Examining the "Minimal Facts" Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus

Copied from:  PleaseConvinceMe

(Gary:  I will make comments within the article in red)


The Minimal Facts of the Resurrection 
 
Jesusresurrection

written by Aaron Brake
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“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”
—Antony Flew— 
 
INTRODUCTION
 
The truth of Christianity stands or falls on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Paul himself said, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”[1] Here the Apostle provides an objective criterion by which to judge the legitimacy of the Christian worldview. Show that Christ has not been raised from the dead and you will have successfully proven Christianity false. Conversely, if Jesus did rise from the dead then His life and teachings are vindicated. The Christian faith, as it turns out, is falsifiable. It is the only religion which bases its faith on an empirically verifiable event.[2]  (Let’s see.)
 
Christ Himself testified that His resurrection is the sign given to the world as evidence for His extraordinary claims: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”[3] Furthermore, the resurrection was the central message proclaimed by the early church as most clearly demonstrated in the book of Acts.[4] Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that an objective examination of Christianity focus on the most pivotal historical event of the faith: the Resurrection.
 
THE MINIMAL FACTS APPROACH
 
The approach I will take in this paper is commonly referred to as the “minimal facts approach.” This method “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.”[5] It should be noted this approach does not assume the inerrancy or divine inspiration of any New Testament document. Rather it merely holds these writings to be historical documents penned during the first century AD.[6]  (Sounds like Gary Habermas’ approach to the Resurrection.)
 
Though as many as 12 minimal facts surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ may be examined,[7] the brevity of this paper limits our examination to four: the death of Jesus by crucifixion, the empty tomb,[8] the post-resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith. I contend that the best explanation for these minimal facts is that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave.
 
Finally, if these facts “can be established and no plausible natural explanation can account for them as well as the resurrection hypothesis, then one is justified in inferring Jesus’ resurrection as the most plausible explanation of the data.”[9]
 
A MATTER OF HISTORY
 
Before looking at the facts surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ it is important to identify a set of objective criteria by which the validity of historical events may be judged. In other words, what criteria may be used to establish the occurrence of an event with reasonable historical certainty? New Testament scholars Gary Habermas and Michael Licona list the following five criteria noting that “a historian who is able to apply one or more of the following principles to a text can conclude with much greater confidence whether a certain event occurred.”[10]
 
  1. Historical claims are strong when supported by multiple, independent sources. Agree
  2. Historical claims which are also attested to by enemies are more likely to be authentic since enemies are unsympathetic, and often hostile, witnesses.  Agree
  3. Historical claims which include embarrassing admissions reflect honest reporting rather than creative storytelling.  Agree, but only if we know the document in question is being written as a strictly historical account.  Historical fictions, for instance, mix historical facts with fiction.  Homer’s Iliad is one example of an historical fiction.  The Trojan-Greek war was an historical event but Homer (or whoever wrote it) included a lot of myth and fiction mixed into his historical account.
  4. Historical claims are strong when supported by eyewitness testimony.  Agree
  5. Historical claims which are supported by early testimony are more reliable and less likely to be the result of legendary development.[11]  Agree
Therefore, when inquiring into a historical event “the historian combs through the data, considers all the possibilities, and seeks to determine which scenario best explains the data.”[12]  Agree
 
Some skeptics argue that the resurrection of Jesus cannot be investigated historically. But this is mistaken. The facts surrounding the resurrection are of a historical nature and available for anyone to examine. Consequently, “the meaning of the resurrection is a theological matter, but the fact of the resurrection is a historical matter.”[13] Thus either the bodily resurrection of Jesus actually occurred in history or it did not. Either the resurrection is the best explanation for the known historical data or it is not. Regardless, what we cannot do is simply dismiss it as “supernatural” or “miraculous” in an attempt to remove it from the pool of live options a priori. Moreover, we need to be careful not to confuse “the evidence for the resurrection with the best explanation of the evidence. The resurrection of Jesus is a miraculous explanation of the evidence. But the evidence itself is not miraculous. None of these four facts is any way supernatural or inaccessible to the historian.”[14] So although the resurrection may be classified as a “miraculous event,” it is a historical event nonetheless and should be investigated as such. John Warwick Montgomery provides helpful insight:
 
The only way we can know whether an event can occur is to see whether in fact it has occurred. The problem of “miracles,” then, must be solved in the realm of historical investigation, not in the realm of philosophical speculation. And note that a historian, in facing an alleged “miracle,” is really facing nothing new. All historical events are unique, and the test of their factual character can be only the accepted documentary approach that we have followed here. No historian has the right to a closed system of natural causation….”[15] Agree
 
Therefore, whether or not Jesus rose from the dead is really quite straightforward: “If Jesus was dead at point A, and alive again at point B, then resurrection has occurred: res ipsa loquitur.[16]  Agree
 
FACT #1—THE DEATH OF JESUS BY CRUCIFIXION
 
Perhaps no other fact surrounding the life of the historical Jesus is better attested to than His death by crucifixion. Not only is the crucifixion account included in every gospel narrative[17] but it is also confirmed by several non-Christian sources. These include the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian Tacitus, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata, as well as the Jewish Talmud.[18] Josephus tells us that “Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us…condemned him to the cross…”[19] From a perspective of historiography, Jesus’ crucifixion meets the historical criteria of multiple, independent and early eyewitness sources including enemy attestation. John Dominic Crossan, non-Christian critical scholar and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, states, “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”[20]  I do not doubt the existence of Jesus nor his crucifixion.  I am in agreement with this statement.
 
