Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

Introduction

This argument is largely an adaptation of arguments previously made by many apologists, so if it seems familiar I have likely stolen some ideas. I’ll investigate some facts around the supposed resurrection and try to work out what the best explanation is.

Before we begin I will state that for the purposes of this discussion I will be treating the works contained within the bible as historical documents (that is, documents from history), not as scripture or inerrant or even reliable. I hold these positions, but to assume them here would be circular reasoning. I shall attempt to come at them from a neutral position, without assuming anything about their reliability that I can’t back up with sources from respected historians. I will also attempt to take the consensus of experts in their field as the default position for the purposes of this argument.

Also before we begin, I will just state that we are certain that Jesus existed. Ehrman is the most respected non-Christian NT historian I can think of and he compared the belief that Jesus didn’t exist to belief in Young Earth Creationism. There is virtually unanimous consensus that Jesus existed among NT scholars, and even the rare proponents of Christ Myth Theory admit that they are basically alone in their beliefs. It is not a hypothesis worth considering, given scholarship on the issue. If this is a problem for you, you should probably read some more on the issue. Ehrman dealt with this issue here and here.

 

Empty Tomb

The first thing we have to establish is that Jesus was crucified and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This first point is largely uncontroversial, Ehrman writes that the crucifixion is as sure as anything in history1 and that Jesus was most likely buried in the aforementioned tomb2. Ehrman has since changed his mind on the tomb for what I consider to be dubious reasons (read here for more on why I disagree with Ehrman), but other important scholars like Géza Vermes3 and Dale Allison4 still assert that Jesus was buried roughly as the Gospels describe. Gary Habermas is a noted expert on the facts surrounding the resurrection, and has surveyed that around 75% of relevant scholars affirm the empty tomb.5

Looking at the claim that the women who found the tomb found it empty, we have a few ways of evaluating it. When discussing biblical events, scholars have come up with a few heuristics that allow us to determine reliability. The empty tomb accounts satisfy the criteria of multiple attestation, lack of legendary embellishment, embarrassing features of the narrative, use of proper names, public knowledge of the burial and the tomb’s location.

It is notable that throughout history, from Celsus to modern scholars, opponents of Christianity have tried to explain the empty tomb rather than deny it. According to reports that are found in Matthew 28:11-15, Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 108) and Tertullian (On Spectacles 30), for almost two centuries or more, the Jewish leaders tried to explain that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples stole His body. This means that the Jewish hierarchy even acknowledged the fact that Jesus’ body was no longer there.

It is attested to in every Gospel, and a strong argument can be made that the creed discussed in the next section also includes the implication of an empty tomb. According to the late historian of ancient Rome and fellow at Oxford, A. N. Sherwin-White, “even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” And with respect to historical reconstruction, he says that “we are seldom in the happy position of dealing at only one remove with a contemporary source.” The empty tomb, in light of the multiple reasonably close sources attesting to it, is quite likely. If you are still unconvinced of the empty tomb, I’d like to hear an alternate explanation for the early beliefs and accounts, and why your explanation is better than mine.

 

Apostle’s Beliefs

Ehrman also tells us that the legend of the resurrection began at the latest two years after Jesus was crucified6. Ehrman refers to an early Christian source, a creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. A very early Christian creed, which James Dunn dates to 18 months after Jesus’ death.7

So we have an early belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Given what we know about the early church from Acts, this must have originated from the Apostles. There is no other plausible source for this creed. Let’s examine the claims of the Apostles as they appear in Acts. Acts 2:29-32 records Peter’s words:

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.”

I contend that Acts is fairly reliable in relating to us church history. The accuracy of Acts in most areas is attested to by NT historians, with Martin Henge stating8:

‘Luke-Acts looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem, which is still relatively recent, and moreover is admirably well informed about Jewish circumstances in Palestine, in this respect comparable only to its contemporary Josephus. As Matthew and John attest, that was no longer the case around 15-25 years later; one need only compare the historical errors of the former Platonic philosopher Justin from Neapolis in Samaria, who was born around 100 CE.’

There are some passages of disputed accuracy in Acts, but the above mentioned section is not one of them. I’ve been unable to find any scholar who takes issue with the above passage. And non-Christian scholar Gerd Lüdemann believes that the section is historical9.  We have no reason to doubt it, and it is in line with what we know about the 11 from other sources.

So the disciples that Peter refers to, the 11, believed they were witnesses to the risen Christ. They believed it so strongly that some would die for it, and all would have reasonably believed they would die for it. Notably Peter himself, whose death is recorded by Clement of Alexandria. The 11 are threatened with death or imprisonment as early as Acts 4.

