DO APPARITIONS OF MARY UNDERMINE THE CASE FOR JESUS’ RESURRECTION? Debunking Hector Avalos’ “Living Laboratory”

DO APPARITIONS OF MARY UNDERMINE THE CASE FOR JESUS’ RESURRECTION? Debunking Hector Avalos’ “Living Laboratory”

© 2014, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

In an article entitled “Jesus’ Resurrection and Marian Apparitions: Medjugorje as a Living Laboratory,”[1] Dr. Hector Avalos (below, left) seeks to cast doubt on the New Testament records of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances by arguing that the so-called “Marian apparitions[2] which began in 1981 at Medjugorje, Yugoslavia (below, right),[3]amply illustrates how people can use the most objective and physical language to describe encounters with persons others would regard as non-existent.[4]

Image of Dr. Hector Avalos and Marian apparitions which began in 1981 at Medjugorje, YugoslaviaOne is inclined to give Avalos kudos for trying a new approach instead of resorting to discredited appeals to late dates and anonymous writers of the canonical Gospel books.[5]  However, his new approach fails.  It fails utterly and completely, as we shall see.  First, we shall summarize his arguments and then we will try to tease out his logic.  After that, we shall look at some serious problems with his claims.  Finally, we shall see if any case at all can be made from the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje that would have a deleterious effect on the credibility of the Jesus’ post-resurrection accounts.

A Summary of Avalos’ Case

Avalos tells us that he is “always looking for good living examples from around the world of phenomena that apologists for the resurrection deem to be not credible or comparable” and believes he has found such an example in the “Marian apparitions” from Medjugorje.  He sees Medjugorje as a “living laboratory” for four reasons: (1) the witnesses are still alive; (2) the apparitions were fully documented almost immediately; (3) the witnesses were examined by a team of scientists; and (4) millions of people soon came to believe in these apparitions.

Avalos believes that these apparitions “have a natural explanation,” but that, using “some of the theological assumptions and biblical concepts” that are used to defend Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, he could “easily defend their claimed supernatural character.

Avalos then proceeds to list the witnesses and their early experiences.  Inter alia, he says that “these children emphatically affirmed that they saw Mary as a fully physical and real person”; that their own bishop was skeptical, which he compares to “the skepticism expressed by Jewish authorities in the case of Jesus”; and that five of the witnesses “were subjected to an extensive battery of medical and psychiatric tests in 1984,” which concluded that “‘the apparitions are not sleep or dream or hallucination in the medical or pathological sense of the word … nor is there any element of deceit.  No scientific discipline seems able to describe these phenomena.’[6]

Of course one obvious difference between these witnesses and those of the resurrected Jesus is that the former did not die rather than deny their claims, and so Avalos at this point appeals to a recent book, Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution,[7] to challenge the fact that the disciples did, in fact, die rather than deny their own claims:

the common claim … that the disciples were willing to die for their beliefs is simply historically unconfirmed … in the first 250 years of Christian history “only six martyrdom accounts can be treated as reliable.

The next part of Avalos’ article is a lengthy response to one Travis James Campbell’s article, “Avalos Contra Craig: A Historical, Theological, and Philosophical Assessment,[8] in which “Campbell challenged [Avalos’] comparison of the Jesus resurrection stories to the reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje.”  His response to Campbell is summarized in the following points:

  1. Campbell underestimates the amount and quality of the evidence for the “veridicality” of the Medjugorje apparitions.  He has not used the most important sources defending the apparitions; in fact, he seems to rely mainly on a 1992 book called The Cult of the Virgin: Catholic Mariology and the Apparitions of Mary,[9] written by “Protestant evangelical apologists.

  2. Miller and Samples, the authors of this 1992 book, suggest that “Satan (and/or demons)” could be behind these apparitions, but, according to Avalos, they “forget that a demonic explanation is also used by traditional Jewish authorities against Jesus in Mark 3:22: ‘He is possessed by Be-el’zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’

  3. The salient differences that Campbell sees between the post-resurrection accounts and the Marian apparitions are, according to Avalos, “predicated on theological assumptions or on criteria that are not applied consistently.”  He spends considerable space discussing the fate of Mary and the dogma of the “Assumption of Mary,” the empty tomb, the validity of apocryphal writings, the length of time between events and apparitions, and the rapidity with which a creed developed in each case, and argues that in each aspect the case for the Marian apparitions as is at least as strong, and usually stronger, than the case for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

  4. Avalos challenges Campbell’s contention that “‘There are at least four (generally agreed upon) facts from which the inference to the resurrection of Jesus is based; while there are no facts concerning the fate of Mary that scholars in this field of study can agree to.’”  Avalos maintains that “Campbell represents as ‘facts’ what are no such thing.  ‘Generally agreed upon’ is just a coded description for a consensus among Christian scholars, and it has no more merit than quoting Islamic scholars to prove that ‘it is generally agreed upon that Muhammad received revelations from Allah.’

  5. Campbell points to the “variation” in the Marian apparitions, from “external and physical” to those “described with a spiritual sense or spiritual vision” as being problematic, but Avalos disagrees, pointing out that Jesus supposedly appeared physically for only forty days, and subsequently in visions, such as to Paul.

  6. Campbell points to the fact that Samples himself was present when one of the witnesses saw Mary but he himself saw nothing at the time, which indicates that the witness was not actually perceiving Mary in any objective way.  Avalos counters that the same sort of thing obtained for Stephen before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7) and Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).

  7. Campbell claims that the Marian apparitions “are nothing like the experience of the disciples had [sic] with the risen Jesus. It is important to note that the apostles could clearly distinguish between a vision and an appearance.”  Avalos begs to differ, on the grounds that the witnesses themselves describe their initial experiences “in as objective a language as anything encountered in the New Testament,” including descriptions of the appearance of Mary and claims of having touched her.  Furthermore, says Avalos, some of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus “are not compatible with a purely physical blood-and-flesh Jesus.”  (He cites 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 15:50; Acts 9:7 and 22:9; Luke 24:15, 24:31, and 24:39.)

Avalos then complains that

the biased nature of Protestant critiques of Medjugorje can be detected in that much of the data for dismissing the experiences of the visionaries comes from follow-up interviews or field work … [whereas] such Protestant apologists do not demand field work or follow-up to accept the stories in the New Testament.

In other words,

in the case of the New Testament, Protestant apologists automatically assign credibility to reports where witnesses were not further scrutinized or their stories were never empirically verified by outside observers.  But the same apologist will not automatically assign credibility to Marian reports PRIOR to any scrutinization or field work.

Next, Avalos claims that the six criteria used by Christian apologist William Lane Craig to prove the historical reliability of the post-resurrection accounts[10] equally prove the reliability of the Marian apparitions.  Therefore, he concludes,

Protestant apologists for the historical Jesus cannot continue to ignore the challenges posed by Marian apparitions … Even if we agree with Campbell that the Medjugorje stories do not represent a reality that we can objectively establish as historical, he fails to see how that fact itself undermines his pleas for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.  Indeed, perhaps the MOST IMPORTANT LESSON from Medjugorje is that people CAN report seeing non-existing people with as physical and objective a terminology as the language has available … Both Marian and Jesus apparition reports may be part of the same broader socio-psychological phenomenon where people report non-occurring and imagined events with objective language.  Simple as that.

