Essay:Comment on Resurrection Research by Gary Habermas
Comment on "Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?"
In "Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?", Gary R. Habermas attempts to give an overview of the positions that are widely supported by modern scholarship on a small number of questions relating to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The question that he highlights is on "The Disciples' Belief that they had Seen the Risen Jesus", and the position that Habermas puts forward is that "Few critical scholars reject the notion that, after Jesus’ death, the early Christians had real experiences of some sort."
What are the limitations of Habermas's article, then? The article appears, at first glance, to be authoritative, and it is widely cited by Christian apologists in debates and in literature. Often, the apologist's interpretation of Habermas's work is that there is a large majority of atheist or agnostic scholars who, even though they are not Christian, they still, nevertheless, are forced by the evidence to conclude that Jesus's disciples saw Jesus after his death.
Problem 1: How many authors are in the part of the survey relating to the disciples' experience?
The first problem is the question of who is in the survey, or even whether or not this is even a survey. Habermas says that "Since 1975, more than 1400 scholarly publications on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus have appeared. Over the last five years, I have tracked these texts, ..." Habermas later says that about 3:1 of the scholars are "moderate conservative", by which he means that they agree that "Jesus was actually raised from the dead in some manner, either bodily ... , or as some sort of spiritual body". The question of the disciples' beliefs in the risen Jesus concludes that
"But it is still crucial that the nearly unanimous consent of critical scholars is that, in some sense, the early followers of Jesus thought that they had seen the risen Jesus." From this, it is easy to see why apologists conclude that Habermas has done a survey of perhaps 300 atheist or highly critical scholars, almost all of whom agree that the disciples had a real experience of a risen Jesus.
But let us examine that in more detail. Habermas says that there were 1400 sources, not 1400 authors. How many authors is this? Surely some authors produce several papers in their careers, especially since Habermas includes 100 subtopics in his survey: The 1400 sources are not 1400 on specifically these questions, they are 1400 sources in a field large enough to easily encompass an entire academic career. Let us conservatively estimate 5 or 6 papers per author, leaving us with perhaps 250 authors. Bizarrely, Habermas doesn't say how many authors are in the survey. This is a major weakness of the paper.
These authors surely haven't all published a view on whether or not the disciples had a real experience. Habermas leaves us no way to estimate how many published on this subtopic, which is presumably one or a few out of the 100 subtopics that Habermas counts. It could be that most authors in the entire field that Habermas talks about, are concerned with other topics. We could conservatively say that around a third of the authors have written on this topic, leaving perhaps 80 authors. Bizarrely, Habermas gives us no way to know.
Then, how many of these authors actually have a clear, stated position on the matter? What does Habermas do if no firm conclusions are drawn? Does he put them in an "agnostic" category? It certainly does not look like it! Habermas, at no point mentions anyone who does not think that we can know either way, nor does he ever mention the possibility of someone holding such a position.
This might reduce the number of authors to 60. Again, bizarrely, Habermas doesn't say how many authors have a clear stated position.
Then we have to infer that because of the original 1400 document-sources, 3 out of 4 of them were moderate conservative, then of the guessed perhaps somewhere around 60 authors who have a stated position on the question of the disciples' experience, perhaps 3 out of 4 are also moderate conservative, and perhaps 1 out of 4 is a "skeptic". That leaves us with a guessed 7-30 skeptical scholars remaining. Habermas, bizarrely, doesn't say how many authors this is, so we are left with these inadequate guesses.
We actually have a hint as to the answer to this question: Habermas singles out 7 "critical" scholars, and discusses them in turn. The estimate above of how many people Habermas has in this part of the survey is compatible with this figure. It is possible, therefore, that in fact, those 7 scholars are the only "critics" in Habermas's survey. Now we have to look at who these scholars are.
Who are these skeptical scholars?
A quick search of the scholars that Habermas considers to be skeptics reveals that of the 7 skeptics that Habermas discusses, 6 of them are practising Christians: Among their number are several ordained ministers, preachers and catholic priests:
Reginald Fuller: an ordained Anglican priest.
E.P. Sanders: a liberal Protestant.
Robert Funk: a committed Christian.
John Meier: a Roman Catholic priest.
James D.G. Dunn: a minister in the Church of Scotland, and a Methodist preacher.
N.T. Wright: a retired Anglican bishop.
This leaves Bart Ehrman as quite possibly the only non-Christian in the part of the survey related to the disciples' experience. On closer examination, Ehrman's position is more slightly more subtle than Habermas has presented, seeming to focus on the beliefs of the early Christians, rather than whether the disciples had "real" experiences. It is, of course, possible to have a belief in a risen Jesus without having had a first person experience.
Of course, it may be that Habermas has many hundreds more non-Christians in the survey, but they are neither mentioned nor likely, given our rough estimate of numbers. If Habermas had other non-Christians than just Bart Ehrman, it seems likely that he would have mentioned them.
