Doctrine of Christ (part 20)

March 07, 2012     Time: 00:33:28

In the last couple lessons we surveyed some of the evidence in favor of the historicity of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea and then the discovery of his empty tomb on the first day of the week by a group of his women followers, including Mary Magdalene. We pointed out that on the basis of this evidence, the vast majority of New Testament historians hold to the historicity of those facts.

Fact #3: The Postmortem Appearances of Jesus

Let’s move to the third fact which is part of the data base concerning the resurrection that cries out for explanation, and that is this: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is a fact which is virtually universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars today. I had thought that perhaps John Dominic Crossan denies this fact, but in personal conversations with him he assured me that no, not at all, he certainly thinks that there were these apparitions that the original disciples experienced. So, frankly, I cannot even name a New Testament critic, no matter how radical, who denies that the original disciples of Jesus experienced these appearances of Jesus alive after his death. Let me mention three grounds that undergird this unanimity among New Testament scholars.

1. The most important would be the list of eyewitnesses to the resurrection appearances that is quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-71. This material, as we explained a couple of weeks ago, is so early – going back to within five years after Jesus’ crucifixion – that it cannot be written off as some sort of late-accruing legend. Moreover, Paul personally knew these people. He had conferred with Peter and James, the two mentioned in the list. He knew the Twelve. He apparently knew of many of the five hundred brethren who had seen the appearance of Christ because he was aware that some of them had died in the interim by the time he wrote to the Corinthians around AD 55 (though most of them, he assures us, were still alive). So these appearances included appearances to Peter (or Cephas – his Aramaic name is given here in the formula that Paul quotes), the Twelve, which undoubtedly refers to that original group of disciples selected by Jesus, the five hundred brethren, and then James, who is Jesus’ younger brother. Simply on the basis of the earliness of this list and the personal contact of the author with the people involved, this list alone shows that the earliest disciples had these apparitions of Jesus alive after his death.

2. The appearance traditions in the Gospels provide multiple, independent attestation of these appearances. This is one of the most important tests of historicity that historians use. If you can show that an event or saying is multiply and independently attested, then that greatly increases the probability of its historicity because it is unlikely that two independent sources would have simply made up the same event. In this case, these appearances are independently and multiply attested. For example, the appearance to Peter is independently attested in the Gospel of Luke, where Luke in the context of the Emmaus story also reports a very early tradition, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”2 So even though we have no story of the appearance to Peter, we do have it mentioned in this extremely early tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 quoted by Paul and then in another old, independent tradition that is quoted in the Gospel of Luke. And, of course, we have Paul’s personally vouchsafing this tradition because of his personal acquaintance with Peter, whom he visited in Jerusalem three years after the appearance to him on the Damascus road.3

What about the appearance to the Twelve? This is the best-attested resurrection appearance of Jesus. It is not only here in the old formula quoted by Paul, but we have independent accounts of this story, or this event, in the Gospels of Luke4 and John5 . Here we have three independent accounts of this same appearance to the Twelve.

In addition to that, we have independent witnesses to Galilean appearances to the disciples in the Gospel of Mark , Matthew and also in John . So in Mark6, Matthew7, and John8, we have independent witnesses, or testimony, to Galilean appearances of Jesus.

Finally, we have independent traditions of appearances to the women in the Gospels of Matthew9 and John10 . Matthew and John are independent of each other, and yet both report appearances to the women in the context of the empty tomb.

So these appearances are multiply and independently attested and span a great breadth of sources in the New Testament documents.

