Doctrine of Christ (part 18)

January 22, 2012     Time: 00:30:05

In our lesson today we want to continue looking at the resurrection of Jesus. We have been looking at various hypotheses that have been offered down through history in order to explain the resurrection. We have offered critiques of the Conspiracy Theory, the Apparent Death Theory, the Mythology Theory, the Subjective Vision Theory, and the Objective Vision Theory.

Interpretation Theory

The Interpretation Theory, you will remember, is the view that something dramatic happened to the first disciples. The transformation in their lives and the birth of the Christian church requires some sort of dramatic event that brought about this change. But! We don’t know what it was, and the disciples were unable to articulate exactly what it was. So for want of a better term, they latched onto the Jewish concept of resurrection from the dead, and they said, “God raised Jesus from the dead.” That was their way of expressing this incredible experience that they had that led them to continue to believe in Christ. So the resurrection shouldn’t really be taken literally; it was just a sort of metaphorical way of speaking about this dramatic experience they had had.

N. T. Wright, in his massive study of the resurrection entitled The Resurrection of the Son of God, has done a very good job of criticizing this theory. Wright points out, first of all, that the idea of saying that a man is risen from the dead as an articulation of some sort of ongoing experience or belief in him is utterly un-Jewish. Far from being Jewish, this is a totally non-Jewish thing to do. Wright says,

Nobody was expecting this kind of thing; no kind of conversion-experience would have generated such ideas; nobody would have invented it, no matter how guilty (or how forgiven) they felt, no matter how many hours they pored over the scriptures. To suggest otherwise is to stop doing history and to enter into a fantasy world of our own.1

In Judaism, resurrection meant the raising up of the dead man’s corpse in the grave to new life and immortality. That is what the word meant. You would not latch upon that to express some sort of forgiveness of sin or feeling of redemption or something of that sort in Judaism.

The second point that Wright makes is that there were other categories available in Jewish thought that could express properly such an idea. So there wouldn’t be any need to use this misleading term of “resurrection.” Wright says,

Judaism had plenty of categories for talking about divine forgiveness, but that declaring one’s recently executed leader to be Messiah . . . or that he had in any sense been raised from the dead, was not one of them.2

There were other categories available that would have properly expressed their experience, and they didn’t use that. What they could have said was, “God has exalted Jesus to heaven,” for example; that would have been one thing to say rather than that he was raised from the dead – that God has glorified Jesus or something of that sort. Someone might say, “Maybe that is what they originally said, and they used resurrection language to express that!” Here is Wright’s response to that suggestion – he says, “the idea that there was originally no difference for the earliest Christians between resurrection and exaltation/ascension is a twentieth-century fiction.”3 Then, interacting with Bultmann, he says,

what [Bultmann] means is that there was no early belief in ‘resurrection’ at all, since . . . the word ‘resurrection’ . . . was not used to denote a non-bodily extension of life in a heavenly realm, however glorious. Plenty of words existed to denote heavenly exaltation; ‘resurrection’ is never one of them. . . . Bultmann therefore has to postulate . . . that at some point . . . someone . . . began to use, to denote this belief, language which had never meant that before and continued not to mean it in either paganism, Judaism or Christianity . . . and that . . . other people who knew . . . that resurrection meant bodies [nevertheless acquiesced in this usage].4

So the evidence simply doesn’t support the Interpretation Theory.5 The disciples would have been completely un-Jewish to adopt language of resurrection from the dead to express their experience, and there were other categories of Jewish thought and vocabulary that could have been used to express their experience, and resurrection –which had reference solely to the raising up of the dead body in the tomb to new life – was not one of them.


Question : I thought the Pharisees believed in resurrection of the dead because Paul created that argument among them with the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in resurrection; but the Pharisees did.6 So wasn’t that part of Jewish thought?

Answer : That’s right. Resurrection in Jewish thought was what theologians call an eschatological event. Remember, we talked about this earlier when we talked about the Conspiracy Theory. It was the general resurrection of the dead, or of the righteous dead, at the end of the world on judgment day. It was never the resurrection of an isolated individual apart from the general resurrection and in advance of it. So they would not use the concept “resurrection from the dead” to express their feeling of divine forgiveness or that Jesus is vindicated or something of that sort because resurrection meant this literal, physical resurrection of the bones to immortality and glory that would take place on the judgment day.

