Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?

Doug Powell
Monday, February 29th 2016
Mar/Apr 2016

Why is the resurrection of Jesus so important? After all, it’s not when our sins are paid for.

That was the work Jesus did two days earlier on the cross. And the resurrection is not when Christ’s perfect obedience is credited to us so we can stand before God. That work was also done by Jesus on the cross. But how do we know that’s actually what happened on the cross? Where does that interpretation come from? It comes from Jesus himself. But how do we know Jesus was telling the truth about the meaning of his death and the work he came to do? Because of his resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is how we know we can trust anything and everything he taught. Much of what he taught could not fact-checked, but he performed many miracles and signs to show he was telling the truth. Recall the moment when Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic whose friends had lowered him through the roof (Luke 2:5-11; cf. Matt. 9:1-9; Mark 2:1-12). The miracle of a once-lame man now walking home gave people an indisputable reason to believe Jesus had the power to forgive sin, which is one of the ways he claimed to be God.

The resurrection is evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be and what he taught was true. Why do we have the Old Testament in our Bibles? Because Jesus taught it was the revealed word of God. Why do we believe Jesus? Because of his resurrection. This means the resurrection is so important that if it did not happen, there could be no Christianity at all. It is the claim upon which the truth of Christianity stands or falls. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul tells them that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then the gospel is a lie and their faith in worthless because they’re still dead in their sins (1 Cor. 15:12-17).

Unlike other religions, Christianity is unique in that it’s falsifiable’that is, it offers criteria that, if shown to be false, would prove it is unreliable. In effect, Paul says, “If you want to prove what I’m saying isn’t true, show me that Christ isn’t raised from the dead.” If the resurrection didn’t happen, if there is a better explanation for Jesus’ death and what happened two days later, then Christianity is false. No other world religion points to its weakest claim and tempts skeptics to take advantage of it. But Paul is so certain the evidence for the resurrection is strong enough to stand up to investigation that he has no problem announcing it. He wants people to look because he’s convinced the evidence is powerful and persuasive.

So what is the evidence for the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus? It depends on whom you ask. It’s easy to forget that although there are many New Testament scholars, not all of them are Christians’some are Jewish, some are agnostics or even atheists. Some who identify as Christians are theologically liberal and don’t stand in the tradition of historic, orthodox Christianity. Not all New Testament scholars are Christians who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. Some accept everything it says as factual, some accept many (but not all) facts, and some accept almost none of the New Testament’s claims about Jesus’ death and what happened to him two days later.

However, there are about a dozen facts that are accepted by virtually all New Testament scholars, whether or not they believe the biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection. These facts have two things in common’they’re found in more than one source and not all of them are Christian. These non-Christian sources preserve traditions from the first and second centuries and include Jewish tradition and Roman historians.

The Babylonian Talmud, which contains rabbinical tradition from between about 400 BC to AD 500, mentions Jesus in several places. The Talmud comprises tractates (books) that are divided into chapters. The tractate Sanhedrin 43a says, “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (the Nazarene) was hanged.” “Hanged” is a euphemism for crucifixion. The Talmud refers to Jesus as a heretic, idolater, and sinner who led people astray. Clearly, it is not sympathetic to his teachings. Yet from this source we see that Jesus is affirmed as really existing, that he was from Nazareth (though not all editions of the Talmud contain this reference), and that he was crucified and died.

Another source from Jewish tradition is the Toledot Yeshu. Although the date when it was written or compiled is debated, scholars generally agree that it contains tradition from early in the Christian era. The book is a short biography of Jesus written to make him look bad, like a kind of hit piece. According to the Toledot Yeshu:

Yeshu was put to death on the sixth hour on the eve of the Passover and of the Sabbath. When they tried to hang him on a tree it broke, for when he had possessed the power he had pronounced by the Ineffable Name that no tree should hold him. He had failed to pronounce the prohibition over the carob-stalk, for it was a plant more than a tree, and on it he was hanged until the hour for afternoon prayer, for it is written in Scripture, “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree.” They buried him outside the city.
On the first day of the week his bold followers came to Queen Helene with the report that he who was slain was truly the Messiah and that he was not in his grave; he had ascended to heaven as he prophesied. Diligent search was made and he was not found in the grave where he had been buried. A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden.

The differences from the biblical version are obvious’for example, there’s no mention of “Queen Helene” in any of the gospels. What is important is that it affirms several claims in Scripture. It says Jesus was a real person who was crucified and died the day before Passover, and that he was then buried in a tomb that was discovered empty on the first day of the week. The Toledot Yeshu also later mentions the Apostle Paul and describes him as a learned man who became a follower of Jesus.

