Resurrection Debate – Vocab’s Opening Statement

“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion.

It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.” – Antony Flew [1]

::: Can the Resurrection of Jesus be historically substantiated? Yes, and every other explanation fails.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is quite solid on historical grounds. Even though I will be mainly focusing on the historical evidence supporting the claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, I have noticed even solid historical evidence has a tough time overpowering people’s philosophical objections to the resurrection. These I cannot address here, since we are mainly looking at the historical – and not the philosophical – validity of the resurrection.

How can we know the resurrection of Jesus has any historical validity? I offer three considerations:

ONE: The Nature and Literary Genre of the Gospels

A major consideration often overlooked in these discussions is the nature of the Gospels. It is not appropriate to call them biographies in the purest sense; they have elements that were common to the genre of ancient biographies, sometimes called bios.  Those who want to write the Gospels off as mere ‘myths for the faithful’ have to ask themselves why were the faithful the faithful in the first place? They also have to deal with how the Gospels describe themselves (as historical documents); this is most explicit in the highly formalized Greek prologue of Luke:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (ESV)

Here, the author is claiming to have done research for the sake of certainty – this is not how one begins a religious myth. Not only that, but there are certain incidental details – many of which we are just now discovering – which are rooted and embedded in a first century Jerusalem context. One example in regards to the resurrection is the kind of tomb mentioned in connection with the burial of Jesus. It was an acrosolia or a bench tomb; these tombs were used by notables – such as Joseph of Arimethea – in Jesus’ day.

Another key point is the inclusion of women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. The testimony of women was not well regarded in first century Jewish society. If the narratives are legendary, why then would the authors include testimony by people who were not seen as credible by their peers? On a related note, if the authors were writing stories to bolster people’s faith, why would they portray all the early leaders of the church at that time as cowards and doubters? Per what historians call the ‘criterion of embarrasment’, both of these factors point to the historical veracity of the resurrection accounts.

TWO: The Religio-Historical Background of the Resurrection Accounts

One handicap some people face in talking about the historical Jesus – and hence the resurrection narratives – is they are not up on current scholarly literature. If one were to glean their information about Jesus from the Internet, one may come away with the impression that the historical Jesus sits squarely within the Hellenistic motif of ‘divine men’ or some such variation. If one thought this, one would be incorrect in their understanding of the historical Jesus and the accounts of his resurrection. From decades of recent research, we can see Jesus’ historical context is in a first century Semitic (specifically Jewish) context. This means we now understand better than ever the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus – any other framework will not do. For more information on this fact, Ben Witherington’s book The Jesus Quest, details the quest(s) for the historical Jesus and its findings. Before any meaningful discussion about the resurrection can begin, one must understand the ancient Semitic fabric of the life, death and resurrection (the last point being debated here, of course) of Jesus of Nazareth.

I mention this because it is precisely at this point that many critiques of the resurrection fall flat. Many critics of the resurrection as history insert non-Semitic theology and Greco-Roman views of religion into the resurrection narratives and then make false parallels in an effort to discredit the resurrection of Jesus as the unique event that it was. One reason this is such a massive error is because most Greeks absolutely shunned the idea of a bodily resurrection. How can one match the Platonic view of the body – that the material element was undesirable – with the Christian teaching that because Jesus received a new resurrection body, one day Christians will, too? This collision of worldviews is illustrated in Paul’s Mars Hill discourse in Acts 17. As soon as Paul told the assembled Athenians of his hope in a bodily resurrection, they mocked and ridiculed him. The Greeks viewed the body as a prison for the soul and wanted to be rid of it, not receive it anew in the afterlife!