Objection #1: Jesus Didn’t Really Die (The Swoon Theory)
 
Some skeptics argue that Jesus may have been crucified but He did not actually die. Instead, He lost consciousness (swooned) and merely appeared to be dead only to later be revived in the cool, damp tomb in which He was laid. After reviving He made His way out of the tomb and presented Himself to His disciples as the “resurrected” Messiah. Thus the Christian religion begins. This theory is problematic for several reasons.  I don’t believe that the Swoon Theory is realistic.  Romans were expert executioners.  They would have been very careful to make sure that a potential revolutionary like Jesus was dead.  Even if Jesus did survive, there is no way he could have walked out of the tomb on his own with the injuries incurred in a crucifixion.
 
First, the Swoon Theory does not take seriously what we know about the horrendous scourging and torture associated with crucifixion. As an expert team from the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes, “Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”[21]
 
Second, Jesus faking His own resurrection goes against everything we know about His ethical ministry.
 
Third, a half-dead, half-resurrected “messiah” could hardly serve as the foundation for the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. German theologian David Friederick Strauss explains:
 
It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulcher, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror of death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which He had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.[22]
 
Fourth, this theory is anachronistic in postulating that the disciples, upon seeing Jesus in his half-comatose state, would be led to conclude that He had been raised from the dead within history, in opposition to the Jewish belief in one final resurrection at the end of time. On the contrary, seeing Him again would lead them to conclude He didn’t die![23]
 
Fifth, Roman soldiers were professional executioners and everything we know about the torture and crucifixion of Jesus confirms His death, making this theory physically impossible.
Sixth, no early evidence or testimony exists claiming Jesus was merely wounded.
Finally, this theory cannot account for the conversion of skeptics like Paul who also testified to having seen the risen Lord and willing suffered and died for his belief in the resurrection.
 
FACT #2—THE EMPTY TOMB
 
Something happened to the body of Jesus. Of this we can be sure. Not only was Jesus publicly executed in Jerusalem but “His post-mortem appearances and empty tomb were first publicly proclaimed there.”[24]  Here we go, folks.  Notice the author assumes the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb to be historical facts.  He believes this to be so, because he assumes the Gospels are historically accurate documents.  This is the most common error in conservative Christian thinking about the “evidence” for the Resurrection.  There is no way anyone can know the purpose of the Gospels.  They were written by anonymous authors, decades after the death of Jesus, in far away lands.    This would have been impossible with a decaying corpse still in the tomb. “It would have been wholly un-Jewish,” notes William Lane Craig, “not to say foolish, to believe that a man was raised from the dead when his body was still in the grave.”[25] We have no evidence that anyone believed in the existence of an “empty tomb” until the Gospel of “Mark” written in approximately 70 AD.  That is 40 years after the alleged event.  If the Gospel of Mark had been written in 65 AD in Jerusalem, and circulated in the community, then there would have been an opportunity for people to say, “Hey!  There was no tomb.  This book is false.”  But if the Gospel of Mark was written in 75 AD, in Rome, for the reading of one rich patron, who kept it in his private library until he died in 90 AD, who is going to be around in Rome to counter the claim of an empty tomb?  And when copies of the Gospel of Mark finally find their way to Palestine a few years later, at the earliest, we are now 65 years after the death of Jesus.  How many people are still alive in Palestine who 1.)  witnessed the crucifixion  2.) survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD 3.) have lived well past the average first century life span of 40-45 years?  The Jewish authorities had plenty of motivation to produce a body and silence these men who “turned the world upside down,”[26] effectively ending the Christian religion for good. But no one could. Assumption.  It is historical fact that Romans routinely tossed the bodies of crucified criminals into a common grave.  If we did not have the Gospels accounts this is what we would expect to have happened to Jesus.  Only the Gospel story of a rich member of the Sanhedrin allowing Jesus to be buried in his newly made, hand hewn (expensive) tomb provides the basis for a claim of an “empty tomb”.  Since the authors of the Gospels are anonymous, and two, maybe three, of the Gospel authors borrowed heavily from the story of the first author (Mark), we have no way of knowing whether the detail of Joseph of Arimethea is a true historical fact or simply a fascinating embellishment for selling a book.  The only early opposing theory recorded by the enemies of Christianity is that the disciples stole the body.[27] Ironically, this presupposes the empty tomb.  Assumption.  Only the Gospels tell us that the Jews paid the soldiers to say that the disciples stole the body.  We have no statements from the Romans, the Jews, or any other independent source for this allegation.
 
In addition, all four gospel narratives attest to the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea and place women as the primary witnesses to the empty tomb.[28] Both of these are highly unlikely to be Christian inventions. (But if the purpose of the Gospel of Mark was simply as an historical fiction to entertain one rich patron, which was the primary purpose of most books written during that time period, these details add intrigue to the story.  It is only if you assume that the Gospel of Mark was written as a strictly historical collection of facts, that this Christian argument is true.
 
