaction rewrites the story in order to suppress a current reading of Luke’s story in which Jesus is understood to have survived crucifixion, evaded death and means to show the disciples that, like Mark Twain’s, the reports of his death are premature. In fact, this way of reading Luke’s story makes it remarkably similar to the episode in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana (also supposedly based on local oral tradition as well as eyewitness memoirs!) in which the sage vanished from the court of Domitian, where he was up on capital charges, to reappear across the Mediterranean among his astonished disciples, who naturally take him for the ghost of their presumably late master. He stretches forth his hands and invites them to examine his corporeal flesh! Subsequently he ascends into heaven alive, as also in Luke. Or so some read Luke in John’s day, and that is why the latter sought to reinforce the real death of Jesus with spear-thrusts and nail wounds. Let’s take stock: John’s version, far from being straightforward reporting, is a redacted version of Luke’s which is already redacted and embodies a common Hellenistic epiphany theme attested also in Philostratus. You can hold your breath and keep quoting C.S. Lewis about how none of this smacks of mythology, or you can stop citing authorities and examine the matter for yourself.

Are the remaining gospel resurrection accounts free of mythological traits, as Habermas suggests Dodd contended? Hardly! In the Emmaus Road story, we have another epiphany mytheme, closely matched in an Asclepius story predating Luke by centuries. In that one, frustrated seekers of a miracle in Asclepius’ temple return home and are met on the way by a concerned stranger who hears their sad tale, performs the desired healing, reveals himself, and vanishes. The empty tomb tale itself is clearly cut from the same cloth as the numerous apotheosis stories discussed by Charles L. Talbert (What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, 1977), in which a famous sage or hero mysteriously vanishes, companions search for the body, can find no trace, and are assured by an angel or heavenly voice that he has been raptured by the gods, henceforth to be worshipped. The Doubting Thomas story closely parallels one from Philostratus in which a stubborn young disciple is the sole hold-out against belief in immortality. His brethren are startled to witness the fellow having a vision in which Apollonius manifests himself from heaven for the sake of the doubter who henceforth doubts no more. The farewell to Mary Magdalene in John 20 is highly reminiscent of the last words of the departing angel Raphael to Tobias and Sarah in Tobit chapter 12, as Helms has noted. The miraculous catch of fish in the Johannine Appendix , like its pre-resurrection cousin in Luke 5, stems directly from a Pythagoras story in which the vegetarian sage wins the forfeit lives of a shoal of fish by preternaturally “guessing” the number of them caught in the nets. The idea that these stories do not smack of mythology is just palpably absurd. Rather than functioning as an argument on behalf of faith, the claim has by now itself become an article of faith, so drastically does it contradict all manner of evidence.

Is there a worse example of the fallacy of special pleading, the double standard, than to dismiss all these mythical stories from other ancient religions and to claim that in the sole case of the gospels they are all suddenly true? Laughable in the one case, convincing in the other?


Truth or Method

And let’s not miss Habermas’s gambit here. First he recommends Dodd’s judgment that at least 2 or maybe 2 ½ of the gospel resurrection stories are, if not factually true, at least based on early story-telling. That is what one might call damning with faint praise on Dodd’s part. But it is good enough for Habermas. And then Habermas says those stories not taken seriously by Dodd are to be taken seriously anyhow. His agenda is clear. Because he is a spin-doctor on behalf of inerrantism (the real presupposition underlying all this blather), he has never met a resurrection story he doesn’t like, and if you (or Dodd) don’t like this one, maybe you’ll buy that one. Habermas himself obviously cares nothing for the judgment of the critical scholars he cites except that he may use them cosmetically in a warmed-over piece of fundamentalist apologetics.

