Evidence for Jesus' Resurrection
William Lane Craig at Southampton Civic Hall, UK
Southampton Civic Hall, Southampton, United Kingdom – October 24, 2011
William Lane Craig sets out the historical and Biblical evidence that leads to the conclusion that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Audience Q&A follows the main presentation.Filmed in Southampton Civic Hall, this event was part of the UK Reasonable Faith Tour in October 2011, sponsored by the Damaris Trust, UCCF and Premier Christian Radio.
INTRODUCTION: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming out on this wet night. My name is Peter May and it has been my privilege to chair the committee that has organized this ten days of lectures and debates with William Lane Craig.
Dr. Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in California. He has got doctorates in philosophy and theology. His first doctorate on the Kalam Cosmological Argument was earned under Professor Hick at Birmingham University. That argument is now the most widely discussed argument on the existence of God in contemporary Western philosophy. That, in itself, is a very good reason why Richard Dawkins should accept the challenge tomorrow and turn up and debate him in Oxford. Dr. Craig went on to do a second doctorate, this time in theology on the historicity of the resurrection of Christ under Wolfhart Pannenberg in Munich. Dr. Craig is the author of some 30 books and some 200 academic papers published in peer reviewed journals.
So what about tonight? Where does the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection fit into a program of debates and lectures? Well, in 2007 when Dr. Craig last visited the UK he lectured on the absurdity of life without God, the evidence for Jesus, the identity of Jesus looking at his claims and self-perception, and also the problem of suffering. Now, all of these lectures can be downloaded from our bethinking.org website which is a valuable resource for this material. This tour he will have lectured on the evidence for God, the moral argument for God, the specific arguments put forward by two of the most famous atheist scientists, and now tonight he will address the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.
I was in my late teens when I first read the New Testament. I did it because I had Christian friends and I thought the matter needed attention. I wanted to make a decision about it. I didn’t want this thing just to sort of dog me. I wanted to read it, come to a conclusion, and work it out from there. So I read it very slowly. I took just a chapter a night. I knew, because I was enormously well informed in those teenage years, as all teenagers are, that dead men stay dead. That is obvious. So when I read about the resurrection, I somehow managed to skip over it without much notice. This obviously was a bizarre sort of business. At the end of nine months, however, when I got the grasp of where the New Testament ran, I felt I just had to go through it again. It didn’t click. I couldn’t put the pieces together. So I went through it a second time. This time the centrality of the resurrection just leapt out. It was obvious and unavoidable. I came to see that the whole case for Christianity stood or fell on this issue. And yet everyone knows that dead people stay dead. So I ended up doing it a third time, taking a chapter a night in order to focus specifically on the resurrection. Somewhere in that year I had a “eureka” moment. It was not that I came to believe it, I was still a very long way from that, but I saw something in a moment of realization that changed the game for me. It was like that realization you get when you’ve left the house and you close the door behind you and you are halfway down the garden path and you get that warm feeling that comes up from below as you realize that you’ve left the key inside. My realization was this: whatever the facts of the matter, whatever the truth actually was, the disciples anyway passionately believed it was true. There could be no disputing it. They were not only passionate about what they were claiming but they were enormously brave – they traveled vast distances, faced tremendous opposition and proclaimed with great vigor that Christ has been raised from the dead. They were irrepressible. And many of them paid for it with their lives. Now, lies turn men into cowards and not heroes. Yet these men took the world by storm and their passionate conviction about the resurrection carried everything before it so that within a generation, the church and Christian message were spreading into Asia, Africa, and Europe at a tremendous rate. Why did the realization that the disciples really believed it changed the nature of the question? Because suddenly I could leave aside all those theories which implied deliberate or intentional fraud or deception and now I could focus on what sort of events could have resulted in such a burning conviction in so many people. As Professor Charlie Moule, who was a famous New Testament scholar, said on the radio towards the end of his life – I listened to a fascinating discussion with the old man – he said you have got to find a launching pad to launch this missile.
Now, in order to help us all think through the historical possibilities of two thousand years ago and to find such a launching pad, I am delighted to introduce you to William Lane Craig.
DR. CRAIG: Well, it is a delight to be in Southampton this evening, to be back in the UK. On Sunday we went with Peter and Heather down to the docks and there was the great Queen Elizabeth moored. And it brought back memories because when Jane and I first came to England to do my doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Birmingham, the place that we arrived at in England was Southampton aboard the QE2, and so it brought back all those memories of being here in 1975 and the wonderful years we spent in this country and how much we enjoy coming back and so I am grateful that you have come this evening and I have been given the opportunity to speak on this most important subject of the resurrection of Jesus.
A few years ago I was speaking on a major Canadian university campus on the evidence for the existence of God, and one slightly irate student wrote on her comment card turned in afterwards, “I was with you, until you got to the stuff about Jesus. God is not the Christian God.” Now this attitude is all too typical today. I find that most people are happy to agree that God exists. But it has become politically incorrect to claim that God has decisively revealed Himself in Jesus. What justification can Christians offer, as opposed to Muslims, or Jew, or Hindus, or others, for thinking that the Christian God is real? Well, the answer in the New Testament to that question is clear: the resurrection of Jesus. The apostles proclaimed, “God will judge the world by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). The resurrection is God’s public vindication of Jesus’ radical personal claims to be the absolute revelation of God.
