Contemporary Scholarship & The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY
TALBOT DIVINITY SCHOOL
"Man," writes Loren Eisley, "is the Cosmic Orphan." He is the only creature in the universe who asks, Why? Other animals have instincts to guide them, but man has learned to ask questions. "Who am I?" he asks. "Why am I here? Where am I going?"
Ever since the Enlightenment, when modern man threw off the shackles of religion, he has tried to answer these questions without reference to God. But the answers that came back were not exhilarating, but dark and terrible. "You are an accidental by-product of nature, the result of matter plus time plus chance. There is no reason for your existence. All you face is death. Your life is but a spark in the infinite darkness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever."
Modern man thought that in divesting himself of God, he had freed himself from all that stifled and repressed him. Instead, he discovered that in killing God, he had also killed himself.
Against this background of the modern predicament, the traditional Christian hope of the resurrection takes on an even greater brightness and significance. It tells man that he is no orphan after all, but the personal image of the Creator God of the universe; nor is his life doomed in death, for through the eschatological resurrection he may live in the presence of God forever.
This is a wonderful hope. But, of course, hope that is not founded in fact is not hope, but mere illusion. Why should the Christian hope of eschatological resurrection appear to modern man as anything more than mere wishful thinking? The answer lies in the Christian conviction that a man has been proleptically raised by God from the dead as the forerunner and exemplar of our own eschatological resurrection. That man was Jesus of Nazareth, and his historical resurrection from the dead constitutes the factual foundation upon which the Christian hope is based.
Classical 19th century liberal theology had no use for the historical resurrection of Jesus. Since liberal theologians retained the presupposition against the possibility of miracles which they had inherited from the Deists, a historical resurrection was a priori simply out of the question for them. The mythological explanation of D. F. Strauss enabled them to explain the resurrection accounts of the New Testament as legendary fictions. The belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus was a hangover from antiquity which it was high time for modern man to be rid of. Thus, in classical liberal theology's greatest study of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, Kirsopp Lake's The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1907), Lake carefully plots the legendary development of the resurrection narratives from the root historical event of the women's going to the wrong tomb and finding it empty. Despite Christianity’s being thus founded on an error, Lake concludes on a cheery note: what is vital for Christian theology is the belief in the immortality of the soul, the belief that our departed friends and relatives are still alive and that in time we shall be re-united with them. Thus, the NT has been replaced by the Phaedo.
Classical liberal theology could not survive World War I, but its demise brought no renewed interest in the historicity of Jesus' resurrection, for the two schools that succeeded it were united in their devaluation of the historical with regard to Jesus. Thus, dialectical theology, propounded by Karl Barth, championed the doctrine of the resurrection but would have nothing to do with the resurrection as an event of history. In his commentary on the book of Romans (1919), the early Barth declared, "The resurrection touches history as a tangent touches a circle-that is, without really touching it." Existential theology, exemplified by Rudolf Bultmann, was even more antithetical to the historicity of Jesus' resurrection. Though Bultmann acknowledged that the earliest disciples believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus and that Paul in I Corinthians 15 even attempts to prove the resurrection, he nevertheless pronounces such a procedure as "fatal." It reduces Christ's resurrection to a nature miracle akin to the resurrection of a corpse. And modern man cannot be reasonably asked to believe in nature miracles before becoming a Christian. Therefore, the miraculous elements of the gospel must be demythologized to reveal the true Christian message: the call to authentic existence in the face of death, symbolized by the cross. The resurrection is merely a symbolic re-statement of the message of the cross and essentially adds nothing to it. To appeal to the resurrection as historical evidence, as did Paul, is doubly wrong-headed, for it is of the very nature of existential faith that it is a leap without evidence. Thus, to argue historically for the resurrection is contrary to faith. Clearly then, the antipathy of classical liberal theology to the historicity of Jesus' resurrection remained unrelieved by either dialectical or existential theology.
But a remarkable change came about during the second half of the 20th century. The first glimmerings of change began to appear in 1953. In that year Ernst Käsemann, a pupil of Bultmann, argued at a colloquy at the University of Marburg that Bultmann's historical skepticism toward Jesus was unwarranted and counterproductive and suggested re-opening the question of where the historical about Jesus was to be found. A new quest of the historical Jesus had begun. Three years later in 1956 the Marburg theologian Hans Grass subjected the resurrection itself to historical inquiry and concluded that the resurrection appearances cannot be dismissed as mere subjective visions on the part of the disciples, but were objective visionary events.
