Easter (part 2)

March 03, 2008     Time: 00:35:04

Since it is Easer Sunday and since this is a class on the defense of the faith and my area of expertise is in the resurrection I thought it would only be appropriate to say a little bit about the historical grounds for believing in the event of the resurrection of Jesus.

Those of you who were at the debate will remember that I shared that a remarkable transformation has come about with respect to the resurrection of Jesus over the last 40 to 50 years. Back in the mid-20th century – 1940s and 50s – it was widely believed among New Testament scholars that events like the empty tomb of Jesus were legendary stories that accrued after the decades had passed and Jesus was dead and buried and no one could remember what happened to his body. The resurrection appearances of Jesus were taken to have been hallucinations induced in the disciples by their fervent faith in Jesus that caused them to hallucinate visions of Jesus. The belief of the earliest disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead was thought to have been due to the impact that Jesus had made on their lives during his earthly ministry, and they were unable to let him go so to speak so they came to believe in his resurrection.

But by around 1968 this old skepticism, this sort of standard view, was a spent force, and then in the ensuing decades began very rapidly to recede. In fact, I think it is no exaggeration to speak of a reversal of scholarship with respect to this question that has taken place over the last half-century or so.

Perhaps one of the most startling indications of this new perspective on the resurrection is the declaration by one of the world’s leading Jewish theologians. The late Pinchas Lapide, who taught at Hebrew University in Tel Aviv, said that he is convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. I remember hearing Lapide lecture at the University of Munich when I was a doctoral student there, and I couldn’t believe my ears when he came to the end of the lecture and said that he, as a Jewish theologian, believes on the basis of the historical evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. It was absolutely stunning. This is just one indication of, I think, the kind of reversal of scholarship that I am speaking of.

What are the facts that underlie this remarkable reversal of opinion? As I have worked on this subject, it seems to me that they can basically be grouped under three very broad headings.

1. The postmortem appearances of Jesus alive.

2. The discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb.

3. The very origin of the Christian faith itself.

I want to just say something briefly about each one of these this morning.

With respect to the postmortem appearances of Jesus, undoubtedly the major reason for the change in scholarship on this issue was the demonstration by the great German New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul is not writing in his own hand, so to speak, but rather Paul is quoting from an old tradition or saying or creedal formula which he himself received and then in turn passed on to his converts. I just want to read the text of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Paul says,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,

[Those are the technical rabbinical terms for the handing on of sacred tradition. What he received he then also transmitted to his converts. Then comes this creedal formula that he begins to quote.]

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, then to the twelve.

In his letter to the churches of Galatia in Galatians 1:18 Paul says that he was in Jerusalem on a fact-finding mission three years after his conversion on the Damascus road. During this visit to Jerusalem he spent two weeks with Cephas and with James, that is to say with the brother of the Lord and with Jesus’ chief disciple[1] – the very two people that are mentioned in this ancient formula that Paul hands on in 1 Corinthians 15. He probably received this tradition at that time if not earlier while he was in Damascus.

When you remember that Jesus was crucified about AD 30, and that Paul was converted on the Damascus road in AD 33 and that three years after that he goes to Jerusalem and spends two weeks there on this fact-finding mission speaking with Peter and with James about this subject, that means that this list of eyewitnesses goes back to within the first six years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Therefore you cannot dismiss these appearances as legendary. These didn’t arise decades later after the crucifixion. These go back to within the very first few years after the crucifixion and come from a man who had personal firsthand contact with the disciples in Jerusalem. You can explain them away if you want as hallucinations. You can say they were visionary projections by the disciples’ minds, but you can’t deny that such experiences occurred. Paul’s information makes it certain that on different occasions various individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death. Even the skeptical German New Testament critic Gerd Lüdemann said, “It may be taken as historically certain” [those are Lüdemann’s words, not mind] “that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” Today this conclusion is virtually universally accepted among New Testament historians.

