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What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 2

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In the general discussion of documents in my last post, I briefly mentioned two specific manuscripts that are of interest in the study of apocryphal gospels. In fact, these two books, the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Mary,” have frequently been cited by liberal Biblical scholars and Gnostic scholars alike in argumentation for the diversity of Christian thinking in the first century. They even play a significant role in the most recent and popular of such speculative work, The DaVinci Code, leading author Dan Brown’s characters to conclude that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene and left the church in her charge.

The “Gospel of Philip,” discovered among the documents of the Nag Hammadi library, is like the “Gospel of Thomas” in that it is primarily comprised of sayings or teachings of Christ rather than being a narrative or story. These sayings, which include “Truth is the mother, knowledge the father,” and “it is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them… You saw the Spirit, you became Spirit. You saw the Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father,” are widely considered to be extremely Gnostic in character. However, this particular “gospel” is most often cited as introducing the proposition that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene.

Though the document has sustained damage which makes deciphering some of its text a challenge, the passage in question reads: “And the companion of the…Mary Magdalene…more than…the disciples…kiss her…on her…” Some scholars, however, have filled in the gaps, inferring that the passage perhaps read like this: “And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth.” Dan Brown’s professorial expert character argues specifically that the Aramaic word used for ‘companion’ always means ‘spouse,’ therefore there can be no question that the two were married. Unfortunately, the only existing copy of this manuscript was written in Coptic, not Aramaic! Though many Gnostic texts tend to have earlier versions in Greek, scholars have never found any in the Aramaic language. Supposing, however, that this document was in some way credible, despite being quite late (3rd century AD), the notion that Magdalene was a simply companion of Christ is thoroughly Biblical. She is often mentioned among the various women accompanying Christ in his travels. Even the notion that they might exchange a kiss is not necessarily scandalous as greeting one another with a ‘holy kiss’ was commonplace among first century Christians. After a closer look, it seems that the marriage conclusion is quite unlikely.

Like the “Gospel of Philip,” the “Gospel of Mary” is another Coptic apocryphal text, discovered in 1896 within a larger manuscript known as the Akhmim Codex. Also like “Philip,” this text is the only existing Coptic version, though it is missing portions of its content. Again, the most common inference from this text is a bit of a departure from what is actually there, as some scholars claim it teaches that Jesus left Mary Magdalene, not Peter, in charge of the church.

The passage most often referred to reads:

And Peter said, ‘Did the Savior really speak with a woman without our knowledge? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?’ And Levi answered, ‘Peter, you’ve always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like an adversary. If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us.’”

I see nothing in this passage that presents a convincing argument for Mary’s charge. However, several other facts call the very legitimacy of scholarship surrounding this manuscript into question. As I mentioned earlier, many Gnostic texts had prior versions written in Greek, the “Gospel of Mary” included. In fact, the earlier Greek manuscript copy exists in two portions surviving from the 3rd century AD, but it ends prior to this particular passage! Additionally, though this book is often referred to as the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” the name Magdalene appears nowhere in the text. For all we know, this book could refer to any number of Marys, Jesus’ mother included (though, in all fairness, its Gnostic origin makes it likely that Magdalene was intended). Needless to say, the actual document’s relationship to Mary would be in name only, as it was written long after the first century.

The subject of other “gospels” is sure to attract interest (and sell books, in the case of The DaVinci Code) while subversively introducing Gnostic Christianity as authoritative and/or authentic. However, only a small amount of investigation reveals the truth and affirms the exclusion of Gnostic apocryphal works from the scriptural canon. Ironically, the “Gospel of Mary” includes another quote, this time from Andrew, who says “Say what you think concerning what she [Magdalene] said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas.” I am convinced that we can safely agree with Andrew and trust the Word of God which has been preserved for us from the very beginning!

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

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As the recent release of the so-called “Gospel of Judas” seems to suggest, many skeptics and scholars today allege that in addition to the four Gospels found in the contemporary New Testament, many other gospels were written and yet withheld from the canon for various sinister reasons. In fact, in his book ‘The DaVinci Code,’ Dan Brown suggests (by way of one of his ‘expert’ characters) that more than eighty gospels were considered for inclusion in the New Testament! I would like to briefly examine the veracity of this claim and suggest that, in reality, the number of other documents that could even be (mistakenly) construed as a legitimate gospel is roughly half the total Brown suggests.

