Monday, March 7, 2016

Five Confounding Facts About Jesus' Resurrection

What would the church be like today if Jesus had died an old man in bed?
A.   It would look almost the same as it does now. Sunday schools, worship, hymns and ministries would be much the same. 
B.   We’d all be Unitarians. Except that even Unitarians discuss Jesus's resurrection stories. If Jesus died in bed, those stories wouldn’t have been told. So perhaps we’d be Unitarians-Lite. 
C.   What church? We’d all be either pagans, Jews or Muslims.
This was actually a discussion topic in a theology class when I was at Vanderbilt. My answer was C: “What church? Without the shock and discontinuity of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection there would be no church at all.”
This frankly did not much impress the TA leading the session, who scoffed at the whole idea of Jesus’s bodily resurrection and who thought that Jesus’s teachings were an excellent vehicle to promote  Marxism – she said this  – and so my insistence on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus garnered me only a B in the class. It was the proudest B I ever got (except seventh-grade algebra).
But I still insist that without Jesus’s resurrection, “we got nuthin.” That Jesus’s teachings are excellent hardly need be said, but they are all found in the Jewish Scriptures. If you built a religion only on Jesus’s teachings you would wind up with a variant of orthodox Judaism, differing only in perhaps having comparatively lax dietary laws and lacking the ideological rigidity of Jesus’s day, a rigidity that is not much found among Orthodox Jews of today, by the way.
Some Orthodox Jews I have spoken with admire Jesus’s teachings and interpretation of the Torah. Jesus broke no new ground there. Jesus simply expressed God’s previously-revealed truths in a compelling manner. So a religious movement based just on Jesus’s ethical and moral teachings would be definitively Jewish, not very different from the Judaism of his time, and certainly nothing to motivate twelve men to give their lives evangelizing the whole world in Jesus’s name. I mean, why bother?
But the TA’s discussion highlights one of the most confounding historical facts about Jesus and the resurrection story: The Church came into being suddenly and with an enormous fervor that finally brokered regime change of the Roman empire itself. 
If Christianity started as nothing but a minority Jewish movement centered on an executed and still-dead messianic leader, why did it succeed when all the other messianic movements of the day failed? No one has ever explained that.
There are at least five historical facts that must be accounted for either to affirm the resurrection or to deny it. These facts are not dependent upon the Scriptures being inspired by the Holy Spirit. These are objective facts that can be independently verified by anyone taking the time to do so.

The first fact I just talked about. It is the sudden and immediate founding of the Church following the death of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t even have to bring up the Day of Pentecost. That the church began with the power and beliefs that it did has never been explained on any basis that leaves Jesus, like John Brown, “a molderin’ in his grave,” especially since absent Jesus's resurrection, there is nothing left but ordinary Judaism. 
What must be explained is not why the first Christ-followers were Jews (who else would they be?), but why they were Jews who insisted their Messiah had been executed and then raised by God from the dead. 
The reason this is critical is because the long existing Jewish concept of the Messiah had never included his execution and resurrection. The Messiah was conceived of as a political figure and deliverer from foreign occupation and domination, first by the Greeks from about 250 BC and then by the Romans, after which the Messiah would re-establish the throne and lineage of King David.
That many people hoped Jesus would be this kind of Messiah is seen in his joyous greeting as he entered Jerusalem on the day Christians call Palm Sunday. They lay their cloaks on the road in front of him, a sign of highest respect and honor. They waved palm branches, a symbol of Judean nationalism, as Jesus entered the city riding in on a colt (Matthew says a young donkey). This was seen as fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, which said, 
"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
As a member of the line of King David, Jesus had a rightful claim to the throne of Judea. The throne was occupied by Herod Antipas, a Roman vassal who was not even really Jewish. The people despised Herod almost as much as Pilate. They wanted to be free of him as well as of the Romans.
The Jews wanted a Jewish King with a legitimate claim to the throne who would rule justly. They thought that Jesus was their man. His works of mercy and compassion were well known, as was the amazing power with which Jesus did them. Luke says that "the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen."
Nor was Jesus's potential Messiah-ship missed by the Jewish high council, the Temple/Priestly Sanhedrin, headed by the High Priest, Caiaphas. John 11-12 record that he certainly saw Jesus as a potential leader of insurrection against Rome, which caused him great concern that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, would lay waste to Judea when Jesus made his move. This was not at all an unjustified fear, except that Jesus never intended to lead such a revolt. 
All of this is to emphasize that when Jesus was executed, his appeal to the people would have died along with his body. There had been other would-be Messiahs before who fared as badly at it as Jesus did and whose followers promptly and permanently dissipated, fearing for their own lives - and Jesus never tried to be such a Messiah in the first place. (Now we see that when Jesus's disciples fled and hid when Jesus was arrested, they were just playing to type, for they knew that Jesus was a goner for sure and they would be next if they didn't get out of Dodge.) 
In fact, the Gospels record that by the day of Jesus's execution, public sentiment was swinging heavily against him. Even if the priests did hand pick a crowd to yell to Pilate to crucify Jesus, they had no difficulty finding people willing to do it. 
So why would the Jesus movement not merely survive his death but actually accelerate afterward? Jesus was an abject failure in every aspect of Messiah-ship as conventionally conceived. And yet, almost instantly after his death, not only were more and more people, quickly numbering thousands in fact, counting themselves as Christ followers, they also completely re-wrote what "Messiah" meant at all. 
Donald Juel discusses the challenge of a crucified Messiah:
The idea of a crucified Messiah is not only unprecedented within Jewish tradition; it is so contrary to the whole nation of a deliverer from the line of David, so out of harmony with the constellation of biblical texts we can identify from various Jewish sources that catalyzed around the royal figure later known as the “the Christ” that terms like “scandal” and “foolishness” are the only appropriate responses. Irony is the only means of telling such a story, because it is so counterintuitive. 
Even Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming an executed Messiah to other Jews: 
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor.1:21‑22). 
Non-Christian historian Bart Ehrman wrote, 
Christians who wanted to proclaim Jesus as messiah would not have invented the notion that he was crucified because his crucifixion created such a scandal. Indeed, the apostle Paul calls it the chief “stumbling block” for Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). Where did the tradition come from? It must have actually happened.
There is no historically-grounded explanation for this sudden and enormous change that leaves Jesus dead after Good Friday. The only explanation that has evidence behind it is that Jesus was crucified, died and was raised from death, was then seen risen by numerous people who had known him in life, and these facts impelled a wrenching re-evaluation of what being Jewish actually meant at all.