Question : I had a question that goes back to something you said about the attempt to drive a wedge between Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 and the Gospel accounts. The argument is made that Paul is talking about a non-bodily, non-physical resurrection but some sort of spiritual resurrection because he says flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God and so forth. And on the other hand, the Gospels are talking about apparently a physical resurrection. How do you integrate into your view what Paul says in the account in Acts 9 (where Paul sees or hears the resurrected Christ, and it is not clear that he is talking about a bodily or physical encounter)?

Answer : This is the story of his conversion on the Damascus road. I think that Paul recognized his experience was unusual. It was “out of time,” so to speak, as he says in 1 Corinthians 15 – it was separated by about three years from the other appearances; it was a post-ascension encounter. And yet Paul can classify this as a genuine resurrection appearance and not merely a vision of the Lord precisely because it had extra-mental accompaniments in the external world. There was the light and the voice which, in the Acts account, was in some measure experienced by Paul’s traveling companions, even though they didn’t experience it as an encounter with Jesus. But they did either hear the voice, or they saw the light. So Paul can, with good conscience, say, “I saw Jesus, our Lord,” and it wasn’t just a vision. It had these extra-mental features to it that made it an appearance.

Question : My biggest question about the Interpretation Theory would be if they are offering that the resurrection did not happen but something amazing happened and this is the closest thing to an analogy that they could come up with, that they would have to provide some sort of specific example of what could have happened and then show how that would be more probabilistic than what the eyewitnesses were actually saying.

Answer : I agree with you. When you read John Shelby Spong, who holds to this view, he is excellent on how there must have been something extraordinary, something totally different from anything they’d experienced before, that transformed the lives of the disciples.7 And you just keep wondering, “Why doesn’t he put 2 and 2 together and get 4 and say it was the resurrection? That was his “incredible something”! Instead, these scholars just have to sort of cast about and don’t really know what it is that produced this transformation in the disciples. But they are very good, actually, at emphasizing how dramatic, how extraordinary and unusual this must have been. So I think their point really plays right into the case for the reality of the resurrection. The resurrection best fits that experience. If they have nothing else to offer, other than just, “Peter experienced an overwhelming sense of forgiveness” (that’s what Spong says – that Peter came to sense that his guilt that he was laboring under was forgiven), well, as N. T. Wright says, that doesn’t lead to the proclamation, “God raised him from the dead!” That is a total non sequitur. They have got to do better than this, I agree with you.

Historicity of the Resurrection

Now we come to the view that I skipped over in order to consider these other views, and that is the Literal View – that the best explanation is the one that the disciples gave that God raised Jesus from the dead.

I think there are two avenues to a knowledge of the resurrection. The Easter hymn writer says, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!”8 I think that is a perfectly valid answer on a personal level. Through a living encounter with the risen Lord himself, anyone can know that Jesus is risen from the dead and alive today. Even the most uneducated person, who doesn’t have the library resources or the leisure time to conduct a historical investigation of the evidence for the resurrection, can know, and know with confidence, that Jesus is risen because he has an existential encounter with the living Lord today. So on a personal level I think this is a perfectly valid, and, in fact, I would say primary way, quite honestly, in which people come to know that Jesus is risen.

On the other hand, because the resurrection is purportedly an event of history that occurred in ordinary space and time during the first century in what is today modern day Israel, it is open to historical investigation. Therefore, we can also ask, how credible is this hypothesis as a historical explanation of what happened? Here you might be surprised to learn that the majority of New Testament historians today who have investigated the subject of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth after his crucifixion are agreed on the basic facts which undergird an inference to the resurrection of Jesus. I discovered this during my doctoral studies at the University of Munich, working on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, and it was only slowly that this incredible realization began to dawn upon me. It wasn’t just evangelical scholars or conservative scholars who believed in things like these postmortem appearances of Jesus or the fact of his empty tomb but this actually represented the wide majority of mainstream New Testament criticism today. So the historical grounds upon which the inference to Jesus’ resurrection is based are very widely acknowledged.

It seemed to me as I did my research that these facts could be summarized under four main headings, and that is what I want to begin to review today. Let me just say one other thing. In constructing a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection, there will be two major steps, or two parts, in constructing such a case. First will be to assemble what are the data to be explained. What are the empirical facts – the historical facts – that cry out for explanation? As I say, fortunately there is wide agreement on what those facts are. It is not unanimous; of course, it is not unanimous! I wouldn’t want to suggest that. But, as I say, the wide majority do agree upon the facts. The second step of the case would be: what is the best explanation of those facts?9 This is a two step sort of case. And what we want to first look at are those four facts on which the majority of scholars are agreed today.