First, with regard to Joseph of Arimathea, Biblical scholar James G. D. Dunn explains that he
 
is a very plausible historical character: he is attested in all four Gospels… and in the Gospel of Peter…; when the tendency of the tradition was to shift blame to the Jewish council, the creation ex nihilo of a sympathizer from among their number would be surprising; and ‘Arimathea, ‘a town very difficult to identify and reminiscent of no scriptural symbolism, makes a thesis of invention even more implausible.’[29]
 
Atheist Jeffery Lowder agrees that “the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea has a high final probability.”[30]
 
Second, just as unlikely to be invented is the report of women followers discovering the empty tomb, especially when considering the low social status of women in both Jewish and Roman cultures and their inability to testify as legal witnesses.[31] If the empty tomb account were a fabricated story intended to persuade skeptics it would have been better served by including male disciples as the primary witnesses. In other words, both the burial and empty tomb accounts demonstrate a ring of authenticity which lends credibility to the gospel narratives.  Assumption.  Christians seem to always argue that there are two choices:  the Gospels are true historical accounts or they were intentionally fabricated to deceive.   There are other options, friends.  One such option is:  the development of a legend.  Let me explain.

Jesus has just been crucified.  The Jews want his body and the bodies of the other prisoners down off of their crosses before the Passover begins.  Now, the Romans usually left the bodies on the crosses to bloat, rot, and be eaten by birds for days as a warning to other potential trouble-makers.  But let’s just say that the Romans didn’t want any more trouble with the Jews with the city packed for Passover, so they took all the bodies down.  What are the chances that the Romans are going to give the body of the “King of the Jews” to the Jews to be buried in a known tomb, potentially to become a shrine for every rebellion-minded Jew to visit and pay homage?  The Romans would have to have been idiots to do this and we know as a fact that the Romans were not idiots.  If the Romans took down the body of Jesus, they most likely tossed it into a common grave with the other crucified criminals; an unmarked grave which no one but the Romans knew of its location.

Days, weeks, months, or a couple of years later, a few female disciples of Jesus are walking down a road and see someone in the distance who turns and looks their way—“It is Jesus!” the women exclaim.  The man then suddenly disappears behind a hill or into a crowd.  They run to find him but he is gone.  They then run back to the disciples.  “Jesus is risen just as he said he would!  We saw him with our own eyes!”….and the legend is born.  Forty years later when “Mark” writes his Gospel, the version of the story that “Mark” hears has become so embellished in the hundreds if not thousands of times that this oral story has been repeated, that it includes an empty tomb, a young man inside the tomb, etc.  No one lied.  No one intentionally fabricated details.  A few women did “see” a resurrected Jesus and as the story was told and retold, the story took on a life of its own.

This is the most likely explanation for the story of the Resurrection.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the supernatural claims of most other religions in the world and you will most likely use this same explanation (development of a legend) as the reason that you do not believe THEIR supernatural tale.
 
As with the crucifixion, the account of the empty tomb meets the historical criteria of multiple, independent and early eyewitness sources,[32] including implicit enemy attestation as well as the principle of embarrassment. In addition, the reports of the burial and empty tomb are simple and lack theological or legendary development.  Assumptions.  Assumptions.  Assumptions.  Assumptions based on four anonymous first centuries pieces of literature.
 
Finally, there is no competing burial story in existence. Historian and skeptic Michael Grant concedes that “the historian… cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb” since applied historical criteria shows “the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.”[33]  Nonsense.  An examination of Roman execution practices would lead one to believe that Jesus’ remains are still in a common grave, lost somewhere in the sands of Palestine.
 
Objection #2: The Disciples Stole the Body (The Fraud or Conspiracy Theory)
 
As mentioned above, the earliest recorded polemic against the empty tomb is the charge by Jewish authorities that the disciples stole the body. Do Jewish records say this?  Do Roman records say this?  No.  Again, this information comes from four anonymous books.  This is commonly referred to as the Fraud or Conspiracy Theory. This scenario posits that Jesus’ followers stole the body away unbeknownst to anyone and lied about the resurrection appearances, pulling off what has thus far been the greatest hoax in human history. There are several problems with this view.
 
First, this theory does not explain well the simplicity of the resurrection narratives nor why the disciples would invent women as the primary witnesses to the empty tomb.[34] This is hardly the way one gets a conspiracy theory off the ground.
 
Second, this also doesn’t explain why the disciples would perpetuate a story that they stole the body (Matt. 28:11-15) if in fact they stole the body! Propagating an explanation which incriminates oneself is again at odds with a conspiracy theory.
 
Third, as will be discussed below, this theory does not account for the fact that the disciples of Jesus had genuine experiences in which they believed they saw the risen Christ. So convinced were these men that their lives were transformed into committed followers willing to suffer and die for their belief. Liars make poor martyrs.  Just because people are willing to die for their beliefs does not mean that their beliefs are true.  Modern day Muslim suicide-bombers are one example.  We have no record that any of the original Twelve nor James, the brother of Jesus, died because they refused to recant seeing a real, flesh and bones, walking, talking, resurrected Jesus.  Yes, we know that James was executed, but many, many members of religious minority sects have been killed down through the ages.  Again, that does not prove their beliefs true.  We have no record of the details of the deaths of the Eleven, other than some questionable records about Peter. 
 
Fourth, this theory runs opposite to everything we know about the disciples. As J. N. D. Anderson states, “This would run totally contrary to all we know of them: their ethical teaching, the quality of their lives, their steadfastness in suffering and persecution. Nor would it begin to explain their dramatic transformation from dejected and dispirited escapists into witnesses whom no opposition could muzzle.”[35]  Cognitive Dissonance would explain very well the change in the disciples.  Remember, if the Gospels are correct, Jesus had promised the Twelve that they would rule with him in the New Kingdom.  Then their leader is captured and executed.  The disciples are devastated.  Their world has been turned upside down.  Then…some female disciples of Jesus come running to them one day and tell them that they have seen Jesus.  “We saw him for just a brief second, he turned and looked at us, and then disappeared behind a hill.  He is risen just as he said!”  Hope has returned… but is it true?  Then the disciples begin to “see” Jesus too.  Some of them have visions, etc.  And the legend has begun.