Avalos finishes off with a series of questions for Campbell that are designed to lead him to this very conclusion.

Avalos’ Logic

Avalos’ case can be summed up as follows:

  • The evidence for the Marian apparitions is better than the evidence for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

  • Evangelical apologists use a double standard in dealing with such evidence, and that is unacceptable.

  • Since Evangelical apologists reject the Marian apparitions, they are implicitly admitting that witnesses can testify to the physical appearance of people even though such people did not actually appear in any real sense.

  • It is therefore reasonable to see the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the same way as the Marian apparitions: descriptions of apparently physical appearances that did not actually happen.

Flaws in Avalos’ Case

Before we consider the best-case scenario for using the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje to undermine the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, let us consider some of the many problems and errors of fact and logic in Avalos’ case.


CLAIM: First, Avalos tries to buttress the case for the Marian apparitions by citing

an extensive battery of medical and psychiatric tests in 1984 by a team led by Dr. Henri Joyeux, an oncologist of the Faculty of Medicine at the University at Montpellier.  The team also included a cardiologist (Dr. Bernard Hoarau),and a neurophysiologist (Dr. Jean Cadhilhac).  The team published its findings in René Laurentin and Henri Joyeux, Scientific and Medical Studies on the Apparitions at Medjugorje (Dublin: Veritas, 1985).

Avalos tells us that the findings show that “‘the apparitions are not sleep or dream or hallucination in the medical or pathological sense of the word …

nor is there any element of deceit.  No scientific discipline seems able to describe these phenomena” and that there was no indication of drug use or illness that might have caused the experiences.  He also tells us that subsequent tests “seemed to reconfirm previous conclusions.”  Avalos crows that

already these “witnesses” have been subjected to more scientific and psychological probing than any “witness” we can identify for the resurrection stories of the New Testament.

PROBLEM: Avalos discusses the work of Joyeux et al at length elsewhere (which he links to the article under discussion here) and demolishes it,[11] showing severe methodological problems and unwarranted conclusions.  The following are just a few examples:

Insofar as experimental design is concerned, the exaggerated claims of Joyeux are most apparent in the “screening test” he discusses.  What Joyeux describes as a “screening test” and a “screen” actually refers to the brief placement of a postcard-size object in front of Marija and Ivanka.  It does not block out peripheral vision.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the conclusions of Laurentin and Joyeux is that they use the word objective in a wildly inconsistent manner, resulting in special pleading and in logically absurd conclusions.  For example, in a discussion of whether the phenomena exhibited by the visionaries are supernatural, they state, “As research has not reached any objective proofs, it would be difficult to discuss the matter in the absence of definite criteria.”  But they still purport to have proof in favor of the objective experience of the visionaries.

Since the objects seen by the psychiatric hallucinator and the Medjugorje visionaries are equally invisible to other people and to cameras, then it is only special pleading, not verifiable criteria, that leads Laurentin and Joyeux to affirm the credibility of the Medjugorje visionaries while denying credibility to the “psychiatric” hallucinator.  Thus, Laurentin and Joyeux provide no verifiable reason to ascribe accuracy to the perception of the six who claim to see Mary, and yet deny the accuracy of the perception of the thousands who claim to be equally certain that they do not see Mary.

Now, in the article under our discussion, Avalos has adduced the “extensive battery of medical and psychiatric tests in 1984 by a team led by Dr. Henri Joyeux” as proof that the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje are better tested than the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  It is difficult to see why he would give this impression based on tests that he himself has shown to be without merit.


CLAIM: The fact that the apostles and early disciples died rather than renounce their belief in the risen Christ is a crucial difference between the witnesses of the post-resurrection Jesus and the Medjugorje witnesses, none of the latter of whom has paid any price for his claims.  Avalos has to try to blunt this distinction, and he does so by asserting that such martyrdom on the part of early Christians is “simply historically unconfirmed.  As Candida Moss argues (The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented the Story of Martyrdom [New York:HarperOne, 2013, p. 16), in the first 250 years of Christian history only six martyrdom accounts can be treated as reliable.

PROBLEM: Moss’ claims are ludicrous, as well shown by Paul L. Maier, a former professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University.[12]  As Maier says about Moss’ book, “Perhaps the most important source that tears the intended impact of this book’s title into shreds is Cornelius Tacitus’s Annals 15:44[13] which describes the brutal murderous persecution of “vast numbers” of Christians under Nero.  The evidence,” Maier writes, “is instead overwhelming and categorical.  Rarely do both friendly and hostile sources agree on anything, but the persecution of Christians is one of them.  Aside from copious Christian evidence, not only Tacitus but also Suetonius, another pagan Roman historian, writes [about the persecution of Christians].[14]  Avalos, therefore, has been extremely careless in using Moss’ book to try to deny the martyrdom of early Christian believers.  This fundamental difference between the witnesses of the risen Jesus and the Medjugorje witnesses, then, is an undeniable fact.


CLAIM: Miller and Samples in The Cult of the Virgin suggest that “Satan (and/or demons)” could be behind these apparitions, but, according to Avalos, they “forget that a demonic explanation is also used by traditional Jewish authorities against Jesus in Mark 3:22: ‘He is possessed by Be-el’zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’

PROBLEM: These two situations are fundamentally different.  Miller and Samples seem to suggest the possibility that what the Medjugorje witnesses were seeing was not actually Mary but a demon posing as Mary, or some other demonic apparition.  In the case of Jesus, on the other hand, there was no question on the part of the “traditional Jewish authorities” that they were dealing with the man Jesus of Nazareth, nor was there any question but that He performed miracles.  They were unjustifiedly ascribing His miracles to demonic powers, not the fact of His existence and presence.


CLAIM: Avalos challenges Campbell’s contention that

“There are at least four (generally agreed upon) facts from which the inference to the resurrection of Jesus is based; while there are no facts concerning the fate of Mary that scholars in this field of study can agree to.”

Avalos maintains that

Campbell represents as “facts” what are no such thing.  “Generally agreed upon” is just a coded description for a consensus among Christian scholars, and it has no more merit than quoting Islamic scholars to prove that “it is generally agreed upon that Muhammad received revelations from Allah.”

PROBLEM: Campbell is here appealing to what is called the “minimal facts approach” pioneered by Gary Habermas, which uses facts that are agreed to by the majority of Biblical scholars, whether or not they are Christians.  The approach is as follows:

“Under this approach, we only consider facts that meet two criteria.  First, there must be very strong historical evidence supporting them.  And secondly, the evidence must be so strong that the vast majority of today’s scholars on the subject – including skeptical ones – accept these as historical facts … Habermas has compiled a list of more than 2,200 sources in French, German, and English in which experts have written on the resurrection from 1975 to the present.  He has identified minimal facts that are strongly evidenced and which are regarded as historical by the large majority of scholars, including skeptics.”[15]

So Avalos’ assertion that the minimal facts approach represents the consensus of only Christian scholars, and is somehow comparable to pronouncements about the historicity of Muhammad made by only Islamic scholars, is wildly wrong.  It is difficult to see how Avalos made such a careless mistake.


