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History is not the Past! Proving Jesus’ Resurrection and Other Miracles

Last week I finished a thread on the criteria scholars use to establish what happened in the life of the historical Jesus.  That series of posts raises an important question: what do historians do about the fact that throughout the Gospels Jesus does lots of miracles — and at the end the greatest miracle of all happens, he is raised from the dead as an immortal being, never to die again?  Can such miracles be demonstrated to have happened historically?

That’s a question I’ve dealt with on the blog before.   Here is the first of a series of posts I made on it from five years ago, in which I make a point about “history” that many people maybe haven’t thought of.

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Yesterday I started to answer a question from a reader who pointed out that just as the existence of Jesus is multiply attested, so too is Jesus’ resurrection. And so if *one* is established as historical, doesn’t the other one *also* have to be seen as historical? And if one is considered non-historical, doesn’t that show that the other is probably also non-historical?

These are great questions, but I think the answer to both of them is “no.” Yesterday I showed why multiple attestation strongly supports the existence of Jesus. Some readers objected to that, but I should reiterate – this is simply a common sense principle that all of us use every day to decide if something happened (say, what happened at lunch yesterday). Today I want to show why multiple attestation can *not* be used to support the resurrection of Jesus.

I begin by pointing out something that hasn’t occurred to a lot of people, but is nonetheless a fundamental point. History is not the past.

This may come as a surprise, but here’s the deal. The “past” is everything that has happened before now. “History” is what we can establish – in one way or another – as having happened before now. Trillions and trillions of things have happened before this moment. They are all in the past. But historians do not have access to far more than 99.99% of those things. What historians have access to is what we call history – things that we can show probably happened.

 

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More on the Historical Problem of Miracles
My First Taste of Critical Scholarship

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  July 30, 2018

    Bart, on matters historical: could/would you recommend something (preferably a book) on church history? I expect you’ve come across some good ones in your time. Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with broad general histories of Christianity. Maybe someone else on the blog can suggest something?

      • Avatar
        turbopro  July 31, 2018

        If you are in for the long haul, “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
        1200 pages

        • Bart
          Bart  August 1, 2018

          Ah, of course — I should have thought of that. Great suggestion.

  2. Avatar
    Ohaila68  July 30, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Related to your entry above, I would like to ask how the historians take the message “between the lines” ? As an example (which I’m currently puzzled with), I would like to take the atonement in the synoptics.

    I have read your entry about the writer of Luke-Acts, who obviously did not believe in atonement in the cross. But if you study the other gospels, you can also clearly see that the disciples did not understand the trial or death of Jesus as a good thing. Thus, it is obvious to me that none of the disciples were aware that the death of Jesus was necessary for their own salvation or eternal life. On the contrary, their acts show that they were purely devastated by Jesus’ death.

    As a conclusion, I say that Jesus himself never taught he would die for the sins of the world and achieve atonement through the cross – also for the diciples.

    To a historian, is this conclusion based on sound principles or not ?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      There is a difference — this can be hard to grasp sometimes — between what the characters in story perceive and what the author is trying to get the readers to perceive. In the Gospel stories of Mark, the disciples never do “get it.” But the reader who is attentive does.

  3. Avatar
    Eric  July 30, 2018

    “…history – things that we can show probably happened.”

    You’ve used this definition or one like it many times, always catches my attention. Reading it this time, an illustrative example popped into my head that helped me grasp the meaning and implications of this definition.

    As you probably know, Samuel Pepys was a diarist in the 1660s who wrote in code and never expected his diaries to be read by anybody, They were discovered and deciphered a couple hundred years later. Here is how I look at them in probabilistic spectrum, most probable to less probable, historically:

    1. diaries were written (100% — we have them)
    2. Pepys existed and held his role in the admiralty (multiply attested)
    3. they were written in 1660s, and not later forgeries (very very high, I assume they have been physically tested)
    4. Pepys wrote them (pretty darn high, based on content)
    5. They concern the exact dates he conveys (almost as high, but he sometimes writes a whole week or so after the fact, so…)
    6. they are truth as Pepys knew it (he never thought they’d be read by anyone but himself (coded) and many instances the criteria of inconvenience or whatever you call it — often self-critical and relates embarrasssments and failings as well as triumphs
    7. They accurately describe events (almost as high, except colored by memory, emphasis, interpretation by writer)
    8. He accurately and fully characterized other people he knew — Wm. Penn, Duke of York, Earl of Sandwich (I think humans are notorious for not seeing others fully and clearly, and of course he did not know their inner minds)
    9. Worth skipping these diaries (0%! they’re great!)

