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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Further Thoughts on Medjugorje and the Resurrection of Jesus

In the comment section of my last post on the apparitions at Medjugorje and the ramifications for NT claims of Resurrection, a gentleman by the name of Scott offered some objections. Below is my response.


Thanks for your comments. No, I don't find them offensive at all. I appreciate your tone and your thoroughness. I invite intelligent dialogue. Believe it or not, I don't claim infallibility for my positions. They are subject to change, if I am convinced that I need to.

You say:
1) It is my understanding that the common rabbinical teachings of that time did not teach to expect a resurrected Messiah simply because they didn't expect a crucified one. They were anticipating an earthly king to assume the throne of David and restore the majesty of God's nation. Jesus routinely chides the Pharisees and Sadducees for misinterpreting Moses, the prophets and the Psalms regarding this concept.

I agree with everything except the last sentence. I tend to think that the references to Jesus dying and rising are later redactions to the oral tradition and then the gospels. If Jesus had been as clear on his dying and rising as the gospels indicate, then the disciples would have been as "thick as a brick" not to have understood what has happening when he was crucified. If the gospels are accurate, they should have expected him to rise on the third day.

You are right that Second Temple Judaism did not expect or teach a dying Messiah. So the disciples were completely confused when Jesus died and scared that they might also be crucified. As they contemplated what happened, they began to think of Jesus as a martyr. There was a concept that the resurrection would be for the martyrs as a form of God's vindication. (Dan. 12; 2 Mac. 4). When Peter announced that he had seen the Lord alive, the disciples fit this report into their theological grid of a resurrected martyr. Now, why did Peter have a vision? I think his can truly be explained as a hallucination brought on by grief and guilt. After Peter told them of the appearance, the disciples mood changed to one of expectation.

You say:
2) Jesus' followers didn't even really get that He was the promised Messiah until after his ascension. That is clear from the questions they ask while he's with them, and from all of Jesus' rebukes to the disciples. It is also clear in the record of the 2 travelers on the Emmaus road. They were devastated by the death of Jesus; there is no reason to conclude that they would have been expecting to "see" a resurrected Jesus then or anytime afterward.

I don't accept the Emmaus road story as factual.

You say:
3) Before Jesus came on the scene contemporary resurrections weren't exactly common place. The Jews would have been familiar with the account of Elisha and the Shumanite woman's son but outside of that resurrection wasn't on their radar, especially not resurrections that they would witness. This is evident from Martha's response to Jesus over the death of her brother Lazarus. When Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again she says "Ya. I know. On the last day." She was thinking of the after-life not the now-life.

You are right, the Jewish expectation was that the resurrection took place on the last day. But when the disciples started to believe that Jesus was alive, they also started to believe that the last day had begun. Jesus had preached the end of the age from the beginning of his ministry until the last. He told them in Matt. 24:34 that it would come about in their generation. They began to think that the eschaton had begun and that any moment the Son of Man would come in the clouds and bring about the final resurrection and judgment. When the first theologian of Christianity, Paul wrote about this in 1 Cor. 15, he said that Jesus' resurrection was the first-fruits and that the believers would soon follow suit (1 Cor. 15:23-24). Paul expected Jesus to return any moment (1 Cor. 7:29-31; 15:51-52; 1 Thess. 4:15). As time passed and Jesus didn't return and people started to die, there was concern over whether these "dead in Christ" had missed out.

As time continued to go by and Jesus still had not returned, Paul began to think that the end would not come until he had taken the gospel all the way to Rome and the fullness of the Gentiles be brought in. At that point, Jesus would return and all of Israel would be saved (Rom. 11:25-26). After Paul was executed, the church had to rethink things again. Some came to the conclusion that Jesus meant that at least one of his disciples would be alive to see his return. This came to be associated with John (John 21:23). But then John died. This caused many to begin to really mock (2 Pet. 3). New explanations had to come into place. Interpretations of eschatology have since evolved in all kinds of directions--amillennialism, premillennialism, preterism (both full and partial), dispensationalism, postmillennialism, and so on (see "At Best Jesus was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet," by John Loftus in The Christian Delusion; also see E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, and Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: millenarian prophet).

Concerning Medjugorje, I don't argue that every last detail is the same as the reported appearances of Jesus but I agree with Avalos that there are enough similarities to warrant a thorough comparison.