CLAIM: Avalos writes,

it is not a FACT that there is an empty tomb, regardless of how many Christian scholars may agree.  A FACT is something that we can verify with our five senses and/or logic, and no one today can verify that Jesus’ tomb was empty around the year 30 CE.

PROBLEM: Here Avalos paints himself into an untenable corner.  Does Avalos consider, say, the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865 to be a “FACT”?  We can be certain that he does (and if he does not he loses all credibility).  However, it is obvious that no one today can verify the Lincoln assassination with his five senses!  Avalos can, of course, resort to the other option in his “and/or” and appeal to “logic,” but what logic obtains with regard to events from history?  The only basis, in fact, on which we can know about events in history (and particularly events from ancient history) is if eyewitnesses left written records about these events, and these records have come down to us.  This is what we have in the case of the Lincoln assassination, the deeds of Alexander the Great, the reign of Tiberius Caesar (all of which Avalos most likely accepts), and this is exactly what we have in the case of the life, miracles, death, and, yes, post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  And this documentation is strong enough to convince the majority of scholars, Christian and skeptical (and not, as Avalos would have it, only Christian ones) that the empty tomb is indeed a fact.


CLAIM: Avalos complains about Campbell’s assertion that

belief in the resurrection of Jesus “was crystallized in creedal form by the eyewitnesses inside five or six years of Jesus’ death.”[16]

The stories of the existence of such a creed are found in New Testament manuscripts from the third century and later, but there is no actual evidence from 5 or 6 years after the year 30,” he objects.

Where is a document from around 35-36 CE that showed the existence of such a creed?

PROBLEM: Avalos is guilty of an “asymmetrical requirement” here.  Surely he ought to know that when we are dealing with the documentation of events from ancient history, we are always dealing with manuscript copies that postdate the original time of writing by typically hundreds of years.[17]  The following shows the state of the manuscript evidence for Alexander the Great, and for the two Roman emperors who ruled during the earthly ministry of Jesus, Caesar Augustus and Tiberius:

Lifetime Earliest Account Earliest Manuscript Gap
Alexander the Great 356–323 BC 1st century AD Mid 10th century AD 1,000+ years
Caesar Augustus 63 BC–AD 14 One eyewitness ca. AD 900    900 years
Tiberius 42 BC–AD 37 One eyewitness None extant[18]      ––

Inasmuch as the narratives recorded in these accounts are accepted as true by historians (and, no doubt, by Avalos) regardless of manuscript gaps of 900 or 1,000 years, it is special pleading on the part of Avalos to suggest that the resurrection “creed” cannot be trusted unless we can find contemporary manuscripts.

Now, if the oldest one we had werefrom the third century or later,” it would still be very early by the standards of ancient documentation.  However, this is not the case.  The oldest manuscript containing 1 Corinthians 15 is the papyrus designated P46 (one leaf of which is shown below), an extensive document containing some 1,690 verses of Paul’s epistles, including virtually complete copies of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, as well as the Epistle to the Hebrews.

While this manuscript was originally dated at ca. AD 200, Korean papyrologist Young Kyu Kim has shown that it predates the time of the emperor Domitian, which dates it to AD 80 at the latest.[19]  While 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is not, in fact, a creed,[20] it is a record of eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus that dates to eyewitness times and of which we have an actual copy from eyewitness times.

Now, these are by no means the only problems in Avalos’ article, but they are enough to illustrate the fact that his arguments leave a lot to be desired and seem to be rather careless, and this weighs against the credibility of his case.  Therefore, there is nothing further to be gained by discussing more of these problems.  Instead, we have two more issues that must be discussed ere we move on to the direct comparison of the Medjugorje apparitions and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

The Proper Weighing of the Evidence

Avalos makes asymmetrical requirements of the evidence, and at least one of these crosses the line into outright absurdity.  He writes,

The biased nature of Protestant critiques of Medjugorje can be detected in that much of the data for dismissing the experiences of the visionaries comes from follow-up interviews or field work.  Thus, Samples had the luxury of empirically verifying that he could not see what a visionary claimed to see.  The problem with using such field work to cast doubt on Medjugorje is that such Protestant apologists do not demand field work or follow-up to accept the stories in the New Testament.  Thus, in the case of the New Testament, Protestant apologists automatically assign credibility to reports where witnesses were not further scrutinized or their stories were never empirically verified by outside observers.  But the same apologist will not automatically assign credibility to Marian reports PRIOR to any scrutinization or field work.

It is difficult to see this as a serious objection, as it does not seem reasonable to demand that Evangelicals should do “follow-up interviews” with eyewitnesses who have been dead for more than nineteen centuries.  Of course the standards are necessarily different when dealing with contemporary events and events of ancient history.  This is especially so in modern times, when we have the luxury of television, photography, and instantaneous worldwide communication.[21]  We have more evidence that Canada beat Sweden 3-0 to win the ice hockey gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, for example, than for any event in ancient history.

Images of Ice Hockey being playedHowever, the germane question is not whether the evidence for events from ancient history is as compelling as the evidence for current events but whether, judged by its own standards, it is sufficiently strong to compel belief – and, in the case of the life, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it is.[22]

Now, no doubt if Evangelicals had the opportunity to do follow-up interviews with the witnesses of the resurrected Jesus they would do so, but that is not possible for obvious reasons.  This does mean, however, that, as Avalos maintains,

in the case of the New Testament, Protestant apologists automatically assign credibility to reports where witnesses were not further scrutinized or their stories were never empirically verified by outside observers.  But the same apologist will not automatically assign credibility to Marian reports PRIOR to any scrutinization or field work.

In fact Evangelicals do notautomatically assign credibility” to any reports, but in each case collect the best available evidence (which in the case of the Medjugorje apparitions can and does include follow-up interviews) and make decisions on that basis.  In the case of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, the decision is that they are fully credible.

Furthermore, the fact that Evangelicals today cannot do follow-up interviews does not mean that such interviews were not done.  In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul gives a list of witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, and by stating that “the greater part remain to the present” (i.e. they are still alive at the time of Paul’s writing, ca. AD 55), he is extending an open invitation to his readers to do the very sort of follow-up interviews Avalos wants.[23]  It is eminently reasonable to think that people who would face persecution and possibly death for becoming Christian believers would certainly make every effort to know whether Jesus had actually risen and would indeed conduct these follow-up interviews.[24]  And, had there not been these eyewitnesses who backed up Paul’s claims, Christianity would have died at birth, for no one continues to follow a Jewish Messiah who died and stayed dead,[25] and especially if one would face persecution for doing so.  These facts, too, are part of the carefully considered evidence that convinces Evangelicals that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead.

Finally, let us deal with Avalos’ argument that

ALL reports about Jesus come from believers, while at Medjugorje reports about Marian experiences also come from non-believers such as Samples.

He then tells us that this can be “Alternatively expressed” as

Jesus: All reports of alleged post-resurrection experiences come from believers.