  4. Avatar
    jwesenbe  July 30, 2018

    Was Jesus resurrection actually multiply attested, or rather, attested by one group who benefited directly from the attest? Were there any non-bias individuals who had attested to the resurrection? Were any of these testaments actually direct quote or all hearsay?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      “multiple attestation” is a technical term that refers specifically to written sources of information that were not in collaboration with one another. If John had not read Mark, then the two are independent sources.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  July 30, 2018

    Interesting how the members of the various religions believe so devoutly in the miracle stories described by their religions, but deny with equal intensity the miracle stories of the other religions.

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  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 30, 2018

    What if someone actually had a youtube video demonstrating that someone who had died was now raised from the dead? Would this move the event into the historical? If not, is there any evidence of such an event that would make it considered to be historical?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      Sure. You will note that no such thing exists, and for a reason! That’s pretty much the point.

  7. Avatar
    Silver  July 30, 2018

    When ‘doing history’ do we always have to have presuppositions such that certain possibilities are ruled out in advance? In your example of Martian intervention in WWII, if a ‘document’ were to be found which claimed that the Martian emperor, Zog, sided with the Allies and this was ‘written’ on a medium impossible to produce on earth and there was evidence of a missile strike with a weapon not known on earth, would this not lead to the development of an hypothesis which did not depend on whether the investigator already believed in Martians or not?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      It’s a matter of probabilities, as always in history. THere are far more probable explanations (FAR more) than the martian hypothesis.

  8. Telling
    Telling  July 30, 2018

    Present-day historians are in a bit of an odd position. The Church earlier held the political power and did not allow the questioning of their supreme authority or of sidestepping it in regard to spiritual information. Only Church authorities could intercede between angels and man.

    With this history, historians continue to honor the Church requirements, yet are bold enough today to question biblical integrity (but without consideration for the taboo heavens bodies and inhabitants).

    This leaves you in a spot where you must doubt the existence of angels and yet analyze the historical accuracy of a book that is all about angels. It seems time to put this to bed; either the Bible is founded upon angelic beings and other worldly miracles or it is mythological, a companion of Greek Mythology; a book of fiction perhaps with a backdrop of true events, as many novels written today are.

    To consider the former (angels may very well be real) moves historians in with metaphysical science, our world with its real events and true stories being essentially mythology — stories imagined in the mind and materialized in what we call the “physical world”.

    Historians will one-day have to independently make up their minds as to which path to pursue: Christianity being mythology, or otherwise the world a mental construct, where “facts” are actually offshoots of the myths we act out in a three-dimensional spatial environment composed of *mind* alone.

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  9. Avatar
    ardeare  July 30, 2018

    From Denzel Washington in Training Day – “It’s Not What You Know, It’s What You Can Prove…” With regards to the Book of Mormon plates which had the appearance of gold, it sure would have made things easier if Moroni had just left them here instead of whisking them off to heaven with him. Upon reflecting on recent blog topics I’ve wondered how cool it would be to find a first-century gospel with the word, “original” in big, bold letters right at the top. But history rarely gives us these things. And even that couldn’t be proven.

    Another quick reflection. As a schoolboy, I sometimes heard someone being accused of eating someone else’s candy or breaking something absent of an eyewitness. While I didn’t appreciate this defense at the time, I’ve grown to realize it’s actually pretty hard to refute. “You don’t know, you weren’t there.”

  10. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  July 30, 2018

    hello Dr Bart

    if christians insist that resurrection was historical event , why do you think the jewish historian josephus said nothing about it . it just does not make sense not to mention this extraordinary event. Have you ever thought about it ?

    Many thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      Yes, I have thought about Josephus’s knowledge of early Christianity. 🙂 Actually his statement *does* indicate that Jesus was raised from the dead. Most scholars are confident those were not his actual words, though, but were added to his text by a Christian scribe.

  11. Avatar
    forthfading  July 30, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would a better historical conclusion be that the people came to believe or think that they witnessed Jesus perform miracles? Multiple attestation could at least show this correct?
    Thanks

  12. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  July 30, 2018

    Great article Bart! I do think that it is important that people know and understand what is the past and what is verifiable history.

    However, in debating my more Fundamentalist friends, a couple of the arguments presented are that scholars would be more amiable towards miracles and the resurrection if they didn’t have an a priori comittment against the supernatural or an a priori commitment to materialism. To my understanding the ability to verify miracles or the resurrection do not meet the criteria for historical verification no matter if one has an a priori commitment to materialism or an a priori comittment against the supernatural or not. Supporting a belief in the supernatural does change the historical criteria for verification. In other words, miracles and the resurrection don’t suddenly meet the criteria for verification simply because you have a belief in miracles and the resurrection.