No one lied.  No one was being dishonest.  They all genuinely believed that they had seen Jesus…just as millions of Catholics believe that they have truly seen the Virgin Mary, and many other Christians believe that Jesus has appeared to them (near death experiences, etc.).
 
Fifth, this theory is completely anachronistic. There was no expectation by first century Jews of a suffering-servant Messiah who would be shamefully executed by Gentiles as a criminal only to rise again bodily before the final resurrection at the end of time: “As Wright nicely puts it, if your favorite Messiah got himself crucified, then you either went home or else you got yourself a new Messiah. But the idea of stealing Jesus’ corpse and saying that God had raised him from the dead is hardly one that would have entered the minds of the disciples.”[36]  Wright is absolutely correct.  No Jew would believe this story.   And guess what….the overwhelming majority of Jews did NOT believe this story and still, to this day, do not believe this story.  The fact that a few poor, uneducated, superstitious Galilean Jews did believe is not surprising.  The idea of an afterlife and a resurrection was a new concept in Judaism.  You won’t find it mentioned in the first three-quarters of the New Testament.  Many scholars believe that this concept only really developed under the Greek occupation of Palestine, the same period of time that the Septuagint, the Bible Jesus used, was written.  In fact, Judaism was already split on the issue of an afterlife and a resurrection.  The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife.  The Pharisees did.  So the fact that a third belief system developed with this small group of Jewish Christians is not surprising at all. 
 
Finally, this theory cannot account for the conversion of skeptics like Paul who also testified to having seen the risen Lord and willing suffered and died for his belief in the resurrection.  Paul never says that he saw a resurrected body.  He says he saw a talking bright light in a “heavenly vision”.  Paul’s words, not mine.  Dramatic conversions happen all the time.  Today in Israel, there is an orthodox Jewish rabbi and settler who converted to become a Muslim imam! 
 
FACT #3—THE POST-RESURRECTION APPEARANCES
 
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul recounts what biblical scholars recognize as an early Christian creed dating to within a few years of the crucifixion. Notice the creedal nature and repetitive structure of this passage when broken down in the following form:
 
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, in which also you stand,
that Christ died for our sins
according to the Scriptures,
and
that He was buried,
and
that He was raised on the third day
                        according to the Scriptures,
and
that He appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
After
that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time,
most of whom remain until now,
but some have fallen asleep;
then He appeared to James,
then to all the apostles;
and last of all, as to one untimely born,
He appeared to me also.[37] 
 
Included in this creed are three of our minimal facts: the death of Jesus, the empty tomb (Assumption.  There is no mention of an empty tomb anywhere in this passage or in any of the writings of Paul.  Paul says that the Christ was “buried” and then rose on the third day.  It is just as likely that Paul and all other early Christians (prior to the writing of the Gospels) believed that Jesus had risen simply because the women mentioned above had seen him.  If the women had seen Jesus that means he had been raised.  And if Jesus had been buried in a common grave, he would still have been “raised” from this common grave to be seen by the women.  Therefore, Paul’s statement is in no way evidence for an empty “tomb”, and the post-resurrection appearances. Furthermore, our fourth minimal fact (the origin of Christianity) is easily explained given the first thee facts. Paul not only mentions the multiple post-resurrection appearances but includes himself as having seen the risen Lord Paul saw a talking bright light that he believed was Jesus.  Period.  He never mentions a body or describes the body. Several indicators in the text confirm this to be an early Christian creed.
 
First, as shown above, the passage uses stylized wording and parallel structure common to creedal formulas.
 
Second, the words “delivered” and “received” are technical terms indicating a rabbinic heritage is in view. Notice that Paul is passing on second hand (maybe third, fourth, or fifth hand) information.  Paul does not tell us who gave him this information or if Paul had verified the information.  It could very well just be a Creed that Paul was quoting verbatim, not meaning to infer that he personally knew the “five hundred” witnesses.
 
Third, the phrases “He was raised,” “third day,” and “the twelve” are unusual Pauline terms making this unlikely to have originated with Paul himself.  I agree.  Isn’t it odd that the term “the Twelve” would be used in this Creed?  Jesus did not appear to the Twelve, but to the Eleven, if you believe the Gospels.  If you read the Gospel accounts, do you ever see the statement that “then Jesus appeared to the Twelve”.  No.  If Paul was listing facts that he had verified to be true, why wouldn’t he have said “the Eleven”.  I don’t think Paul knew the details he is discussing in this passage.  He is simply quoting something that he had “received”.
 
Fourth, the Aramaic term “Cephas” is used for Peter indicating an extremely early origin.[38] New Testament scholar and skeptic Gerd Lüdemann assigns this passage a very early date stating, “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.”[39]  I agree that it was a very early tradition.  But it is an incorrect early tradition.  Even if you leave out mentioning that the women were the first witnesses (I thought that was such an important fact in proving the validity of the story—women witnesses? Why leave it out now??) but if we believe the Gospels accounts, Jesus did NOT appear first to Peter.  Who ever wrote this creed got his details mixed up and Paul, supposedly writing under the inspiration of God, repeats this glaring error!
 
