The Not-So-Impossible Faith

by Brian Holtz
July 2002

[Turkel's response to this article is here; my counter-response is here.]

In "The Impossible Faith" [], Robert Turkel attempts to

explain[] why Christianity succeeded where it should have clearly failed or died out
He attempts to identify a series of disadvantages that Christianity overcame and claims that it could only have done so if it had "a certain, trustworthy, and undeniable witness to the resurrection of Jesus".  These disadvantages fall into three categories: There are two major problems with Turkel's analysis of these disadvantages:
  1. They do not necessarily indicate a "certain, trustworthy, and undeniable witness" to the physical resurrection of Jesus or indeed to anything divine about him.  That each and all of these disadvantages were overcome is entirely consistent with Jesus being a merely human preacher, faith-healer, and apocalyptic prophet whose followers transformed a belief in his spiritual resurrection into the myth of his physical resurrection.
  2. Turkel assumes that if anyone could have had good reason not to believe the gospels, then nobody would have been gullible enough to believe them.  He fails to realize that the same evidence could have differing persuasiveness to different audiences, and that a religion will survive merely as long as some audience finds it believable.
Turkel enumerates 16 factors of disadvantage that Christianity faced:
    Factor #1 -- Who Would Buy One Crucified?
    Who on earth would believe a religion centered on a crucified man?
Christianity had no choice in the mode of Jesus' death. It would be absurd to claim that martyrdom is not a powerful propellant for religions. Also, the notion of sacrifice -- even human sacrifice -- to appease Yahweh was central to the Jewish society from which Christianity arose.
Announcing a crucified god would be akin to the Southern Baptist Convention announcing that they endorsed pedophilia!
It's laughable to compare a sacrificial martyrdom to a deliberate crime against innocent children.
If Jesus had truly been a god, then by Roman thinking, the Crucifixion should never have happened.
Christianity was of course a Jewish product that was only peddled to the Romans well after Jesus had died.
Christianity, of course, argued in reply that Jesus' death was an honorable act of sacrifice for the good of others -- but that sort of logic only works if you are already convinced by other means!
Such as by being Jewish and already believing that the creator of the universe needs small young mammals continually sacrificed to him.  The notion of offering sacrifices to god(s) was of course common in pagan religions as well.
Why, then, were there any Christians at all? At best this should have been a movement that had only a few strange followers, then died out within decades
Christianity offered elegant monotheism, universal enrollment, freedom from elaborate Jewish dietary and circumcision rules, instant no-effort salvation from eternal damnation, and (especially after the destruction of Jerusalem) an alternative to dashed hopes of an earthly kingdom. With features like these, Turkel may as well be asking why there were any non-Christian Jews at all.
Factor #2 -- Neither Here Nor There: Or, A Man from Galilee??
Jesus' Jewishness could hardly have been denied by the early Christians, but it was also a major impediment to spreading the Gospel beyond the Jews themselves.
For a new sect to displace all the Mediterranean's non-Abrahamic religions as completely as Christianity eventually did, it pretty much had to be monotheistic, so it's not surprising that Christianity's founder came from the world's most durable monotheistic tradition.
This is made quite clear by Judaism's own limited inroads in terms of Gentile converts. To be sure, this is partly attributable to Judaism not being much of a missionary religion.
"Not much"?  Judaism is essentially not a missionary religion; you are either are or are not a descendant of Abraham, and that determines whether you are considered "chosen" (as a reward for Abraham saving the idea of El/Yahweh from historical oblivion).
even within Judaism, Christianity had to overcome another stigma[..] the stigma of a savior who undeniably hailed from Galilee[..] Not even a birth in Bethlehem, or Matthew's suggestion that an origin in Galilee was prophetically ordained, would have unattached such a stigma
Such a nativity may of course not have been sufficient to convince all Jews, but it surely was necessary to convince most of those who were convinced. What Jew would have believed in a Messiah who was not claimed to have fulfilled the Messianic prophecies?