At the same time that biblical scholarship has come to a new appreciation of the credibility of Paul’s information, I have to admit in honesty that skepticism concerning the Gospel resurrection appearance narratives still persists in scholarship. But this lingering skepticism concerning the Gospel appearance stories I think is entirely unjustified. It is based entirely upon a philosophical bias against the physicalism of the Gospel appearance stories. Jesus appears bodily and physically alive from the dead. But the traditions which underlie these Gospel appearance stories may be just as reliable as Paul’s traditions in this respect. It is very interesting to note, as I said in the debate, that the physicality of these appearances is multiply and independently attested which is one of the main criteria that historians use for establishing the facticity of some event. If you have multiple independent sources all testifying to the same thing then that increases the historical likelihood that that thing actually occurred.

In fact, the sources are unanimous in their conviction that Jesus appeared bodily and physically alive from the dead. If all of the appearances had originally just been of visionary hallucinations then it becomes inexplicable how all of the traditions about Jesus’ appearances could have become so thoroughly corrupted in so short a time in the very presence of the eyewitnesses who knew better as this skepticism would have to postulate. It would be virtually without precedent in history.

Therefore I find the current skepticism concerning the physical resurrection appearances to be quite unwarranted. I think the new appreciation that has been won for Paul’s information in 1 Corinthians 15 needs to be accompanied by a reassessment of these Gospel appearance stories as well.

In any case, scholars are virtually unanimous in believing that, as I say, after Jesus’ crucifixion various individuals and groups of people under a variety of circumstances did have these experiences of seeing Jesus alive after his death.

The second main fact is the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb. This was once regarded as an embarrassment for the Christian faith because it was thought to be so mythological and legendary. But today the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb has in fact come to assume its rightful place among the generally accepted facts about Jesus. Let me just review briefly some of the evidence that undergirds this conviction.

First of all, the historical reliability of the burial story supports the empty tomb.[2] You might say to me, how in the world does the fact that Jesus was buried in the tomb support the fact that the tomb was empty. Very simply in the following way. If the burial account of Jesus is fundamentally accurate then it means that the location of Jesus’ tomb was known in Jerusalem to both Jew and Christian alike. In that case, it would have been impossible for a movement founded upon belief in the resurrection of Jesus to arise and flourish in the city in the face of an occupied tomb. The precondition of the origin of Christianity in Jerusalem had to be that that tomb was empty. Therefore, those who want to deny the empty tomb also find themselves obligated to deny the historicity of Jesus’ honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea in the tomb. But unfortunately for those skeptical critics the burial account of Jesus is widely acknowledged to be one of the most certain historical facts we have about Jesus because it is attested so early and in so many independent sources and is so unlikely to have been a Christian creation or invention that most scholars agree that Jesus was in fact buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. But if that is the case then the inference that the tomb was found empty is not very far at hand. So the burial account and its reliability supports as well the account of the empty tomb.

Secondly, Paul’s testimony also supports the fact of the empty tomb. Here I want to mention two aspects of Paul’s evidence in 1 Corinthians 15. In the ancient formula cited by Paul when he says “and he was buried, and he was raised” he implies that an empty grave was left behind. A first century Jew could not have thought otherwise. For a first century Palestinian Jew it was the remains of the dead person in the tomb that were raised to new life. In fact it was primarily the bones of the dead that were the object of the resurrection. That is why Jewish funeral practices were to carefully preserve the bones of the deceased in boxes, or ossuaries, for the resurrection at the end of the world when God would raise all of the righteous dead of Israel to new life and entry into the Kingdom of God. So in saying that Jesus was buried and he was raised Paul implies an empty grave was left behind.

Secondly, the expression “on the third day” is probably a time indicator pointing to the day of the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is this: since nobody actually saw Jesus get up and walk out of the tomb why did the early disciples date the resurrection on the third day when it says in the formula quoted by Paul “and he was raised on the third day?” Why not on the seventh day or the tenth day? I think the best answer is that it was on the third day after his crucifixion that the women found the tomb empty and therefore the resurrection itself came to naturally be dated on that day.

