Dale Allison, William Lane Craig, and the Empty Tomb

I finished reading Dale C. Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters. Overall I would say it’s the best treatment I’ve read so far of the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. Dale tries to be judicious, considers alternative points of view in a serious manner, and attempts to weigh the evidence. Precisely because he does not try to project a front of unassailable certainty or claim especially high probability for his final conclusions, his arguments are more convincing than those of William Lane Craig. Even though in a response to Allison (which I will need to treat in more detail later), Craig reserved his most detailed criticism for the tentativeness of Allison’s case for the historicity of the empty tomb narrative, Allison’s caution actually makes his conclusion – that the evidence leans in the direction of the reality of the discovery that Jesus’s tomb was empty – ultimately more convincing. (Maybe that is a results of the rhetorical strategy more than the substance of Allison’s argument, but that is something else to consider further later.)

As an aside, it is interesting to consider the effects that long thought about the case of the resurrection have on the people who research it. Delving deep into the details, the nuts and bolts of the events, and the historical background, while trying to extract the maximum possible information from the New Testament documents, can make the reality of the foundation events of Christianity seem particularly vivid and concrete. On top of that, it’s easy for details about the way things “must have happened” or were probable to slip into one’s thoughts. The researcher creates a personal narrative of what happened, and it works as a tool for assembling and making sense of the facts that one knows, but the borders stretch beyond what the available facts truly should allow.

Something like this process can be seen in a recent series of posts that occurred in Michael Licona’s Facebook page. A post from someone commenting on Licona’s debate on the resurrection of Jesus with Matt Dillahunty says, “I was surprised to see around the 1hr 34min mark Licona says that there’s a good chance Paul met Jesus before his death and resurrection.” A reply from William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith dated 28 February 2017 (I’m presuming written by Craig himself) states, “The idea is that Saul of Tarsus was already in Jerusalem, as we know, and so was a contemporary of Jesus. He COULD have met him. I think it’s very likely Saul knew of the empty tomb and may have even visited it before he set out to Damascus to arrest Christians.”

This reply is of course qualified and Craig has not used a possible encounter between the pre-crucifixion Jesus and Paul, or an inspection of the empty tomb by Paul, as part of his formal arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. But I think it illustrates a normal process by which anyone researching a historical events tends to fill in the blanks and create a mental picture of a smooth, seamless narrative. Real events don’t happen in front of you as choppy, fragmented, discrete facts that appear with various levels of blurriness in proportion to the weight of the evidence that supports them. So, even if the facts that you have about a historical event really do vary in their clarity and probability, your mental picture of the event generally still won’t flicker and jump like a damaged film or TV with bad reception. You’ll still see a crisp, seamless narrative in your mind that conforms to your preferred interpretation of the facts.

Going further, I think this type of process is one element that makes Craig, Licona, and Habermas able to function so well in debates about the resurrection. They have all studied the resurrection of Jesus for long enough (collectively, for about a literal century) to have accumulated and developed vivid and detailed personal narratives of the events surrounding the resurrection. These narratives serve as a mnemonic into which they assimilate any new facts or information regarding the resurrection, and gives them a formidable structure and database which they can use to process the claims of critics, especially unprepared critics. (It’s clear from listening to the various formal debates that Craig, Licona, and Habermas have had about the resurrection that very few of their opponents have anything more than a glancing familiarity with their work on their resurrection. Going cold into the debates, the skeptics don’t have much of a chance.)

But I digress. Allison’s arguments and his engagement with Craig will need some further consideration.