The tales of so-called ‘resurrections’ you so often hear about are no such thing; the attempted parallels are false and the supposed similarities are stretched beyond the point of recognition. For one, many of these gods’ so-called resurrections are post-dated after the rise of Christianity and could not have influenced it. If Tim wants to claim Greco-Roman myths played a role in formulating Christian resurrection belief, he is going to have to give us a rock solid date prior to Christianity. Further, he is going to have to demonstrate there was a transfer of ideas that can be traced from said pre-Christian source. Lastly, he is going to have to explain away any competing ‘resurrection’ tales about whatever god he may choose to use as his resurrection model. We are going to need specific details if he decides to go this route, we cannot blindly take his word on it.

THREE: The Cause of the Birth and Growth of the Early Christian Church

One can show resurrection belief arose very early in Christianity. NT scholars will tell you the earliest Kerygma (‘proclamation’ or ‘preaching’) was centered on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There are several different strands of resurrection tradition found within the NT itself. To understand this, we must recall the NT was not originally one book but rather a collection of the earliest Christian testimony and later bound together. This means we have various literary witnesses to the resurrection from different sources within the one work we now refer to as the NT. Even the most skeptical form and source critics recognize this.

On a related note is the birth and growth of the early church itself. Here’s what I mean: how does one account for first century Jews changing their eschatological views without the resurrection of Jesus? Most Jews of this era believed there would be a general resurrection of the righteous dead at the eschaton (‘the end of the age’), not during history. Not only that, but this event would not be of one individual but of all the faithful. This belief can be seen in a statement made by Martha of Bethany in John 11:24. Since all the first Christians were Jewish, why did they suddenly start talking about and writing about a resurrection of one individual – the Messiah, no less – within space and time? This is a huge question that must be answered, since Christian resurrection belief cannot be accounted for within the Judaism of that time. If there was no resurrection, how did this belief arise?

There were other major changes in Jewish practice and doctrine for early Christians. Here are just a few of those changes:

  • Changing the Sabbath to worship on Sunday
  • Worshipping Jesus ‘in addition to’ than Yahweh
  • Loosening up or abandoning dietary restrictions
  • Accepting Gentile believers as brothers and sisters
  • Worshipping anywhere, as opposed to only a synagogue or in Jerusalem

British scholar N.T. Wright gives more reasons for Jewish views changing regarding the resurrection, which can be read at Shawn White’s post here.

::: Conclusion

From this information, we can see the NT has a variety of important source material supporting the resurrection. We can also see that pagan mythologies are not a valid explanation for the accounts we have of the resurrection. We can also see that any alternative explanation for the resurrection has to be able to give us a reason for the birth and growth of the early church, especially when we can see the amazing fact that early Jewish Christians transformed many of their central beliefs and practices. To defend his position, Tim must not only discredit the evidence I have laid out but also give us a more plausible explanation. I think history will not be in his favor in this effort.

NOTES:

[1] Gary Habermas, “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew.”

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About Kazz

My name is Shawn Esplin and I am an advocate of Free Thought and general good sense and thought in general. To that end, I encourage people to seriously question the things that they have been taught, especially as children, because many of these things - religious and secular - are taken on faith until we actively choose to seriously examine them for ourselves.

12 thoughts on “Resurrection Debate – Vocab’s Opening Statement

  1. My goodness that was incredibly weak, even for apologetics.

    I’m missing any actual evidence that a resurrection happened.

    Eagerly looking forward to Tim’s rebuttal.

  2. Nohm –

    What do you think of these, then?

    Question: “how does one account for first century Jews changing their eschatological views without the resurrection of Jesus?”

    Question: “If the narratives are legendary, why then would the authors include testimony by people (women) who were not seen as credible by their peers?”

    Statement: We can see that any alternative explanation for the resurrection has to be able to give us a reason for the birth and growth of the early church, especially when we can see the amazing fact that early Jewish Christians transformed many of their central beliefs and practices.

  3. Vocab,

    You see those as important questions. I don’t, as I’ve seen the same issues with Muslims.

    You would have to show that *the only explanation* for first century Jews changing their eschatological views is the resurrection, and I doubt that you can do that. There are far too many other options, as we’ve seen with other religions.

