First Response by Steven Carr

Can we believe in miracles in a scientific universe?

I would like to thank Dr. Wilkinson for his response to my opening email.

I asked Dr. Wilkinson some direct questions, which I shall repeat here. Are there any stories in the Gospels which, in Dr. Wilkinson's opinion, betray some of the credulity, gullibility and bias that we find in secular writers of the period, and in every single Christian writer who wrote non-canonical works?

Dr. Wilkinson's response was 'It is a somewhat arrogant blanket statement to say that 'ancient writers were credulous, gullible, unreliable, biased and superstitious'. Some were and some were not! All recording of history has its limitations and all has its own point or agenda to make.'

I am not sure if this is a 'yes' or 'no'. Does Dr. Wilkinson think there are any stories in the New Testament which betray some credulity and gullibility? Dr. Wilkinson seems to think that some ancient writers did not betray, at least some of the time, some credulity and gullibility. It is unclear to me whether he believes only Christian writers were free from this fault or whether he believes some secular writers were also free. Perhaps he could tell us which secular writers of that time period did not, at least occasionally, write stories which showed gullibility , credulity and superstition and why he believes no Christian writer did.

I also asked Dr. Wilkinson about some miracles in the works of Tacitus and Suetonius which were very similar to stories in the New Testament and asked him if he believed they really happened.

His response was that he had an 'open mind', but 'These have alternative possibilities of explanantion rather than miracles and the evidence can be assessed.'

Again it is hard to say if this is a 'yes' or a 'no'. Perhaps I should rephrase this question. Are there any pagan miracles from 1 AD to 150 AD, recorded in works of the period other than the New Testament, by meticulous historians like Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius, which Dr. Wilkinson believes really happened?

Dr. Wilkinson says 'the evidence can be assessed'. I asked him about Josephus's 'Wars of the Jews' , written with ten years of the events , by a direct participant He records eyewitness testimony - 'I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it' . He is referring to a heifer giving birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple. Does Dr. Wilkinson believe a cow gave birth to a lamb, in a work written within ten years of the event? I pointed out that the 'evidence' for this is just as strong as the evidence for the raising of the widow of Nain's son, which appears in only one Gospel, by somebody who admits he was not an eyewitness.

Isn't it obvious that Dr. Wilkinson assesses the evidence according to one criterion only - Is it in the New Testament?

This is seen clearly in his claim that 'Matthew records in his gospel that the guards at the tomb reported it to their superiors who devised a story that the disciples had stolen the body. The authorities knew where the tomb was and that it was empty.'

This claim that the tomb was guarded appears in only one Gospel, yet Dr. Wilkinson sees no need even to attempt to produce any evidence that the author of Matthew was telling the truth. If one Gospel says the tomb was guarded, then Dr. Wilkinson thinks sceptics must regard this as a fact to be explained , and he thinks that all discussion must start from the assumption that if a Gospel says something happened, then that event must have happened.

The story of a guard on the tomb makes a mockery of the other Gospels, who are entirely ignorant of any idea that there was supposed to be a guard. In Mark's Gospel, the women go to anoint the body, a nonsense if there was a guard of soldiers to prevent all access. The women also wonder who would move the stone for them, apparently unaware that there were Roman soldiers who would have objected to people rolling away stones.

Even the conservative Catholic scholars in 'The New Jerome Biblical Commentary' (section 42:165) concedes that Matthew's guard is 'motivated by late apologetics' and 'reflects the apologetics and polemics of the AD 80's or 90's'.

Even many Christians have to concede that some of the resurrection stories are 'late apologetics'. Indeed, even the idea of a stone at the tomb is embarrassing to Christians. Matthew, Mark and Luke talk about the stone being 'rolled' (as indeed does Dr. Wilkinson in his book). However, the September/October 1999 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review points out that round stones only became common after 70 AD. Before then, only 4 round stones out of 900 tombs have been found. Round stones were only used for very elaborate tombs and the New Testament claims Jesus's tomb was not elaborate.