This leaves us with a disturbing question. Where are the non-Christians? Why does Habermas's survey apparently only see one? This leads us to...
The excluded middle
The question of what the disciples experienced revolves around textual sources. A skeptic is naturally going to doubt the truth of those sources, or wonder whether the source is misinterpreted, wrong, mislead, lying, etc. This does not necessarily lead the skeptic to believe positively that the disciples did not have an experience of the risen Jesus. It might more be expected to lead them to agnosticism. A skeptic might, for instance, hold that Paul had met early Christians (including some disciples) who had told him that the disciples had had these experiences, but the same skeptic might hold that we don't know whether what Paul was told was true. This sort of skeptic is completely absent from Habermas's work, and it could easily be that Habermas has simply excluded them from the survey for simple agnosticism.
Therefore, might we interpret Habermas's result as "Of the scholars who think they know either way, they tend to think yes"?
Habermas does not ask the authors directly on any of the questions he discusses. We, therefore, have no way to know exactly what Habermas considers to be agreement with his position. It could be that a scholar holds a view such as that the disciples had had an experience that feels real, and is real in that sense, but not real in that someone nearby would necessarily corroborate the experience. We have no way to know what Habermas would have done with such a scholar. So when Habermas says that the scholars answer the position in the affirmative, we have no way to really know what he means. There are a small number of scholars who are quoted. These we know a little more about. But if we are to assume that Bart Ehrman is not the only non-Christian in the survey, there are presumably more unquoted. What are their positions? Bizarrely, Habermas does not say. Another relevant point is that even apparent agreement isn't as consensus-providing as Habermas would like. If you take two scholars, one saying that the disciples probably had a mass hallucination, which they consider a "real" experience, and the supporting prior is that mass hallucinations are actually relatively probable, and another scholar saying that mass hallucinations, in their view, are improbable, you can't infer that the first scholar is therefore agreeing that the experiences imply an actual Jesus. This is because if the first scholar was to accept that hallucinations are rare, they would, if rational, reduce their a posteriori probability of the experiences being real. Put a hallucination proponent in a room with a hallucination denier, and their common ground might be that the disciples lied, rather than that the experiences were real.
Certainty vs Consensus
Habermas may be using the possibility that many scholars think that the tiny balance of probability lends itself slightly to the disciples having an experience, and accidentally conveying the mis-inference that therefore the disciples definitely had an experience. Many scholars agreeing that a probability is 53 percent does not equal the probability being 100 percent. Habermas at no point considers any probability in his survey, so we have no way to know how much this is a problem.
The raw message presented by Habermas - that the disciples almost certainly had these real experiences, according to modern day scholarship - is worrying. The position has almost no supporting evidence: the only apparently reliable source is a single creed, and associated context, in the Pauline epistles. This does not give anything like enough information to answer even whether the disciples all or mostly said (let alone believed) that they had had real-life experiences, only that Paul came to say that they did. Do exactly zero scholars wonder whether the creed was added or modified later? Do exactly zero scholars wonder whether the creed truly originated with the disciples, or whether its history was might have been a little more complicated than that? Do exactly zero scholars wonder whether the disciples were lying about (or exaggerating) their experiences?
Given this vastly empty wilderness where we are forced to look for supporting evidence, it would be very odd if every single skeptical scholar agreed that the disciples certainly had an experience of the risen Jesus. How are we to resolve this tension?
It would be genuinely interesting to know what atheist and other scholars generally think about the disciples' experiences, and what their reasons are. A survey is a good way to answer this question. To do that, the standard procedure is to write a survey, and present it to these scholars. The survey should include agnostic answers such as "we have insufficient evidence to know". The survey should be sufficiently detailed to separate out what the scholars think, not just general agreement with an imprecise question. The survey results should be presented clearly, with numbers of people and levels of certainty. The survey should also present a breakdown of opinions by levels of skepticism, and broken down by denomination or belief or lack thereof. When examining Habermas's paper, three main weaknesses are apparent.
Firstly, Habermas's survey neglects to say even how many authors are in his survey, or how many are in his different sub-topics, or how many of them are Christian - a point that is of central importance, given how the survey is often presented in debates. The reader is challenged to find a single other survey in the entire farming belt of academic fields, where a survey was published without stating how many respondents it included.
Secondly, Habermas might exclude the default skeptical position: It appears, without sufficient information in the paper to know, that Habermas has produced three categories: Those who believe the disciples positively did have the experience, those who think we don't have enough information, and those who believe that the disciples positively did not have the experience. The middle category is never mentioned, leaving the reader to wonder where they went.
Thirdly, Habermas seems to have non-Christian blindness. It appears that the only actual non-Christian he can find is Bart Ehrman, and in a different section perhaps one or two more. Either the entire field is devoid of doubters, or Habermas systematically ignores non-Christians in his survey.
This comment concludes that Habermas's presentation does not lead us to conclude that skeptical scholars agree that the disciples had experiences of a risen Jesus, mainly because Habermas appears to have skipped the skeptical scholars.