Perry Mason and the Case of the Resurrected Man

Courtroom

I was recently introduced to an interesting phenomenon known as Perry Mason Syndrome, a term for a cluster of popular misconceptions about legal procedure derived from watching Perry Mason on TV, or more generally any legal drama. In particular, this can lead jurors to assume that defendants who are guilty will confess under questioning, or even that the prosecution case can only be adequately countered by forcing a confession out of a different witness, effectively reversing the burden of proof. This use of attack as the best form of defence, gaining an acquittal through confession, is sometimes known as the Perry Mason Method.

The reason why I bring this up is that I immediately found this reassignment of the burden of proof strangely familiar, having encountered something very similar several times in the last few weeks, especially over Easter. Jesus must have been resurrected, the argument goes, because the Bible says so and there’s no other plausible explanation for the recorded events. In other words, if you want to argue that the resurrection didn’t happen, you need to provide a convincing alternative explanation.

So in classic Perry Mason style, it’s expected that in order to refute a specific claim, the defence should not just explain why that claim is flawed or inadequately supported, but prove a case of their own to demonstrate exactly what did happen – making one of the prosecution witnesses confess, if you like. Maybe the people who advance this argument would be happy to stand trial under these conditions, but I wouldn’t.

It’s easy to be lulled into this line of argument by the age of the claim – 2,000 years down the line, the resurrection almost seems like an established event, requiring a heavyweight response built around a strong supporting narrative. But when you get down to the details, it’s a claim that a dead man came back to life. How can anyone seriously expect to pass the burden of proof on to those who doubt the story? Extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence, etc.

CrossThis is a truly remarkable and unlikely claim, and in support there are a handful of documents dating from many years after the event, and nothing else. If such a thing was claimed today with that evidence, any reasonable reaction would involve a strong degree of scepticism, pending better evidence or a thorough debunking. Why give it more weight just because it happened long ago?

I realise that it would be easy to ask for evidence that simply couldn’t be delivered, and maybe it looks like I’m doing just that. Well, it would be great to have independent medical, video and DNA evidence, for example, but that’s tangential to my argument. My point is that the evidence we have would be regarded with extreme suspicion at best if these claims were made today, so there’s no justification for concluding that there’s a strong case, let alone one that merits a reversal of the burden of proof. The patchy evidence doesn’t become compelling just because video cameras hadn’t been invented.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the resurrection didn’t happen, of course. Even though I consider it incredibly unlikely, it can’t be categorically disproven. But if you do believe in it, you can’t get away with expecting other people to disprove your claim – it doesn’t qualify as a default position simply by virtue of age. And seeing that the supporting evidence is so unsatisfying, you’d be ill-advised to make it a central pillar of your beliefs.

Maybe I’m being harsh on this point, but I’ve encountered a lot of people who acknowledge tensions and apparent contradictions in their beliefs, and fall back on the resurrection as the one thing they can’t dismiss, the single event that underpins everything else. So would they be so quick to believe the latest poorly-attested claim of the dead being raised in Brazil, or Uganda, or China? If not, it looks like there’s a touch of Perry Mason Syndrome in their assessment.

So anyway, there we are. I’m not particularly intending to dismiss the resurrection (or at least I wasn’t when I started), but if you want to tell me that I’m wrong about anything, I’d be interested to hear your views, so have at it.

Photos by srqpix and dbking, used under Attribution License

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

27 responses to “Perry Mason and the Case of the Resurrected Man”

  1. jonnyscaramanga says :

    Fantastic post. Lots of evangelical literature treats the resurrection like a detective mystery and claims that examining the evidence will prove the case (e.g. Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict). Perhaps you were thinking of this when you wrote, but either way it’s a good response.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’ve not read that one, but I remember being impressed by Who Moved The Stone? way back when. After that, as I started questioning a bit more, I spent a long time suspecting that the argument was fallacious, without being able to clearly see or articulate why that was the case.

      That was in the back of my mind a little, but it was more that a little light went on in my head one day.

  2. unklee says :

    I suggest you (and all of us) need to consider our paradigms. There are many ways we can approach a question like the resurrection, for example:

    1. Like it is a court case where we have to be convinced of guilt beyond reasonable doubt (make up your own mind which side is the prosecution and defence!);
    2. Like it is a formal debate where every step has to follow logical from evidence-based premises;
    3. Like it is a scientific experiment, where we need to satisfy statistical requirements;
    4. Like it is a historical question where you have to find the most plausible sequence of events given the historical evidence;
    5. Like it is a life decision where we have to choose what seems to be right.