All this points to the fact that the Apostles truly believed what they claimed. We will investigate soon whether they could be correct. It should be noted that I am not claiming “They died for their beliefs, therefore their beliefs are true”. That doesn’t follow. My claim could be better summarized as “They died (or believed they would die) for their beliefs, therefore they truly believed them”.

 

Possible explanations

We have now established that the Apostles all believed they had seen the risen Christ, and that the tomb was empty. Let’s begin then trying to explain these facts

Perhaps the Apostles simply hallucinated Christ’s appearances. This would be plausible, except for the fact that 11 of them would have had to hallucinate simultaneously. And not just hallucinations, but detailed coherent hallucinations that were completely outside the realm of what they expected. This is unlikely. And does nothing to explain the empty tomb.

Some have speculated that someone pretended to be Jesus, or was at least mistaken for him. This again fails to account for the empty tomb. It also seems unlikely given that the 11 knew Jesus well, after spending 3 years with him. It is unlikely they would have all mistaken someone for him, especially to the extent where they would die for it. Remember that these are fairly rational, intelligent people, judging by what they wrote.

Others have speculated that Christ did not really die on the cross, but was taken down and recovered in the tomb. This would be almost as great a miracle as the resurrection itself. Jesus was scourged before he was crucified, a process that often killed. And then there is only one known person to have ever survived crucifixion, who did so after being up there only a few hours and receiving medical attention. Two other people were taken down at the same time and died. It is unlikely Jesus could recover on his own in a cold wet cave.

Some have suggested grave robbers to explain the empty tomb. This does nothing to explain Christ’s appearances to the 11, and is just unlikely. They weren’t all that common, and probably wouldn’t carry off a body with no reason.

Perhaps the women went to the wrong tomb. This is possible, but it doesn’t explain the appearances to the 11. It also doesn’t explain why Peter and John also found the tomb empty, unless they made the same mistake. It is unlikely both groups would.

Now it is true that a combination of these unlikely partial explanations can explain the facts that we’ve looked at. But postulating multiple unlikely events multiplies their already low probabilities, and the resurrection becomes the best explanation.

The McGrew’s (Tim McGrew is the chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University) that I referenced earlier did a similar but more detailed investigation10 to the one I have done and came up with a Bayes factor of 10^44 which is an incomprehensibly huge number. If you think this evidence is weak, then let’s quantify our discussion, and give me an alternative analysis. 

So it seems that based on the evidence at hand, the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the facts we have investigated.

References

  1. A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 2008 ISBN 0-19-536934-3 page 136
  2. Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” [The Teaching Company, 2003].
  3. Geza Vermes, The Passion (Penguin, 2005)
  4. Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus
  5. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004
  6. http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/p96.htm
  7. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), page 855.
  8. Hengel & Schwemer, ‘Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: the unknown years’, pp. 7-8 (1997)
  9. Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ‘Acts and the History of the Earliest Jerusalem Church’, in Cameron & Miller (eds.), ‘Redescribing Christian origins’, pp. 165-169 (2004)
  10. http://www.lydiamcgrew.com/Resurrectionarticlesinglefile.pdf

2 Replies to “Historical Evidence for the Resurrection”

  1. ***Alleged facts***)

    The source material you are appealing to has some serious problems. Since the historical sources you appeal to are false, then there are no facts at all that have to be explained.

    Why think the New Testament is unreliable? Many reasons

    1) All the gospels are interdependent (the synoptic problem tells us that both Luke and Matthew both copy from Mark and gJohn probably copied from Mark too) so all we really have is Mark and Paul.

    2) The gospels have historical, geographical and cultural errors

    3) The gospels are corrupted (John 7:53-8:11; Mark 16:9-20) are both additions based on the earliest manuscript evidence and ancient witnesses like Eusebius

    4) We don’t know who wrote them because they are anonymous. None of them claim to be any certain authors. The best evidence we have is from Papias and Irenaeus … both living decades and centuries after.

    5) There are competing gospels like the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Barnabas, Second Treatise of the Seth, Gospel of Thomas the Contender; some of which have been dated to the same time period. These gospels contradict the 4 gospels and they have authors like Peter, James, etc.

    6) It’s not clear that even granting the gospels’ reliability, then the facts are there. People like Zakir Hussain have pointed out that the gospel of Mark read in original Greek was actually saying that Simon of Cyrene was being crucified and the people thought it was Jesus. Btw, Thomas could be a candidate for the crucifixion instead of Jesus. “Thomas” in Aramaic is Tuoma which means twin because he looked like Jesus.

