The Resurrection: what do I know?

As I try to point out often, I’m a historical realist – along the lines of N. T. Wright and E. P. Sanders. That essentially means that I believe that history is a fact, and a fact that we might know, but not necessarily a fact that we can know we know – not something that can be proven as fact. That said, a historical reconstruction doesn’t have to prove itself, but merely be convincing.

This all ties back into why I am a Christian. I am a Christian because of a man named Jesus – a man I cannot shake, even though I have wanted to at times. My faith stands in rings – the most important of which is the first ring – Jesus. The outer rings, various doctrines of practice and faith, come and go – sometimes depending on something as fickle as my mood (I admit it – when I’m angry at God there are things about Him I have a harder time trusting in than when I’m happy – how about you?). But even when my faith gets shredded I fall back on the person of Jesus. That is what this short article is regarding – a portrait of the Jesus I believe in…

I was raised an Atheist. As an atheist I believed most Christians to be kind, but ignorant. Over the years, through relationships, research, debates with close friends, and, I believe, the continual pull of the Holy Spirit, I discovered that the evidence in favor of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels greatly outweighed my presuppositions against God. In fact, the historical evidence in support of Jesus’ miraculous life, death, and resurrection were instrumental in enabling me to look upon Jesus in a new light, and ultimately turn to Him with my whole life.

1.

To begin with one of the most important facts in favor of the Gospels overall historical reliability, reliable tradition holds that all of the writers of the canonical gospels were either apostles, or authorized to write by an apostle. Now, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with the word, an apostle was one who knew Jesus first hand, and was sent out by him to continue his work. The apostle Peter, who was likely behind the writing of Marks Gospel, stated, “We did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Granted, this has recently been challenged by some in contemporary scholarship, and even more-so by many popular-critics, but these critiques are largely unfounded, based on little more than elaborate counter-intuitive theories – not hard evidence. If you’d like to read a few good critiques of these works, be sure to read Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson’s THE REAL JESUS, THE JESUS QUEST by Ben Witherington III, Gregory Boyd’s CYNIC SAGE OR SON OF GOD, or my personal favorite, a dialogue between Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright called THE MEANING OF JESUS. I list those books because I have little time to go into these arguments, but Id like to look quickly to one generalization that many tend to hold that I believe can easily be shown to be unlikely. Example; Many of those who hold a revisionist view of Jesus, believe that the Gospels were all pseudopigriphal, or rather that they were written under a false name. Now, many Gnostic texts were written this way, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of James for instance. It is understandable that over time some Jesus myths might develop and even take written form under a false name in order to honor a deceased apostle, as was the practice from the late 200s through the 400s. However, these Gospels, if they may be called such, were sensationalist, obviously mythological in nature, and attempted to fill in the parts of Jesus life that either did not concern the authors of the canonical gospels, or where information was not available to them. In other cases pseudopigriphal Gospels were developed by Gnostic sects to lend authority to their interpretations of the Christ-story with the intentions of influencing the church at large with their secret truths about Jesus. Consider, though, how counter-authoritative it would be to name a hopefully influential pseudopigriphal work after those so unprestigious, as is the case with John-Mark and Luke, who are only remembered BECAUSE of the gospels named after them. Also, it also would seem that the titles were early additions to the text because, to quote Gregory Boyd, “If the titles…were added in the mid to late second century, we should expect a diversity of suggestions as to who authored them. Instead…we find absolutely no variants” Last but not least, their authorship is unaniminously testified to by 2nd century writers and historians. For example, the historian, Eusebius, who preserved the writings of Papias, a disciple of the apostle John, testifies to the authorship of the gospels. What should be even more troubling to liberal scholars is recorded by the Bishop Irenaeus, a former student of Polycarp and also a disciple of John’s, who was martyred for his Christian faith in 156 A.D. Iranaeus reported that Polycarp, in the moments before his death, claimed to have been a Christian for 86 years. If this is true, it places Polycarp’s conversion at around 70 A.D., causing significant problems for the fore-mentioned scholars, since this not only places him in the general area that the gospels were being written, and, according to them, at about the right time, but also as a student of one of the authors, the apostle John. Granting authority to Irenaeus testimony concerning the authorship of the Gospels, this essentially means that the gospels are not only sources of theology, which Jesus very character commands that anything written of him would be, but also reliable sources of history, even if one doesn’t hold to the doctrines of inspiration and/or inerrancy, i.e., even if one doesn’t believe that the Bible was written by God through man, and is therefore without error in the original manuscripts.