    It also depends on our starting point – (6a) whether we already believe God exists or (6b) doesn’t exist, or (6c) are open-minded and whether we already believe Jesus (7a) never existed, (7b) existed but we know little more, (7c) was a Jewish prophet or (7d) was divine.

    You have approached the question with certain of those assumptions, perhaps without even making them explicitly – I would guess you have used something like 1, 2 or 3, plus 6b and 7b. I would start with different assumptions!

    And our assumptions make an enormous difference. If a person believes God couldn’t exist, then no evidence is going to convince them that Jesus was resurrected. But if a person already believes Jesus is divine, then the evidence of the apostles is quite sufficient. And for an open-minded person in between those two more ‘extreme’ views, the plausibility of the various hypotheses would need to be assessed.

    And I think you may be too critical of Who Moved the Stone? Morison started his research as a non-believer, and he made no assumptions about the Gospels being God’s word or inerrant, only that they were reliable historical sources. I find his reconstruction very interesting and reasonably convincing. And do you remember his conclusions? “There may be, and, as the writer thinks, there certainly is, a deep and profoundly historical basis for [the resurrection]” That seems a fair balance of cautious historical conclusion and personal belief.

    So I’m not really interested in telling you you’re wrong, but think it worthwhile pointing out that your assumptions (not presented in the post) probably have determined your conclusions to a fair degree. Best wishes.

    • jonnyscaramanga says :

      I’ll let the author speak for himself, but I started off believing:
      5) It’s a life decision
      6a) God exists
      7d) Jesus was divine.

      For sure, those are matters of faith. But the more I looked at my faith and searched my heart, the more I could see no reason why I had that faith. Faith may not be rational, but it always has some kind of basis – there’s a reason why I can’t just start believing that tortoises can levitate.

      In my case, I can’t see any reason why I would have ever had faith that Jesus rose from the dead if I hadn’t been taught it from birth.

      • unklee says :

        Yes, I can understand that. But did you not think that Jesus was a historical figure, and re-think from there?

      • jonnyscaramanga says :

        Well, I started believing that Jesus was both divine and a historical figure, yes. I’m curious where your argument is going.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Lots of words there, but you’ve either missed my point or you’re ducking it. I’m not drawing any conclusions (not here, anyway), I’m asking for consistency instead of special pleading.

      Plenty of people try to reverse the burden of proof, which is clearly unjustified. More than that, though, if you believe the resurrection story you must either believe lots of other unlikely but similarly-attested claims, or you must have good reasons for treating this case differently, and accept that those reasons are up for debate. It’s not sustainable as the foundation of a whole belief system.

  3. unklee says :

    I didn’t really have an argument, just wondering. I think many people think either the whole christian belief about Jesus is true and we know it by faith, or they think they can believe none of it. But there is a middle view that we can at least know the historical facts about Jesus, not by faith but as a matter of history. I was just wondering whether you even considered that possibility?

    • unklee says :

      Dunno if I missed or misunderstood, but I’m sorry, and I’m willing to be shown which.

      “Plenty of people try to reverse the burden of proof, which is clearly unjustified.”

      My point is that by using the phrase “burden of proof”, you have already chosen a paradigm – in this case something like a debate or a court case. Well I must say I’m not interested in either of them. I see it this way. Before us both is the claim that God exists, loves us and offers us an amazing deal. We each have to decide whether we are interested, and whether we think it is true. As such, I don’t have any burden of proof, for I am not trying to prove anything or force anything on you.

      If you don’t want God’s deal, or you don’t think it is true, then that is your choice and I will not press you. But if you do want the deal if only it was true, then it is up to you to work out if it is true, and I am eager to help you do that. This may not change what you require to be convinced, but it certainly changes the tone of the discussion from adversarial to cooperative.

      “if you believe the resurrection story you must either believe lots of other unlikely but similarly-attested claims, or you must have good reasons for treating this case differently”

      I don’t know any similarly attested claims, do you?

      We are talking about someone who is plausibly divine (and I have concluded he is/was), whose apparent resurrection is based on several well attested historical facts, and whose followers changed the course of history in a way that makes other explanations difficult. That is why I treat this claim differently.

      So I still think it comes down to paradigms and assumptions. Best wishes.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        You’ve never heard any unlikely resurrection stories from some remote part of China, or whatever? Really? There was a good one recently pushed by Bethel, claiming large numbers of dead people just got up and walked away. Do you believe that the same way you believe the resurrection?

