Here’s a reason for “Reason to Believe”

May 22, 2012

Last month, I preached a two-part series, “Reason to Believe,” on evidence for the resurrection. (Part 1 and Part 2 are here.) One reason I did the series was to equip us to handle competing claims regarding Jesus and his resurrection, such as the ones found in this new book. Here’s an excerpt from a review in The Jewish Daily Forward:

On the basis of these tombs, Jacobovici and Tabor argue that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children. They also think that he was buried by his followers, and thus that the earliest Christians did not believe in bodily resurrection. Later, they speculate, relying on the Gnostic Gospels (a set of subversive and marginal early Christian texts), that under the influence of Pauline misogyny and later asceticism, Christians suppressed the role of Mary Magdalene.

Similarly, Jacobovici and Tabor believe that early, “authentic” Christianity understood resurrection as a spiritual event, the elevation of the immortal soul after death; Gospel writers and theologians living after Jesus died mangled the received account, mistaking resurrection for a crude revival of Jesus’ actual, physical body. Like Strauss, Tabor and Jacobovici see these arguments as rescuing the true, early Christianity from the misogyny and literalism of late antiquity.

Let’s quickly respond…

Claim: “The earliest Christians did not believe in the bodily resurrection… ‘[A]uthentic’ Christianity understood resurrection as a spiritual event, the elevation of the immortal soul after death.”

If you heard or read my sermons, you should recognize this claim as a version of the “Legend” theory. What are its problems? First, this theory fails to account for a fact that most historians agree on: The tomb was really empty. Simply using Matthew’s gospel as an historical document (disregarding our belief in its inspiration as holy scripture), we know from Matthew 28:11-15 that a conspiracy theory was circulating (around A.D. 75, when the gospel was written) that claimed that the body was stolen by Jesus’ disciples. This early conspiracy theory is corroborated in non-biblical sources as well.

Obviously, the reason this alternate theory existed was to explain away a fact that even enemies of the Christian movement agreed on: the tomb was empty. Moreover, if Roman or Jewish opponents wanted to stop the Christian movement dead in its tracks, it would have been easy enough for them to open the tomb and produce a corpse.

More evidence for an empty tomb comes from the inconvenient fact that all four gospels agree that women were the first eyewitnesses. If you were inventing or embellishing a story about an empty tomb, you wouldn’t have women as the first eyewitnesses. It hurts your case for the resurrection. Why? Because women weren’t considered credible witnesses in the first century. If the early church made the story up, they would have made men like Peter, James, and John the first eyewitnesses.

That they didn’t lends credibility to the empty tomb as an historical fact. Historians refer to this as the “principle of embarrassment”: an historical source (like a gospel account) has more credibility if it reports details that are harmful to its cause. The only reason the gospel writers would include this embarrassing detail is because it really happened this way.

Also, as I said in my first sermon, we know that legends take time to develop. The earliest gospel account of the resurrection is Mark’s gospel, written 40 years after Jesus’ death. Isn’t that enough time for a resurrection legend to develop? No. First, because all the stories in the gospels are based on oral traditions that long preceded their being written down. Mark didn’t invent a bodily resurrection in 70. The story itself would have circulated for years prior to being written down. This is the way oral cultures (as opposed to our modern literate cultures) work.

This is hard for us moderns to grasp, but in a world in which fewer than 10 percent of the population were literate, the spoken word had more authority than the written word. The church wrote the stories down in gospel form as eyewitnesses began to die off. My point is, a resurrection legend would have developed during a time when the apostles and other eyewitnesses were still living, who would have corrected the record and said, “No, this was not a bodily resurrection. It was ‘spiritual'” (whatever that might mean).

Besides, the earliest written accounts discussing Jesus’ bodily resurrection—indeed, the earliest Christian writings that we have—are Paul’s letters, which all historians agree were written 15-20 years after Jesus’ death. And some of the most historically significant words Paul wrote are found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. Beginning in verse 3, Paul writes,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.

This is interesting for a few reasons. First, we’re hearing from someone who claims to be an eyewitness to the resurrected Lord himself, who we know for sure began his ministry within two or three years after Jesus’ death. We also know for sure, based on non-biblical sources, that Paul knew some of Jesus’ original disciples—as Paul himself says in his letter to the Galatians. So when Paul says that he’s “handed on to you” what he received, we can be confident that “what he received” came directly from Jesus’ disciples and from other eyewitnesses to the events that Paul describes here. (Not to mention Jesus himself, but, for the sake of argument, let’s leave faith out of the discussion.)

Not only that, scholars say that Paul’s words here are likely part of a very early creed that predates Paul’s writings by many years. Paul’s repeated use of the word “that” is one clue. Many scholars, in fact, believe that Paul likely learned the creed directly from James and Peter when he was in Jerusalem within a few years of his conversion. If so, Paul learned this creed within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion—hardly time for a legend to develop! Again, we can be confident that what Paul describes here goes back to the beginning of the Christian movement.

Finally, even these skeptical authors agree that the disciples believed that something happened to Jesus that they called “resurrection.” The word, however, had an exclusive and specific meaning in first century Jewish thought that it no longer has today: by definition, resurrection meant a physical, bodily event. There’s no sense talking about a “spiritual resurrection,” because it’s a contradiction. The apostles had plenty of other Greek words at their disposal to describe a merely spiritual fate for Jesus.

Moreover, in Jewish thinking, resurrection was something that happened to everyone at the end of history, not to one person in the middle of history—not while God’s enemies were still ruling Palestine; and not while injustice, evil, disease, and death still held sway. The reason the disciples proclaimed a bodily resurrection, even though it flew in the face of their religious and cultural inclinations, was because they believed it really happened.

In fact, as I argued in my second sermon, the apostles would have had an easier time “selling” the resurrection to the world at large if it were merely a spiritual event. The Romans wouldn’t have bothered killing any of them if they were only talking about a soul going to an otherworldly paradise. In Greco-Roman thought, the body was a cage from which the soul longed to be liberated. The idea of a religious leader like Jesus being re-embodied after death was offensive. Think of Paul’s experience in Athens in Acts 17: notice the philosophers only reject Paul’s message after he mentions resurrection.

There are many other things to say… Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene, and did he have children? I’m sure he wasn’t and didn’t, but I don’t understand what’s at stake in the question. I don’t see how it would hurt the apostles’ cause one way or another—so why bother covering up the fact? If Jesus were married with children, eyewitnesses (including Jesus’ brother James and mother Mary) would have been alive to contradict an assertion to the contrary.

And why would the authors rely on later Gnostic gospels to make their case? We know for sure that the four canonical gospels are also the earliest gospels. Wouldn’t these four have more authority from a strictly historical point of view? (All the Gnostic gospels date no earlier than the second century.)

Finally, if you read the book review, you’ll see that even the reviewer (who isn’t a Christian) dismisses the book as sloppy scholarship.

I could say more, but I hope you see why I did this: this new book illustrates why we Christians should be equipped to defend our faith, especially the miracle at the center of it. With a little practice, it’s easy to knock down these skeptical alternate theories. What concerns me is that plenty of lightly-church or non-churched people will read the headline and think, “Why should I even bother with it?”

The world needs our witness!

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