Fact #1: The Burial of Jesus

The first fact, fact #1, is that after his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea. We not only know how Jesus was buried, but we even have the name of the person and the identity of the person responsible for his interment.10 This is enormously significant, when you think about it, because what it means is that, contrary to radical biblical critics – for example, John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, who you will often see interviewed around Easter time – contrary to these radical critics, this means that the burial site of Jesus was known in Jerusalem to both Jew and Christian alike. If he was buried by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the court that condemned Jesus, then the location of his tomb was not known just to Christians but to Jews as well. This is enormously important because a movement founded on belief in the resurrection of Jesus could never have flourished in Jerusalem in the face of a tomb containing his corpse! So the burial of Jesus and its historicity is extremely important toward establishing the resurrection.

New Testament scholars are convinced of the fact of Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea on the basis of evidence such as the following four points.

1. Jesus’ burial is attested in the very old tradition that is handed on by Paul in chapter 15 of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul says this:

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

Paul not only uses here the typical rabbinical terms “received” and “delivered,” which were used for the handing on of oral tradition, with regard to this information, but verses 3 to 5 in this four-line formula are a highly stylized form of writing that is filled with non-Pauline characteristics. So Paul is not writing freely in his own hand here, he is quoting some kind of previous tradition that he says he himself received and then in turn passed on to his converts in Corinth. This has convinced all scholars today that Paul is, just as he said, quoting from an old tradition that he himself received after becoming a Christian on the Damascus road. This tradition probably goes back to at least, if not before, Paul’s fact finding visit to Jerusalem in AD 36. In AD 36, you will remember, he went back to Jerusalem, according to Galatians 1:18, and he spent two weeks with Peter and James, the very two people that are mentioned here in the formula, interestingly enough. When you remember that Jesus was crucified in AD 30 and Paul went back to Jerusalem on this fact-finding trip in AD 36, that means that this tradition goes back to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion and possibly very, very early after the crucifixion. So even though his letter to the Corinthian church was written in AD 55 and his visit to Corinth when he gave them this formula was some years earlier than that, nevertheless, the tradition itself reaches back to within the first five years after the crucifixion. This is enormously important because it means we are not talking here about some writing that accrued decades and decades after the event. We are talking about something that goes back to within the first few years. Given such a short time span, as well as Paul’s personal contact with the people named, it is idle to talk about legend in a case like this. You are dealing here with history that has been mediated to Paul and by Paul.11

2. The burial story is also part of very old source material used by Mark in writing his Gospel. When you read the Gospels, you will find that the Gospels tend to consist of brief snapshots, or anecdotes, of Jesus’ life which are loosely strung together and not always chronologically arranged. They have been compared to pearls on a necklace, which might be differently strung together. But when you get to the so-called Passion Story, or Passion Week (that is, the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem), then you do have one smooth, continuously running narrative. This suggests that the Passion Story was a unit which was a whole that Mark used as one of the sources of information in writing his Gospel. Now most scholars already think that Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels, written sometime before the Jewish war in AD 66 that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. Since the Passion Story is one of Mark’s sources, that means that this Passion Story is, of course, even older and goes back very early in the Jerusalem church. When you look at the four [Gospel] narratives, what you discover is that their accounts of Jesus’ passion do not diverge from one another until after the burial account. They have different appearances narrated, but right up to the burial and empty tomb account, they are unanimous in what they relate. This suggests that the burial account was, indeed, part of the pre-Markan Passion Story. Thus, we have independent attestation of the burial from two of the oldest sources in the New Testament: the pre-Pauline tradition quoted in 1 Corinthians 15 and the pre-Markan Passion Story used by Mark in writing his Gospel. This is one of the most important criteria of historicity that historians use. When you have early, independent attestation of the same event, then you are likely on historical bedrock.

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 church toward the Jewish leadership for their instigating the crucifixion of Jesus. In Christian eyes, they were guilty of a judicial murder of Jesus. This was a kangaroo court that had run Jesus to death at the hands of the Romans. Look, for example, at 1 Thessalonians 2:15 to see the way Paul inveighs against the Jewish leadership for the crucifixion of Jesus.12 Indeed in the book of Acts the Jewish leadership is blamed for the crucifixion. They will sometimes say in the sermons in the book of Acts, “You crucified him” – blaming the Jewish leadership, not even mentioning the Romans.13 It is therefore highly improbable that Christians would invent a member of the court that condemned Jesus, all of whom, Mark says, voted for his death, who honors Jesus by giving him an honorable burial in his own tomb instead of allowing him to be dispatched by the Romans like a common criminal in a graveyard reserved for criminals. So the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, is thought by most scholars to be highly probable.

