The Invisible Things

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Archive for March 2006

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 4 (Addressing Alternative Explanations)

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While I think the historical evidence for the resurrection is more than solid, no case would be air-tight without addressing some of the most common alternative explanations that attempt to cast doubt upon the Gospel accounts.

The Conspiracy Theory
First suggested in 18th century scholarship, though certainly based upon the earliest Jewish polemic against Christian claims, the conspiracy theory asserts that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb and fabricated the story of the resurrection for the purposes of establishing a power-motivated dogma. While this theory is contradicted by the historically trustworthy accounts of multiple independent sources (refer to parts 1, 2 and 3, which discuss the evidences for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, the empty tomb, and the establishment of the Christian church), it persists on the basis of skepticism regarding the motive and character of the disciples.

It is unlikely that the disciples were insincere. History verifies through written accounts the motivations and the sufferings of the disciples of Christ, and despite their failure to appropriate power, they persisted in their faith. They were completely aware of the consequence of the message they spread, both from the swift condemnation they would receive from the Jewish authorities, and the likelihood of penalty from Roman authorities, so a drive for power is simply an absurd hypothesis for motive.

Most importantly, however, the conspiracy theory applies modern perspectives on Jewish and Christian theology to men who would certainly not have conceived of such ideas. For the disciples, the death of Jesus served as a definite end to any notion that he was the promised messiah. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that the messiah became understood as not triumphing over just worldly kingdoms and rule, but over death itself and eternal condemnation of the soul. The disciples, far from being shrewd and manipulative theologians, were fishermen and tax collectors, hardly likely suspects for such a deceptive collaboration.

The Apparent-Death Theory
The apparent death theory, also referred to as the ‘swoon theory,’ suggests that Jesus survived the crucifixion, and therefore never died, nor was resurrected. This is probably the least possible of explanations, on the basis of several points.

The first, and most crucial, point which affirms the probability that Jesus did in fact die on the cross is that the Roman guards were efficient executioners and not likely to be lax in officiating over the penalty of such a public figure. Likewise, the crucifixion is probably the most sure among all information about Jesus of Nazareth, affirmed by multiple, independent sources among Christians and non-Christians alike. Though modern liberal scholarship attempts to undermine many things about Jesus, his death by crucifixion is not one of them.

However, the details provided by the Gospel witnesses regarding the crucifixion provide some astoundingly particular clues that affirm Jesus’ death. Besides clearly stating that Jesus breathed his last on the cross, the gospels note that the Roman guards, in order to expedite the executions of the other condemned men, broke their legs so that they would no longer be able to support themselves as they struggled to breath. The actual cause of death for a crucified man was asphyxiation, due to the position of the body which made it impossible to sustain prolonged breathing. However, it is further noted that the guards did not break the legs of Jesus, because it was determined that he was already dead. Next, the guards drive a spear into Jesus’ side for good measure, at which point it is written, “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:34)” This is surely a peculiar detail to be included, yet modern medical knowledge affirms that pericardial effusion as well as pleural effusion- fluid resembling water that collects in the heart and lungs due to cardiac arrest- would have been expelled had a spear pierced the side of Jesus.

It is sure, then, on the basis of historical consensus and the confirmation of seemingly insignificant details, that Jesus did not survive the crucifixion.

The Hallucination Theory
The hallucination theory posits that the appearances of the resurrected Christ were actually hallucinations on the part of overzealous and emotional followers.

This theory has little ground to stand on due to the nature of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. Had there been only a handful of witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus perhaps in one place at one time, the theory might be adequate. However, the accounts describe many sightings by many people, individuals and large groups, in multiple locations, by believers and skeptics alike!

Hallucinations, had they occurred, would have been unlikely to portray Jesus as bodily resurrected. The nature of a hallucination is that it will portray images based upon preexisting ideas or thoughts in the mind. As shown before, the idea of a bodily resurrection of an individual before the general resurrection of the dead at the final judgment would have been non-existent in the minds of the disciples. Given their point of view, had they experienced hallucinations of Jesus, they would have likely seen him as spiritually raised and enjoying the heavenly fellowship of Abraham, awaiting the final judgment.

