Christian Theology and Apologetics

A Historical Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: Part 1

Perhaps no other event in history has shaped the world in the way the resurrection of Jesus has. Over a billion people on this planet believe the resurrection occurred over two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. That being said, we must take note that belief in something does not make it true, or false; what makes the resurrection true or false is whether or not it occurred. For this inquiry I will be using a prima facie definition of truth; this is to say, in order for something to be true, it must correspond to reality. I will be arguing in favor of the resurrection of Jesus. This means that the probability of (R) Resurrection must outweigh the Probability of (~R) Resurrection alternatives. I will be arguing that the relevant facts will demonstrate that the probability of (R) is higher than (~R).

Philosophical Groundwork

First, some philosophical groundwork needs to be done. Everyone has presuppositions. First, whether one believes a miracle is possible or not will have an impact on the investigation at hand; fortunately, for this type of argument, which is historical in nature, if the resurrection can be shown to be historical, then everyone would agree that it would constitute a miracle. For this purpose, I am defining a miracle as an event that would not have occurred if only the natural order were operating.

Additionally, we must start with some assumptions regarding the relevant texts for this investigation. I am going to be looking at the New Testament texts from a historical perspective, and not a theological one. That being said, there are some underlying assumptions that must be stated. This argument will be based on the assumption that we have a very accurate text of the four Gospels, Acts, and undeniable Pauline writings. Where these texts assert something of a miraculous nature, it will be assumed that the narrative represents someone very close to the situation claimed in the text. If the traditionally identified authors did not write the Gospels and Pauline letters, then most likely it was someone in close relation with that disciple or Apostle.

The texts that mention the occurrence of the miraculous will be given the same scrutiny and credence, as other secular texts would receive. These texts will not be dismissed on philosophical naturalistic grounds; if they are to be dismissed, it will be on the basis of unreliability.

It has been a common tactic by many to simply dismiss the New Testament writings on the basis of perceived variances or supposed discrepancies. Skepticism owes its survival to these sorts of tactics.

Tim and Lydia McGrew note,

“The number of alleged discrepancies in the Gospels is greatly exaggerated by a free use of the argumentum ex silentio: if an author does not mention some piece of information, it is too often assumed that he was unaware of it or even that he positively believed the contrary.” [1]

It is speculative at best to attempt to paint the NT as inconsistent when there are details omitted from one account that are found in another; no one is sure as to why an author omitted details, but to approach the omission as an appearance of inconsistency is not a solid methodology, and is unfruitful as there would be no conclusion drawn, just speculation. With regard to the historicity of the resurrection, such omissions are beside the point. It has been demonstrated that reports from very reliable eyewitnesses and historians can often show different emphasis and sometimes outright contradict one another. Yet, this does undercut the significant events they report. For instance, Abraham Lincoln acknowledged five different Gettysburg addresses as authentic in his lifetime. Though there are many variances between the copies no one questions whether there is an authentic copy of the Gettysburg Address or that the speech occurred.

Another example is the variance between Florus’s account of the numbered troops in the battle of Pharsalia, which differs by 150,000 troops from Caesar’s own account. Though this difference is very apparent, no one doubts that this battle occurred. This lends credence to the fact that an individual can have different accounts of the same event. In the NT we have several individuals reporting the same event from varying sources. One would expect variances, and if there were no variances, others would simply assume the authors colluded with one another. Either way it seems denial of credibility is on philosophical grounds and not on evidential ones. So to dismiss the accounts of the resurrection on grounds of perceived inconsistency is not valid.

Recently there has been some development in scholarship pertaining to the Gospels and their distinguishing emphasis aligns closely with Greco-Roman history. Examples of this is the ancient works of Xenophon, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Josephus.[2]

Form criticism has been dealt several blows by Archaeological discoveries. For instance, Pontus Pilate, the Roman Governor over the province of Judea in A.D. 26-36 was thought to have been an invention by the authors. In 1961 an inscription was discovered in Caesarea Maritima, which confirmed the existence of not only Pontus Pilate, but his office as well. Another discovery was Caiaphas Ossuary, which was discovered in 1990 near Jerusalem and confirmed the existence of Caiaphas (High Priest, Matt 26:3). In 1877 Sergius Paulus’s existence was confirmed when an inscription was discovered in Paphos, Cyprus. The list of discoveries is rather large and it is sufficient to say that critics have not enjoyed the Archaeological finds confirming the New Testament as historically reliable.[3]