The early date of this creed rules out the possibility of myth or legendary development as a plausible explanation and demonstrates that the disciples began proclaiming Jesus’ death, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances very early. Christian philosopher and theologian J. P. Moreland elaborates:  What?  Legends can develop within days, weeks, and months, especially when you are dealing with uneducated, illiterate, superstitious, first century peasants.  Legends develop just as quickly even today.  Read the legend that quickly developed around Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy rescued from the sea.
 
There was simply not enough time for a great deal of myth and legend to accrue and distort the historical facts in any significant way. In this regard, A. N. Sherwin-White, a scholar of ancient Roman and Greek history at Oxford, has studied the rate at which legend accumulated in the ancient world, using the writings of Herodotus as a test case. He argues that even a span of two generations is not sufficient for legend to wipe out a solid core of historical facts. The picture of Jesus in the New Testament was established well within that length of time.[40]  Again, no one is wiping out any “true” details.  If the Romans tossed Jesus body in an unmarked, common grave, no one can to the grave, dig up Jesus body and say, “Hey you Christians.  Here is the body!  You are making all this up.”

If my scenario  as described above is what happened, which by probability statistics of natural phenomena, is much more likely than a supernatural resurrection, people genuinely believed that they had seen the risen Jesus…and the legend began.  There was no “wiping out” of the facts.
 
Again Lüdemann acknowledges, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”[41] There is no dispute among scholars that the disciples experienced somethingYes, something happened.  Something happened that caused ignorant, illiterate, hopeless, suffering first century peasants to join the Jesus movement.  But it is much more likely that a false sighting or a vision initiated this belief than that a dead man truly walked out of his grave after being truly dead for three days.  Yes, anything is possible.  We cannot rule out the supernatural.  We cannot rule the possibility of a Resurrection, but neither can we rule out the possibility of the existence of pink unicorns, flying/winged horses, and leprechauns.  But should we believe them, is the question.
 
But there’s more. The disciples not only proclaimed that Jesus was raised but they sincerely believed the resurrection occurred as demonstrated by their transformed lives. The followers of every other prophet in history has believe their story too.  Devout belief does not make the belief true.  Eleven early sources testify to the willingness of the apostles to suffer and die for their belief in the resurrection.[42] For example, we know extra-Biblically that Jesus’ brother James was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin and that the apostle Paul was beheaded in Rome under Nero.[43] Many people will die for what they believe to be true but no one willingly suffers and dies for what they know to be false. We don’t know why James was executed.  Saying that he would have been spared if he had simply recanted seeing a resurrected body is simply speculation.  He may have been killed just for being a Christian.  Paul died believing that a talking bright light was Jesus.  We have no proof he saw a resurrected, walking, talking body.  Again, liars make poor martyrs. I don’t think they were liars.  They were superstitious people who believed in a superstitious, supernatural event.  Millions of devout, sincere people today believe thousands of other superstitions.This important point should not be confused by an appeal to modern-day martyrs who willingly die for their religious beliefs. Making this comparison is a false analogy: “Modern martyrs act solely out of their trust in beliefs that others have taught them. The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. There is zero evidence for how or why any of the Eleven died.  All we have is tradition.  James the brother of Jesus may have been killed for simply being a leader of a trouble making sect.  That doesn’t prove his beliefs true.  Paul never claims to have seen a resurrected flesh and blood body, so his death does not help in the Christian argument.  Contemporary martyrs die for what they believe to be true. The disciples of Jesus died for what they knew to be either true or false.”[44] Again, you have no proof of this.
 
As with the crucifixion and empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances meet the historical criteria of multiple, independent and early eyewitness sources, as well as the testimony of a former enemy of Christianity: Saul of Tarsus. Nine early and independent sources testify to the disciples’ proclamation that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them.[45] To list just one example of this, the appearance “to the twelve” mentioned by Paul above is also attested to in Luke 24:36-42 and John 20:19-20. “The evidence,” says William Lane Craig, “makes it certain that on separate occasions different individuals and groups had experiences of seeing Jesus alive from the dead. This conclusion is virtually indisputable—and therefore undisputed.”[46]  This is a ridiculous assertion.  All Christians have are four anonymous first century books (five if you count the non-canonical Gospel of Peter), the writing of the anonymous writer of the book we call Acts, and Paul’s recitation of a Creed in I Corinthians.  We have ZERO writings from Jewish sources, Roman sources, or any other non-Christian sources that attest to a Resurrection and post-resurrection appearances.  It would be as if a Mormon took out the Book of Mormon and said, “Look!  We have multiple books in the Book of Mormon which attest to the truth of the story as told by Joseph Smith!”  Or the Muslim who does the same with the Koran, or the Hindu with his holy scriptures.  We need truly independent, non-Christian writings to support this claim, but we do not have them.
 
Objection #3: The Disciples Experienced Hallucinations (The Hallucination Theory)
 
The most popular theory offered by skeptics to explain away the post-resurrection appearances is that the disciples experienced hallucinations. This is the position taken by Gerd Lüdemann (quoted above) among others. However, appealing to hallucinations as an explanation simply won’t work for the following reasons.
 
First, the testimony of Paul along with the Gospel writers is that the appearances of Jesus were physical, bodily appearances.[47] How does Paul know?  Paul only saw a talking bright light in a “heavenly vision”.  He may have believed that this bright light was the bodily resurrected Jesus, but his belief is not evidence. In fact, this is the unanimous consent of the Gospel narratives. This is an important point because if “none of the appearances was originally a physical, bodily appearance, then it is very strange that we have a completely unanimous testimony in the Gospels that all of them were physical, with no trace of the supposed original, non-physical appearances.”[48] If the Gospels were truly independent sources, this argument might be valid.  But the Gospels are not independent sources.  More than 70 % of Mark is copied, sometimes word for word, into Matthew, and the author of Luke copies a significant percentage of Mark in his work as well.  Some scholars believe that the author of John used the Synoptics as a framework for his book.  So, we can really only say that we have one original narrative, Mark, and it has ZERO post-resurrection appearances, in the original version of that Gospel.   And this one narrative is again from an anonymous source, writing decades after the alleged event, in a far away land, in a foreign language, for purposes we do not, nor will ever, know.
 
