What we can know for sure… so far

April 24, 2012

My sermon on Sunday dealt mostly with the “Legend theory,” one of several alternate theories created to explain away the miracle at the center of the Christian faith. I used something Richard Dawkins said in an interview years ago as a springboard for the discussion.

He said that he’s not surprised that Christians claimed that Jesus was resurrected, “After all, these sorts of legends sprang up all the time in the ancient world when a powerful, charismatic leader died.” In other words, the resurrection of Jesus was just another legendary account of someone dying and coming back to life.

So the question is… “Was it?”

No. Not even close. As I argued on Sunday, there are legends of gods and mythic figures dying and coming to life in a spiritual form or heavenly realm. Outside of the Bible, however, there are no clear parallels in the ancient world about a dead person resuming a bodily existence after dying.[†] If Dawkins were right, shouldn’t there be dozens or hundreds of examples?

In fact, even though there were many would-be messiahs in first-century Palestine who had large followings and, like Jesus, died at the hands of their Roman oppressors, only Jesus’ followers ever claimed that their leader was resurrected. Why? One would think that in a Jewish context—from which the concept of “resurrection” emerged in the first place—the disciples of these other would-be messiahs would also claim that their leader was resurrected—if it were so commonplace in the ancient world.

Richard Dawkins really meant to say that ancient people were gullible in a way that we moderns are not. Of course this is nonsense. People in the ancient world knew as well as we do that when people died, they stayed dead.

Besides, legends take time to develop. As I demonstrated on Sunday, we can say with historical certainty that the disciples of Jesus proclaimed from the beginning that Jesus was bodily resurrected. Therefore, for whatever reason—and we’ll look at other possible reasons next week—the disciples began saying that Jesus was resurrected shortly after he died. Maybe they were mistaken, crazy, or lying (we’ll get to that next week), but we know for sure that they claimed resurrection from the beginning.

There is another spin on the “Legend” theory floating out there. It’s less interesting to me than the first, but it goes like this: When the disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, and they (or their followers) wrote it down, they weren’t writing literal history, nor did they intend to be taken literally. They were instead copying their master, who himself used fictitious stories called parables to teach deeper spiritual truths.

If we try to make the resurrection a literal event, we miss the point—just as we would miss the point if we fretted over the location of the inn to which the Good Samaritan took his wounded neighbor.

Never mind that I’m not sure what that deeper point would be. Never mind that the gospels, Acts, and the epistles make the resurrection seem perfectly historical to me. This theory fails on many other levels. It doesn’t explain the passage we looked at on Sunday: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. First, when Paul says in v. 4 that Jesus was raised, we can infer that the tomb was really empty. Otherwise, Jesus’ enemies could have stopped the young Christian movement in its tracks by simply producing Jesus’ rotting corpse.

Also, why were there hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord? If the disciples were creating a legend, why would they make women the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection—since women weren’t credible witnesses in the Greco-Roman world?

Why would the disciples have created a legend involving resurrection? Resurrection was something that Jews believed would happen to everyone at the end of history—when God would finally establish his kingdom on earth and peace and justice would reign. No Jew believed it would happen to one person in the middle of history, especially while the Roman Empire continued to occupy Palestine!

Would devout Jews like Paul and James, the brother of the Lord, risk the fate of their souls by abandoning orthodox Judaism for the sake of an invented story?

Finally, we know for sure that many of the apostles, including Peter, Paul, and James, were martyred for their faith. Would they have given up their lives if they knew the resurrection were merely a non-historical parable? It boggles the mind.

[†] Ancient historian and Bible scholar N.T. Wright treats this issue extensively in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 3-200. For a shorter treatment, see also Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 89-92.

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