…contemporary Christians cannot be at home in almost in any period of church history. If a present-day Christian attempts to read the work of almost any Christian leader from before the 19th century, he is likely to be shocked by the leader’s supposed rudeness and ‘unchristlikeness.’ For example, in an article on Athanasius—one of the most formative leaders in Christian history—a Gospel Coalition writer observed that modern Christian readers are likely to ‘sniff at his angry style of writing.’ In a preface to a translation of Luther—by two Lutheran academics—the translators remarked that ‘Luther was a person of his time, and his language expresses the roughness of the age.’
Of course, it is only people in the past whose choices are explained away by their social context. Nobody reads a Christianity Today editorial and says that, after all, the author ‘is a person of his time, and his language expresses the gentility of the age.’ Instead, it is 21st-century, middle class evangelicals who are implicitly assumed to have finally gotten christlikeness right after all these years.
When discussing the use of the Bible as a historical source, or the primary source for knowledge about early Christianity, or its Apostolic origins, there is often much debate about who wrote the Gospels, and when. The Christian often assigns an early date and agrees with the traditional authors, while the sceptic often assigns a late date and says that we have no idea who wrote the texts. The sceptic will then use this fact in an argument for why we should not accept Christianity, either because we don’t really know anything about the early Christians, or because the texts lie about their origins, etc. Here, I intend to lay out systematically some arguments to assign an early date and traditional authors to the Gospels.
(I will also include Acts in Luke, and refer to Luke and Acts together as “Luke”, since Acts is written by the same person as Luke, and certainly written a short time after Luke.)
The order of the sections may seem a bit odd, but I think it better shows the flow of my argument, and the dependence that exists between the various facts here. We will only concern ourselves here with Mark and Luke, Matthew and John will come later.
Mark was not late
Much of the analysis of the Gospels depends on their inter-relationships. That is, if we know that Mark was first, and we know that Mark was after 70, then we know that the other Gospels must be some time after 70. And so the whole framework of the sceptical dating system really depends on one or two key arguments. But we can not only refute these one or two, we can also establish one or two key arguments from the other direction, and propose an earlier timing for each Gospel based on their inter-relationships.
The primary argument for a late Mark, a Mark written after 70, is the inclusion of Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple. As these scholars argue, Jesus can’t have known that the temple would soon be destroyed, so this prophecy is the work of a later author, writing after the event, inserting the prophecy into Jesus’ ministry.
In most circumstances, I would be on board with the methodological naturalism employed here. If you made the same argument regarding the text outside the context of a religious debate, I would accept it. However here, it is often circular. If we are going to make the assumption that Jesus is incapable of prophecy, conclude late Gospels, and then use that conclusion in an argument against Christianity, then that argument is a circular argument, as it includes the premise “Jesus is incapable of prophecy”.
Given our context of debating the truth or falsehood of Christianity, it seems most reasonable to not make this assumption of Jesus’ inability to prophecy. That assumption is simply the assumption that Christianity is false, and such assumptions are not useful to us when we are trying to determine whether Christianity actually is true. You can’t make an argument that Christianity is false if you assume as a premise that Christianity is false. Therefore in this context, we ought not use this argument for a late date of Mark.
And indeed, there are no other serious arguments for a late date of Mark. There are some very speculative arguments which I will discuss, but this is certainly the main one.
One of these speculative arguments is the argument that the legion of demons in Mark 5 would only be comprehensible to readers of Mark after the war in 70, because before this time the Roman military in the area was not legionary. I think this is a very poor argument for several reasons. First, it assumes that Mark was written to Judeans, not people more familiar with Roman legions. Second, it assumes that the Judeans would not be familiar with the concept of a “legion”, which I think is absurd. Roman legions had existed for centuries by this point, were the pride of the Roman nation, and had been instrumental in dozens of battles and wars. To say that the Judeans would have no idea what a “legion” is is absurd. In fact, it may make even more sense here, if they had only heard rumours of the legendary “legion”, an unparalleled military force, the demon’s use of this word would be far more intimidating.
