Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Resurrection of Jesus

The following was contributed by Ben Williamson. Many thanks!
As the Apostle Paul stated clearly, there are no grounds for faith in Christ without the resurrection of Jesus. The earliest disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem as an actual event that occurred in real time and space (Acts 2:23, 24). With that in mind, there can be made a case for Jesus’ return from the dead simply from inferences of the historical data that we have to our disposal. There are a number of facts that can be said to have been recognized by the vast majority of New Testament scholars today that must be explained by a viable singular historical hypothesis. The facts are as follows: The burial of Jesus in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, his empty tomb, his postmortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
As Dr. William Lane Craig points out, all these facts are recognized as historically true for two reasons. Craig notes that the burial of Jesus is multiply attested in extremely early, independent sources (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 362). Not only is it contained in the passion story in the Gospel of Mark, it’s part of the pre-Pauline tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Additionally, further independent testimony to Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea is also found in the sources behind Matthew and Luke and the Gospel of John (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 363). Second, Jesus’ empty is multiply attested in early independent sources as well. It is attested in Mark’s passion story, the sources used by Matthew and Luke and John, as well as implied in the old tradition given to the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-5). The idea that the early Christians believed in Jesus being raised from the dead with his corpse rotting in the tomb would have been utterly meaningless in 1st century Jewish thinking (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 365). Second, the criterion of embarrassment supports the historical reliability of these facts. This criterion basically entails that if an event is awkward or embarrassing for the early church, then it is unlikely to have been made up. Seeing the outright bitterness the early church had towards the religious leaders at its earliest stages, it’s highly unlikely they would invent a character named Joseph of Arimathea (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 364). Furthermore, Joseph was a Pharisee and a part of the Sanhedrin which condemned Jesus to be crucified.
While not being mentioned in the pre-Pauline tradition in 1 Corinthians, the Gospels are unanimous in affirming women as the primary witnesses to the empty tomb. Making them as the chief witnesses certainly would never have proven to be persuasive due to the prejudiced view of the reliability of women’s testimony. This attitude toward the testimony of women is evident in Josephus’s description of the rules supposedly left by Moses for admissible testimony: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15) (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 367). Having male witnesses would have served as a greater apologetic and have greater legendary tendencies than putting women as the primary witnesses.
The Postmortem appearance to Peter is independently attested by Paul and Luke (1 Cor. 15:5; Luke 24:34) and is universally acknowledged by scholars regardless of metaphysical or theological beliefs (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 381). Gerd Ludemann, an atheist, remarks: “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 381) (Ludemann, What Really Happened to Jesus, 80)
Finally the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was extremely un-Jewish. The Jewish concept of the Messiah was someone who would become a political leader and overthrow the Roman rule and oppression. But never would he be someone executed as a criminal. Additionally, belief in the resurrection only applied to the general scope of humanity at the end of the world and never in time and space to an isolated individual. Yet despite any reasons to the contrary, the disciples suddenly (not slowly over time) came to believe that God of Israel had raised Jesus from the dead.
Attempts to explain these four facts by saying the disciples stole the body or that Jesus wasn’t really dead have been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. Now the facts have been presented before us. But it’s not enough to simply list them but rather assign an explanation that can explain all of the data adequately. C.B. McCullagh, in his book Justifying Historical Descriptions,(a philosopher of history) perhaps helped develop one of the best ways to identify an explanation – in science and history – in terms of it being the best explanation. The tests for an inference to the best explanation are as follows: Explanatory power, Explanatory scope, plausibility, less ad hoc, in accord with accepted beliefs, and far outstripping rival theories in steps 1-5.
The Apparent death theory has been widely dismissed as implausible due to the severe nature of crucifixion in recent medical studies and references to ancient sources. It  fails to explain nearly any of the data and so is to be rejected as a worthy historical hypothesis. The Wrong Tomb theory also fails to serve as a viable explanation. The Conspiracy Theory which says the disciples stole away Jesus’ body and then lied about his appearances has been universally rejected (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 371) due to the sincere nature of the disciples’ attitude and character revealed in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s letters, and in their eventual martyrdom for their convictions. As a hypothesis, it only tries to explain why the tomb was empty and trying to induce some sinister motives into their minds. The Hallucination Theory has become more popular and still remains as a hypothesis that skeptical scholars will appeal to on occasion. Gerd Ludemann grants the appearances of Jesus but tries to explain them away as hallucinations. How does this hypothesis fare? Well it only tries to explain the appearances and fails to explain the burial account, the empty tomb, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. So even if hallucinations were granted, it still wouldn’t be adequate because it fails the other tests.
What about the Resurrection Hypothesis? Well, I think proper background information is helpful to make better sense of why this explanation far exceeds other competing hypotheses. Jesus of Nazareth made radical claims to be the Messiah and to be the direct revelation of God the Father to mankind. He also performed amazing deeds (some attributed to miracles and some to devilish workings) and performed exorcisms as well. He also predicted his own death and resurrection. With this background in mind, let’s see how the Resurrection hypothesis holds up. It explains the disappearance of Jesus’ body and the frequent appearances to other disciples. Second, it explains all of the data without straining. Third, it is plausible on the fact of Jesus’ claims and miracle workings and predictions as well. Fourth, it doesn’t rely on a non-evidenced assumption. Fifth, it doesn’t conflict with the widely held belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead. Rather the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” is plausible given the arguments and evidence offered by natural theology for the existence of God. These arguments are the moral argument, Kalam Cosmological argument, and the fine tuning argument. Lastly, it far outstrips other competing theories by a good margin and therefore justifiably is the best explanation for what happened. In this case, we can confidently say that the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is by far the best explanation of available historical data.
In conclusion, we have seen that the Resurrection of Jesus is not a belief of an event that must strictly be taken on faith alone but rather has extraordinary evidence to support it. Any reasons for rejecting the resurrection of Jesus in doubting the reliability of the New Testament, skepticism of miracles, and desperate attempts to prove atheism are all fallacious presuppositions that must be held with suspicion and checked properly. The Resurrection of Jesus is not only a historical event but also has deep underlying implications. It shows God’s interaction with human affairs, promises an afterlife, and guarantees salvation to whoever asks for forgiveness on account of his crimes against God.
Additional Reading
1.       Reasonable Faith 3rd Edition – William Lane Craig
2.       The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus – Gary Habermas & Michael Licona
3.       The Resurrection of the Son of God – N.T. Wright
4.       The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach – Michael Licona
5.       Evidence for the Resurrection – Josh & Sean McDowell