So in Paul’s information we have extremely early evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb.

Thirdly, the empty tomb story is part of Mark’s source material for the story of Jesus’ passion and is therefore an extremely old source. The empty tomb story was probably the end of Mark’s passion story which is a source that was before Mark which Mark used in writing his own Gospel. Since Mark is already the earliest Gospel, this pre-Markan passion source or story has to be even earlier still. In fact, as I shared in the debate, the German commentator Rudolf Pesch says that this is an incredibly early source. He dates it to within seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion. He said he had to be sometime prior to AD 37. So you have in Paul’s information going back to within five years of the crucifixion – very early evidence implying the empty tomb. Then you have Mark’s story of the empty tomb itself that comes from a source that is also extremely ancient and thus the empty tomb story is multiply and independently attested in very early sources. Most scholars think that this pre-Markan passion source or story is based on eyewitness testimony and therefore some of the most reliable information we have about the historical Jesus.[3]

The fourth point is that the story itself as Mark relates it is very simple and lacks the apologetical and theological embellishments that one would expect to find in a later legendary account. Let me just read the empty tomb story as it appears in the Gospel of Mark 16:

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Thus ends the Gospel of Mark. Perhaps the most forceful way to appreciate the simplicity of this story is to simply compare it to the accounts found in the later apocryphal gospels. The apocryphal gospels were gospels that were forged under the apostles’ names 150, 200, 300 years later. Everybody knew they were fakes; they were universally rejected by the church. But these apocryphal gospels do include all sorts of embellishments, theologically and apologetically, of the stories including the resurrection narrative. For example, in the so-called Gospel of Peter the tomb is surrounded not only by a Roman guard of soldiers but also by all of the chief priests and Pharisees and by a huge crowd from the surrounding countryside who had 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 come out of the tomb, two of the men are upholding the third man. The heads of the two men stretch up to the clouds, but the head of the third man overpasses the clouds. Then a cross comes out of the tomb and the voice from heaven asks, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep?” And the cross answers, “Yea.” These are how real legends look. They are embellished with all sorts of theological and apologetical motifs which are starkly lacking from the Markan account which is bare in its simplicity. It doesn’t describe the resurrection of Jesus – nobody sees Jesus come out. There is no guard of soldiers. There is no voice from heaven. It is stark in its simplicity. That suggests we have a very primitive narrative that has not yet been embellished with all of these sort of theological and apologetical legendary accretions. That, of course, goes very well with what we’ve already seen about how early this pre-Markan passion source is.

Fifthly, the tomb was probably discovered empty by women. Bryant emphasized this fact with respect to the appearances this morning; namely, in first century Jewish society women were second-class citizens. This is evident in rabbinical sayings like the following: “Blessed is he whose children are male, but whoa to him whose children are female” or “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women.” In fact, there is a rabbinical prayer that men were supposed to pray every Sabbath thanking God that they were not born a slave, a Gentile, or a woman. So woman were second-class citizens in Jewish society. In fact, Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the word of a woman was regarded as so unreliable that their testimony was not even admitted into court because no one would believe what they say.

In light of that, how remarkable must it seem that it is women who are the discoverers and chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb. If this were a legendary story that accrued decades later in the early Christian church, then certainly male disciples would have been made to discover the empty tomb – Peter or John, say.[4] But the fact it is women whose witness was worthless at that time who are the chief witnesses and discoverers of the empty tomb I think is best explained by the fact that they were the discoverers of the empty tomb and the Gospel writers faithful record what, for them, was a rather awkward and embarrassing fact.

Finally, one last point I want to make: the earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. In Matthew 28 we find the earliest anti-Christian Jewish polemic which Matthew is constrained to try to refute by telling the story of the guard at the tomb. What were Jews saying in response to the disciples proclamation He is risen from the dead? Were they saying, His tomb is there in the hillside or These men are full of new wine? No. According to Matthew, he says the story that was spread among the Jews until that day is that the disciples came and stole away his body. Think about that for a minute. The disciples came and stole away his body. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was itself an attempt to explain why the body was missing. So we have evidence for the empty tomb that is absolutely top drawer because it comes not from the Christians, it comes from the very opponents of the Christian movement – those who didn’t believe in it. They themselves were constrained to say yes the tomb was empty but here is how it really became that way and they make up this alternative. So the very evidence of the adversaries of the early Christian movement supports the historicity of the empty tomb.

