This is a guest post by Dr. Justin W. Bass regarding his recent debate with well-known atheist, Dan Barker. The debate topic was “Jesus of Nazareth: Lord or Legend?”
“I discovered that there is no evidence for Christianity” –Dan Barker (Losing Faith in Faith, 69).
Dan Barker wrote these words in 1992 in his first book Losing Faith in Faith recounting his de-conversion from a fundamentalist Christian pastor to a promoter of atheism and free-thought.
Dan first came out publicly as an atheist on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1984. Since that time he has been a preacher of atheism and free-thought as a kind of “reverse penance” (Losing Faith, 10), he says, for all the years he proclaimed the gospel.
At 15, he accepted a calling from God to live and preach for Jesus Christ. He was a self-admitted fundamentalist from the beginning believing “every word in the Bible is God-inspired and inerrant” (Losing Faith, 28). He was also taught that liberal and atheist writers were “evil servants of Satan attempting to distract believers from the literal truth of the Bible” (Losing Faith, 29-30). He describes a fundamentalist (himself at the time) this way: “A true fundamentalist should consider the English version of the Bible to be just as inerrant as the original because if we admit that human error was possible in the translation, then it was equally possible in the original writing.” (Losing Faith, 176-77).
Dan ended up attending Azusa Pacific College majoring in Religion. He describes Azusa Bible College as a “glorified Sunday school” (Losing Faith, 22). In the one apologetics class he took, he admits, “I don’t remember that we delved very deeply into the evidences or arguments for or against Christianity” (Losing Faith, 22).
Although Dan states it was the lack of evidence that convinced him Christianity isn’t true, it seems, from his own admission, that he was not exposed to Christianity’s hard “evidences or arguments” before he turned to atheism.
Dan and I debated the topic: “Jesus of Nazareth: Lord or Legend?” on June 6th of 2015 sponsored by The Bible and Beer Consortium. After that 3+ hour debate, reading all of Dan’s books, and watching at least 40 of his other debates, I have come to the conclusion that Dan is still rejecting the same “glorified Sunday school” version of Christianity that he rejected over 30 years ago.
I am grateful to know Dan; I’ve found him to be kind, brilliant, and an experienced articulate speaker. I appreciate his willingness to come to Dallas to debate. We had a great time at dinner together the night before the debate. We asked our waitress who she guessed was the atheist and who was the Christian. She thought Dan was the Christian and I was the atheist!
While I like Dan as a person, for over 30 years he has been fighting against a fundamentalist caricature of Christianity and misrepresenting many of the facts surrounding Jesus of Nazareth and one of the primary purposes of this article is to correct many of those misrepresentations.
Dan’s “glorified Sunday school” version of Christianity is highlighted throughout his arguments in Losing Faith in Faith (1992), Godless (2008) and his most recent book Life Driven Purpose (2015). Just for a moment, let’s consider the sources he cites in these books.
In his discussions of Jesus and Christianity, Dan cites only two scholars who are credentialed and professionally teaching in the field of early Christianity: R. J. Hoffman and Bart Ehrman. In contrast to these two sources, Dan questions Jesus’ existence. He parts ways again with Bart Ehrman, arguing that the Jesus story was cut from the same cloth of pagan religions.
In writing on Jesus and Christianity, Dan cites only these other sources: John Remsburg, J. M. Robertson, W. B. Smith, Barbara Walker, G. A. Wells, Randall Helms, John Allegro, Hugh Schonfield, Earl Doherty, Robert Price and Richard Carrier. A review of their credentials quickly reveal that the majority of them are inadequate sources for Jesus and early Christianity.
Just to give one example: Barbara Walker is included in Dan’s “other scholars” (Godless, 270-72) and is his primary source when arguing in Losing Faith and Godless that the Jesus story is a fanciful patchwork from other pagan religions. Walker though only has a degree in Journalism and publishes other books on knitting. In fact, James White challenged Dan in their debate on using Walker as one of his chief sources on Jesus and Dan agreed he would remove her from later editions of Godless.
That was very honest of Dan to admit that he erred in using Walker as a source, but why did Dan not cite anywhere in his books James Dunn, E. P. Sanders, John P. Meier, N. T. Wright, Paula Fredricksen, Dale Allison, Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham, or really any of the other 6000+ scholars professionally teaching in relevant subjects of early Christianity?
With sources like the ones Dan relies on, you can see why so many facts get misrepresented in his writings and speaking regarding Jesus and ancient history.
