The Tentative Apologist
11/23/09 at 11:33 AM 0 Comments

Does the resurrection of Jesus stand up to historical enquiry?

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In an earlier post, "Were New Testament Christians reliable witnesses, or were they ignorant fools?", I offered a critique of the facile, if common, assumption that the testimony of ancient people is excessively credulous and untrustworthy. On the contrary, we need to test the credentials of ancient witnesses no less than contemporary ones. It follows that we cannot justify a priori undue skepticism on the witnesses of New Testament Christians (e.g. to miracles) simply because of the antiquity of their reports. Instead, we need to weigh these claims on their respective historical merits.

For the reader of the Bible there are many miracle reports that one might assess for objective historical evidence from the testimony of Moses leading the people across the Red Sea (see Colin Humphreys' fascinating discussion in The Miracles of Exodus which is also discussed in my book Faith Lacking Understanding, chapter 3) to Jesus' turning of water into wine.

But there is one miracle that is more important for Christian faith than any other: the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This doctrine lies at the very foundation of Christian faith. As Paul observed, "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." (1 Corinthians 15:14) As a result, Christians should be very interested in the historical evidence for this event.  

With that in mind I want to consider here a common assumption among skeptics that belief in the resurrection was a late, and thus legendary, development. Is this true? When did Christians start believing that Jesus was bodily raised?

While the conversation often centers on the gospel witnesses, the earliest, and most important, historical witness for the resurrection comes in 1 Corinthians 15:

1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Note the following:

(1) New Testament scholars generally date 1 Corinthians to around AD 53-55, that is, 20-25 years after the alleged resurrection event.

(2) Paul is not arguing here for the resurrection as if it were some new, controversial teaching. Rather, as eminent Pauline scholar Gordon Fee notes, "he is reasserting the commonly held ground from which he will argue against their assertion that there is no resurrection of the dead." In other words, he was reproducing a widely accepted teaching.

(3) Paul is reminding the Corinthians of a teaching he had shared with them earlier, around AD 49, that is, 16-19 years after the alleged resurrection event.

(4) Paul was teaching the Corinthians a teaching that he himself had received. When did he receive it? Even very skeptical (e.g. non-Christian) New Testament scholars accept that Paul experienced a conversion on the road to Damascus, probably about a year after the death of Christ. "18Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. 19I saw none of the other apostles-only James, the Lord's brother." (Galatians 1:18-19) Thus, Paul probably received his teaching no later than 3-4 years after the alleged resurrection event and perhaps much earlier (e.g. from the Damascus Christians).

(5) The formula of death, burial and subsequent appearance can mean nothing more than a bodily resurrection (as the longer discussion in this chapter of the Christian's future bodily resurrection makes amply clear). Their belief was not that Jesus was raised "spiritually" but physically.

(6) James, the brother of Jesus, was among those who, though rejecting his messiahship in his life, came to accept it after his death. His martyrdom in AD 62 as the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem is recorded by Jewish historian Josephus. What could persuade James into thinking that his brother was the resurrected messiah? Let's put it this way: what would it take to persuade you that your sibling was the messiah?

These are a few of the historical considerations from this single passage that illustrate how there is no time for legend to develop. The belief in the resurrection is well attested on historical grounds in the earliest moments of the Christian faith.

I watched the new "Star Trek" yesterday. Not bad at all. Spock has one memorable line which goes something like this: "Once you eliminate the impossible, the improbable, no matter how unlikely, must be true."  If one begins with the belief that it is impossible that there be a God then a natural explanation of this historical data, however improbable, must be correct (e.g. a fanciful combination of a "somebody stole the body" with "collective mass hallucination of a resurrection).

But if one allows for the possible existence of God, and allows the testimony of history speak for itself, one could well come to accept a historical resurrection not simply on faith but as a matter of reasoned historical enquiry.  

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