So, how do we know that Jesus is risen from the dead? There is an Easter hymn that says, “You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart.” Now I think that on a personal level this answer is perfectly legitimate. But when it comes to engaging in a conversation in the public square, or in letters to the editor, or in conversation with coworkers, then I think it is critical that Christians be able to present objective evidence in support of our beliefs. Otherwise, our claims hold no more credibility than the assertions of anyone else who claims to have a private religious experience. Fortunately, Christianity is peculiar in that it is a religion which is rooted in historical events. It makes claims which can therefore be investigated historically.
Suppose then this evening we agree to approach the documents of the New Testament not as inspired, holy books but rather simply as a collection of documents written in the Greek language, handed down out of the 1st century, telling this remarkable story about this man Jesus of Nazareth without any assumption whatsoever as to their reliability – the same way we would approach other ancient documents for history. You might be surprised to learn that when ancient historians approach the New Testament documents with this attitude, that the majority of scholars today accept the central facts undergirding the inference to the resurrection of Jesus. And I want to emphasize that I am not talking here about conservative scholars or evangelical scholars; rather, I am talking about the broad mainstream of critical, historical New Testament scholarship today – the work that is done by professors who teach at secular universities and non-evangelical theological colleges. Amazing as it may seem, most of them have come to agree with the historicity of the central facts undergirding the resurrection of Jesus. And these are listed on your handout for your convenience.
These facts are four in number.
FACT I: After His crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin named Joseph or Arimathea.
Now this fact is important because it means, contrary to the claims of radical critics like John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, that the location of Jesus’ burial site was known in Jerusalem to both Jew and Christian alike. This fact is highly significant because the disciples could never have proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem in the face of a tomb containing His corpse. New Testament scholars have established this fact on the basis of evidence such as the following four points, which I shall highlight.
1. Jesus burial is attested in the very old tradition which is handed on by Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece.
In chapter 15 verses 3-5, Paul writes as follows, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,” and then comes this four line formula,
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [the Aramaic word for Peter], then to the twelve.
Paul uses here not only the technical rabbinical terms for “received” and “delivered” with regard to the information that he is passing on to the Corinthians, but verses 3-5 are a highly stylized four-line formula which is replete with non-Pauline characteristics. This has convinced all scholars that Paul is, just as he says, quoting from an old tradition which he himself received and then in turn passed on to his converts in Corinth. This tradition probably goes back to at least to Paul’s fact-finding journey to Jerusalem around AD 36, when he spent two weeks with Peter and with James in Jerusalem. Now when you recall that Jesus was crucified around AD 30, that means that this information goes back to within the first 5 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. So short a time span, and such personal contact in this case, make it idle to talk of legend with regard to the information in this formula.
2. The burial story of Jesus is part of a very old source used by Mark in writing his gospel.
When you read the gospels you find that they tend to consist of brief snapshots of Jesus’ life and ministry which are only loosely connected, rather like pearls on a string, and not always chronologically arranged. But when we come to the so-called passion story, the story of the final week of Jesus’ suffering and death, then we do have one smooth continuously running narrative. This suggests that the passion story was one of Mark’s sources that he used in writing his gospel. Now most scholars already think that Mark is the earliest of the four gospels, and obviously his passion source must then be even earlier still, some of the earliest material in the New Testament. Comparison of the narratives of the four gospels with each other show that their accounts to not diverge from each other until after the burial story; they are in agreement right up through the burial account. This implies that the burial account is part of that pre-Markan passion source that Mark used in writing his gospel. So we have here independent, early attestation of the fact of Jesus’ burial in this pre-Markan passion source in addition to the early information that is mediated by Paul in his tradition handed on the Corinthians.
3. As a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court that condemned Jesus to death), Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention.
There was a very strong resentment in the early Christian church toward the Jewish leadership responsible for the condemnation of Jesus; they had, in effect, engineered a judicial murder of Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, it is highly improbable that Christians would invent a member of the very court that condemned Jesus to death who would give him a proper burial instead of allowing his body to be disposed like a common criminal. And therefore most scholars think we actually know the identity of the person who buried Jesus of Nazareth; namely, Joseph from Arimathea.
4. No competing burial story exists.
If the burial story about Joseph were fictitious then we would expect to find either some other historical trace of what actually happened to Jesus’ corpse, or at least some competing legends of what happened. But all of our sources are unanimous in ascribing to Joseph the honorable internment of Jesus in the tomb.
For these and several other reasons, the vast majority of New Testament scholars today concur that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. According to the late John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University, the burial of Jesus in the tomb is one of “the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”
FACT II: On the Sunday morning following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
Among the reasons that have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following five points.
1. The empty tomb story is also part of the pre-Markan passion source and therefore very early.
The passion source used by Mark did not end in defeat and death with the burial story; rather, it ends with the empty tomb account which is grammatically one piece with the burial narrative.
2. The old tradition cited by Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth implies the fact of the empty tomb.
For any first-century Jew, to say, as this formula did, “that he was buried and that he was raised,” would imply that an empty grave was left behind. Moreover the expression, “he was raised on the third day,” probably derives from the date of the women’s visit to the empty tomb on the third day on Jewish reckoning after Jesus’ crucifixion. The four-line tradition which Paul cites summarizes both the passion narrative in the gospels, as well as the early apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. And, significantly, what corresponds in each to the third line of the formula – “and that he was risen” – in both cases is the narrative and proclamation of the empty tomb.
