Have you ever seen people sifting through garbage to look for treasure? Homeless people do it all the time. But what about families who have lost their homes to hurricanes or floods? They might find old photo graphs, jewelry, etc. There is truth in the rubble.[i] Historical study is a lot like dumpster diving. New Testament scholars, especially skeptics like James Crossley and E.P. Sanders, look at the New Testament like a book of history, full of errors and discrepancies. But the vast majority of critical New Testament scholars still believe certain truths about Jesus:
- He died by Roman crucifixion.
- The disciples had experiences that they thought were actual appearances of Jesus.
- This transformed them, giving them a willingness to die for this belief.
- James, Jesus’ brother and former skeptic, became a Christian due to an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
- Saul, a former persecutor, had an experience that he believed was an appearance of Jesus, resulting in his conversion.
- A primitive creed reflecting belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection was orally received by Paul from Peter and James within less than five years of Jesus’ crucifixion.[ii]
Pinchas Lapide published a book in 1977 in which argued that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, based upon these facts and others, such as the women’s visitation to the empty tomb – one of the more contested historical facts surrounded the gospel tradition.[iii] He remained an orthodox Jewish scholar until his death in 1997. No one escapes personal bias. People are agenda-makers. But Christians can build the case for the resurrection using the scholarship of unbelievers, and that is what makes the resurrection different.
This is because historians look for truth in the dumpsters of history. They have certain criteria for what truth looks like, in the same way that we distinguish a photograph from a magazine clip, or a beautiful necklace from a coat button. Historians have criteria for determining value. For example:
- Does a particular historical fact or theory have great explanatory power?
- Is a particular historical hypothesis simpler than competing hypothesis?[iv]
- Is an event corroborated by various, independent, early sources?
- Do these sources show signs of reliability?[v]
I covered some of these criteria briefly in my previous article regarding the eyewitness testimonies of Jesus. I am saying now that even if these testimonies are not perfect, it does not mean they are not valuable. Eyewitness sources to the sinking of the Titanic, for example, differed on many things. Did the ship break in half as it sank? Did so-and-so have dinner in the main cabin that night? But beneath the rubble it always remains an indisputable fact that the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. In the same way, Paul’s letters to the Corinthian, Galatian, and Philippian churches are seen as reliable because they are quoted by many early church fathers, they bear the same unique literary style, they bear Paul’s name of authorship, and they conform to other independent accounts.
What is remarkable about Christianity, however, is that the gems of historical truth in the Christian tradition are also the gems of the central gospel message, shining most brightly in the multiple, independent attestation to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. If different men with distinct personalities and perspectives such as Peter, Paul, and Jesus’ brother James – Paul, a former persecutor; James, a former doubter; and Peter, a traitor and a coward – radically changed their lifestyles, occupations, beliefs, and preached this change to create an ultimately global movement, and if they staked their reasons for this on the resurrection, and were willing to die for this, then this phenomenon calls for explanation.
This belief in Jesus resurrection is unprecedented. Dying and rising savior figures existed, for example, in Greco-Roman mythology, but gods like Attis, Dionysus, even Baal, were never believed to have risen bodily. Their stories of life and death were cyclical; they corresponded to the harvest cycles. Jesus died on a Roman cross for a redemptive purpose, and rose as a proof that God forgives sin, not that God gives rain to our crops. And there is not a single shred of unambiguous evidence that any pagans believed in dying and rising Savior gods prior to Christianity. Bart Ehrman notes: “Anyone who thinks that Jesus was modeled on such deities needs to cite some evidence – any evidence at all – that Jews in Palestine at the alleged time of Jesus’ life were influenced by anyone who held such views.”
Neither can the belief in Jesus’ resurrection be explained by hallucination. Comparable hallucinations do not happen to different kinds of people under different circumstances, like the disciples. People may hallucinate seeing their loved ones after they die, but they do not conclude from this that their relatives have risen bodily. This is unique to Christianity as well. There was no belief in bodily resurrection either in pagan mythology or Judaism – at least, in the case of Judaism, not until the end of the age.[vi] Therefore, if the apostles had hallucinated Jesus, they would have concluded that he ascended spiritually into heaven, not that he was resurrected.
They claimed to have seen Jesus risen bodily and were willing to give up their lives for this claim. Not like a vision in the clouds, but like a guy who died in a car accident and showed up, three days later at QFC buying a 12-ounce coffee from a Starbucks stand. He was real. They saw Him. And they believed it enough to die for it. This fact is uncontroversial, and yet unexplained. There is no sufficient, naturalistic explanation. They changed the world, and they left us with a choice.
[i] Illustration taken from Gary Habermas, “Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels” (Originally published in the Christian Research Journal / vol. 28, no. 1, 2005), paragraph 14, 15. Available at: http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/crj_recentperspectives/crj_recentperspectives.htm#_edn23.
[ii] Gary Habermas provides the first five facts in The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), 26-27. He eludes to the sixth fact, which is frequently argued by Christian and skeptical scholar alike. Bart Ehrman – perhaps the most outspoken skeptical NT scholar in the world – argues, for example, that Paul received this tradition within only one or two years of Jesus’ death. See: Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 206.
[iii] Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), 95.
[iv] These two criteria concern historical descriptions/theories. C.B. McCullagh’s Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge: University Press, 1984) covers various factors to consider: simplicity, explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility, ad hocness and disconfirmation (p.23-24). Apologists like William Lane Craig have used these criteria to argue that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the historical data that needs to be considered.
[v] These two criteria concern sources for historical events or persons. Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 40-42, lists these criteria for determining the likely existence of ancient persons or events: numerous sources, independent source, unbiased sources, and early sources.
[vi] N.T. Wright’s 817-page book The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) is almost entirely devoted to this argument.