    Secondly, again, you would have to show that *the only explanation* for authors including testimony from women who were not seen as credible by their peers is the resurrection. Considering that this same thing has been used in other religions, in cultures where women were not considered as credible as men, I find it difficult to accept that “oh, because a dead guy came back from the dead… and oh yeah he was God” is the *only explanation*, or even the best one.

    Burden of proof and all that.

  4. Also, even if the answer is “we don’t know why they did those things”, you can’t just go “well the best answer is that someone came back from the dead”, as I doubt you do that for other historical mysteries.

    Why did the egyptians build pyramids? Because the pharaohs came back from the dead, obviously.

    Yeah, that doesn’t work.

  5. Nohm -

    Those questions I asked either *are* or *aren’t* important questions.

    Maybe the reason you don’t think they are is perhaps you aren’t familiar w/the
    religious and cultural context of the time? The reason I say that is b/c
    your comments demonstrate a simplistic and unstudied bias against miracles
    and therefore a brute and blanket rejection of historical evidence in
    favor of the resurrection. If I’m wrong, please tell me I’m jumping the gun.

    Still, I do give you props for saying Jesus’ resurrection is a “historical
    mystery” because that’s exactly what it is if one offers no contrary and
    compelling explanation – which doesn’t seem to be forthcoming from your side.

    vm

    vm

  6. Question: “how does one account for first century Jews changing their eschatological views without the resurrection of Jesus?”

    Did they really change? As far as I know Christianity did not have a major effect on Judaism, but if you mean the Jews who converted, perhaps their ideas of resurrection weren’t changed?

    I’m not sure where the verses are, but not only are other people near Jerusalem supposedly raised at the same time as Jesus, but Jesus claims that this is only the beginning. I’m sure you interpret it as something other than him saying that the end was nigh and the big resurrection they were waiting for was beginning, but I think that is the most reasonable interpretation.

    As for other things like accepting Gentiles and dropping restrictions on diet and place of worship, I think that these are easily explained by the new testament’s authors having an audience that was largely not Jewish.

    I doubt that the authors themselves were Jews, but even if they were they were writing in Greek to an audience largely consisting of Gentiles who would not have taken the dietary restrictions well, and with the poor probably being the bulk of the converts, there would not have been a lot of resources to build synagogues, etc.

    Question: “If the narratives are legendary, why then would the authors include testimony by people (women) who were not seen as credible by their peers?”

    There are many possible explanations for this, but I’ll give just a couple.

    It’s possible that at least some of the new testament authors were more progressive and interested in improving the lot of women that the old testament had not treated too kindly.

    It is also possible that they did not intend for the women to seem credible, but for the story overall to seem more credible.

    In the oldest manuscript we have, Mark ends at 16:8 with the women seeing the empty tomb, running away and not saying anything to anyone. Multiple more satisfying endings seem to have been subsequently written for it, but the author may have been trying to explain why no one had heard of this miracle before, or to encourage people to go out and spread the story, or just to write in a specific style (“closet drama”) which tended to end without resolution and in a shocking way.

    There are a multitude of other possibilities as well, but those are more than enough other reasonable (and more likely) possibilities.

    By the way, what’s this “simplistic and unstudied bias against miracles” about? Reality has a bias against miracles, not Nohm. I would be very surprised if you believed in the supposed miracles of other religions, so why would you expect us to believe in yours?

    In my entire life I don’t believe I have ever seen an actual miracle, so at least in my case I don’t think it’s an unfounded bias.

  7. My reference to a bias against miracles was not meant as blanket approval for all miracle accounts. Perhaps an analogy will help explain what I mean by people’s philosophical objections to the resurrection.

    Imagine a detective investigating a murder case. This detective has been on this case for some time and knows all the relevant facts. In fact, the detective knows the facts so well that he has narrowed the possible murderer down to one individual – a man with 6 fingers on his right hand. The detective has ruthlessly chased down any remotely possible leads and eliminated every single possible option. Now, there is one choice left – only a man with 6 fingers on his right hand could have committed this particular murder – no one else could have possibly done it.

