The Strangeness of the Gospel

A friend of mine, Clint Wilson, shared an excerpt from Michael F. Bird’s college textbook Introducing Paul  a while ago and I thought it was very profound.  It concerns the strangeness of Paul’s claims to first-century hearers. We would all do well to remember how unusual the claims concerning Christ are. It is easy for us this side of 2000 years of Christian history to see the Christian claims as “old hat.” Bird writes:

Imagine you are walking through your local university or college and hear in the quad an elderly man from South America telling people loudly about God’s love and salvation. He announces the ‘good news’ of Carlos Hernandez. He recounts how Carlos was a Peruvian peasant attested by man mighty deeds of power and miracles and who proclaimed the end of the world. But the chief men in the city of Lima feared his popularity with the peasant class, falsely accused him of being an Al-Qaeda terrorist and had him killed by electrocution. But a week later, this Carlos was raised from the dead and was seen by several American tourists. Then the man declares that ‘this Carlos was electrocuted for your sins and salvation is found through faith in him’. And then, to make matters worse he starts singing:

Carlos was there on that horrible chair

They tied him down with bolts and then zapped him with 40,000 volts

It was for you our saviour fried and died

Despite the fact that his chair caught on fire, this one is God’s true Messiah

The wisdom of the world has been refuted because Carlos was electrocuted

He is my saviour and my lamp, because he absorbed every deadly amp

Now I know that God does care, ’cause he sent Carlos Hernandez to the electric chair.

I like the way this short excerpt gets us to reorient our thinking about the Gospel.  It has never been some commonplace event, a blip on the radar of human history.  It was something profoundly strange and unheard of….God becoming man and dying on a cross?  What kind of God is that?  And yet that is exactly what we proclaim.  The death and resurrection of Jesus invokes two seeming absurdities:  the infinite entering a finite world and the suffering of a deity.  This is the message that Christians proclaim unabashedly.  An incomprehensible movement of God that sends many rational minds recoiling in horror.  Yet, it is not without rationale.  It is a statement about the brokeness of people living in an absurd world, a mad world as one songwriter poignantly puts it.  The absurdity of evil demands an equally absurd reality: a suffering God.   A profound and indescribable truth bound up in human frailty; hanging on a Roman execution device the likes of which only a sociopath could conceive.  In this event, the sins of the world collide with the God of love and they don’t stand a chance.  The infinite God bears our pain in Himself.  A beautiful truth, embodied in Jesus, in whom we place our hope.  As the great Athanasius puts it, He was made man, that we might be made God.  Food for thought as we anticipate Good Friday, commemorating Jesus’ death on the cross.

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Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus

The Crucifixion of Jesus

A copyrighted image of Jesus on the Cross

From time to time I’ll invite friends to contribute posts for discussion on my blog.  My friend Clint Wilson has graciously accepted an invite to share from a talk he did on the resurrection of Jesus as viewed from an historical research perspective.  I hope it can be enlightening in giving reasons why Christians uphold the resurrection as a true event in history.  I will break this up into multiple posts so individual pieces can be discussed/debated without having to respond to the whole piece at once.

I. Importance & Centrality of the Resurrection

 Resurrection is the linchpin of the Christian faith-you can’t have Xty without resurrection.  In the first century we know of multiple messianic or quasi-messianic movements b/c of the records of the Jewish historian Josephus’, a contemporary with many of these movements.  They, like Jesus went about proclaiming the kingdom of God, promising signs of salvation and wonders.  And all of these movements came to an end with the violent death of the key figure or founder.  In the 1st century when your movements leader was executed violently, you could either give up the movement or find yourself a new messiah.  Yet, the jewish groups that followed Jesus didn’t do either of these things.  They continued the movement and said that their recently crucified Jesus was the messiah and was therefore the Lord of the world.  How can we explain this?  Why did this group continue to move forward in promoting the Kingdom of God and say that their leader, who by the way had been crucified on a cross by the Roman empire, was in charge of it all?  The answer that they all gave was that Jesus had been raised from the dead…he had been resurrected.

There are numerous instances in Scripture that indicate the centrality of the cross as a focal point for the Christian experience.  