Second, hallucinations are private experiences (as opposed to group experiences). A group of people “may be in the frame of mind to hallucinate, but each experiences hallucinations on an individual basis. Nor will they experience the same hallucination. Hallucinations are like dreams in this way.”[49] Therefore, hallucinations cannot explain the group appearances attested to in 1 Cor. 15, the Gospel narratives, and the book of Acts.[50]   Thousands of people have “seen” the Virgin Mary at the same time; thousands of Hindus have seen their gods (idols) cry milk (google it), etc. etc.  Besides, the claim that “five hundred” people saw the resurrected Jesus at once is oddly missing from the resurrection accounts in the Gospels and Acts.  It only appears in Paul’s Creed which he admits he obtained second hand.  A Creed which omits the women witnesses and states that Peter was the first male disciple to whom Jesus appeared, which according to the Gospel accounts, is false.
 
Third, ironically, the Hallucination Theory cannot explain the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection! Just like in today’s modern world, “for someone in the ancient world, visions of the deceased are not evidence that the person is alive, but evidence that he is dead!”[51] This is a crucial argument to grasp:
 
Hallucinations, as projections of the mind, can contain nothing new. Therefore, given the current Jewish beliefs about life after death, the disciples, were they to project hallucinations of Jesus, would have seen Jesus in heaven or in Abraham’s bosom, where the souls of the righteous dead were believed to abide until the resurrection. And such visions would not have caused belief in Jesus’ resurrection.[52]  I don’t buy this argument.  Jesus told them that they would rule with him here on earth in the New Israel.  Jesus told them that he would come back from the dead.  So their expectation would be to see a resurrected Jesus…in ISRAEL!  And that is exactly where they claimed to have seen him.
 
In other words, a hallucination of the resurrected Jesus presupposes the proper frame of mind which the disciples simply did not possess.
 
Finally, hallucinations cannot explain such facts as the empty tomb, the conversions of skeptics like Paul, nor the multiple and varied resurrection appearances which defy a purely psychological, naturalistic explanation.[53] “To be perfectly candid,” concludes Craig, “the only grounds for denying the physical, corporeal nature of the postmortem appearances of Jesus is philosophical, not historical.”[54]  Ridiculous.  Again, the “empty tomb” is not a fact.  It is an assumption.  Dramatic conversions still happen today, as mentioned above.  They do not prove the validity of the new religion.
 
FACT #4—THE ORIGIN OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
 
No scholar denies the fact that the Christian religion exploded out of first century Israel. Within one generation of the death of Christ this movement known as “the Way” had spread to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Christianity is an effect that needs an adequate cause and explanation. Where exactly did the Christian faith come from and what best explains its origin?  Many new religions have “exploded”.  In 1830 there were six Mormons, today there are 15,000,000.  The growth of Mormonism in its first two hundred years far exceeds the growth of Christianity in its first two hundred years.  Islam is another example.  Rapid growth does no prove the belief true.
 
The most obvious answer to this question is that the disciples truly saw the resurrected Christ. It is only “most obvious” to a devout, conservative Christian who believes that it is impossible for the Bible to be false.  Only an event of this magnitude could turn scared, scattered, and skeptical disciples, with no prior concept and expectation of a crucified and risen Messiah, into courageous proclaimers of the gospel willing to suffer and die for their belief that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. No.  Cognitive Dissonance is the better explanation.  Hope-shattered, illiterate, superstitious peasants grasped at any and all hope to keep their faith alive.This is what Peter boldly declared: “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses… Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”[55] The origin of the Christian faith is best explained by the disciples’ sincere belief that God raised Jesus from the dead.  You are quoting an anonymous source in your holy book as evidence of the truthfulness of your same holy book.  Not good.
 
Anyone who denies the resurrection itself as the explanation for the origin of Christianity must posit some other explanation. Yes.  Cognitive Dissonance and the development of legends among illiterate, ignorant, superstitious, first century peasants.  Only three possibilities seem to exist. If the resurrection did not occur, then Christianity was either the result of Christian, Jewish, or pagan influences.[56] Obviously the disciples could not succumb to Christian influences since Christianity was not yet in existence. But just as unlikely is the idea that the disciples’ belief in the resurrection originated from Jewish influences. The Jewish conception of the resurrection was one final, general resurrection of all mankind (or all the righteous) occurring after the end of the world. Nowhere in Jewish thought do we find the idea of a single individual resurrecting within history never to die again.[57]  Nowhere in early Hebrew thought do we have any concept of an afterlife.  The concept of an afterlife started, at the earliest, in Babylonian captivity, was institutionalized in Judaism during the Greek occupation, resulting in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, that can be shown to have “doctored” Hebrew texts which say nothing of an afterlife to sound as if the early Hebrews had always believed in it.
 
