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Is the Resurrection historically reliable? The writers of Scripture, particularly Paul and the gospel writers, seem to have thought so....

 

This article was first published in the Fall 2009 issue of Bible and Spade. It has been slightly edited, April 2010.

Is the Resurrection historically reliable? It depends on whom you ask. The human writers of Scripture, particularly Paul and the gospel writers, seem to have thought so. In fact, Paul went so far as to suggest that if Jesus did not rise, Christianity is nothing but a blind alley-a fool's hope (1 Cor 15:14). To be sure, a good number of people think Christianity, along with its tale of resurrection from death, is precisely that-a tale. These routinely suggest that the Resurrection did not happen, and that the existing records (especially the gospel accounts) are themselves the problem. These records, it is claimed, are simply the late and largely fictitious creations of that strand of Christianity eventually dubbed 'orthodox' (much to the chagrin of the competitors it snuffed out).1 Therefore, we must ask, can the history Scripture teaches be trusted, or has this alternative view gotten things right?

Evidence

The alternative view has gotten things wrong, because it erroneously assumes two things about Scripture's account.2 First, it wrongly assumes the accounts of Jesus' resurrection were written long after the death of the historical Jesus (i.e., the Jesus nearly everyone admits lived and died in the first century). Second, it mistakenly assumes these later writers fabricated the accounts of Jesus' resurrection, so that the historical Jesus would match the Christ they were already worshipping. To deal with these false assumptions, we must show that the records are both early and filled with details not likely to have been invented by later Christian groups. We will do this by noting three firm facts.3

Fact 1: The Empty Tomb

This fact is supported by three considerations. First, Jesus was buried in a well-known tomb. This is important, because if the location of Jesus' tomb was uncontroversial, the claim by the early Church that Jesus had vacated His tomb could have been easily verified (or, for that matter, discounted).4 That Jesus' tomb was well known is attested by material both early and non-legendary. Mark's gospel, written no more than 30 years after Jesus' crucifixion and itself based on even earlier sources, mentions that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43). This early detail was not likely a fictitious insertion by later Christian authors. After all, Joseph was a member of the Jewish Council (or Sanhedrin; Mk 15:43).5 In other words, why would later Christians invent a story about a Jewish Sanhedrist helping Jesus? Had the early Christians created this detail, the Jewish authorities could have disproved it easily. They could have checked the records to find out whether or not Joseph had been a member of the Council and/or whether or not his tomb had been used, not to mention vacated, by Jesus.6

Second, not only was Jesus' tomb well known, it was also found empty. This detail is also found in very early sources, this time not only in Mark's report (16:1-8) but also in Paul's (implied in 1 Cor 15:4).7 In fact, many scholars date the tradition Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:3 to within five or six years after Jesus' death. Moreover, Mark's report of the empty tomb contains obviously non-legendary material. It indicates that the tomb was found empty by women. In Jewish society at that time, the testimony of women was considered unreliable.8 As Josephus, the early Jewish historian (ca. AD 31-100), notes, women were not allowed to serve as credible witnesses in Jewish courts.9 To this, N.T. Wright adds, 'If [the early Christians] could have invented stories of fine, upstanding, reliable male witnesses being first at the tomb, they would have done it.'10

Third, Matthew's still relatively early account itself adds to the historicity of the empty tomb. Matthew records what the early Jewish response was to the apostolic preaching of Jesus' resurrection. Significantly, it was not: 'These fellows are out of their minds-here is Jesus' body!' Rather, the Jewish authorities invented a tale that suggested the disciples had stolen away the body (Mt 28:13). In short, the earliest Jewish response was itself an attempt to explain why the body was missing and the tomb was empty.11

The Nazareth Inscription

The Nazareth Inscription is one of the most powerful pieces of extra-biblical evidence that the resurrection of Christ was being preached right from the beginnings of Christianity. It is a Greek inscription on a marble tablet measuring approximately 24 inches by 15 inches. The exact time and place of its discovery is not known. The text records an abridged decree by Emporer Claudius (AD 41-54), instituting the death penalty for robbing bodies from tombs, a very unusual act of theft and level of punishment for such an act. This inscription strongly supports the assertion that the belief in the resurrection of Christ was widely known almost immediately after His crucifixion. In other words, the story of the resurrection of Christ must have been a story that was circulated by his Apostles themselves, and it was not a later invention by Christians of the post-apostolic period, as some scholars argue. The Nazareth Inscription does force modern scholars into making a choice of either believing in the resurrection of Christ or of believing that His disciples stole His body from the tomb in order to perpetrate a great religious fraud. Since its original publication in 1930 by M. Franz Cumont, no scholar has published evidence to disprove its authenticity.