With the authority of eyewitnesses, each author wrote to a different audience from a different perspective. Matthew, a well-off Jew and former tax collector for the Romans (understood more accurately in modern terms as an official in charge of customs), probably well skilled in keeping records, is believed to have written his Gospel to the Jews. Because of this he accented Christ’s kingship and His fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. John Mark, Peter’s disciple, kept record of Peter’s preaching concerning Jesus while in Rome, and seems to have often accented Christ’s servant-hood. We can make a fairly good guess that Marks Gospel was written for the Romans, due to his regular use of Latin terminology, and his frequent explanations of theological concepts with which Jewish believers would be readily familiar. Luke, a well-studied physician, and disciple of Paul wrote his Gospel, including Acts, from Paul’s teachings, as well as from eyewitness’s testimonies, and older written records on the life of Christ (see Luke 1:1-3). Acting as both historian and theologian, Luke wrote as an apologeticist to the Gentiles for Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles. John, a close friend of Christ’s (“the one Jesus loved”) most likely wrote his Gospel in his later years while in Ephesus, and often directed his insightful writings toward exposing Jesus as God incarnate.

To make their writings relevant, each author focused on his individual audience’s needs, arranging material topically or thematically rather than strictly chronological (the Greek words sometimes translated as “now” and “then” can also be understood as “and”), in order that they might convey Jesus’ importance to people of various walks of life; Jew or gentile, male or female, slave or free. One or more of the Gospels speaks the language of one or all of these; from the common Greek, to the scripturally studied Jew; from the historian to the mystic, and even those in-between. Because of this, by combining the four Gospels, we can get an accurate and fairly complete portrait of who Jesus was and what he did.

2.

Now, due to the incredibly huge nature of this next subject, I’m merely going to touch on this, but when discussing the historical reliability of the Gospels, the time-frame in which they were written is an important factor to consider. Liberal scholars often date the Gospels’ earliest manuscripts from 70 A.D., as with the Gospel of Mark, to 95 A.D., in the case of John’s Gospel; 40 to 60 years after the events recorded. But the fact is that at that time Israel was still an “Oral Community” — people were still reciting the entire Torah from memory. Combining that with the fact that many of Jesus’ teachings were formulated to encourage oral transmission by being spoken in essentially poetic form, in spite of what seems to us moderns like anything but up-to-the-minute breaking news, we can still be confident, even apart from any divine intervention, that the main body of the Jesus story would be rightly transmitted orally.

But accepting such dates is even problematic. Methods for dating the Gospels are often spurious a grasping at straws. What one scholar uses to claim an early date another uses to declare an older one. For example, people using Liberal dating methods often date Mark’s Gospel after 70 A.D., primarily because of Mark 13:2; ‘”Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”‘ This is often interpreted to be a veiled reference to the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish-Roman war, and is used as evidence that Mark’s Gospel had been written after that event. It is assumed that any prophecy of an event that actually took place must have been read back into the mouth of Jesus after the even had taken place. Now the assertation that no one could under any circumstances predict the future in and of itself is very problematic. If any one of you were in the same situation as a person like Jesus, living in such a volatile age you could’ve likely seen the destruction of Jerusalem on the horizon. Given the political climate nearly anyone could have “prophesied” such an event rather accurately; it was obvious that something like the Jewish-Roman war was on the horizon — it took no miracle to figure that out. However, Mark 13:2, rightly understood cannot be a reference to the Jewish-Roman war because only the Temple was destroyed, not the entire city, as is implied by the verse. And even then, if that was intended to be a reference to the Temple’s destruction, that was what many Jews desired, so they could rebuild a VALID temple, because many viewed the current temple as less than perfect because it was built by a Roman and not a Jew. So, if this verse referred to a Temple destruction, it was more a THREAT than prophecy!