Mary: All reports of alleged post-resurrection experiences DO NOT COME from believers.

Avalos, however, seems to overlook the fact that the evidence he himself has adduced can also be “Alternatively expressed” as:

Jesus: All witnesses agree that the post-resurrected Jesus was there and was seen by them.

Mary: Some witnesses say that Mary was there and seen by them, and others there at the same time say that Mary was not there, and, in fact, there was no one there to be seen.

Only in the bizarro-world could the latter be considered better evidence, as Avalos wants us to believe.  It would truly be fascinating to watch a lawyer try to convince a jury that the testimony of eyewitnesses who fundamentally contradict each other should be deemed better than the testimony of eyewitnesses who agree with each other in all the major particulars.

Furthermore, Avalos seems to have overlooked the real possibility that all reports come from believers because the evidence they saw was sufficient to make believers of them.  Avalos’ complaint here sounds like that of the flat-earther who objects that “All reports from astronauts that the earth is round come from round-earth believers.”

In sum, then, the evidence for ancient events and the evidence for contemporary events must each be judged by their own standards.  Avalos’ cavil that the evidence for the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus is not being judged by standards that can only be applied to contemporary events is to be dismissed.  By any fair probative standard for ancient events, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is fully compelling.

Is Mary Alive Today?

As we have said, Avalos believes that the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje “have a natural explanation,” but that by using “some of the theological assumptions and biblical concepts” that are used to defend Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances he could “easily defend their claimed supernatural character.”  He hopes to show that Evangelicals by rejecting these apparitions are tacitly admitting that witnesses can testify to the physical appearance of people even though such people did not actually appear in any real sense, and so they cannot insist on the physical reality of the resurrected Jesus, whose post-resurrection appearances have weaker documentation than do the Marian appearances that they reject.

For this to work, however, Avalos seems to think it necessary to argue that Mary should be considered alive today by Evangelicals and therefore theoretically able to make appearances to people.  As Avalos says,

If Mary is alive now, she can theoretically appear just as often or just as viably as any angels or saints who presumably have eternal life.

Avalos apparently thinks that Campbell denies this possibility and so he expends a great deal of effort (including defending the Roman Catholic dogma of the “Assumption of Mary[26] and apocryphal writings)[27] explaining why Christians should indeed see her as being alive today and therefore actually capable of appearing at Medjugorje.

While this section also contains a plethora of errors,[28] it is not necessary to go through them, since Evangelicals certainly do agree that Mary is alive today.  The physically dead, both believer and unbeliever, live on in incorporeal form (e.g. Luke 23:39-43; Philippians 1:19-25; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Luke 16:19-31) until the resurrection of the body following the Second Coming of Christ (John 5:24-29).  So certainly Mary is alive and could, in theory, appear to us.[29]  And, in point of fact, Campbell does not deny this!  Avalos actually quotes Campbell saying,

So what are we to think of these apparitions of Mary?  They may be authentic.  Or they may be inauthentic (bolding mine).

So Avalos has no need to prove something that Evangelicals, including Campbell, agree to, viz. that Mary is alive.  It seems that Avalos could have saved himself a good deal of effort if he had actually paid careful attention to what he was quoting.

And now, let us move on to the crucial issue: Are the Marian apparitions so well documented and sufficiently comparable to the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus that we must either accept both or reject both, as Avalos would have it?  That is what we will consider in the final section of this paper.

The Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus and the Marian Apparitions at Medjugorje, Side by Side

Consider the following two men:

On the left is Winston Churchill and on the right is Adolf HitlerOn the left is Winston Churchill and on the right is Adolf Hitler.  Now, there was quite a number of similarities between these two men.  They both served in the military, they both were amateur artists who sold some paintings, they both wrote popular books, they both were elected to public office, they both were excellent communicators, and they both became the leaders of their countries and guided them through World War II.

Despite these similarities, however, no one would ever confuse the two, as the differences are far more important.  Churchill fought so that “all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands[30] while Hitler fought to conquer and enslave other nations.  Churchill presided over the defence of freedom and democracy while Hitler presided over the attempted genocide of the Jewish people.  Hitler died by his own hand in a bunker as Berlin was overrun, while Churchill was a feted as an international hero who was eventually elected again to govern his country.  Churchill is considered perhaps the greatest national leader of the 20th century while Hitler is rightly considered among the most evil men who ever lived.

It is the profound differences that ultimately matter here, then, and not the similarities.

So, too, in the case of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje.  Avalos, unfortunately, focuses only on the similarities.  He sees these two situations as akin because in both cases a group of witnesses claimed to have seen a supernatural appearance of a person who had been dead; in both cases these claims were documented; eyewitnesses claimed that Jesus had been present in a physical body and the Medjugorje witnesses likewise “emphatically affirmed that they saw Mary as a fully physical and real person”; in both cases a “creed” was soon formed as to the fact of the appearances[31]; and in both cases large numbers of believers resulted within a short time.  Avalos insists that

the initial experiences of the [Medjugorje] visionaries are reported in as objective a language as anything encountered in the New Testament … they saw the Virgin as clearly as any disciple perceived Jesus.

Nevertheless, Avalos overlooks crucial differences between the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the Marian apparitions, and these are decisive.  True, Avalos tells us that “Campbell lists what he believes are crucial differences between the Marian apparition stories and the Jesus resurrection stories,” but if Avalos in his article has responded to everything on Campbell’s list, then both Campbell and Avalos have missed the most important differences.  We will now look at these in detail.

First, as we have already discussed, the apostles and other early believers suffered persecution and some of them death for insisting on the truth of what they had seen.  The martyrdom of the apostle James, the brother of John, and of the deacon Stephen are recorded in Acts, along with other martyrdoms with names unspecified.[32]  No such thing has happened in the case of the Medjugorje witnesses; on the contrary, they have received attention and fame and no obvious negative consequences.  It brings to mind the famous quote by Fred Shero, erstwhile coach of the NHL Philadelphia Flyers:

When you have bacon and eggs for breakfast, the chicken makes a contribution, but the pig makes a commitment.

The apostles made this sort of commitment, whereas the Medjugorje witnesses have not, and there is no way to know what the Medjugorje witnesses would do if faced with persecution and death to maintain the truth of their claims.  It is worth noting here that this difference is significant enough that Avalos tried to head it off with his failed appeal to Candida Moss’ silly book.

Furthermore, not only have the Medjugorje witnesses not paid a price for their claims, they have received significant benefits.  Austin Ruse, President of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), who visited Medjugorje for seven days to investigate the witnesses, says that

I stood outside one of their houses – a fancy-gated one … This group lives behind gates in fancy houses, makes speaking tours, and drives fancy cars.  Not all of them, but a few.[33]

(We will return to this point later.)

Second, and much more important, there is a huge qualitative difference between the experiences of the witnesses of the resurrected Jesus and the experiences of the Medjugorje witnesses.  Avalos has missed the point that it is not only the quality of the evidence supporting the witnesses’ claim that they saw something, but also what it is that they actually saw, and what that evidence can support.  Let us, therefore, compare the two cases.