3. Mark’s story of the empty tomb is simple and lacks signs of legendary embellishment.
All one has to do to appreciate this point is to compare Mark’s account to the accounts which are found in the later apocryphal gospels. These are forgeries that arose during the centuries following the appearance of the New Testament. These do contain all sorts of wild, legendary accounts about the resurrection. For example, in the so-called Gospel of Peter, which is a forgery from the second half of the second century after Christ, the tomb is surrounded not only by a Roman guard, but also by all of the chief priests and the Pharisees, as well as a huge crowd of people from the surrounding countryside who have come to watch the tomb. Suddenly, during the night, a voice rings out from heaven, and the stone over the door of the tomb rolls back by itself, then two men are seen descending out of heaven and entering into the tomb, then three men, gigantic figures, come out of the tomb, the heads of two of the men reach to the clouds, the head of the third man overpasses the clouds, and then a cross comes out of the tomb, and a voice from heaven asks, “Hast thou preached to them who sleep?” and the cross answers, “Yea.” Now, these are how real legends look. They are colored with all sorts of theological and apologetical motives, motives which are conspicuously lacking from the Markan account which by comparison is stark in its simplicity.
4. The fact that women’s testimony was less trustworthy than that of men in first-century Palestine counts in favor of the women’s role in the discovery of the empty tomb.
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, illustrates the attitude toward the testimony of women in Jewish society when he says, due to the levity and the temerity of their sex, women should not be allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a court of law. The testimony of women was regarded as so untrustworthy that it wouldn’t even be admitted into a Jewish court, according Josephus. So any later legendary account of the discovery of the empty tomb would certainly have made male disciples, like Peter and John, discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, whose testimony was regarded as worthless, who were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, is best explained by the fact that they were the discoverers of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.
5. The earliest Jewish allegation, that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body, which is found in Matthew 28:15, shows that the body was in fact missing from the tomb.
What was the earliest Jewish response to the disciples’ proclamation “He is risen from the dead”? That these men are full of new wine? That his corpse is still there in the tomb in the hillside? No, they responded, the disciples came and stole away his body. Now think about that – the disciples came and stole away his body. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was itself a feeble attempt to try to explain away why the body was missing. And thus we have evidence for the empty tomb which is absolutely top drawer because it comes not from the Christians but from the very opponents of the early Christian movement.
Now I could go on but I think enough has been said to indicate why, in the words of Jacob Kremer, an Austrian specialist, “By far, most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.”
FACT III: On multiple occasions and under a variety of circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death.
This is a fact which is universally acknowledged today by New Testament scholars for at least the following three reasons.
1. The list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, which is quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, guarantees that such appearances occurred.
These included appearance to Peter (or Cephas, as his Aramaic name is given), the twelve disciples, the 500 brethren, and James, Jesus’ own younger brother.
2. The appearance traditions in the Gospels provide multiple, independent attestation of these appearances.
This is one of the most important earmarks of historicity: multiple, early, independent attestation. For example, the appearance to Peter is independently attested by Luke and Paul. The appearance to the twelve is independent attested by Luke, John, and Paul. We also have independent witness to Galilean appearances in Mark, Matthew, and John, as well as independent traditions of appearances to the women in Matthew and John.
3. Certain appearances have earmarks of historicity.
For example, we have very good evidence in the Gospels that neither James nor any of Jesus’ younger brothers were believers in Jesus during his lifetime. There is no reason whatsoever that the early church would generate fictitious stories concerning the unbelief of Jesus’ own family had they been faithful followers of Jesus all along. And so it is reasonably certain historically that neither James nor his other brother were followers of Jesus during his lifetime. But it is equally indisputable that James and his brothers did become active Christian believers following Jesus’ death. James was considered to be an apostle in the early church and he eventually rose to the position of sole leadership of the Jerusalem church. In fact according to the first-century historian Josephus, whom I alluded to before, James was martyred for his faith in Christ in the AD 60s during a lapse in the civil government. Now think about that. Most of us have brothers. What would it take to convince you that your brother is the Lord so that you would be willing to die for this belief? Can there be any doubt that the reason for this remarkable transformation in James is because, in Paul’s words, “then he appeared to James”? Even Gerd Lüdemann, who is the leading German New Testament critic of the resurrection today, himself admits, and I quote, “It may be taken as historically certain [and those are his words, not mine] that Peter and the disciplines had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”
FACT IV: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
Think of the situation the disciples faced following Jesus’ death.
1. Their leader was dead, and Jewish messianic beliefs had no idea of a Messiah who, instead of triumphing over the enemies of Israel, would be shamefully executed by them as a common criminal.
The Messiah was supposed to throw off Israel’s enemies (and, in this case, that meant Rome) and reestablish the throne of David in Jerusalem to which Jew and Gentile alike would be subject, not to suffer defeat at the hands of the Gentiles and suffer the ignominious death of a common criminal.
2. According to Jewish law, Deuteronomy 21:23, Jesus’ execution as a criminal showed him out to be a man literally under God’s curse.
You see, the catastrophe of the crucifixion for these early disciples was not simply that Jesus was dead – that their leader and friend was gone – but rather that according to Jewish law the crucifixion showed, in effect, that the chief priests and the Jewish authorities had been right all along, that they had been following a heretic – a man literally accursed by God.
3. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.
Confronted with Jesus’ crucifixion, all the disciples could do was simply, at most, to preserve their master’s tomb as a shrine where his bones could reside until that day when they and all the righteous dead of Israel would be reunited with him in the kingdom of God and raised by God to glory. Nevertheless, despite every predisposition to the contrary, the original disciples believed in, and were willing to go to their deaths for, their belief in the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. Luke Johnson, who is a prominent New Testament critic from Emery university muses, “Some sort of powerful transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.” You need a launching pad to launch this missile.
