A little bit of Easter before Lent

January 27, 2011
In a very thoughtful dialogue about the Bible, miracles, and resurrection, I was asked on another blog if there were any evidence outside of the Bible for Jesus’ resurrection. Here’s what I wrote—very quickly—which some of you might find helpful. I prefaced it by saying that it was too large a topic, and I recommended that they start with N.T. Wright’s 1,000-page Resurrection of the Son of God, and then let’s talk.

Briefly, if it helps, no one set out to write something called “The Bible.” For example, Paul didn’t know he was going to be prominently featured in a small section called “The New Testament” when he was writing his letters to little churches scattered around the Roman Empire. Moreover, most of the documents of the New Testament were written independently of one another. Most of its writers didn’t have access to most of the other material in the N.T. So why think of the New Testament as one thing instead of 27 things?

Your answer might be, “Because the people who wrote these 27 things were already convinced.” O.K., but you might instead ask yourself, “Why were they convinced?” The church’s proclamation from the earliest moment was that Jesus had been resurrected. This wasn’t wish fulfillment, as modern critics often say, because it’s clear that no one, not even his closest disciples, expected Jesus’ resurrection. If the historical Jesus talked about his resurrection to them,1 they didn’t understand what he was talking about. The disciples were confused and scattered after Jesus was crucified. Many Jews believed in resurrection at the end of the age, and many Palestinian revolutionaries challenged Rome and were defeated and killed. None of their disciples claimed their leader was resurrected.

We often hear that resurrection legends sprung up around charismatic people all the time in antiquity (didn’t Hume say something damning to that effect?), but that’s simply not true. There are legends of people who weren’t really dead and returned from the grave, who were killed and resuscitated, who came back as visible ghosts or spirits, and who were assumed or translated into heaven with the gods. But there were plenty of other Greek words that the Bible writers had at their disposal if they wished to describe these other things. They chose “resurrection,” which has a specific meaning in a specific context. And never before Jesus had anyone ever said that resurrection had happened to anyone. Again, this was a Jewish expectation for the end of history, not the present.

What accounts for that, except that many, many people, contrary to common messianic belief or expectation, actually believed that Jesus had been resurrected? Look at it this way: If it were nearly any other well-attested event—like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, for example—we would conclude, “The reason people reported seeing and experiencing this event is because this event happened.” We don’t say that about resurrection because why? It’s too far outside of the realm of our experience. Of course it is, but that alone doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

We also have, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s eyewitness account of resurrection. By their own methodology, modern historians can’t simply say, “That didn’t happen.” They must count that as evidence (not proof, but evidence in favor of it). As Paul points out there, as of his writing, there were 500 or so eyewitnesses still living who could confirm the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, not to mention many key leaders in the church (who often did suffer and die because of this belief). Again, it’s our modern prejudice that people in antiquity were dumb and gullible, but there’s no reason to think that’s true.

This is scratching the surface… But look: No one, no one, no one comes to faith in Jesus because they’re intellectually convinced. Such conviction would contradict faith, obviously. Faith is like falling in love. The story rings true to me.

1. I believe he did, but many scholars dispute it. It doesn’t matter for my argument.

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