Luke was not late
If we have no good reason to believe Mark was late, then we have one fewer reason to push the composition of Luke out to the end of the first century as many scholars do. However there are other arguments for a late Luke, and I would like to deal with those.
One such argument is the claim that the author of Luke used Josephus as a source, and that since Josephus only wrote by about 90 AD, Luke must be at least this late. There is only one real possible case where this happened: the references to Theudas and Judas in Acts 5 and Josephus’ Antiquities 20:97-99, 102. However Josephus and Luke do not agree precisely on the dates, so either they are referring to different events, or if Luke used Josephus as a source he didn’t trust Josephus’ timelime. In that case, why use him at all? And why are there not more similarities? Importantly, why did Luke not include an account of the martyrdom of James found in Josephus? James is very significant in Acts 15, if Luke knew of James’ martyrdom, it would certainly have been included. More on that later.
Luke was early
If Luke really was written by Luke, Paul’s travelling companion, then Luke and Acts must have been written during Luke’s lifetime. This makes a date as late as the end of the first century or the start of the second century unlikely. We do not know exactly when Luke died, but it is unlikely he lived that long.
However, this is my main argument: if Luke knew about the deaths of James, Peter, or Paul, he would have certainly included them. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians is a central theme of Acts, and Peter, Paul and James are central figures of Acts. And indeed, their deaths are some of the most significant events in first-century Christian history, outside the life of Jesus Himself. It is absurd to suggest that the meticulous Luke, concerned with persecution, concerned with the lives of Peter, Paul and James, and concerned with Christian history in general, would omit these events. Neither would it omit the more general persecution of Nero, or the destruction of the Temple (surely he would include that in order to validate Jesus’ prophecy).
James was martyred in 62, and the latest event recorded in Acts is in 62, so I think we can pretty accurately date acts to around 62: after the last recorded event, before the news of James had reached Luke.
Consider also the account of the events of Paul’s last missionary journey that Luke records. Unlike the earlier events from many years before this point, this journey is described in great detail. The details described are often somewhat irrelevant to the theological point that Luke is attempting to make, and seem to be included simply because they are true.
This phenomenon has been explained by critical scholars as the author of Luke, writing in the late first or early second centuries, adapting some previously written work and incorporating it into his. However, there is no reason to believe this other than their presupposition that Luke was not an eyewitness and Acts was written late. There is no change in the kind of language, no change in the themes of the work, nothing in the text that would indicate that it was another work incorporated into Luke. Instead the natural conclusion here is that Luke spends time on these events because they had just happened, and describes them in detail because he was there. Which leads us to…
Luke was written by Luke
This was the universal position of the early church, as far back as we have sources. And indeed, this is the testimony of the work of Acts itself. We know at what point in the narrative Luke joins Paul on his journey, and this is the same point at which the language switches from “they went” to “we went”.
Of course many scholars dispute the “we” passages, since as Luke must have been written late, these cannot be genuinely written by a travelling companion of Paul. But I think their arguments are not very good. There seems to be no real textual evidence that the “we” passages are forgeries as Ehrman claims, or a stylistic choice that doesn’t indicate Lukan authorship as other scholars claim. Their claims are mere suggestions, without any textual evidence to support them.
One such argument is given not on the basis of textual evidence, but on the basis of “irreconcilable” differences between how Luke presents Paul and how Paul presents himself in his epistles. However these differences are quite tiny, and Luke’s representation of Paul is compatible with Paul’s own description of himself in his epistles.
There is more positive evidence of Luke being the author. The author was clearly someone very familiar with technical medical terminology, due to the technical medical terminology that appears several times throughout these works. The author was also familiar with the geography of first century Judea, therefore someone who likely had first hand knowledge of the area.
Mark was early
We have gone one direction and refuted some arguments for a late Mark. We should now go the other direction, and produce some arguments for an early Mark. The strongest argument is the date of Luke: if I am right and Luke was finished by 62 then Mark must have been completed some time earlier, since it seems like Mark drew on Luke.