  1. It seems to me that there are numerous problems in this argument, but I'll only address the couple that seem most glaring to me.

    It's stated that there are multiple independent sources attesting to the empty tomb of Jesus, yet the sources mentioned are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and 1 Corinthians 15. Matthew and Luke both based their resurrection narratives at least somewhat on Mark, and as for the additional information they provide, we simply don't know what sources were used if any. And 1 Corinthians 15 never actually states that the tomb was empty. In fact, it seems very probable when the passage is read contextually that Paul was arguing only for a spiritual resurrection, not a bodily one. This leaves us only with Mark and John, which give very different (and contradictory) accounts of this event.

    It's also stated that the postmortem appearance to Peter is attested in both Luke and 1 Corinthians. This is true, though they certainly don't seem to agree on any details. Like I mentioned earlier, Paul's account of the resurrection seems only spiritual. Notice that when Paul lists all those that have seen Jesus, he includes himself. "...and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born." It's entirely possible that Paul (who is the earliest source here) is only stating that Peter had a spiritual encounter with Jesus, just like Paul did.

    Without these two points (the empty tomb and the postmortem appearances) the argument seems to crumble. Please correct me if I'm making a mistake without realizing it, but for now I highly suggest editing the article to better reflect the reality that historically speaking we simply don't know if Jesus rose from the dead or not.

