I decided this would be a great post to kick off my new (ish) blog. Hope you guys like the new look and enjoy the stuff I put out on it! Hoping this will be the first post of many, and hoping to go beyond my usual “why I believe” stuff to some life stuff also.
To my surprise, I have yet to write anything blog related on the resurrection of Jesus (and why I believe it to be a true historical event). Why so surprising? Because it’s one of the most substantiated facts in the Christian religion.
New Testament textual and historical studies have been a booming research field in the last half-dozen or so decades. One of the main reasons for this has been the archaeological findings of the New Testament geographical areas. Whether early manuscripts of the Bible, findings on Jewish culture and practises of the first century and much more, there has been a lot to study and a lot to try and understand. And of course, with the person of Jesus of Nazareth so significant to this time period and the rise of the Christian church so pivotal to even world history, it’s really no surprise a lot of attention has been given to understanding the events around these peculiar happenings.
I won’t spend any time looking at the rise of the Christian church right now, though it is relevant to the discussion. You can check out the archives for that one.
What I want to focus on is an overview of the current scholarship regarding the resurrection of Jesus (yes, serious secular historians study it even if they don’t all assert that it happened). You might be interested to hear the results.
First let’s start with the facts. By “facts” I mean what scholars affirm quite unanimously to be factual, given multiple independent attestation and other historical criteria agreed upon.
5 Facts about the Resurrection of Jesus
We know Jesus of Nazareth died, so we will start with that. It might sound insignificant to affirm, but what you might not know is how well attested to the fact of the man’s death is. Multiple Roman and Jewish sources affirm it, as well as the multiple and independent Christian sources we have. The only source ever to outright deny the death of Jesus is the Muslim sources that came over six hundred years later. There is simply no debate among historians here.
Secondly, Jesus was specifically buried by a man named Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (a leadership council of sorts). Besides being multiply attested to by independent sources, it’s important to note that no alternate burial story exists (probably because it was less controversial).
Thirdly, there was an empty tomb. Note we haven’t said that Jesus “rose again” yet, but are simply affirming that the tomb he was placed in was empty. Of historical note, we see the sources attest to women discovering the empty tomb. Given the insignificance of women’s testimony in that society, it would have been actually embarrassing for the Jewish Christians to have to include this fact, especially in “selling” the story to fellow Jews and the Greeks they would share it with (scholars call this “embarrassment criteria”). Also very interesting is the Jewish response to the empty tomb: his disciples stole the body! If the tomb wasn’t empty, they would have just pointed to it. Instead, they had to find an explanation for what was obvious fact.
Fourthly, different groups of people experienced post-mortem appearances of Jesus at different occasions. Again multiple and independent sources attest to this fact, and an apostolic epistle that we have guarantees it. A letter written by the Apostle Paul likely 20-25 years after Jesus’ death attested to over five hundred people seeing Jesus in the Jerusalem area after his supposed resurrection (he writes this because some people in the new church were under the impression that the resurrection wasn’t literally real). In effect, he was saying that they could go and talk to many of these 500+ witnesses who would still be alive to get their eye witness accounts for themselves. Such an audacious claim couldn’t have been made if indeed those eye witnesses weren’t around to confirm, nor would that letter or the Apostle Paul’s story have held any weight either. (You can read this appeal in the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 15).
Finally, the original disciples came to a sudden and sincere belief that their leader had risen from the dead – and were ready to die for it – despite all predispositions to not believe it. Jewish theology and Messianic understanding did not permit a crucified Messiah coming back to life right away like that, nor did any disciples of executed revolutionists before Jesus go through a similar pattern of martyrdom-embracing belief. It is very remarkable, and a unique and even strange historical phenomenon.
Finding the Best Explanation
So those are five very agreed upon facts surrounding the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus. Note also that these are not simply what “conservative” or even Christian scholars affirm. Rather, it is the pattern of the vast majority of New Testament scholars to affirm these facts.
A very plausible explanation of these five facts is that Jesus indeed was resurrected from the dead by God, given the following criteria that scholars use: It has great explanatory power and scope, it is plausible given what we know about Jesus’ life and claims, it’s not “ad hoc” or contrived (it only requires one other hypothesis, namely that God exists), AND it easily beats out other explanations. Actually, contemporary scholarship has almost universally rejected all other proposed theories.
Now you might have guessed it – not all of the scholars believe that Jesus rose from the dead! My understanding is that most take an agnostic position on it, unable yet to give a solid alternate theory.
Making the Call, Historian or Not
So that’s a lot to take in, and we’re really only scratching the surface of a lot of these historical understandings and criteria and so on. Perhaps we can dig in a little more in the future (I’ll post some resources you can look at right away for further study below). But I do want to end with a personal story on why I think even an objective historian can look at these facts and still be persuaded honestly that Jesus rose from the dead.
I had the sweet opportunity of taking a Religious Studies class at McMaster University as an elective. Obviously, the program itself is secular. While studying the resurrection and events surrounding it, my professor said that the resurrection of Jesus has been problematic for historians, because of the religious implications that would come with affirming it.
Now, in ways I understand this problem, but in other ways I do not. I think it’s possible for one to hold religious persuasions and still be an objective historian. Can he not say that the best explanation of the evidence is that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead? Does this affirmation necessarily undo his academic integrity or affect all the other work he does?
I think we need to be able to hold even religiously affirming views while still looking at evidence honestly and objectively. And I think we can do so too – in fact, I think if we cannot look at things objectively while holding on to some kind of worldview, then none of us can actually think or critique objectively! I say this because we all bring our own presuppositions and assumptions to the table, no matter who we are. This doesn’t mean objectivity is impossible or even that difficult, but it does mean that things will take some effort and a decent amount of introspection. It will also take a lot of trying simply to understand, rather than to make ourselves understood, while we have the conversations needed (be they in book or paper form, or in actual verbal discussion and healthy debate).
You, too, have a decision you have to make confronted with the evidence I’ve put forward. Shall you take an agnostic position? Try and make up your own theory? Or will you take a step of well evidenced trust and investigate further into this person who appears to have risen from the dead?
I hope it is the latter!