Proliferation of Resurrection teaching

  1. It was the focal point of the disciple’s preaching
    1. Many doctrines were based upon it
    2. Belief in it is required for salvation (Rom 10:9)
    3. It secured for us an inheritance in heaven (1 Pet 1:3-4)
    4. If it did not occur we are lost (1 Cor 15:17)
  2. It was the evidence that Jesus provided to validate his teachings (Mt 12:38-40; 16:1-4; Jn 2:18-21).  The Resurrection was the chief reason provided by the apostles that Xty is true (Acts 17:2-3, 18, 31; 2:22-32; 1 Cor 15:17)
  3. It is claimed, therefore, that Jesus’ resurrection largely confirms Jesus’ claims, much of xtian doctrine, and the truthfulness of Xty (1 Cor 15:14).

Has the Resurrection fallen on hard times?

 Professor Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford tells us in The God Delusion that a “serious” historical case can be made “that Jesus never lived at all”.  In The Atheist Manifesto the French philosopher Michel Onfray contends that from start to finish Jesus was “a trick born of a rational mind”.  “At that time,” he assures us, “Jews were not crucified but stoned to death.”  And, finally, in the provocative God Is Not Great Christopher Hitchens speaks of Jesus’ “highly questionable existence” and says of the resurrection: “We have a right, if not an obligation, to respect ourselves enough to disbelieve the whole thing.”  But do we?

 I think that if we look at the historical facts we will see that the alternative theories which would seek to explain away a historically reliable physical resurrection are built on shaky if not unsupported arguments altogether and that that the evidence is in favor of Jesus’ rising from the dead.

Resurrection cont’d 1

II. Minimal Facts Approach

            Minimal facts meet two criteria: # 1  The facts that I am going to present to you this morning are well evidenced and are attested historically.  Criteria # 2  They are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the skeptical ones.  What is great about this approach is that we are not assuming the divine inspiration of the Bible.  We will only be presenting facts that are attested historically and accepted by conservative, critical and skeptical scholars across the spectrum.  My aim here is to make my case easier to argue for.  A critical observer cannot reply to me that b/c he does not trust the Bible he will not trust the facts I present.  I don’t need the Bible to be divinely inspired to demonstrate my points, I only need for it to be granted as a historical document, which is where every scholar of ancient history begins.

 When I say that the facts that I am going to present to you are accepted by virtually all scholars who study this issue b/c they are well attested historically, you might reply by asking how they determine what is well attested historically.  Well, history like most fields has standard or normative principles that guide what can be classified as historical and what cannot.  Let me share a few with you

 1)      Multiple, independent sources support historical claims: when an event or saying is attested by more than one independent source, there is a strong indication of historicity.  This is true even if the independent sources conflict on some of the details…the event is not in question. 

2)      Attestation by an enemy supports historical claims: If testimony affirming an event or saying is given by a source who does not sympathize with the person, message, or cause that profits from the account, we have indication of authenticity.

3)      Embarrassing admissions support historical claims: An indicator that an event or saying is authentic occurs when the source would not be expected to create the story, because it embarrasses his cause and “weakened its position in arguments with opponents.” (i.e. principle of embarrassment).

4)      Eyewitness testimony supports historical claims: eyewitness testimony is usually stronger than a secondhand account

5)      Early testimony supports historical claims: The closer the time between the event and testimony about it, they more reliable the witness, since there is less time for exaggeration, and even legend, to creep into the account. 

My point in sharing these is to inform you as to how historical claims are normally judged but also to make a point clear:  I am not saying that b/c most scholars accept my minimal facts as historical that they are therefore TRUE.  Rather, I am saying that when the facts I am going to present to you are put under the canons of historical rigor, they come out as more probable than not and therefore are more likely to be historical.  We can spend all day looking at historical claims, but at the end of the day, the conclusion which makes the most sense of reality, passes the most historical tests and makes better sense than rival hypotheses must push itself upon us.  Because of the nature of truth and history, we cannot just abstain from accepting, and living into, the explanation which holds up the best under scrutiny.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 10:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Resurrection cont’d 2

