Part of a live debate by preacher turned atheist,
Dan Barker, on the evolution of the Jesus stories.


What I'm going to argue tonight is not atheism or not the historicity of Jesus. I'm going to argue evolution tonight. Not biological evolution, of course, but the evolution of a legend. The evolution of a myth.

The earliest Christian community did believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead "spiritually." The earliest Christian community did not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead "bodily." This is supported by the facts. The Christian community then went through a process, an evolutionary process of thought regarding the resurrection of Jesus until about a half century had passed, and then, and only then, do we find these fantastic embellishments and exaggerations in the thoughts of the early Christians of a "bodily" resurrected Jesus.

The best way to approach this, I guess, is to go back to history itself. Who knows what is the very first written thing we have about the resurrection of Jesus? It's Paul's mention in First Corinthians 15. Mike had mentioned that Paul wrote his epistles sometime in the mid-50s, which is about 20 years after the events supposedly happened, 20-25 years later.

And here is what Paul writes. Paul is quoting something -- Mike called it a hymn. He's quoting some kind of a formula, a recitation, something that is in what you might call a legendary style. It's not straight history. We know the marks of legend when things are presented in a poetic style and not just straight narrative. Listen to this poem, or this hymn, that Paul is quoting from earlier Christians which was probably written sometime in the 30s. It probably is a pretty old thing, maybe 32-34-36.

[Taking drink of water.] By the way, did you notice our cups, Mike? It says "Rise and Shine" on it. [laughter] See, that proves there's a God. How else can you explain something like that?

Here's Paul's recitation, all right? Now, remember that when Paul is writing this to the Corinthians, his agenda is for himself. He's trying to establish that he is one of the in-crowd too. Not just Peter, not just James, but "Me, too. I have apostolic authority." That's why he's giving it to these people in Corinth, this newly formed church. Here's the hymn [I Corinthians 15:3-8]:

"Christ died for our sins
in accordance with the Scriptures,
and was buried.

"And he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures
and he appeared to Cephas," which is Peter,
"and then to the twelve."

(I thought there were only eleven there. But anyway.)

"Afterward, he appeared to more than 500 brethren, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.

"Afterward he appeared to James,
and then to all the missionaries."
(Or to all the apostles.)

"Last of all, as to one untimely born,
he appeared also to me."

Paul is saying, "Hey, you can trust me. Jesus has appeared to me, too, not just to the early ones."

Now, notice this. This is very simple. Very stark. We don't have any earthquakes, we don't have any eclipses or astronomical events, we don't have any angels, we don't have any women telling stories, we don't have any of these fantastic embellishments. We just have a simple recognition of what the early Christians believed. Paul is passing this on, from what other people believed.

There's three words I want you to look at in this hymn, in this legendary-style hymn that Paul is quoting.

The first word is the word "buried." The word there is "etaphe," which is from the Greek word for "taphos," which just means "burial." It does not mean "tomb," it does not mean "sepulchre." The word for tomb is "mnema," and sepulchre is "mnemeion," (if I pronounced it correctly). It's just a place of burial. And if Jesus was truly crucified by the Roman authorities, it was their practice in those days to throw the decayed corpses of the crucified people into a common grave.

Paul is not talking about a tomb here. He is simply talking about a man who died. Just like when Moses died, in Deuteronomy, he was thrown in a grave -- nobody knows where the grave was, somewhere in Moab -- yet Moses was seen resurrected bodily from the dead. Did you know that? But nobody assumes that therefore there must have been an empty tomb of Moses. Remember in Matthew 17, when Peter goes up into the mountain with Jesus, James, and John, and Jesus is transfigured, and suddenly, who does he see? Moses and Elijah. There he is. Are we to assume that there is an empty tomb of Moses because Peter saw Moses up there? Of course we don't assume that.

