I hope everyone had a good Easter weekend with lots of chocolate, egg laying bunnies, and all kinds of other pagan rituals overtaken by the church throughout history.
This week, we’re going to look at the resurrection of Jesus. Oceans of ink have been spilled on the subject. I’m nowhere near arrogant enough to say that I can deal with the subject in just one or two posts so I’ll just hit the hi-lights. Franny B will respond on Wednesday and you’ll get your chance on Thursday. Today, we’ll look at this question:
Is Resurrection the Best Fit for the Historical Evidence?
For nearly two thousand years, much of the world has acknowledged the resurrection of Jesus to be historical fact. That’s not to say that the resurrection as historical fact hasn’t been challenged. Let’s look at the most common challenges to the physical resurrection of Jesus being historical fact.
1. Jesus never existed.
This is just bad history and is accepted by virtually no historical scholar today. There is too much document evidence, both biblical and outside the Bible, to say that Jesus never existed. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus’ death, following, miracles, and maybe even his resurrection (many have challenged the resurrection part, so I’ll leave it at that). The Roman historian Tacitus mentions Jesus and his death in a negative light. Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, mentions the Christians gathering and worshiping Jesus “as… a god.” The Babylonian Talmud mentions Jesus being crucified, and that he was accused of sorcery (and thus his miracles are mentioned). Lucian, a Greek writer, mentions Jesus in his description of Christians. As one commenter has stated in an earlier post, no one argues that the first twelve Caesars of Rome ever existed, and much of what we know of them comes from one man’s work, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. Jesus’ existence is attested to in multiple sources and some of them in a negative light. Jesus of Nazareth existed.
2. Jesus wasn’t executed on a cross. If he was crucified, he simply swooned or fainted.
Again, the biblical and extra-biblical document evidence show otherwise. The Islamic claim that Jesus was never crucified doesn’t hold up with the historical data. Any stories of Jesus avoiding crucifixion and going to India or France and siring the Merovingian dynasty are the products of pseudo-history and are not accepted by any reputable scholar, and are better left to mediocre books and movies.
As to Jesus being crucified but not dying on the cross, this is also not accepted by reputable scholars. The Romans, more than any culture in history, knew how to kill people. Roman soldiers were expert killers and executioners. They borrowed the Persian execution method of crucifixion and perfected it. But let’s say for arguments sake that someone goofed up and Jesus somehow survived the cross. His injuries from the severe flogging and crucifixion would likely have put him into shock, and he would have died in the tomb. But even if he somehow survived the cross and didn’t die in the tomb, three days and nights without food or water would have rendered him completely incapable of moving the stone in front of his tomb. But even if he survived the cross, survived burial, and was able to move the stone, his tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers, who would have killed him (again). But even if he (really?) managed to overcome all of those unsurmountable hurdles and stumbled into the upper room where the disciples were hiding out, would they really have been inspired to change the world by a guy who looked more like Freddy Krueger than the Jesus they knew, or the glorified Jesus whose physical body could walk through doors? In a word, no. The Romans knew how to kill. They knew when someone was dead. The odds are too great for anything else. Jesus was d-e-a-d dead for three days and nights and was then resurrected physically from death. It’s the only plausible explanation.
3. Jesus wasn’t buried in a formal tomb. His body was cast into a shallow grave, to be food for the dogs.
While popular with sensationalists or Time and Newsweek’s annual Easter issue, few if any reputable scholars accept this theory today. While many crucified victims did end up in the garbage heap, this would have been unacceptable to the Jews. And as the Jews were the only conquered culture in the Roman empire who had religious freedom, and seeing that Jesus had a few friends in high places in Jewish leadership, even if his body was thrown to the dogs, it would have been retrieved and buried.
4. Jesus’ body was moved or stolen.
The obvious question is who would do such a thing? There are several possibilities. First, his enemies could have moved or stolen it. This idea is ludicrous. The Jews went to the trouble of requesting a Roman guard to be placed at the tomb. Why would they then go to the trouble to move it? It would only give rise to speculation that Jesus did indeed rise from death, which Jesus claimed he would do. The only reason for his enemies to do so would be to produce the body in case his followers started an uprising or began preaching that he was resurrected. But his enemies couldn’t produce a body.
Second, his disciples may have stolen it. The gospel of Matthew 28:11-15 states that this was a popular story soon after the resurrection, started by the Jewish leaders who wanted to quash the Jesus movement. For this theory to work, the disciples would have to contend with the Roman guards (the Jewish authorities bribed those same guards to say the disciples stole the body). If they would have succeeded, and the odds of that happened are slim to none, they would be 100 percent certain that Jesus was dead. They would have preached a lie, and when faced with pain of death or punishment, they would not die for something they knew to be a lie.
Third, Jesus’ friend Joseph of Arimathea could have moved it. For what reason? He donated his own pre-cut tomb for Jesus to be buried in. And once a body was buried, the ancient Jews didn’t touch it. He had no reason to move it.