Avalos lists “six Croatian-speaking children/teens [who] claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them on hill [sic] named Podbrdo near the town of Medugorje [sic]” beginning on June 24, 1981.  (Later Avalos reveals that there were actually eight witnesses at this first apparition, but two of them “‘did not speak to Our Lady, and they do not belong to the group any longer …’”)  It is important to note that according to Avalos, “one has to realize that there were at least two claimed phases for these apparitions,[34] viz. the initial encounter on June 24, 1981 “(+ the next few days),” and then “Subsequent apparitions in the local St. James church from about a week later and apparently still occurring.

It is also crucial to note that Avalos admits that

It is the first appearances that were viewed as the most external and physical, and the subsequent ones were often or increasingly described with a spiritual sense or spiritual vision.[35]

Perhaps sensing a problem here, Avalos avers that

this variation also would not be unbiblical. Jesus said that his disciples would see him only for 40 more days on earth in Acts 1:3, and then he would be taken up and not be present physically on earth any longer.  However, according to Acts 9 and 22, Paul did subsequently perceive Jesus communicating with him.

Avalos does not seem to realize how profoundly damaging this is to his case.  Let us show him.

As Avalos indicates, there were two “phases” in both the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the Medjugorje apparitions.  As Avalos has helpfully delineated, in the case of the Jesus the first phase was the 40-day period following His resurrection, during which, as Avalos puts it, He was “present physically on earth[36] and the second phase was His subsequent manifestations in visions, such as to Stephen in Acts 7:55-56.  In the case of the Medjugorje apparitions, the first phase is a “few days” starting with June 24, 1981, during which the apparitions “were viewed as the most external and physical,” and the second phase, during which (as with the post-resurrection appearances) they seemed to be more like “spiritual vision[s].

Now, Christianity stands and falls on the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.  This is what Jesus Himself pointed to to authenticate His claims (John 2:18-22).  This is what He repeatedly said would happen (e.g. Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), so if it did not, then He was a fraud.  This is what proves that He can defeat death for us (because He did it for Himself), and without this, Christianity is false and worse than useless (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).  It is undeniable, then, that it is what happened in the “first phase” that is of paramount importance, for visions by themselves prove nothing.  Jesus was physically present during that 40-day period, or Christianity is nonsense.

Now, what is the evidence of the witnesses that Jesus appeared during that period, and that it was in physical form?  First, He appeared to many different people and groups of people in many different settings: to a group of women, including Mary Magdalene on the road from the tomb to Jerusalem, who held onto His feet and to whom He talked (Matthew 28:9-10); to the eleven apostles on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16); to Cleopas and another person on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), with whom “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them”; to Peter (Luke 24:34); and to the eleven apostles in Jerusalem (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43).  In this latter case, it seemed too good to the apostles to be true and they “supposed they had seen a spirit,” and so Jesus went to some trouble to prove to them that He was present physically:

And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:38-43)

Furthermore, Jesus appeared separately to Thomas Didymus (John 20:24-28), who was also hard to convince:

So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:25-28)

That was Thomas’ response to Jesus’ proof that He was there physically.

Jesus also joined some of His apostles after they fished at the Sea of Tiberias and He roasted bread and fish and gave it to them and ate with them and engaged in a two-way conversation with Peter (John 21:1-22).  He appeared to His half-brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7), who had previously been a skeptic and now became a believer.  He appeared to “over five hundred brethren at once” (1 Corinthians 15:6).  Then, after this phase during which He “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days” (Acts 1:3b), He personally led His disciples to Bethany, whence He was carried up to heaven in their sight (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-10).  And that, folks, is ample proof for any fair-minded person that Jesus was physically and bodily present after His resurrection; His post-resurrection appearances were objectively real, not visions.

By contrast, what about the “first phase” of the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje?  Unlike the multiplicity of witnesses to the risen Jesus (which number in the hundreds), in the case of these Marian apparitions we are dependent on the testimony of the same six witnesses.  Before we go further, we must point out that this fact makes collusion a real possibility in a way that is not the case with the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  Add to this the fact that, as we have already seen, the Medjugorje witnesses received tangible benefits for their claims, instead of persecution such as was suffered by the witnesses of Jesus.  Add to this further that, despite the claims from the study that Avalos himself discredited that there was no “element of deceit” in the testimony of the Medjugorje witnesses, they have been caught in numerous contradictions and questionable statements.[37]  This puts the possibility of deliberate hoax on the table as the explanation for the Medjugorje apparitions.

Setting aside that possibility however and moving on, we note that the limited number of witnesses is not the only difference in the “first phase” of the Medjugorje apparitions.  It is also the case that, unlike the variety of places and circumstances in which witnesses saw the risen Jesus, the six Medjugorje witnesses always saw the Marian apparitions in the same place and in the same way.  Unlike the risen Jesus, this “Mary” did not make any effort to show her physical reality by having the witnesses touching any wounds she may have had, or by eating with them, or in any other way.

Why, then should we consider this apparition analogous to the physical post-resurrection appearances of Jesus?  In fact, all Avalos can offer to support his contention that (a) “these children emphatically affirmed that they saw Mary as a fully physical and real person”; (b) “the initial experiences of the visionaries are reported in as objective a language as anything encountered in the New Testament”; (c) they saw her and could describe her appearance; and (d) they touched her.  However, all this is not nearly enough to make Avalos’ case.  The first three points do not adjudicate between an actual physical presence and a “spiritual vision” or an actual spirit being.  Visions do involve images in the mind and can be described (e.g. Ezekiel 1:1-28; Daniel 8:1-14; Acts 9:11-12, 11:5, 16:9). Furthermore, angels are spirits (Hebrews 1:13-14) yet they can be seen and described (e.g. Daniel 8:15-17; Luke 1:8-20).  Therefore, even if the “six Croatian-speaking children/teensbelieve they encountered an actual physical presence, it does not prove that they did actually encounter such as opposed to simply seeing a vision.  The manifold proof for the physical presence of Jesus is not replicated here.

The only line of evidence that could possibly indicate that the Medjugorje witnesses saw an actual physical being is (d), that they touched her.  Yet this, too, is problematic.  Avalos describes their claims as follows:

Laurentin asked if the visionaries: “Have you touched Our Lady?”  They responded:

  1. “Yes, I touched her robe; each time I touched it, it was with my whole palm.  Many also touched her.  Yes, I touched her robe.
  2. Yes, I touched her robe, but it is resistant like metal.  I want to say that when she moves her hands or head, she moves, that’s normal; but when you touch, there is resistance, like metal.
  3. Yes.
  4. I can touch her … At the beginning, I looked on her as something inaccessible, but now, when she is with me, I look on her as a Mother, as my best friend who helps me.
  5. I touched her robe.”

This impresses Avalos as being “as objective as anything found in the Jesus narratives,” but he is not thinking carefully.  The only actual detail the witnesses provide about touching her is that they touched her robe, which is “resistant like metal … there is resistance, like metal.”  But a robe is notresistant … like metal.”  This sounds more as if they were seeing a vision during which they put out their hands and felt a metal fence or the side of a shed or some such thing!

