Which is a more probable explanation for the Resurrection Story? A supernatural event or the development of a Legend?

Which of these two stories has a higher probability of having occurred:

Jesus of Nazareth is crucified in Jerusalem in circa 30 AD.  As he draws his final breath, the entire earth goes dark for three hours, a violent earthquake shakes dead people awake in their graves, and rips the Temple veil down the middle.  Jesus’ body is taken down off the cross and placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body which the previous night had voted unanimously to execute Jesus.  The tomb is sealed with a large stone and Roman guards placed in front of it. Three days later, a second great earthquake shakes Jerusalem, causing the dead who had been shaken awake in the first earthquake to now come out of their tombs to roam the streets of Jerusalem and reconnect with old acquaintances; an angel (or angels) comes and rolls away the great stone in front of the tomb, causing the soldiers to faint, and testifies to one, several, or many women that Jesus’ tomb is empty; that he had risen from the dead.  Jesus later appears to the Eleven, and eight days (or forty days) later, ascends into heaven from a mountain in Bethany (or Galilee, or from the Upper Room in Jerusalem). The resurrection appearances of Jesus so emboldened the previously easily-frightened, doubting disciples that they now boldly preach the gospel of Jesus in the temple, Judea, and the world, dying martyrs deaths, refusing to recant their eyewitness testimony that they had seen the resurrected, walking/talking body of Jesus.  These same disciples soon write the Gospels and several epistles which would soon become the New Testament of the Bible.  The Gospel of Jesus spreads like wildfire, furiously persecuted by both the Jews and Romans, to become the dominant faith of the Western World for two thousand years.

Or, is this what happened:

Jesus of Nazareth is crucified.  He dies.  His body is left on the cross for days, as was the Roman custom, to warn any other “King of the Jews” pretender to think twice about stirring up trouble.  After a few days have passed and the birds, dogs (Roman crosses were low to the ground), and other carrion have ravaged the body, the remains are taken down at night and tossed into an unmarked common grave—a hole in the ground— with the bodies of other criminals executed that week.  The location of this common grave is known only to a few soldiers, as the Romans do not want to give the “King of the Jews” a proper burial nor do they want a known grave to become a national shrine where Jews can later come to pay homage to their “King”, possible inciting more trouble. Jesus disciples who were already in hiding, go home to Galilee to take up their prior professions—fishing and collecting taxes.  The small band is devastated.  Their beloved leader is dead; their hopes of reigning over the New Kingdom on twelve thrones with Jesus are dashed to pieces; there will be no overthrow of the hated Romans after all.  All hope seems lost. Then…months or a few years after Jesus’ death…a couple of women disciples see a man in the distance, at sunset, and in the silhouette of the fading sun…he looks like Jesus.  Is it Jesus?  He turns to them, waves with his hand, and then disappears behind a hill.  “It was Jesus!” they exclaim.  They run and tell the disciples.  Soon other disciples are “seeing” Jesus.  “He is risen, just as he said he would!” The disciples are ecstatic!  They WILL reign in the New Kingdom after all!  They begin to preach the Gospel of Jesus, telling everyone how he has risen from the dead, as he had promised.

…and forty years later, after Jerusalem has been destroyed and most of the disciples are dead, a Greek speaking Christian in Rome writes down the story of Jesus.  However, the version of the oral story that this man hears circulating in Rome at the time tells of an empty tomb, the tomb of a member of the Sanhedrin…so “Mark” writes down the story.  A decade or so later, “Matthew” in another far away location and “Luke” in another, write down the story of Jesus.  They borrow heavily from “Mark’s” story, from another common source (Q), and from other sources that they do not seem to have shared.  For instance, “Matthew’s” story contains incredible supernatural tales, such as an earthquake occurring when Jesus died, causing dead people to come back to life…but they don’t come out of their graves until three days later when Jesus walks out of his grave!  One wonders what they were doing in their tombs for three days!

And two thousand years later, every Christian on earth believes that the stories written by “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” are the historically accurate accounts of the life, death, and miraculous resurrection of Jesus, when all they are are legendary stories.  No one lied.  No one made anything up.  It’s a legend. Now, dear Christian, how many supernatural events such as dead people coming out of their graves to walk around town chatting with friends and family have you seen in your life?  Not many, have you?  And how many times have you seen a simple story about a missing person or someone’s mysterious death, evolve within days, into the wildest tale, with all kinds of bizarre details and claims?