In summary then, there are four facts agreed upon by the majority of New Testament scholars today who have written on this subject and which any adequate historical hypothesis must account for:
1. Jesus burial by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb
2. The discovery of his empty tomb by his women followers
3. His post-mortem appearances to various individuals and groups
4. The very origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.
So the question is: what is the best explanation of these four facts? This is where the disagreement arises. Scholars are fairly united on the historicity of these facts; the disagreement comes with how you best explain them. Most scholars, I think, would probably simply remain agnostic about this question. Many of them will say that, as historians, they cannot entertain a miraculous or supernatural hypothesis like the resurrection simply for methodological reasons. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead. In his book, Justifying Historical Descriptions, the historian C. B. McCullagh lists six tests which historians use in determining what is the best explanation for a given body of historical facts. And I believe that the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” passes all of these tests.
1. It has great explanatory scope.
It explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.
2. It has great explanatory power.
It explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite his earlier public execution, and so forth.
3. It is plausible.
Given the historical context of Jesus’ own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as a divine confirmation or vindication of those allegedly blasphemous claims for which he was crucified.
4. It is not ad hoc (that is to say, contrived)
It requires only one additional hypothesis, and that is that God exists. And that need not even be an additional hypothesis if you already believe that God exists, and I think that we do have sound philosophical arguments for the existence of God.
5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs.
The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” does not in any way conflict with the belief that people do not rise naturally from the dead. The Christian accepts that belief as wholeheartedly as he accepts the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.
6. It far outstrips any of its rival hypotheses in meeting criteria 1-5.
Down through history various alternative explanations of these four facts have been offered. For example, the conspiracy hypothesis – that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about the resurrection appearances. The apparent death hypothesis – that Jesus was taken down from the cross alive and somehow escaped from the tomb and presented himself to the disciples. The hallucination hypothesis – that the disciples hallucinated post-mortem visions of Jesus, and so forth. Such hypotheses, however, have been nearly universally rejected by contemporary scholarship; none of these naturalistic hypotheses succeeds in meeting the six criteria as well as does the resurrection hypothesis.
Now, this puts the skeptical critic in a rather desperate situation. For example, a few years ago I had a debate on the resurrection of Jesus at the University of California with a professor who had written his doctoral thesis on the evidence for the resurrection. He was thoroughly familiar with the evidence, and he could not deny the facts of the honorable burial, the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, or the origin of the disciple’ belief in the resurrection. And so his only recourse was to come up with some alternative explanation of these facts. And so he argued that Jesus of Nazareth must have had an unknown identical twin brother, who was separated from him at birth, who grew up independently, no one knew about him, but who came back to Jerusalem just at the time of the crucifixion, stole his brother’s body out of the tomb, and presented himself to the disciples who had mistakenly thought that Jesus had arisen from the dead. Now, I am not going to go into how I went about refuting this theory, but I think that the example is instructive because it shows to what desperate lengths skepticism must go in order to explain away the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, did you know that the evidence is so powerful that one of the leading Jewish theologians of today, the late Pinchas Lapide who taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a Jewish theologian, declared himself convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
Now, if this is right it has profound implications. The significance of the resurrection of Jesus lies in the fact that it is not just any old person who has been raised from the dead, but it is Jesus of Nazareth, whose crucifixion was instigated by the Jewish leadership because of his blasphemous claims to divine authority. If this man has been raised from the dead then the God whom he allegedly blasphemed has publicly and unequivocally committed himself to him and vindicated those claims. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s divine confirmation of Jesus’ claims to have divine authority and to be the absolute revelation of God.
Thus, in an age of religious pluralism and relativism, the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus constitutes, I think, a solid rock on which Christians can take their stand on God’s decisive self-revelation in Jesus.
QUESTION: I wanted to talk to you about an article you wrote, I think it was for the Expository Times, where you were responding to Byron McCane. You would arguing against that Jesus’ burial was dishonorable. But I think that in the social setting of the New Testament world, the first-century, that a criminal such as Jesus would have been buried dishonorably. But I think also that this can serve as an argument for the empty tomb, if it was dishonorable, it wouldn't have been something they would have invented. And there is also other things related to social science, such as that the crucifixion was more than just a curse from God, it was also a shameful death, and so on, so I wanted to know what you thought about these documents from social science.
DR. CRAIG: All right, let me give those of us who have not read the article some background. The scholar that he is referring to argues that, in fact, what Joseph of Arimathea gave Jesus was not an honorable burial, even though it was in a tomb. He says that it was a dishonorable burial because it did not involve mourning and Jesus was not laid in the family tomb. And, as you say, I think McCane’s motive, actually, in writing this, or contending this, is to raise the credibility of the burial account, not to diminish it. He thinks it is more credible if we regard Joseph as an unsympathetic emissary of the Sanhedrin charged with disposing of the body of this criminal. But in my response to this, I am just not convinced. Apart from one’s motivation to enhance the credibility of the burial narrative, I think you have to look at the specific evidence. And what I argue is that while he is quite right in thinking that a dishonorable burial would be more probable given the general Jewish background information that we have, nevertheless, when you look at the specific evidence that we have in this case for Joseph, that it makes it more probable that he gave him an honorable burial. One of the factors that disposes me in that vein is the language that is used – of placing the body in the tomb, rather than language of throwing the body as is often found in narratives of the Old Testament when criminals or others are given dishonorable burial. The language used is not respectful; it is, he cast him into a pit and covered him with stones or he threw the body into a ditch or something of that sort. Whereas in Joseph’s case you have this careful laying of the body in the tomb and it doesn’t look at all as if this is a dishonorable burial. This looks like he is taking special care. And indeed the fact that only Jesus is mentioned and not the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus also inclines me to think that Joseph is singling Jesus out for some sort of special attention because the other two, the two thieves, were probably dispatched of summarily. But Joseph begged from Pilate the body of Jesus and then treats it with special respect. I would also say that the evidence that McCane gives for dishonorable burial is not convincing because, for example, not being laid in the family tomb. That is hardly convincing evidence because Jesus died in Jerusalem; there wasn’t a family tomb there! So, of course he wouldn’t be laid in the family tomb. This would be a case that anybody who was traveling abroad or traveling far from home and died would encounter not being laid in the family tomb. So I would suggest, if anybody is interested in this, to pursue the article, look at the two, weigh them against each other, and make up your own mind. But I agree with what you said that ultimately either perspective is possible for someone who thinks that this is an historically credible account of how Jesus’ corpse was disposed of.
