As I have written in the previous two articles, we want to look at the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, not as a matter of religious doctrine, but as a matter of history, in the same way one might ask, “Did Wellington really defeat Napoleon at Waterloo?” While that event had no religious implications, the resurrection clearly does — but it is at heart an historical issue, and that’s what makes Christianity unique. Christianity does not stand, ultimately, on its various cultural, intellectual, spiritual, or life-changing merits; it stands, at its basis, on an objective historical event.
The original documents of Christianity (primarily the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles) are historical documents. (This is true also of the Epistles, but to a lesser extent, since they mostly expand on the theological implications of the resurrection of Jesus.)
I do not mean historical in the sense of being very old, though they are that, too, but historical in the sense that they record events, people, and places. They tell of who did what, and where and when they did what they did. This is not the stuff of fantasy or even historical fiction. The places are all real and well known. We have no mystery about where and when the events took place. The Gospels and Book of Acts are down-to-earth reality. They record the wanderings and teachings of Jesus and a band of fishermen and other nobodies. In Acts, we have these nobodies, with the addition of a real somebody, Saul of Tarsus, continuing with ordinary wanderings to ordinary places to preach. They make tents, debate religion, get beaten, travel by foot and boat, and otherwise experience events of ordinary life. They slay no dragons, rescue no fair maidens, and never leave their immediate surroundings. There is nothing mythological, heroic, or fanciful about the whole affair.
Except for the supernatural (beyond natural) accounts of the miracles (including the resurrection of Jesus), these accounts are entirely plausible to any reader. Is this too big an exception? I don’t think so at all; it’s a matter of perspective and presuppositions. In the previous article we saw that the rejection of the supernatural has no warrant, and represents an unjustified a priori bias. Given the very likely assumption that God exists and these men represented God, it should not be at all surprising to find manifestations of Divine power. Please note that these manifestations (such as healing a leper or multiplying loaves for the hungry) are always subservient to the larger context of otherwise ordinary life, as described above.
A fair enough question in its own right is, “Whence came these writings if the resurrection didn’t happen?” That the events they report occurred nearly two thousand years ago does not give one the option to dismiss them out of hand, as if to say, “That’s so long ago; we can’t prove any of that stuff ever happened, or that the people they talk about ever lived.” Opinions of this sort represent a grave deficit in understanding history.
Three Types of Questions Concerning Evidence of the Resurrection
When we investigate the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, we must first realize that the question we ask today differs significantly from the question asked in the early days of Christianity. I will divide the “resurrection question” in general into three specific perspectives called, not surprisingly, the primary, secondary, and tertiary questions about the resurrection.
The primary question addresses the reliability of our sensory apparatus and cognitive reliability; this was the question of the very first moments and days after the resurrection. Those who saw Jesus asked the primary question, “Can we trust our senses?” For the women at the tomb, the disciples, (and even later, for Saul of Tarsus as he neared Damascus), the question had nothing to do with something they read or heard in an oration; it concerned whether they could trust that the risen Jesus that they saw and heard and felt was real, and not an apparition or hallucination. Did we really see Jesus alive again? Was it he that spoke unto us? “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and put it in my side; do not be faithless but believing” (John 20:27), “…which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…” (1 John 1:1). Passages such as these support the direct witness of those who encountered the risen Christ; they knew assuredly that their Lord had risen.
The secondary question fell to those who heard the testimony of the direct witnesses. The crowds who listened to the erstwhile disciples, now apostles, asked the secondary question: “Can we trust these witnesses?” The hearers of the first-century preaching became the “second generation”, so to speak, of believers. The Christian movement would not have survived if they did not trust or believe the testimony of those who saw the Christ alive again. Why did they trust the gospel preachers? Doubtless the sincerity and confidence of the preachers and teachers had much to do with it. In the case of Jewish audiences, the preachers’ facility with relating the Hebrew Scriptures to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus also proved to be a powerful factor. And, of course, the Holy Spirit powers gave irrefutable evidence of the veracity of the message.
Now we come to the tertiary form of the question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” This is the question for our day: “Can we trust these documents?” The first two questions passed quickly off the scene. Since the second century, those persons who have investigated the above question have asked it not of their senses, nor of the credibility of others’ testimony, but of written documents. When we investigate the resurrection, we are really asking whether or not we can trust written evidence. Thus, as we toss this question about and look at its various facets, most of what we consider concerns the reliability of the documents, primarily the four gospels. Some extra-biblical evidence exists also, so the argument for the resurrection goes beyond the reliability of the gospel accounts. A closer look at some specific aspects of document reliability comes up at several points in this and the following two articles.