Paul did not have a belief in an empty tomb, and he doesn't say that he did. Now, if you think he did, you're committing a historical no-no here. What you are doing is you're committing a kind of "Back To The Future" kind of historical analysis. You think you know what is in Paul's mind because you know what the later Gospel writers in the 80s and 90s, you think you know what they said about a bodily resurrection, so you are imposing that, back in time, on to Paul's mind because you think you know better. Paul was just kind of simple, but you know what he really meant. But the earliest Christians didn't mention any of these exaggerated bodily things.

The second word I want you to look at is the word "raised." He said "he was buried. And he was raised on the third day." That's not the word "resurrected." The word resurrected is "anastasis [noun]," or "anistimi [verb]." The word that Paul used here for "raised" is the word "egeiro" -- "egergetai." That is the word that is used throughout the New Testament for the word "to wake up," to "awaken." Remember when the disciples were on this boat and there was a storm and Jesus was asleep down below? They were scared, and they went down below and they woke him up? [Matthew 8:25] They used that word "egeiro": They "woke him up." "Jesus, help, help!" And all through the New Testament we find this word "egeiro" being used not for a bodily resurrection, but for a spiritual awakening, or for just waking up.

In Romans, Paul said, "Now it is high time to awaken out of sleep." [Romans 13:11] "Egeiro."

In Ephesians. We think Paul might have written Ephesians, we don't know for sure. This is really interesting. Paul is giving a whole bunch of advice to Christians, okay? Do this, do this, avoid this, don't do that, do this, here's how to live, and right in the middle of this advice, daily advice, he says, "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light." [Ephesians 5:14] What's the word that he uses? "Egeiro." Can you command a living, breathing person to rise from the dead? Of course Paul doesn't think that that word has anything to do with a bodily resurrection.

The third word I want you to see in this phrase is the word "appear" or "seen," depending on the translation. That word is "ophthe." Paul uses the word "ophthe" five different times -- or was it four, I forget exactly, but he uses that word, one, two, three -- four times, and he was the last one. This is from the Greek word "horao" which is used for both physical vision and of a vision, to "have a vision." In fact, Paul had a lot of visions in the bible, and he uses that same word. When the Macedonian guy came to him and said, "Please come preach to us," [Acts 16:9] it wasn't in a bodily form -- it was a "vision," the same word. When Ananias . . . when he had a vision of Ananias [Acts 9:12], the same word. He didn't see Ananias physically. He used that word, that he had had a "vision" of Ananias.

And in Matthew 17, when Peter went up the mountain and saw Moses, what's the word that was used? "Ophthe." Moses "appeared" to Peter. [Matthew 17:3] Now, do we think that Moses bodily appeared to Peter? Did Moses bodily resurrect from the dead before Jesus had died for our sins? You have to believe that if you use these words consistently. Of course, I don't think most Christians believe that Moses bodily resurrected from the dead before that time -- maybe you do. But in any event, we can see that they are talking about a visionary experience here. And in First Corinthians 15, Jesus "appeared" to Peter and to James using that same word: "ophthe."

Now, we know, Paul tacks himself at the end here, and he said Jesus "ophthe" to Peter, he "ophthe" to James, he "appeared" to these others, and he "appeared" to me. We all know that Jesus did not physically appear to Paul. Paul said he did. He was blinded. He was knocked off his horse. He was in the habit of hearing voices and seeing lights in the sky. The people that were with Paul didn't see anyone. The people that were with Paul didn't hear anyone. Well, it depends on which account you take. In one account the men did hear the voice [Acts 9:7], and in another account they didn't [Acts 22:9] -- there's a biblical contradiction. They didn't hear or see anyone. So, what kind of a "physical" appearance is this? In fact, this was after Jesus' ascension. What was Jesus doing? Did he ascend up above the clouds for a while, and his body hung around, and he came back down and said, "Hi, Paul. I want you to know I'm still hanging around." Do you really think there was a physical, spatially limited body of Jesus hanging up there, coming down to Paul? No, I don't think most Christians today believe that.