Another passage that is used to place a late date on the Gospels, yet again a Temple reference, is John 2:19-21; “Jesus answered them,”Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. Jews replied, It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are to raise it in three days? But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” Here, it seems, this reference to the Temple again had little to do with the Temple on the Mount of Olives, but rather was a reference to Christ’s own body and his future death and resurrection. Since none of these are references to the Temple destruction that occurred around A.D. 70, then using these references to date the Gospels post-70 is unjustifiable.

3.

Even apart from the acceptance of the Gospels as generally trust-worthy historical material the core of the Christ story can still be shown historically reliable. Several facts from history must be accounted for by any explanation of the origins of Christianity and, unless one begins from the view-point that the world is a closed system (there is no possible super-natural agent), I think the historically orthodox biblical interpretation of the events is the one which best accounts for all of the data.

First, what event took place to account for a substantial number of the first century Jews believing on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah in spite of the fact that he fulfilled very few of the prophecies concerning the messiah for which they’d hoped? Given the general lack of knowledge of first century Judaism among most modern Christians and non-Christians, this question requires some background in order for it’s full significance to be understood.

Prior to Roman occupation, Jewish Rabbi’s expected not one messiah, but two; the first, “Messiah, son of Joseph”, was the suffering servant messiah prophesied of in Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, who would suffer and die for his people; the second, “Messiah, son of David”, was the warrior-king of Isaiah 11:1-10, who would raise Messiah Son of Joseph from the dead, and re-establish the Kingdom of God, and thus everlasting peace and justice, with His people, Israel. If youd like more information concerning Jewish Messianic hope, please check out Arnold Fructenbaum and N. T. Wrights work on the subject. Anyway, due to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem beginning in A.D. 63, the Jews became expectant of the second, Davidic Messiah, and had largely forgotten the former. The Jews had had quite enough of captivity and desired a deliverer who would “…raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel…”, who would “…assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.” Israel wanted vindication, and awaited a messiah who would “vanquish the oppressors of God’s people.” Heres one that’ll shock many Christians; several came claiming to be this very messiah prior to, and even some after, Jesus. We have written records that mention, if not document the movements of several of these; Athronges, Simeon ben Kosiba (also Bar Kockbar), Simon ben Giora, John of Gischala, Theudas, Jesus ben Ananias, Judas the Galilean, his son (or grandson), Menahem (the leader of the Sicarii), and Eleazar ben Simon. {Theissen and Merz}The basic story in each case is the same; a prophet would gather a band of revolutionaries, which would proclaim him king, then stage a revolt against Roman rule. In every recorded case this revolt was subsequently crushed by Roman armies and ended with the crucifixion of their so-called “messiah” (and often the crucifixion of anyone the could catch who was involved with the movement), thus ending the revolt. {Wright, “the Original Jesus”, pg.68-70} Like Numbers 24:18 states, “…his enemy will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong”, the Davidic Messiah will be a conqueror. Combined with Deuteronomy 21:23, “…anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” one can see that not only, from the perspective of a first century Jew, is a dead messiah no messiah at all, but a crucified messiah is a false prophet and under God’s curse. So, when a movements leader was crucified, the survivors knew that he was false messiah and either disbanded, or found another messiah to lead the next revolt, eventually to the same end. Why was this not the case with Jesus and his movement?