Contrary to the popular suggestion of “gospel” rivalry during the growth of the early church, no other gospels were even suggested by first-hand authors for inclusion in the canon, or even by followers of such supposed authors. Only two gospels were mentioned in a favorable light during the time prior to the establishment of the canon, though not judged for canonicity. They include the “Gospel of the Hebrews” and the “Gospel of Thomas.” The “Gospel of the Hebrews” has actually never been found, though it is mentioned among the apostolic fathers’ literature and was said to resemble the Gospel of Matthew. The “Gospel of Thomas,” found among the Nag Hammadi literature, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus rather than a documentary account of His ministry. While a portion, perhaps a third, of the recorded sayings resemble those of the canonical Gospels, the remaining are Gnostic in nature and do not conform to the teachings of Christ as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Interestingly, the Jesus Seminar, a collective of radical liberal Biblical scholars, included “Thomas” as the fifth Gospel in their famous study which sought to prove that little of the words attributed to Jesus actually came from Him. In the case of “Hebrews,” there is no physical evidence allowing for even a debate as to whether it should have been included within the canon; the consensus of the early church is apparent from its lack of preservation. In the case of “Thomas,” its late date and obvious Gnostic corruption set it outside of the body of literature produced within the first century and among the followers who were directly connected to Christ, making the possibility of inspiration or even canonical qualification a non-issue.

During the second and third centuries of church growth, unorthodox teachers began to assemble groups based upon heretical teachings and recommend the use of spurious literature. Three so-called “gospels” tended to be referred to in such instances. They included the “Gospel of Peter,” “A Different Matthew” and, again, the “Gospel of Thomas.” These documents, as I wrote earlier, were written well after the time of the names associated with them, meaning that the authorship was forged. Additionally, like “Thomas,” these documents were thoroughly indicative of Gnostic corruption. In fact, I briefly examined the a passage from the “Gospel of Peter” in my previous post, “The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb),” which showed the remarkably strong influence of mythic symbolism and religious iconography that would not have been present in an early document (see that post for more and a quote from a passage recounting the resurrection of Christ).

There are another nine remaining documents, of which fragments still remain, which bear the name “gospel,” though for similar reasons to the three mentioned above, are apocryphal. These include, the “Gospel of Truth,” “Gospel of Philip,” “Gospel of the Egyptians,” “Gospel of Mary,” “Gospel of Bartholomew,” “The Apocryphon of James,” “The Ascent of James,” the “infancy” “Gospel of Thomas,” and the “Gospel of Nicodemus.” Again, these documents are today, and were at the time of the early church, rejected on the basis of spurious and late authorship, as well as corrupted and Gnostic-influenced doctrinal teaching. In the interest of time and space, I will discuss the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Mary” in more detail in a forthcoming post.

Roughly six or seven additional fragments were found among the documents at Oxyrhychus, which I mentioned in my previous post, “A Survey of New Testament Documents,” that contained duplicate accounts of Jesus’ miracles found in the New Testament Gospels, though they seem to originally be from separate documents. These fragments, however, present nothing controversial, nor do they include extra-Biblical teaching that would have been suppressed. The possible seventh document is of a bit more interest, though it is difficult to even call it a document. In 1958, scholar Morton Smith visited an Egyptian monastery where he claims to have viewed a letter from Clement of Alexandria, who lived around AD 200. Smith said that this letter contained a quote from a distorted version of the Gospel of Mark, which Clement was endeavoring to refute. The quote mentions a young man who visits Jesus in the night wearing nothing but a linen garment, and is “taught the secrets of the kingdom” until the morning. Sadly, it is this quote, having never been verified by one shred of evidence beyond Smith’s verbal account, which leads some to outrageously infer that Jesus was a homosexual. Clearly, and even if it were genuine, the passage overtly contains nothing of the sort. Smith did return to the monastery once more to take photographs of the document, which were reportedly last seen in 1973. Since then, some scholars have attempted to suggest that this “distortion” of the Gospel of Mark was actually the original, of which the Biblical Gospel of Mark was a distortion! Not only is there no evidence to verify that the ancient letter of Clement actually exists, there is no existing evidence to corroborate the supposed distortion of Mark nor the hypothesis that the New Testament Gospel of Mark was a later version of the one cited by Clement. For skeptics, the pre-Mark “gospel” may just be wishful thinking. Finally, among ancient documents, scholars have found twenty-eight other references to texts simply called “gospels,” though none of these have ever been found or corroborated by additional sources.