One Further Consideration
I want to raise one more background issue before we list the specific reasons to believe. If the resurrection did not occur, then we need a plausible alternative. A skeptical position, such as “No one can prove that Jesus was even a real person”, simply lacks intellectual maturity. One must account for the data, that is, the gospel reports of Jesus’ resurrection and the rise of Christianity. A skeptic must provide a plausible alternative explanation or scenario that fulfills the requirements of historical criteria. The alternative must meet or exceed the literal accounts in the various historical parameters normally used to evaluate historical evidence and competing claims.1 I will delve into this issue in more detail below; for now I just wanted to raise the awareness of the proposition. We can’t just sweep away the problem. If one does not feel inclined to accept the resurrection as historical fact, then one must propose a plausible alternative that can account for both the New Testament documents and also the subsequent history of Christianity. Critics have indeed provided a number of these, having made the right move in attempting an alternative explanation, even if strained, to account for the documents and the corresponding history of early Christianity. I will investigate these alternatives below.
To summarize the preliminaries presented in this and the preceding article: (1) We will brook no a priori anti-supernatural bias; (2) We recognize that the literal resurrection of Jesus provides the basis for Christian theology and thus has enormous implications regarding the issue of objectivity in religion; (3) We have a tertiary perspective on the resurrection question, that is, we evaluate written evidence; (4) We will not reject the literal meaning unless we can provide an alternative with greater plausibility.
Specific Lines of Evidence that Support the Veracity of the Gospel Accounts
Now, finally, we can investigate the specific lines of evidence. Most of them relate to the reliability of the documentation; others derive from other historical sources. I will start the list here and continue it in the next two articles, and even this treatment will only amount to a brief overview of the information available. Some of the items cover standard apologetic categories; a few I have developed for this series. Two of them, which will appear in next month’s article, God willing, combine apologetics with exposition and devotional material.
1. Historical Accuracy, Style, and Detail of the Gospels
A straightforward reading of the gospels plainly reveals that Jesus was crucified, entombed in the cave crypt of Joseph of Arimathea, and subsequently rose to life again. The gospels are not symbolic, poetic, transcendental, iconic, mythological, or any other form of writing that would lead us to interpret the resurrection accounts as non-literal. The four gospel writers all took care to document a historical framework for Jesus’ teaching and miracles. They locate his place of birth, where he lived, where he preached, and so on. All of the religious material is set within geographic and temporal contexts. We have every reason to believe the writers intended the gospel accounts to serve as verifiable history. They would not have survived with such great influence if this were not the case. The writers wrote honest, straightforward accounts, filled with ample detail. That they are history cannot be ignored; to ignore them puts one in a state of ignorance.
However, critics and skeptics often ask, “If the gospel events were really true, wouldn’t we know about them from secular history?” This question takes the position that the gospels are merely “religious” accounts, and thus we lack “real” historical verification. This attack on Christianity, based on the alleged lack of true “historical” accounts, belies a misreading of the gospels. The gospels are the relevant historical accounts that the critic finds wanting. The gospel writers, especially Luke, are the historians. We have four detailed and reliable accounts of history.
That the events reported in the gospels find no place in general Roman history should no more surprise us than to find mention of John Thomas lacking in a book on nineteenth-centuryUnited Stateshistory. General historians dwell on wars, conquests, leaders, and the like. Had the Christadelphians become a major denomination, and a nuisance to the government, they might have made the standard texts. When the first-century Christians did become just that, they did enter into the general historical works of the period.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are far better historically documented than probably any other event in ancient history. No history is truly secular; it all has some cause or purpose to advance. Those to whom the particular history is relevant record and interpret the events. We acknowledge the religious nature of the gospels, but that does not detract in any way from the obvious intent of the authors to present accurate and verifiable material. We base the firm evidence of our faith upon the historical documents and the correlative history of the first-century movement known as Christianity.
2. Attestation of New Testament Documents
On the grounds of historical analysis, the New Testament writings can claim far better attestation than any other document from ancient times. Very generally stated, the extant manuscripts for ancient writers (e.g., Tacitus, Suetonius, Aristotle, Pliny the Younger) amount to only a handful, maybe ten to twenty of each, and the oldest known manuscript is typically on the order of a thousand years later than the assumed date of authorship. Only Homer exceeds these numbers, with some 650 ancient full copies surviving; the earliest of these dates from about five centuries after assumed original authorship.2 By contrast, the roster of New Testament documentation looks like this: on the order of 6,000 complete ancient Greek manuscripts, plus many more fragments. The oldest copies date from no more than 100 years from the original.3 Authors in the first few centuries, known as the “church fathers”, made over 30,000 citations or quotes from the New Testament, covering nearly every verse.4
What do these number mean? Two things. One, they tell us that the New Testament became enormously popular very early in its existence. Remember, these are all handwritten copies; they had no Kinko’s back then. Second, they tell us that we can have full confidence that we read what the authors originally wrote. The original manuscript, the one actually written by the author or his scribe, is called the autograph. Because we have so many copies, so close in time and with only minute variations, we can trust that these copies faithfully represent the autographs of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Now let’s say I pull a book off my shelf, Five Comedies of Aristophanes. Aristophanes (445-385 B.C.) wrote some forty plays, only eleven of which exist today. His works are known from only ten copies, the oldest of which dates from about 900 A.D., a span of some 1300 years. Yet, I do not doubt, and neither does anyone else, that when we read a play by Aristophanes, we are indeed reading what he actually wrote. If we accept on such relatively meager evidence that we are reading (in translation) the very words of Aristophanes, then what shall we say of the New Testament with its several orders of magnitude greater attestation? Document attestation becomes an important factor when critics and skeptics run to the “later accretion” defense, meaning that other copyists, editors, or authorities added certain parts of the accounts later, after the autographs. The massive documental evidence, unique in ancient history, argues persuasively that we have very high reliability in New Testament writings.5
When we include the miraculous episodes of the gospel accounts, we only have to make room for them by allowing that miracles do not seem improbable at all — given that God exists, and that the gospels concern the Son of God, who manifested his Father’s character and power.