3. Certain appearances have earmarks of historicity. Certain particular appearances especially commend themselves historically. For example, the appearance to James, I think, is really striking in this regard. We have no story of this appearance anywhere else in the New Testament, interestingly enough. This is the only reference to this appearance to James. And yet, I think, we have very good grounds for thinking that this occurred. We have good evidence from the Gospels that neither James, nor, indeed, any of Jesus’ brothers, were believers in Jesus during his lifetime. They did not think that he was the Messiah or a prophet or indeed anybody special11. I think there are very good grounds for thinking these reports of the unbelief of Jesus’ own family members are very credible. There is no reason that the early church would generate fictitious stories about the unbelief of Jesus’ own family if they had been faithful followers of Jesus all along. I think it is very credible that these rather embarrassing reports that Jesus’ own family didn’t believe in him are historically credible narratives. But by the same token, it is indisputable that James and Jesus’ other younger brothers did become active Christian believers following Jesus’ death. They appear with the disciples in the upper room12, Paul refers to the brothers of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 9:5, where he says, “Don’t we have the right to be accompanied by a believing sister as a wife just like Peter and the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord?” So they were apparently involved in missionary preaching.

James becomes an especially important figure in the early church. By the time Paul visits Jerusalem, James was counted as an apostle, one of the three pillars of the Jerusalem church, and he eventually rises to the position of the sole leadership of the church in Jerusalem and the head of the Jerusalem council. According to the first century historian Josephus, James was martyred for his faith in Christ in the AD 60s. We don’t have this story in the New Testament, but we have it in Josephus13. There was a lapse in the civil government in the AD 60s in Jerusalem, and the Sanhedrin seized that lapse in the civil government as an opportunity to illegally stone James, the head of the Jerusalem church, to death. Now think of this. Most of us have brothers. What would it take to convince you that your brother was the Lord, so that you would be ready to be stoned to death for your faith in your brother’s Lordship?14 Can there be any doubt that the reason for this amazing transformation in James is, as Paul says, “then he appeared to James”? Jesus had apparently singled out James for a special resurrection appearance that transformed the life of his younger brother and propelled him into Christian service and Christian leadership.

So even a critic like Gerd Lüdemann, who is the leading German New Testament sceptic concerning Jesus’ resurrection, admits (these are his own words), “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”15 The only question really is: how will you explain these appearances? Can you explain them psychologically as hallucinatory experiences or religious visions? But that is a subsequent question that we will come to later. In terms of the historicity of these events, there is really no dispute among New Testament historians today that following Jesus’ death, various individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.


Question : Should we be a bit suspect about Josephus and his reporting?

Answer : I don’t know of anybody who is sceptical about Josephus’ report concerning James. The passage in Josephus concerning Jesus himself seems to have suffered some later Christian interpolations, where Josephus says, “He was the Messiah” and says, “He is risen from the dead.” It seems unlikely that an unbelieving Roman collaborator like Josephus would say those things. But most scholars do think there was a Jesus passage in Josephus and that when you strip out those Christianized elements you do have a genuine testimony to Jesus in Josephus. In fact, one of the reasons is because later, when he talks about James, he says that James is the brother of the so-called Christ, Jesus. It is on the basis of the authenticity of that reference that people think that there was a Jesus passage in Josephus because he refers back to it. But I am not aware of anyone who calls into question Josephus’ testimony to what happened to James, who was a rather prominent figure in Jerusalem.

Question : How would you answer somebody who has an issue with this sort of evidential approach, such as Presuppositionalists?16 What if somebody is just obtuse and says, “We’ll find a naturalistic explanation for this.”

Answer : At this point, we are not looking at how you best explain these facts. That is important to understand. This is a two-step argument. What we are doing here is just looking at the inductive data base. What happened to Jesus of Nazareth? So far, there is nothing about these events that we are claiming is supernatural in any way. The fact that a tomb is discovered empty – there is nothing supernatural about that. The fact that people had these experiences – there is nothing necessarily supernatural about that either. We will get to the question of how these are best to be explained later on. But I don’t see how anyone can object to the historian asking these kinds of questions anymore than a Civil War historian who asks what happened to the body of Abraham Lincoln. There was actually a plot to steal Lincoln’s body out of the grave in Springfield. Any American historian who is working on that era will want to know, was the plot successful? Was the body missing? Was the plot foiled? Those are questions any historian can ask and ought to be interested in.

Question : How would you respond to the comment that, yes, the resurrection was attested by independent and multiple sources but what about the fact that maybe there was a Q source17 and these subsequent sources were simply reiterating what was already stated in one source and just interpreting it or carrying it on.