  2. Hi Blake, thanks for commenting! It's important to note that the fact of the empty tomb is near-universally accepted among New Testament scholars--even those who are self-proclaimed agnostics or atheists. Without going into the issue of Gospel-priority (suffice it to say Markan priority is not clear-cut [See Carson and Moo], but that is incidental), there's simply not an issue of "copying" here, at least any more than any other multiply-attested event with respect to ancient historical documents (after all, there are too many dissimilarities for it to be some instance of plagiarism.

    It is also nearly-certain that the 1 Cor. 15 passage in question is not original to Paul. That is, whether or not Paul wrote it (I happen to think he did), it is clearly in the form of an early confessional in Greek. Why is this important? Well, it rules out any contextual claims of non-bodily resurrection. The early church claimed he had risen bodily (which was, we might add, the only kind of resurrection with which first-century Jews would have been familiar). It references the early polemic of Christians against Judaism. "He has risen from the dead," say the Christians. "The disciples stole his body," say the Jews. "There was a guard," say the Christians. Notice the give and take: both sides a) implicitly acknowledge an empty tomb, and b) reference a bodily event.

    Also, Mark and John do not give contradictory accounts of the fact there was an empty tomb (that is, one doesn't say it is empty and the other says it is occupied).

    The postmortem appearances between Luke and 1 Cor. 15--since the latter is a confessional, it doesn't even contain any details to agree with!

    I appreciate your comments, and I recognize that this was delivered in a great spirit; this is very helpful! I recommend, as far as reading goes, The Son Rises, by William Lane Craig, or anything by Gary Habermas on this subject. God Bless!

  3. Markan priority is not clear cut? May I ask how you resolve the synoptic problem then? And why is it that universal acceptance by scholars is enough for you to accept the empty tomb, but not enough for you to accept Markan priority?

    And I agree that the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 is not original to Paul, though this doesn't really help your case much. What seems most likely to me is that this is a later interpolation. Simply put, why would Paul back away to the less impressive spiritual resurrection if a bodily one had been told to him by the apostles? Why would he argue that Jesus had appeared bodily to so many, only to state later in the chapter that Jesus only rose spiritually?

    Furthermore, Paul says in Galatians 1:11-12 that his gospel isn't of human origin. "I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Yet you argue that Paul was indeed taught his gospel, and that he's simply relaying an early creed taught to him by his human predecessors.

    But if the 1 Corinthians 15 passage is original to Paul, then we must assume the context matters, meaning that no bodily resurrection is being argued for, meaning that this disagrees wholeheartedly with Luke's account of Peter's vision of Jesus. But if the passage is not original to Paul, then there is no multiple attestation of Jesus' postmortem appearance to Peter.

    And may I ask what early sources you have for your polemic of Christians against Judaism ("He has risen from the dead," say the Christians. "The disciples stole his body," say the Jews. "There was a guard," say the Christians.)? Because I've never seen this before. I'd love to see which texts this came from.

  4. Markan priority entails the interdependence theory, but the IDT doesn't entail Markan priority. In any case, I think it's irrelevant to the direct issue.

    You say 1 Cor. 15 emphasizes spiritual resurrection to the exclusion of bodily resurrection, while I believe bodily resurrection is spoken of to the inclusion of the spiritual. It's not at all clear only spiritual is in mind in 1 Cor. 15.