So it is today widely recognized among New Testament scholars that the empty tomb of Jesus is a simple historical fact that needs to be explained.

Finally, I want to turn to that third fact: the very origin of the belief in the resurrection. Even the most skeptical scholars admit that the earliest disciples at least believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. This is universal among the early church and indeed everything hinged upon it. It would have been impossible to believe Jesus was Messiah or Lord if his life had ended in crucifixion and nothing happened after that. The origin of the Christian movement hinges upon the belief of these early disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead and therefore he could be Messiah after all.

But the obvious question that arises is: how do you explain the origin of that belief? As R. H. Fuller, a New Testament critic, points out even the most skeptical critic has to posit some mysterious X to get the movement going. But the question is: if it wasn’t the resurrection of Jesus, then what was that X? If you deny the resurrection of Jesus, you’ve got to explain away the origin of the disciples’ belief as either due to Christian influences or Jewish influences upon the disciples. Obviously it couldn’t be due to Christian influences because at that point there wasn’t any Christianity yet. Because the resurrection lay at the foundation of the Christian movement it cannot be explained away as a later creation of that movement. Could it have come from Jewish influences? I think not because, although the Jews had a belief in the resurrection of the dead, it differed in two fundamental respects from Jesus’ resurrection. First of all, for Jews the resurrection of the dead always occurred at the end of the world – never within history. You could have revivifications of a dead person like Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter, but that was just a return to the earthly life. They would die again. A proper resurrection to glory and immortality did not occur until after the end of the world. Secondly, the resurrection was never of an isolated individual. It was always a corporate event involving all the people or all of the righteous dead. By contrast Jesus’ resurrection was both of an isolated individual and within history.

Joachim Jeremias, whom I quoted before, writes as follows,

Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history. Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life. In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to doxa (glory) as an event of history.

The disciples confronted with Jesus’ crucifixion and death, at the very best, would have preserved their master’s tomb as a shrine where his bones could reside until the resurrection at the end of the world when they and all the righteous dead of Israel would be reunited with him in the Kingdom of God.[5] But they wouldn’t have come to believe the outlandish and un-Jewish idea that he was already risen from the dead.

The disciples’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus still remains to be explained – that mysterious X is still missing.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar at Emory University, says that there had to be some sort of powerful, transformative experience to explain the origin of the Christian movement. Those who saw the debate remember that Bishop Spong himself recognizes that. Some kind of powerful, transformative event. But apart from the resurrection of Jesus, there just isn’t anything that could explain the origin of this radically un-Jewish belief on the part of these early disciples. That is why N. T. Wright, an eminent British scholar, concludes, “That is why, as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again leaving an empty tomb behind him.”

These three facts, which I find ironic, are recognized today by the majority of New Testament critics (namely, the postmortem appearances of Jesus, the discovery of his empty tomb, and the very origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection). All seem to point, I think, to the same marvelous conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. Of course, there have been naturalistic attempts to explain these facts in other ways, like the conspiracy theory, the hallucination theory, Bishop Spong’s “Simple Simon” theory. But in the judgment of contemporary scholarship, none of these naturalistic explanations have been able to provide a plausible account of the facts. I think when you weigh these different explanations objectively and dispassionately it is very difficult to deny that the best explanation of the facts is the one that the original eyewitnesses gave that God raised Jesus from the dead. Therefore, as I said in the debate, I think that the rational person can hardly be blamed today if he thinks that on that first Easter morning a divine miracle occurred.