    But there is a problem – the detective does not know anyone with 6 fingers on their right hand. The detective has not even seen or heard of any people in the whole world who have 6 fingers on their right hand. In fact, the detective is confident that there are no people with 6 fingers on their right hand anywhere. Since the detective has this belief as a presupposition, he has ruled out the only answer to the question before him.

    So what does the detective do? The most reasonable thing to do would be for the detective to change his initial assumptions about men with 6 fingers on their right hand and then to find the particular man with 6 fingers on his right hand who did this. But we are dealing with an unusually stubborn detective here. He would rather go with a less likely suspect, even if there is not any solid evidence to make the case. He would even rather do the unthinkable, actually deny that the murder even occurred. Despite all the evidence before him, this particular detective is more willing to say the crime never happened than he is to say that a man with 6 fingers on his right hand did it.

    And so it is with the person with an unbending naturalistic bias. If such a person looks at all the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and realizes the most plausible explanation that fits all the facts is that God did indeed raise Jesus from the dead but this person either A) does not believe God exists, or B) if God does exist, he would not act in such a way, then what does this person do? He either goes with a less likely (even improbable) explanation or simply rules the event out of bounds before he does any further investigation.

    It should be clear, then, that we are not so much talking about philosophical objections but rather brute philosophical presuppositions of the naturalistic (and often deistic or atheistic) variety.

    vm

  8. We don’t even know that this murder occurred, but even assuming it did, claiming that a subsequent miracle took place is not at all like saying that a 6 fingered man committed a murder, it is like saying that a 6 fingered leprechaun made his pot of gold come to life and start throwing money at people he liked.

    Not only is the existence of all of the subjects in serious doubt, but the miracle is by definition beyond natural laws, and hence (from what I have seen) likely impossible.

    Nohm was right though, the fact that thousands of ancient Egyptians worked for many years building pyramids in attempt to give their god-king a physical afterlife (another example of a belief in physical resurrection predating Christianity) does not mean that the Pharaohs actually lived on. People have done many extraordinary things based on false beliefs, so the things that Christians have done are hardly unique in motivation.

    As I said before, it is not me who has the bias against miracles, it seems to be reality that has the bias against miracles.

    If you want to be taken seriously, then perhaps you could show evidence of even a modern miracle? At least that should be possible, if they happen at all. I have never seen any evidence of any legitimate miracle in my entire life though.

    I have, however, seen a multitude of fake “miracles” that have been exposed as frauds, and heard of many that are completely unverifiable, just like the resurrection.

    Oh, and since you didn’t address the more important parts of what I said, I guess we have to assume that you accept those as reasonable alternatives, and that would leave your “6 fingered man” as far from the most likely explanation…

  9. How does one argue with someone who says that “unless Christianity is true, then the claim of a miracle (the resurrection) in the Bible is proof that Christianity is not true”?

    I hope everyone can see the way Kazz is trying to smuggle in an unfounded assumption in his “case” against miracles. He is basically saying that since he knows miracles do not occur, in the case of the resurrection, a miracle did not occur. How simple! How convenient! How circular!

    When Kazz says “reality is against miracles”, he is really saying this: his own personal prejudice masquerading as all of reality is contra the miraculous, regardless of the evidence before him. This is why he doesn’t really feel the need to do any historical investigation … I’m envious.

    vm

  10. I don’t think Kazz is dogmatically claiming that miracles are impossible. More that he’s never seen any evidence of one, and that a miracle would go against so many established truths that he doesn’t expect to see one.

    As I say already in my opening statement, I need strong evidence that an event like the resurrection occured. It could be historical or consequential, but it needs to be a lot stronger than a passage in 1 Cor 15. If not, I’d have to accept just about any miracle claimed to have happened. If there are more likely explanations (and a myth-formation is more likely to me after looking at the presented evidence in this debate) then it’s special pleading to insist that, in this case and this case alone, the less probable cause was true anyway.