The Resurrection

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 there is a pre-Pauline formula, which virtually all NT scholars acknowledge as originating from someone other than Paul. This means that this formula originated with the primitive church, perhaps even the church in Jerusalem. This means that many of the core facts were already in wide circulation within a few years of the events. The Gospels, Acts, and Pauline Epistles merely report in more detail.

Historical Bedrock: Death and Entombment

Death. At this time it is almost universally acknowledged by NT scholars that Jesus died by crucifixion on the cross. The other theories have been delved into and found highly improbable. Some scholars postulated that Jesus merely “swooned” or fainted, thus appearing to be dead on the cross. Then after his burial woke up to escape the tomb. Such speculation hardly gives the textual evidence much merit. The texts indicate Jesus was stabbed with a spear to ensure that he was dead. If he had fainted, there could be little doubt that a spear thrust would kill him. Moreover, a physically mutilated Jesus would hardly convince his followers that he was the resurrected Messiah.

There is only one reported survival of a Roman Crucifixion. Josephus records (Life of Josephus, 75) that some of his old associates were being crucified when he noticed them. Josephus instructs Titus that they be removed from their crosses and be taken care of medically. Of the three, two die and one recovers. These men were not on the cross long enough to have the spear thrust through them, as Jesus had done to him; they were still visibly alive, whereas Christ was visibly dead, but in order to ensure his death, the Romans stabbed him. Blood and water preceded from the wound, thus ensuring his death, by the piercing of his heart. And unlike the others, Jesus did not receive medical treatment to survive this crucifixion. Needless to say, the crucifixion of the three and the one Jesus suffered were not tantamount. There are no known survivors of the type of crucifixion Jesus suffered. There are non-Christian sources that mention this event as well. Tacitus, Lucian, and Mara bar Serapion were aware of the event. [4] And, it is likely Josephus reported the event in his original version of Antiquities of the Jews 18.3. Thus we have good evidence from Christian and non-Christian sources alike attesting to Jesus’ death in Palestine by crucifixion. Historians must be guided by probability and without any evidence to the contrary, Jesus’ death on the cross must be considered a historical fact. Atheist Gerd Ludemann writes, “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”[5]

 Entombment. Much like the case of Jesus’ death in the above, there is no historical evidence to the contrary that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:42-47). Dominic Crossan maintains the radical position that Jesus was not buried in a tomb at all, but was buried in a common grave or in a pit with lime to speed up decomposition. [6] In order to justify this claim Crossan must find a reason to dismiss the NT narrative in Mark 15, and he does so on the basis of the unlikelihood of Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus. He notices that there is no pre-Markan tradition and that because of this the narrative must be dismissed. He also notes that Joseph did not have a motive for burying Jesus.

The majority of NT scholars find these arguments unpersuasive for the reason that the very lack of a motive would add credence to the report in Mark 15; if Mark would have fabricated this character to bury Jesus, it seems he would have put in a motive to make it seem more credible. Thus, Crossans reasons for abaondoing the primary sources are very weak and generated from an argumentum ex silentio. The burial of Jesus is also recorded in the pre-Pauline creed mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, which predates Mark. Thus, we have great evidence that Jesus died on the cross and was buried in the tomb as reported.

[1]  McGrew, Timothy and Lydia McGrew, The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 598.

[2] Michael Licona has a forthcoming book on this very topic which aims to demonstrate that ancient historians had variances in their own accounts of history.

[3] Much more could be said in terms of confirmations that Archaeological studies has literally “dug up.” For more on this check out the site BiblicalArchaeology.org and the book Biblical History and Israel’s Past by Megan Moore and Brad E. Kelle.

[4] Tacitus, Ann 15.44; Lucian Peregr. 11

[5] Ludemann, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry, (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2004), 50.

[6] Crossan, J. D. Who Killed Jesus? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 152-158.


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