III. WHAT ARE THE FACTS?    

 4 + 1 :  The Facts

1)                  Fact # 1- Jesus death by crucifixion– That Jesus was crucified is testified by all four gospel sources.  Moreover, it is attested to by non-biblical, non-Christian sources who report of it.  For example, you have Josephus a Jewish historian.  Josephus was born just seven years after the crucifixion to Matthias, a very popular Jewish priest in Jerusalem.  Josephus had a desire for religious things because he became a Jewish priest in  his early twenties.  Now you can imagine what sort of conversation would have been going on around the dinner table.  He was growing up in the midst of the birth and growth of the New Testament church, a competing movement to his own.  And so we have Josephus that lives both chronologically and geographically in the region where the church is growing so he certainly would have known the sorts of things he reports.  So he is a firsthand witness of the early church, and a second hand witness in regards to Jesus.  Josephus was not a Christian!  Next we have Tacitus a Roman historian that lived in the first and wrote in the early part of the second century.  Lucian, a greek satirist, not a Christian who wrote around the middle of the second century.  And Mara bar Serapion, not a Christian, who wrote from a prison in the latter part of the second century.  All four of these talk about the death of Jesus.  Finally, we have John Dominic Crossan who is a highly critical or skeptical scholar of The Jesus Seminar.  He does not at all represent the majority of modern scholarship, in fact he himself recognizes that he is the extreme minority.  But yet, even John Dominic Crossan has said, “That Jesus was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”  So we know that Jesus was crucified.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 10:05 am  Leave a Comment  

Resurrection cont’d 3

 Fact # 2–  Jesus’ disciples believed that the risen Jesus had appeared personally to them. (this has 2 parts that we need to establish)

a.      They claimed it.

This conclusion can be reached from 9 early and independent sources that fall into 3 categories: Paul, Oral tradition and Written tradition (POW).  Now Paul claims to have known some of the disciples (Gal.1 & 2) and thus would have personally known some of their beliefs.  Moreover, after writing on the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul said he worked harder than all of the other apostles (15:10), but that whether “it was I or they, this [Jesus’ resurrection appearances] is what we preach” (15:11).  Thus, Paul knew the apostles personally and reports that they claimed that Jesus rose from the dead.  The skeptic may respond, “But this is from the Bible, and I don’t believe the Bible,” as though I am using the Bible to prove the Bible.  This blanket rejection will not do.  We are not assuming divine inspiration or even the general reliability of the New Testament in our case for Jesus’ resurrection.  Remember, in our minimal facts approach, we are only regarding the New Testament as an ancient volume of literature containing twenty-seven separate books and letters.  Moreover, these books were not collected together until nearly 100 years after Paul wrote this in 1 Cor.  Then we are entertaining only those data that are well evidenced and accepted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones. [this is where multiple independent attestation comes in]

So Paul is a source independent of the original disciples.  Secondly we have Oral tradition.  Now in the first century oral tradition was considered more reliable than written tradition because only about 10% of the population could read, and only about 5% could read and write.  And so the way that people learned things was through the encapsulation of events and teachings in the forms of creeds, hymns and sermon summaries (Acts 1-5, 10, 13, 17) in which knowledge was put together and transferred word of mouth.  In fact, if we take a look back at 1 Corinthians again we will see that there is a creed that scholars date with in 5 years of the resurrection. [Look at 1 Cor 15:3-7)].  In fact, Gerd Ludemann (German atheistic NT scholar) dates this within 2 years!  That is why 1 Corinthians is the early account of the resurrection. 

Plus we have Written tradition which would include the 4 gospels and a group of writers called the apostolic fathers.  These were the church leaders that were the disciples of the apostles.  So you have the original 12 disciples, get rid of Judas and add Matthias and then they trained their own disciples and this is how the message of the Christian movement spread.  For example, Peter appointed a guy named Clement of Rome.  John had two disciples that we know of, Polycarp and Papias.  Well Polycarp and Clement of Rome both report that Christ’s disciples had said that Christ had risen from the dead and appeared to them.  But they heard it firsthand from the disciples themselves [POW acronym]  So if someone says how can we know that the disciples claimed that the risen Jesus had appeared personally to them…POW!

b) The disciples believed it.

            Anyone can claim something, but that doesn’t mean that they believed what they were saying.  People do lie all of the time.  Well, we can establish that they believed it because we have no less than 7 sources, 6 of which are extra-biblical.  That is, 6 of our sources are not contained in the Bible and they all attest to the fact that the disciples were willing to suffer and die for their belief that Jesus rose from the dead.  You might say, “Well, now wait a minute Clint…we have Muslims who are willing to die for their faith…does that make Islam true?” [i.e. 9-11, Pentagon, street suicide bombers].  Belief does not make something true.  I am not saying that just because someone believed in something and is willing to die for it that it makes their belief true.  I am saying that b/c they willingly suffered and died they sincerely regarded their beliefs to be true.  Liars make poor martyrs, and nobody dies for something they know to be false.  This is true of the disciples.!