Lastly, though the hallucinations might account for appearances of Jesus after his death, had the details of these appearances been much different of course, they do not account for the empty tomb or the rapid growth of the church, consisting of individuals fully convinced of the reality of the risen Christ.

The Pagan Influence Theory
The pagan influence theory, one that originated in the late 18th and early 19th century study of comparative religion, suggests that details of Christian theology, such as the resurrection and virgin birth, were adapted from pre-existing religious myth and tradition and were therefore not real events. This theory, which had been entirely debunked prior to a recent resurgence after the publicity of the Jesus Seminar, a radically liberal “think-tank” which rejects most of the tenets of orthodox Christianity, is inadequate for two significant reasons.

The first reason is due to the lack of resemblance that the Christian doctrines actually have to pagan traditions. For example, the resurrection of Jesus was initially compared to the dying and rising tradition of pagan gods like Osiris, yet the character of Jesus’ resurrection is quite different. The dying/rising myth was an intentional symbol meant to emphasize and reflect upon the crop cycle and never referred to an actual historical individual. Furthermore, the “resurrection” of Osiris was actually limited, in that his “risen” state limited him to exploits in the underworld, as apposed to Jesus, who, after the resurrection, was both able to manifest on the Earth and in heaven. What becomes apparent is that pagan “resurrections” were more transitional than transformational. The virgin birth, often compared to the origin of such Greek characters as Hercules, is also quite distinct. While Hercules was said to have been conceived out of the copulation of Zeus and a mortal woman, Jesus’ conception was through the holy spirit acting upon, and preserving, the virginity of Mary. There was not even a shred of the idea of God taking a human form and actually engaging in sexual intercourse with Mary to accomplish this! When one takes a closer look, these doctrines are more dissimilar than bearing any resemblance to one another.

However, history also shows the unlikelihood that any borrowing on the part of Christianity from pagan ideas occurred. It wasn’t until the second century after the crucifixion of Christ that any kind of Christo-pagan synthesis was even found in the Palestinian region. To suggest the opposite, that Christians borrowed from existing sects of pagan mystery religions in the community, would be historically inaccurate and indicative of a lack of understanding of pagan ideas. More importantly, however, the Jewish-ness of Jesus should not be overlooked, nor undermined for the cause of subversive historical maneuvering. Jesus and his followers were distinctly Jewish, and like all Jews, would have found pagan concepts and practices detestable. The Jewish people had a long-established tradition of resisting pagan influence, and it is unlikely that even the crucifixion of Jesus would have changed their beliefs regarding them.

I think that these theories are shown to be woefully inadequate explanations of the evidence we do have concerning Jesus. So, it is on the basis of the resiliency, diversity and plentitude of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the inadequacy of alternative theories, that I affirm its historicity and confidently establish my faith in Jesus.

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 3 (The Origin and Perseverance of the Church)

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The third piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is the very origin and perseverance of the Christian church itself. While some might at first glance argue that such a proposition is question-begging at best, the nature of the origin of the church is one that must be accounted for regardless of one’s belief regarding the resurrection.

For the disciples of Jesus, the situation on the day of his crucifixion was bleak. Their hope and conviction that he was the long awaited messiah was destroyed, as the expectation was that he would ultimately reign in triumph rather than suffer and die at the hands of men. Not only were they most likely in personal turmoil, the disciples of Christ, who had publicly proclaimed Jesus as messiah, were forced to deny having even known him and retreat into seclusion for their own safety. Yet, despite this predicament, the disciples emerged days later with fanfare to announce and proclaim the glorious resurrection of Jesus. Something must have happened to so radically change their behavior and beliefs.