You say:
1. The Medjugorie apparitions proper of Mary are limited to just 6 visionaries. While others have reported seeing other mysterious things none of them have the same apparitions of Mary that those exclusive 6 have. In contrast Jesus appeared not to just a select few but to many different people: 2 Marys, the 11 disciples, the 2 on the road to Emmaus, a group of about 500 people and Saul/Paul.

2. The visions of Medjugorie are isolated; Mary appears and speaks only in Medjugorie. Whereas with Jesus, he appeared in many different places and under different circumstances: at the tomb site; on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; in the upper room; to a group of about 500 people; to the 2 on the road to Emmaus; and finally to Saul/Paul (who wasn't a believer) on his way to persecute Christians.

3. The Medjugorie apparitions are on a schedule. Some daily; some yearly. The sightings of the post-resurrection Jesus were neither predicted nor predictable on any timetable with one exception: when Jesus told both Marys to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.

4. The Medjugorie sightings of Mary are visions only. At the very least Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Thomas touched the resurrected Jesus. And the 2 on the Emmaus road ate with Jesus post-resurrection.

But understand, I don't accept every detail in the NT as inerrant as you and Craig and Habermas do. I take into account the results of historical criticism which show that many of these stories were added and modified by redactors. I accept the notion that Peter and Paul saw the risen Jesus (or thought they did) but I am dubious about the other reports. As I pointed out in the posts, if one accepts the inerrancy of the NT, then, of course, one will conclude a supernatural event took place. That is why I say that the apologists are begging the question. What they need to do is to prove that historical criticism is wrong and that the NT really is inerrant and then they would have a strong case for the resurrection.

You say:
Finally I'd like to comment in general on this whole idea of attempting to discover and explain the supernatural using natural methods and means. By definition supernatural things are those that occur/exist above or outside of the natural. If you can explain/prove a "supernatural" event by naturalistic means then by definition it is not supernatural. The Venn diagram of things "Natural" just keeps including more of what was "Supernatural." This occurred to me while viewing one of the diagrams of one of your professor friends that you linked to in one of your recent posts (sorry I'm not finding it right now). But I can describe it. The picture was divided in half horizontally; on top were things that were so-called "supernatural" and on the bottom was the "natural." As I recall the goal was to move all things from the top to the bottom of the diagram through naturalistic explanations thus nullifying (at least in theory) the supernatural realm. As each thing in the upper half is explained by naturalistic means and methods it is no longer supernatural and now becomes subsumed by the sphere of what is natural. The fault with that should be obvious. If it can be explained naturally then of course by definition it is not supernatural and it never was. However this activity dis/proves nothing about the existence or non-existence of the supernatural. This approach does nothing to eliminate the concept of the supernatural or the fact that there really might be things in this universe that cannot be explained by naturalistic means no matter how hard we try. Isn't it possible?

I agree but what it does show is that much of what used to be thought only explainable through supernatural means is now explainable through natural means. Fewer and fewer things are on the top half. That doesn't prove the supernatural doesn't exist, but it does prove that man has often too quickly jumped to the conclusion of a supernatural explanation.

You say:
The other obvious fault in your position is the same one you lay at the feet of those who believe in the supernatural: presuppositionalism. I know you'd like to think that you are totally objective and unaffected by anything other than science, logic and reason.

I don't even claim to be objective much less totally objective. I don't think true objectivity exists. We are all subjects and whatever we see and experience is by definition subjective. An attempt can be made to move towards objectivity by involving more people (that's why juries have multiple people) and "comparing notes" and listening to objections to your views, and so on. We all have biases but if one realizes what one's biases are and tries to give a "fair shake" to other viewpoints, one can move towards the goal of objectiivity. That is why I am a firm believer in reading the "other side." If one only reads what one agrees with, one will never be challenged or be able to move towards the truth. That is why I read Craig, Habermas, Licona, and so on. I want to see the best arguments that evangelicalism has to offer.

And, I have not ruled out the supernatural a priori. I allow for the possibility that it might exist. I just have not seen sufficient evidence to believe at this point.

Scott, thanks again for your interaction.

One more point I would like to make about Medjugorje. Hector Avalos, in his book, The End of Biblical Studies (pp. 191-92) looks at the apparitions of Medjugorje in light of William Craig's criteria for a historical theory.

1. It has great explanatory scope. It explains why Mary's tomb has never been found, why people all over the world see postmortem appearances of Mary, and why faith in Marian apparitions came into being.

2. It has great explanatory power. It explains why Mary's body has never been found, why people repeatedly see Mary alive despite her earlier presumed death and burial (or disappearance).

