There are times I miss being enveloped in the dry-but-rich four-part harmonies of my old Mennonite church. Around this Easter time, the music pastor would break out the mismatched plodding melody and joyous lyrics of I Serve a Risen Savior. In the chorus, the congregation liltingly professes, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.”
Popular apologist and leading defender-of-the-faith, philosopher William Lane Craig, commonly admits he “believed in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of my personal experience, and I still think this experiential approach to the resurrection is a perfectly valid way to knowing that Christ has risen. It’s the way that most Christians today know that Jesus is risen and alive.”
Yet Craig, and others like him, understand that their individual purely-internal woo cannot serve as evidence to an outsider. They defend a theology that requires the resurrection of Jesus be a historical event, as the Apostle Paul (probably) wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
TL;DR warning! Click here to jump to conclusions.
Anyone who has spent any time in a pew has probably repeatedly heard the mantra that “the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested fact in history” (or some variation of this). It passed through my ears many times. This phrase was taught, without qualifier, in Accelerated Christian Education textbooks. While it may well have morphed from John A. T. Robinson’s similar claim in 1973’s The Human Face of God about the burial (not resurrection) of Jesus, can this assertion be backed up in any way?
I’d like to take a look at the four so-called “facts” that the Dr. Craig ilk systematically present in any articles, books, lectures or debates on the historical resurrection. From these facts, Craig argues that Jesus rising from the dead is the only reasonable hypothesis that explains them. More on that later.
OK, Craig doesn’t actually claim this one, but it seems a reasonable inference from (and prerequisite to) “Jesus was buried”. The Jesus who has been conclusively proven to have risen from the dead must have irrefutable proof of having lived, right?
This will be worthy of an entire entry at some point, and I am by no means dogmatic on the non-existence of a historical Jesus. My world view doesn’t change a breath if there was a Life of Brian-style figure on whom the Jesus legend was based, or if the character was created whole-cloth or as an amalgam of multiple historical men. That said, I find the hypothesis that the figure of Jesus was purely a non-historical myth to be a compelling one.
The point here is that, outside the Bible, there is remarkably little evidence that Jesus even walked the Earth. The first extra-Biblical (and Biblical, for that matter) references to Jesus are from decades and centuries after the alleged events. The earliest of these are almost certainly forgeries, and even then all merely attest to the beliefs held by Christians rather than lend historical weight to them. A report of what someone believed is not an endorsement of the factuality of the belief.
I don’t see how we could convince a jury of even this first one.
Jesus Was Crucified
Craig doesn’t claim this fact either, but in a way I’m surprised. Of all the things that the extra-Biblical sources on Jesus do allegedly attest to, it is the crucifixion.
Both the Testimonium Flavianum (a passage found in surviving copies of Flavius Josephus’ first century Antiquities) and Tacitus’ second century Annals reference the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate. The latter, and less disputed, doesn’t reference a cross nor resurrection, but both revisit the Christian beliefs about Jesus’ death.
I cede not this point, but find it particularly conspicuous in the apologetic absence.
Jesus Was Buried
Craig’s first claimed fact is that “after his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb”. His evidence is the record in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with the letters of Paul — what he calls five independent sources. He also asserts that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, is unlikely to be a Christian invention due to early church hostility toward Jewish leaders.
Please forgive the length of discussion on this initial point. We will make up time with reuse as we go.
Sources – Not Independent
If you read my entry “Who Wrote the Book of Love?”, you’ll recall that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke are actually embellishments and expansions of Mark as source material, as attested by centuries of theistic and secular scholars alike.
In 2014, the movie The Imitation Game depicted the life of controversial war hero and father of computing, Alan Turing. The screenplay for the movie was an adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ book, Alan Turing: The Enigma. As such, the movie does not suddenly become a second source to attest the book’s claims. They are two works, but the same source.
So too, the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are at best one source, not multiple sources as disingenuously asserted from pulpits.
You’ll recall the gospels were written a generation after the time of Jesus’ reported death. They were composed in affluent literary Greek rather than the pedestrian Aramaic that the disciples would have spoken. The authors do not claim to be eye witnesses. Regardless of the count, these are not the kind of sources that historians look for.
Paul Doesn’t Help
It is curious that Craig would throw Paul’s letters into the mix. The 1 Corinthians 15 passage has the benefit of being written earlier than Mark — 25-or-so years after the time of Jesus’ death. However, the extent of what Paul writes is the tiny phrase “he was buried”. Nothing about a tomb. Nothing about Joseph of Arimathea. From the textual evidence, Paul might just as well have meant a mass grave, as was the established practice for the dozens of Roman crucifixions each day. The tomb tradition emerged after Paul’s writings.