Let me just give 7 examples from our debate where Dan got his facts wrong about Christianity and/or ancient history. I have provided clips below for the relevant exchange for each one of these 7 examples. I recommend watching the exchange first and then reading my comments.
1.) Did Nazareth Exist during the Lifetime of Jesus?
Debate Exchange 1 (1:19:41–1:25:44)
From the beginning of his opening speech, Dan stated that the city of Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus, to support his case that Jesus was a legend. Dan also made this argument back in 1992 in Losing Faith in Faith (p. 191) that Nazareth didn’t exist before the second century. However, archaeological discoveries have definitively proven that Nazareth did, in fact, exist at the time of Jesus. Bart Ehrman says, “Many compelling pieces of archaeological evidence indicate that in fact Nazareth did exist in Jesus’ day and that, like other villages and towns in that part of Galilee, it was built on the hillside, near where the later rock-cut kokh tombs were built. For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus… Jesus really came from there, as attested in multiple sources” (see more here and in Did Jesus Exist? 191-97).
The first argument Dan made that Jesus is legend was completely at odds with the facts.
2.) Josephus and Tacitus on Jesus
Debate Exchange 2 (1:45:26–1:48:03)
In this exchange, Dan actually denied that Tacitus was talking about Jesus in his famous passage about “Christus” being executed under Pontius Pilate in Annals 15.44.
Here is John P. Meier on the passage in Tacitus: “Despite some feeble attempts to show that this text is a Christian interpolation in Tacitus, the passage is obviously genuine. Not only is it witnessed in all the manuscripts of the Annals, the very anti-Christian tone of the text makes Christian origin almost impossible” (A Marginal Jew, Vol 1, 90.). It is a fact that the majority of Classicist and Biblical scholars agree this passage in Tacitus is referring to Jesus (cf. Van Voorst, Jesus outside the NT, 42-43).
In addition, Dan repeated a false statement I’ve heard him say many times: “There was a Judas the Christ, a Theudas the Christ…” As I demonstrated to him, nowhere in Josephus’ writings is anyone called “Christ” except the two passages referring to Jesus.
More shocking was Dan’s claim that the passage in Josephus where he refers to James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ” (Ant. 20.200) was not authentic. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Dan has been arguing this since 1992 where he wrote in Losing Faith (p. 363): “This is flimsy, and even Christian scholars widely consider this to be a doctored text” (cf. Godless, 258; these inaccurate discussions about Josephus and Tacitus are left virtually unchanged from 1992 to 2008).
Here are just a few examples from world renowned authorities on Josephus:
- “Few have doubted the genuineness of this passage on James. If it had been a Christian interpolation it would, in all probability, have been more laudatory of James”
(Harvard Loeb Series on Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 496 fn. a).
- Robert Van Voorst in his book Jesus outside the NT (p. 83): “The overwhelming majority of scholars hold that the words ‘brother of Jesus, who was called Christ,’ are authentic, as is the entire passage in which it is found.”
- “The passage about James has generally been accepted as authentic.”
(Louis Feldman, Josephus, the Bible, and History, 434)
Van Voorst sums up where the vast majority of scholarship currently stands on both Josephus passages about Jesus: “In sum, Josephus has given us in two passages something unique among all ancient non-Christian witnesses to Jesus: a carefully neutral, highly accurate and perhaps independent witness to Jesus, a wise man whom his persistent followers called ‘the Christ’ (Jesus outside the NT, 103-104).
Again, Dan has his facts about Tacitus and Josephus completely wrong.
3.) Did Paul Believe Jesus’ Resurrection was Physical or Spiritual?
Debate Exchange 3 (1:03:30–1:05:41)
Debate Exchange 4 (1:52:00–1:56:00)
Whether or not Paul believed Jesus’ appearance to him was bodily or only spiritual was debated throughout the night. Dan agreed that as a Pharisee we know that Paul would have believed in the bodily, general resurrection of all believers at the end of the world (cf., e.g., Daniel 12:1-3).
What Dan disputed was that Paul believed Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to him was physical, bodily. He argued primarily based on the Greek word ὤφθη that it was a spiritual, visionary experience.
Dan is correct that sometimes this word is used for only a visionary or spiritual experience, but it is not true that it is never used of a physical, bodily experience.
Here are just a few examples: The word is used in Luke 24:34 (“appeared to Simon”) and even Dan agrees that Luke is presenting a physical, resurrected Jesus (see Luke 24:36-43).