It appears that, despite the frequent claims of skeptics, the allegation of numerous “gospels” that competed for canonical inclusion is quite incorrect. In fact, the cumulative total of all the documents I have cited here (including the supposed distorted “Gospel of Mark”) is 48 documents. This, by the way, is roughly half the number suggested by Dan Brown. This data is ultimately convincing that the suggestion that there were eighty other “gospels” is quite disingenuous.

Drawing Appropriate Conclusions from the Gospel of Judas

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It was reported today in a New York Times article of the discovery of a 4th century manuscript copy entitled the Gospel of Judas. Bound to encite much controversy, this Gospel claims to relate “the secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.” The account indicates that Jesus asked Judas to betray him for the purposes of his spiritual plan, saying “…you [Judas] will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

I would initially venture to comment that most news media will be either prone to make subtle yet inflammatory statements in regards to the impact of the document for the purposes of readership, or likely to draw inaccurate conclusions themselves based upon a misunderstanding of both Gnosticism and Christian Orthodoxy. But before we are quick to draw conclusions from the reporting that has already occurred among the news media, let’s consider a few points that will clarify the context of the Gospel of Judas.

This document does not recount the ministry and passion of Christ, as do the other Gospels, but singles out a particular doctrinal point. It is qualitatively different.
This should raise eyebrows given the availability of antecedent and better attested accounts of Jesus that are primarily documentary rather than theological. Liberal scholar Elaine Pagels stated, in reference to the Gospel of Judas, “These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was,” as if to say that Christian orthodoxy would be anachronistic to the time. This is a patently incorrect and intentionally misleading comment. In fact, scholars initially based their entire search for this document based upon a reference to it in Against Heresies, written in AD 180 by Ireneus, the Bishop of Lyons. Such a treatise would not have been written had orthodoxy not been a significant concern at the time. Ireneus points out that Gnostic Gospels are distortions of an established doctrine, not authentic teachings.

The Gospel of Judas is distinctly Gnostic and speaks little in reference to Christian Orthodoxy.
In addressing the Cainites, the sect responsible for the Gospel of Judas, Ireneus writes that they: “stated that Cain owes his existence to the highest power, while Esau, Korak, the Sodomites and all other men are dependants of each other… They believe that Judas the Betrayer was fully informed of these things and that only he (sic) understanding the truth like no one else fulfilled the secret of betrayal that confused all things, both in heaven and on earth. They invented their own history called the Gospel of Judas. (A.H. I.31.1)” Elsewhere, Ireneus quotes the document: “You will be cursed by the other generations — and you will come to rule over them…You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

Themes such as the inherent evil of physical matter and the unlocking of secret knowledge through ritual and relationships are typical of Gnostic thinking, and are often found in the apocryphal works of the 3rd and 4th century, not in the Christian literature of the 1st century. Sadly, Judas did not receive the rulership supposedly promised by Jesus, as it was reported by multiple earlier accounts that he took his own life in grief.

Incorrect Conclusions
In its article, the New York Times states: “As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God, but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon, and which edited out.” I find this to be one of the most troubling aspects of the entire story. Not only is it an underhanded misrepresentation of the current state of the church, it is flatly incorrect in its suggestion regarding the formulation of the canon. While I won’t delve into this subject too deeply, I would like to quickly dispel some confusion regarding the canon.

The council of Nicea, convened in AD 325, was made possible by the freedom granted to Christians by Constantine of Rome. The purpose of this meeting was not to choose the accepted books of the Bible, but to resolve a doctrinal dispute regarding the nature of Christ. In fact, the canon was formed more as a process of excluding heretical teachings as they surfaced, rather than one of selecting from a large group of available scriptures. The Times has overreached in its assessment of the ‘new generation of Christians,’ as it is not the majority thinking of the church, nor is the claim of Biblical errancy and political maneuverings new!