    Another argument for the resurrection is the change in the lives of the disciples. The NT shows them reacting in fear and shame and going into hiding at the crucifixion of Jesus and after the resurrection they were preaching boldly. Do these behaviors of the disciples meet any historical criteria for verification? If not why?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      Doing history is always a matter of figuring out what is probable. Even those who believe in miracles admit they rarely happen. Other things happen a lot. Those other things are always more probable therefore. As to the change of people’s lives, of course peoples lives are massively changed by Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, etc. etc. as well. So what does it prove, one might ask….

  13. Avatar
    prestonp  July 30, 2018

    “Believing that Jesus was raised from the dead (even if it did happen in the past) is a matter of faith, not historical demonstration.” B

    And you believe that this type of “history” is a legitimate form of investigating the events which took place in the past? Why?

    “Because history can only be done on the basis of shared presuppositions about our world and the past, and Christian beliefs are not among those shared presuppositions.” B

    Which historians do not share those presuppositions? The majority? Do “historians” belong to a specific academic group or organization? Are they polled? Regularly? Are two thirds or a majority necessary to change the rules? How many historians must accept the possibility that God exists and may intervene in history in order to overrule and update the restrictions governing this discipline?

    “To establish something as historically probable, you have to play the game of history following the rules” B

    Something may be improbable, but absolutely true, and it automatically fails the “history” test. It is not “historical.” You describe this discipline as a “game.” It is not the relentless pursuit of truth wherever it leads.

    “No historian will be taken seriously who makes historical claims that require views of reality not widely shared among other historians.” B

    “Roughly seven-in-ten (72%) Americans say they believe in heaven-” Pew 2014

    “58% of U.S. adults also believe in hell” Pew 2014

    “Widening the scope to the supernatural, 65% of Americans told Pew they believe in the supernatural — reincarnation, spiritual energy, yoga as spiritual practice, the “evil eye,” astrology, connecting with the dead, consulting a psychic or experiencing a ghostly encounter. And 49% say they’ve had ‘a religious or mystical experience.'” USA OCT. 27, 2017

    From what I gather historians will deny history based upon their arbitrary rules that are self-imposed, regardless what the factual events from the past may be. Anything/everything possibly pertaining to the “divine” is excluded off the top. Historians with as much education, training, diligence and intelligence who accept the possibility that there may be a God and He may interact with history, will likely discover valid historical information that differs radically from that of secular historians that Christ might be God.

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    billw977  July 30, 2018

    This answers a question I had from one of your debates with someone who says Jesus was just a myth (can’t remember his name). You argued that Jesus was a real person because of the attestations about him from multiple sources. I questioned then why you didn’t believe the miracles attested from multiple sources. It all makes sense now. Anyway, I’m kind of on your side of the fence questioning what Jesus really said and who he really was, but I personally believe in a “God” whoever he is. As a amateur critical historian, the only thing that makes sense to me is nothingless. I don’t have to explain evolution or where matter came from because there never was anything. That really makes sense to me. How would something come into existence from nothing? Wouldn’t historians agree with my conclusion? That would have to be a miracle, right? Yet, here we are, a possible real miracle,…..and…… if we are here, then why not a real God? The ONLY OTHER possible choice is that matter has always existed. (Which also defies explanation) Again, then, why not a God that has always existed? It makes about as much sense as matter always existing…. So, I can’t remember but, do you consider yourself atheist about the existence of a God, or agnostic?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      I don’t believe there is a god, and so I’m an atheist. On the other hand, I don’t really know if I’m right, so I’m an agnostic. 🙂

      • Avatar
        billw977  August 1, 2018

        Ha ha! That’s a pretty slick answer, Prof. Ehrman…..

  15. Avatar
    HawksJ  July 30, 2018

    It seems to me that you are making a circular argument.

    The reason rational people don’t ‘pre-suppose’ that there are intelligent Martians who occasionally intervene in human affairs is precisely because there is no dependable evidence to suggest it.

    Likewise, the reason historians don’t pre-suppose the resurrection is because there is no dependable evidence supporting it.

    Are you saying that there is no conceivable historical documentation that could possibly serve as ‘historical evidence’? I don’t believe in ANYTHING supernatural, and yet I can conceive of lots of potential types of evidence that would force me to reconsider; for example, contemporary official Roman records documenting that a Jew was crucified and buried but that the body was, in fact, lost.