As I mentioned in my last post regarding the empty tomb of Jesus, the idea that a man could be individually resurrected in history was foreign to the Jews of first century Palestine. Rather, the Jewish conviction regarding the resurrection (found in Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 26:19, and Daniel 12:2, among others) was that it was a comprehensive and post-historical event. In other words, the resurrection would occur at the end of the world and involve every single person who ever lived, either resurrected to glory or judgment. Thus, explaining the disciples’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of a pre-existing Jewish theological motive would be entirely inaccurate. (I am distinguishing here between the theological ideas of resurrection, which entailed the dead being restored bodily at the end of time for the purposes of judgment, and resuscitation, which entailed a once-dead person being restored to earthly life, as were Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, etc.) Further, the suggestion that the disciples were operating on the basis of some contrived Christian theology is even more inaccurate. These men were committed Jews, and following Jesus on the basis of a conviction that he was the messiah expected by all Jews. Christian theology emerged out of the notion of a post-messianic covenant realized by Jesus’ resurrection, so to attempt to explain the resurrection on the basis of Christian theology most definitely begs the question.

What is certain is that the disciples of Jesus came to a rather immediate conviction after the crucifixion that Jesus had been resurrected by the power of God, appeared to them and many others, and commissioned them to spread the news of the new covenant to all nations. The only possible motive here is truth, as the disciples were all willing (and most ultimately did) to die for this truth. While many are willing to die for something that may be a lie, none are willing to die for something they know is a lie. Not only did these men risk their natural lives for their convictions, as committed Jews, they risked their immortal souls as well.

The fact that, despite the demise of most of the most influential disciples (martyred for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus), the Christian church spread and grew rapidly attests to the reality of an event so incredible and world-changing as to be an appropriate impetus for the emergence of Christianity. I believe that this event, with history on its side, was the resurrection of Jesus.

Written by Christopher Butler

March 13, 2006 at 4:26 am

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb)

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The second piece of evidence that establishes the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is the fact of the discovery of his empty tomb in the days after his crucifixion.

According to the details of the four Gospels, the tomb where Jesus had been interred, the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a Pharisee and secret supporter of Jesus, was empty upon the arrival of several of his female followers. The details are quite consistent: That on the third day after Jesus’ burial, Mary Magdelene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome (among possibly other unnamed companions), traveled to the sealed tomb to anoint his body with oil. Upon arrival, they found the tomb open and Jesus’s body gone, and were instructed by an angel to alert the apostles. I would like to examine several aspects of this account, which I believe reinforce its credibility and accuracy.

It is unlikely that the Jewish disciples, though they had followed and believed Jesus, would have conceived of a spiritual resurrection of Jesus, as many skeptics assert. Rather, the Jewish tradition regarding the resurrection was undeniably physical, as they meticulously preserved the bones of the dead to await the general resurrection at the final judgment. Because of this bodily focus, the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection would have required that his tomb be empty. Moreover, the earliest Jewish polemic in response to the alleged resurrection of Jesus was that the disciples had stolen his body! Their own response also required that the tomb be empty. The followers of Jesus, Jewish and Roman authorities alike, and many others would have known the location of Jesus’ burial, as the tomb was no secret and thus could have simply been checked out once believers were heard proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. So, for the authoritative response to accuse the followers of Jesus of stealing the body implies not only that the body was not in the tomb, but that the authorities themselves had verified this fact!

Incidentally, the apostle Paul, who’s letters are known to be the earliest documents among the New Testament manuscripts, passes along the tradition of Jesus’ bodily resurrection with the phrase ‘He was raised.’ As I mentioned before, the resurrection was strictly in physical terms for a 1st century Jew, so to further allege that the teaching of a bodily resurrection was a later Pauline invention would simply be a sequential error as well as an anachronistic application of modern theology.