QUESTION: I was wondering about what evidence there is for this pre-Markan passion text. Rather than just looking at the style of the writing, how that indicates it, is there any other evidence pointing towards it?
DR. CRAIG: Well I think the main thing would be what I said in my talk; namely, that it stands out from the rest of the Gospel material as a large chunk of material that is coherent and continuous, whereas the rest of the Gospels are like little anecdotes, sort of little self-contained units telling a story about Jesus or sayings that he had, and you don’t have this sort of narrative description. So the primary evidence, I think, that Mark is working with a source here would be the literary nature of it, that you have this large chunk of material that is very different than the rest of the Gospels. Now of course one could argue for the historicity of this material specifically in different ways and I have tried to do that with regard to the burial, but in terms of determining a source that would be the main way which scholars would judge this to have been something that was distinct from the rest of the Gospel.
QUESTION: I just had a question regarding fact number (5), that the earliest Jewish allegations were that the disciples had stolen the body. But surely that doesn’t come directly from those Jewish people but was written in the Gospels so couldn’t you argue that perhaps that was made up to make the story look more credible?
DR. CRAIG: Well, I don’t think so. The question is, how do we know that the earliest Jewish opponents of Christianity were in fact spreading this rumor that the disciples came by night and stole his body while the guard was asleep. I think that you can construct a kind of tradition history behind Matthew’s story. The earliest proclamation of the resurrection was, “He is risen from the dead.” Now, what response would that illicit from the Jewish opponents of Christianity? In response to that, they would say, well no his disciples stole the body. And then what would be the counter-explanation to that by the disciples? No, there was a guard at the tomb. And then what would be the counter-explanation to that by the Jewish opponents? Oh, the guard fell asleep! And then the final Christian response would be in Matthew’s Gospel. And so what you have, I think, behind the controversy in Matthew is this lengthy tradition history of response and counter-response. It would be pointless for the Jews to make up the story of the guard falling asleep unless the Christians had first said, well there was a guard at the tomb, and the Christians would not need to make up the story about the guard unless the Jewish leadership was accusing the disciples of having stolen the body. And so you see this assertion and counter-assertion tradition history behind it. Also, the story is filled with non-Matthean vocabulary. Some of the vocabulary is unique words in the whole New Testament which again indicates Matthew is working with prior tradition. And also when Matthew makes this comment, “This rumor has been spread among Jews to this day,” that shows that Matthew is constrained to refute this widespread Jewish counter-explanation of the resurrection. Matthew is not making this up, he is exercised by the fact that this is a widely circulating rumor and he wants to squash it by telling the story of the guard at the tomb, and its falling asleep. So for all of these reasons, I don’t think we can see the Jewish claim “The disciples stole the body” as a Christian creation. The guard at the tomb could be a Christian creation designed to answer the Jewish allegation, but I don’t think that the allegation “The disciples stole the body” would itself be a Christian creation. It is something that represents the ongoing polemic and interaction between Jews and Christians prior to Matthew.
MODERATOR: How do we know that the disciples were not lying?
DR. CRAIG: Oh, well I think we would know that on the basis of a number of reasons. One reason would be the one Peter mentioned in the introduction: lies produce cowards not heroes, I like the way you put that. Lots of people have died for a falsehood, but they thought it was the truth. This theory would suggest that the disciples conspired about the resurrection and then lied about it and then were willing to go to horrible deaths for it, and I think that is just outlandish. Nobody who reads the pages of the New Testament can doubt that these people sincerely believed the truth of what they proclaimed and were willing to die for. So for that reason alone no contemporary scholar thinks that you can explain the resurrection as just a bald-faced lie. The only place you would find this would be on the internet or from former propaganda from behind the iron curtain, but I don’t know of any scholar who would hold to this. One other problem would be that it is anachronistic. It looks at the disciples situation through the rear view mirror of Christian history, and says, oh, well they would invent the resurrection, they would lie about it. But when you put yourself in the footsteps of a first-century Palestinian Jew then, as I explained, the resurrection of Jesus is the last thing a Jewish person would think of when confronted with the crucifixion of Jesus. It is totally anachronistic. N. T. Wright has put it very well. He says for a first-century Jew confronted with Jesus’ crucifixion you basically had two choices, either you went home or you got yourself a new Messiah. But, he says, nowhere in the literature, from the first century before Jesus to the first century after Jesus, do we find any of these crucified Messiahs’ followers saying, “Well, he was risen from the dead and he is the Messiah after all.” What happened in the case of the disciples is unique, so I think the conspiracy theory is rightly dead and it is not going to be resuscitated.
