What We Know About Jesus and the Resurrection
The following points are almost universally agreed upon by New Testament historians regardless of belief in miracles or their position on the resurrection itself:
- The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are dated between 60-90 AD; Mark is sometimes considered the earliest, dated between 60 and 70. John is generally considered the latest at 90 AD.
- Paul’s letters are dated 40-55 AD, Acts is dated 65-80 AD
- Belief in the divinity of Christ is found in the earliest known Christian creeds
- Classical historical references to Jesus outside the New Testament: Thallos, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, Mara Bar Serapion, Lucian of Samosata, Celcus; general report is that Jesus was a “troublemaker”
- Jewish references to Jesus outside the New Testament: Josephus, rabbinic tradition, Toledot Yeshu; general report is that Jesus was a “cult leader” and a “magician.”
- All of these sources treat Jesus as a real historical person; none assert that he was fictitious
- The four gospels differ too much in their details of the resurrection to have been deliberately harmonized; they represent four sources which are at least partially independent and two which are almost completely independent (synoptics vs. John)
- All four gospels tell the same essential story
- All four gospels explicitly speak of an empty tomb
- Nobody ever produced Jesus’ body
Virtually all historical scholars who write about the resurrection agree on the following six points:
- First century Jews expected a Messiah but did not expect a dying / rising Messiah.
- Jesus died and was buried.
- After this happened, the disciples were discouraged and dejected.
- Soon after Jesus’ burial, the tomb was claimed to be empty and some disciples had experiences they took to be encounters with a risen Jesus.
- These experiences caused them to believe Jesus rose from the dead.
- They started a massive worldwide movement based on the idea that Jesus rose from the dead.
No one who rejects the resurrection offers a convincing alternative explanation of what happened. Theories abound, but no single “2nd theory” has achieved any real consensus; alternative theories all have significant problems and leave major questions unanswered.
Even a prominent skeptic admits: If God exists, belief in the resurrection is philosophically rational and historically reasonable. “Atheists are quick to ridicule the resurrection because of its miraculous nature; Christian apologists are quick to point out that an a priori rejection of the miraculous is unwarranted.
“Both sides are correct within their worldview. But they have failed to argue outside of their worldview. Atheists should not be so quick to ridicule the miraculous and use a Humean attack on miracles to refute the resurrection. Unless atheists can demonstrate that theism is irrational or that the historical evidence for a material resurrection is lacking, they are unlikely to convince many theists to reject the resurrection. Similarly, Christian apologists need to recognize that, until atheists are shown that theism is plausible, atheists will continue to regard the resurrection as a highly implausible event.
“I think it is rational to both accept and reject the resurrection. I think there are strong historical arguments for the resurrection (a lá William Lane Craig), but I also think there are good reasons to reject such arguments. I realize this may sound like a cop-out to some, but I think it is quite reasonable, especially when the issue of prior probability is taken into consideration.” -Jeffrey Jay Lowder, The Historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection, 1995 (Infidels.org)
The question is: What interpretation of these historical facts best explains the sudden origin of early Christianity, belief in a risen Christ, and the explosive growth of the church, even in the face of severe persecution?
©2006 Coffee House Theology