There are at least four other historical facts that either to affirm or reject Jesus's resurrection must account for. The question is not whether these historical facts are actually facts. The question is what explanation actually explains, actually accounts for all of them?
Two – Jesus’s tomb was discovered empty on the Sunday after he died on the cross.
Three – The first person to claim that Jesus rose from the dead was a woman.
Four – Many other people also said they saw Jesus risen from the dead, especially Paul and James the brother of Jesus, called James the Just.
Five – The apostles who proclaimed Jesus’s resurrection were killed for doing so, except John, who died in exile. None recanted even when it would have saved their lives.
Note that none of these facts rely on supernatural authority. They are historical facts documented as well or better than accounts of other ancient figures or events. Let’s take a closer at each.

Fact Two: Jesus's tomb was found to be empty on the Sunday after his crucifixion.
All accounts of the day include this fact. Since multiple attestation is a bedrock principle of historical inquiry, historians, and not only Christian ones, consider this fact to be solidly established.
This fact was so confounding to the apostles’ opponents that the Gospels record that within days or sooner of the first Easter, those opponents admitted they could not explain the empty tomb nor could they produce Jesus's body themselves, so they spread the story that the disciples stole the body. Yet there is not a scintilla of evidence that the disciples did so.
But let us stipulate for argument’s sake that somehow three or four disciples managed to sneak undetected past an armed guard of soldiers at the tomb, roll away a one-ton stone without making noise, enter the tomb without being noticed, and trundle away Jesus’s corpse without being seen, leaving the stone rolled away without the soldiers subsequently noticing. (Sure, let’s say that is exactly what happened.)
That leaves us with the inexplicable fact that the disciples did exactly nothing afterward. They did not start telling people that the tomb was empty and they had seen Jesus alive again. The disciples did not originate the Easter story at all. Instead, we butt against historical fact number three:

Fact three: The original testimony of Jesus's resurrection was given by a woman, Mary Magdalene.
When Mary discovered the tomb was open and empty, she thought someone had taken the body, not that Jesus was risen. So she asked a man she assumed to be a groundskeeper where Jesus’ body was. The man identified himself as Jesus. If Jesus was still dead, why did this man say he was Jesus? There is absolutely no reason for it. If Jesus was still dead, then this conversation is almost as vexing to explain as the resurrection itself. And if the disciples had stolen the body as they were accused of doing, when Mary told them, “I have seen the Lord,” would not they have simply replied, “Um, no, we have Jesus in back room here”?
Instead, at least two of the disciples rushed to the tomb to confirm her claim. Soon, all the disciples told the world that the empty tomb and Jesus's resurrection were first discovered and proclaimed by women. However, women were universally considered by both first-century Jews and Romans alike to be unreliable witnesses of anything, resurrection or not. Dr. William Lane Craig explained it this way:

When you understand the role of women in first-century Jewish society, what's really extraordinary is that this empty tomb story should feature women as the discoverers of the empty tomb in the first place. Women were on a very low rung of the social ladder in first-century Palestine. There are old rabbinical sayings that said, 'Let the words of Law be burned rather than delivered to women' and 'blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.' Women's testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren't even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of Law. In light of this, it's absolutely remarkable that the chief witnesses to the empty tomb are these women... Any later legendary account would have certainly portrayed male disciples as discovering the tomb - Peter or John, for example. The fact that women are the first witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly explained by the reality that - like it or not - they were the discoverers of the empty tomb! This shows that the Gospel writers faithfully recorded what happened, even if it was embarrassing.This bespeaks the historicity of this tradition rather than its legendary status.

If you were going to make up a story in the first century to use to change the world, you would not say that the original announcers of your claim were women.

Fact four – Many other people also said they saw Jesus risen from the dead
These accounts are dated to very soon after Jesus’s death. In First Corinthians, Paul wrote that he was taught about Jesus's resurrection from others (1 Corinthians 15:1-8), acknowledged today to be Peter and James. Paul says specifically in 1 Cor. 15.11 that all the apostles agreed that Jesus appeared to them after his death. Jesus’s own brother, James, never followed Christ until after Jesus’s death and then James became the first bishop of the Jerusalem church.
Because Paul first persecuted Christians, he knew they were proclaiming Jesus as risen long before he converted. We don’t know how long except that it was long enough for Paul to have developed a fearsome reputation among Christians; Acts 9 says he “breathed murderous threats” against them. Historians agree that after Paul’s conversion, Peter and James tutored Paul about Jesus and his resurrection only about five years after the crucifixion. But since they taught Paul, their knowledge must be much earlier. One of today’s most highly-regarded historians of the era is non-Christian Professor Bart Ehrman, who dates such Christian teachings to practically the same date as the date of Jesus’s death. Skeptics have never explained these facts in a way that leaves Jesus dead.

Fact five – The apostles who proclaimed Jesus’s resurrection were all killed for doing so, except John, who died in exile. None recanted even when it would have saved their lives. We know recantation would have saved them because Roman officials’ letters of the day say so.
Several of the accounts of the deaths of the apostles date to several decades after they would have died of old age anyway, so historians today do not give equal weight to all the accounts of their martyrdom. But the martyrdom of these apostles is historically sound:
James was the first apostle to be killed. He was slain by Herod Agrippa in either 44 or 45.
Peter was sentenced to crucifixion. He told the Romans he was unworthy of dying the same death as the Lord, so he was crucified upside down in Rome in 64.
Paul was beheaded by order of Nero outside Rome in 67.
Here are the apostles whose martyrdoms are not quite as well attested but still reliably so: Andrew and Thomas, both executed in 70; Matthew, beheaded in the 60s; James the Lesser, cast down from the Temple’s heights in 63; Simon the Zealot, crucified in 74.
Now we know that people will die for all kinds of crazy reasons, but consider that these apostles did not die for something they had been indoctrinated in since infancy, as, say, Japanese kamikaze pilots were. Another important distinction is that the apostles devoted their life work to Christ but did not give up their lives for Christ: their lives were taken from them by force. The apostles suffered death rather than recant their testimony of what they had seen with their own eyes.
Furthermore, what was their payoff? They didn’t personally profit in any way from their preaching. Indeed, their lives were made very difficult by it. The apostles were already faithful Jews. If Jesus was not actually raised, saying that he was raised would have added nothing to their faith and would have benefited them in no way in this life or the next. So what’s the point? Have fun explaining that in a way that leaves Jesus's body lying in the tomb. Jesus dead and still buried would have been entirely useless to the apostles to found any kind of religious movement.
What compelled the apostles to evangelize the ancient world was one thing and one thing only: Jesus Christ “was crucified, dead, and buried; The third day he rose from the dead.” None of the apostles ever stopped being Jewish but they came to understand that the fullness of God and God’s salvation-righteousness was revealed in the person, work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Next week I will explain as fairly as I am able the skeptics’ explanations. They fall into four main categories:
  • The main players on Good Friday and Easter botched the job.
  • Science proves Jesus’s resurrection is impossible.
  • The accounts of Jesus’s resurrection are mythical of a kind common in the ancient world.
  • The apostles were either deluded or they mounted a deliberate conspiracy of falsehoods.
Update: An excellent discussion of the criteria used by historians to assess reliability: "Surprising Scholarly Agreement on Facts That Support Jesus’ Resurrection"