Assigning Jesus the work of a carpenter was the wrong thing to do
Turkel here suggests no alternative.  If Jesus had been a cleric, he would have ended up just starting yet another faction within Judaism. If Jesus had been a political leader, his non-divinity would have been even more evident. If Jesus had been wealthy, it would have been less likely for him to achieve martyrdom. On the other hand, Christianity could not have succeeded at all were Jesus a woman, or if he were working outside of a monotheistic context. But he wasn't.
Placing Jesus' birth story in the a suspicious context where a charge of illegitimacy would be all too obvious to make would compound the problems as well. [..] How hard would it have been to take an "adoptionist" Christology and give Jesus an indisputably honorable birth?
Claims of having gods as ancestors were not uncommon in ancient times, and trading away such a claim just to rebut the illegitimacy claims of non-believers would have been a losing proposition.
how hard would it have been to put Jesus in Sepphoris or even Capernaum
It's not obvious why Jesus hailing from Capernaum instead of Nazareth would have made Christianity significantly more likely a phenomenon.
Factor #3 -- Getting Physical! The Wrong "Resurrection"
Platonic thought, as Murray Harris puts it, supposed that "man's highest good consisted of emancipation from corporeal defilement." Physical resurrection was the last sort of endgame for mankind that you wanted to preach.
Without an empty tomb, Jesus remains just another decomposing Jewish extremist.
a physical resurrection was completely unnecessary for merely starting a religion. It would have been enough to say that Jesus' body had been taken up to heaven, like Moses' or like Elijah's.
It's not clear who Turkel thinks is claiming that a physical resurrection was "necessary" for starting Christianity.  While a mere ascension might have been easier to defend against the most skeptical, a physical resurrection would have been more convincing to the most gullible. The most important audience for a religion is the gullible, not the skeptical.
Factor #4 -- What's New? What's Not Good
if your beliefs had the right sort of background and a decent lineage, you had the respect of the Romans. Old was good. Innovation was bad.  This was a big sticking point for Christianity, because it could only trace its roots back to a recent founder. Christians were regarded as "arrogant innovators" whose religion was the new kid on the block
And yet Jesus affirmed even "the smallest letter" [Mt 5:18] of the Old Testament. That established religions have certain advantages over new ones is not a good argument that new religions must be true if they become established.
[..]  Reverence was given to ancestors, who were considered greater "by the fact of birth."
And the gospels traced Jesus' lineage directly to Adam.
The idea of sanctification, of an ultimate cleansing and perfecting of the world and each person, stood in opposition to the view that the past was the best of times, and things have gotten worse since then.
Christianity's "ultimately" optimistic eschatology in no way diminishes either its belief that things have indeed "gotten worse since" Eden, or its prophecies of increasing turmoil and tribulation before the end times.
The Jews, on the other hand, traced their roots back much further
The roots of Judaism and Christianity are ultimately the same.
we can understand efforts by Christian writers to link Christianity to Judaism as much as possible, and thus attain the same "antiquity" that the Jews were sometimes granted. (Of course we would agree that the Christians were right to do this, but that is not how the Romans saw it!)
The bottom line here is that if Christianity were completely novel, it would have been much less likely to win converts, and if it were more Jewish, it would have become just another sect of Judaism.
Critics of Christianity, of course, "caught on" to this "trick" and soon pointed (however illicitly) out that Christians could hardly claim Judaism and at the same time observe none of its practices.
Jesus observed many Jewish practices, and his adoption of the Torah's ludicrous theology is indeed one of the fundamental reasons why we moderns realize he was not divine. That Christianity had to strike a difficult balance between novelty and tradition does not imply that there was some significantly easier course it could have pursued.
Factor #5 -- Don't Demand Behavior
This is not one of the greatest barriers, but it is a significant one, and of course still is today. Ethically, Christian religion is "hard to do".
Christianity offered to Jews a release from rules about diet, sacrifice, and ritual, while also granting permission to "render unto Caesar".  Christianity offered to pagans a release from polytheistic superstition that for its time was so tough-minded that Romans compared it to atheism. Christianity's cosmopolitanism and orientation toward the meek made it well-positioned to spread beyond its origins among the Jews.
It would not appeal to the rich, who would be directed to share their wealth. The poor might like that
And there are far more poor and meek potential converts than there are rich ones.