The fact that Paul says that Jesus "ophthe" to him, and it was not a physical appearance, gives us a clue that he does not intend us to believe that the other appearances to these others were also physical. They were "spiritual" experiences, what they believed to be spiritual experiences.

And, to nail this thing shut, just a few verses later, Paul is talking about the Resurrection, right? He's explaining what the Resurrection means, and he says, in I Corinthians 15:50, "Now, I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." So, how could he be talking about a physical resurrection and turn right around and say "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God"? He obviously intends this to mean that Jesus resurrected, but in a spiritual way, not physically, not bodily.

So, the first Resurrection account that we have has no empty tomb, no physical appearances. That's as close as we can get to the views of the early church. We see later, though, an evolution of Christian thought.

Now, I don't know how much weight historians should give to an argument from silence. There's a big debate about that. Just because somebody doesn't say something doesn't mean it didn't happen, right? But I do know that Mike really likes the argument from silence. He used it three times tonight. He used it to try to date the Gospels earlier by mentioning the things that were not said in the Gospels. He used it to try to criticize what criticisms might have been said and weren't said. So, Mike does like the argument from silence, and he uses it a lot. So, if he's going to use it, I'm going to use it as well. The absence of competing stories, for example, is another one of your arguments from silence.

Paul, we know, never claimed to have met Jesus, not before he died. He didn't meet the physical Jesus after the Resurrection. In fact, one of the ways we know this for sure is that if Paul had met Jesus and known him, he would have said something about him. Yet never does Paul quote a single Gospel saying of Jesus, anywhere in all of his writings -- and his writings were first. Never does Paul make reference to any of the miracles of Jesus that appeared in the Gospels. And Paul supposedly hung around with these people, and talked to them. And Paul talked about a lot of the same issues and would have benefited from quoting Jesus, for example, on divorce -- Paul talked about divorce a lot, and Paul said there should be no divorce. He forgot to take into account the fact that Jesus did allow for some divorce, in some case. He contradicted Jesus.

So, Paul seemed to be pretty ignorant. I know this is an argument from silence, but wouldn't it have been good evidence if Paul had said something? Mike is telling us that we have good evidence. It would have been good evidence if Paul had told us a few things about this man that he supposedly had met physically.

Now, let's move "Forward To The Future," another 20 years to the next item that we have written about the Resurrection, and watch how this thought kind of develops. It's really nice. The book of Mark ends at chapter 16 verse 8. The last 18 verses are added. They're an interpolation. Most scholars agree with that. That's the part about handling snakes and drinking poison. I don't think very few [many] Christians think that I should give some poison to Mike to test his faith, you know. Hey, that would be a good trick in a debate, wouldn't it? Bring a glass of . . .

Anyway, most Christians realize, and most bibles admit that those last 18 verses don't belong in the book of Mark. They weren't in the two earliest Greek manuscripts, they were added later. And the early Christians were in the habit of doing this, adding things, redacting things, changing things, editing things, according to their theology. Let me read what Mark says, and listen to how the book of Mark ends. Now remember, this is our second item in history.

[Mark 16:5-8] "And entering into the sepulchre," now they're using the word "sepulchre," "they saw a young man sitting on the right side . . . and he saith unto them, Be not afraid: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen;" (egeiro) "he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee . . . they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid."

Now, notice something. There's no appearances of Jesus in the earliest Gospel. There's no post-resurrection of Jesus anywhere in this first, earliest Gospel. If we're going to go back to the source of the religion, let's go to the earliest Gospel. In Mark you don't have Jesus appearing to anybody. You don't even know where he is. You don't even know if they got the right tomb -- I suppose this guy knew what he was talking about when they went in there. Let's assume that it was the right tomb, and let's assume that the early Christians did believe at that point that Jesus had been resurrected and that there was an empty tomb.

But remember, the phrase "he is risen" is the word "egeiro" again, not "resurrection." Why didn't they use the word "anastasis," a physical resurrection? They didn't use that.