        So do you ever expect people to provide good evidence for their assertions? If you’re going to claim that it’s an insupportable paradigm to impose a burden of proof, I trust that you believe everything anyone tells you which you can’t disprove. Otherwise, you look more than a touch inconsistent.

  4. unklee says :

    “You’ve never heard any unlikely resurrection stories from some remote part of China, or whatever? Really?”
    Really. I’ve never heard of (as I said) “someone who is plausibly divine, whose apparent resurrection is based on several well attested historical facts, and whose followers changed the course of history in a way that makes other explanations difficult.” Does your example meet those criteria?

    “So do you ever expect people to provide good evidence for their assertions?”
    I didn’t say that either. I specifically said “This may not change what you require to be convinced”.

    RA, let’s cancel that last post of yours. Everything you said was contrary to what I said – perhaps you posted a little too quickly. But I think it should be obvious to you by now that I am not quite as silly as you made out. Let’s treat each other with respect, and not try to score cheap points by drawing rhetorical conclusions that clearly are not based on what the other has said.

    Best wishes.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      This is hilarious. You keep arguing against my point on evidence, even while doing exactly what I describe. You apparently believe an implausible claim because you haven’t heard a convincing alternative explanation.

      It’s very hard to know how to respond to that, except to say that I rest my case.

      • unklee says :

        I dunno how to respond RA. I’m glad you got a laugh – better than making you cry. I don’t see where I did whatever you described because I’ve lost track of what that was, and your post doesn’t say. And I’m happy for you to rest your case, and I’ll rest mine. Best wishes.

  5. thebiblereader says :

    The church I use to go to in High School loved Perry Mason and his collection of end time prophecy videos, Then I actually read the book of revelations as an adult, and realized the rapture and all that perry mason nonsense was crap.

  6. sixpointnineme says :

    Let us treat it as a court case. The prosecution is the one making an affirmation, the ones that say something is true: “the defendant is guilty”. In that case the burden of proof is on the prosecutor. In the matter at hand the party that is making the affirmation is the group that says that “the resurrection is true”. The defense in this case is the group that negates the affirmation, that is “the resurrection is not true”. Guilty vs. Not-guilty. So the question here is, where is the proof beyond a reasonable doubt? There is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
    We cannot accept this form a historical point of view as there is no historical evidence of the resurrection outside the Bible,and for that matter, only scarce evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
    The resurrection has absolutely no place in a scientific or evidence-based medical discussion, or in a scientific experiment, as it will not pass muster.
    The only way to accept this is to use Presuppositional apologetics and Circular argument. My starting point is “Jesus resurrected” and then, off we go with circular argument. The quintessential Circular Reasoning: God directed the writing of the Bible, therefore the Bible is true, therefore God exists and directed the writing of the Bible.

    Oh and by the way, maybe there are a few similarly attested claims:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dying_god

    Thank you for an enjoyable post. Keep up the good work and the critical thinking.

    “A man is accepted into a church for what he believes and he is turned out for what he knows.”
    Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

  7. unklee says :

    sixpointnineme sad:

    “There is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
    But there is proof beyond reasonable doubt for very few things in life. Why do you insist on it here?

    “maybe there are a few similarly attested claims:”
    But almost certainly not. The consensus of scholars is that it was all based on bad methodology.

    *T Mettinger in the Wikipedia article you quoted.
    * Jonathan Z. Smith also in Wikipedia: [the category is] “largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.”
    * Bart Ehrman: “there is very thin evidence indeed for anything like a widespread pagan belief in a dying-rising god, on which Jesus was modeled”

    When you add that I said: ““someone who is plausibly divine, whose apparent resurrection is based on several well attested historical facts, and whose followers changed the course of history in a way that makes other explanations difficult.” “ and I think your comment doesn’t have any legs.

    • sixpointnineme says :

      Well maybe, for those who cannot read between the lines, I should have underlined the fact that those similarly attested claims and all the ones that appear in the Wikipedia article were put there as a sort of ironical sidenote. They have the same credence as Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection: NONE.
      I have no idea where you read that last paragraph you cite me as saying , it is nowhere to be found in my comment. Please do not put words in my mouth. You wrote that on your May 7th post and I did not make reference to that.
      The tides go in and out, the earth rotates on its axis, the sun rises and sets everyday, should I go on? There are many things in the world that have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, faith and religion are not among them for sure.
      Perhaps you can point me to your source of information pertaining the veracity of the resurrection, I asure you that as I am scientifically inclined, if evidence is there I am happy to change my views.
      You have put forth no evidence for your far fetched claims, only the insistence of faith based belief.
      I must conclude that maybe maybe my argument has a few pitfalls that I am willing to explain, but you have no argument at all.