    Is such a record likely? Of course not, but the absence of ANY record, ‘official’ or otherwise, is an argument against the Resurrection. If it had happened, it seems there would have been some contemporary extra-biblical reference.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      Yes, it is somewhat circular. That has to do with the issue of “probability.” The reason the Martian hypothesis doesn’t work for historicans is becasue there is nothing to suggest it is at all likely/probable (or even possible), whereas Allied strategy is completely plausible.

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      • Avatar
        billw977  August 1, 2018

        I find the term “extra-biblical” sort of arbitrary. For example, wouldn’t some of the writers of the NT consider their writings not biblical, that is, on par with the “holy scriptures”? Is it really their fault that “someone” stuck their writings in a book called the bible? What would be your opinion of the supposedly extra-biblical reference to Christ in Josephus? Do you believe that is a legitimate reference to Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 2, 2018

          Yes, it is definitely a term used from *our* perspective as those who have a canon. My sense is that *none* of the writers thought they were writing Scripture.

  16. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 31, 2018

    “And – here’s where “evidence” for the resurrection of Jesus comes into play – you cannot presuppose perspectives on the world or on reality that are not widely shared among other historians investigating the same phenomenon.”

    Wouldn’t historians who investigate the same phenomenon (the resurrection) be mainly Christians anyway? Their presuppositions on reality are then shared.

    With this approach, it seems to only work if most historians are skeptics. But who gets to decide what historians’ perspectives are about the world and its reality in the first place? From a global standpoint, regardless of religious background, most people believe we have souls that can survive death. With that in mind, establishing the resurrection historically doesn’t seem to be the issue, it’s belief about whether or not it happened that’s the main issue. Otherwise, I would think that the current historical approach concerning the resurrection is being investigated as a hard science rather than what can be established historically. (I’m okay with that approach, but I’ve never heard anyone claim it.)

    Maybe it’s significant to know what is being specifically investigated. Is it something concise like —Jesus can be shown to have been raised from the dead—or does it require tying in other things like there’s a God who specially favored Jesus because he pleased God, so God raised him from the dead, and now he lives eternally, etc… That requires many more presuppositions.

    I get that believing in the resurrection requires faith. Still, if a historian is disinterested and dispassionate about the resurrection, why can’t it be shown historically? Especially since most people, including historians, presuppose the belief in life after death anyway. The results shouldn’t matter. I can also see how this current method would appear to some, especially Christians, that the *true* reasoning behind shying away from establishing the resurrection as historical is because the results create discomfort, not among the vast majority of the world, but among skeptics. And that’s because in their heart of hearts, they’re really not disinterested after all; the results are *wrong* and could lead people to believe that the supernatural exists when they *know* it doesn’t. It’s like a clever way to escape the results of historical inquiry.

    I’m not saying that’s the case, but I can see why certain historical methods draw criticism.

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      Yes that’s right — fundamentalist Christians make arguments (even about history) that make sense mainly to fundamentalist Christians. Everyone else denies the historical validity of that kind of argument.

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      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  July 31, 2018

        I didn’t articulate my last comment very well. In a previous post, you mentioned that historians debate what criterion to use when establishing what actually happened. Are you talking about biblical historians only or biblical historians which also include those from cross disciplines? How is it decided what methods are used and are they standardized?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 1, 2018

          All historians have to wrestle with how to evaluate evidence for the past.

  17. Avatar
    prestonp  July 31, 2018

    First, we note in this passage that the Passover proper is on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan. However, this day of the Passover is then followed by the feast of the Passover which is a seven day period of sacrifices and feasting beginning on the fifteenth of Nisan. We can also see in this passage that only unleavened bread was to be eaten during the seven days of the Passover feast.

    When we compare Numbers 28 with Exodus 12, we learn further that the first Passover meal occurs on the evening of the fourteenth, and this first meal is also supposed to be eaten with unleavened bread. Thus the fourteenth is sometimes referred to as the first day of unleavened bread. Exodus 12:19 also tells us that, during the seven days of feasting beginning on the fifteenth of Nisan, the Jews were not only to eat unleavened bread, but they were also to have no leaven anywhere in their homes. Thus the seven days of feasting beginning on the fifteenth are sometimes referred to as the days of unleavened bread. The fact that the Jews were not allowed to have leaven in their houses during the week of feast days also explains why the fourteenth was referred to as the day of preparation. The evening of the fourteenth was spent in celebration of the Passover proper with a meal of lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread while the following day of the fourteenth was spent removing all leaven from the home in preparation for the Passover week.
    Therefore, when John mentions in John 18:28 that the Jewish leaders did not want to defile themselves because they wanted to eat the Passover, he was referring to their desire to participate in the seven days of feasting which would begin that evening.  When John writes in John 19:14 that it was the day of preparation, he was referring to the preparations conducted on the fourteenth in order to remove all traces of leaven from the homes of the Jews.  And when Mark mentions in Mark 14:12 that the Last Supper was on the first day of unleavened bread, the day when the Passover was killed, he was referring to the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan.  