Answer : When I say that these sources are independent, I don’t simply mean that we have Mark over here and we have Matthew over here. Clearly, that kind of independence isn’t enough because, as you point out, it may well be that when Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels, they drew upon Mark and drew upon another source, like Q, for sayings of Jesus.18 So you cannot simply count noses here and say, “This is independently attested because it is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.” But that is not what I did. What I am talking about here are the sources behind Matthew and Luke and John and Mark. I don’t appeal to simply mentions in different Gospels but rather when the Gospel writers are drawing upon different sources for what they relate. For example, just to give one illustration. Matthew clearly has another source for the empty tomb narrative than Mark. Why? Because Matthew has this whole elaborate story of the guard at the tomb which is not found in Mark. So Matthew is clearly supplementing whatever material he drew from Mark with this other tradition that he has about a guard being posted at the tomb. Luke and John also have this additional element of not only a women’s visit to the tomb, but the visit of two disciples, who are named as Peter and then the Beloved Disciple in John. Again, this is independent of Mark because Mark ends with the women fleeing from the tomb and has nothing about a visit from these male disciples. Clearly, Luke isn’t getting this from Mark. Given the independence of John and Luke’s sources, they are not working with a common source either. So this, again, would show independent sources for the empty tomb behind Mark, Luke, and John. That is the kind of work that I am reporting here. We are dealing with genuinely independent sources and not just saying that these are merely mentioned in different Gospels.

Question : (inaudible – asks to have the second and third points repeated)

Answer : The second and third points? Yes, for those that are taking notes – the second point was that the appearance traditions in the Gospels provide multiple, independent attestation of these appearances. So we have them in Paul’s tradition, but then we have multiple, independent mention of these in the Gospels. The third point was certain appearances have earmarks of historicity. They have a special credibility. Here I use the example of James. Given what the Gospels report about the unbelief of James and Jesus’ brothers and then what we know about James after the resurrection, there has to be some sufficient cause for this remarkable transformation in James. The death of Jesus wouldn’t do it! If you think about that – if James didn’t believe during Jesus’ lifetime that Jesus was the Messiah – Jesus’ crucifixion would only confirm that disbelief because Messiah was supposed to establish the throne of David in Jerusalem, not be humiliatingly executed as a criminal. While that might rend James’ heart to see his brother crucified, it would only confirm his belief that his brother was a deluded fanatic who thought he was something that he wasn’t and as a result he has been killed. So the death of Jesus isn’t going to explain sufficiently this amazing transformation in James. But this fact reported by Paul – “then he appeared to James” – if James did have such an experience, that would explain this transformation. So some of these appearances have special credibility. Another would be the story in John 21 of the disciples’ fishing and Jesus’ appearing to them while fishing. This is also very credible in view of the fact that the disciples appear to have returned to their old way of life rather than being involved in the task of world mission. That makes this appearance look especially credible.

Question : Why do you think that James was actually a biological brother of Jesus? What evidence do we have that he had any biological brothers, as opposed to cousins or something being called “brothers.”

Answer : There isn’t any ground for thinking that the word adelphos (or adelphe for his sisters) means anything other than the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters19. Those are the words. If I said to someone I am going to be introducing here to the Defenders class Drew’s brother and his sisters, the natural sense would be these are your family members, not your cousins. It is the same in Greek. While you could force – if you had other independent reasons – an interpretation that would say these were not his blood brothers and sisters, in the absence of any reason to think so you’d take them at face value. This is the way they were regarded, and this would be natural for a Jewish couple to have a large family. The Gospels report he had brothers and sisters and gives their names, at least of his brothers.

Question : Maybe a little off topic, but do you see any parallel between when the critics of Christianity talk about the hiddenness of God and the absence of the body? Why wouldn’t Christ just hang around and prove to each of us and why didn’t God just write flashing neon lights, “I am God.” They are both the same.