Meanwhile the church historian Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen in an equally epochal essay defended the historical credibility of Jesus' empty tomb. During the ensuing years a stream of works on the historicity of Jesus' resurrection flowed forth from German, French, and English presses. By 1968 the old skepticism was a spent force and began dramatically to recede. So complete has been the turn-about during the second half of the 20th century concerning the resurrection of Jesus that it is no exaggeration to speak of a reversal of scholarship on this issue, such that those who deny the historicity of Jesus' resurrection now seem to find themselves on the defensive. Perhaps one of the most significant theological developments in this connection is the theological system of Wolfhart Pannenberg, who bases his entire Christology on the historical evidence for Jesus' ministry and especially the resurrection. This is a development undreamed of in German theology prior to 1950. Equally startling is the declaration of one of the world's leading Jewish theologians Pinchas Lapide, that he is convinced on the basis of the evidence that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Lapide twits New Testament critics like Bultmann and Marxsen for their unjustified skepticism and concludes that he believes on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. In his recent, 800-page study of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection the British New Testament historian N. T. Wright boldly concludes that the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus have a historical probability so high as to be “virtually certain, like the death of Augustus in AD 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.”
What are the facts that underlie this remarkable reversal of opinion concerning the credibility of the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus? It seems to me that they can be conveniently grouped under three heads: the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith. Let's look briefly at each.
First, the resurrection appearances. Undoubtedly the major impetus for the reassessment of the appearance tradition was the demonstration by Joachim Jeremias that in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5 Paul is quoting an old Christian formula which he received and in turn passed on to his converts. According to Galatians 1:18 Paul was in Jerusalem three years after his conversion on a fact-finding mission, during which he conferred with Peter and James over a two week period, and he probably received the formula at this time, if not before. Since Paul was converted in AD 33, this means that the list of witnesses goes back to within the first five years after Jesus' death. Thus, it is idle to dismiss these appearances as legendary. We can try to explain them away as hallucinations if we wish, but we cannot deny they occurred. Paul's information makes it certain that on separate occasions various individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. Even Gert Lüdemann, the leading contemporary German critic of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, himself admits, “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.” This conclusion is virtually indisputable.
At the same time that biblical scholarship has come to a new appreciation of the historical credibility of Paul's information, however, it must be admitted that skepticism concerning the appearance traditions in the gospels persists. This lingering skepticism seems to me to be entirely unjustified. It is based on a presuppositional antipathy toward the physicalism of the gospel appearance stories. But the traditions underlying those appearance stories may well be as reliable as Paul's traditions. Indeed, I think there are good reasons for thinking that the original appearances were physical.
(1) Paul himself thought that the resurrection was physical in nature. In pre-Christian Judaism “resurrection” always meant the raising and vivifying of the remains of the physical body (principally the bones). Paul similarly taught that although the souls of departed believers are now with the Lord, at His return the dead in Christ will be raised (I Cor.15.52; I Thess. 4.16), referring to the dead in the graves. Paul was familiar with visions of Christ and sharply differentiated such experiences from the original resurrection appearances of Christ.
(2) The earliest evidence we have is that the appearances were physical in nature. In order for the gospel appearance stories to be in the main legendary, a considerable length of time must be available for the evolution and development of the traditions until the historical elements have been supplanted by unhistorical. But NT scholars agree that the gospels were written down and circulated within the first generation, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. Indeed, a significant new movement of biblical scholarship argues persuasively that some of the gospels were written by the AD 50's. This places them as early as Paul's letter to the Corinthians and, given their equal reliance upon prior traditions, they ought therefore to be accorded the same weight of historical credibility accorded Paul. It is instructive to note in this connection that no apocryphal gospel appeared during the first century. These did not arise until after the generation of eyewitnesses had died off. These are better candidates for the office of 'legendary fiction' than the canonical gospels.
(3) The physicality of the resurrection appearances is multiply and independently attested, thus passing one of the most important criteria of historical authenticity. Indeed, all our sources are unanimous in describing the resurrection appearances as physical and bodily in nature.
(4) If the disciples’ original experiences had been mere visions, then such experiences would not have led to belief in Jesus’ resurrection (which contradicted Jewish beliefs about the afterlife) but at most to his exaltation into heaven (in line with Jewish beliefs).
(5) No motivation existed for materializing the appearances if they had originally been merely visionary in nature. Religious visions were an accepted category to both Jews and Gentiles alike, but a physical resurrection of a dead man was unthinkable to both and would serve only to erect unnecessary obstacles to the reception of the disciples’ proclamation. Thus, I find current criticism's skepticism with regard to the appearance traditions in the gospels to be unwarranted. The new appreciation of the historical value of Paul's information needs to be accompanied by a reassessment of the gospel traditions as well.