Written in the first century by the Jewish/Roman historian Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews contains a general history that is mostly considered accurate and reliable. In book 20, chapter 9, he records the martyrdom of James, leader of the Jerusalem church:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he (Ananus, the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

This account of the death of James’an event that happened during the lifetime of Josephus’affirms that Jesus was a real person and that his own brother was a follower of his teachings. Josephus may mention Jesus in other writings, but these passages are disputed by some scholars. This particular passage, however, is not disputed.

The Roman historian Tacitus, who lived from the mid-first century to the early second century, records in his book The Annals how Nero persecuted Christians:

Christus, from whom the name (Christians) had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Annals 15.44)

Again, Jesus is affirmed as a real person who died as a result of crucifixion. There are also a number of nonbiblical Christian sources that agree with both the non-Christian sources and the biblical account. Their corroboration gives us even more reason to believe the New Testament’s record of what happened to Jesus.

Hegesippus was an early church historian who lived during the second century. He records the martyrdom of James in more detail than Josephus:

So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to one another: “Let us stone James the Just.” And they began to stone him: for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned, and kneeled down, and said: “I beseech Thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
And, while they were thus stoning him to death, one of the priests, the sons of Rechab, the son of Rechabim, to whom testimony is borne by Jeremiah the prophet, began to cry aloud, saying: “Cease, what do ye? The just man is praying for us.” But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man.
And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ.

The faith of James and his willingness to die for his faith is an important piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as we’ll see below.

Dialogue with Trypho is a defense of Christianity written in the second century by Justin Martyr. In it he preserves what the Jews claimed happened to Jesus after his death:

You (the Jews) have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. (108)

This means the Jews believed Jesus was a real person, who had been crucified, died, and buried in a tomb that had then been found empty.

Tertullian, another church father from the second century, also preserves the Jewish claim about Jesus’ tomb. He sarcastically writes, “This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again” (On the Spectacles, 30). Once more, we see that Jesus died, was buried in a tomb, and that the tomb was found empty.

There are about a dozen facts about Jesus’ death and missing body that are accepted by virtually all New Testament scholars, and all of them are drawn from these sources. The scholars who reject the resurrection still have to explain what happened to Jesus in a way that explains all of them. There have been many alternate theories offered, but, interestingly, none of them can make sense of the data on which those theories are built. Only the New Testament account of the resurrection covers all the bases. If even half of them are used to make a case, the alternate theories still can’t account for those six’only the resurrection can.

This is a powerful tool for defending the historical resurrection, because Christians cannot be accused of playing with their own facts. Using only the facts that virtually all scholars accept’and that critics and skeptics accept’the only thing that can explain all the data is the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. To use this argument, the six facts must not be stated in a way that stacks the deck toward one side or another. They are stated below in a way that is as unbiased as possible.

1. Jesus was crucified. This fact is not disputed. Sometimes this can be referred to as being hung on a tree, but its meaning is the same. This was the form of torture and execution Jesus suffered.

2. Jesus died. Crucifixion was a death penalty carried out by professional executioners. They knew how to kill their victims and how to recognize when someone had died. There is only one account of someone surviving a crucifixion, having been taken down almost immediately after being hung.

3. Jesus was buried. This is the only one of the facts that has any detractors. The scholars who reject this fact do so because crucifixion victims were rarely given back to families to be buried. Instead, the victims were left on the cross to rot and serve as a warning, or they were thrown in common graves. The idea was not just to kill the victim, but to erase them from society and family. However, the few scholars who reject this fact do not engage other scholars on this point. They don’t present papers or write articles for scholarly journals to try to get their view accepted. In other words, they don’t play by the rules of scholarship that leads to an increased understanding of the field. Instead, they make their views known on television shows and magazines more interested in controversy than truth. Also, the criteria of multiple sources and non-Christian sources are powerful enough to persuade most scholars to ignore the claims of detractors on this point.

4. Two days later, Jesus’ tomb was found empty. Jewish tradition records that the disciples stole the body from the tomb. This is also what the New Testament says the Jews taught about the empty tomb (Matt. 28:11-15). This means Jesus was buried and that the tomb was found empty. After all, the Jews had to know in which tomb Jesus was placed in order to know the tomb was empty. They invented the story to explain the facts they accepted.

5. Followers of Jesus believed they encountered him after his death. Notice the way this fact is stated: it does not say that they actually did encounter Jesus, only that they thought they did. This is important in order to get skeptical scholars on board. The followers who thought they saw and spoke to Jesus include his disciples, followers such as the women at the tomb, the men on the road to Emmaus, and up to five hundred people at once.