    7) Paul was probably lying or making stuff up. See 1 Corinthians 9:20-23. Or maybe, you are reading too much into it. Here is how we know the Corinthian creed is not from eyewitnesses but the result of oral tradition from 30 AD to 58 AD (when Galatians was probably written), Paul himself says that the leaders in Jerusalem, the apostles, contributed nothing to his preaching (Galatians 2:6) and that the gospel he preaches (1 Corinthians 15:1-2) is “from no man or humans source” (Galatians 1:12). Where does Paul say that he got this creed from his visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 1? He does not. Apologists interpret that into the text. We already know that at the time of writing, there were Christians who did not believe in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12)

    8) Reductio Ad absurdum: (This is contingent on the Trinity and the hypostatic union (HU) being contradictory which I can defend),

    If The resurrection is true, Christianity is true and Christian doctrines like Trinity and HU are entailed.

    But Christian doctrines like the Trinity and HU are false

    Therefore, the doctrine of the resurrection is false.

    Explanations)

    It is alleged that a guy named Asclepius healed and did so many miracles that an entire volume called “Asclepius: A collection and interpretation of testimonies” had to be written to collect the eyewitness testimony of his miracles. Also, inscriptions are written on temples all over Greece giving us firsthand testimony of his miracles. If we take your historical method correctly, then we would also have to believe in Asclepius’s divinity, but since the two (Christianity and Asclepius cult) contradict each other, Christianity must be false.

    Multiple alternative explanations could be offered:

    1) A substitute of Jesus was crucified in his place, the corpse of the substitute decomposed or was moved and Jesus appeared later to all the people

    2) Jesus was resuscitated in the womb by Nicodemus and then left an empty tomb to appear to the disciples

    3) A God of another religion resurrected Jesus from the dead (meaning that even if we grant the resurrection, Christianity is still false)

    4) An alien abducted Jesus and did experiments ending in his resurrection.

    1. > 1) All the gospels are interdependent (the synoptic problem tells us that both Luke and Matthew both copy from Mark and gJohn probably copied from Mark too) so all we really have is Mark and Paul.

      This is false, John is independent from the synoptics. Similarly, in the Resurrection accounts and the appearances of Jesus, Matthew and Luke seem to not copy from Mark, but use other sources. So we really do have multiple sources, not even considering Paul.

      > 2) The gospels have historical, geographical and cultural errors

      This is false, they have no such errors.

      > 3) The gospels are corrupted (John 7:53-8:11; Mark 16:9-20) are both additions based on the earliest manuscript evidence and ancient witnesses like Eusebius

      The fact that some textual variants exist does not entail that the Gospels are corrupted at all. In fact, it proves the opposite: that we are able to reconstruct the originals and demonstrate that these texts were not part of the originals.

      The same is true for any ancient historical text, textual variants exist everywhere. This is not a problem, all historians agree we can reconstruct the Gospels with high certainty as to the original text.

      > 4) We don’t know who wrote them because they are anonymous. None of them claim to be any certain authors. The best evidence we have is from Papias and Irenaeus … both living decades and centuries after.

      Each Gospel internally makes claims as to who the author (or at least the source) is. Luke in the Luke-Acts pair makes it explicit, so does John. Matthew and Mark leave strong hints. This is good enough for most of us. It is a myth that they are anonymous.

      > 5) There are competing gospels like the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Barnabas, Second Treatise of the Seth, Gospel of Thomas the Contender; some of which have been dated to the same time period. These gospels contradict the 4 gospels and they have authors like Peter, James, etc.

      These works are all centuries later, arise in totally different geographical areas, and are traced back to some early sects that broke off from Christianity. They do not compare, they were not ever taken seriously by the early Church.

      > 6) It’s not clear that even granting the gospels’ reliability, then the facts are there. People like Zakir Hussain have pointed out that the gospel of Mark read in original Greek was actually saying that Simon of Cyrene was being crucified and the people thought it was Jesus

      This is absurd, no historian believes this.

      > 7) Paul was probably lying or making stuff up. See 1 Corinthians 9:20-23. Or maybe, you are reading too much into it. Here is how we know the Corinthian creed is not from eyewitnesses but the result of oral tradition from 30 AD to 58 AD (when Galatians was probably written), Paul himself says that the leaders in Jerusalem, the apostles, contributed nothing to his preaching (Galatians 2:6) and that the gospel he preaches (1 Corinthians 15:1-2) is “from no man or humans source” (Galatians 1:12).

      They didn’t give him the Gospel, that’s what he says. They still gave him the creed. He says he received it, and that is clearly the source implied.

      > 8) Reductio Ad absurdum: (This is contingent on the Trinity and the hypostatic union (HU) being contradictory which I can defend),

      I look forward to hearing that defence.

      > Explanations)

      None of these are any good, and I have defended why.

      Overall, your response here is very poor, and is pretty much entirely based on misconceptions or a lack of knowledge of the subject area. I suggest you study history a bit more, I will not be responding (or even approving) further comments unless you step up your game a bit.

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