Second, the empty tomb. Once regarded as an offense to modern intelligence and an embarrassment to Christian theology, the empty tomb of Jesus has come to assume its place among the generally accepted facts concerning the historical Jesus. Allow me to review briefly some of the evidence undergirding this connection.
(1) The historical reliability of the burial story supports the empty tomb. If the burial account is accurate, then the site of Jesus' grave was known in Jerusalem to Jew and Christian alike. In that case, it is a very short inference to historicity of the empty tomb. For if Jesus had not risen and the burial site were known:
(a) The disciples could never have believed in the resurrection of Jesus. For a first century Jew the idea that a man might be raised from the dead while his body remained in the tomb was simply a contradiction in terms. In the words of E. E. Ellis, "It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, 'grave emptying' resurrection. To them an anastasis without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle."
(b) Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection of Jesus, it is doubtful they would have generated much of a following. So long as the body was interred in the tomb, a Christian movement founded on belief in the resurrection of the dead man would have been an impossible folly in Jerusalem.
(c) The Jewish authorities would have exposed the whole affair. The quickest and surest answer to the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus would have been simply to point to his grave on the hillside.
For these three reasons, the accuracy of the burial story supports the historicity of the empty tomb. Unfortunately for those who wish to deny the empty tomb, however, the burial story is one of the most historically certain traditions we have concerning Jesus. Several factors undergird this judgment. To mention only a few.
(i) The burial is mentioned in the third line of the old Christian formula quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 15.4.
(ii) It is part of the ancient pre-Markan passion story which Mark used as a source for his gospel.
(iii) The story itself lacks any traces of legendary development or theological embellishment.
(iv) The story comports with archeological evidence concerning the types and location of tombs extant in Jesus' day.
(v) No other competing burial traditions exist.
For these and other reasons, most scholars are united in the judgment that the burial story is fundamentally historical. According to Durham University’s James D. G. Dunn in his recent magisterial volume Jesus Remembered, “The tradition of Jesus’ burial is one of the oldest pieces of tradition we have. . . and. . . no detail is drawn from Scripture.” But if that is the case, then, as I have explained, the inference that the tomb was found empty is not very far at hand.
(2) Paul's testimony supports the fact of the empty tomb. Here two aspects of Paul's evidence may be mentioned.
(a) In the formula cited by Paul the expression "he was raised" following the phrase "he was buried" implies the empty tomb. A first century Jew could not think otherwise. As E. L. Bode observes, the notion of the occurrence of a spiritual resurrection while the body remained in the tomb is a peculiarity of modern theology. For the Jews it was the remains of the person in the tomb which were raised; hence, they carefully preserved the bones of the dead in ossuaries until the eschatological resurrection. There can be no doubt that both Paul and the early Christian formula he cites pre-suppose the existence of the empty tomb.
(b) The phrase "on the third day" probably points to the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is that since no one actually witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, how did Christians come to date it "on the third day?" The most probable answer is that they did so because this was the day of the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus' women followers. Hence, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus' empty tomb.
(3) The empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story and is therefore very old. The empty tomb story was probably the end of Mark's passion source. As Mark is the earliest of our gospels, this source is therefore itself quite old. According to Mark Allen Powell, “The dominant view is that the passion narratives are early and based on eyewitness testimony.” Indeed, Richard Bauckham reports that “many scholars take the view that it goes back to . . . , at the latest, the AD 40s.” This source thus probably dates from within the first several years of the Jerusalem fellowship and is therefore an ancient and important source of historical information.
(4) The story is simple and lacks legendary development. The empty tomb story is uncolored by the theological and apologetical motifs that would be characteristic of a later legendary account. Perhaps the most forceful way to appreciate this point is to compare it with the accounts of the empty tomb found in apocryphal gospels of the second century. For example, in the gospel of Peter a voice rings out from heaven during the night, the stone rolls back of itself from the door of the tomb, and two men descend from heaven and enter the tomb. Then three men are seen coming out of the tomb, the two supporting the third. 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 a voice asks, "Hast thou preached to them that sleep?" And the cross answers, "Yea". In the Ascension of Isaiah, Jesus comes out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel. These are how real legends look: unlike the gospel accounts, they are colored by theological motifs.
(5) The tomb was probably discovered empty by women. To understand this point one has to recall two facts about the role of women in Jewish society.