To begin with, Jesus’ messianic self-understanding was seemingly more in line with the priestly role of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, Messiah son of Joseph, than Davidic Messiah of Isaiah 11, which is most likely why Jesus’ is often portrayed in the Gospels as having a “messianic secret.” Though his actions were often symbolic and overtly messianic in nature, verbally Jesus seemed to keep his identity, for the most part, secret until it was too late for people to misunderstand his goals and still force a violent revolution upon him. For instance, in Matthew 16:13-20 (see also Mark 8:27-30, & Luke 9:18-21) Jesus and the disciples are gathered in Caesarea Philippi (the known hiding place of several other messianic-led revolutionary groups, consequently), and Jesus asks the disciples their opinions concerning his identity. Peter responds, “You are the Christ…“, and the first part of Jesus’ response is of the sort one would expect from a 2000-year-old religious tract; “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah (Peter)…” What comes next though, for the modern Christian, is often quite shocking; “Then he (Jesus) warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ (or Messiah).” Only in light of 1st Century Jewish Messianic hope does this make sense; Jesus accepted the role of the Jewish Messiah, but not in the sense that even his own disciples completely understood, and, in some cases (Judas Iscariot, most likely), even hoped for. In fact, Jesus almost always tells people to remain quiet in predominantly Jewish cities, most likely due to misunderstood messianic expectations, and only told individuals to spread the news concerning his miracles in the predominantly Gentile cities, where, since they had NO clear messianic expectations, he knew he wouldn’t be misunderstood. Peter himself showed threads of the Davidic hope when he rebuked Jesus for predicting his death (again – a dead messiah was no messiah at all!), and pulled a sword and attacked those who came to arrest Jesus, cutting the ear off of one of the High Priest’s servants. Eventually Jesus did verbalize his messianic claims publicly, but, to his disciple’s confusion and distress, not until he was in chains before Pontius Pilate and about to be sent to his death. Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew 27:11; “Yes, it is as you say.” Quickly, his disciples disbanded. Believing their messiah to have been proven a fraud, and, having wasted possibly as much as three years of their lives, they go into hiding for fear that they too might be killed. But, unlike other messianic movements before (and after) them, Christianity continued, and in spite of immense persecution, and within four Centuries Christianity was the official religion of Rome. What can account for this?

History shows that the tomb in which Christ was laid was discovered empty, which is the foundation from which the early church argues for Jesus miraculous physical resurrection from the dead. On the Sunday after Jesus’ Crucifixion some of his women followers went to his tomb in hopes of anointing his body, but on arrival they discovered it empty. “Well,” one might say, “the early Christians just made this up to validate their now well-evolved Christ-myth!” For a few fairly simple reasons the empty tomb is not quite so easy to dismiss. First, one would suppose that if the early Christians had been so quick to make up stories to justify their beliefs that they’d make them a bit more credible. If the authors of the canonical Gospels were so inclined to play fast and loose with the evidence, why would they undermine their argument by having the empty tomb discovered by women if it were not, in fact, indisputably so? In first century Palestine women were not only considered second-class citizens, but, as William Lane Craig states in REASONABLE FAITH, “If a man committed a crime and was observed in the very act by some women, he could not be convicted on the basis of their testimony, since their testimony was regarded as so worthless that it could not even be admitted into court.” [Craig RF pg.276] That women were generally regarded as untrustworthy and not considered reliable witnesses would also likely explain why the church’s earliest creeds, particularly the one quoted by Paul in chapter 15 of his letter to the church in Corinth, mentions by name only the Apostle Peter and Jesus’ brother James. [Craig, Assessing the…pg52] If the story were fabricated by the early church one would not expect women to be the first to discover the empty tomb, for that would undermine the story’s intent: to convince people that Jesus was the Christ. Thus, that women discovered an empty tomb is quite attestable to by history. That Jesus’ tomb was empty is also attested to the fact that we see no evidence of the veneration of his burial site, an ancient Jewish custom, except that of the women when they shockingly discover that Jesus wasnt there. [Wright.Original Jesus…pg.70] Though some have argued that people in general had merely forgotten where Jesus had been laid, given Jewish culture at the time of Christ this just seems unlikely. Even if one distrusts the Gospels’ story of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathia, in spite of other ancient evidence to the contraire [The Historical Jesus – Theissen & Merz pg.500], one still must understand the degree of veneration the Jews had for their dead, especially those who had great followings and died heroically. In chapter 6 of Jesus Under Fire, Craig explains; “During Jesus’ time there was an extraordinary interest in the graves of Jewish martyrs and holy men, and these were scrupulously cared for and honored. This suggests that the grave of Jesus would have also been noted.” [Jesus Under Fire, Craig pg.148] Combined with the observation that the burial story is judged by many scholars to be from a fairly early source, that Jesus was buried in a known tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, or that at the least it is quite likely that many people knew the location of that tomb, is well attested. With that in mind, it must be mentioned that the Jewish or Roman authorities only had to produce the body of Jesus to stop the early church in it’s tracks — they didn’t, and couldn’t. In fact, they argued that the disciples had stolen the body, which at least implies that they knew of the tomb’s whereabouts and validates that that very tomb no longer contained the body of Jesus.