      • unklee says :

        “I have no idea where you read that last paragraph you cite me as saying , it is nowhere to be found in my comment. Please do not put words in my mouth. You wrote that on your May 7th post and I did not make reference to that.”

        No, I’m sorry, I was unclear. I was addressing your statement that there were similarly attested claims, and I meant that, on top of the scholarly information that shows that those claims are not accepted these days by the majority of scholars, you needed to consider that I my statement (which I re-quoted) drew attention to some additional factors which neither you not Wikipedia had considered, making your statement even more doubtful. I’m sorry I confused you by the careless use of the word “you”.

        “Perhaps you can point me to your source of information pertaining the veracity of the resurrection”

        If you check, you’ll see I said nothing about “the veracity of the resurrection”, though I do indeed believe it occurred. The discussion was about how well attested the claims are – we can each then decide ourselves about its veracity.

        My reference to “well attested claims” is based on the documented fact that many, in some cases most, secular historians accept the following as historical facts:

        1. Jesus lived and was executed by Pilate.
        2. His tomb was later found empty and his (dead) body was never located.
        3. His disciples had some experience of seeing him alive after his death, however that may be explained. E P Sanders: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know”
        4. Belief that Jesus was resurrected was part of the christian belief from very early days, so couldn’t have been a legend that grew with time. Bart Ehrman: “For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.”
        5. This belief was a strong motivation for the subsequent expansion of christian faith across the Roman empire.

        I am not aware of any other supposed resurrection that has similar historical support, are you?

        On top of that, as I said before, these facts concern a person who historians accept was famous as a healer, said he was bringing in the kingdom of God, and made claims that plausibly indicate he was claiming to be divine. (I can give scholarly quotes for all of this.)

        Those are the historical ‘facts’, make of them what you will. Best wishes.

  8. sixpointnineme says :

    Thank you for the clarification. I have not read E P Sanders but promise to look into his work. In a Wikipedia article “Bart Ehrman points out that historians try to determine which events most probably occurred. Even if Jesus’ followers did find his tomb empty, any improbable explanation for its being empty is historically superior to the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead, which would be a virtual impossibility.”[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Jesus#cite_note-JInt-50]
    On the matter of taking as fact that which many believe in, that just does not sit well with me. There was a time when there was a majority of the population of the World that believed the Earth was flat, we all know the destiny of that du jour truth. Unfortunately, scientific fact and truth in general are not democratic, so it does not matter how many people believe something, if it is not factual, it is no more than wishful thinking.
    Your point number 5 is by all means indisputable, although the ultimate motivation of Constantine the Great is disputed.
    I would like to take you up on those scholarly quotes, as they would be a welcome addition to my reading list.

    I appreciate your kind wishes and hope you have a good day.

    • unklee says :

      G’day sixpointnineme,

      EP Sanders’ work is a little old now (20 years ago) but he is good because he is a sceptical agnostic (and so doesn’t have a point to prove) and he provides in two books clear lists of what he considers to be historically well established.

      We need to distinguish between history and philosophy. Bart Ehrman’s views as a historian are to be respected, but his conclusion that the supernatural explanation is a virtual impossibility is philosophical, and based on his lack of belief in God. I believe in God so for me it is nothing like an impossibility that God would raise his son from the dead.

      I take notice of the majority of historians when they tell me matters of fact or of historical conclusions, because they have expertise, and I don’t, just as I take notice of expert scientists or doctors or computer specialists. But when it comes to drawing my conclusions, I take my own responsibility for that. I think that is the appropriate was to do things.

      You can find some more quotes in Jesus in history, Was Jesus a real person? and Are the gospels historical?. I try to quote scholars who reflect the general consensus of conclusions, not the christian apologists or the sceptical extremists, and recommend people like Michael Grant, EP Sanders, Craig Evans, James Charlesworth, Richard Bauckham, plus Bart Ehrman (representing the sceptical end of scholarly opinion) and NT Wright (representing the christian end).

      Hope that helps. Best wishes on your reading!

      • unklee says :

        PS. In my last post, there are 3 links in the first line of the paragraph beginning “You can find …”. I point them out because they don’t show up clearly as links on my screen. But hovering over them shows the links.