    Both John and Mark are correct. 

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    • Avatar
      stevenpounders  August 2, 2018

      So you just copied and pasted this entire comment from the following apologetics website:
      http://www.increasinglearning.com/blog/bible-contradiction-did-jesus-die-before-or-after-the-passover

      You did not provide a citation or give any other indication that you were using someone else’s words. This is called plagiarism and it is considered a form of dishonesty.

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      • Bart
        Bart  August 2, 2018

        Yes, let’s try to make our own comments, unless we give attribution.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  August 3, 2018

        Since I was voted off the island several weeks ago, I use opportunities to comment on this forum judiciously, counting and choosing every word carefully. I have posted most of my comments on the unmoderated forum. Find The Increasing Learning Blog attributed there.

        Though very, very, very, very close, I am not perfect, at least not yet. If you have doubts whether the comments are mine or someone else’s, assume they are other’s if they are well written.

        But your vague implication is on target, my friend. I have many reasons to lie, to distort, to cheat, to steal, to bamboozle you guys. I make loads of cash every time I comment AND every time one of you converts to my religion. I get a gold Cadillac, too. So, I am highly motivated to do whatever I can to push my Christian Agenda. We’re always looking for more sales consultants if you enjoy working on commission.

        Personally, had I been advising the forgerers, the scribes, and those other scallywags from 2K years ago, I would have played down the “payment for sins through the cross” angle with all the gore and blood-which doesn’t poll well with middle and upper middle income fathers (25 to 49) with 2.194 children per household with college degrees and focus instead on the natural products used to wipe His feet. Push the oil as a youth preserver and miracle elixir. Huge marketing potential.

        Also in the “Unforum” find an explanation on:
        “The Sequence of Christ’s Post-Resurrection Appearances
        Where Exactly Did Jesus Appear, and to Whom?”
        by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell M.D. on March 21, 2012

        Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell received a bachelor of science in chemistry from Furman University in 1980, graduating summa cum laude. She graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville in 1984 and completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Vanderbilt University Affiliated Hospitals in 1988. She earned board certification and fellowship in the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

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        • Bart
          Bart  August 3, 2018

          If you were voted off this island we wouldn’t be hearing you any more. (!) Everyone gets treated equally on this blog.

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        • Avatar
          mannix  August 3, 2018

          prestonp:
          I doubt your failure to attribute stems from dishonesty but rather an oversight. IMO a more “Christian” response on your part would be an apology for the omission as opposed to a sarcastic screed, which is out of character for this blog.

          Dr. Mitchell’s credentials are indeed impressive, and I’m sure some followers of Richard Carrier can boast similar CVs. I doubt however the latter would hold much sway with you. Also, Biblical Studies are not required for a BA in Chemistry nor are they part of a medical school curriculum or an OB/GYN residency.

          As for Vanderbilt, you may want to look up Dr.Jill Levine’s (?sp) (Biblical professor at Vandy) views on the historicity of some of the OTs characters and events.

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    SidDhartha1953  July 31, 2018

    Is it not also true that some historical facts require no specific attestation? One case that has occurred to me concerns Jesus and bodily functions. Nowhere, to my knowledge, is it attested that he ever had a bowel movement and some people probably think it irreverent even to entertain that thought. But having established the historical probability that he lived to adulthood, it requires no further evidence that he did all the things without which he could not have done so, without regular miraculous interventions. By the way, it is attested that he talked about bowel movements, so maybe that is evidence that he knew the experience first hand.

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    rivercrowman  July 31, 2018

    Great post. Speaking of matters of faith, here’s a quote I found attributed to Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

  20. tompicard
    tompicard  July 31, 2018

    is it a widely shared perspective of historians of first century Judea that people had hallucinations of dead people being alive?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      Sure — just like today!

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      • tompicard
        tompicard  August 8, 2018

        maybe i should have been more explicit

        is it a widely shared perspective of historians of first century Judea that people had hallucinations of dead people being alive, and continued to believe that person to be alive (for like 25-30 years in the case of Paul) ?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 10, 2018

          No, I don’t know of any analogous case. Then again I don’t know of any analogous case to a Jewish religion becoming the religoin of the West….

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