So we can establish that not only did the disciples claim that Jesus rose from the dead, they really believed it.  Even the highly critical NT scholar Rudolf Bultmann agreed that historical criticism can establish “the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection” and they thought they had seen the risen Jesus.  Atheistic NT scholar Gerd Ludemann concludes, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”  And finally, Paula Frederiksen  of Boston U. comments, “I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus.  That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw.  I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus.  I wasn’t there.  I don’t know what they saw.  But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.” Now that is pretty good coming from a critic.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 10:04 am  Leave a Comment  

Resurrection cont’d 4

 Fact # 3: The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed (converted).  Now we have 3 early independent sources that report of his pre-xtian state and conversion [Paul, Lukes records in Acts, and it was known by early Christians in Judea (Galatians)] and 7 independent sources that report of his suffering and martyrdom [Paul, Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth and Origen].  We must now ask the question: What caused this change in Paul? Why did one who persecuted Christians suddenly become one?  Both Paul himself and Luke report that it was while he was persecuting the church that he had an encounter with the risen Jesus.  Only the risen Jesus could have caused this sort of change!

Fact # 4: James the skeptical brother of Jesus was converted.

Josephus in the year 95 attests to the martyrdom of “James the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ.”  So we know, even from a non-xtian source that he died b/c of his belief.  And then we have Hegisippus and Clement of Alexandria who mention his martyrdom.  Now we know James was a skeptic b/c 2 of the Gospels report that none of his brothers believed in him and we know that they still didn’t believe in him up until the time of his crucifixion.  Yet, 1 Cor 15 shows that Christ “appeared to James” and then after that we find him as a leader of the Church in Jerusalem which is reported both by Luke in Acts and Paul in Galatians.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 10:03 am  Leave a Comment  

Resurrection cont’d 5

Importance of Facts 4 & 5

So the conversion of Paul and James b/c they believed they saw the risen Jesus is accepted by virtually all scholars.  Gary Habermas, an expert on the Resurrection came out w/ a massive study of more than 1400 scholarly sources written in English, German and French b/t 1975-present.  He says, “In particular the credibility of the Apostle Paul’s testimony that he also had an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus is recognized by virtually all scholars.”  Likewise, well recognized is that James the brother of Jesus was an unbeliever before he thought that he too met the risen Jesus.  Seldom are any of these occurrences challenged by respected critical scholars, no matter how skeptical.  But what is so profound about Paul and James?  We fail to grasp this often.  Again, Paul was out persecuting the church.  [Paul modern equivalent-Osama bin Laden/ James modern equivalent-rabbi].  Keep this in mind…it will be helpful when we come up against the rival hallucination theory in a minute.

Fact # 5: The Empty Tomb (JET)

a.      The Jerusalem Factor: Now we know that Jesus was publicly executed and then buried in Jerusalem.  And then Xty was proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead in Jerusalem.  Now it would have been impossible for Xty to get off the ground if the body were still in the tomb.  If that were the case, all the Jewish authorities would have to have done would be to exhume that body, put it on a public display and then the hoax would have been squelched.  But this didn’t happen!  Why not?

b.      Enemy attestation: We have the enemies attesting that the disciples stole the body.  Why would you say that the disciples stole the body if it were stil in the tomb?  Not only does Matthew report this claim was being made but so does Justin Martyr and Tertullian.

c.      The Testimony of Women: If you were trying to invent a story in an attempt to deceive others, presumably you would not invent data that could hurt the credibility of your story.  Yet, when we come to the account of the empty tomb, women are found to be the primary witnesses.  Now in the first century the testimony of a women was not considered very reliable.  In fact, Josephus  says that we should just reject it all together b/c it was very unreliable.  According to Rosh Hashannah (a text of jewish law originating in the Mishnah & later placed in the Talmud), a woman’s testimony was given the same regard as that of a robber.  Keep in mind that the disciples were Jews, so this provides an interesting context for Luke 24:11 where it says: “But these words (the testimony of the women) appeared to them [the disciples] as nonsense, and they would not believe them” [the women].  So if they were inventing a story why didn’t they just list Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to avoid these problems?