In sum, then, Avalos’ case is a signal failure.  While he may be correct that the evidence for the Medjugorje apparitions is at least as strong as the evidence for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, that actually only applies to the evidence that there were people who claimed to have witnessed somethingWhen it comes to what they saw, and the evidence for it, there is no contest at all.  As we have seen, the plethora of varied evidence in the case of the post-resurrection appearances makes it clear that what the witnesses of the resurrected Jesus saw was, in fact, the physical resurrected Jesus in the flesh, whereas the evidence given by the Medjugorje witnesses does not require or indicate that they saw anything more than a vision or a spirit being.

But we are not finished.  There is one final, crucial difference between the experiences of the witnesses of the resurrected Jesus and the experiences of the Medjugorje witnesses.  Although it is an obvious difference, Avalos and everyone else seems to have missed it.  However, it will allow us to draw a final conclusion in regard to this matter.

Concluding the Matter

Avalos insists that

Protestant apologists of the historical Jesus cannot continue to ignore the challenges posed by Marian apparitions.

In fact, we are not ignoring them, but we are analyzing them rather more carefully than Avalos does.  He seems to think that if the documentation for both the Marian apparitions and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus is comparable, then they should either both be accepted as genuine physical appearances (which, he says, “Protestant apologists” are not willing to do), or they should both be rejected.

As we have shown, that is a false dichotomy.  Even if there is sufficient documentation to affirm that both parties saw something,[38] this does not mean that they saw the same sort of thing.  As we have already shown, the evidence is compelling that the witnesses of the resurrected Jesus saw exactly that, the resurrected Jesus in the flesh.  The question now is what is the best explanation for what the Medjugorje witnesses saw, and that brings us to the final, crucial difference between the witnesses of the resurrected Jesus and the witnesses of the Marian apparitions.

The difference is this: The apostles knew Jesus.  The Medjugorje children/teens did not know Mary.  Ponder that for a moment and perhaps the light will dawn.

The apostles knew Jesus personally; they had lived and worked with Him for a period of three or four years, during which time they spoke together and ate together, had close contact, and shared experiences.  They were therefore in a uniquely qualified position to testify, when they saw the resurrected Jesus, that this was indeed Jesus.  Furthermore, since Jesus had been a public figure seen by multitudes, it may well be that others who saw the resurrected Jesus had also seen Him previously in life and could recognize Him.

On the other hand, the Medjugorje witnesses did not know Mary personally; in fact, they had been born about 1,900 years too late to have known her.  This means that they were not qualified to testify that Mary had appeared to them, but only that an entity claiming to be Mary had appeared to them.  And there is more.  In Avalos’ own article challenging the Medjugorje apparitions that we mentioned earlier, Avalos writes this:

Not only can the subculture of the visionaries encourage the apparitions with words, it also provides detailed and coherent imagery of how the Virgin Mary ought to look and speak.  According to P. and I. Rodgers, a picture of Mary supported by a cloud rising above Medjugorje has been present in the church of the visionaries since about 1971.  Not surprisingly, the youngsters’ description of the Virgin is quite consistent with the picture to which they were exposed for years.[39]

And herein lies the solution to the matter.  Consider that no pictures were ever made of the historical Mary, as making images of people was forbidden in the Jewish law, so after the death of Mary and everyone who knew her, all knowledge of her physical appearance was lost.  By the time anyone started making pictures of her, all they could do was make up something from whole cloth, purely out of their own imagination.  Given the vast amount of variation in human faces, there is no chance that an artist’s imaginative rendering could possibly look like the real MarySo anyone who looks like a picture of Mary cannot be Mary!  It can only be an imposter posing as Mary by assuming the likeness of a man-made image of Mary.

This principle is so obvious that even Fred Jones of the Scooby-Doo gang recognized it.  In the June 1974 issue of Scooby-Doo Mystery Comics, the “ghost of Dracula” accosts a candidate for office[40]:

Ghost of Dracula, from Scooby DooFred soon proves that this “ghost of Dracula” is a fake:

Images from Scooby-Doo Comic BookIf there had been a real Dracula, no one today would know what he looks like, so the Dracula that looks like our picture of Dracula is a hoax.  In the same way, the Mary who looks like our picture of Mary is not the real Mary.  If Avalos has missed this, then it seems that Avalos, our “anthropologist by training, as well as a biblical scholar,” is not as sharp as Fred a “comic book character.[41]

Furthermore, in the case of the Mary at Medjugorje, there is still more.  Avalos passes on the following descriptions of Mary given by the Medjugorje witnesses (from Laurentin’s interview with them):

  1. “She had a grey robe.”
  2. “… she had a grey robe …”
  3. “She had a grey robe, white veil, a crown of stars, blue eyes, black hair, rosy cheeks …”
  4. “… Blue eyes, black hair, which came out a little from under her veil …”
  5. “… Her face was white with rosy cheeks.  You could make out her curly black hair under the veil …”
  6. “A beautiful face, happy, blue eyes.  You couldn’t see her hair.”

Do notice that our witnesses are telling us that Mary had blue eyes.  Do remember that the real Mary was a Middle Eastern Jew in the first century AD, when Jews almost never intermarried.  There is no significant chance that she had blue eyes.

What is the upshot of all this?  The Medjugorje witnesses most likely did see something, but there is no evidence that what they saw was physically present.  Since the later apparitions were spiritual, not physical, the best conclusion is that the original apparitions were also spiritual, since the sort of evidence for a physical presence that is there in abundance for the resurrected Jesus is simply not there for the Medjugorje apparitions.

Furthermore, the entity that they saw was deceptive, as it presented itself as Mary the mother of Jesus, although it clearly is not.  The only reasonable conclusion, then,[42] is that the apparition is a deceiving spirit, of the sort mentioned in 1 Timothy 4:1.  Our conclusion, then, is that what the Medjugorje witnesses have been listening to is not Mary the mother of Jesus.  It is a demon.

This is not surprising.  Wherever there is Mariolatry, the worship of Mary (whether it is called worship or not), the appealing to her for salvation and the attribution to her of tasks and characteristics that belong only to God, there will be demons.  Medjugorje seems indeed to be the devil’s playground.

A Few Final Points

Avalos insists that

Protestant apologists for the historical Jesus cannot continue to ignore the challenges posed by Marian apparitions.  No longer should a thorough discussion of the historicity of Jesus be seen as complete without some serious discussion of modern Marian apparition reports.

We have herein met that challenge.

Avalos asserts that

Even if we agree with Campbell that the Medjugorje stories do not represent a reality that we can objectively establish as historical, he fails to see how that fact itself undermines his pleas for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.

Here, he is completely wrong.  His attempt to undermine the case for Christ by comparison to the Marian apparitions is a mug’s game.  For it to “undermine … pleas for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus,” Avalos would have to establish the following:

  1. That the evidence for the fact of the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje is at least as good as the evidence for the fact of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
  2. That the nature of the evidence from these Marian apparitions is analogous to the nature of the evidence from the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (regarding the physical reality of what was seen).
  3. That the best explanation for these Marian apparitions is that the witnesses were seeing something that wasn’t physically there.
  4. That the best explanation for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus is that the witnesses were seeing something that wasn’t physically there.