Judaism was ["hard to do"] as well, and that is one reason why there were so few God-fearers. [..] it is very difficult to explain why Christianity grew where God-fearers were always a very small group.
The explanation is obvious: Yahweh-fearers were rare because the Yahweh meme, finding itself in danger of extinction, had been forced to restrict its target market to one small "chosen people".
Factor #6 -- Tolerance is a Virtue
Many skeptics and non-believers today claim to be turned off by Christian "arrogance" and exclusivity. How much more so in the ancient world?  The Romans were already grossly intolerant
On the contrary: "The Romans commonly granted the local gods of the conquered territory the same honors as the earlier gods who had been regarded as peculiar to the Roman state. In many instances the newly acquired deities were formally invited to take up their abode in new sanctuaries at Rome. Moreover, the growth of the city attracted foreigners, who were allowed to continue the worship of their own gods." []  That Christianity and Judaism were exclusivist indeed was a crucial reason why they weren't assimilated and eventually abandoned as all the Roman pagan religions were.
Jews too would be intolerant to the new faith.
Indeed, and this is why Christianity ultimately had so much more success among gentiles.
Factor #7 -- Stepping Into History
Let's put it this way: If you wanted to start a new religion with new and wild claims involved, do you claim, at any point, to have connections that you don't have?
If one's "new and wild claims" are false, then it obviously helps to include whatever extraneous truths one can.
Herod Agrippa [..] "was eaten of worms" as Luke reported in Acts 11:20-23. Copies of Acts circulated in the area and were accessible to the public. Had Luke reported falsely, Christianity would have been dismissed as a fraud
Turkel confuses Acts 11 with Acts 12, in which Luke makes the somewhat vague claim that after failing to "give praise to God", Herod was "immediately" "struck down" by an "angel of the Lord" and "was eaten by worms and died".  How "immediately"?  Was this Herod's first such failure, or merely the last failure Luke could cite as preceding Herod's non-miraculous death?  Turkel doesn't explain how "the public" was supposed to empirically disconfirm this report that Herod's death was caused by "an angel of the Lord".
If Luke lied in his reports, Luke probably would have been jailed and/or executed by Agrippa's son, Herod Agrippa II (who held the same position)
Turkel forgets that Luke/Acts does not identify its author, and that Luke was often away on missions anyway.
If claim #1 is proven false, that opens the way to doubt others -- all the way up the line to the resurrection.
If claim #1 is trivially true, then it does not follow that the resurrection is more probable than if claim #1 were omitted altogether.
The NT claims countless touch-points that could go under this list. An earthquake, a darkness at midday,
As Richard Carrier notes, a darkness over the whole earth "would not fail to be recorded in the works of Seneca, Pliny, Josephus or other historians, yet it is not mentioned anywhere else outside of Christian rhetoric, so we can entirely dismiss the idea of this being a real event." (Syncellus quotes a Christian historian Julius Africanus as writing that "Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse", but the identification of Thallus' eclipse with "this darkness" might just be in the mind of Julius Africanus, and Thallus at any rate cannot be reliably dated as writing independently of the gospels. For details, see
the temple curtain torn in two, an execution, all at Passover (with the attendant crowds numbering in the millions), people falling out of a house speaking in tongues at Pentecost (another "millions attend" event)
Jerusalem's population at the time was only about 30,000 [] to 60,000 [].  The former source estimates that only 60,000 to 125,000 pilgrims would have visited Jerusalem for Passover, so it's just ludicrous to talk about "attendant crowds numbering in the millions" -- especially in the context of Pentecost.
Healings of illnesses and dysfunctions, even reversals of death, in highly public places.
As I note in my book, and explained to Turkel in detail in our Trilemma debate
[], the healing miracles ascribed to Jesus are explainable by a combination of conventional faith healing, misunderstanding, and mythologizing.
A truimphal [sic] entry into Jerusalem in blatant fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.
The fulfillment could not have been very "blatant", since most Jews did not believe Jesus qualified as the Messiah.
In short, Christianity was highly vulnerable to inspection and disproof on innumerable points -- any one of which, had it failed to prove out, would have snowballed into further doubt
That many non-gullible people recognize such disproof does not mean that a false religion like Christianity or Mormonism cannot grow by converting the gullible.