3. It is plausible. Given the historical context of Mary's own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection or continued existence of Mary serves as a direct confirmation of those radical claims.

4. It is not ad hoc or contrived. It requires only one additional hypothesis--that God exists. And even that need not be an additional hypothesis if you already believe in God's existence.

5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs. The hypothesis "God raised Mary from the dead or keeps her alive" does not in any way conflict with the accepted belief tht people don't rise naturally from the dead. The Marianist Christian accepts that belief wholeheartedly as he or she accepts the hypothesis that God raised Mary from the dead (or kept her from ever dying).

6. It far outstrips any rival theories in meeting conditions 1 through 5. Down through history various rival explanations have been offered. Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary Marian scholarship. No naturalistic hypothesis has attracted a great number of Marian scholars.

If one were to apply Craig's criticisms of naturalistic explanations for the belief in the resurrection of Jesus against the naturalisitic explanations for the belief in Marian apparitions, one would have to conclude that the Marian apparitions are genuine. It is a double standard to accept one and not the other.


  1. Hector Avalos sent me an email and asked me to post the following for him:

    It is not accurate to say that the sightings of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje are restricted to ONLY the six original visionaries. The focus of experiments have been these six, but only because they were the first and most consistent receptors of these supposed visions.

    Otherwise, I see no documentation for the statement that ONLY six have had similar experiences at Medjugorje. What is his source?

    Second, it is not true that the visions of Mary are isolated and restricted to Medjugorje. The
    impressive phenomenon of Mary is that she is appearing ALL OVER THE WORLD. Moreover,
    there are reports that not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands (and up to a million people) have seen her at once, including people that you would not expect to affirm this (e.g., Muslims).

    For example, Ray Stanford (who by his own account has faithfully labored to collect accurate accounts of these Marian witnesses) says the following concerning the supposed apparitions of Mary at Zeitoun (a suburb of Cairo) between 1968 and 1971:

    "The Zeitoun apparitions, unlike those at Fatima, Beauraing, Garabandal, and elsewhere, were seen by everyone present, not just a few children. The persons present at apparitional events there varied from several thousands to over two hundred thousand per night. Total witnesses perhaps numbered into the millions. People of many countries and of varied religious backgrounds...Moslems, Copts, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and others, were enthralled, even overcome by tears of joy at what they saw."

    Source: Ray Stanford, Fatima Prophecy (New York:Balantine Books, 1987), 45.

    One may not believe Stanford's report, but why would he say such a thing if it were a lie (following the oft-used logic of believers in Jesus apparitions), when so many people could have contradicted him.

    Third, it is not true that the Virgin at Medjugorje always appeared on schedule. Reports indicate that this was not the case at first. The first visionaries also did not expect to see the Virgin Mary, and were skeptical of what they saw until it was confirmed (compare also the supposedJesus sightings in Luke 24).

    But, even if a regular schedule were always the case, what is it about a regular schedule that precludes the visions from being considered any less real than irregular apparitions? Who made up the rule that only irregular visions should count as real if one assumes the existence of supernatural causation?

    --Hector Avalos

  2. It is my understanding that the common rabbinical teachings of that time did not teach to expect a resurrected Messiah simply because they didn't expect a crucified one. They were anticipating an earthly king to assume the throne of David and restore the majesty of God's nation. Jesus routinely chides the Pharisees and Sadducees for misinterpreting Moses, the prophets and the Psalms regarding this concept.

    Although I am an atheist, as a person of Jewish ancestry, I always take exception to this. It is the height of hubris for Christians to have spent the past 2,000 years telling us that we've misunderstood and misinterpreted books that we wrote in the first place.

    Naturally, when I say this to Christians, I'm likened to a Pharisee. The tragic irony (does Christianity consist of anything else?) is that the very fact it's considered an insult is a result of faulty reporting on the part of Christians.

    On a related note - Ken, I might have shown you this already. It's the transcript of a public talk given by Louis Feldman, a professor at Yeshiva University in New York, six years ago, when Passion of the Christ came out. He explains the reasons the gospel accounts of Jesus' "trial" before the Sanhedrin, the Jews turning him over to Pilate, etc. can't be accurate, as they contradict Jewish law at every juncture. (They also contradict everything we know about Pilate, but you already knew that.)

