I spent about fifteen minutes of my sermon on Sunday reviewing some evidence for believing in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While I could have said much more, for my purposes it’s enough to know that plenty of scholars have said much more, and that what I did say was backed up by good scholarship.
My purpose wasn’t to “prove” the resurrection—we can’t prove it any more than we can prove that Caesar crossed the Rubicon or other events of ancient history that we take for granted. Rather, I wanted to remind and encourage Christians that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on solid historical evidence.
The best reason, I suppose, for not believing in the resurrection event to which the evidence points is that of course resurrections aren’t the kind of things that happen. And how do skeptics know that resurrections don’t happen? Because of the lack of evidence, they would say. Except in the case of Jesus we have evidence, right? And the resurrection has only happened once. So there’s some circularity to their argument.
Regardless, if we Christian pastors never engage in apologetics, who will? There are fine apologists out there, but these scholars don’t make the cover of Time or Newsweek, nor do they have columns in the Huffington Post, nor are they usually interviewed on cable or network talk shows.
Leave that sort of notoriety to skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman. He has a new book out, How Jesus Became God. To the credit of his publisher (thank you, Rupert Murdoch?), HarperCollins has also simultaneously published a Christian response, How God Became Jesus, by a team of evangelical scholars.
You can get a sense of the Ehrman book from this Huffington Post column by Ehrman. Before I criticize it, let’s appreciate what Ehrman, a former fundamentalist Christian-turned-agnostic, is willing to concede. He says that as he was researching his book he was surprised that, contrary to what he previously believed, the disciples of Jesus believed that Jesus was God from the time they became convinced he was resurrected. In other words, he doesn’t think that the belief that Jesus was God emerged decades after Jesus’ death.
And by believing this, Ehrman rules out at least three competing theories: the “pious legend” theory—that the resurrection idea emerged long after Jesus’ death; the conspiracy theory—that the original disciples knew that Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, but they invented the story; and the “swoon theory”—that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross, regained consciousness after burial, and emerged from the tomb.
As a critique of what he does believe, there’s much to be said, and I’m sure that the evangelicals scholars who wrote their book-length response cover it nicely. Nevertheless, I’d like to respond to the last few paragraphs of his column, in which he writes the following:
The followers of Jesus came to think he had been raised because some of them (probably not all of them) had visions of him afterwards. Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them. Non-Christians would say that (several of ) the disciples had hallucinations. Hallucinations happen all the time. Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events). Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.
Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him – that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no – he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.
It’s a fascinating set of developments. It is highly important. And it matters not just for those who believe that the followers of Jesus got it right, but for anyone who cares about the factors that shaped the world we live in today.
Ehrman writes: “Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them.” (My responses are indented.)
Not quite: Christians would say that the disciples experienced not merely “visions,” but a fully embodied person. The Gospels go out of their way to portray that Jesus is a physical being, capable of eating and drinking, touching and being touched.
Why am I being picky? Because there are plenty of words to describe an immaterial “vision” of Jesus. These eyewitnesses didn’t use those words. They said that Jesus had been resurrected, which has a very specific, physical meaning within a Jewish context. And as I argued in my sermon on Sunday, nothing would tempt pious Jews such as the Twelve disciples, James the half-brother of Jesus, and the apostle Paul to apply the word “resurrection” to what they had experienced unless they were convinced that Jesus had appeared to them physically.
Also, as I said on Sunday, Jesus also appeared to groups of disciples, as one resurrection eyewitness, St. Paul, says in 1 Corinthians 15. People don’t experience hallucinations of the exact same thing at the same time. Paul could have been wrong, of course, but he does challenge skeptics to prove him wrong by saying that most of these “more than 500” eyewitnesses are still alive. He was convinced that there were hundreds of people who, like him, could back up his story. Was Paul mistaken? Did these hundreds of people not exist? Or were they also completely wrong about experiencing the resurrected Lord?
“Hallucinations happen all the time,” Ehrman writes. “Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events).”
If hallucinations “happen all the time,” they probably happened “all the time” back in Jesus’ day, too. Yet people rarely claimed that these hallucinations meant their loved ones had returned from the dead. Isn’t it likely that before these apostles went around the Roman Empire suffering persecution, torture, and death, they would be convinced that Jesus’ resurrection was something very different from any old hallucination—which, as Ehrman says, happens all the time? They would also know the difference between a spiritual experience of the Lord versus the physical experience that they claimed.
Or think of it like this: When your deceased grandmother “turns up in your bedroom,” do you therefore believe that she’s no longer dead? Do you believe not that she’s a figment of you imagination or even a real ghost, but a living, breathing person who has risen from the dead? Does this “hallucination” convince you to drop whatever else you’re doing and tell everyone that your grandmother is no longer dead? Are you so convinced that she’s come back to life that you’re willing to die for that belief?
Do Catholics who believe they’ve seen the Blessed Virgin Mary believe that they’ve seen her as a fully embodied person, every bit as alive on this earth as any other living person? Based on what I know, they believe they’ve had a spiritual experience—through weeping or talking statues or paintings, etc.
“Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.”
As I said in my sermon, there were dozens of documented would-be messiahs in first-century Palestine. Why did none of these other “bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers” claim that their leader had been resurrected? Were they not also “prime candidates” for such “visionary experiences”?
“In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus.”
Well, no… Ancient Jews never claimed that Enoch or Elijah were God! Is Ehrman just being sloppy with words? The whole point of his book is to say that Christians believed something radically different about Jesus. Jesus’ disciples were ancient Jews. While they believed that Enoch and Elijah had been taken up into heaven before death, they clearly thought something very different happened to Jesus.
Greeks and Romans believed that some people had been “exalted to the heavenly realm,” but they never believed that they had first been resurrected! Again, resurrection has a very specific meaning: it implies that someone returns to life in a bodily form—not as a ghost or vision or anything else. Greeks and Romans in general found the idea of resurrection offensive: the body was a prison from which the soul longed to escape. Read Acts 17:22-33. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel, when do things go badly? When he mentions the resurrection! Being exalted to the heavenly realm was just fine in Greco-Roman thought. Resurrection, by contrast, was offensive.
Bart Ehrman has appeared on The Colbert Report at least a couple of times. Colbert’s responses to Ehrman’s skepticism are perfect.