Factor #8 -- Do Martyrs Matter, and More?
The most important martyrs are those of the time of Jesus and shortly thereafter. Admittedly there are few examples of this sort of martyrdom that we may point to
Indeed.  As I note in my book, Peter and James are the only resurrection witnesses who the New Testament names (John 21:18,19, Acts 12:2) as martyrs, but there is no evidence that recanting their alleged belief in physical resurrection could have saved them. Indeed, there is no direct evidence that Peter and James even believed in a physical resurrection at all.  As Carrier writes:
1 Peter 3.18 declares that Jesus was "put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit", and in 1 Peter 5.1 he curiously omits any mention of an empty tomb or a resurrection in the flesh, even though the context would lead us to expect him to. [.. T]he two epistles of Peter also make no mention of a physical resurrection, nor even of an empty tomb for that matter. Indeed, when Peter (if we accept the letter as genuine) argues that he was an eyewitness and that his teachings are not "cleverly devised tales"  he does not mention after-death appearances or the empty tomb, but only the transfiguration, and a voice from heaven heard at that time (2 Peter 1.16-19), which appeared in private to only a few (Peter, James, and John) before Jesus was killed. This is important, for it shows that the Resurrection appearances were not considered the most important evidence of divinity. Indeed, even if we accept the authenticity of the letters of James, Jude, and John, none of them mention an empty tomb or a physical resurrection either.
Turkel continues:
persecution did not automatically equal martyrdom, and this is yet another reason why Christianity should not have thrived and survived.
Many false religions (such as Mormonism) have thrived despite persecution, no doubt partly because persecution can easily make believers even more cohesive and zealous.
 It is quite unlikely that anyone would have gone the distance for the Christian faith at any time -- unless it had something tangible behind it.
Christianity had the same things behind it as do most cults whose members endure suffering or even death for their creed: a promise of eternal reward, a threat of punishment, a sense of identity, an excuse for self-righteousness, a deliverance from doubts, an exemption from critical thinking, etc.
Factor #9 -- Human vs. Divine: Never the Twain Shall Meet!
"To believe that ordinary Jews were willing to bestow on any human man, no matter how impressive, all the titles of divinity and full identification with the ancient God of Abraham is simply inconceivable."
It was indeed unlikely that all Jews would consider a human like Jesus to be divine, and most Jews of course did not. But it is eminently "conceivable" that some fraction of Jews and Gentiles would believe the gospels.
Factor #10 -- No Class!
The erasure or blurring of these various distinctions -- stated clearly in Paul, but also done in practice by Jesus during his ministry -- would have made Christianity seem radical and offensive.
The inclusiveness of Paul's Christianity would indeed have prevented it from completely converting any single ethnic or religious group, but this inclusiveness was quite well-suited for a missionary religion trying to establish itself throughout the Roman Empire.
joining the group did not do anything to alleviate their condition in practical terms.
Turkel is mistaken if he thinks there are no practical benefits in having a hope of eternal reward, a sense of identity, an excuse for self-righteousness, a deliverance from doubts, an exemption from critical thinking, etc.
Strict observance of the Torah became Judaism's own "defense mechanism" against Roman prejudices, their way of staying pure of outside infuences [sic]. A convert who ceased to observe the law, and began to associate with Gentiles, would receive a double-whammy
Turkel is oblivious to the possibility that the dogmas and rituals and cohesiveness of the Christian community could be a perfectly adequate substitute for what he admits was for Jews a workable "defense mechanism" against the scorn of others.
Christianity turned the norms upside down and said that birth, ethnicity, gender, and wealth -- that which determined a person's honor and worth in this setting -- meant zipola.
Turkel here is simply confused by the tension between designing a religious sect for maximal conversion of some pre-existing group, and designing a cult to cherry-pick the disaffected and marginalized from a broad range of groups.
In a group-oriented society, you took your identity from your group leader, and people needed the support and endorsement of others to support their identity. Christianity forced a severing of social and religious ties, the things which made an ancient person "human" in standing. (It did provide its own community support in return, but that hardly explains why people who join in the first place!)