QUESTION: Even if Jesus really did arise from the dead, why did he then ascend into heaven so soon after? Why didn’t he reveal himself to more people and preach about himself?
DR. CRAIG: Do you mean, why doesn’t he reveal himself to more people today?
FOLLOWUP: Well, why did he ascend into heaven and not die normally, why did he send his disciples out to preach and not himself?
DR. CRAIG: I think it is important to understand the purpose of the resurrection appearances in the New Testament. These were not intended to prove to the public that Jesus was risen from the dead; otherwise he could have appeared to Pilate, he could have appeared to Caiaphas, he could have appeared to the Sanhedrin. That was not the purpose. These appearances were not for the purpose of convincing the public that he was risen from the dead. It was for the purpose of commissioning the twelve disciples for the task of world evangelization and world mission. If he could commission and send out these men then this message would eventually fill the whole world and people would come freely into the Kingdom of God and into a knowledge of Christ. So the purpose of the appearances was primarily for the purpose of commissioning these men for the task of world mission. And certainly, as we look back now on Christian history, we can see the wisdom of that plan because Christianity has now filled the entire globe. There is scarcely a culture or nation untouched by the Christian Gospel twenty centuries after Jesus’ death and so this strategy for human history seems to have been a wise one.
MODERATOR: Does the resurrection of Jesus necessarily imply he was God?
DR. CRAIG: Good question; that is a nice question. No, not in a direct sense. And I was careful in how I worded this. We do not say, “Jesus rose from the dead, therefore he is God.” That would be an unjustified inference. Rather what I said is that Jesus made certain blasphemous claims that arrogated to himself divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in the place of God himself. Specifically, he claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, the unique Son of God in a way that set him apart from any other human being, and the Son of Man which is a divine human figure prophesied in the seventh chapter of the Old Testament book of Daniel who would come before God, the Ancient of Days, and to whom all authority and dominion would be given so that all peoples should worship and serve him. And Jesus identified himself with this Son of Man figure prophesied by Daniel and that is what got him crucified. So if God has raised this man from the dead He has vindicated those allegedly blasphemous claims for which he was crucified. It shows that those claims were, in fact, true. And so this would be a sort of indirect vindication of Jesus’ identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man. So that would be the way in which I would see the theological significance of the resurrection and the inference to his deity.
QUESTION: You mentioned in your talk about the significance of the resurrection. Could you possibly tell us a little about the impact that the resurrection has had on your life? Obviously, as you said, if it is true, it changes everything.
DR. CRAIG: Sure. I was not raised in a Christian home or even in a church going family. I became a Christian late in my teenage years. And, as a non-believer, I knew the darkness and the despair that I later learned that existentialist philosophers experienced and wrote about – the despair and meaninglessness of a life doomed to end in death. That I, who seemed so real and alive today, would someday no longer be; that I would cease to exist. And the thought just overwhelmed me, the idea that I would not longer exist, that my life was doomed to end in death. And this put a question mark behind everything that I did. Everything to me seemed, in light of my own impending nonexistence, to be meaningless. And I realized as well that it was not just I who would die but the entire human race is doomed in the eventual heat death of the universe. Everything will be darkness, coldness, and barrenness, death. Death is written throughout the structure of the universe, there is no escape or hope on an atheistic worldview. And so I felt deeply this despair and darkness of a life doomed to end in death, and for me the knowledge of the resurrection brought to me meaning to life and hope because the resurrection means that Jesus of Nazareth holds the key that unlocks the door to eternal life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and he who lives and believes in me shall never die.” And this is a proclamation of good news. Many people will say that becoming a Christian filled their lives with joy, or peace, or love. For me, those things were wonderful too, but the deepest experience I had was the experience of meaning. To wake up every morning and realize that what I did today mattered, that it has eternal significance. And that comes through Jesus’ resurrection and his conquering death. It not only means, however, immortality; it also means complete physical and psychological healing. Christ’s resurrection body was a prototype of ours. The Christian hope is not of a disembodied existence, a soul that flies away to some ethereal heaven. It is that we will have resurrection bodies in a renewed and transformed creation. And for me this was deeply meaningful because I bear in my body the weakness of an inherited genetic neuromuscular disease called Charcot–Marie–Tooth syndrome that causes atrophy in the extremities. It is progressive and this is something I have lived with for most of my life. And the hope that someday to be delivered from this disease is a wonderful hope to which I look forward. Not only that, however; what I have also come to realize is that all of us are psychologically broken as well. I came to realize that my Charcot–Marie–Tooth syndrome not only affected me physically but it affected me emotionally as well; that as a kind of compensatory mechanism for my physical weakness, I threw myself into academics because I could succeed in academics. And this gave me a sense of self-worth and a sense of accomplishment even though I could not play sports or do the things that the other guys did. And that gave me then a kind of goal-oriented A-type personality that can be very negative in certain ways. And filled with a kind of deep insecurity and coming to understand myself more and realize that the resurrection of Jesus means not only physical healing but complete emotional and psychological healing was wonderful as well. Then of course spiritual healing as we are freed from all our guilt and sin and evil selfishness that one senses in one’s own heart. There is just tremendous, tremendous, personal significance in the subject we have talked about tonight. Now I have approached it this evening historically, in a sort of disinterested manner. But if this is true, then it is anything but disinteresting. This is vitally, vitally important and I think life transforming. It has changed my life.