Some other arguments include Mark’s use of Latinisms. Mark uses many Latin terms which he expects the reader to be familiar with. These show a certain affinity for Rome, rather than hostility, but we’d expect hostility towards Rome if the great persecution had begun, if Paul and Peter or even James had been executed etc. This along with the dating of Luke places Mark certainly before 64.
Some scholars have used the existence of these latinisms indicates that Mark is writing after the war in 70, when Roman occupation had caused the Judeans to become more familiar with these Roman concepts. However some scholars suggest an alternative: if Mark was written for a Roman audience while Peter was in Rome, as the early sources claim, then it makes perfect sense for Mark to include these Latinisms. Peter seems to have been in Rome in 42, so this suggests an early date for us.
Just how early was it? I think a compelling argument can be made that Mark was written in the late 30s or early 40s. I will not go into all of these arguments, as I think it is sufficient to push Mark earlier by pushing Luke earlier. But for anyone who wants to examine more arguments, these are good. Another similar argument is given for a date of 45, which is also worth investigating. Once we dispense with the prophecy argument, there are good reasons to put it as early as 40, and that is where I will place it also.
This early date does raise a question: why did Paul not make any mention of Mark in his epistles? I think the answer is simply: he didn’t need to. Paul rested on his authority as an Apostle in his writings, and had no need to cite a work written by a non-Apostle to justify himself, even if Mark contains Jesus’ words.
We have very briefly examined some of the reasons why Luke and Mark are dated to be quite late, and shown these reasons to not be good ones. We have also very briefly given some positive reasons for early dates of Mark and Luke, and traditional authorship of Luke. These arguments have, to the best of my ability, been based on objective reasoning which assumes neither the truth nor falsehood of Christianity, and simply engages with the historical evidence.
This is a very interesting paper, quite relevant to
“As for Christians, I think the wisest counsel is to err on the side of strength rather than conciliation. Our political culture, in general, increasingly respects boldness—whether used for good or for ill. Tellingly, public apologies by targeted persons often seem to further excite the person’s opponents and crystalize his damnation—functioning as a kind of Kafkaesque seppuku with zero redemptive function. It is not hard for me to understand why. As a militantly anti-Christian teenager, I perceived the apparent passivity of Christians as proof that, deep down, they secretly knew that I was right and that their faith was a lie. Having now been a Christian for many years, I can see that the Christians I challenged were actually attempting to model the humility of Christ but, regrettably, doing so imperfectly.
For Christians to speak with greater boldness would be biblical as well as pragmatic. Too often, Christians emphasize only one component of Jesus’ personality, resulting in a one-dimensional meekness isolated from the fullness of Christ’s character. As the novelist Walter Miller indicated in A Canticle for Leibowitz, the church today is capable of saying ‘[l]et the little children come to me,’ but is less capable of saying—as Jesus did only a few chapters later—‘[y]ou serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?’”
We have already discussed some of the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus,
The first is a consideration of the origin of the belief in the Resurrection. The point I want to make is this: this is not an easy thing to believe, or an obvious idea to come up with. This is a hard thing to impress upon you and I, who live in an at least Christian influenced culture. But in ancient Israel, there was no conception of a dying and rising Messiah. In fact the Jews were so resistant to this idea, that when Messianic prophecies seemed to indicate that there would be a glorious eternal Messiah and a suffering and dying Messiah, there would in fact be two Messiahs! It is extremely non-obvious to an ancient Jew that the Messiah could die and rise.
Not only is the idea of dying and rising in this way unknown for the concept of the Messiah, but it is also entirely unknown in Judaism as well. In Judaism, there is a concept of a final Resurrection of all the dead on judgement day. They knew of what we might call a resuscitation: a dead body returning to the same kind of life it had before, temporarily. Resuscitated dead would have an ordinary lifespan. But a Resurrection to Glory before judgement day is a different idea. It was unthinkable that a Resurrection could occur apart from judgement day. As NT scholar Joachim Jeremias says:
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 of the earthly life. In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to Glory as an event of history.