So, honestly, friend:  Which of the above two stories about Jesus is more probable to be true?

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4 thoughts on “Which is a more probable explanation for the Resurrection Story? A supernatural event or the development of a Legend?

  1. Your account of how the Gospels came to be written bears some resemblance to reality. But the Gospels hardly fall into the category of legend. Legends generally develop over a much longer period of time. The Gospels were all written within a generation of the events they record. C. S. Lewis was an astute enough literary critic to recognize, even in the days of his vague theism, that the Gospels were not legends.

    But let's leave aside the Gospels for a moment. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in the 50s of the first century. So that puts it within 20 years of Jesus' death. He says in chapter 15 that there were 500 people who witnessed Jesus alive again after his crucifixion, and that most of these 500 were still alive at the time of his writing. I find this claim, and all the other witnesses among the first apostles that Paul mentions, to be too concrete. If the resurrection of Jesus did not happen, why did no one refute Paul on the spot? Why do we have no other alternative explanation of Christianity (such as you offer) or refutation of the teachings of the New Testament, offered in the first century? Personally, I find the position that you hold to involve a much greater leap of faith than the position that I adhere to. So my hat is off to you because of your great faith.

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  2. So you believe that the Christian supernatural claim of a Resurrection is more probable statistically than the development of a legend, as in my example?

    Ok, let's remove your supernatural claim from our scenario of probabilities and substitute someone else's supernatural claim and let's see if you feel the same way:

    Two hundred years ago, near a small village in a remote area of southern Mexico, three women were out in the hills collecting fire wood when they saw a woman in a long, white robe in the distance. The woman turned to look at them, and as she did, the sun radiated off of her clothing in a brilliant fashion, so brilliantly that for a moment, the women were blinded. When they recovered their vision, the woman was nowhere to be seen.

    “It was the holy Virgin Mother!” the women exclaimed.

    They rushed back to the village to report the sighting of the Virgin Mother. Over the next three days, thirty different people reported seeing the Virgin walking through the hills. Within a matter of weeks, the Virgin was appearing in visions to numerous devout believers in the village. On one day, the Virgin appeared to more than one hundred people at the same time, telling them to spread her message of brotherly love and hope in God. During this time period, there had been a severe drought for two years. With the appearances of the Virgin Mary, the rains returned and the harvest that year was the best ever recorded. Ten villagers who suffered from tuberculosis were cured by praying to a statue of the “Virgin of the Hills”.

    Now, what is more probable: a 2,000 year old dead woman made multiple appearances and healed the sick in southern Mexico in the early 1800's, or these very devout Catholics, caught up in religious hysteria, only imagined that she did?

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  3. Gary I am not so sure you understand probability. Probability is expressed as the probability of an event happening is equivalent to the number of ways the event can happen over the total number of outcomes. The simplest example is that of flipping a coin. The probability of heads is equal to the number of ways heads can 'come up' over the total number of 'flips'. In this case it is 50/50. We will expect that given a “perfectly weighted coin” that we should see heads 50% of each toss of the coin. But if we start looking at variations in a particular coin, then the probability must be adjusted. Maybe one side of the coin is comprised of a heavier metal than the other side? That would change the probabilities.

    What is being looked at in the case of the resurrection of Jesus? What isn't at play in the probability is a miraculous event. What is *being* weighed out is the probability that the story of his resurrection is more likely than any other explanation.

    What is not part of the equation is any amount of wishful thinking on your part that the witness of the Gospels and Paul can be waved away with horrible scholarship.

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  4. Even if we accept as fact that the four Gospels were written by eyewitnesses who recounted an honest testimony of what they believed they saw, and, we accept as fact that Paul honestly believed that he was blinded by a talking bright light which called itself “Jesus”, the probability of a dead man walking out of his grave is still much, much lower than the probability that this entire story is based on legend.

    I nor any other skeptic can prove the Resurrection Story false. But neither can we disprove the existence of leprechauns, unicorns, and fairies. If you want to believe this ancient story is fact, that is your right, my friend. But it is my right to believe it is superstition and to debunk the silly notion that this alleged supernatural, 2,000 year old event can be “proven”.

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