In addition, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament it is used for physical appearances in Gen 46:29 LXX (Joseph appeared to Jacob), Exod 10:28 LXX (Moses appeared to Pharaoh), 1 Kings 3:16 LXX (two prostitutes appear before Solomon), 1 Kings 18:1 LXX (Elijah appeared before Ahab). So this Greek word alone cannot decide the issue either way.
What was most shocking is Dan’s claim that the NIV reading of 1 Corinthians 9:1 is a “bad translation.” Here is the NIV: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” This is verbatim from the Greek (οὐχὶ Ἰησοῦν τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν ἑόρακα;) and also every other English translation of this verse. The translation Dan is most familiar with, the KJV, has it this way: “Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” Dan even said in our exchange that the “Greek does not say ‘seen’” in 1 Corinthians 9:1. The Greek word is ἑόρακα which comes from the word ὁράω which means “I see.” It is in the perfect tense in 1 Corinthians 9:1 and so “have I not seen” is the correct translation.
What is definitive in this particular debate is the use of the word ἀνάστασις (anastasis) which Dan admitted is the word for physical resurrection. Dan also said throughout the debate that Paul never used this word in 1 Corinthians 15. He had also stated this in his book Godless (p. 294): “The word ‘raised’ is egeiro, which means ‘to wake up’ or ‘come to.’ Paul did not use the word resurrection (anastasis, anistemi) here, though he certainly knew it.”
This is again completely false. I pointed out in our exchange that Paul uses this word for Jesus’ resurrection in Romans 1:4 (ἐξ ἀναστάσεως (anastasis) νεκρῶν, Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν) and he later in the debate admitted that Paul in Romans then meant physical resurrection.
But he was not willing to change his view on 1 Corinthians 15.
However, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul uses the Greek word ἐγείρω (egeiro) and ἀνάστασις (anastasis) synonymously to refer to resurrection all throughout 1 Corinthians 15.
“Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead (ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγήγερται), how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead (ἀνάστασις (anastasis) νεκρῶν)? But if there is no resurrection of the dead (ἀνάστασις (anastasis) νεκρῶν), not even Christ has been raised (ἐγήγερται); and if Christ has not been raised (ἐγήγερται), then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain… But now Christ has been raised from the dead (ἐγήγερται ἐκ νεκρῶν), the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead (ἀνάστασις (anastasis) νεκρῶν)” (1 Corinthians 15:12-13, 20-21).
Notice how Paul uses anastasis throughout and also how Christ’s being “raised” is the “first fruits” of the general “resurrection (anastasis) of the dead.” The general resurrection of the dead is agreed by Dan to be a physical, bodily resurrection at the end of the world, so it can hardly be debated that this is not how Paul, a Pharisee, also viewed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:14; Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:20-21).
In short, Dan is incorrect, Paul did believe (not just in Romans) in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus physically, bodily rose again from the dead and appeared to him.
4.) The 500 Eyewitnesses
Debate Exchange 5 (00:57:52–1:03:30)
The evidence of the 500 eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:6 (“After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep”) played a large role in our debate. Let me reiterate what I said in the debate. It is agreed upon by all teaching scholars in the western world (6000+) that Paul believed that Jesus appeared to these more than 500 eyewitnesses, but scholars are not unanimous on how Paul got this information (First hand? Second hand?…).
It is also agreed upon by all teaching scholars (Ludemann, Dunn, Ehrman, etc.) that this creed Paul is quoting in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 dates to within 2-5 years of Jesus’ death.
Dan dates the creed to 2 years after Jesus’ death (Godless, 293).
Dan though in his writings and in our debate said that the distance from Jerusalem to Corinth made it unlikely for them to travel to interview any of these 500 eyewitnesses. However, I pointed out that we know for a fact that Peter and James (and Paul) traveled from Jerusalem to Corinth frequently and Dan did not dispute that point.
We also know that Paul’s credibility was on the line with many false teachers in Corinth and so if these more than 500 could not be corroborated it would have greatly hurt Paul’s reputation.
In addition, Paul mentions that some of these 500 “remain until now, but some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6). Why would he say this and how did he know this information?
Josephus makes a parallel claim in his writings, arguing that 23 years after an event he is describing people who are still alive “to prove” what he is saying (Ant. 20.266). Paul is making the same claim to the Corinthians about the ‘still alive’ of the 500 eyewitnesses. Go to Jerusalem and interview them, Paul was saying to the Corinthians, many of them are still alive!