Joseph of Arimathea
As for the tomb benefactor, Joseph of Arimathea, he debuts in Mark and there are no Biblical nor historical references to him outside of the gospels. (Later tales of Joseph visiting and founding the church in Glastonbury are apocryphal legends started in the 10th century as part of an effort to establish a British church pedigree separate from Rome. Poet Robert de Boron attached Joseph of Arimathea to his 11th century King Arthur legends, casting him as keeper of the Holy Grail. This landed Joseph a mention in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which the Lucasfilm in me could not fail to mention.) As such, naming this official adds no additional evidence or historical legitimacy to the burial assertion.
Is occupational distaste evidence that Joseph could not be an invented figure? The author of Mark made clear efforts to connect his Jesus figure to Messianic prophecies. He would have been aware of Isaiah 53:9‘s prediction, “and he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.” If there was indeed hostility toward Jewish leaders, what better character to represent the rich and wicked than a member of the Sanhedrin? Joseph’s vocation is literarily perfect, not a historical sore thumb.
Women Found the Tomb Empty
The second presented fact is that “on the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers”. Again, Craig points to the gospels, mentions in Acts and an implication by Paul as multiple, independent attestations. He points out that the testimony of women was unacceptable in the courts of the time, so it is unlikely that female characters would be used in a fictional account.
We’ll start with the gospels again. As above, they cannot be called multiple sources, they were not written close to the time of the events, they are not unbiased, the writers are anonymous and didn’t profess to be eye witnesses. They may be fine as theological sources, but they are not what a historian would like as historical sources. (If they were reliable historical sources, the resurrection would come along for free. Apologists wouldn’t cherry-pick a handful of elements to try to defend.)
The Acts references are 2:29 (“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day”) and 13:37 (“But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.”) But the first one isn’t about Jesus, it’s about David. The second doesn’t mention a tomb at all. As such, these are not independent attestation of Jesus’ empty tomb.
The referenced “implication” by Paul is 1 Corinthians 15:4 (“that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”). Paul gives us a when, but not the who, what or where. No women. No empty. No tomb. We’ll discuss later, but this phrase doesn’t even lend evidence that Paul was speaking of a physical resurrection. None of the epistles mention a missing body, so lend no additional evidence for this particular “fact”.
As to the unlikely invention of tomb-finding women due to their gender being considered second-class citizens… that’s exactly why the tradition probably started. The expected Messiah wasn’t supposed to die, so the early Christian narrative had to explain how Jesus family, religious leaders and disciples all missed the point. The author of Mark emphasizes that only outsiders recognized who he was, and who more outside than a group of women to serve the literary purpose of discovering the resurrection ahead of the late-to-understand men?
(As I am editing this, the book “Not the Impossible Faith” has come to my attention. I’m told it provides transcript evidence that first-century women were held as trusted witnesses in Jewish, Roman and Greek courts. I haven’t had a chance to investigate myself, but this might be another case of Christian repetition making a common claim go unquestioned by believers.)
Post-Mortem Jesus Appeared to People
The third presented fact says that “on different occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead”. As evidence, Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 list of eyewitnesses is cited, since Paul and other members of the early church would have known these people personally to fact-check. Once again, the records of the gospels and Paul’s letters is held up as a breadth of independent sources.
Paul includes himself in the list of those to whom a raised Christ had appeared, but neither Paul’s letters nor the account in Acts ever claim that Paul (nee Saul) saw Jesus in raised, physical form.
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. (Acts 9:3,5,7)
Science and medicine has learned much about experiences like this, which we now call hallucinations. Fully-real-to-the-experiencer hallucinations happen all the time, all over the world, including religious visions that contradict Christianity. It is clear that most of these experiences are not real. Indeed, we have no scientific evidence of any that are not. While it is possible Paul was an exception, it is certainly the least likely explanation… and not useful as evidence for an actual resurrection of Jesus.
An apologist might say that Paul met with the disciples to get his information, but those are not Paul’s claims. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” And, after his revelation, “my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia.” Clearly, Paul’s first several formative years of doctrine-forming were purely internal, from his visions only. “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.”
Since the list in Corinthians draws no distinction between Jesus’ appearance to Paul (a vision) and the nature of the appearances to others, should one not infer that all of the appearances in question were understood by the author to be visions? More on this in the next section.