Fact 2: The Resurrection Appearances

Paul's early account speaks of hundreds of witnesses who claim to have seen Jesus risen (1 Cor 15:5-9). This detail is not only early, but it is also non-legendary. Timothy Keller explains,

Paul indicates [in this text] that the risen Jesus not only appeared to individuals and small groups but he also appeared to five hundred people at once, most of whom were still alive at the time of his writing [ca. 56] and could be consulted for corroboration. Paul's letter was to a church, and therefore it was a public document, written to be read aloud. Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. It was a bold challenge and one that could easily be taken up, since during the pax Romana travel around the Mediterranean was safe and easy. Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses didn't exist.12

Fact 3: The Rise of the Early Church's Belief in the Resurrection13

Three considerations demonstrate that the early Church's belief in the Resurrection was not something they simply created. First, the majority of Jews did not believe in a resurrection in the middle of time (i.e., before the final judgment), and they would not have called a non-bodily appearance a resurrection.14 Rather, for a Christian Jew (as the disciples were) to proclaim, 'He is risen' meant that Jesus was indeed bodily risen.15 Therefore, we must ask, from whence did this belief in a bodily resurrection before the final judgment come, if not from the reality of Jesus' Resurrection appearances?

Second, resurrection, though important, was central to neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor Jewish thought in the time between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament period (often referred to as Second Temple Judaism). In contrast, resurrection moved to the center of Christian belief (see Paul's 'first importance,' 1 Cor 15:1-6). Again, we must ask, what made resurrection so central to early, largely Jewish, Christianity?

Third, we must remember the disciples were so convinced of this event that they were willing to risk their lives testifying to it. One must explain therefore, what happened to the disciples between their fearful flight (Jn 20:19) following Jesus' arrest and crucifixion and their bold preaching soon thereafter (Acts 2:24; 3:15; 4:2). (We might add to these the conversions of Paul and James; see Acts 9:1 and John 7:5 respectively.) In short, we must ask, what caused these remarkable transformations?

In the end, the alternative view's assumptions simply do not account for these three facts. The empty tomb, the appearances, and the rise of the early Church's belief in the Resurrection are details that come from early sources and cannot be satisfactorily explained as the creation of later Christian writers. Still, these three facts do not automatically prove the Resurrection, since any number of explanations could be and, in fact, are given, given for them (e.g., someone stole Jesus' body, the disciples hallucinated, Jesus did not die on the cross).16 Presently none of these alternative explanations has gained much traction, since each stretches the bounds of credulity. It is, however, important to point up (1) that alternative explanations of these facts are offered, something which provides a certain amount of confirmation of the firmness of these facts, and (2) that incredible alternative explanations are given, since believing in a resurrection, it is claimed, is even more incredible. After all, for some skeptics the Resurrection would be a miracle and miracles, it is routinely asserted simply do not and cannot happen.

Worldviews

To evaluate whether something can or cannot happen brings one to a consideration of worldviews. As postmodernism helpfully reminds us, everybody has one of these. It is the lens through which each of us interprets reality.17 It is the thing that tells one to expect what goes up to come down or to expect things in motion to stay in motion. It is what tells us to expect 'y' to not equal 'non-y' or 'y y' to always equal '2y.' The question, then, is not whether or not someone has a worldview, but whether or not one has the correct worldview.

The mechanism for evaluating worldviews and attempting to locate the correct one involves criteria such as coherence (internal consistency), scope (comprehensive explanatory power), efficacy (livability), and simplicity (simplest is often the best explanation), among a few others.18 The trouble that those run into whose worldview denies the possibility of the miraculous is that their worldview falls short on a number of these criteria. For instance, the miracle-denying worldview is founded upon the basic premise that all human knowledge is gained by either sense experience or reason (e.g., inductive reasoning). However, neither of these explains the near-universal belief in moral obligation (e.g., it is always wrong to rape, sex-traffic, torture children, etc.). In other words, nothing from sense experience or reason suggests that something ought not to happen or that something ought to happen, yet most people are deeply committed to knowledge of this sort.19 Can a worldview be sufficiently comprehensive if it is unable to explain some nearly universal phenomenon? Other examples could be given. Suffice it to say that this worldview comes up short time and again. Therefore, to reject the possibility of the miraculous on the basis of a largely inadequate worldview is, at the least, bad form.

Decisions

If the facts are patiently considered and one's worldview is not illegitimately predisposed against the miraculous, then Scripture's claim that Jesus rose from the dead is at least a possible conclusion. In other words, the Resurrection could be historically reliable. We might even say, for the moment, that since no better alternative explanation of the facts has arisen, Scripture's explanation is presently the most satisfactory or plausible. The trouble is, Scripture, not least its divine Author, is not content with the Resurrection being deemed 'possible' or 'most satisfactory.' In fact, Scripture is not even content with 'definite' and 'best,' because its purpose points beyond belief in historical events. Scripture's goal is not simply assent to history but, rather, conversion. As such, Scripture not only demands the events it records to be recognized as historical, it wants the explanations it gives those events to be believed (e.g., 'Jesus was raised for our justification,' Rom 4:25). For this to occur, more than evidences are required, since forces, some supernatural, are at work that prevent the proper functioning of the human mind (see Rom 1:18-32 and 2 Cor 4:4). In the end, how one views the evidence for the Resurrection is inextricably bound up with how one views its significance. Since this is the case, historical proof must be accompanied by divine illumination. This sort of thing, at other times called faith, comes only by hearing and reading Scripture (see Rom 10:17).