5.) “Contradictions” in the Resurrection Accounts
Debate Exchange 6 (2:15:40–2:19:15)
I want to emphasize this exchange about the differences in the resurrection accounts in the Gospels because Dan has spent so much time on this in his writings and public speaking.
Dan has a list of what he considers contradictions between the 5 resurrection accounts we have in the New Testament, from Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
But as you can see in our exchange, I demonstrated that what they agree on is far more important than the ancillary details they disagree on. They unanimously agree on the fact that the tomb was empty, Mary Magdalene was there, at least one angel was there and that Jesus rose from the dead! What these other ‘on the surface’ inconsistencies demonstrate definitively is that an historical event of colossal magnitude did occur. What was that colossal event?
Dan also argued in a previous clip above that there is legendary development in these stories. For instance, in Mark there is one angel, in Matthew there is an earthquake and an angel, in Luke and John 2 angels, etc. The only problem with this theory (as I noted in our exchange) is that our earliest witness, the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (written within 2-5 years of Jesus’ death) recounts over 500 witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. The four Gospels maybe account for around 20 eyewitnesses. So the legendary development works in reverse in this case.
6.) Dan’s One Alternative Explanation
Debate Exchange 7 (2:07:00–2:13:30)
I presented 7 facts concerning the historical Jesus and the rise of the Christian movement in the first century in my opening statement that are agreed upon by all full-time teaching scholars in the Western world (6000+) whether in Classics, History, or in Early Christianity. And I argued that the best explanation of these 7 facts is that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the dead and therefore is Lord of all.
Throughout the night, Dan only gave one possible alternative explanation that would, even if true, explain only one of my 7 facts. He admitted before he shared this explanation that the hallucination hypothesis (which is the leading alternative explanation among NT scholars today) is “weak.” Instead, Dan proposed a theory found first in the writings of Robert Price. You can watch the clip above, but Dan essentially argues that because Peter felt so bad about his denial of Jesus after his death, he had an experience that convinced him Jesus was still alive. But as I said in the debate this in no way answers why someone like Paul would become a follower of Jesus and I pressed Dan for evidence for this theory and he gave none.
Ultimately, this was just something Robert Price just made up out of thin air and Dan is carrying on Price’s imagination.
7.) Even if Jesus rose from the dead, Dan would still not accept Him as his Lord.
Debate Exchange 8 (2:36:00–2:50:10)
This last 15 minutes of the debate was the most important exchange of the night. I recommend watching this 15-minute clip with undivided attention. Not only does Dan admit that the resurrection of Jesus does explain the 7 facts I presented “perfectly” (and he never presented an alternative explanation besides Price’s unsubstantiated theory about Peter), but he also made the shocking declaration in his closing statement that even if Jesus rose from the dead and there is a God, he still wouldn’t accept him as Lord.
In all Dan’s books, and in all the debates I have watched with him, I had never heard him say that even if Jesus rose from the dead, he still wouldn’t confess Him as Lord. This was I believe the first time he stated this publicly. And I think it reveals a lot.
It reveals mainly that the evidence and arguments really don’t matter in the end because even if Jesus did rise from the dead this still wouldn’t convince Dan. Many atheists and agnostics told me after the debate that they disagreed with Dan on this. They said they wanted to know if God exists and if Jesus did in fact rise from the dead and of course they would confess him as Lord if He did. This statement by Dan clarifies another shocking statement he has made over the years, but first in his book Losing Faith (p. 331): “Speaking for myself, if the biblical heaven and hell exist, I would choose hell. Having to spend eternity pretending to worship tyranny would be more hellish than baking in eternal flames. There is no way a Bully will earn my worship.”
I don’t think Dan in any way represents all atheists with these shocking admissions, but I do think he represents a certain segment of unbelievers. Many atheists and agnostics, I believe, are open to the evidence and would no doubt change their views if convinced God exists and Jesus rose from the dead. However, it is important to realize that there are also many unbelievers like Dan who no matter what evidence is presented to them, in fact even if Jesus actually did rise from the dead and appear to them, they admit they would still not believe and would choose hell over worshipping God in heaven (see Luke 16:31). These kinds of statements do break my heart and I still pray for Dan and hope and believe he will come back to his Savior and Lord before the end.
C. S. Lewis wrote, in my opinion, the greatest chapter on Hell ever written. His conclusion to that chapter is an appropriate ending to this article: “In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To Forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does” (Problem of Pain, 130).