Some have claimed that this section of Corinthians is based on an early-tradition creed that Paul is reciting. While this speculation might make the words closer to the time of Jesus’ death (this is all guessing), it would actually make this even less Pauline attestation and even more heresay.
An apologist might also point to the tale of doubting Thomas, who wanted a physical inspection of Jesus’ wounds. This story is found only in John, the latest-in-the-line and most spectacularly embellished of the gospels, which was written around 50 years after the writings of Paul. As such, we cannot confidently say it is reflective of Paul’s resurrection understanding.
Which brings me back to the repetition that the gospels do not serve as independent sources as they were built upon each other from non-first-hand sources.
Jesus’ Disciples Believed in the Resurrection
The final fact suggests that “the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary.” The evidence is that Jewish beliefs precluded the rising of the dead and the Jewish Messianic expectation of an earthly conqueror. For good measure, it is noted that the disciples were willing to die for this belief.
The obvious most important question is… what evidence do we have as to what the original disciples believed?
Did they sincerely believe or know that they were seeing Jesus’ actual risen physical body? Or did they understand the appearances to be non-physical appearances of Jesus entity?
Ancient people had no difficulty thinking that a divine appearance was not an actual physical appearance but rather phantasmal. Such appearances are common in all writings of the time – Jewish, pagan and Christian. Historian Bart Ehrman suggests that anyone doubting this “might start with the Christian texts of the second century, such as the Acts of John or the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter or the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, or he might consider the arguments used by Basilides, who was the disciple of the follower of Peter. For ancient people, post-death appearance was not the same as the reanimation of the body.”
But one needn’t look that far, even according to the gospels, Moses and Elijah appeared (and then disappeared) to Jesus, James and John with enough physical presence that shelters were proposed. Did these apostles believe that Moses and Elijah came back to life? Or was this a vision?
Resurrected Jesus himself was more like an X-Men character, doing things normal bodies cannot do. He walks through locked doors. He is some kind of shape-shifter appearing in “a different form” to some and manipulating the appearance of his face to others. It ascended into the clouds. These are more consistent with visions than with a historical physical body.
We don’t actually know what the disciples believed. Paul clearly acknowledges that his appearances are visions, not interaction with physical Jesus. The epistles do not address the nature of their post-resurrection interactions, so we are left with the gospels as our only source.
As for the disciples’ predisposition against a resurrection, we know that Jews were looking for the messiah to be a great warrior and king. When Jesus was crucified, the man they thought was Messiah failed all expectations. They would have turned to the scriptures to see where they went wrong, and found passages like Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 referring to the righteous one’s suffering death and vindication. With precedents like Elijah and Enoch, it’s not a stretch to assume their vindicated Messiah was in heaven and coming back to finish what he started and establish the earthly kingdom. If he’s exalted, he’s not dead. Eventually, as the stories grow over the years, this exaltation turns into a resurrection. Belief in the resurrection prompts visions (like Jesus’ face in toast today) and tales of visions, and the legend grows. Or something like that… the point is that the disciples predispositions were turned on their heads and had to pivot. The change can be explained as much by Jesus’ death itself as by a claimed resurrection.
Willingness to Die
As to the claim that the disciples were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection, this is quite a specific claim… not only must the apostles die as martyrs, but also in a situation where recanting would have saved them. So what evidence do we have for the disciples’ fate?
The Bible records the death of only two disciples: Judas Iscariot (with two conflicting accounts, one suicide and one bursting) and James, son of Zebedee, whom Herod had “put to death with the sword.” John speaks of “the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God“, but does not clarify any details about Peter’s demise.
What do non-Biblical sources tell us about the deaths of the others? John is said to have died of old age. The Acts of Peter ends with Peter accepting a voluntary crucifixion. The Acts of Andrew tells of Andrew being martyred on an X-shaped cross. The Acts of Philip spins a tale of Philip dying upside-down hung from iron hooks, thousands dying in a resulting abyss, and Jesus scolding him. Bartholomew may have been crucified in Armenia or beheaded in India. The Acts of Thomas records that Thomas was stabbed in India, and also that he was the twin brother of Jesus! (Parent Trap resurrection-switch theory, anyone?) Matthew, um, probably died of natural causes or maybe we don’t know. There are too many guys named James to know, but maybe stoned by Pharisees or crucified in Egypt. The Acts of Thaddeus has Jude dying naturally. Simon the Zealot was either crucified with Jude (who died naturally) or himself dying naturally in Edessa. Unfortunately, even early church fathers considered all of these second-century-or-much-later apocryphal (yet entertaining) works to be spurious and heretical. They are rejected out-of-hand by Christian scholars of all eras.