No doubt, Dr. Wilkinson will dismiss this glaring anachronism as 'unconvincing'. I pointed out to him in my miracles article (, how the Gospel authors copied word-for-word from other stories when writing their stories about Jesus.

Dr. Wilkinson's sole response to this documented, photographic evidence of plagiarism was that these 'claims are unconvincing.'

I also pointed out that Dr. Wilkinson's claim in his book about the 'roaring lions who preached and died for the risen Jesus' had no evidence to back it. Dr. Wilkinson agrees 'that there is not a great deal of documented evidence that the disciples died for their belief that Christ was risen. Indeed, if Dr. Wilkinson can find any evidence that the disciples remained Christians, I would be amazed.

It is intriguing that Dr. Wilkinson can dismiss documented, photographic evidence as 'unconvincing', yet demand that ' Steven needs to provide a more convincing explanation of the empty tomb, the transformation of the disciples and the risen appearances of Jesus if he is going to argue against the resurrection.' ,when he has produced no evidence of any empty tomb, any appearances by Jesus and any transformation of the disciples - other, of course, than saying that these things are in the Bible.

Of course, in the Bible , we have primary sources, in addition to the Gospels, which are second-hand, secondary sources.

Paul was the first Christian writer, and a primary source, yet he mentions no empty tomb, no transformation of the disciples, and his 'appearances' are vague to the extent of giving virtually no details whatever, and what details he does give clash head on with the Gospels.

Of course, Dr. Wilkinson will dismiss the fact that Paul does not refer to any Gospel miracles or resurrection appearances as 'an argument from silence', yet Dr. Wilkinson thinks that if the authorities had tried to dispute Christianity by producing the body of Jesus 'at least we would have some historical record or allusion to it happening.',and he thinks the silence about any such attempt counts as evidence.

This is an amazing double standard. I can think of many reasons why Paul's heart would be bursting with the news of the miracles of Jesus , such that he would be unable to avoid mentioning them in his praise of Jesus, yet I can think of no reason why any authorities would attempt to dig up a seven-week old body and drag it around the Roman Empire.

The idea that the authorities would attempt to 'refute' Christianity by digging up a corpse of Jesus has always stuck me as one of the more bizarre ideas Christianity has come up with, even if we reject Matthew's tale that lots of other people were resurrected at the same time. Of course, if Matthew was telling the truth, the authorities would have been far too busy putting these people back in their graves!

Apart from the taboos about touching graves which would have hamstrung the Jews from even thinking of such an idea in the first place, has Dr. Wilkinson any evidence that the authorities had any idea where this corpse was supposed to be, or how they could persuade people that a rotted corpse had belonged to a recently executed person? Perhaps ancient forensic science was more advanced than I am aware of, but it seems an unlikely event to me.

Even Dr. Wilkinson has to concede that producing a body would not have stopped the more closed-minded believers. I think Dr. Wilkinson underestimates the capacity of certain human beings to deceive themselves. In Nigeria in 1990, there was wide-spread panic when people believed that their genitals were being stolen. According to Dr. Wilkinson's logic, this belief should have died out instantly when the authorities produced the genitals which had supposedly been stolen, yet people persisted with this belief even when the medical authorities and police pointed out to people that they still had the genitals which had supposedly been stolen.

Finally, I asked Dr. Wilkinson about the early Christian belief about the imminent return of Jesus. Revelation 22:20 says 'I am coming soon'. 1 Thessalonians 4:15 says that Jesus will return while some of Paul's readers were still alive.

These beliefs were supposed to come straight from Jesus himself, yet they were clearly wrong. If Christians were so wrong about one belief, supposedly from Jesus, why should sceptics think that other stories about Jesus are straightforward reports of facts, rather than the works of gullible religious fanatics?

Steven Carr's Opening Statement

Dr.Wilkinson's Opening Statement

Dr.Wilkinson's First Response

Dr. Wilkinson's Second Response

Steven Carr's Final Response

Dr.Wilkinson's Final Response

Debate Page

Comments to Steven Carr

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