Robert Conner

That the whisperings of a “Holy Spirit” would take precedence over evidence and its coherent analysis is quite literally unimaginable in any discipline other than evangelical Jesus Studies. Picture, if you can, the reaction should an academic historian reveal that his interpretation is being guided by the urging of a personal daemon. The ne plus ultra example of this epistemological whackadoodle is William Lane Craig, a Southern Baptist “analytic philosopher”—yes, you’ve just seen “Southern Baptist” and “analytic philosopher” used in the same sentence—who is on record as stating, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the later, not vice versa.”[i]

Craig is hardly the only crank who shares this approach to history. Ted Cabal (a real surname), writing in (where else) The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, characterizes the resurrection as “the central miracle in human history,” supported by “the testimony of authoritative witnesses…and the sight of faith rather than empirical perception…The believer experiences the amazing certitude of the Holy Spirit through intimate knowledge of a saving relationship with the risen Lord…Christian certainty derives from our personally knowing the risen Lord.”[ii] Evidently the Risen Lord Jesus, like the Risen Lord Voldemort, communicates magically with his followers.

The centrality of resurrection belief is understandable if  “Christian faith from its very beginning was firmly rooted in the conviction that God had raised Jesus from the dead…if God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then Christianity has no real basis and is a delusion,”[iii] essentially the position of Paul: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”[iv] It therefore follows that the historicity or at very least the facticity of the resurrection must, as Cabal claims, somehow “be defended in every generation.”[v] “The resurrection of Jesus Christ constitutes the center of the NT message. The cynosure of Christianity from its very beginning is the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead…The resurrection is not just a miraculous happening in the dead past but an ever-abiding reality.”[vi] “For Christians the resurrection of Jesus constitutes the foundation stone of faith. Apart from the resurrection there is no gospel, no ‘good news,’ for apart from Easter there is no hope but, as witnessed by the first disciples, only despair.”[vii] That Christianity might rise or fall on the facticity of the resurrection, for the skeptic past or present, is great news“When [Paul] told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What's this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?”[viii]

The evangelical suitor arrives at history’s door bearing a bouquet of logical fallacies: special pleading, tu quoque, and question begging among others. A remarkable case in point is Joel Willitts’ article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, which manages to hit an impressive range of false notes accompanied by the shrill whining of evangelical victimology. Willitts has clearly glommed on to some of the particulars of the legitimate historical method he has learned from his betters: “we never know the immediate context”[ix] of sayings attributed to Jesus, Jesus “was not unique in his own time, but fits neatly into the religious climate of first-century Judaism,”[x] “a belief must be based on empirical evidence. What is more, the strength those beliefs are held must be in proportion to the strength and quality of the evidence that supports them.”[xi]

Yet despite his immersion in the writings of credible historians such as Ed Parrish Sanders, Willitts fails to achieve escape velocity from the Planet of the Japes for a simple reason: “The position I would advocate is confessional in nature, by which I mean one that embraces faith-based presuppositions [emphasis in original]…I come to the study of Jesus with certain preconceived notions, of which one is the trustworthiness of the four-fold Gospel.”[xii] For starters, Willitts cannot escape the spell of false equivalencyhe apparently cannot distinguish between the “pres-uppositions of historiography”[xiii] and the presuppositions of Christian faith.

After a particularly effective critique of apologetic selective vision in practice, Robert Miller finishes with this observation that is well worth quoting: “It is up to the evangelical camp to explain why hypothetical biographies extremely similar to the Gospels but not about Jesus should be met with sturdy skepticism, while every scholarly effort should be made to argue for the historical reliability of the canonical Gospels. Those of us in the traditional historical-Jesus camp are fairly certain that we already know why—and that reason has little (or nothing) to do with historical method and a great deal (or everything) to do with theological presuppositions. Why else would the name of the hero make such a profound difference in historical assessment of the stories in which the hero appears?”[xiv] However, as noted by Amy-Jill Levine, one need not even posit “hypothetical biographies” when we have the near contemporary biographies of ancient miracle workers such as Apollonius of Tyana and “the composite rabbinic bio-graphy of Honi the Circle-Maker.”[xv] Oddly enough, evangelicals show no interest whatsoever in historically authenticating the exploits of these once famous wonder workers.

[i] Lowder, Jeffery Jay. “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig,” Journal of Higher Criticism 8 (2001) 285.
[ii] Cabal, Ted. “Defending the Resurrection of Jesus: Yesterday, Today and Forever,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 18 (2014) 116, 122.
[iii] Walker, William O. “Postcrucifixion Appearances and Christian Origins,” Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969) 157.
[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:14.
[v] Cabal, op. cit, 116.
[vi] Abogunrin, Samuel O. “The Language and Nature of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the New Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 24 (1981) 55, 64.
[vii] Stein, Robert H. “Was the Tomb Really Empty?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 20 (1977) 23.
[viii] Acts 17:18 (New Living Translation).
[ix] Willitts, Joel. “Presuppositions and Procedures in the Study of the ‘Historical Jesus’: Or, Why I Decided Not to be a ‘Historical Jesus’ Scholar,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3 (2005) 65.
[x] Ibid, 67.
[xi] Ibid, 69.
[xii] Ibid, 101, 107.
[xiii] Ibid, 77.
[xiv] Miller, Robert J. “When It’s Futile to Argue about the Historical Jesus: A Response to Bock, Keener, and Webb,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 9 (2011) 93.
[xv] Levine, Amy-Jill. “Christian Faith and the Study of the Historical Jesus: A Response to Bock, Keener, and Webb,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 9 (2011) 100.