  9. sixpointnineme says :

    Thank you. I don’t want to be a nag, but for the life of me, I just can’t find the links in your replies. Are they maybe in a post on your own blog?

  10. Blanche Quizno says :

    Looks like I’m more than fashionably late to the party, but I’ll weigh in anyhow. Even if there’s nobody here 😦 You are correct that it is intellectually dishonest to shift the burden of proof to the person who doesn’t buy your argument. “I have a closed box. I say the box has an apple in it. Unless you can *prove* that the box doesn’t have an apple in it (without touching the box, natch), then that means the box has an apple in it.” O_O

    The religious are far more secular in their thinking and expectations than they realize – for example, if their car won’t start, they take it to a mechanic. They don’t pray over it or call up the local diocese to send out the exorcist. And if the mechanic says, “Sorry, but your car is infested with demons – lost cause. You’d better go buy a different one”, they won’t accept that! They’ll take the car to a different mechanic! If a relative is found dead with bullet holes, what will they say if the detective says, “Easiest case I’ve ever investigated. God wanted him dead – that’s clear. Because God works in mysterious ways, God can certainly make it look like a shooting if He wants – He’s God, after all! It’s not for us to understand His mind or His ways. Bag ‘im and tag ‘im, boys!”?

    However, when it comes to the fantasticals of their own belief system, all that is *FACT*! Any other belief systems’ fantastic tales are just so much superstition, of course. I have no problem with people believing whatever they like. It can be as insane or asinine as they choose – whatevs! Live and let live! But if they expect me to treat their delusions as reality, we have a problem.

    It is ALWAYS the responsibility of the person making a claim to back it up and to convince the other person. Accepting that responsibility is being intellectually honest. Expecting the other person to do all your work for you, in other words, taking a position that “I’m right unless you can prove I’m wrong”, knowing full well they will reject and dismiss everything the other person presents, is the height of intellectual dishonesty. It’s a sad verdict that Christians invariably take the (apparently) intellectually dishonest route when challenged about their superstitions, but I blame the early childhood indoctrination. Someone who is being driven by fear cannot be expected to behave rationally.

    “When a trout rising to a fly gets hooked on a line and finds himself unable to swim about freely, he begins with a fight which results in struggles and splashes and sometimes an escape. Often, of course, the situation is too tough for him.

    In the same way the human being struggles with his environment and with the hooks that catch him. Sometimes he masters his difficulties; sometimes they are too much for him. His struggles are all that the world sees and it naturally misunderstands them. It is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one.” – Karl A. Menninger

    Jesus of the Gospels was a made-up character in the same way that Tony and Maria are made-up characters in West Side Story. Jesus in the Gospels is a retelling of themes from the Jewish scriptures the same way that West Side Story is a retelling of themes from Romeo and Juliet. Imagine if someone were to mistake West Side Story for a documentary about gangs in New York in the ’50s! “They danced to settle their differences!” Every significant statement or event in Jesus’s life was outlined by one or more passages of Jewish scripture – every single one. If I get a donkey and ride it into Jerusalem, does that make ME the messiah? So beware all those passages describing things being deliberately done “so that prophecy could be fulfilled”. Paul had no knowledge of any earthly Jesus, and his interactions with the so-called “Jerusalem Church” demonstrate that they didn’t either. They had differences of opinion – at no point does anyone trot out a shared memory of a Jesus teaching to settle the argument! However, I’ll stop there – plenty of good sources if anyone is interested. I would start here: http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/art_midrash1.htm

    Cheers, all! Chxlive

  11. unkleE says :

    G’day Blanche, better late than never! You say:

    “The links are to Jesus in history, Was Jesus a real person? and Are the gospels historical?”
    There aren’t, he wasn’t, and they aren’t.

    and
    “Jesus of the Gospels was a made-up character…. plenty of good sources if anyone is interested. I would start here: http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/art_midrash1.htm

    It is interesting you say there are plenty of good sources, and we should start with Robert Price. For he is, as far as I know, the <only reputable scholar who holds the views that you are presenting here. Every other scholar that I know of disagrees with Price. Scholar Bart Ehrman, who has read more than I have, says:

    of the hundreds — thousands? — of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world.

    So yes, there are plenty of sources on these questions. But all the ones by competent scholars, except the one scholar you mention, say the opposite of what you say. This means it is hard to know how to take this comment of yours:

    “It is ALWAYS the responsibility of the person making a claim to back it up and to convince the other person. Accepting that responsibility is being intellectually honest.”

    Were you not aware of the consensus of scholars on this matter?

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