MODERATOR: Can we do a quick written one here? With these big issues that you have just been talking about with all their implications, there are also lots of questions that are small niggling ones, particularly contradictions in the text. So this question says: You talked about how 1 Corinthians mentioned he appeared to the twelve, but Luke and John say he appeared to the eleven. What do you do with that one?
DR. CRAIG: Yes. Remember in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says Jesus appeared to Cephas then to the twelve. However, in John’s Gospel, Thomas was not with the twelve in the upper room when Jesus appeared to them. Is this problematic? Well, even if it were, that would not undermine the fundamental historical fact on which my case was predicated that different individuals and groups, however many there might have been in the group, did experience appearances of Jesus. But in this case at least I don’t think there is any discrepancy whatsoever. “The Twelve” here is clearly a title. It is like in the United States we have things like “The Big Ten,” which is a certain league of universities which compete in sports together and it doesn’t matter whether there are ten universities in it or not – that is the title of the group. Judas Iscariot was dead by this time, right? So he was one of the twelve and he was not there. The Twelve should have a capital letter; it just means the original group of disciples, even though when Jesus appeared to them in the upper room in fact Thomas wasn’t there. So I don’t think that is a serious discrepancy.
QUESTION: First of all, thank you for all the amazing work you do, I really appreciate it, and I know lots of others do, too. And thank you so much for this evening. I wonder if you can help me. In fact (2), that the stories are simple and lack signs of legendary embellishment, towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel the tombs are split open, the dead arise, the spirits of holy men arise, and they go into the city of Jerusalem. Certainly most people off the street would look at that and say, that looks like a legendary embellishment. How would you deal with that?
DR. CRAIG: I am talking about the Markan account, very simply. I am talking about Mark’s account. Mark’s account is the earliest of the four Gospels and it is based on this pre-Markan passion story and it is that account that I am talking about when I say it is stark in its simplicity. You don’t find these kinds of motifs that you find in Matthew, particularly the guard story – even that is not there. So even if you think that later Gospel writers have embellished the narrative, that doesn't contradict the point that I am making: our most primitive sources look like they are very simple, factual accounts that are in fact free of precisely the sort of coloring that you mention. Remember that I am not treating these documents as holy, inspired books. So we are not concerned about niggling contradictions and inconsistencies. We are looking at them just as historical records and the historian would be very impressed that the most primitive sources we have are so simply and unembellished.
FOLLOWUP: Accepting that then, could you comment on the Matthew text? This question does get asked.
DR. CRAIG: Well, it is interesting that it is not connected with the empty tomb narrative, or even the resurrection narrative. The story he is talking about is where, in Matthew, when Christ dies on the cross Matthew says the veil of the temple was rent, there was an earthquake, and the tombs were opened and certain Old Testament figures, saints of old, came out of the tomb, went into the city and appeared to people. It is very strange. This is the only reference in the New Testament we have to this. I think it is an open question whether Matthew is simply using here apocalyptic imagery, such as you have in the book of Revelation, for example, or in Jesus’ Olivet discourse about the signs of the end times when he says that the stars will be falling from heaven and other signs of this sort. This is very typical apocalyptic imagery in Jewish literature and it may not be that Matthew intends this to be literal at all. On the other hand, it could be that he does intend it to be literal. I have an open mind about that and am ready to be convinced either way. I don’t have an axe to grind on that.
FOLLOWUP: Just one more thing on that. Might it be possible that Matthew is just reporting what he has heard?
DR. CRAIG: Yeah, that is a possibility as well that I find intriguing actually because I would not be at all surprised, frankly, if in the aftermath of these resurrection appearances of Jesus that others might have visions of Old Testament saints, saying, “Oh, I saw Elijah risen from the dead,” or “I saw Isaiah,” or something. And you can imagine this sort of spreading among certain people in the city where they would have these kinds of experiences. So one shouldn’t be too quick to write these off as apocalyptic imagery. It might be; but on the other hand, it might be reports that Matthew has heard. But these would be, and it is important to understand this, only after and in reaction to these unprecedented appearances of Jesus which are, as I say, utterly un-Jewish and need to have some kind of an explanation in order to get these appearances of Jesus off the ground in the first place. But interesting question.
MODERATOR: In the little creedal statement you talked about from 1 Corinthians 15, it talks about Christ dying for our sins according to the Scriptures and was buried, he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Can you tell us about these Old Testament prophesies?
DR. CRAIG: Yes, when Paul says that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, scholars have puzzled long over this because there doesn’t seem to be anything in the Hebrew Scriptures about rising on the third day. So what is Paul referring to when he says, “on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” the Hebrew bible? Some have suggested Hosea 6:2 where it says that on the second day God will heal us and on the third day he will raise us up. And that could sound like language of resurrection and maybe the early Christians were thinking of Hosea 6:2 and interpreting that in light of Jesus’ resurrection. But Hosea 6:2 is never appealed to anyplace else in the New Testament as a proof text or even relevant to the resurrection of Jesus. When you look in the Gospels at the texts that Jesus’ appeals to with respect to the three-day motif in the Hebrew bible, it is Jonah story. As Jonah was three days in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the earth. So I suspect that it is the Jonah story that the early Christians had in mind when they say Jesus was risen on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. They are thinking that this is a parallel to Jonah.
FOLLOWUP: And that wouldn’t be influenced by whether you see that as a literal story or a legendary myth in the Old Testament, it would be the same?