This raises a valid question, though; was it possible that Jesus’ body was stolen? First, if we allow the Gospels any credit historically, let us note that they record that a Roman guard (a group of men) were posted to keep watch over the tomb of Jesus, to make sure nothing of the sort happened. Also, since they would’ve been killed for not doing their jobs, it’s unlikely they could be snuck-by, or even bribed.

Secondly, though, let us ask ourselves – what had anyone of them to gain by the act? The disciples, or any Jews for that matter, had no expectation of an individual resurrection occurring outside the context of the general resurrection, and the sect known as the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, period. The Jews that did expect a resurrection, expected it to take place as a part of the ushering in of the kingdom in the end-times by the Davidic Messiah, and in THAT resurrection ALL who had ever died would be physically reassembled into new bodies in which they would live out the rest of eternity. An individual resurrection, even of the messiah, apart from the general resurrection was an unheard-of idea, and not a likely one to have been thought up by what would otherwise be just another band of revolutionaries mourning, what to them now would seem, another dead, God-judged, false messiah. Also, as William Lane Craig argues that it the theory that the disciples stole the body of Jesus is morally implausible, for the disciples seem to be generally moral individuals (not the type who would steal a body from a grave with the sole intent of deceiving others). It seems psychologically implausible, for the disciples were broken — they had given up on Christ, and were in fear for their own lives (not likely to pull off such a conspiracy), and lastly, the disciples sincerity is rarely doubted for they were all willing to die (and all but one did) for this messiah whom they claimed was raised from the dead. For these reasons, very few modern scholars, even extreme liberals, argue that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus. It is simply too implausible.

Lastly, what could cause devout mono-theists, such as the Jews, to worship a man? Now, rather than go too in-depth with this, Im just going to skim the surface. The Romans took over Jerusalem in 63 B.C., and commanded that all who were under them worship their king. However, the Jewish people refused to worship anything but God, so they were killed in hordes. Finally, however, the Romans realized that at this rate they would have no one to RULE over if this practice continued so they made an exception but ONLY for the Jewish people no others. So, the determination of the Jews to not worship anything but God was so extreme as to exempt them from worshiping the Roman Emperor! Fast forward to a letter written by Pliny the Younger before 111 A.D. in it he refers to Christians chanting to Christ as if to a God. This may seem insignificant to some, but to a religion steeped in tradition, under conditions where, in order to retain their identity they would be forced to stand strong for their faith, it seems unlikely that, apart from a significant miracle of God, a people who would die rather than worship a man, were worshiping a man.

What could account for these three things? 1.)What single event could account for a significant group of devout Jews seemingly ignoring an important declaration of Old Testament law that anyone who is hung from a tree is cursed of God, continuing to uphold him as the Messiah even after such an event? 2.)What could account for a significant group of devout Jews who were longing for a Kingly messiah to change their deep-set beliefs in who the Messiah was to be – a dead man? Not likely. 3.)What could make a significant group of devout Jews seemingly turn from their monotheism and worship a MAN?

The resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection attests to the truth of who Jesus was and what he did on the cross. It’s the only way I can make sense of it, and it brings me back to this person, Jesus, again and again…

 

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~ by heatlight on August 31, 2007.

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