    To the Scripture, it must be pointed out that Paul said he received the Gospel itself from Jesus Christ, then spent three years in Arabia/Damascus, and then went to "see" Peter in Jerusalem (1:18-19). This word is only used once, and is the Greek word ιστορησαι (historesai). This word means to "investigate" literally. What he was investigating is the apostles' claims themselves (cf. 1:19-2:2) There's no reason to suppose Paul is contradicting himself here. Habermas points out "Paul was so careful to assure the content of his Gospel message, that he made a second trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10) specifically to be absolutely sure that he had not been mistaken (2:2)." (Dialog: Experiences of the Risen Jesus)

    Further, Paul uses παρεδωκα and παρελαβον, which are "formulaic" words used in the practice of introducing sayings ("delivered" and "received"). Next, the proper name of "Cephas" is used, instead of the predominantly used "Peter" by even the time of Paul's writing (to say nothing of later interpolation). The three-fold και οτι, or "and that," seems to be an oral tradition. This is why Habermas mentions even skeptics affirm a date in the 30s. Finally, assuming that only the verses in the tradition are extrapolated, why is it Paul says "...unless ye have believed in vain...after that, he was seen of about five hundred."? We have good reason to suspect "after that" is original, since it is a separate Greek word entirely from the conjunctions mentioned earlier. I recommend "The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus," by William Lane Craig.

    As to the polemic, it can be traced back to Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, in ch. 108. This places the polemic at 150-167. However, we can do better. In Matthew 27:62-66, 28:11-15, the chief priests expected the disciples to steal the body, and bribed the guards to say so. Now let's assume the story is embellished in Matthew. All that makes sense to make up is the guard story in response to the charge the disciples had stolen the body. There's no need to mention bribing of the guard. Craig mentions, "This arises only when the Jewish polemic answers that the guard had fallen asleep, thus allowing the disciples to steal the body. The sleeping of the guard could only have been a Jewish development, as it would serve no purpose to the Christian polemic." ("The Guard at the Tomb," New Testament Studies, 30)

    Indeed, if the entire "guard polemic" (or any part) were a lie they would need only point that out! Craig:"it is even more improbable that confronted with this palpable lie, the Jews would...proceed to create another lie, even stupider, that the guard had fallen asleep while the disciples broke into the tomb and absconded with the body. If the existence of the guard were false, then the Jewish polemic would never have taken the course that it did...It would never have come to the point that the Christians had to invent a third lie, that the Jews had bribed the fictional guard...Rather the real value of Matthew's story is the incidental...information that Jewish polemic never denied that the tomb was empty, but instead tried to explain it away. Thus the early opponents of the Christians themselves bear witness to the fact of the empty tomb." (ibid)

    Sorry so long. But I believed it necessary. Thanks for the discussion!

    1. Hi Randy, Regarding Matt's gospel and its mention of the guard at the tomb, one thing that I don't quite get is why it is that the disciples didn't understand that Jesus was predicting His own resurrection but yet His enemies did understand what He was predicting. What's the best way of tackling that "problem"?

    2. Hi James. :) I do agree that, on first surface-level look, that it appears to be a problem. However, I actually think such a detail counts *for* its historicity. Why? Well, because it's an embarrassing detail. That the heroes/leaders of Christianity (the apostles) would be shown as utterly ignorant as to what was going on paints them nearly as fools! On the other hand, the villains of the story, the ones who, if the story were invented, likely would have been portrayed as bumbling idiots, instead understood precisely what was being claimed. How embarrassing!

      As to why this was the case, consider the respective backgrounds of the two camps involved. The Sanhedrin, made fools by Jesus on more than one occasion, did not believe he was the Messiah, yet understood he claimed to be Messiah. The disciples, on the other hand, readily embraced his being Messiah. There was no concept, in first-century Judaism, of a dying and rising Messiah. Jesus often spoke in parables or sayings hard to be understood, given the Judaic, hyper-legalistic background of the culture. The disciples expected their Messiah to take down Rome and rule in his kingdom. Thus, whatever Messiah's predictions may have been, they assumed it would result only in triumph, not death; it would result in a kingdom, not a cross. On the other hand, the Sanhedrin, looking to get Jesus on charges of blasphemy, was all too happy to take Jesus at his word, believing he wasn't the Messiah. Of course, they didn't believe he was going to rise, but they definitely had incentive to understand him plainly.

      I'm going to use this as this week's mailbag question! :)


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