The Gospel of Mark, thought to be the earliest among the four Gospels, certainly bears literary characteristics that are unmistakable clues to its age. In fact, when Mark mentions the high priest Caiaphas, he does not by name, but actually writes ‘the high priest,’ as if there would be no confusion as to whom specifically he meant. Of course, we know from parallel accounts that Caiaphas was, in fact, the high priest during the time of Jesus. This suggests that Mark was writing during the term of Caiaphas himself, who held office from AD 18-37, putting the account within at most seven years of the crucifixion!

In addition, the telling of the discovery of the empty tomb is quite simple and unmarked by theological motifs characteristic of later legendary accounts found among the apocrypha. To emphasize this, I would like to compare the incident as written in Mark 16 with that of the apocryphal gospel of Peter:

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large. Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. "But go, tell His disciples and Peter, `He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.' "They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16)”

“But in the night in which the Lord's day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. But that stone which had been thrust against the door, having rolled by itself, went a distance off the side; and the sepulcher opened, and both the young men entered. And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them, and the head of the two reaching unto heaven, but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens. And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, 'Have you made proclamation to the fallen-asleep?' And an obeisance was heard from the cross, 'Yes.' (The Gospel of Peter)”

By comparing the two accounts, it is clear that the later account is overridden with theological motifs, such as the empty cross, the voice from heaven, and the over-glorified portrayal of Jesus. In addition, it is quite convenient that the account makes note that Jewish elders happened to be present for this event, as if in expectation of it! These things would be quite expected of an account written hundreds of years after the fact and heavily influenced by Gnostic tradition, as was the Gospel of Peter. However, such things would not be expected in an account written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, as was Mark.

A key element of the account of Mark is the fact that it was Jesus’ female followers who first discovered the empty tomb and brought news of it back to the disciples. But at the time, Jewish social culture regarded women as second class citizens, and according to the historian Josephus, the testimony of women was considered worthless! In fact, a quote from Jewish rabbinic literature should illustrate this well: “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women.” Considering these facts, it is highly unlikely that the Gospel writers would have reported the female discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb unless, despite its awkward and embarrassing nature, it was in fact the truth.

These points show the reliability of the account of the empty tomb so strongly, such that any accounts to the contrary are quite without merit. The details provided by Mark clearly show that the empty tomb was a recognized fact in the years immediately following the crucifixion, rather than a later theological invention. The absence of contrary accounts or explanations of these events, as well as the inclusion of details that might have hurt the disciples’ case at the time, such as the testimony of women, further emphasizes this.

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 1 (The Post-Mortem Appearances)

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I have spent a great deal of time discussing the evidence for general theism and considerably less time discussing the evidence for the divinity of Jesus and the historicity of the events described in the New Testament documents. Yet, it is a fact that orthodox Christianity is built upon a historical event, not creative theological thinking. The Apostle Paul defends this very point in his letter to the church in Corinth, that "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain (1 Corinthians 15:14)." In fact, the historical resurrection of Jesus is a necessity, as the orthodox Christian believes that Christ was the first demonstration of the power of God which they expect to work in their own lives on the day of judgment. As Paul writes, "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20)."

However, among the many areas of contention for skeptics regarding the claims of the New Testament, the resurrection is the most widely disputed. In the next several posts, I would like to examine three major areas of evidence for this event, and then briefly evaluate some of the alternative theories suggested by skeptics to account for the contemporary belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

The first piece of evidence is the series of post-mortem appearances of Jesus to his followers and others after his crucifixion and burial. If Jesus was, in fact, resurrected from the dead, the fact that he appeared to others would not only be likely, but necessarily for the idea to even exist today. The epistles of the apostle Paul, the earliest documents of the Christian church, provide some interesting details that bolster the case for the resurrection. In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles." Here, Paul says that the information that he had taught them, specifically dealing with the appearances of Jesus after his burial, was passed to him as a pre-existing tradition or confession of the existing group of believers.

