One can’t be too careful in reading the Bible. Why, just the other day, I picked it up and read what some have argued is the most bizarre passage in any scriptures from any religion. “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Why is this passage so bizarre, you ask? There are two reasons: first, it puts all of Christianity’s theological eggs in one basket, and second, it suggests the possibility of dropping the basket. The resurrection is the theological egg-basket, and the idea that Christ was not raised is the possibility of dropping the basket. The consequences of dropping the basket are messy; Christians are still left in sin and are the most pitiable people in the world, because our hope lies in a dead carpenter long since decayed. Such theological risk-taking is practically unheard of in world religions, where faith is based on internal feelings instead of external evidence.
Leaving aside how unusual this passage is in the context of world religions, we really should deal with the more immediate threat this passage poses. Paul explains the importance of the resurrection in Romans 4:25, where he tells us that Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” Jesus was raised to life so that we could be justified (be declared righteous by God), so if Jesus was not raised, then we were never justified. So which is it; is our faith futile, or was Jesus really raised?
An investigation of the topic should probably begin with the basic facts that are known about the events surrounding the crucifixion. There are twelve basic facts that the majority of biblical scholars, regardless of religious belief or political persuasion, accept.
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. He was buried.
3. Jesus’ death caused his disciples to despair and lose hope, believing that his life was ended.
4. The tomb was discovered to be empty just a few days later.
5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
6. The disciples were transformed from doubters who were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection.
7. This message was the center of preaching in the early church.
8. This message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before.
9. As a result of this preaching, the church was born and grew.
10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
11. James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he also believed he saw the resurrected Jesus.
12. A few years later, Paul was also converted by and experience which he likewise believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.
Fortunately, we can condense this list to just five main points that bear elaboration:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion. Medical descriptions of crucifixion all but guarantee this, and ancient sources, such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Lucian all testify to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, while a passage from Mara Bar Serapion probably refers to Jesus’ execution as well. Says Tacitus, “Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty [crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
2. The tomb was later discovered to be empty by a group of Jesus’ women followers. There are three reasons why this is highly unlikely to be a fabrication. First, the Jerusalem factor: If the tomb were not really empty, or if the women had simply gone to the wrong tomb, producing Jesus’ body would have been simple for the authorities and would have quelled the empty tomb nonsense.
Second, the empty tomb is attested by enemies of the early Christians. Rather than denying the empty tomb, the authorities accused the disciples of stealing the body. This is really the only opposing theory offered by critics, and it presupposes the truth of the empty tomb. This opposing theory is mentioned not only in the Gospels, but also in Justin Martyr (Trypho, 108) and Tertullian (De Spectaculis, 30).
Third, the accounts of the empty tomb were at first based on the testimony of women. The testimony of women was legally inadmissible and suspect, and the discovery of the empty tomb by women would have been an embarrassment. The Talmud says “Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman.” Such testimony is therefore highly unlikely to be a fabrication. “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…” (Josephus, Antiquities, 4.8.15, but see footnote 21 at this location).
3. The Disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. Three facts support this. First, Paul claimed he was appeared to, in 1 Corinthians 15:8. Second, the sermon summaries of oral traditions (developed before the Gospels were written) that occur in Acts 2 and especially in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 appeared to be stylized, and are believed to be very early creeds used by the church. Even liberal and atheist scholars (Gerd Ludemann and The Jesus Seminar) date these creeds to the early 30’s A.D. Third, the written traditions of Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, John, Clement of Rome (c. 30-100 A.D.) and Polycarp (Letter to Florinus) all support this conclusion.
4. The skeptics James and Paul were converted and suffered for it. Paul’s conversion is described by Luke in the book of Acts and also by Paul himself in his epistles. Paul, Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian (Scorpiace 15), Dionysius of Corinth and Origen all describe Paul’s subsequent suffering and death for the cause of Christ, even though he had once been staunchly against it. What made him change his mind?
James was the skeptical brother of Jesus (the Gospels record his unbelief), but there is creedal evidence of Jesus appearing to James, and the book of Acts and also Paul in his letters both testify that James became a leader in the church, and Josephus (Antiquities 20.9.1), Hegesippus (in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.18), and Clement of Alexandria all testify that he was martyred. What would it take to convince someone that his brother was God, and then how likely would he be to be willing to suffer for such a belief?
5. The disciples were transformed from fearful doubters to bold proclaimers of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They were willing to suffer for this belief, as testified by Acts, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth (in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.25.8), Tertullian (see reference above) and Origen (Contra Celsus 2.56 and 2.77, also in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.1.2). What would transform them so powerfully, especially given the fate of their leader, and why would they be willing to suffer for what they knew was a lie?
That concludes our survey of some of the historically known facts about the crucifixion/resurrection events. Next time we’ll look at several competing explanations of these data, and attempt to determine which explanation is best.