We should also make the point, while on the subject of the original documents, that the dates for writing the gospels are in fact much earlier than those commonly proffered by alleged “scholarly” sources. Secular writers on Biblical documents need to ignore the concept of inspiration. Also, the unwary reader of such material (or listener in the college classroom) does not know that the late dates, usually on the order of late first century to early second, have absolutely no hard evidence — they are just guesses based on an a priori bias against the very source of the material in question. In an effort to make human reasoning the ultimate arbiter and expunge the Divine from consideration, such writers proclaim that they use “strictly historical methodology.” I don’t know why historical methodology should preclude common sense. If you witnessed the resurrection of Jesus (or even thought that you did, conceding this point for the moment) would you wait two generations until you wrote about it?
Would it not make simple common sense for the first-century preaching to use accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings? Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, undoubtedly was the earliest, not Mark (who wrote to Gentiles), as is commonly asserted. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses, and Luke wrote from eyewitness accounts (Luke 1:1,2). The introductory comment to the episode of the man lame for 38 years, “there is a place in Jerusalem” (John 5:2), places John’s gospel before 70 A.D. Other internal evidence also points to very early dating of the gospels and reliable historical content.6
3. Alternative Explanations Totally Lack Historical Basis
Critics and skeptics often object to the literal resurrection on the basis that the disciples were honest and devout, but simply mistaken about the resurrection. In their zeal and desire to believe that Jesus had been raised, they had come to believe that this was so. Either they hallucinated, or went to the wrong grave, or Jesus didn’t really die, but revived in the tomb, and the disciples took this for the resurrection. Such fanciful stories have appeared over the centuries, but none of them stems from any competing or alternative ancient source. None of these theories pass any historical or logical muster, and many apologists have rightfully put them to sleep.
All such arguments involve fabricating a narrative for which there isn’t the slightest hint in any historical record, gospel or otherwise. If the complaint is that the gospels are religious documents and not credible historical documents upon which to locate an event in history, is an alternative story that has absolutely no historical basis any better? Let me say it this way: The gospels writers recorded the basic historical facts of the ministry of Jesus as a background to his teaching and miracles. They set his words and deeds in historical context. I have made this significant point several times, and now I will use it for another purpose. The gospels give us an historical record of events and they are especially rich in detail for the last week of Jesus’ life.
Suppose a critic, working from a “no miracles allowed” presuppositional bias, decides that another interpretation must explain the record. The critic writes, “It was a mistake; the women went to the wrong tomb. This tomb happened to be empty, and thus they mistakenly took this as evidence that Jesus had risen.” Is there any historical record, Biblical or otherwise, that this is actually the case? Is there some ancient tradition or other ancient writing that offers this alternative? No, not at all. The only mention of any other possibility is that “the disciples stole the body”, and this story, of course, is plainly recognized as a fabrication from the outset (Matt. 28:11-15). That leaves the critics’ offerings, the mistaken tomb or whatever else, completely without historical basis. The critic has proposed an unhistorical alternative to an historical record in the interest of getting a better historical account! One has to wonder how desperate a person can get in pursuit of faithlessness.
We’ve just begun to examine evidence for the resurrection. The next two articles contain more lines of evidence, and, thankfully, return us to some fascinating and positive Bible study. Please tune in again next month.
Next: More evidence for the resurrection.
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
1 William Lane Craig, “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?” in Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 141-176. Craig cites seven standard criteria, recently proposed by a secular historian, for evaluating historical claims. This chapter provides an excellent background for evaluating alternative explanations of the resurrection.
2 Homer’s great works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, undoubtedly waited for several centuries before being committed to writing at all. Almost certainly these “books” had generations of oral transmission before being committed to the relative fixity of manuscript.
4 Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, Calif.: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972), pp. 43-55. I believe this book has been updated and published under the title, A Ready Defense.
5 Certain cases of doubt exist, notably the ending of Mark and the account of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-12), but these do not bear on our topic of resurrection.
6 Craig Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” in Wilkins and Moreland, op. cit., pp. 17-50. Blomberg’s chapter in this book is mostly directed at refuting the radically anti-Christian claims of the Jesus Seminar. Nevertheless, it presents a good, brief, comprehensive account of New Testament historical reliability.