Answer : That is an interesting question. I have found among the unbelieving, free thought community the frequent objection made, “Why didn’t Jesus appear to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate and all of the people?” Indeed, this objection, if pressed to its logical conclusion, would be, “Why didn’t Jesus appear to everyone, everywhere, in human history rather than just to this select group?” I think the reason for that is, when you read the New Testament, the purpose of the appearances was not to convince people that Jesus was risen from the dead. Indeed, if that were the purpose, it would lead to this sort of logical extrapolation that he’d have to appear to everybody in every generation everywhere in the world. Rather the purpose of the appearances was for commissioning the disciples for the task of world mission. That was why he appeared simply to this select group. It is because he is commissioning them to take the message now out to all the world. There is simply no reason to think that the task of world evangelization would have been better achieved by having an appearance to Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas. I think these folks have misunderstood the purpose of the appearances. I do think the appearances do serve as evidence for the resurrection, but that wasn’t their purpose. Their purpose was to commission the disciples for world mission.

Followup : I agree with everything that you said. I think the reason for the hiddenness of God is the same reason why Christ is not with us yet now.

Answer : I do think it is related to the hiddenness of God in that, on my view at least, God knows what evidence, if given, would be sufficient to convince people to come to know him and find salvation. Beyond that, it becomes mere showmanship or coercion, and God is not into that. He is simply under no obligation to give appearances to Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas when he knew that wouldn’t do any good – it wouldn’t lead them to come to Christ or become faithful followers. So he is under no obligation to engage in that sort of showmanship.

Question : Two quick thoughts. One, over in Mark 6:3, the people who were questioning Jesus’ authority say, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” They were against him because, to these people who were observing Jesus, he was just one of this family. He was not an authority from God; he was just a human being. The way this was written there was no question as to whether they were actually brothers and sisters. My other question – this is probably getting on the wrong direction – but we are talking about people being convinced of Jesus with evidence. How does that tie in with the thing that drives me crazy about the (inaudible) says “no one comes to Jesus unless God sends them.” So all the convincing that he is doing is not going to work no matter what unless God says, “OK, now you are convinced.”

Answer : What he says is, “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). I take that to be the same thing that Paul is teaching when he says that the natural man doesn’t receive the things of the Spirit of God because they are folly to him. This requires spiritual discernment, and therefore apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, no one would come to believe in Christ.20 So merely providing miracles isn’t going to produce genuine saving faith. But the Holy Spirit can work through the evidence of miracles to draw people to Christ. We shouldn’t think that the evidence and the Holy Spirit are working in opposition to each other. I see them working as hand and glove; the Holy Spirit will use the evidence and the arguments to draw people to himself.

Question : In terms of a basic interpretation of this passage, why do you think there are two references to the disciples? It mentions, first of all, “the Twelve” in verse 5 and later on in verse 7 it mentions “all the apostles.”

Answer : That is a good question. I did not say anything about this vaguely characterized group “all of the apostles.” Who is this? As you say, it is unlikely that this is just the Twelve over again because Paul is not here narrating events; he is narrating witnesses. So it would be redundant to mention the Twelve again, even if there were multiple appearances to the Twelve. That is not what he is doing. He is mentioning witnesses here, not events. So who could this group of apostles be? The word “apostle” means “a sent one.” It is, in a sense, a missionary. I suspect that this refers to members of this group of people that is mentioned in Acts 1, when it comes time to replace Judas as one of the members of the original Twelve. They say, “Let’s select someone who has been with Jesus from the beginning, who will now be a witness to his resurrection with us.”21 There was apparently, in addition to the tight circle of the Twelve, a somewhat broader circle of faithful disciples who had followed Jesus from the beginning, who had been with him during his ministry, from whom, then, someone could be drawn to be a member of this elite group of the Twelve. This broader group of apostle missionaries is, I think, probably what is referred to here. This would be the sort of appearance that you would have, for example, at the ascension in Acts 1 where all of Jesus’ followers, not just the Twelve, are there and see this final appearance of Jesus. This is probably a vaguely characterized group of apostle missionaries and not simply a redundant reference to the Twelve. That was a good question.