 

Why doesn’t the Empty tomb pass the minimal facts criterion?  Well, the former Oxford University church historian William Wand writes, “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of the [empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.”  In other words, they reject it probably b/c of a philosophical bias [naturalism] or a theological bias [Islam].

So what we have here are 5 pieces of the puzzle, or 4+1.  4 minimal facts and one that nearly meets the criteria.  So whatever we are going to conclude has to account for those facts b/c they are well evidenced and they are granted by nearly every scholar that studies the subject.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 10:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Resurrection cont’d 6

IV. Attempted Naturalistic Explanations

1)      The Hallucination Theory: This theory was very popular around 200 years ago but is now rejected by most scholars b/c it has suffered many devastating blows, probably more so than any other theory.  Let me note however, that there are some valid hallucinations. A woman loses her husband of 50 years and probably due to mental anguish sees him sitting in a chair next to her.  Yet, is there reason to believe that the resurrection appearances were not hallucinations?  Do we have any good evidence to conclude otherwise?  Let me just give you a few refutations of this theory?  First, if the disciples had hallucinated the appearances it would not have accounted for the empty tomb.  But we have good reason to believe the tomb was empty.  Second, it would not have accounted for the conversion experiences of Paul (& possibly James).  Paul was glad Jesus was dead, in fact, Paul was trying to finish off what the Romans and Jews had started by killing of the remaining Xtians.  Paul & James were not in the frame of mind to experience grief hallucinations.  Third, hallucinations are not group occurrences. [Hawaii dream example]  Dreams or hallucinations are private occurrences that happen in one person’s mind.  They are not something that are contagious, or that can be shared.  Fourth, Jews in the 1st century had no concept or expectation of a resurrection other than the general resurrection at the end of history.  So they would not have been psychologically predisposed to have such a hallucination. 

2)      Naturalism: It must first be stated that this objection does not seek to engage with the historical data, rather it is a philosophical argument. A follower of Naturalism might say that “No matter what evidence you are going to use in favor of miracles, such events never occur b/c they would contradict the laws of nature.” It would be kind of like someone here trying to prove that the color yellow smells like peanut butter.  Colors don’t smell.  In the same way, miracles don’t occur.  But what is Naturalism?  It holds that everything that exists can be explained by a natural cause and that God, even if he does exist, which most would not grant, does not intervene ever in the natural realm, so there are no such things as miracles. In fact, we could never even prove one. This appears in many different forms.  Lets look at 3 forms:

First, science has proven that resurrections are impossible. We know that through science that a dead person’s cells aren’t going to regenerate and come back to life ever! Well, this is half true. I think we would all agree that this is not going to happen by natural causes right? But that is just the thing, noone is claiming that jesus rose by natural causes. The claim is that God raised Jesus from the dead. So there is no problem in saying that the author of life can give life back to a body when he is able to create it out of nothing.

Second, only what science proves is true.  This is basically saying that whatever is non-science is nonsense. If you can’t prove it scientifically then you shouldn’t believe it. Well, this has some problems as well.

 #1-We know that science is limited in it’s ability to observe and test.  It can’t prove morals or ethics or what is beautiful or what is not.  In fact, you can’t prove love with a Bunsen burner or put it in a Geiger counter so it must not exist.  But many branches of science like Geology and paleontology, like history, involve many situations that are not repeatable. As much as we might like to do so, we can’t relive the dinosaur era. Further, historical inquiry is a perfectly legitimate way to discover truth. And if it isn’t, then we can’t know anything about events such as the Revolutionary War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and so on. Conveniently enough, historical inquiry seems legitimate when dealing with these events but not with the resurrection, which seems like a double standard to me.

#2-To claim that truth is found only in what science can test and “prove” is self-refuting. The rule that scienee is the only way to know something is itself unscientific; it cannot be tested but is rather assumed as a brute “fact.” So the claim that only science can demonstrate truth actually flunks its own test, since it cannot validate itself. Therefore, it is illegitimate to require that religion be proved in a test tube.

#3-To require that historical events be predictable or repeatable also turns out to be self-refuting, since these are just different ways of stating that science is the only way to know something. Should we reject the truth of statements that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or that George Washington was the first president of the U.S.? After all, these events are not repeatable. Further, if historical inquiry is not a legitimate discipline then science can never progress, since it is built on experiments and truths established by scientists in the past.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 10:01 am  Comments (11)