Now, it is Point 4 – and only Point 4 – that must be established to undermine the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  In fact, no purpose is actually served by bringing the Marian apparitions into the discussion at all!  The rationale in doing so seems to be that if the Medjugorje witnesses were seeing something that wasn’t really there, then we should similarly think that this also applies to the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, but that is a non sequitur.

Now, we both accept Point 3 (though I doubt Avalos thinks the witnesses were communing with a demon), but this point by itself in no way undermines the historicity of the resurrection.

Regarding Point 1, Avalos has succeeded only in showing that the evidence that claims were made that these Marian apparitions happened is at least as good as the evidence that claims were made that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus happened.  He has not demonstrated that the evidence for the fact of the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje is at least as good as the evidence for the fact of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

I, on the other hand, have disproven Point 2, and on the basis of the nature of the evidence from the post-resurrection appearances have shown that Point 4 is not a reasonable conclusion.  Avalos’ attempt to undermine the case for Christ by comparison to the Marian apparitions is, therefore, a signal failure.

Avalos also asserts that

perhaps the MOST IMPORTANT LESSON from Medjugorje is that people CAN report seeing non-existing people with as physical and objective a terminology as the language has available.

I have news for Avalos: that’s not news!  We already know that people can do this.  On the other hand, it is also beyond doubt that people can report seeing existing people “with as physical and objective a terminology as the language has available,” and it is also beyond doubt that in the vast majority of cases in which individuals report seeing people “with as physical and objective a terminology as the language has available,” those people are actually there.  Therefore, in the case of the resurrected Jesus the burden of proof is on Avalos to show that the person the witnesses saw wasn’t physically thereThe evidence, however, as I have shown, precludes him doing that successfully.

Therefore, when Avalos suggests that “Both Marian and Jesus apparition reports may be part of the same broader socio-psychological phenomenon where people report non-occurring and imagined events with objective language.  Simple as that,” it is an empty suggestion.  Once again, the evidence for the physically resurrected Jesus gets in the way.  Simple as that.

Now, Avalos may object that I have referred to the Bible to buttress many of my suggestions, such as the fact that angels are spirits and can be seen.  If so, I remind him that it was he who insisted that by using “some of the theological assumptions and biblical concepts” that are used to defend Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances he could “easily defend their claimed supernatural character.”  Since he has set these terms for the discussion, he can hardly gripe that I also use these “theological assumptions and biblical concepts.”  If he nevertheless does gripe, I point out that there is no reason that the debate should cede to him the atheistic axiom that any possibility of supernatural activity must be ruled out a priori.

One final question:  Avalos has been posturing that there is an unacceptable inconsistency in the refusal of Evangelicals to accept the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje while accepting the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus, although the former, he says, are better documented.  While I have shown why we do justifiably do this based on the evidence, it is meet to turn the question on Avalos himself.  He refuses to accept the accounts of the life, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus while (presumably) accepting the standard accounts of the life and career of such historical personages as Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Tiberias, which are much less well documented than is the case for Jesus.  We await his explanation for this inconsistency.


APPENDIX

Avalos finishes his article with a list of “QUESTIONS FOR CAMPBELL.”  While some of these are based on Campbell’s apparently idiosyncratic arguments, we will nevertheless take this opportunity to answer the questions.[43]

  1. Can people use the most objective language (e.g., “see,” “hear,” “touch”) available to describe encounters with non-existent beings?

Yes.  They can also use them to describe encounters with existing beings, as in the case of the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus.

  1. If so, then why can’t the storytellers in the New Testament use the most objective language available to describe encounters with non-existent beings?

The NT authors use appropriate language to describe visions and spiritual beings.  We do not know what language they would use to describe any other sorts of encounters with non-existent beings, as there aren’t any such encounters in the NT.  The NT authors certainly do use the most objective language available to describe encounters with existent beings such as the resurrected Jesus.

  1. Do you admit that it is historically false to claim that Marian apparition stories must depend on belief in the dogma of the Assumption of Mary?

I agree that it would be wrong to claim this, but I do not claim it and this false Roman Catholic dogma has nothing to do with the Medjugorje apparitions, which do not involve the actual Mary.

  1. Do you agree that Epiphanius did, in fact, suggest that the continued existence of Mary was one of the options that was probably current by the fourth century?

The theological guesses of a 4th-century AD Roman Catholic functionary are irrelevant to the question of the Medjugorje apparitions.

  1. Where is an actual document from around 35-36 CE that shows the existence of a creed in the resurrection of Jesus?

The facts stated in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 are not a creed, though they do comprise powerful evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, since they challenge hearers to check with the actual eyewitnesses who were still alive at the time.  The earliest copy of this epistle dates to AD 80 or before, and so dates from the time of living eyewitnesses.

  1. Why don’t you see as historically significant the establishment of a creed in the appearance of Mary within 5-6 years at Medjugorje?

There was no actual “creed” here either, but that is neither here nor there.  Certainly many people came to believe in the apparitions within a short time and I do accept that they did so, and also that most likely the Medjugorje witnesses did see something.  However, the issue, as we’ve seen, is not whether they saw something but what it was that they saw.

  1. What precedent or prior tradition did Herod use to conclude that John the Baptist resurrected or returned shortly after being killed in Mark 6:16?

There is no way to know where Herod got that idea, but it is irrelevant to our discussion.

  1. If Herod had none, then why can’t a Jesus resurrection tradition arise without a prior tradition even if the resurrection did not occur?

Herod’s idea was not a tradition but a wild guess that no one took seriously, inasmuch as Jesus was working miracles long before John was executed.  No “resurrection tradition” arose around John the Baptist or Theudas or Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:36-37) or around any of the dozens of men who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah.  Belief in the resurrection of Jesus was not based on a “tradition” that arose later but on compelling eyewitness testimony from people in a position to know.

  1. What do you really KNOW about the so-called witnesses for Jesus’ resurrection (when compared to those at Medjugorje) that does not come from pro-resurrection sources?

The salient details about the witnesses and Gospel writers are discussed at length in early Christian writings by people in a position to know, such as Papias and Irenaeus.  The fact that they are “pro-resurrection” is immaterial – every witness to every event is either pro or anti; what counts is what evidence they provide.  If being “pro-resurrection” means they are not be trusted, then why should we trust anything Avalos says, seeing he is “anti-resurrection”?

  1. What sorts of medical tests or follow-up interrogations were performed on Mary Magdalene, Peter, John and other supposed witnesses of the resurrection by scientists and psychiatrists?

The same sort, no doubt, that were not done on the writers on whom we depend for everything we know about ancient history, including the details of the life and career of Alexander the Great and others.  Avalos’ question here is anachronistic and, frankly, silly.  People can judge the veracity of eyewitnesses without the aid of “scientists and psychiatrists.

  1. What specific historical or scientific tests were performed by Luke to evaluate the reports that he says that he received from witnesses in Luke 1:1-4?

See the answer to the previous question.  Luke, by the way, was an exceedingly careful historian; there is none better among ancient writers.

