Friday, July 16, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - The Case for the Resurrection

Last week we began to talk about whether or not the New Testament provides enough historical evidence to establish Jesus' divinity. I ended by saying that we should focus our attention on the question of whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. This week I intend to present the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection.

First, let's talk about the reliability of the books in the New Testament. Considered as a whole, the New Testament is far and away the single most reliable work of ancient writing we have. We have more than 5,000 ancient manuscripts for the New Testament, some from the early second century. Moreover, there is an extremely high level of agreement between the manuscripts.

What does this mean? It means that claims that the New Testament is unreliable because it was written a hundred years or more after Christ's death and copied by generations of scribes is completely false. We now know that most of the New Testament was written by the end of the first century and that the version we have today is nearly identical to the original.

We know that the New Testament is reliable. The next question is, is it an accurate portrayal of history? Does the New Testament provide us with an accurate description of the events of Jesus' life and the early church?

Let me begin by saying that if the New Testament were a normal historical document describing ordinary events no one would seriously question its historical validity. As I've already said, it's the most reliable ancient text we have and most of it was written within fifty years of the events it describes.

We have an incredible amount of evidence that the New Testament is a reliable source of history, but the claims made in the New Testament are also very incredible. For that reason we must scrutinize the New Testament rather closely.

The first question we can ask is, do these accounts agree with each other? The answer is that they do, aside from a few minor details. The gospel accounts all give an incredibly detailed account of Jesus' ministry, teaching, death and resurrection. Some of the smaller details differ between the four gospels, but major events remain the same.

The next question we can ask is, how well do these stories agree with what we know about the time period from other ancient sources? There are actually a number of details, particularly from the Book of Acts that historians can independently verify. There are a few places where the author is mistaken, but judging by the standards of ancient history, the Book of Acts holds up rather well.

The final question we must consider is, did the authors have an agenda which may have colored their writing? In the case of the New Testament it is clear that each of the authors had an agenda. They wanted to convince the reader that Jesus Christ was, in fact, the Jewish Messiah.

Knowing this we have to ask, how much of an affect did this have on their writing? Certainly it had an impact, but it didn't stop them from including several details which ran counter to their agenda.

First, the gospels record that his name is Jesus. This goes against Isaiah, who prophesied that the Messiah would be called "Immanuel".

Second, all of the gospels assert that Jesus was raised in Nazareth. This creates a problem because, according to prophecy, the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem. As we mentioned last time, only Matthew and Luke address this issue directly.

Third, all of the gospels claim that Jesus was crucified. This creates a problem because, according to the Old Testament, anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.

All of this shows that the authors of the gospels weren't simply inventing a story about a Messiah, but were writing a historical account of an individual, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they believed was the Messiah.

Finally, I want to take a quick look specifically at the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. I know it's an incredible claim, but I think it should be considered plausible for two reasons.

First, the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead appears in even the earliest Christian writings. The claim that Jesus rose from the dead wasn't being made centuries after the fact. Paul wrote that Jesus had risen from the dead barely twenty years after it happened. Paul's readers could have easily asked around to see if this was true.

In fact, Paul wrote that more than five hundred people had seen the risen Christ, and that most of them were still alive.

Finally, many of the people who believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead died for their belief. Not only did they believe it was true, they were certain enough that they were willing to die for that belief.

All things considered, I think it's fair to say that we have good historical evidence that Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead.


  1. It seems like every week or two I hear some story about a man being released from prison because DNA evidence that wasn't available at the time he was convicted now proves that he did not commit the crime. Often, the man had been convicted based on eyewitness testimony. Nevertheless, we know that the eyewitnesses are more likely to make a mistake than the science.

    If science can be trusted over direct eyewitness testimony in cases like this, why shouldn't I trust science over ancient stories that were recorded after decades of transmission through oral tradition?

  2. Hello Vinny, thanks for the comment.

    I don't know if the crime-scene metaphor is entirely appropriate. For most crimes, the witness is being asked to identify a person they saw once, and only briefly. Jesus' followers were identifying a person they had spent three years with and who also spent a significant amount of time speaking with them after his resurrection.

    Also, we don't have direct scientific evidence that Jesus didn't rise from the dead. At best, we have an inductive claim that people never rise from the dead.

    If we somehow came across DNA evidence that proved that a body belonged to Jesus of Nazareth, then we would have scientific proof. As it is, we have a belief that people don't rise from the dead, grounded in scientific assumptions.

    Having said that, I still don't know if the eyewitness evidence is enough to convince us that Jesus rose from the dead, but if we claim that Jesus didn't rise from the dead, we have to consider why so many people claimed that he did, and why they risked their lives for that claim.

    It's not an easy question to answer.