There is no historical evidence that the apostles died, or were willing to die, for the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. This is merely assertion based on legends that even the most open-minded Christians reject.
(Of course, we have plenty of examples in history of people willing to lie and die for a cause they believe has a greater good beyond their lives. See Joseph Smith.)
Bonus Facts: Jerusalem Zombie Attack!
This isn’t a fact listed by apologists, but if we’re considering the gospels as authoritative historical accounts, then we should probably heed the words of Matthew 27:51-53…
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
With the Romans crucifying hundreds of people every day, it is reasonable that this particular carpenter’s son doesn’t appear in any records. Earthquakes aren’t a daily event, but not every one will be noted in the detailed Roman documents.
However, it seems entirely unreasonable to think that “many people” returning from the dead, taking walks in the most important city of the region, and appearing to “many people” would not be an event worthy of mention in at least one secular annal.
Similarly, but less spectacularly, the synoptic gospels all record three hours (noon until three in the afternoon) of “darkness” coming over “all the land“. One could read this as a heavy cloud over local area, but Luke adds the striking detail “for the sun stopped shining“. No external sources, including the meticulous Chinese culture of the day, record any such three hour physics-defying event.
These are but two examples of the gospel writers inventing details (people, private events, even public events) that never happened to communicate their message through symbols, metaphors and parables. We also have dozens of apocryphal gospels and writings that tell us that Christians were making up stories without remorse, as it supported specific views. Given this, even if there are historical nuggets to be found in their works, we have no way to know which details are history and which ones are allegory without corroboration of outside sources. As far as evidence goes, none of it is solid.
Despite the long-held opt-repeated claim of great attestation, the “four facts” of the resurrection of Jesus have only two sources — the gospels and the epistles.
The epistles, which were written first, do not mention a tomb, Joseph of Arimathea, women visiting a tomb, or a missing body. The limited mentions of post-death appearances clearly indicate visions when specific, and make no distinction between visions and other types of appearances — treating all the same. No physical appearances of Jesus are specified.
This leaves the gospels as the single source for these alleged facts. And as such, it is a strange exercise to arbitrarily label some of the gospel claims as facts, then use those as evidence to support the explanatory (less factual?) claims from the same source.
Historians try to determine what is most probable about the past based on available evidence. If one was to play along with this game of cherry-picking isolated elements as factual, they would need not look beyond naturalistic explanations. Most missing bodies don’t go missing because of miracles. Most appearances of gods and dead people are hallucinations. Most religions are started on false ideas (all but one?). Even if there are some that are miracles, most are not. By definition, a miracle would be the least likely explanation. A miracle may have happened, but it is least probable, so cannot be attested.
But that aside, the entire idea of using four details found only in the gospels as proof of the gospel’s claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is really no different than presenting four details from Harry Potter books to prove the existence of Voldemort from the Harry Potter books. (If there’s no Voldemort, where did Harry get his scar?)
If you believe that the gospels are historically accurate and reliable, then you already accept a miraculous resurrection as part of the package. You don’t need to do any kind of rationalization. It comes along as part of the deal, and you have no need for external validation.
If you don’t accept the gospels as accurate and reliable, then you don’t see the four facts as facts at all. No rationalization for a burial, empty tomb or post-mortem appearances are needed, as you would view the mundane details as equally unsupported as the resurrection claim. At least you should, since there are no external validations for them.
The hymn was right. The reason to believe this Easter season are the warm feelings you feel, not external evidence.
This article is the product and amalgam of my lifetime of study as a devout Christian, followed by listening to hundreds of hours of debates over the past several years, featuring people like Bart Ehrman, Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Matt Dillahunty, Peter Atkins, David Silverman and others, alongside the reading of many books on the subject by some of the same authors. I regret that I didn’t have time to further footnote and document. If any of the individual ideas presented here were insightful, they belong to the group above.
Craig often appeals to a consensus of Biblical scholars as his authority. During my writing, I was made aware of Gary Habermas’ 2005 survey Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying? in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Of those publishing on the subject, Habermas finds “approximately 75% favor one or more of these arguments for the [historical] empty tomb, while approximately 25% think that one or more arguments oppose it.” While, that is obviously a majority in favor, it is far from the unchallenged verdict that Craig represents. It also does not adjust for the (presumably) overwhelming majority of publishing Biblical scholars who have a theological bent to believe. Has anyone seen any stats on the secular proportion of Biblical scholars?