I want to conclude by emphasizing that, for most Christians, the way in which we have come to know that Jesus is risen is not through a historical investigation like this. Most Christians down through history have never had the time, training, or resources to do a historical investigation of the resurrection of Jesus. How have they come to know then that Christ is risen from the dead? They come to know him through a personal existential encounter with the risen Lord himself. It is because Jesus is risen from the dead that he can be known personally today. That is really the bottom line. The historical evidence is wonderful, it is confirmatory, it strengthens our faith. But fundamentally, I think the way in which one knows that Christ is risen is through a personal encounter with Christ himself. If you are here this morning and still looking for that sort of reality, I would encourage you to begin to read the New Testament and to speak to some of us who are Christians in the class and ask about how you can know Christ in a personal way because it can really lead to a life-transforming experience in your life.

If I might just close with a true story that I heard about a village in Russia shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in which communism took over the Russian Republic. In one small Russian village, a Marxist indoctrinator arrived one day and gathered all of the people of that village together into the town hall. For two hours he harangued them on the virtues of Marxism and the arguments for atheism and why belief in God and Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus were foolish old wives’ tales and no one should believe it. After about two hours of this, feeling very confident in the demolition job that he had done on their faith, he generously offered to give the podium to anyone who would want to make a rebuttal of anything that he had said. At that point a young Russian Orthodox priest quietly got up out of his seat and walked down the isle to the front. The Marxist indoctrinator looked at him scornfully and said, “You have two minutes.” The young priest said, “I don’t think I’ll need that long.” He came up to the platform, looked at the audience, suddenly threw his hands into the air and said, “Christ is risen!” at which the audience thundered back as one man, “Christ is risen indeed!” This is the reality of the resurrection. Not just as an event in history, but also in our lives as well.[6]


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Those are very good questions. When you look at the Old Testament prophecies of Christ, particularly of his passion and resurrection, you would never be able to infer from these prophecies that he would rise from the dead. You can only see this when you look at it through the lenses of knowing the events have happened. What it says in Isaiah 53, for example, is the suffering servant will see his progeny. That is sort of implies that he is going to somehow be raised from the dead, but you would never infer that if all you knew was that Jesus was crucified. You see what I mean? Other prophecies that the early church would use would be Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, Jesus said so the Son of Man will be raised from the dead. But no one knowing only the crucifixion of Jesus and reading the story of Jonah would see any relevance of that to Jesus. So there aren’t clear prophecies in the Old Testament that would have led the disciples to belief Jesus would rise from the dead. Even skeptical critics, like John Dominic Crossan, recognize this. They say there is no way these resurrection narratives could have been invented based on Old Testament prophecies because there just aren’t any.

With respect to Jesus’ own prophecies, I do think that Jesus predicted his resurrection from the dead, but when you look at how the disciples responded to these, they thought he was talking about the resurrection at the end of the world. When he comes down the Mount of Transfiguration and says, “The Son of Man will be raised from the dead” what do the disciples say? They say, “Why do the scribes say Elijah must come first?” At the end of the world, Elijah was going to return in Jewish thinking and the resurrection would happen after that. So they think he is talking about the end of the world. When Jesus says to Martha when he is about to raise Lazarus from the dead he says, “Your brother Lazarus will rise again.” What does she say? She says, “Yes, Lord, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection of the last day.” See, they had no conception of a resurrection within history. So these resurrection predictions that Jesus made only confused the disciples and wouldn’t have led them to believe that something was actually going to happen. At the time of the crucifixion they were shattered men. Because the idea that Messiah would come and instead of restoring the throne of David in Jerusalem and vanquishing the enemies of Israel be shamefully executed by them as a criminal was just utterly unknown. There was nothing in Judaism that would lead them to expect that this would happen to Messiah when he came. So the crucifixion put a question mark behind anything the disciples might have believed about Jesus and wouldn’t have led them to believe he was Messiah or that he was going to be raised from the dead.


[Closes with prayer.][7]

[1] 5:00

[2] 10:02

[3] 15:01

[4] 20:02

[5] 25:13

[6] 30:16

[7] Total Running Time: 35:04 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)