The argument here is that it would take something quite dramatic and astounding to convince a group of apparently thousands of orthodox Jewish believers that not only had the Messiah been radically different to the one that they were expecting, but that He had done something that they wouldn’t have otherwise thought was possible.
Without the presence of an actual Resurrected Jesus, it is more difficult to explain the explosion of Christian belief immediately following His crucifixion. This is further evidence for the claim that Christ rose from the dead.
A strong argument for the truth of the Bible is biblical prophecy. That is, if the Bible contains accurate, specific information about the future, the claims it makes about God are more likely to be true. Whether or not the prophecy actually means God exists may be debatable (maybe it was just time travelling aliens) and that’s a bit beyond what I want to do here. I want to examine one such interesting prophecy, and determine whether it was specific and whether it was fulfilled.
This is a strange kind of argument for me, I spend most of my time on cosmological or teleological or moral arguments. Even historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. However I do think that this is valuable, so bear with me as I give it a go.
This kind of argument often makes people nervous because of the stereotype about prophecy arguments, especially ones that contain the dreaded numbers and dates like this one will. I understand and agree that normally this stereotype is deserved. However, I will make every attempt to perform responsible exegesis and make a rational argument. I ask that you don’t write the argument off immediately, and instead actually evaluate it on its own merits.
The text we will be examining is this one from Daniel 9, starting at verse 24. It is a message that the angel Gabriel brings to Daniel, who is lamenting the state of Israel. Please do read the context yourself. Here is the NASB:
24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. 25 So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. 26 Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”
I summarize the prophecy in this way:
- The command to restore Jerusalem is given.
- Seven sevens pass.
- Sixty-two sevens pass. The anointed one comes. The city will be rebuilt. Sometime after the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be put to death and have nothing.
- The people of “the prince to come” will destroy the city and the temple, and desolation will continue until the end.
- Durin the seventieth seven: “He” will confirm a covenant with many.
- Halfway through the seventieth seven: “He” will put an end to sacrifice and offering.
- After (or perhaps at) the seventieth seven: On the wing of abominations, one comes who makes desolate, and he will be destroyed. This probably refers to the people of the “prince to come”.
- After seventy sevens: Transgression is finished, sin comes to an end, wickedness is atoned for, everlasting righteousness is brought in, prophecy and vision are sealed up, the “Most Holy” is anointed.
The “sevens” are groups of seven years, not weeks
We note that the passage literally only says “seven sevens” and “seventy sevens” and “sixty-two sevens”, at no point does it indicate that these are weeks. Now the word for “sevens” and “weeks” in Hebrew is the same, for obvious reasons. Some translators have chosen in this passage to render it as “weeks” instead of “sevens”, but there is no indication in the text that it refers to days.
Similar extra-biblical prophecies also use the “week of years” concept, for example with the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q390 fragment 2.
In light of the 70 years in v2, it seems reasonable that this also refers to a period of years. The context indicates that we should be thinking in years, not in weeks.
This prophecy was written far before Jesus came
While I am a Christian and I hold to the traditional position that the entire book was written by Daniel at around 600 BCE, I will deliberately make my argument weaker here. I will assume that it was written far later than that. I will assume that the most critical and the most sceptical scholars are right. Again, I don’t actually think they are, but I will assume this because I don’t want to bother refuting them here, I don’t need to. The latest date they give for the book is 164 BCE. This is still over a century earlier than Jesus would come.
The starting date of the seven and sixty-two sevens is 457 BCE
This is when the order goes out from Artaxerxes 1. This is a decree given to Ezra, this is also recorded in scripture that was written before Christ. The exact date of the decree is given in the book of Ezra, but we will just consider the year (rather than month and date) because I don’t want to mess around with complicated Jewish leap year rules, and because there is probably some measure of approximation going on anyway.
The seven and sixty-two sevens come to an end at 27 CE
We start with -457, and we add (69)x(7) years, and then we add one because there is no year 0. It’s not obvious what is supposed to happen after the first set of sevens, that is, after 49 years. It may be divided for reasons of numerology (7 is of course a very symbolic number in Hebrew thought) or it may indicate when the completion of the restoration of Jerusalem will occur. Or perhaps something else that I haven’t thought of, or that history in general is unaware of.