  3. I wouldn't even go as far as to say Peter and Paul really believed they had seen the risen Jesus. They certainly must of claimed it. But I don't see the need to posit visions or hallucinations. Maybe that's what happened. Or, in the wake of Jesus' public, violent execution, a couple of the most fanatic disciples claimed to have seen him- a claim that could have been deliberately made up just because they didn't want to accept the reality of their leader's death, who they thought would be a key figure in the restoration of Israel, along with them. The rest would have been eager to accept anything to keep the movement going. We have to remember that these were not rational people, unwilling to devote their lives to what they "knew" deep-down was a lie or might be a lie (yes, they perhaps would have "died for a lie," not that their's much evidence that any of the original 12 did). They were poor, oppressed Jews under a Roman government that had just killed the leader of their radical apocolyptic cult. And Paul, well, just look at the arrogance of his letters. He could have sincerely believed in the resurrection, but his conversion story could be complete fiction. He obviously wanted a high status in the movement, something equal of that of the disciples.

    Of course, this is just one of many things that could of happened. I only bring it up because I think we should emphasize that we really have no idea what really happened and it could have been a hundred different things, some of which are improbable but all are more probable than a miracle. Committing oneself to a theory that depends on a "vision" to make it seem kinda "just so." Not that I believe you are "committed" to any one theory, I just know how your opponents may try to paint you.

    Hope that makes some kind of sense :)

  4. Also, re:cipher's comment, that frustrates me too. I'm not Jewish, but I have studied the Hebrew bible enough to know that it is the New Testament authors that misinterpret the Torah and the Prophets, not "the Jews." I believe that the best scholarship argues that the gospels badly misrepresent the pharisees (they weren't "legalists" or proto-refomation era catholics), and that the historical Jesus probably wouldn't even of had much conflict with them.

  5. the historical Jesus probably wouldn't even of had much conflict with them

    The Pharisees were the forerunners of Rabbinic Judaism. My understanding is that they interpreted the Torah more liberally than did their Sadduccee opponents (although I also understand there is some scholarly disagreement). When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, that was pretty much it for Sadducees. When the Gospels were being written, the Pharisees were the authorities, and the rulers appointed by Rome were taken from their party. By that point, the fledgling church was trying to curry favor with Rome, so they portrayed the Pharisees, rather than the Romans, as the bad guys.

    And Paul, well, just look at the arrogance of his letters. He could have sincerely believed in the resurrection, but his conversion story could be complete fiction. He obviously wanted a high status in the movement, something equal of that of the disciples.

    There are scholars who feel the NT implies a power struggle in the nascent church between Peter and James on the one hand, and Paul on the other. James was Jesus' brother, and Peter had the apostolic credentials, so they controlled the church centered in Jerusalem, which still saw itself as a Jewish sect. Paul did away with formal conversion to Judaism (including circumcision, always a deterrent), and took the message to the gentiles. Again, the destruction of the Temple changed everything; it effectively ended the Jerusalem-based Jewish church, leaving Paul's gentile church to carry on.

  6. cipher said, " a person of Jewish ancestry, I always take exception to this. It is the height of hubris for Christians to have spent the past 2,000 years telling us that we've misunderstood and misinterpreted books that we wrote in the first place."

    cipher, far from demonstrating hubris I'm deeply indebted to your Jewish ancestry. For from it the Savior of the world came. Jesus was one of your own and walked about in Judea ministering to His own people first; those whom God called out of all of the other nations of the earth to bless with His statutes and divine presence for so long.

    Jews were among the first Christians and it was they who said it first: Matthew, James, John, Jude & Peter. And I know Paul isn't popular with you and you can dispute whether he saw Jesus resurrected but he too was Jewish. And whoever wrote Hebrews was seriously acquainted with Mosaic law & 2nd temple Judaism and he lays it out that way too.

    So on the contrary to being smug or arrogant, without your Jewish heritage I wouldn't be a Christian: "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, *“In you shall all the nations be blessed.”" (*Genesis 12:3) (Paul's letter to the Galations ch. 3 verse 8, ESV) and "For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter." (Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 2 verses 25-29, ESV)


  7. Scott, you aren't a Christian because of my Jewish "heritage" or "ancestry", but because the people whom you've decided to adopt as authority figures have convinced you that the books my (supposed) ancestors wrote can be twisted to mean whatever they've wanted it to mean. The bottom line is that you can't use the Old Testament to validate Christian theology. It just isn't there; the texts don't mean what you want so badly for them to mean, and there's an end to it.

    And, of course, the attitude of those authority figures for 2,000 years has been, "Hey, thanks, Jews, for laying the groundwork for our savior's arrival. Enjoy your eternity in hell!"