(a) Woman occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as "Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women" and "Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female."
(b) The testimony of women was regarded as less reliable than the testimony of men. The first century Jewish historian Josephus reports that due to the “brashness and levity of their sex” the testimony of women should not be permitted in a Jewish court of law. In light of these facts, how remarkable must it seem that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus' empty tomb! Any later legend would certainly have made the male disciples to discover the empty tomb. The fact that women, whose testimony was dismissable, rather than men, are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly accounted for by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb and the gospels accurately record this.
(6) The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection. That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded to this by reciting the story of the guard at the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep. Now the noteworthy feature of this whole dispute is not the historicity of the guards but rather the presupposition of both parties that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the very adversaries of the early Christian movement provides evidence in support of the empty tomb.
One could go on, but perhaps enough has been said to indicate why the judgment of scholarship has reversed itself on the historicity of the empty tomb. According to Michael Licona in his recent, massive study of Jesus’ resurrection, “The empty tomb may be added to a collection of facts that are granted by a significant majority of scholars writing on the subject.” Thus, it is today widely recognized that the empty tomb of Jesus is a simple historical fact. As D. H. van Daalen has pointed out, "It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions." But assumptions may simply have to be changed in light of historical facts.
Finally, we may turn to that third body of evidence supporting Jesus’ resurrection: the very origin of the Christian Way. Even the most skeptical scholars admit that the earliest disciples at least believed that Jesus had been raised from the hinges on the belief of these earliest disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. The question now inevitably arises: how does one explain the origin of that belief? As R. H. Fuller urges, even the most skeptical critic must posit some mysterious X to get the movement going. But the question is, what was that X?
If one denies that Jesus really did rise from the dead, then he must explain the disciples' belief that he did rise in terms of either pagan influences, Jewish influences, or Christian influences.
Now clearly their belief in Jesus’ resurrection cannot be explained as a result of Christian influences, simply because there was no Christianity yet. Since the belief in Jesus’ resurrection was itself the foundation for Christianity, it cannot be explained as the later product of Christianity.
But neither can belief in Jesus’ resurrection be explained as the result of pagan influences on the disciples. Back around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, in the hey-day of the History of Religions school, scholars in comparative religion collected parallels to Christian beliefs in other religious movements, and some thought to explain those beliefs, including belief in Jesus’ resurrection, as the result of the influence of such myths.
The movement soon collapsed, however, principally due to two factors: First, scholars came to realize that the parallels are spurious. The ancient world was a virtual cornucopia of myths of gods and heroes. Comparative studies in religion and literature require sensitivity to their similarities and differences, or distortion and confusion inevitably result. Unfortunately, those who adduced parallels to Jesus’ resurrection failed to exercise such sensitivity. Many of the alleged parallels are actually apotheosis stories, the divinization and assumption of the hero into heaven (Hercules, Romulus). Others are disappearance stories, asserting that the hero has vanished into a higher sphere (Apollonius of Tyana, Empedocles). Still others are seasonal symbols for the crop cycle, as the vegetation dies in the dry season and comes back to life in the rainy season (Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis). None of these is parallel to the Jewish idea of the resurrection of the dead. David Aune, a specialist in comparative ancient Near Eastern literature, concludes, “no parallel to them [resurrection traditions] is found in Graeco-Roman biography.” Indeed, most scholars have come to doubt whether properly speaking there really were any myths of dying and rising gods at all. In the Osiris myth, one of the best known symbolic seasonal myths, Osiris does not really come back to life at all but simply continues to exist in the nether realm of the departed. In a recent review of the evidence, T. N. D. Mettinger reports: “From the 1930s. . . a consensus has developed to the effect that the ‘dying and rising gods’ died but did not return or rise to live again. . . Those who still think differently are looked upon as residual members of an almost extinct species.” Mettinger himself believes that myths of dying and rising did exist in the cases of Dumuzi, Baal, and Melqart; but he recognizes that such symbols are quite unlike the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. The riddle remains.”
Notice Mettinger’s comment that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection may be profitably studied against the background of Jewish resurrection beliefs (not pagan mythology). Here we see one of the major shifts in New Testament studies over the last century, often called “the Jewish reclamation of Jesus.” Scholars came to realize that pagan mythology is simply the wrong interpretive context for understanding Jesus of Nazareth. Craig Evans has called this shift the “Eclipse of Mythology” in Life of Jesus research. Jesus and his disciples were first century Palestinian Jews, and it is against that background that they must be understood. The spuriousness of the alleged parallels is just one indication that pagan mythology is the wrong interpretive context for understanding the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. It is sad that such obsolete and defective scholarship is still paraded on the internet today.
