It would be foolish to write about the history of Jesus Christ without discussing the historicity of his resurrection. While history is the study of events that happened, historicity is the study of how likely it is that a particular event happened. Paul gives the historicity of the resurrection great importance in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19.
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. | 1 Corinthians 15:14-19
Context for the Debate
According to Paul, the entire testimony of Christianity hinges on Jesus’ resurrection. Historians have studied the reported resurrection for two millennia and have arrived at different sides, and multiple alternate hypotheses to the bodily resurrection of Jesus have been proposed. The primary challenge is that no amount of data or argumentation will be able to prove a supernatural claim. By nature, a supernatural claim is outside the norm, and its interpretation is highly contingent on one’s worldview. Historians even disagree about how to go about these studies; according to Christian historian Mike Licona, “when we talk about a historical Jesus, we’re not talking about something that is agreed upon by all scholars, because nobody agrees upon the rules.”
The historical reliability of the gospels is something that is often called into question. For example, non-Christian scholars like Bart Ehrman and Matthew Ferguson make the argument that since the gospels speak of miraculous events, they are not historically reliable. However, if a particular claim is miraculous by nature, wholly throwing out accounts that have other miracles in them doesn’t really make sense. Throwing these accounts out of the equation presupposes that miracles never happen, and such a presupposition doesn’t necessarily work philosophically.
Interesting highlights in favor of the reliability of the gospels as historical documents include the number of early manuscripts of the gospel accounts, and the relatively early dating of the gospels (as low as 40 years, which is quite surprising for documents of antiquity at this scale). In light of this, I believe the Gospels should be taken more seriously as historical documents than some critical scholars allow. I made this harmony of the gospel accounts of the resurrection to construct a narrative of the Christian account of Jesus’ resurrection. While such a harmonization can be strained at times, and is by no means meant to be taken as “the true account,” it may clear up some accusations of inconsistencies and/or contradictions between the gospels. Mike Licona discusses the historiography of the gospel account in his book “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”
In a previous post in this series, I described First Century Palestine perspectives of religious, political, and philosophical concepts. The concept of Jesus’ resurrection as described in the gospels was relatively unknown to these subcultures. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the righteous at the end of days, but not before then. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. Some pagans at the time believed in a disembodied life after death, but physical resurrection was considered impossible.
The Talmud (c. 200 CE) is a body of writing that compiles some Jewish oral traditions from around the turn of the millennium. The Talmud mentions a few potential references to Jesus, and is thought by some to be a Jewish response to competing ideologies, such as Christianity. Its portrayal of Jesus is not exactly that of a fraud, but as one who “practiced magic” to lead people astray to idolatry. It assumes that Jesus was a real person, and that his life was characterized by miraculous events.
Evidence for the Resurrection
Many scholars believe that the tomb of Jesus was found to be empty. When early church fathers in the Second Century respond to the claims of their enemies, their quotations reveal that those who rejected Christianity presupposed the empty tomb, similar to Matthew 28:12-13. However, the detail of the empty tomb is not undisputed by historians, as it is under question whether or not Jesus even had a known grave in Jerusalem.
The Criterion of Embarrassment: the Gospel accounts seem to characterize the disciples as ignorant and inconsistent followers of Jesus. Even Peter’s most clear statement on Jesus’ divinity is undercut by Jesus, who claims he couldn’t have figured it out on his own. When this is contrasted with the clarity and coherence of the Epistles, it can be concluded that something may have happened in between to transform the lives of the fishermen-turned-scholars. Jesus’ disciples believed to have seen him risen from the dead. But according to the Gospels, they didn’t all have faith. Thomas required more evidence. The inclusion of a story about a doubting disciple further decreases the likelihood of fabrication.
The Gospels describe women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. Based on scholarship regarding the validity of female testimony in first-century Palestine, it would have been counter-intuitive for the Gospel authors to fabricate women as eyewitnesses since their testimony was more dismissible. Josephus and the Talmud provide evidence for this cultural mindset.
The conversion of Paul (a known church persecutor) and the amount of coherent literature he wrote in defense of his radical shift in perspective may validate his reported vision of the resurrected Christ. I believe it’s a stretch to think that Paul’s subconscious was able to conjure a vision so powerful and convincing that it causes him to reject his relatively comfortable and prestigious lifestyle in favor of one characterized by suffering and enmity with his former education and lifestyle. Paul’s theological exposition in his epistles (especially undisputed ones like 1 Corinthians [53-54 CE]) is in stark contrast to Pharisee theology. His thorough development of a robust theological framework, especially one that is so against moralistic frameworks and presupposes a disputed miracle, is surprising and unprecedented. Christians believe that Paul would have to have had a real experience with Jesus and influence of the Holy Spirit to both be willing and able compose such works.
The Jewish temple was destroyed soon after Jesus’s death. While this may be coincidental, it’s rather fascinating from a theological perspective, especially considering Jesus’ statement on the matter. This significance of this event may also have prompted the authors of the Gospels to begin transcribing accounts of Jesus’ life, realizing that Jesus’ ministry would have an impact beyond their lifetimes.
We will never be able to prove historically whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. There are strong arguments on both sides of the debate, and ultimately a miraculous claim requires supernatural faith. What is undisputed is that for two thousand years, Christians have believed in the truth of this unique event, and this belief has transformed their lives.