And notice something else. There's no angel in this account. Mark's account has just a "man." Notice that the further back in history you go, the simpler, the less embellished things are. The later you go in history, the more embellishments you start to add on to the story as we go. There's no earthquake, there's no opening of the graves of Jerusalem and all the people walking around showing themselves and going back to their homes, there's no eclipse and darkness of the sun, none of that stuff. It's pretty simple, pretty basic, and pretty stark. The women did not rejoice or proclaim the resurrection of Jesus when they saw the empty tomb. This didn't lead them to a belief in the Resurrection at all.

Now, let's go "Forward Into The Future" again, about another, how many years? Ten, fifteen years or so, until we get to Matthew and Luke. Now we get to some of the goodies. Now we get to the stuff you're going to hear about Sunday Morning [Easter, April 7] quoted about all these embellishments and fun things that Christians like to think happened on Jesus' resurrection. We get to the bodily resurrection, the earthquake. Some people think, most scholars think that Matthew, Luke and John were written latest, in the 80s and John even into the 90s. We're talking about a half century of time passing now, for this evolution to happen.

So, you see this evolution happening, I . . .

[At this point there is a huge break in the tape recording, omitting a large segment of Dan's statement. The following reconstruction is based on Dan's notes.]

So, we know that the earliest Christians did not believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus. But they did believe that Jesus had been resurrected, at least in a spiritual manner. It is fair to ask about the origin of that belief.

So, what did happen to produce such a belief? (Assuming that the rest of the story is basically true.)

We don't know. We can't go back in time and psychoanalyze Peter. But Peter and the disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus. They expected their Messiah to set up a kingdom on earth. This did not happen. Jesus died. This created a "cognitive dissonance."

Add to this the fact that Peter had denied Jesus, after claiming that he would never do such a thing. He must have been feeling quite guilty.

What if you (Mike) had a bad argument with your wife, and you said some things that you shouldn't have said, and you immediately regretted saying them, and wanted to apologize and make things right? But before you can do this, you learn that your wife is killed in an accident. How are you going to feel? It's a double whammy. Not only will you be dealing with the trauma of the death of someone you love very much, changing your entire future, but you will be dealing with the guilt of what you had said and were unable to make right.

Peter must have felt something like this when Jesus died. Peter must have needed some way to "make everything right." Perhaps he prayed to Jesus and felt that he had received forgiveness, and later told this to his friends. Perhaps he "saw" Jesus in an agonizing vision, and told this to his friends, who misinterpreted what he said, easily imagining that he had really seen the physical Jesus, eager to believe that their years of following the Messiah had not been wasted after all. We don't need an actual historical event in order to produce a belief in credulous, hurting people.

This is what happens in other religions. The Millerites in the 1800s predicted the end of the world. When it didn't happen as they had predicted, they lost some members, but the faithful regrouped, tweaked their theology, and started proselytizing even stronger in order to correct the disconfirmation of their beliefs. Today we have the Seventh Day Adventist religion, going strong, as a result of that failure.

Look at the Jehovah's Witnesses. They predicted the end of the world in 1914, and when that didn't happen, they changed it to 1925. When that failure occurred, they did the same thing as the Millerites. They lost some members, but they adjusted their theology, claiming that the Second Coming had happened as they predicted, but in heaven, not on earth. They simply altered their theology . . .

[back to the recording]

. . . their theology and went out and proselytized even stronger. Listen to what Robert Price says in Beyond Born Again:

"When a group has staked everything on a religious belief, and 'burned their bridges behind them,' only to find this belief disconfirmed by events, they may find disillusionment too painful to endure. They soon come up with some explanatory rationalization, the plausibility of which will be reinforced by the mutual encouragement of fellow-believers in the group. In order to increase further the plausibility of their threatened belief, they may engage in a massive new effort at proselytizing. The more people who can be convinced, the truer it will seem," right? "In the final analysis, then, a radical disconfirmation of belief might [may] be just what a religious movement needs to get off the ground!"

