"But we must examine this question whether anyone who really died ever rose again with the same body… But who saw this? A hysterical woman, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide to a chance for others beggars." …Celsus, On the True Doctrine
Hype or History?
The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the true corner stone of the Christian faith. However for hundreds of years this belief has been challenged over and over again by nervous theories. Perhaps Jesus' body was stolen in the middle of the night? Or perhaps the disciples meant it more as a symbol rather then an historical fact? Or maybe it was simply reconstructed by the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures? Or the Jesus' story changed and corrupted by pagan Greco-Roman theology? Is the resurrection hype or history but most importantly, why does it matter?
One Way Down
It is a common misconception that Christianity stole and adopted the concept of 'resurrection' from paganism. Within the ancient world of paganism it is important to understand death really only worked one way, the road down to the 'Underworld' or Hades. Within the beliefs, practices, stories and even symbols of paganism concerning death, while there are a good variety of theories, the result remained forever the same, the dead remained dead. Death was seen as the ultimate separation of body and soul, the idea being that the body was a prison to the soul. Most commonly, the soul would travel straight down to Hades, not a place of torment but simply a shadowy underworld, however if they were favoured mortals they might be lucky enough to be allowed to stay at the Isles of the Blessed, the beautiful paradise home to chosen legends and heroes. Yet one such as Caesar could be exalted to the level of the gods, permitted to join the heavenly home of the gods and even find a place among the stars.
One could eat with the dead, speak with the dead or if truly brave, even visit the dead however once dead, it could not be broken nor could it be reversed. Those who followed Plato or Cicero did not even want a body again and those who followed Homer knew they would not get one. Within paganism, resurrection was not an option. Besides Judaism and Christianity, no ancient religion held a belief in resurrection.
Death was all powerful, unescapable and ultimately inevitable.
Resurrection can be found however in Second-Temple Judaism and held the very specific meaning of the concrete embodiment of those who have died. However, it is important to note that like the Judaism of the time, the belief in life after death varied. The best example of this is the Sadducees, the ruling elite, based mostly in Jerusalem, believed in no life after death while the Pharisees on the other hand did. It is difficult to know what the common Jew believed and most scholars would argue at the time of Jesus resurrection was the common thought when it came to Jewish eschatology.
Keep in mind however that it was not a belief in the raising to life of a particular individual, but a belief in the raising of all the righteous to a New World where God would rule.
It was part of the larger package in which Israel's God would create a new state of affairs in the space-time world, bringing about justice and people, overthrowing oppression and wickedness – and raising to life, in order to enjoy this new day, all the righteous dead. This belief on scriptural basis came from the Valley of the Dry Bones found in Ezekiel 37 in which the corpses coming back to life was the metaphor for the renewal of Israel, the wise shining like a star in the last chapter of Daniel, chapters 25 and 26 in Isaiah but mostly clearly in the stories of the Maccabean martyrs. Resurrection, for the Pharisees, was thus part of their belief both in the goodness of the created, physical world and in the ultimate triumph of the justice of God. Interesting enough, the Rabbis, the successors to the Pharisees, even debated how God would re-create the new physical body.
The problem facing Christianity was that the Resurrection had, in some weird sense and bizarre way, already happened.
But did it really? Let's look at the facts shall we.
Fact 1: After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
Looking at the first half of my statement, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as well as the letters of Paul attest to the fact Jesus was at least buried. Paul in particular, the earliest sources for Jesus' burial, most scholars date to within five years of Jesus' crucifixion. As John Dominic Crossan points out, "the first problem isn't whether the tomb was empty, but rather, whether the tomb existed at all." As I explained last week, crucifixion involved the shame of non-burial. Criminals who were crucified, especially those who claimed some kind of kingship, were not taken down from there crosses. It would take someone of high authority to request Pilate to have the body of Jesus taken down, that person was Joseph of Arimathea, a fact which is unlikely to be a later Christian fabrication. As Raymond Brown explains, Jesus' burial by Joseph is "very probable," since it is "almost inexplicable" why Christians would make up a story about a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right by Jesus for in Christian eyes, they aided the Romans in handing Jesus over to them as a would-be Messiah.
Fact 2: Three days after the crucifixion, Jesus' tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
I have come to this conclusion as the empty tomb is also attested to by multiple, independent and early sources. What is more interesting is the testimony to the fact made by women as in patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren't even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus' empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. William Lane Craig explains, "The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb, is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact."
Fact 3: On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
Paul is our best resource to this fact as in his letters he claims numerous amounts of post-death and resurrection appearances of Jesus to a number of different people and different groups. Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the inner circle of disciples known as the Twelve; then he appeared to a group of 500 disciples at once, then to his younger brother James, who up to that time was apparently not a believer, then to all the apostles. Finally, Paul adds, "he appeared also to me," at the time when Paul was still a persecutor of the early Jesus' movement (I Cor. 15:5-8). What Paul is doing is not simply drawing numbers out of air, he is encouraging the readers to believe him and if not, go talk to one of these people and they will agree with him. Given the early date of Paul's information as well as his personal acquaintance with the people involved, these appearances cannot be dismissed as mere legends, fables and hallucinations.
Fact 4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
In continuing my concluding remarks from last week, I really must stress that dead messiahs were failed messiahs. Jesus was meant to defeat the pagans, not die at their hands in such a shameful way as a heretic and as a criminal. Yet, the original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief. But then the obvious question arises, why? Why did this happen? Luke Timothy Johnson makes the correct claim in saying, "Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was." From this, I agree with the conclusion made by N.T. Wright, "That is why, as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him."
In the Face of the Facts…
It is clear that the facts weigh up and that the explanation of the resurrection as a real, historical, literal and physical event is the only way to explain the rise of Christianity. Through history, particularly modern history, numerous people, including scholars, have argued that the resurrection is something that is not grounded in reality. The most well known are the Conspiracy Hypothesis, the Apparent Death Hypothesis, the Hallucination Hypothesis, and so on. In the judgment of contemporary scholarship, however, none of these naturalistic hypotheses has managed to provide a plausible explanation of the facts.
In the words of William Lane Craig, "There are four historical facts which must be explained by any adequate historical hypothesis: Jesus' burial, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the very origin of the disciples' belief in his resurrection, and the best explanation of these facts is that Jesus rose from the dead."
What are your thoughts on this commentary?