Question : I use to think that the Immaculate Conception means the Immaculate Conception of Jesus through Mary and the Holy Spirit. Then I came to understand that what that means to the Roman Catholic Church is that Mary, herself, was conceived from the Holy Spirit.

Answer : Well, not that she was conceived from the Holy Spirit; she was conceived without sin. She didn’t inherit original sin from her parents.

Followup : OK. So am I correct in believing that what that means is that they do not believe that she and Joseph had sex and that, therefore, when it refers to the brothers and sisters of Jesus it is really referring to cousins; Jesus had no biological brothers and sisters?

Answer : It is correct that that is what they believe, but it is not because of the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception of Mary simply meant she is born without original sin. But that is not inconsistent with her enjoying normal sexual relations with Joseph after Jesus’ birth. The reason they don’t believe that Jesus had biological brothers and sisters is because of the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. The Catholic Church believes that Mary never had sexual relations with Joseph. It is the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary – she is always a virgin. She is never someone who has known sexual relations, not even with her husband. So poor, old Joseph here kind of suffers the consequences of the perpetual virginity of Mary – maybe that is why he passed off the scene early, as a kind of mercy upon him!22 [laughter] But that is where that comes from. They are two separate doctrines. That is what leads to the conclusion that, although these references refer clearly to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, they will say no, no, these are cousins of Jesus or in the Greek Orthodox church they will sometimes say these are children of Joseph from a previous marriage, even though we have no evidence that Joseph was married before he married Mary.

Question : Even though Scripture says with the euphemism that “Joseph didn’t know his wife ‘until’ she bore Christ”23 , this to me (along with the other verses of naming the names) makes the perpetual virginity totally unsupportable.

Answer : We are getting a little bit off the topic here. But, when the Protestant says, “It says in the Scripture that Joseph knew not Mary until she had given birth to her first born son,” the Roman Catholic theologian will say “‘until’ doesn’t mean that thereafter she did have sexual relations.” For example, you might say, “I was faithful to my wife until death.” That doesn’t mean that after death I then was unfaithful. It just meant that up to that point. I agree with you: I think that is a forced interpretation. Yes, “until” can be used in that way, but why think that, unless you have got this prior theological commitment to the perpetual virginity of Mary? That commitment is clearly not rooted in Scripture; it is rooted in church tradition. But, of course, you see, the Catholic Church recognizes tradition as having equal authority with Scripture. “”Equal reverence and piety” are to be given to the tradition of the Catholic Church as to Holy Scripture. That is one of the watchwords of the Protestant Reformation – sola Scriptura, namely, it is Scripture and Scripture alone that is the authoritative rule for faith and practice. So this is just a fundamental difference between Protestants and Catholics with regard to what the rule of faith is. We would hold that the rule of faith is Scripture alone. Therefore, we don’t have this prior commitment to Mariological doctrines that would lead us to deny what seems to be the plain teaching and sense of the New Testament text.

Next time we will look at the fourth fact which undergirds the inference to the resurrection of Jesus, namely, the transformation in the lives of the earliest disciples.24


1 “and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:5-7).

2 cf. Luke 24:34

3 5:26

4 cf. Luke 24:36-52

5 cf. John 20:19-31

6 cf. Mark 16:7

7 cf. Matthew 28:16-20

8 cf. John 21

9 cf. Matthew 28:9-10

10 cf. John 20:14-18

11 “For even his brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5). “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, ‘He is beside himself’” (Mark 3:21).

12 “. . . they went up to the upper room . . . All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:13-14).

13 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 1

14 10:06

15 Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80.

16 Presuppositionalism presumes that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought – apart from presuppositions (such as believing that the Bible is a divine revelation from God), there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason for Christianity.

17 The “Q source”, sometimes referred to simply as “Q”, is short for the German word “Quelle” (or “source”). It is theorized that both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke used another, hitherto unknown, source that provided some common material found in them. This ancient, unknown source, referred to by scholars as “Q”, supposedly contained sayings of Jesus.

18 15:12

19 20:04

20 25:05

21 cf. Acts 1:21-22

22 30:16

23 cf. Matthew 1:25

24 Total Running Time: 33:28 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)