Maybe that's why Christianity is so successful, because of that disconfirmation, because of the failure of the prophecy of their Messiah. They all got together -- this has happened in other religions. What makes the early Christians exempt from this? Were they special in some way? Weren't they just human beings? Weren't they subject to the same tendencies, the same foibles that we all have?

Now, that's the end of my hypothesis. That's the end of my opening statement. But I might be able to sneak in a head start on a rebuttal here, if I -- what do I have, five more minutes? Let me see.

My hypothesis is, of course, that the early Christians did not believe in a bodily resurrection, and that idea evolved.

I do believe that the early Christians believed in a spiritual resurrection, but I don't believe that myself, obviously. I believe they believed it.

I don't believe in miracles. And this is not an a priori rejection of the supernatural. I think Mike is confusing something. I would like Mike to point to some author somewhere who uses that phrase. Who stands up and says, "I have an a priori bias against the supernatural."

What I have is what you have as well, a very strong naturalistic presupposition. Every Christian needs a very strong naturalistic presupposition. Otherwise, the miracles would be worthless. If a miracle is an overriding, or a breaking of natural law in some way, then if these things happened all the time, then they wouldn't count for anything. If the graves of Iowa were opening every other night and people were walking out of them, what good would the resurrection of Jesus count for? Christians need a very strict investment in natural regularity for the miracles to count for something. Because, if God's going to show his power, he's got to show it by doing the impossible, right? So you, like I, need to have a very strong naturalistic presupposition. This is not a bias. This is simply a fact of the result of observation. It's inductively obtained. We know that billions of people have died, and they have not come back to life again. We know that, just from observation. So it is only natural for us to assume, before the facts, that the prior probability of an event like the Resurrection happening is very, very, very, very low. I'm not saying we should rule it out -- there might be some things we don't know.

But the biggest problem with history and miracles is not the idea of a bias against miracles. That's not the problem. The biggest problem is the built-in incompatibility of the historical method with miracles.

History has to require a naturalistic presupposition in order to work. It's just a tool. All sciences are tools. No science claims to give us knowledge that is 100% confident. No science does. We increase our confidence by testing, by eliminating, by this and that, by falsifying. Some sciences tend to give us pretty high confidence.

History, of all of the legitimate sciences, is the weakest. It gives us information that is further removed from what happened. So, therefore, historians must be all the more careful in adhering to a naturalistic presupposition. Because otherwise, you can't know anything through history. You can't, then, know that something didn't happen according to the way someone said it. You need criteria for weeding out what could happen and can't happen, based upon our past observations.

So, what I'm saying here -- please don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that this rules out miracles. What I'm saying is, you can have miracles if you want; but then you can't have history. You can't have them both. And if the only knowledge we have of the resurrection of Jesus comes through history, and if history requires a strict application of natural regularity through time, then that sort of short-circuits the whole process, because history is all the Christians have got.

It's like saying I know there's a rainbow out there because I can hear it. You can't hear a rainbow, right? Well, history is the same way. It doesn't pretend to "hear" the supernatural. It doesn't pretend to have anything to say about it, or to analyze it. History is just a limited tool. Any historian who believes in miracles is building a house on the sand, because, if the miracles happened, then anything goes. Anything anybody says we're just going to have to take, because we don't have any way of saying, "No, that's not possible."

So, the bodily resurrection of Jesus did not happen on good biblical grounds, it did not happen on good historical grounds. If you want to believe that it happened spiritually, that's your business. What's nice about this hypothesis that I present is that it respects our freedom to believe. It respects your freedom to believe that Jesus did rise from the dead. And you can't have the freedom to believe unless you also have the freedom not to believe. If Mike is right, I don't have the freedom not to believe. I must be forced by the brute facts of history into accepting something that doesn't require faith at all. So my hypothesis, besides being better attested by the facts and by the bible and by history, is a nicer hypothesis. It's much more respectful of human freedom and human dignity.

The entire debate can be found here.