Fourth, Jesus’ family moved it. Again, what is the reason? Jesus’ brothers James and Jude (who wrote two New Testament letters) would have recanted as they would have known Jesus to be dead. And, like the reason stated above, once a body was buried, it would not be moved from one tomb to another.
5. His followers went to the wrong tomb.
It’s been stated that the women who went to the tomb of Jesus early on Sunday morning were so overcome with grief that they simply went to the wrong tomb. Jesus’ tomb was well-known. It was guarded by Roman soldiers. The tomb’s owner knew where it was. The Jewish authorities knew where it was. They had already been there. It’s just not a sound explanation.
6. His followers hallucinated. They only thought they saw him.
See “Multiple Eyewitnesses Saw Jesus After His Resurrection” below.
7. The authors of the gospels added the resurrection to make Jesus more palatable.
This has been dealt with in previous posts and conversations. Briefly, it would not have entered the minds of the original authors of scripture to use the so-called resurrection myths to make Jesus more palatable. To the Jews, resurrection was exactly that – a physical body coming back to life. One must redefine the term “resurrection” to even come within one hundred miles of getting a parallel. They didn’t just write – they also spoke of the resurrected Jesus in public as it was central to their belief and message. Their martyrdom is a pretty clear clue that they didn’t make this stuff up or “spice up” Jesus’ story.
8. The gospels aren’t reliable history. They’re religious works.
More on this tomorrow.
In light of the evidence we have, the most plausible explanation for the evidence we have is that Jesus Christ was killed on a Roman cross, was buried in a borrowed tomb, and physically raised from death three days later. The reasons for this conclusion:
1. Multiple eyewitnesses saw Jesus after his resurrection.
We know that Jesus’ disciples saw him multiple times, sometimes individually and sometimes in groups. Members of Jesus’ family saw him after his resurrection. We know that 500 people saw him as one big group (Paul even says that some of them were still living when he wrote 1 Corinthians 15, as if to say to his original readers, “If you don’t believe us, ask all these folks.”). Wishful thinking or extreme grief-induced hallucination would explain someone appearing to one or two people. But more than 500 at one time, and to multiple groups and individuals at different times and places? No. Luke starts his gospel by saying he interviewed eyewitnesses.
2. The transformation of Jesus’ closest followers.
Jesus’ apostles went into hiding after his death. The death of Jesus completely shattered their dreams of the Messiah forcefully overthrowing the Romans and re-establishing the glory of the kingdom of Israel. Yet, fifty days after the resurrection, we see the apostles boldly preaching Jesus resurrected in the same city where he had been executed, and in full view of the Jewish and Roman leaders who were responsible for his death. We see them threatened and punished for preaching Jesus resurrected, yet they continue to do so. We see the apostles murdered, yet they continue to preach Jesus resurrected. We see them persecuted, yet they keep preaching Jesus resurrected. A dead Christ wouldn’t have inspired them to preach about a resurrected Christ. They would have gone back to their day jobs. But they didn’t. They continued to preach about Jesus, eventually going into other lands and cultures, eventually dying for their faith in a resurrected Jesus.
3. The spread of the early church; the staying power of the church.
If Jesus was dead, Christianity would have been nothing more than another mystery religion in first century Greco-Roman culture. The minute the disciples start preaching the resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish authorities (and maybe even the Roman authorities) shout them down and produce Jesus’ body at his tomb. The result is simple: the Christian movement never becomes a movement; it quickly dies. The church wasn’t just a flash in the pan as history has shown. She has given herself her own deserved black eyes for things such as the crusades and the Inquisition, but she’s still here. And the more the church is persecuted, the more it grows. I fully realize that other religions have been around longer than Christianity. I merely point out that Christianity likely would have died out if Jesus wasn’t really resurrected.
4. The death of Jesus’ disciples.
People do not die for a cause they know to be a lie. Yes, we often hear of religious fundamentalists blowing themselves up, but they die for something they’re convinced is true. Jesus’ disciples knew where his body was buried. They knew where it should have been lying. They knew if Jesus was dead, his enemies could take anyone to the tomb. And yet, they dared to proclaim that Jesus had been crucified and raised from the dead. Under threat of punishment, they continued to preach Jesus resurrected. Early church history says that all the disciples (except John, who narrowly escaped death) died violent deaths for believing and preaching that Jesus was resurrected. One does not give up his life for something he knows to be a lie.
Do all these clues prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus rose from death? No, we’d need a time machine to travel back to first century Palestine around 30 AD for that. But taken together, all of these things build a very strong case that physical resurrection is the best explanation for the evidence we have. The issue always boils down to this: where’s the body?
I’ll end this section with a video from N. T. Wright, one of the foremost experts on the resurrection of Jesus, who wrote the groundbreaking book The Resurrection of the Son of God. Notice what he says about an atheist colleague who read the book toward the end of the clip:
Admittedly, much of what Christians know about Jesus comes from the gospel accounts. Many agnostics and atheists would reject the above reasons simply because much of the information is gleaned from the gospels and scripture. Tomorrow, we’ll look at whether or not the gospels can be trusted as historical.
In the meantime, don’t eat that giant hollow chocolate rabbit all in one sitting.