  3. Jimmy,

    Do you think we would reject the DNA evidence if it could be shown that the eyewitness knew the defendant better? That seems to me to be a rather weak basis for challenging my analogy. I would note also that one of the gospels tells us that some of the disciples had trouble recognizing Jesus on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection.

    All science depends on the inductive claim that the natural laws that have always been observed will continue to hold. That assumption is just as necessary a part of a claim about DNA as it is about a claim that people do not rise from the dead.

    Suppose that you are sitting on a jury where ballistic testing shows that the defendant's gun couldn't have been the murder weapon. How many eyewitnesses would it take before you rejected the scientific evidence? Would you at any point conclude that a supernatural agent had altered the markings on the bullets before they were tested?

  4. You're right; that's not a good reply to your analogy, but I still feel like the analogy doesn't work. The main reason is, the eyewitness isn't claiming to have witnessed a miracle. They're making a claim that is later discredited when more information came out.

    The disciples, on the other hand, knew that what they were seeing was impossible. They knew that Jesus had been crucified, and yet there he was. There are a few accounts where the disciples don't recognize Jesus right off the bat. I think that's because they have a hard time believing that it's actually him.

    In the court example, the eye witness sees something, and then, later on, evidence surfaces that discredits what they said. In the case of the first Christians, their claim is discredited before they even make it. They know Jesus is dead and yet they see him walking around. The fact that they persist in making this claim, and that their contemporaries are unable to refute them (by producing Jesus' body), makes their claim more credible. In the ballistic testing example, someone would at least need to claim that they had seen the markings on the bullet change before I even consider believing that God miraculously altered the bullet.

    Finally, I disagree that science depends on the claim that the natural laws will always continue to hold. So long as the exceptions are sufficiently rare (once in two thousand years is rare enough I think) science can be safely relied upon. True, there is always a tiny chance that a "miracle" happens while a scientist is making an important measurement, but that probability is dwarfed by the odds that the scientist goofed up and read his or her instruments wrong. Proper error analysis would correct for extremely rare miracles just like it corrects for human error.

    The claim that scientific truths must be completely 100% true at all times in order for science to be trustworthy sounds fairly unscientific to me. In fact, it sounds pretty dogmatic.

  5. The gospels were written at a time when many supernatural phenomena such as storms and diseases were attributed to the actions of supernatural agents. It would have been recognized that the resurrection was miraculous, but it would not have thought of as “impossible” in the same sense that we think of impossibility.

    I don’t see how the fact that a person knows that they are making a supernatural claim makes their claim more credible, though. If a witness continued to maintain a defendant’s guilt even after the scientific evidence exonerated him, I would still go with the science. Even if I believe that miracles are possible, I still know that they are so exceedingly rare that some explanation in accordance with natural law—i.e., either the person making the claim is mistaken or the scientist made a mistake—is overwhelmingly more probable.

    I agree that the tiny chance that a miracle alters the results of a ballistic test is dwarfed by the odds that the scientist makes a mistake as well as the odds that the witness makes a mistake. However, I have to apply the same logic to conclude that the tiny chance that Jesus was actually resurrected from the dead and the reports of that event were perfectly preserved in the oral tradition is dwarfed by the odds that some natural phenomenon like a hallucination was misinterpreted and subsequently exaggerated as the story was told and retold for forty years by ancient people who were prone to magical thinking.

  6. In the end it does boil down to the credibility of the witnesses. I know that ancient people didn't see the world the same way we do, but I think they had a similar idea of how impossible it would be for a crucified man to get up and start walking around.

    Of course, the main thing that makes me think they weren't lying is that they were under incredible pressure to recant their claim. If the story were being slowly exaggerated by people who enjoyed telling each other miracle stories I think they would have stopped exaggerating the first time someone got thrown in jail or stoned to death for their testimony.

    If it didn't happen, then we have to wonder why this particular group of ancients was so radically committed to their particular miracle story.

  7. A lot of people followed Brigham Young out to Salt Lake City even after they saw Joseph Smith thrown in jailed and murdered by a lynch mob even though they had nothing more than Joseph Smith's personal claims about the Angel Moroni and the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon. Moreover, they had already uprooted their lives in New York and followed Smith to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. I don't think that you can infer anything about the truth of religious beliefs from the fact that people are willing to undergo considerable risk and hardship.

    Moreover, I suspect that there probably were some people who said "This is getting ridiculous" after Smith was killed and Young set out for Utah. But whether they went back to New York or they settled somewhere new, they probably were not eager to tell their neighbors that they had been Mormons. By the same token, I don't think we would expect to have any record of the people who abandoned the early Christian cult when the going got tough.

  8. Thanks for yoour response. Sorry about my delay in replying.

    I will admit to not being familiar with the early history of the Mormon church. My suspicion is that it's not exactly comparable to the situation with first century Christianity, but I could be wrong about that.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for the discussion. You've given me a lot to think about.