Habermas will take what he can get from mainstream scholars, at least those of yesteryear who are nearer orthodoxy anyway. This is clearest in his nose-count of scholars lining up in favor of the “heavenly telegram” or “objective vision” theory of the supposed Easter experiences. Taken on its own, this version of resurrection belief is abhorrent to Habermas because it amounts to an “Easter docetism,” a non-fleshly resurrection. That isn’t good enough for Habermas, and he finally takes refuge with in pious equivocation of John A.T. Robinson: “a body identical yet changed, transcending the limitations of the flesh yet capable of manifesting itself within the order of the flesh. We may describe this as a ‘spiritual’ (1 Cor. 15:44) or ‘glorified’ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:43; Phil. 3:21)  body… so long as we do not import into these phrases any opposition to the physical as such” (cited on p. 273). What specious clucking! We may say half-fish, half-fowl, or anything else we may fancy, as long as we stonewall and insist that the result is not a matter of docetism. As if Robinson has not just given a good working definition of docetism: the doctrine of only apparent fleshly reality, the polymorphousness of a divine being who can change forms precisely because he has no true physical form! It all comes down to saying the proper shibboleth when you get to the river bank. Coherent meaning is strictly secondary, if even that. How pathetic. The poor apologist is forever engaged in a bruising game of dodge-ball, imagining he has vindicated the Bible just because he has contrived a way of never having to admit he was wrong.


Less Real than an Hallucination

Gary Habermas thinks to convince us that the earliest disciples did see something, something that walked like the Risen Jesus, talked like the Risen Jesus, and therefore must have been the Risen Jesus. He thinks those theologians who posit “objective hallucinations,” i.e., true but intrapsychic visions sent by God, are headed in the right direction, but he wants finally to quell all talk of hallucinations. Slippery ground, you know. So he rehearses the standard arguments against the resurrection appearances of the gospels being hallucinations. This formula argument, unvarying no matter which apologist dusts it off, is the kind of instrument apologists like Habermas think Paul was using and bequeathing in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11. They are making Paul over in their own image.

            Hallucinations are not shared by groups. Then I guess Habermas accepts the historicity of the dancing of the sun in the sky at Fatima. Plenty of people saw that, too. The disciples could not have been hallucinating, since such visions come at the behest of the longing of mourners, who thus have their dreams fulfilled. But the disciples are shown skeptical of the reality of the Risen Jesus. Come on: by now Habermas must have learned from those “critical scholars” whose opinions he professes to respect so much that the skepticism element is simply a common plot-prop in any miracle story. It in no way marks the story as eyewitness testimony. To even argue that way reveals that Habermas and his colleagues are mired in the eighteenth century when these arguments were first framed: they were arguments against Rationalistic Protestants who denied supernatural causation but believed in the accuracy of the gospels! Only against such convenient opponents does it make any sense to take for granted that the gospel scenes are historically accurate and so the implied causation must be miraculous!

            Hallucinations are the stock in trade of weirdoes, and there is no reason to think the disciples were all weirdoes. Oh no? People who abandoned their jobs to follow an exorcist so they could get a piece of the action when the Millennium dawned? Fanatics eager to call down the lightning bolts of Jehovah upon inhospitable Samaritans? Not exactly your average Kiwanis Clubber or Methodist, I’d say. People would not die as martyrs for mere hallucinations. Well, sure, as long as they didn’t realize that’s what they were! People are not changed from cringing cowards to men who turn the world upside down by mere hallucinations. How do we know? And besides, the New Testament itself attributes the evangelistic zeal of the apostles not to the resurrection appearances but to the infilling of the Spirit at Pentecost, seven weeks later!

            But the salient point is this: Habermas is still locking horns (in the mirror) with the eighteenth-century Protestant Rationalists when he simply assumes we know that the earliest Christians were the named people in the gospels and Acts who did the deeds and said the words depicted in those texts. But as Mack says, these stories are themselves the final products of a myth-making tendency in some quarters, and not all, of early Christianity. They represent the end result of one kind of Christian faith, not the root and foundation of all Christian faith. There is not only no particular reason to think the gospel Easter narratives or the 1 Corinthians 15 list preserve accurate data on the Easter morning experiences. There is not any particularly compelling evidence to suggest that the stories even go back to anyone’s experiences. They are one and all mythic and literary in nature. Or they sure look like it, and there’s nothing much on the other side of the scale.


Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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