In response to the unveiling of the Gospel of Judas, James M. Robinson, expert in Coptic and Egyptian texts and Professor Emeritus at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University said, “Does it go back to Judas? No…There are a lot of second-, third- and fourth-century gospels attributed to various apostles. We don’t really assume they give us any first century information.” His statement is a succinct way of pointing out the shortcomings of this document: it’s distance from its subject (both Jesus and Judas), its origin with a sect known to be heretical over a century prior to this manuscript, and its divergence from orthodox teaching, which leaves it suited much more to Gnosticism than Christianity.

A Survey of New Testament Documents

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The reliability of the New Testament is a value indicative of the fantastic catalogue of manuscripts that have been preserved and kept since the beginning of the church at the time of Christ. For the record, and as an addendum to my previous post, I would like to briefly survey some of the most important and ancient manuscripts from among the many available to scholars today.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we depend upon copies of the original scriptural documents, or autographs, as none of them still exist. Now, before this statement fills us with doubt or skepticism regarding the integrity of the message translated from one document to another, it is helpful to keep in mind that no autographs exist of many sources which we depend upon to reconstruct the history and culture of ancient civilization. In other words, the absence of autographs is common and not a mortal blow to the endeavor of discovering the original words or meaning of many ancient documents. Consequently, the more manuscript copies are available, especially those close in proximity to the writing of the original, the more accurate the reconstruction can be. For more on how this principle establishes the reliability of the New Testament documents, see my previous post.

The manuscript that many scholars estimate is closest to the autographs, classified as P46 (otherwise referred to as the Chester Beatty Papyrus II, after its owner), contains all of the Pauline pastoral epistles, and has been dated at the end of the first century. If this dating is correct, it places P46 within twenty to thirty years of Paul’s original letters and would be the largest and oldest collection of New Testament manuscripts currently in our possession. The next document in chronological order, referred to as P52, is dated around 110-125 AD and contains John 18, verses 31-34 and 37-38. This document is a fragment to say the least, but it was part of a larger manuscript copy of the Gospel of John, produced within twenty to thirty years of the original. The following are a selection of some of the other important New Testament papyri:

The Oxyrhychus Papyri
This group of documents was literally recovered from the ancient garbage dumps of Egypt! In 1898, archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt discovered the site in Oxyrhychus, Egypt, which included an enormous amount of written information, including legal documents, literature, business receipts, and letters, as well as over 35 New Testament manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts were fragments of larger works. Included were P1, containing Matthew 1, P5, containing John 1 and 16, P13, containing Hebrews 2-5 and 10-12, and P22, containing John 15-16.

The Chester Beatty Papyri
This collection of documents was found and purchased from an Egyptian dealer in the 1930’s, and bears the name of its owner. As I mentioned above, two of its manuscripts, P46 and P52, are recognized for their age and proximity to the autographs. In addition to those two, P45, which contains portions of the Gospels and Acts and P47, which contains Revelation 9-17, are included.

The Bodmer Papyri
Also named for its owner, M. Martin Bodmer, and purchased from an Egyptian dealer through the 1950’s and 1960’s, this collection includes P66, from 175 AD and containing the majority of the Gospel of John, P72, of the third century and containing both 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, and P75, from 200 AD containing portions of Luke 3 through John 15.

Codex Sinaiticus
This manuscript is a complete edition of the New Testament. It was discovered by Constantin vo Tischendorf in a monastery located near Mount Sinai. It is dated around 350 AD.

Codex Vaticanus
Preserved in the library of the Vatican since 1481, this manuscript was not available for examination until the mid-1800’s! It has been dated prior to Codex Sinaiticus, and includes the entire Old Testament and the New Testament through Hebrews 9:15 in Greek. Still today, Vaticanus is considered one of the most reliable sources of the autograph text.

Codex Alexandrinus
This manuscript is dated in the 5th century and contains almost the entire New Testament. Scholars emphasize its reliability especially in regards to the Pauline epistles and the book of Revelation.

Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus
Also from the 5th century, this particular manuscript is quite interesting. The document itself is a palimpsest, or one which has been written over previously written and erased writing. Ephraemi Rescriptus was restored by Tischendorf using a process of chemical recovery which revealed the New Testament text beneath a collection of the sermons of Ephraemi.

Codex Bezae
Named after the man who discovered it, Theodore Beza, this manuscript contains the Gospels and Acts and is from the 5th century AD.

Codex Washingtonianus
Another 5th century manuscript and also known as the Freer Gospels (named for its owner, Charles Freer), Washingtonianus includes all four Gospels and is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures

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My last four posts were primarily concerned with making a case for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as an actual historical event. Were I a skeptic in regards to this topic, my questions in response would most likely resemble these: “On what basis should I consider the scriptures themselves to be historically reliable? Since when do religious texts qualify as historical sources?

Historical reliability of any ancient textual source is determined on the basis of several criteria. The first area I would like to focus on is referred to as the ‘Bibliographical Test,’ which determines how many manuscript copies we have of the document in question, and how far removed such documents are in time from the originals. I think that this test is easily understood when we compare the New Testament’s manuscript attestation to that of other accepted ancient sources of historical information. First, let’s look at what we do have (please bear with me in the details) in terms of New Testament manuscripts.

There are approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts that contain either the entire New Testament or portions of it. In addition, 8,000 Vulgate (Latin) manuscripts and 350 Syriac (Christian Aramaic) manuscripts remain in existence. Besides these, which amount to over 13,000 documents, almost the entire New Testament could be reproduced from references or citations contained in the works of the early church fathers alone. In fact, prior to the Council of Nicea, which convened in 325 AD, the church fathers had cumulatively cited New Testament scriptures over 32,000 times! The dates of these various manuscripts range from early in the second century (100’s AD) to the time of the Reformation. The earliest of them include the John Rylands manuscript of 120 AD, which contains a few verses from the Gospel of John, the Chester Beatty Papyrii of 200 AD, which contains large portions of the New Testament, and Codex Sinaiticus of 350 AD, which contains virtually the entire New Testament. Most scholars agree that the four gospels and the epistles of Paul and Peter were certainly written prior to 90 AD. (In fact, it is likely that the gospel of Mark was written within two decades of the crucifixion, and some of Paul’s letters even earlier than Mark! More on this in an upcoming post…) From these facts, we can conclude that the space between the autographs (or original manuscripts) and our earliest sources begins at approximately several decades.

In comparison, many of the most well known articles of ancient literature and history do not fare as well. For example, there are approximately 650 existing manuscripts of Homer’s Illiad; the tragedies of Euripides, only 330 manuscripts. Yet, these two are the largest in number among all other ancient Greek literature! As I mentioned above, the lapse in time between the existing Biblical manuscripts and the original autographs varies between 20 to 100 years. However, the lapse between the existing manuscripts of these ancient Greek documents and their autographs varies between 800 to 1000 years!

To say that the historical attestation of the New Testament documents is remarkably robust would be a considerable understatement. Really, it is quite unparalleled! Many other ancient works, like the Greek classics mentioned above, retain their academic and cultural significance with virtually no question yet pale in comparison when assessed on the basis of historical attestation and the ‘Bibliographical Test.’ This is not to say that these sources are thus inherently suspect, but it does show that the New Testament, while often considered suspect, not only satisfies bibliographic criteria but far surpasses the expectations a historian might have.

The value of this information is considerable as it allows us to conclude that the contemporary scriptures used by the Christian church are virtually unchanged and undistorted from their original form. Not only is this a profound testimony to the many skeptics who are prone to assume the intentional manipulation of the scriptures for the purposes of control and power, it also affirms the resilience and incorruptibility one aught to expect of a document claiming to be the word of God.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 4, 2006 at 9:11 pm

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."

Science and Faith, Part 3 (What Are the Limits?)

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In my last post, I mentioned some specific scientific advances in an effort to illustrate the limits of the conclusions that can be made through scientific inquiry. The idea of the limits of science is one that merits a bit more discussion.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that macroevolution is somehow verified empirically. One could then safely conclude that man is the result of genetic change over the span of millions of years. However, many of the descriptive terms often used to describe the process of evolution would still not necessarily apply. The key issue is that of purpose. One often hears the mechanism of evolution described as ‘blind chance,’ or ‘random processes,’ yet we have no basis upon which to assume that it is, in fact, a purposeless phenomenon. It is in this case that the non-teleological assumption is imported, rather than legitimately inferred by the evidence. In other words, even the unlikely confirmation of evolution would not legitimately lead to the conclusion of atheism.

