This debate started off as a bit of a joke, actually, with an hypothetical posed by historian John P. Meier which reads like one, “Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library…and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was...” With this, Mike Licona proposes three major points which he believes would inevitably emerge in such a document:
Death by crucifixion
An empty tomb
Licona makes the usual arguments in supporting each of these three points, arguments which will be quite familiar to readers of Bill Craig, Gary Habermas, and Ronald Nash. However, he also makes a few unduly extravagant claims in the course of proving up these three points, such as the claim that Jewish authorities in Jerusalem could have easily disproved early Christian kerygma by simply producing an identifiable corpse. This might work well for 21st century forensic crime scene investigators, but if one assumes that Jesus was severely beaten as depicted in, say, TheGospel According to Mel Gibson, then his body would have been fairly unrecognizable even before his death and inevitable decomposition. In any event, for this argument to work, one has to securely date the earliest preaching of the Christian kerygma to within a few weeks or months after Jesus death, at the outset. Licona does not even attempt to do this, though he implies it can be done.
Carrier paints a picture of rival mythmaking between Christian Gnostics and Sarcissists, each community seeking a way to preserve the message of Jesus which they had received, and each one creating new prophecies and myths to bolster their evolving theological frameworks.
Paul contradicts the Gospels as to the nature of resurrection, whether in a body of spirit or a body of flesh
Paul omits the post-mortem bodily appearances of Luke and John when describing the resurrection body
Paul resurrection doctrine was an exchange of the old earthly body for a new heavenly one
Amazing but true stories are rare, while amazing but false mythic tales are quite common
Insufficient historical evidence to class Jesus’ resurrection in the “amazing but true” category
The gospels bear the marks of legendary development and confabulation over time
Objective supernatural encounters are far less common than subjective religious visions
Paul’s personal epiphanies seem to fall squarely in the latter category rather than the former
Jesus’ post-mortem appearances are corporeal only in Luke and John, indicating mythical development
Probably the most learned and interested argument made by Carrier was in support of point #5, in which he outlines five kinds of historical evidence and then uses them to compare two putative historical events: Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon and Jesus’ empty tomb. Carrier argues that the Rubicon crossing has strong evidence from each category, and concludes that whereas the evidence for Jesus’ empty tomb as “the very worst kind of evidence, a handful of late, biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, secondhand witnesses – that is not good evidence. Even seen in the best possible light, the evidence available is simply not sufficient to establish that there was an empty tomb.”
Neither debater does quite a thorough job in pointing out the weaknesses in his opponent’s case, although that is fairly normal when the time constraints are setup so as to allow for far more time for opening arguments than either rebuttal or cross. All things considered, this debate is among the most substantive on this particular topic.