Objection #4: Christianity Borrowed From Pagan Religions (The Copycat Theory)
 
Perhaps then Christianity finds its origin in paganism. Popular internet movies such as Zeitgeist have made ubiquitous the belief that there really is nothing unique about the Christian Savior. Jesus is simply a conglomeration of past dying and rising “messiahs” repackaged for a first-century audience whose zealousness eventually grew into the Christian religion we know today. Despite the pervasiveness of this belief it suffers from numerous problems.
 
First, pagan mythology is the wrong interpretive context considering that “Jesus and his disciples were first-century Palestinian Jews, and it is against that background that they must be understood.”[58]  We have no idea who wrote the Gospels.  It is just as possible that a pagan author wrote these stories as a Christian.  A pagan author could have written a “gospel” as an historical fiction:  real towns, real countries, real rulers, but mixed with fiction and myth.  Since these works are anonymous, we have no idea of knowing.
 
Second, the Jews were familiar with seasonal deities (Ezek. 37:1-14) and found them detestable, making it extremely improbable that they would borrow mythology from them. If the gospels were written by Gentile Christians, this may explain how pagan myths got into the story.  The idea that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all Jews—is simply tradition.  There is no evidence to support this claim. This is why no trace of pagan cults celebrating dying and rising gods can be found in first-century Palestine.[59]   If the Gospels were written by Gentiles (pagan or Christian) in foreign lands, this argument is moot.
 
Third, the earliest account of a dying and rising god that somewhat parallels Jesus’ resurrection appears at least 100 years later. The historical evidence for these myths is non-existent and the accounts are easily explained by naturalistic theories.[60]  Not true.  The religion of Mythra was contemporaneous with Christianity.
 
Fourth, the Copycat Theory begs the question. It assumes the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are false (the very thing it is intending to prove) and then attempts to explain how these accounts originated by appealing to supposed parallels within pagan mythology. But first it must be shown that the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are false! In other words, even if it could be shown that parallels exist, it does not follow that the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical event. The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection must be judged on its own merit because “the claims of resurrections in other religions do not explain the evidence that exists for Jesus’ resurrection.”[61]  I agree.  But just as the believers in Zeus, Ra, and Jupiter must give me convincing evidence for belief in their supernatural deities, Christians must give me convincing proof of theirs.  So far, they have failed miserably to do so.  All I have seen are assumptions followed by assumptions.
 
Finally, to put to rest this outdated and unsubstantiated theory, the late Dr. Ronald Nash summarizes seven important points that completely undermine the idea that Christianity derived its doctrine from the pagan mystery religions:
 
1.      Arguments offered to “prove” a Christian dependence on the mysteries illustrate the logical fallacy of false cause… Coincidence does not prove causal connection. Nor does similarity prove dependence.
2.      Many alleged similarities between Christianity and the mysteries are either greatly exaggerated or fabricated. Scholars often describe pagan rituals in language they borrow from Christianity…
3.      The chronology is all wrong. Almost all of our sources of information about the pagan religions alleged to have influenced early Christianity are dated very late. We frequently find writers quoting from documents written 300 years later than Paul in efforts to produce ideas that allegedly influenced Paul. And the first copy of an entire Gospel that we have today is just as old, if not older.  We must reject the assumption that just because a cult had a certain belief or practice in the third or fourth century after Christ, it therefore had the same belief or practice in the first century.  Excellent point!  And just because Christians at the end of second century believed that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, does not mean that Christians in the first century believed that to be the case.
4.      Paul would never have consciously borrowed from the pagan religions…
5.      Early Christianity was an exclusivistic faith…
6.      Unlike the mysteries, the religion of Paul was grounded on events that actually happened in history…Evidence for this claim?  Again, you are using the Gospels to confirm the Gospels.  Paul tells us little to nothing about the historical Jesus in any of his writings.
7.      What few parallels may still remain reflect a Christian influence on the pagan systems…[62] Biased assumption.
 
Nash offers this final word regarding the copycat theory: “Liberal efforts to undermine the uniqueness of the Christian revelation via claims of a pagan religious influence collapse quickly once a full account of the information is available. It is clear that the liberal arguments exhibit astoundingly bad scholarship. Indeed, this conclusion may be too generous.”[63] Therefore, it is safe to conclude that “the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church…remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself.”[64]  I think that the opposite is true.  Instead of accepting the most likely source of this belief:  a legend based on false post-mortem sightings and visions,  Christians choose to believe the least likely possibility:  a laws-of-nature-defying, supernatural miracle.  Are miracles possible?  Sure, anything is possible?  But are they likely?  Has any one else in history seen a three day old dead man come back to life?  No.  So although it is possible, since it is highly, highly, highly unlikely, we should believe that a more naturalistic explanation is the cause of this first century belief and not jump to the most unlikely explanation, simply because that highly unlikely explanation fits with our dearly held preconceptions of history and reality.
 