This indicates that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of in the passage
One of the things the prophecy predicts is the anointing of the “Most Holy”. The translators add the word “place” as they argue that it is implied since the “most holy” normally refers to the temple. (But this isn’t actually true, it refers to the temple sometimes but not even the majority of the time). But given that Jesus is the most holy, and that Jesus compares His body to the temple in several places, I think we can reasonably say that this is actually fulfilled in Jesus.
Historians think Jesus’ baptism occurred between 27 and 29. We are certainly in that range. Jesus’ baptism is an extremely significant event recorded in all Gospels, marking the start of His public ministry. This is when Jesus appeared in history.
Then halfway through the last week, there is desolation, and the Messiah is cut ofg. This puts Jesus’ death 3.5 years (probably approximate, but we will use this figure) after 27, which is 30.5.
Historians believe Jesus was crucified between 30 and 36 CE. We are again in that range.
And of course, Christians claim that Jesus’ death brings an end to sin and wickedness by atoning for it, and marks the end of the age of prophecy as Jesus gives God’s fullest and final revelation. See Hebrews 1. We also believe that Jesus instituted the New Covenant through His death and resurrection and that in doing so Jesus put a stop to the offerings and sacrifices at the temple. All of these things are specifically mentioned in the prophecy.
The events in Jesus’ life occur at the correct time, and they do the correct things. The most holy is anointed, sin is atoned for, the Messiah is cut off, a covenant is affirmed, sacrifice is brought to an end, and prophecy is brought to an end.
Who is the prince who is to come?
There are several options here. It seems clear that what he does is destroy the temple (see the similar language in chapter 11). This occurred in 70 AD, some time after the full 70 sevens of the prophecy are complete.
So the “prince” may refer to a particular Roman leader, perhaps the emperor at the time Vespatian. More likely is Titus who was the Roman commander at the siege of Jerusalem who would later become emperor. Or it may indeed be Satan. I leave this undetermined. I don’t know if we have enough information to determine who it is. There is evidence elsewhere in Daniel, but I will refrain from discussing it here. It doesn’t matter for the point I want to make.
The critical/skeptical interpretation fails
Many, many possible interpretations of this passage have been given by sceptical scholars. I won’t go through all of them in depth, but I will give some broad criticism. The most likely one is that the Messiah spoken of isn’t the Jewish Messiah spoken of elsewhere, but an anointed leader of the Jewish people. Most commonly, Onias III. He died outside Jerusalem in 171/0 BCE. If we take the latest possible date for Daniel, it was written around 164, around 6 years after his death, and so the skeptic argues that the author knew about this, and backdated a prophecy referring to it.
This doesn’t seem to work, however, as the timing doesn’t match up. There is no “word” that goes out 483 or 490 years before Onias’ death. So the skeptic arbitrarily picks a date earlier than this (often 606 BCE, when Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy comes to an end), and says that the author of Daniel intended to use this as a starting point made a miscalculation in his dates. You can find examples of this in Montgomery (p393) and Porteous (p134). Alternatively, they try to fit it by allowing the sevens to overlap or have gaps between them. They’ve got a theory, and they want to fit the evidence to it, rather than letting the evidence inform their theory.
Apart from this, it is not clear how Onias III is supposed to have accomplished the goals set out at the start of the prophecy. He did not bring an end to wickedness and institute eternal righteousness.
Further, there was no destruction of the temple or of Jerusalem here. Yes, they were besieged and damaged, but not destroyed.
This methodology fails. The skeptic here rules out genuine prophecy a priori, and so has to look for a figure that fits this assumption. But no good candidates exist. And if we don’t rule out prophecy a priori, and we allow it to be possible (without even assuming that it happens), then we find a figure that clearly fits: Christ. We should start where the prophecy starts: at the word going out. We should look for that as the indication of the person that the passage is intending to talk about.