DR. CRAIG: It is important to understand in this case that nobody reading the Jonah story about this man being swallowed by a fish and then being belched out and go prophesying to Nineveh, would infer from that the resurrection of Jesus. It is only in hindsight that the disciples could reinterpret it in light of Jesus’ resurrection. By having come to believe that Jesus was risen, then they go to their Hebrew Bible looking for proof texts and types, and they could find, ah!, the Jonah story – especially if Jesus himself had referred to this. And so it is not that these are the source of their belief, rather it is the attempt to provide proof texts for what they had come to believe about Jesus and anticipations of it in the Hebrew Bible.
QUESTION: I think this question is a follow-up to that, actually. Some people will claim that the Gospel stories are lies written by the Gospel writers, and other people might say that they are stories to try to explain what happened to the disciples on that particular day. And my question is connected with somebody called Randel Helms, who wrote a book called The Gospel Fictions and his idea is that, rather like you said, the empty tomb could be based upon the story of Jonah or upon Daniel coming out of the lions’ den. He seems to suggest that it is not so much that these are written after to explain these events but they are actually creations by the Gospel writers so the whole of the resurrection story is really based upon Old Testament stories that have been elaborated. And somewhere along the line something must have caused it, but it certainly wasn’t the resurrection story as given in the Gospels. I wonder if you would comment on this Randel Helms.
DR. CRAIG: I think that this is trying to repeat with Jewish texts the same disastrous mistake that scholars in the late 19th and early 20th century tried to do with pagan texts. Namely, you cherry pick these other ancient texts for similar points to what happens in the Gospel narratives and then you extrapolate by saying the Gospel narratives are based on these other texts. And this movement collapsed in biblical scholarship with regard to pagan sources and I think it is equally invalid. Let me give you an illustration. The point is that you can cherry pick similarities for almost any story you want to and find similarities and parallels. For example, here is Southampton I think people would probably know about that incredible maritime tragedy that occurred about 100 years ago when this huge passenger ship, which has been called and touted as unsinkable, on a cold April night in the North Atlantic about 200 miles off of Newfoundland, struck an iceberg and sank. And over half of the passenger’s lives were lost because there were not enough lifeboats on board the ship. And the name of this ship was, let’s see, Titan, wasn’t it? No, I’m not talking about the Titanic; I am talking about a novel written in 1898, fourteen years before the wreck of the Titanic, called The Wreck of the Titan. Now, isn’t that amazing? Anyone reading that book would say, ah-ha!, this must be based on this event or that this event is a legendary construction out of this earlier book, when in fact this is just cherry picking these sort of parallels. And similarly, look at the story of Joshua and killing the five kings in the cave. He puts the kings in the cave then he brings them out and kills them all. Is that supposed to be the source for the story of the empty tomb? They seem utterly dissimilar to me. Mark has no mention of Jesus being the king; the absence of titles is conspicuous. There isn’t anything in Mark about the guard who slays the people. The fact is that this has just cherry picked a couple of similarities like the kings being in a cave and the stones being put over the entrance to keep them in there before they drag them out and kill them. The same with Daniel and the lions’ den – the story isn’t at all similar to that of the empty tomb except that there is a stone over the lions’ den and the king comes in the morning to open the stone to see if Daniel is alive. The point is you can cherry pick these kinds of similarities with anything and the very multiplicity of these – Daniel in the lions’ den, Joshua and the five kings in the cave – suggests that in fact these are not derived from or based on these Old Testament stories but rather, as I have argued, they have a sound basis in historical fact.
MODERATOR: You have talked quite a bit about understanding Jesus as a Jewish person in the Jewish context. Have you ever debated with Geza Vermes? Is he a leading authority in the Old and New Testament and if so, why do you think he does not agree with you about the resurrection?
DR. CRAIG: I haven’t debated him although he is a very leading scholar on the historical Jesus and he is Jewish, which is what is interesting. What has happened over the last several decades is what has been called the Jewish reclamation of Jesus. We have begun to understand that the whole project earlier on in New Testament scholarship of interpreting Jesus in light of pagan mythology, Greco-Roman myths of divine men for example, was completely wrong. Jesus and his disciples were first-century Palestinian Jews and it is against that backdrop that the historical Jesus needs to be understood, against the Jewish backdrop. And so what has happened today is that Jewish scholars, like Geza Vermes and Pinchas Lapide, have come to study the historical Jesus sympathetically even though they are Jewish. And Geza Vermes, like most scholars, affirms the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb; he affirms these basic facts that I have described. His reluctance to affirm the resurrection of Jesus from the dead would be based on philosophical or theological grounds, not historical grounds. So the historical facts are pretty solidly in place and the degree to which you are willing to accept the resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation of those facts will tend to depend more upon philosophical or theological considerations then upon purely historical questions.
QUESTION: My question is a follow up to the earlier one on the ascension. I am sure you would agree that the ascension is an important conclusion to the resurrection because obviously it deals with where did Jesus go afterwards? But the Markan account, the end of it, is only found in later manuscripts and Matthew and John’s Gospels don’t record the ascension and surely this would call into question the historicity of that event, leaving us with the question, where did Jesus go next?
QUESTION: I would say that the ascension of Jesus is simply the terminus of the resurrection appearances and therefore it is not a qualitatively distinct event. We should not think that Jesus rose from the dead in an unglorified state and that with the ascension he was glorified and taken into heaven. In the New Testament, Jesus rises glorified from the grave. He has a supernatural resurrection body – immortal, incorruptible, and so forth – when he emerges from the tomb. The ascension