Second, there is no causal connection between pagan myths and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Jews were familiar with the seasonal deities (Ez. 8.14) and found them abhorrent. Therefore, as Gerhard Kittel notes, there is no trace of cults of dying and rising gods in first century Palestine. In any case, surely Hans Grass does not exaggerate when he says that it would be “completely unthinkable” that the original disciples would have sincerely come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was risen from the dead because they had heard of pagan myths about dying and rising seasonal gods.
But neither can the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection be plausibly explained as a result of Jewish influences. To see this we need to back up a moment. In the Old Testament, the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead on the day of judgment is mentioned in three places (Ezekiel 37; Isaiah 26.19; Daniel 12.2). During the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the belief in eschatological resurrection flowered and is often mentioned in the Jewish literature of that period. In Jesus' day the Jewish party of the Pharisees held to belief in the resurrection of the dead, and Jesus sided with them on this score in opposition to the party of the Sadducees. So the idea of resurrection was itself nothing new.
But the Jewish conception of resurrection differed in two important, fundamental respects from Jesus' resurrection. In Jewish thought the resurrection always (1) occurred after the end of the world, not within history, and (2) concerned all the people, not just an isolated individual. In contradistinction to this, Jesus' resurrection was both within history and of one individual person.
With regard to the first point, the Jewish belief was always that at the end of history, God would raise the righteous dead and receive them into His Kingdom. There are, to be sure, examples in the Old Testament of resuscitations of the dead; but these persons would die again. The resurrection to eternal life and glory occurred after the end of the world. We find this Jewish outlook in the gospels themselves. Thus, when Jesus assures Martha that her brother Lazarus will rise again, she responds, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (John 11.24). She has no idea that Jesus is about to bring him back to life. Similarly, when Jesus tells his disciples he will rise from the dead, they think he means at the end of the world (Mark 9.9-13). The idea that a true resurrection could occur prior to God's bringing the Kingdom of Heaven at the end of the world was utterly foreign to them. The greatly renowned German New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias writes, “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, therefore, confronted with Jesus' crucifixion and death, would only have looked forward to the resurrection at the final day and would probably have carefully kept their master's tomb as a shrine, where his bones could reside until the resurrection. They would not have thought that he was already raised.
As for the second point, the Jewish idea of resurrection was always of a general resurrection of the dead, not an isolated individual. It was the people, or mankind as a whole, that God raised up in the resurrection. But in Jesus' resurrection, God raised just a single man. Moreover, there was no concept of the people's resurrection in some way hinging on the Messiah's resurrection. That was just totally unknown. Yet that is precisely what is said to have occurred in Jesus' case. Ulrich Wilckens, another prominent German New Testament critic, explains: “For nowhere do the Jewish texts speak of the resurrection of an individual which already occurs before the resurrection of the righteous in the end time and is differentiated and separate from it; nowhere does the participation of the righteous in the salvation at the end time depend on their belonging to the Messiah, who was raised in advance as the 'First of those raised by God.' (1 Corinthians 15:20).” It is therefore evident that the disciples would not as a result of Jewish influences or background have come up with the idea that Jesus alone had been raised from the dead. They would wait with longing for that day when He and all the righteous of Israel would be raised by God to glory.
The disciples' belief in Jesus' resurrection, therefore, cannot be plausibly explained as the result of either Christian, pagan, or Jewish influences. Left to themselves, the disciples would never have come up with such an idea as Jesus' resurrection. And remember: they were fishermen and tax collectors, not theologians! The mysterious X is still missing. According to C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University, here is a belief nothing in terms of previous historical influences can account for. He points out that we have a situation in which a large number of people held firmly to this belief, which cannot be explained in terms of the Old Testament or the Pharisees, and these people held onto this belief until the Jews finally threw them out of the synagogue. According to Professor Moule, the origin of this belief must have been the fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead: “If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole of the size and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?. . . the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church. . . remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the church itself.” The resurrection of Jesus is therefore the best explanation for the origin of the Christian faith.
Taken together, these three great historical facts--the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, the origin of the Christian faith--seem to point to the resurrection of Jesus as the most plausible explanation.
But of course there have been other explanations proffered to account for the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith. In the judgment of modern scholarship, however, these have failed to provide a plausible account of the facts of the case. This can be seen by a rapid review of the principal explanations that have been offered.