Turkel here completely undermines his point. If a person sees that becoming Christian will not mean doing without a group identity, then the need for group identity is simply not a disadvantage that Christianity can be said to have overcome.
Moreover, a person like Jesus could not have kept a ministry going unless those around him supported him. A merely human Jesus could not have met this demand
Merely human religious leaders attract and keep followers all the time, and there is no reason why a human Jesus would have necessarily been an exception.
and must have provided convincing proofs of his power and authority to maintain a following, and for a movement to have started and survived well beyond him.
Jesus' combination of charisma, appealing teachings, faith-healing, and exploitation of Jewish mythology can easily be seen as a non-divine explanation for why he attracted converts and why they in turn were able to recruit successive cohorts of converts.
A merely human Jesus would have had to live up to the expectations of others and would have been abandoned, or at least had to change horses, at the first sign of failure.
Believers in apocalyptic cults often remain faithful even in the face of undeniable failures (e.g. of apocalyptic prophecy).  This of course applies directly to Christianity, since (as I demonstrate in our Trilemma debate) Jesus' clear Olivet prophecy [Mk 13:26-30] of an imminent return went blatantly unfulfilled.
Factor #11 -- Don't Rely on Women!
If Christianity wanted to succeed, it should never have admitted that women were the first to discover the empty tomb or the first to see the Risen Jesus.
The gospel myths were not even concocted competently enough to agree on whether the women saw Jesus (yes in Matthew, no in Luke), so it's not surprising that those traditions fail to give these witnesses an optimally credible resume in terms of gender. It's amusing that Turkel picks this one little subtlety as a gospel weakness overcome by Christianity, and yet ignores much more serious inconsistencies like those enumerated in my book (in section 1.1.2. - Philosophy / Metaphysics / Theology - Arguments Against Christianity): Turkel could ostensibly strengthen his argument by asking why a religion would handicap itself with such glaring inconsistencies.  He wisely chooses not to, because it would then be obvious that Christianity's success was built on the gullibility of its particular converts, and not on its ability to overcome the doubts of the average skeptic.
Factor #12 -- Don't Rely on Bumpkins, Either!
Peter and John were dismissed based on their social standing (Acts 4:13)  [..] Only Paul may have avoided this stigma among the apostolic band.
And Paul is the reason why Christianity is a global religion instead of a Jewish sect. QED.
It could have been crushed merely by authority if necessary. Why wasn't it
Religions die from within, not from without.  Religions are easy to suppress, but almost impossible to exterminate.
Factor #13 -- You Can't Keep a Secret!
In a society where nothing escaped notice, there was indeed every reason to suppose that people hearing the Gospel message would check against the facts
There is little evidence that much checking against the facts ever took place, or that any such checking didn't always produce disconfirmation of the gospel accounts. Indeed, the only recorded case is disconfirming: the gospel admission that there was a widespread belief that a secret removal explained the empty tomb. Turkel again mistakenly assumes that if anyone could have had good reason not to believe the gospels, then nobody would have been gullible enough to believe them. Turkel also mistakenly assumes that everyone within the reach of the gospel message would have had similar access to independent evidence about the gospel events. In fact, Christianity was generally more successful the farther one got (in space and time) from the Easter events.
converts to the new faith would have to answer to their neighbors
Humans routinely hold beliefs -- especially religious ones -- that their neighbors think are unjustified.
If the Pharisees checked Jesus on things like handwashing and grain picking; if large crowds gathered around Jesus ech [sic] time he so much as sneezed -- how much more would things like a claimed resurrection have been looked at!
If three out of four gospels did not report the widespread secret-removal story, how many other counter-explanations were in circulation that four out of four gospels omitted?
Factor #14 -- An Ignorant Deity??
Places where Jesus claims to be ignorant (not knowing the day or hour of his return; not knowing who touched him in the crowd) or shows weakness are taken as honest recollections and authentic (even where miracles stories often are not!).
Is Turkel's astonishment here feigned, or does he really not grasp the difference in believability between a man being reported as not omniscient and a man being reported as causing miracles?
This is a lesser cousin of the crucifixion factor above -- if you want a decent deity, you have to make him fully respectable. Ignorance of future or present events paint a stark portrait that theological explanations about kenotic emptying just won't overcome in the short term.