  1. What sorts of medical or scientific tests were performed to determine whether stories of miracles in the NT might also have a natural explanation, as you allege for those at Medjugorje?

There is no viable “natural explanation” for the miracles Jesus did.  Jesus healed medical conditions that even the best medical science today cannot (e.g. paralysis).  By the way, the description in Mark 8:22-25 of Post-Blind Syndrome, which was unknown and undreamed of until 1963, is proof positive that Jesus did a genuine miracle in this case.

  1. Why are radical personal claims relevant to establishing historicity, and why do you think claiming to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit does not count as a “radical personal claim” on the part of Mary?

Actually, radical personal claims are irrelevant to establishing historicity.


Endnotes

[1] Avalos, Hector. “Jesus’ Resurrection and Marian Apparitions; Medjugorje as a Living Laboratory.” Posted on April 29, 2013. At http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.ca/2013/04/jesus-resurrection-and-marian.html.

[2] i.e. in which Mary the mother of Jesus supposedly appears supernaturally in contemporary times

[3] Yugoslavia later sundered.  Medjugorje is in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina.

[4] All quotations in this article, unless otherwise indicated, are from Avalos’ article in Footnote 1.

[5] See our upcoming article on this topic.  In the meantime, see Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013); Ewen, Pamela Binnings. Faith on Trial. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013); and Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke; A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992)

[6] Here he is citing Laurentin, René and Henri Joyeux, Scientific and Medical Studies on the Apparitions at Medjugorje. Dublin: Veritas, 1985.

[7] Moss, Candida. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. New York: HarperOne, 2013.

[8] This was published as Chapter 37 in Holding, James Patrick. ed. Defending the Resurrection: Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Xulon Press, 2010.

[9] Miller, Elliot and Kenneth R. Samples. The Cult of the Virgin: Catholic Mariology and the Apparitions of Mary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992.

[10] Great explanatory scope, great explanatory power, plausibility, not contrived, in accordance with accepted beliefs, the best explanation under these circumstances

[11] Avalos, Hector. “Mary at Medjugorje.” Posted on September 8, 2011. At http://aigbusted.blogspot.ca/2011/09/mary-at-medjugorje-by-hector-avalos.html

[12] Maier, Paul L. “The Myth of Persecution: A Provocative Title, An Overdone Thesis.” Christian Research Journal 36:6 (2013), pp. 53-56.

[13] ibid., p. 54

[14] ibid., p. 55

[15] Mike Licona, quoted in Strobel, Lee. The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p. 112

[16] It has become trendy among Evangelical scholars to maintain that Paul’s summary of Jesus’ resurrection and the list of post-resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is an early creed that Paul was taught by the apostles within a few years of his conversion.

[17] The exception to this is inscriptions made in stone, which may be contemporary.  Nevertheless, most of what we know about the ancient world comes from documents written on papyrus and vellum and clay tablets, not from contemporary stone inscriptions.

[18] One manuscript was discovered in 1515 and subsequently lost.  All that remains are two printed versions made from the manuscript, which disagree with each other.

[19] Kim, Young Kyu. “Palaeographical Dating of P46 to the Later First Century,” Biblica 69 (1988), pp.248-257.  Naturally this has been challenged, but not, in my opinion, successfully.

[20] See our forthcoming article on this.

[21] Of course there are diminishing returns here.  With the advent of Photoshop and trick photography, the reliability of photographic evidence is not quite what it used to be.

[22] See our forthcoming article.  In the meantime see, inter alia, Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013 and Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.

[23] We have already seen that Avalos’ attempt to discredit 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is a signal failure.

[24] Those who argue that people in that day and age could not have made the trip to Jerusalem to conduct such checks are overlooking the fact that every pious Jew was supposed to make an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, and very many did so (Acts 2:9-11a lists “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost), and they certainly could have conducted these checks and brought back reports.  The argument, then, that Paul’s eyewitness challenge in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 was a bluff that could not be carried out is a nonstarter.

[25] See Acts 5:33-39, and also Rabow, Jerry. 50 Jewish Messiahs. Jerusalem: Geffen Publishing House, 2002.

[26] One of the Roman Catholic errors that grew up around Mariolatry and proclaimed dogma in 1950, it claims that Mary did not die at the end of her life on earth but was assumed bodily into heaven.

[27] This is done for the sake of the argument.  Avalos himself obviously does not believe in either of these, but he thinks that Christians, to be consistent with their own theological assumptions, should accept them.

[28] One howler, for example, is Avalos’ apparently approving quote of Roman Catholic apologist Ludwig Ott’s attempt to support the Assumption of Mary: “Ott, for example, cites Matthew 27:52-53 as one possible indirect indication that Mary may have been among the saints resurrected, and so available for later apparitions.”  Inasmuch as Mary was alive both before and after the events of Matthew 27:52-53 (see John 19:25-27 and Acts 1:12-14), she most certainly was not “among the saints resurrected.”  Ott doesn’t even get the dogma of the Assumption of Mary correct, as she supposedly didn’t die on earth and therefore could not have been one of the dead people in the grave.

[29] It should be noted that the Bible does not lend support to the idea that the departed do appear on their own in this world, let alone that they are to communicate with us.  The only example of such a thing happening is Samuel’s appearance to Saul in 1 Samuel 28, when he pronounces doom on the evil king.  Clearly, communication with the dead is not God’s intent for the living (Isaiah 8:19).

[30] Winston Churchill’s “Their Finest Hour” speech, delivered June 18, 1940.

[31] Avalos, of course, challenges the early date of the supposed “creed” affirming Jesus’ resurrection, and there is no actual creed regarding the Marian apparitions, though Avalos apparently sees a de facto one.

[32] Acts 12:1-2; 7:54-60; 22:20; 26:10

[33] Ruse, Austin. “Weighing Medjugorje.” The Catholic Thing. Posted on August 6, 2009. At http://www.thecatholicthing.org/columns/2009/weighing-medjugorje.html

[34] Bolding and italics added.

[35] Bolding and italics added.

[36] Bolding and italics added.

[37] Winters, Carey. “Private Revelation: Unravelling Medjugorje.” Posted at http://www.catholicapologetics.info/catholicteaching/privaterevelation/medja.htm

[38] Again, the possibility of deliberate hoax in the case of the Medjugorje apparitions remains on the table.

[39] Avalos, Hector. “Mary at Medjugorje.” Posted on September 8, 2011. At http://aigbusted.blogspot.ca/2011/09/mary-at-medjugorje-by-hector-avalos.html.  (Bolding, italics, and underlining added.)

[40] “Ghost of Dracula,” Scooby Doo Mystery Comics No. 25 June 1974.  Story by Mark Evanier, art by Dan Spiegle.

[41] Technically, it is the script writer Mark Evanier who is sharper than our “anthropologist by training, as well as a biblical scholar.”

[42] Assuming, of course, that the claims are not an outright hoax.

[43] The questions are Avalos’, and the answers are mine.

Comments: 1

  1. james ashbee says:

    The argument for the similarities between appearances of Jesus and Mary is new to me. As one who loves apologetics, I thank you for this paper. Your work will insure I am not caught off-guard and unprepared for this argument.

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