CONCLUSION
 
If Jesus was dead at point A, and alive at point B, we have a resurrection.  True The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best explanation for the known historical data: False.  A legend as explained above is the most likely explanation of this supernatural tale as well as that of all other supernatural belief systems on this planet.  Most superstitions are sincerely believed by the people who believe them.  Most superstitions are not created to deceive.  I don’t think that the early Christians were trying to deceive.  They believed their superstition just as devoutly and sincerely as the Hindus believe theirs.  His death by crucifixion, the empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith. Furthermore, Jesus’ resurrection fits the context of his life, vindicating His teachings and radical claim to be the unique, divine Son of God. Paul says that Christ “was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.”[65] Naturalistic explanations (swoon theory, legendary development, fraud, hallucinations) fail to account for all the relevant data and in some cases (copycat theories) are outright false and ahistorical. You have failed to disprove the possibility of a legend based on sincere beliefs of “seeing” Jesus, which were simply mistaken/false sightings.  Conversely, the Resurrection Hypothesis accounts for all of the known facts, has greater explanatory scope and power, is more plausible, and less ad hoc.[66] Only to conservative Christians.  Most everyone else thinks it is a silly, ignorant, supernatural tale, no more believable than the supernatural tales of the Mormons, Muslims, and Hindus.  Only if one is guided by a prior commitment to philosophical naturalism will the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead” seem unjustified.  (What the writer is really saying is this:  After presenting all the preceding, “overwhelming” evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, the only excuse left for not believing, Mr. and Mrs. Unbeliever, is that in your heart, you have made the decision that you don’t WANT to believe”.)

I challenge conservative Christians to apply the same level of evidence to their supernatural belief system that they would apply for the “evidence” of other exclusivist religions.   If you genuinely do so, I think you will have to admit, that Christianity has no more solid evidence than does Islam, Hinduism, and Mormonism.

[1] 1 Cor. 15:14, NIV.
[2] Clay Jones, Lecture Notes: In Defense of the Resurrection (Biola University: School of Professional Studies), Spring 2010).
[3] Matt. 12:39-40.
[4] Acts 1:21-22; 2:22, 24, 32; 10:39-41, 43a; 13:30-31, 34a, 37; 17:2-3, 30-31; 24:21; 26:22-23.
[5] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 44.
[6] For more information on the historical reliability of the New Testament see Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007), and F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).
[7] See Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, Rev. ed. (Joplin: College Press, 1996), 158-167.
[8] Habermas and Licona note that “roughly 75 percent of scholars on the subject accept the empty tomb as a historical fact” (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 70).
[9] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 361.
[10] Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 36.
[11] Ibid., 36-40.
[12] Ibid., 32.
[13] Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1945), 386, as quoted in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 211.
[14] William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman, Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?: A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman (Worcester: College of the Holy Cross, March 28, 2006), http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/DocServer/resurrection-debate-transcript.pdf?docID=621 (accessed May 2, 2010).
[15] John Warwick Montgomery, History, Law and Christianity (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy Inc., 2002), 61.
[16] John Warwick Montgomery, “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity,” in Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Probe Books, 1991), http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissart1.htm (accessed May 1, 2010).
[17] See Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:33, and John 19:18.
[18] Josephus Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3; Tacitus Annals 15:44; Lucian of Samosata The Death of Peregrine 11-13; Talmud Sanhedrin 43a.
[19] Flavius Josephus, The New Complete Works of Josephus, Rev. ed., trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 590.
[20] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), 163.
[21] William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255, no. 11 (March 21, 1986): 1463.
 
[22] David Friederick Strauss, The Life of Jesus for the People (London: Williams and Norgate, 1879), 1:412, as quoted in Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1977), 91.
[23] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 373.
[24] Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 70. See also Acts 2 and Tacitus Annals 15:44.
[25] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 361.
[26] Acts 17:6, NKJV.
[27] See Matt. 28:12-13; Justin Martyr Trypho 108; Tertullian De Spectaculis 30.
[28] See Matt. 27:57-61, 28:1-8; Mark 15:43-16:7; Luke 23:50-24:12; John 19:38- 20:18.
[29] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 782.
[30] Jeffrey Jay Lowder, “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, ed. Robert M. Price and Jeffrey Jay Lowder (Amherst: Prometheus, 2005), 266.
[31] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 367.
[32] For example, 1 Cor. 15:3-5, Acts 13:28-31, and Mark 15:37-16:7
[33] Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York: Scribners, 1976), 176.
[34] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 371.
[35] J. N. D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale Press, 1969), 92, as quoted in Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1977), 92.
[36] Craig (citing N.T. Wright), Reasonable Faith, 372.
[37] 1 Cor. 15:3-8, NASB.
[38] Jones, In Defense of the Resurrection, Spring 2010.
[39] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 38.
[40] J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 156.
[41] Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 80. Lüdemann appeals to hallucinations as an explanation.
[42] Luke, Paul, Josephus, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, Origen, and Hegesippus. See Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 56-62.
[43] Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1; Tertullian Scorpiace 15.
[44] Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 59.
[45] Paul, Creeds (1 Cor. 15:3-8), Sermon Summaries (Acts 2), Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Clement of Rome, Polycarp. See Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 51-56.
[46] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 381.
[47] 1 Cor. 15:42-44; Matt. 28:5-6, 9; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:5-6, 22-24, 30, 39-43; John 20:1-20, 27, 21:13.
[48] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 383.
[49] Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 106.
[50] Matt. 28:9, 16-20; Mark 16:7; Luke 24:33-36; John 20:19-30; 21:1-22; Acts 1:3-9.
[51] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 385.
[52] Ibid., 394.
[53] See The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 104-119, and Reasonable Faith, 384-387, for more on the hallucination theory.
[54] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 384.
[55] Acts 2:32, 36, NASB.
[56] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 390.
[57] Ibid., 392.
[58] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 391.
[59] Ibid.
[60] Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 90.
[61] Ibid., 91.
[62] Ronald Nash, “Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions?” Christian Research Journal (Winter 1994), http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/web/crj0169a.html (accessed May 2, 2010).
[63] Ibid.
[64] C. F. D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology 2/1 (London: SCM, 1967), 13, as quoted in Craig, Reasonable Faith, 394.
[65] Rom. 1:4.
[66] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 397-399.
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