Just as with his choice of embarrassing gospel evidence above, Turkel is again careful to avoid mention of the far more implausible things that the gospels ask us to believe about El/Yahweh: his pedestrian works, parochial concerns, petty decisions, and primitive policies. Thus the gospel story of a Hebrew faith healer in the backward Roman province of Palestine seems an unlikely self-revelation for the Creator of the universe. This is just a rehash of Factor #1, already answered above.
Factor #16 -- Miscellaenous [sic] Contrarium
In this section we will be placing miscellaneous notes about teachings and attitudes of Jesus and early Christianity which were contrary to what was accepted as normal in the first century. Some of these will to some extent overlap with factors above (especially newness, #4).
And group orientation (#10). Indeed, these contraria are just variations on the theme that the Jesus movement was different from Judaism.
Christianity, as we can see, had every possible disadvantage as a faith.
Obviously false.  There are many possible disadvantages that Christianity lacked. Turkel continues:
what Christianity had to offer would not appeal to the ignorant -- or else would be balanced out by the many things that would have made the ignorant suspicious and mistrustful.
Turkel here "backpedals furiously" from his ludicrous claim that Christianity "would not appeal to the ignorant". Christianity in fact taught [1 Cor 1:20] that human wisdom is mere folly, and to this day Christian televangelists can be heard to sneer that "Ph.D." means "phenomenal dunce".
there is only one, broad explanation for Christianity overcoming these intolerable disadvantages, and that is that it had the ultimate rebuttal -- a certain, trustworthy, and undeniable witness to the resurrection of Jesus [..] enough early witnesses (as in, the 500!) with solid and indisputable testimony (no "vision of Jesus in the sky" but a tangible certainly of a physically resurrected body)
Regarding alleged witnesses, Carrier writes:
Paul claims there are hundreds of eye witnesses, many alive at the very time of his writing (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Doesn't that make invention as well as delusion unlikely? Paul, remember, includes himself among the witnesses (15:8). Yet we know that Paul was not an eye-witness. He only saw a light and heard a voice, well after Jesus had already been "taken up." So this passage cannot mean anything more than that hundreds have seen Jesus in visions, not necessarily in person. [..] But above all, one second-hand report of 500 unnamed people, being sent to men in Greece (too far from Palestine to have any chance of checking the account), who may have seen a vision no more material than that of Paul himself [..] is the flimsiest of evidence.
In fact, there is no reliably first-hand testimony to the physical resurrection of Jesus. Paul does not claim to be such a witness. Original Mark contains no appearances at all. The anonymous author of Luke admits he was not an eyewitness. Matthew is anonymous and contains no assertions of first-hand witness by the author. In what appears to be an addendum, the anonymous author of John vaguely refers to "the beloved disciple" in the third person as "the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down", and otherwise makes no assertions of his own eyewitness. As Turkel notes several times, the real question he's asking here is how Christianity survived during those first few decades when skeptical investigation would still have had a chance of finding first-hand testimony that any claims of physical resurrection in the developing gospel traditions were not true. The obvious answer is that those claims grew stronger precisely as the possibility of skeptical investigation grew fainter.

In order of writing, the gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrected appearances become increasingly elaborate.  The first written account of the appearances (1 Cor 15) lumps them together with post-ascension manifestations to Paul in a discussion of spiritual resurrection, making them suspect as accounts of bodily resurrection. Original Mark claims an empty tomb but describes no appearances. Matthew says simply that the two Marys and later the Eleven "saw him" but "some were dubious". The Longer Ending of Mark says Jesus appeared "in a different form" to two disciples, and simply "appeared" to the Eleven. Luke elaborates on both of these episodes, building the latter into an account that approaches the full Doubting Thomas story finally told in John. Thus, reports of the resurrection become more assertive as the accounts grow more removed from the actual events.

Thus Turkel's argument ultimately fails, and Christianity overcoming the disadvantages he lists is entirely consistent with Jesus being a merely human preacher, faith-healer, and apocalyptic prophet whose followers transformed a belief in his spiritual resurrection into the myth of his physical resurrection.