Wiebe interviews 30 people who claim to have seen the risen Jesus. He analyzes their claims and compares them to the reports of those in the NT who claimed to have seen Jesus after his death. He explains:
Some of the advantages of dealing with reports derived from living subjects, as opposed to ancient documents, can readily be itemized: Living subjects can be scrutinized for signs of sincerity; living subjects can be cross-examined to determine whether language is being used to assert a proposition, rather than being used in some performative sense that excludes assertion; living subjects can be questioned about ontological commitments implicit in their descriptions; living subjects can be quizzed about further details of their experiences; living subjects can be scrutinized for signs of psychopathology in order to satisfy the misgivings of skeptics; living subjects can be scrutinized for deception. These factors give reports from contemporary experience greater epistemic value than those coming from antiquity (p. 91).
In a future post, I will discuss some of Wiebe's views on the contemporary visions of Jesus but today I want to point out some of his problems with the NT accounts.
A number of curious features of the NT documents support the contention that they do not have as much historical "concreteness" as traditionalists have assigned to them. Because the Resurrection belief is both extraordinary and crucial for Christianity, one might expect numerous and detailed accounts defending its authenticity. Moreover, in view of early opposition toward Christians and skepticism of Christianity, writers of documents that began to appear some twenty-five or more years after the alleged events took place might be expected to have gone to considerable lengths to reply to those who rejected the claim that the Resurrection occurred. But this is not what we see. The authors content themselves with several brief stories, or one or two slightly more detailed accounts, or with a list of appearances (such as Paul's) so sketchy that its evidential value is almost negligible. . . . When one compares the kind of detail that can be obtained from someone reporting a contemporary vision or apparition with that available concerning the NT appearances, it is obvious the NT presents very little information (p. 129).
I think he is right. The accounts that we have in the NT are quite sketchy and the appearances were to a very select few. In Acts 10:40-41, Peter said: but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen -by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. I have often thought that God could have confirmed the truth of the resurrection by having Jesus appear to the Roman rulers in Jerusalem, to the Jewish authorities, to the whole city. Matthew 27:53 claims that the saints who were resurrected at the time of Jesus death went into the city and appeared to many. Now of course, there is no historical confirmation of this either, which makes the account highly suspect, but at least it says they appeared to many. Yet Jesus only appears primarily to his disciples. If he had appeared to Pilate and Herod and the High Priest, and this was confirmed by history, then the apologists for Jesus' resurrection would have a case.
In his debates, William Craig always talks about the four historical "facts" upon which virtually all scholars agree. (1) Jesus of Nazareth was killed and then buried; (2) the tomb in which he was buried was found empty on Sunday morning; (3) the disciples and others reported seeing Jesus alive after his death; (4) the Christian faith spread quickly and widely throughout the Roman empire. He maintains that the best explanation of these "facts" is that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. What Craig doesn't say in his debates is that the scholars whom he says agrees with his "facts," for the most part, do not agree with his explanation of the "facts." As Wiebe points out: The traditional view is widely seen by recent biblical scholars as giving too little attention to questions about the literary forms of the NT documents, the role that editors (redactors) might have had in piecing together various oral traditions, the sources of the accounts, and the results of historical criticism. The plausibility of the Resurrection of Jesus, as traditionally understood, is widely questioned (p. 120). It would seem that Craig is anxious to refer to scholars when they agree with him but not when they disagree.
Another interesting thing about the appearances reported in the NT is the reference to doubting. Wiebe writes: Although the long ending of Mark is not generally taken to be authentic, it is of interest that it too makes reference to some of the eleven being hard of heart and unwilling to believe those who reported they had seen Jesus. The account of the walk to Emmaus in Luke describes how Jesus scolded his two companions for being slow to believe, and John, finally, mentions the unbelief of Thomas. Various explanations for these doubts could be offered, but one explanation that must be considered is that the appearances may not have been as "historically concrete" as are those that form the normal experience of public objects and events (p. 130). The contemporary witnesses of the risen Jesus whom Wiebe interviews have one thing in common--they do not doubt what they have experienced. Why did some of the ones that Jesus appeared to in the NT doubt? Let me speculate. Perhaps it was a technique used by the gospel writers in order to make their case for the resurrection stronger. In other words, they sought to emphasize to their readers that the disciples didn't accept the idea of Jesus' resurrection too quickly or too easily. Some of them required proof. This would strengthen the apologetic value of the gospels.
The idea that the disciples doubted doesn't seem to ring true, however. As Keith Parsons observes:
It is very odd that the gospels depict the disciples as skeptical of the Resurrection. After all, the disciples had supposedly seen Jesus raise others from the dead, walk on water, turn water into wine, cast out demons, cure the sick, the lame, and the blind, feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and appear in glistening raiment with Moses and Elijah while a divine voice boomed "This is my beloved son..." By this time it should have been clear even to the slowest disciple that Jesus was a supernatural being possessed of awesome miraculous powers. After all that it would surely be a pretty simple trick to come back from the dead. So something is out of place here. Either the disciples, dumb as they were, could not have been so skeptical of the resurrection, or they had not witnessed the miracles they allegedly did. Either way, the credibility of the gospels is undermined (Why I am not a Christian).
It is also strange that some of the disciples did not recognize Jesus when he first appeared to them. The two disciples who walked to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus, Mary Magdalene did not recognize him just outside his tomb, and the disciples who fished in the Sea of Galilee did not recognize Jesus standing on the shore (Wiebe, pp. 130-31). Once again, Wiebe points out that all of the people he interviewed said they immediately recognized the person in their vision as Jesus. Why didn't all the disciples recognize him? I think it could be another case of a technique on the part of the gospel writers to strengthen the apologetic value of their writings.
I found this book by Wiebe to be fascinating and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the NT claims that Jesus rose from the dead. In the next post, I will deal with some of the contemporary visions of Jesus he reports.