Footnotes

  1. Bauckham (2008: 506) calls this attitude toward the gospels' testimony 'epistemological suicide,' since ancient eyewitness accounts are normally not assumed to be guilty (i.e., unhistorical) until proven innocent (i.e., historical).
  2. For a similar categorization, see, e.g., Blomberg 2007: 137, 323 and Keller 2008: 98.
  3. For a similar presentation, see the material by William Lane Craig, especially that which is available at http://bethinking.org.
  4. Craig 1989: 194-95.
  5. Craig (1985: n.p.) notes the opinion of the eminent Roman and Greek historian A.N. Sherwin-White regarding the historicity of Mark's (and the other gospels') account(s):
    According to Professor Sherwin-White, the sources for Roman history are usually biased and removed at least one or two generations or even centuries from the events they record. Yet, he says, historians reconstruct with confidence what really happened. He [then] chastises NT critics for not realizing what invaluable sources they have in the gospels. The writings of Herodotus furnish a test case for the rate of legendary accumulation, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states for these to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be 'unbelievable'; more generations are needed. All NT scholars agree that the gospels were written down and circulated within the first generation, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. Indeed, a significant new movement of biblical scholarship argues persuasively that some of the gospels were written by the AD 50's. This places them as early as Paul's letter to the Corinthians and, given their equal reliance upon prior tradition, they ought therefore to be accorded the same weight of historical credibility accorded to Paul.
    Cf. also Sherwin-White (1963: 187): 'It is astonishing that while Graeco- Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn.' Also, Blomberg (1994: 206) furthers Craig's point, demonstrating a terminus ad quem of ad 60-62 for Luke-Acts. This date then puts Mark, whom (most agree) Luke used in his own composition, sometime in the middle to end of the 50s. Cf. also Bauckham 2006: 155-82.
  6. Craig 1989: 354.
  7. Craig 1989: 363. Brown (1970: 980) agrees, saying, 'The basic time indication of the finding of the tomb [viz., Mark's: 'first day of the week'] was fixed in Christian memory before the possible symbolism in the three-day reckoning had yet been perceived.'
  8. 'Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women' (Talmud, Sotah 19a). 'The world cannot exist without males and without females-happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females' (Talmud, Qiddushin 82b).
  9. Ant. 4.215. Cf. Craig 1989: 366.
  10. 2003: 608.
  11. Craig 1989: 377. As Craig (369) further remarks, 'The fact that the Christian fellowship, founded on belief in Jesus' resurrection, could come into existence and flourish in the very city where he was executed and buried seems powerful evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb.'
  12. 2008: 204.
  13. For an extensive treatment of this particular point, see N.T. Wright 2003. Craig (2006: 148) calls Wright's book, 'The most extensively developed version of [this] argument.'
  14. As Jeremias (1974: 194, quoted in Craig 1989: 409) has observed: 'Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history. Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life. In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to doxa as an event of history.' Cf. also Reymond 1998: 565.
  15. Cf. Wright 1998: 4.
  16. See, e.g., Geisler 1999: 644-47.
  17. E.g., Wright (1992: 123) describes them in this way: 'Worldviews provide the stories through which human beings view reality.'
  18. See, e.g., Herrick 1999:791-92.
  19. Frame (1987: 117-18) says, 'Statements about sensible facts do not imply anything about ethical goodness or badness, right or wrong, or obligation or prohibition.'

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard
2006 Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Blomberg, Craig
1994 'The Historical Reliability of the New Testament' in Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, ed. William Lane Craig. Wheaton: Crossway.

2006 'The Historicity of the Resurrection' in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue, ed. by Robert B. Stewart. Minneapolis: Fortress.

2007 The Historicity of the Gospels, 2nd ed. Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity.

Brown, Raymond
1970 The Gospel according to John. Anchor Bible Reference Library. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.

Craig, William Lane
1985 'Contemporary Scholarship and the Resurrection of Jesus,' Truth 1. Pp. 89-95.
http://bethinking.org/bible-jesus/advanced/contemporary-scholarship-and-the-resurrection-of-jesus.htm (accessed July 7, 2008).

1989 Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 16. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.

Frame, John
1987 The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed.

Geisler, Norman
1999 'Resurrection, Alternate Theories of' in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, ed. Norman Geisler. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Herrick, Paul
1999 Reason and Worldview: An Introduction to Western Philosophy. Orlando: Harcourt.

Jeremias, Joachim
1974 'Die älteste Schicht der Osterüberlieferungen,' in Ressurrexit, ed. Edouard Dhanis. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Keller, Timothy
2008 The Reason for God: Christian Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton.

Reymond, Robert L.
1998 A New Systematic of the Christian Faith. Nashville: Nelson.

Sherwin-White, A.N.
1963 Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon.

Wright, N.T.
1992 The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress.

1998 'Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem,' Sewanee Theological Review 41/2. Pp. 321-37. Cited 7 July 2008. Online: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Historical_Problem.htm

2003 The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol. 3: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress.

ABR Director of Development, Henry B. Smith Jr., discuss the Nazareth Inscription and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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