6. Enemies of Jesus believed they encountered him after his death. Again, this fact has to be stated in a way that allows for the possibility, but it is one of the hardest facts for an alternate theory to explain. In particular, there are two enemies of Jesus that have to be explained. One is Saul of Tarsus, who became the Apostle Paul. Saul was a well-educated and committed Pharisee who correctly recognized that Jesus was a heretic who deserved death’that is, unless Jesus was telling the truth. Because Saul thought Jesus was a heretic, he persecuted Jesus’ followers (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2). He was on his way to Damascus when something happened to him that radically changed his life (Acts 9:3-19). As a result of that incident, he gave up all comfort and privilege in order to spend the next thirty years or so spreading the teaching of Jesus all over the Mediterranean world. During that time he was beaten, imprisoned, hungry, shipwrecked, homeless, and finally (according to tradition) beheaded. No alternate theory can account for Paul’s behavior.

But an even tougher enemy to explain is James, the brother of Jesus. During Jesus’ ministry, James did not believe him (John 7:5). In fact, James thought his brother was insane (Mark 3:21). But shortly after Jesus’ death, something happened to James that made him become a believer. Think about that. What would it take for you to believe that your own brother was God incarnate? In fact, he believed it so strongly that he became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Not only that, but he was martyred for it. Like Paul, no alternate theory can account for James’ radical transformation. Anyone who rejects the resurrection of Jesus has to come up with an explanation that covers these six facts. There have been many stories offered up, but all of them fall short.

The “Swoon Theory” says Jesus merely fainted on the cross and revived in the tomb, but that doesn’t explain why Paul and James became believers. Neither does it take Jesus’ brutal punishment very seriously. For this theory to be true, it would mean professional executioners could not tell if Jesus was still alive. After awakening in the tomb, Jesus popped his shoulders back in place (they would have been dislocated during crucifixion), stood on ankles that would be barely functional, and rolled away an enormous stone. Then, wearing no clothes and with gaping open wounds left from the scourging, Jesus walked the seven or so miles to Emmaus, got a bite to eat, walked back to Jerusalem, and travelled anonymously through the streets without causing a commotion. Finally, he had to find his followers and break into their locked room without any of them noticing, and then lie to them to try to convince them that he had risen from the dead. For all of that to happen would arguably be a bigger miracle than the resurrection itself.

Another theory says the witnesses went to the wrong tomb. But that doesn’t actually explain why the tomb was found empty. If it were known that they went to the wrong tomb, then that means people knew where the right tomb was. And since they knew where the right tomb was, all the Romans or Jews would have had to do was to open the tomb to find the body. If the body was in the tomb, then Christianity would be dead. But even the Jews confirmed it was not the wrong tomb, since they said the body was stolen by the disciples, meaning they knew that the actual tomb was found empty. This theory also fails to explain Paul and James, as well as the followers of Jesus who believed they saw him.

The story that the body was stolen has the same problems: it does not explain Paul and James, or why followers of Jesus say they saw Jesus. Who had a motive to steal the body anyway? Not the Romans or the Jews’they wanted Christianity obliterated, not for the movement to continue. And the disciples had no motive either’they had nothing to gain from taking the body; every one of them (John excepted) was imprisoned, tortured, beaten, and ultimately killed for proclaiming the resurrection. (Although traditions may vary on how or where the apostles died, no tradition says that any of them died of natural causes except John.) They spread all over the known world’from Britain, to Ethiopia, to India’to proclaim the message of Jesus. They gave up all the comforts and stability of family, were persecuted, beaten, imprisoned, starved, and eventually killed for spreading the gospel, which centered on the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. They would have had to be willing to die for a lie they concocted and that brought them no advantage. Who does that? People die for lies, but not ones they make up themselves.

Some people say that Jesus’ appearances didn’t actually happen but were merely elaborations of his followers’ hallucinations. That sounds reasonable, but it would have had to have been a pretty incredible hallucination’one shared by over three thousand people who all hallucinated the same thing at the same time and remembered it the same way. Hallucinations are mental projections unique to the individuals experiencing them, and as such they can’t be simultaneously and precisely communicated to other people. This theory also doesn’t explain Paul or James’people don’t radically reorient their lives based on a brief hallucination, nor do they spend the remaining twenty or thirty years of their lives travelling around the world trying to convince other people that their hallucination was a spatiotemporal event. They certainly don’t die for them. Even supposing that there was a mass hallucination’which somehow included Paul, James, and the other disciples’this still doesn’t explain why the tomb was empty. If it were just a hallucination, then the body would have been there.