4. Lastly, no competing burial story exists. We have no other indication of how Jesus was buried.14 If the burial by Joseph were fictitious, then you would expect to find some trace of what really happened to the body of Jesus or, at least, competing legends. When you look at ancient tales in mythology, you will often find competing myths or legends about how the hero died or what happened to him. But all of the sources, something like five of them actually, are all consistent on Jesus’ honorable interment by Joseph of Arimathea, and that unanimity is a strong indication that we are on historical bedrock here.

So, for these and several other reasons, the majority of New Testament critics do believe that Jesus of Nazareth was buried in a tomb by a man named Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. 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.”15


Question : Does anybody know why Joseph of Arimathea offered the tomb?

Answer : This is disputed. This is an interesting question. In the later Gospels, we have independent attestation that Joseph was secretly a sympathizer of Jesus. John even says he was a disciple of Jesus but secretly for fear of the Jews.16 So there is some evidence that he was at least sympathetic to Jesus. Even in Mark’s Gospel, he says that Joseph was “a righteous man who was seeking for the kingdom of God.”17 That is the same kind of language that is used to describe the message proclaimed by Jesus – “the kingdom of God is at hand.” So it is not inconsistent with Mark that this man could have been a sympathizer of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, he actually says that Joseph wasn’t present at the vote and did not vote for his condemnation.18 I am speaking here as a historian, not as a theologian who believes in biblical inerrancy. I am saying that is possible.

Others have said that perhaps Joseph was merely a delegate of the Sanhedrin to make sure the body was dispatched properly. It was very important in Judaism that bodies be buried on the same day of execution. So they were very solicitous about taking care of the bodies and making sure they are buried. But what makes me skeptical about that is, then why doesn’t it say that Joseph took care of the other two who were crucified with Jesus? It seems that they were content to let the Romans get rid of them in a common criminals’ graveyard. But Joseph singles out Jesus for very selective treatment, and he buries him in a tomb that doesn’t sound like one reserved for criminals. As I said, the other day, this is one of the most expensive tombs that were available in the first century – the rolling disc-shaped stone for a door – only nobility or the very rich could afford a tomb like this, like Herod’s family.

Followup : Doesn’t it say it was his tomb? It was a tomb he had bought?

Answer : It says it was his family tomb in some of the Gospels.19 It was his own tomb, but no one had ever been laid in it yet, so he wouldn’t be contaminating any of his family members by placing the body of a criminal in it.20 This evinces a very special concern and care for Jesus of Nazareth that, I think, makes it very credible that, in fact, Joseph was a secret believer or sympathizer with Jesus, just as the later Gospels claim. In John’s Gospel, he says that many of the Pharisees believed in Jesus but secretly for fear of the Jews.21 I think it is not at all impossible or implausible that Joseph could have been such a person.

That is a real good question that is debated by scholars – the motivation. But what is agreed upon is that he is the man who did it, which I think is extraordinary! Can you imagine? We actually know the name and the identity of the person who buried Jesus of Nazareth! I am just beside myself, when I think about this, it is so amazing!

Followup : (off mic comment: What’s interesting is, 2000 years later, the validity that it gives us.)

Answer : Yeah, exactly! It gives us tremendous validity and credibility as Christians.22


1 N. T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, III: The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 707.

2 Ibid, p. 705

3 N. T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, III: The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003); page 625.

4 Ibid. pp. 625-626.

5 5:36

6 This is a reference to Acts 23:6-8

7 10:10

8 The hymn is titled “He Lives”, also referred to as “I Serve a Risen Savior”; lyrics written in 1933 by Alfred H. Ackley.

9 15:00

10 cf. Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50; John 19:38

11 20:26

12 “who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men” (1 Thessalonians 2:15).

13 cf. Acts 2:23, 36; 3:13-15; 4:10; 5:30; 13:27-28

14 24:58

15 John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), p. 131.

16 cf. John 19:38

17 cf. Mark 15:43

18 “who had not consented to their decision and action” (Luke 23:51a).

19 “and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock” (Matthew 27:60a).

20 “laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid” (Luke 23:53b); “in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” (John 19:41b).

21 “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue” (John 12:42).

22 Total Running Time: 30:05 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)