A simple example might help to illustrate this point: Suppose that you walked into your kitchen to find a kettle of water coming to a boil on the stove. You could rightly conclude that the water was boiling because it had been placed in a vessel which had been heated to the point that the water molecules are activated. However, without speaking to the person responsible, you would have no means of determining why the kettle had been placed on the stove in the first place. Yet it would be ridiculous to conclude that the kettle had been filled and heated by random and purposeless chance. (While I am not trying to make a strict analogy between the kettle scenario and evolution, as the properties of the kettle scenario are within the context of human decision making, I am suggesting that the conclusion regarding purpose is equally unmerited in both.)

Neither can the notion of the value of human life (not to mention the value of all life) be discussed in scientific terms. Value is a moral assessment that has little to do with empirical facts. Take, for example, the process of adoption. For any family considering or going through this process, the issue of cost will inevitably factor into the decision. Often, the process can cost well over $20,000. Yet, many would agree that suggesting that this new member of the family’s value could be accurately assessed in terms of a dollar amount is not only in poor taste, but quite incorrect. This is because value is not an empirical measurement, but a moral one. I would even dare to suggest that the entire concept of adoption is an adequate proof of the general agreement on the part of humanity that life is of high moral value. Otherwise, why would anyone desire to extend the family non-biologically, either for his or her own benefit or for the benefit of the parentless child?

Evolutionary scientists might argue that value should be a factor of cognitive function. Perhaps this is what causes scientists like Richard Dawkins, among others, to advocate for the extension of human rights upon primates. However, this seems wholly capricious for several reasons. First, on what basis is cognition evaluated? Though primate behavior appears quite similar (though primitively) to human behavior in many ways, many behaviors also indicative to high cognitive ability are found in other animals as well. For example, some species of birds exhibit sophisticated vocal ability (though I do concede that there may be more mimicry in this case than linguistic ability). Other animals, such as dolphins and pigs, are often extolled for their intelligence. But in all cases, the level of intelligence is often explained in terms of instinct and stimulus response, which provides the key to discerning between human and animal behavior.

For example, ant communities are quite complex and use communicative behavior far different from our own. A ‘scout’ will venture out for food, and will send a ‘radio’ signal out when it is found. The others will follow that signal (and the exact path of the ‘scout’) to retrieve the food. We humans require roads with rules, large colored signs, and even maps and directions to navigate. Yet, human behavior far surpasses the stimulus response of ants. Education is a prime example, as the educated become educators. One might spend years endeavoring to teach sophisticated behavior to a primate, yet I strongly suspect that expecting that primate to, in turn, teach others would be futile.

These issues do not lead to the scientific conclusion that humans have inherently more value than animals. However, they do confirm that pioneering for primate rights is scientifically arbitrary. Value is a non-scientific factor that can inform scientific investigation but cannot be determined by it.

Finally, if value and purpose cannot be scientifically determined, neither can behavior. To clarify, behavior can be observed scientifically, but to suggest how one aught to behave is another matter. Like it or not, mankind expects a certain kind of behavior of itself. I need only to point to the local courthouse or penitentiary to prove this point. Consider this: If a bird sets up shop and builds a nest in your garage, it would be absurd to haul the creature into court and charge it with trespassing. Clearly, the bird has no idea about such concepts and is merely following its instinct toward survival. However, if a human did the same thing (minus, perhaps, the nest), it would be another matter! This is because we believe in the rights and responsibilities of mankind. We may have the ‘golden rule,’ however I would challenge any scientist to produce convincing empirical data explaining the origin of it.

I actually believe that by delineating the limits of science, science is now free to proceed undeterred by extraneous considerations and will be more effective. Philosophy is suited to governing science such that it is calibrated to gather information successfully and without harm to society. Yet, clearly science has no ability to govern philosophy in the same way.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 27, 2006 at 10:04 am