Later, Paul writes to the Galatian church and mentions the journey he took to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles James and Peter three years after his own conversion, where he received the appearances tradition. Now, based upon the generally attested date of AD 30 for Jesus' crucifixion, Paul's conversion can be placed roughly three years later. This means that the information regarding the appearances of Jesus was intact and widely known within two to three years of the crucifixion, and documented within seven! In fact, Paul's mentioning of the remaining portion of the five hundred witnesses almost invites skeptics to verify for themselves, as if to say, "feel free to ask them!" As an aside, it is interesting to recall that prior to his conversion, Paul exerted considerable authority as a Pharisee, and was actively persecuting Christians up until the very day of his encounter with the risen Christ. The book of the Acts of the Apostles (chapters seven and eight) even mentions Paul's presence at and "hearty agreement" with the stoning of the disciple Steven, who openly proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus. Implicit in Steven's preaching was the fact that Jesus was not only the expected Messiah, but resurrected to glory, of which he had been a witness.

The fact that the establishment of the Christian church with its core doctrines can be traced to roughly a couple of years of Jesus' death and burial implies the general agreement among the community of the truth that Jesus had been crucified, buried, and resurrected. While historians find plenty of data in agreement with this belief, even among secular sources, sources that provide voices of dissention providing details strong enough to debunk the belief are non-existent. In other words, that the body of believers so greatly proliferated in such a short time shows that there were few, if not none, who had any evidence with which to clarify a mistaken belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Often quoted by New Testament scholar William Lane Craig, Gerd Lüdemann writes in What Really Happened to Jesus? "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ."

The Truth about Truth, Part 2 (What Truth Is)

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My previous post was primarily an effort to dispel inadequate concepts of truth prior to discussing what truth actually is. Now that those partial concepts have been dealt with I can proceed to do just that. Thomas Aquinas wrote, in his Summa Theologiae, that “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality.” Truth is that which corresponds to reality. To put it in more contemporary and applicable terms, and how theologian and apologist Norman Geisler phrases it, telling the truth is “telling it how it is.”

The primary reason for seeing this as a superior concept of truth is that without correspondence, the notions of truth and falsity would be utterly meaningless. The way we understand truth in our experience is by recognizing the correlation between reality and statements about reality. Likewise, the way we recognize falsehood is by discerning the difference between reality and statements about reality. If the correspondence view of truth was not so comprehensive, we should not expect to see any differences between statements and reality. However, this is clearly not what we do see (even my explanation here is contingent upon the reality of correspondence!).

For example, if I were to claim to you that I was present at the launch of the first manned space mission, there would be plenty of ways to verify whether I was telling the truth. However, all of these ways would accomplish the same goal: verification of whether my statement corresponds with the facts. In this case, the best place to start would be by verifying my own date of birth, which, having fallen long after the historical event in question, would prove that I was lying about having witnessed the launch. (For the record, this event occurred on May 5, 1961, 19 years prior to my birth.) In fact, a claim like this would not even fall within the ability of the pragmatic truth theory to verify, nor the coherence theory, nor even the intentions theory. No matter how sincere I might be in my delusion, the facts show that it is not possible that I would have been present for this event.

When a witness makes an oath to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ he or she is making a promise that depends on the correspondence theory in order for it to be coherent. Without the idea of truth being that which corresponds to reality, there would be no means of discerning the validity of testimony. If a witness’ statements need not correspond to reality, then it seems to me that there is hardly any need for such an oath to be made. In fact, if this were truly the case, all statements would be true, and theoretically, any dispute would be resolved without the need of a trial. In my mind I can imagine millions of lawyers joining force to defend the correspondence view, and in doing so, the validity of their careers!

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed several other views on truth. However, what I hope I made clear is that each of these views is inadequate to deal with the full scope of truth, and that most of the views were self-contradictory. Each view, whether it is the pragmatic, coherence, intentional, or existential, makes correspondence implicit in its claim. Thus, for one to claim that the existential view of truth is true, implies that the existential view corresponds to reality!

Written by Christopher Butler

March 2, 2006 at 2:06 pm