The “Substitute Theory” says that Jesus had a twin who was crucified in his place. Even supposing Jesus did have a twin (a big assumption, considering that there’s no documentary evidence to substantiate it) who loved him enough to undergo the agonizing death of crucifixion so that Jesus could return to Jerusalem and convert more skeptics, it (again) doesn’t explain the empty tomb or the conversion of Paul and James. The tomb would still have a body in it. Two variations of the twin theory (or substitution theory) are popular in Islam, according to the Qur’an.

And for their saying, “We killed the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the apostle of Allah”‘though they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them. Indeed those who differ concerning him are surely in doubt about him: they do not have any knowledge of that beyond following conjectures, and certainly they did not kill him. Rather Allah raised him up toward Himself, and Allah is all-mighty, all-wise. (Sura 4:157-158)

Only the body is crucified, not the soul; therefore, Jesus wasn’t really crucified. However, a body without a soul is still dead, and only a body can be crucified. Instead of countering the claim of resurrection, the Qur’an simply makes a confusing dodge that still fails to account for Paul, James, and (once again) the empty tomb.

The other popular claim in Islam comes from the Gospel of Barnabas, a medieval forgery. It claims that God made Judas look and sound exactly like Jesus so that when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, they took Judas instead. According to chapter 217, “Truly I say that the voice, the face, and the person of Judas were so like to Jesus, that his disciples and believers entirely believed that he was Jesus.” Judas, then, was tried and crucified, not Jesus. Jesus hid himself and then pretended to be resurrected from the dead. This story still cannot account for the empty tomb, since Judas’s body would still be buried there.

The most popular explanation held by non-Christian scholars today is the “Legend Theory.” Often it is articulated as something like “From Jesus to Christ,” meaning there is a difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Christianity. But this theory explains very little’like Paul and James and the empty tomb. It also doesn’t explain why the first witnesses of the empty tomb and first witnesses of the risen Christ are women. In the first century, women were considered so frivolous that their testimony was not trusted in a court of law. Why would a legend include the least credible witnesses in society, rather than close confederates such as Peter or John? Also, the legend would have had to develop during the lifetimes of the apostles who were commissioned to preserve the integrity of the gospel, not adapt it to their own purposes. It is not very likely a legend could gain steam when the apostles were around to make sure it did not spread.

The best way to counter the Legend Theory is to show what first-century Christians did believe about him just after the crucifixion:

For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for?our?sins according to the Scriptures, that He was?buried, that He was raised onthe?third?day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to?Cephas, then to the?Twelve. Then He appeared to over?500?brothers at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have?fallen?asleep. Then He appeared to?James, then to all the?apostles. (1 Cor. 15:3-7)

Paul says he is handing down what he also received’specifically, the tradition (i.e., the codified beliefs) that preceded him. Since he received this tradition (he learned it from someone else), it stands to reason that this statement of beliefs predates his own conversion. Galatians 2:1 says Paul went to Jerusalem for the second time fourteen years after his conversion. (This is probably the famine relief visit of Acts 11:27-30, since no prior visits are mentioned except the one just after his conversion. Incidentally, Josephus mentions the Judean famine, dating it to about AD 46-48.) If Paul visited Jerusalem around the time of the famine, then if we subtract fourteen years from that date (AD 46-48), we might date Paul’s conversion between AD 31 and 35. Since the creed precedes his conversion, we can infer it was established no later than five years after the resurrection. What’s particularly interesting is its theological care and precision: Jesus was already called Christ (so there was no “development” from Jesus-the-good-teacher to Jesus-the-promised-Messiah); he paid for our sins (so it wasn’t a “later interpretation” imposed by those who wanted to use his death as the basis for their religious authority); it references the Hebrew Bible (which means he was already understood to be the fulfillment of the prophecies and ceremonial laws); and it lists witnesses who could still be questioned at that time. The “Legend Theory” withers under such a powerful early summary of the Christian faith.

Even if we use only half of the evidence allowed by critics and skeptics, the case for the resurrection still stands’it’s the only explanation that covers all the facts. Paul has no qualms about pointing out Christianity’s most vulnerable point, because he knows that he’s telling the truth and that the facts bear it out.

The resurrection explains far more than just these six facts, of course. It makes sense of all facts’period. Because it confirms Jesus was telling the truth about himself, it confirms the entire biblical witness. And because the God of the Bible is the creator of all things outside of himself, he is the creator of all things that can be known and all the ways by which we know them. God is the necessary precondition for any fact that can be known in the first place. Although many stories have been invented over the last two thousand years to explain what happened to Jesus at his death and the two days that followed, none of them have stood up to Paul’s challenge. The resurrection gives us assurance that we can run our race well and not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap the rewards of the rich inheritance in Christ’if we don’t give up.

Monday, February 29th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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