    I have no problem thinking outside the box of my own assumptions. I do, however, try to avoid thinking outside reality. :-)

  11. When Kazz says “reality is against miracles”, he is really saying this: his own personal prejudice masquerading as all of reality is contra the miraculous, regardless of the evidence before him.

    Really, Vocab? Maybe we should look at the definition of prejudice again.

    prejudice |ˈprejədəs|
    noun
    1 preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience

    On the contrary, my view that miracles do not happen is based on over 32 years of first hand experience with reality, combined with a complete lack of evidence for any clearly miraculous events from anywhere else, and a rich tradition of known miracle hoaxes inside and outside of Christianity.

    My personal experiences also include numerous specific instances of the failure of Christian healing and prayer despite Jesus’s numerous promises of its efficacy in the Bible, as well as the failure of any god to respond to my repeated open and honest requests to know them if they’re out there (which Christians often tell me that Yahweh will definitely answer).

    Like Tim said, I am not claiming that miracles are absolutely impossible, just that they go against what I know about the universe, and I see no sign of them in the world today, so I find no reason to believe in them.

    As for my “circular” argument, I fail to see how it is circular. It is built on a firm enough premise, that miracles do not happen. If miracles do not and did not happen, then the miracle of the resurrection did not – could not – happen.

    If this is circular, then how do you disprove anything? What would you say if I told you this:

    The CIA is getting tricky! They paid the Sirens to try to lure my yacht into a reef so they could kill me and steal the plans for the perpetual motion machine that I use to run it!

    It’s possible that I have a yacht, it’s even conceivable that the CIA is after me, and anyone could draw up plans for a perpetual motion machine, however, my story would fall apart when it came to the Sirens, since they are mythical creatures whose existence is extremely unlikely, and the use of a perpetual motion machine since it would violate the laws of physics as we know them.

    You could rightly disbelieve me based on the small chance that any of these things is true, but you could not state with any real certainty that I did not have a yacht or that the CIA was not after me. The others though, are much different.

    It is quite reasonable to assume that Sirens do not exist, and hence are not being paid by the CIA to entrap me.

    It is also not wrong to say that because perpetual motion machines violate the laws of physics as we know them, and because no one has yet created one that works or even demonstrated that it is possible to create one, I do not have a working perpetual motion machine.

    Neither of these is circular. They are both built on a firm foundation of knowledge, and they are the most reasonable responses to that outlandish claim.

    You know this, and although you probably think that I’m mentally ill, you simply say:

    Some of what you said seems possible, if unlikely, but the mythical creatures we call Sirens do not exist in reality, and perpetual motion machines are not possible according to the laws of physics as we know them. That makes this all a bit hard to swallow without evidence, so I’m sorry but I don’t believe you.

    Oh no, now you’ve done it, assuming you have a reasonable grip on reality and that your experiences, observations and knowledge about the way the universe works and how human minds work actually counts for something…

    That’s just your anti-Siren prejudice and your bias against perpetual motion!

    Since you know perpetual motion does not occur, in the case of my boat’s engine, a perpetual motion machine is not present. How simple! How convenient! How circular!

    When Vocab says “Sirens do not exist in reality”, he is really saying this: his own personal prejudice masquerading as all of reality is contra Sirens, regardless of the evidence before him. This is why he doesn’t really feel the need to do any historical investigation … I’m envious.

    Why would the ancient Greeks have made Sirens up? Isn’t it possible that they are real? Shouldn’t we accept their existence as a strong possibility since there have always been many unexplained shipwrecks?

    If you would just accept that it is possible that Sirens exist, then you would see that it is clearly the most likely reason that I keep wanting to steer my boat into a reef, and if you would only believe in perpetual motion, you could see that it’s the best explanation for why I don’t have to fill up my boat with gas.

    By the way Vocab, you seem to be getting a little touchy. Could it be that your piqued defense of miracles belies your own doubts about them?

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