A. The disciples stole Jesus' corpse and lied about the resurrection appearances. This explanation characterized the earliest Jewish anti-Christian polemic and was revived in the form of the conspiracy theory of eighteenth century Deism. The theory has been universally rejected by critical scholars and survives only in the popular press. To name only two considerations decisive against it: (1) it is morally impossible to indict the disciples of Jesus with such a crime. Whatever their imperfections, they were certainly good, earnest men and women, not impostors. No one who reads the New Testament unprejudicially can doubt the evident sincerity of these early believers. (2) It is anachronistic. The conspiracy looks at the disciples’ situation through the rearview mirror of Christian history. But for a first century Jew, Jesus’ crucifixion spelled the end any hopes he might have entertained that Jesus was the promised Messiah. As N. T. Wright nicely puts it, if you’re a first century Jew, and your favorite Messiah got himself crucified, then you’ve basically got two choices: either you go home or else you get yourself a new Messiah. But the idea of stealing Jesus’ corpse and saying that God had raised him from the dead is hardly one that would have entered the minds of the disciples.
B. Jesus did not die on the cross, but was taken down and placed alive in the tomb, where he revived and escaped to convince the disciples he had risen from the dead. This apparent death theory was championed by the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century German rationalists, and was even embraced by the father of modern theology, F. D. E. Schleiermacher. Today, however, the theory has been entirely given up: (1) it would be virtually impossible medically for Jesus to have survived the rigors of his torture and crucifixion, much less not to have died of exposure in the tomb. (2) The theory is religiously inadequate, since a half-dead Jesus desperately in need of medical attention would not have elicited in the disciples worship of him as the exalted Risen Lord and Conqueror of Death. Moreover, since Jesus on this hypothesis knew he had not actually triumphed over death, the theory reduces him to the life of a charlatan who tricked the disciples into believing he had risen, which is absurd. These reasons alone make the apparent death theory untenable.
C. The disciples projected hallucinations of Jesus after his death, from which they mistakenly inferred his resurrection. The hallucination theory became popular during the 19th century and carried over into the 20th century as well. Again, however, there are good grounds for rejecting this hypothesis: (1) The hallucination theory has narrow explanatory scope. It tries to explain the resurrection appearances but says nothing to explain the empty tomb. Therefore, one must either deny the fact of the empty tomb (and, therefore, the burial as well) or else conjoin some independent hypothesis to the hallucination theory to account for the empty tomb. Again, the hallucination theory says nothing to explain the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Some scholars have made a great deal out of the alleged similarities between the post-mortem appearances of Jesus and visions of the recently departed on the part of the bereaved. But the overriding lesson of such intriguing stories is that the bereaved do not as a result of such experiences, however real and tangible they may seem, conclude that the deceased has returned physically to life—rather the deceased is seen in the afterlife. As Wright observes, for someone in the ancient world, visions of the deceased are not evidence that the person is alive, but evidence that he is dead! (2) Hallucinations would not in any case have led to belief in Jesus' resurrection. As projections of one's own mind, hallucinations cannot contain anything not already in the mind. But we have seen that Jesus' resurrection differed from the Jewish conception in two fundamental ways. Given their Jewish frame of thought, the disciples, were they to hallucinate, would have projected visions of Jesus glorified in Abraham's bosom, where Israel's righteous dead abode until the eschatological resurrection. Thus, hallucinations would not have elicited belief in Jesus' resurrection, an idea that ran solidly against the Jewish mode of thought.
Thus, none of the previous counter-explanations can account for the evidence as plausibly as the resurrection itself. One might ask, "Well, then, how do skeptical scholars explain the facts of the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith?" The fact of the matter is, they don't. Modern scholarship recognizes no plausible explanatory alternative to the resurrection of Jesus. Those who refuse to accept the resurrection as a fact of history are simply self-confessedly left without an explanation.
These three great facts--the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith--all point unavoidably to one conclusion: the resurrection of Jesus. Today the rational man can hardly be blamed if he believes that on that first Easter morning a divine miracle occurred.
For further study you can read Dr. Craig's books:
William Lane Craig is a Research Professor at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Birmingham, England, before taking a doctorate in theology from the Ludwig Maximilians Universität-München, Germany, at which latter institution he was for two years a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung, writing on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. He spent seven years at the Katholike Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, before taking his post at Talbot in 1994. He has authored or edited over 40 books, including Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (with John Dominic Crossan), and Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? (with Gerd Lüdemann), as well as over 100 articles in professional journals such as New Testament Studies, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Gospel Perspectives, Expository Times, and Kerygma und Dogma.