This prophecy is evidence for the supernatural origin of the Bible
I think that we can reasonably confidently say that if Daniel could accurately know precise details of the far future, this indicates that something supernatural was going on. I would be interested to see how the skeptic could agree that Daniel knew this, centuries before it happened, but didn’t do so supernaturally.
- The Seventy Sevens of Daniel 9: A Timetable for the Future? – Hess
- When did the Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9:24 Begin? – Shea
- The Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9: An Exegetical Study – Doukhan
- The Goal of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks – Payne
- Daniel’s Seventy Sevens and the Coming of the Messiah – Van Lees
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.
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 one of the most sure facts in history1 (referenced in a multitude of Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources) 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 (for some responses to Ehrman on this issue, see here and here and here), 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.
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. And indeed as atheist New Testament scholar Ed Perish Sanders says:
That Jesus’ followers had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.8
And as the resurrection-denying giant of NT Critisicm Gerd Ludermann says:
It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.9
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 Hengel stating10:
‘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 historical11. 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”.
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 investigation12 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.
- A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 2008 ISBN 0-19-536934-3 page 136
- Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” [The Teaching Company, 2003].
- Geza Vermes, The Passion (Penguin, 2005)
- Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus
- Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004
- James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), page 855.
- Ed Perish Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus,
- Gerd, What Really Happened, p. 80
- Hengel & Schwemer, ‘Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: the unknown years’, pp. 7-8 (1997)
- Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ‘Acts and the History of the Earliest Jerusalem Church’, in Cameron & Miller (eds.), ‘Redescribing Christian origins’, pp. 165-169 (2004)
When I debate with Muslims, they often claim that Islam is superior to Christianity because the Quran that they read is identical to the Quran that Muhammad received, while the bible is corrupted and changed and we are uncertain of the original. This discussion often comes down to a discussion of textual variants: differences between biblical manuscripts. And certainly there are textual variants in the Bible, we make no secret of that. And my Muslim friends will claim that since there are textual variants, the bible cannot be trusted.
However my Muslim friends often overlook the fact that there are textual variants in the history of the Quran as well. And if we apply the same standards to the Quran that we do to the Bible, then we must conclude that the Quran is also unreliable. I don’t make any claims here about whether textual variants make a text unreliable, I only want to point out the double standards.
I won’t examine many textual variants today, perhaps I will in future posts. But for now, here is an interesting example: the Sana’a manuscript. This is a Quranic manuscript, but really it is two Quranic manuscripts. It is an 80 folio collection of Quran manuscripts from 578 CE to 669 CE (radiocarbon dating), which was then erased and rewritten in the late 7th or early 8th century. The lower text has been partially recovered, and while it is a Quranic text it contains significant textual variants. A list of some of these can be found here. Not only does it add or remove or change words in some cases, there is at least one case in which an entire verse is missing. There are textual variants here, no-one would deny that.
So if the Muslim tries to undermine Christianity through use of textual variants in scripture, they undermine themselves. Now it is true that the Bible has more variants than the Quran does. But that is the result of two differences in the transmission of the texts. First, the bible was never controlled by a central authority who enforced a particular textual tradition, as the Quran was. Uthman, as is well known, attempted to destroy any copies of the Quran that differed from his own. And after him, an Islamic authority was always policing these other traditions. That doesn’t mean the tradition that they used as a standard was the accurate one, as we’ve seen there existed other traditions pre-Uthman. But they did attempt to standardize it.
Furthermore, there were simply fewer copies made of the Quran. There exist orders of magnitude more New Testament manuscripts than Quranic manuscripts, and so we would expect there to be orders of magnitude more textual variants within the New Testament textual tradition.
But as James White regularly points out, these facts actually make the Biblical text more reliable, not less. Because no central authority controlled the transmission of the Biblical text, there was no opportunity for anyone to deliberately change it. And because there were many copies made, we can compare a greater number of manuscripts in order to reconstruct the originals. The factors that lead to the Bible having more textual variants actually make the Bible more reliable in general.