I have endured a great many conversion attempts in my life. I suppose we all have. I have been plied countless times with both carrot and stick to accept the teachings of the Crucified Nazarene. I will hear first about his love and promise of eternal life. When that fails to convince I will be told about the wrath of his Father’s perfect justice, and the eternal torment I risk should I dare decline the offer. What I hear far less often (far less often that I feel I should) is a simple and forthright case for believing the story at all true.
We inhabit a world steeped in mythic traditions, dating back tens of thousands of years. These stories come down to us through oral tradition, aged papyrus, whether-worn carvings, dusty old tomes, and shards of sand-covered pottery. The number of religions, sects, cults, and followings that have risen up and died out is near unknowable, however the website Graveyard of the Gods lists 2800 Gods, Messiahs, Demigods, and Savior-Heroes which were once worshiped and are no more. Billions of Men and Women have lived, prayed, and died for religious convictions that nobody alive today takes seriously.
So we must always be cautious when a single religious tradition from this vast ocean of Gods, Prophets, Martyrs, and Messiahs is isolated and we are asked to invest Faith in it. We would have to be out right gullible to not ask at least a few basic skeptical questions when presented with a mythic and supernatural claim. The most pressing question for a Christian to answer should be, “How do we know the death and resurrection of Christ is more than just a myth?”
Certainly a Christian must acknowledge that ancient history is riddled with Holy Men who went to their deaths for their faith. Jesus was not the first or last Martyr. Jesus is also said to have risen from the dead, but the ability to transcend death is a fairly common theme in mythology. The story of martyrdom and resurrection had been told centuries before Jesus arrived on the scene, and after he popularized it, the recipe become commonplace. Of course we don’t tend to believe in the martyrdom and resurrection of the hundreds of other mythic figures said to have done the same thing throughout history, so why do we make an exception for Christ? What is unique about Jesus that makes the claims of his followers so much more believable than the claims made by disciples of other religions?
If you ask a lay-person that question, you will likely get the rambling answer of a person who has never really thought of the question before. This is because there is an active attempt made by Pastors, Reverends, Priests, and Clerics to maintain the illusion that the Christian narrative is a unique one, and to ignore the fact that Israel in the era of Hellenistic tension was a spawning bed of Messiahs and Prophets.
However, if you ask this question of those who study Christianity Academically as well as Theologically, you will receive a considerably more thoughtful and measured answer. The Academic case for Historicity of the Resurrection is typically built on two prongs. The first prone being the Case of the Empty Tomb, and the second being the Case of the Early Martyrs. These two arguments, when taken in conjunction, serve as the most compelling case for the historicity of what might otherwise appear to be just another legend. I will allow two well known Apologists some space in this article to make the argument far better and any attempt of mine to paraphrase. First is the defense of the Empty Tomb as offered by Apologist Phil Fernandes:
Just over 70% of New Testament scholars accept the empty tomb… There are several reasons which show that the accounts of the empty tomb are probably historical.
First, the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb (and the resurrected Christ) were women. This is something the apostles would not have made up, for a woman’s testimony was held highly suspect in the first-century AD…the only reason for reporting that women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb would be if it was actually true.
Second, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the Jewish religious authorities would have produced the rotting corpse of Christ, thus refuting Christianity and stifling its growth at its earliest stage. But this did not happen—Christianity grew at a tremendous rate in the early 30′s ad in the Jerusalem area. This would not be the case if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb.
Third, New Testament scholars agree that the sermons of Acts chapter 1 through 12 are the earliest sermons of the church-they date back to the early 30′s AD….One of the main themes of these early sermons was the resurrection of Jesus. Hence, the resurrection of Jesus was reported shortly after Christ’s crucifixion by people who claimed to be eyewitnesses and who were willing to suffer and die for their proclamation.
Fourth, Jesus was buried in the tomb of a well-known man-Joseph of Arimathea. It would have been easy to locate the tomb to ascertain if it was empty… If the apostles lied about the burial, then one could interview Joseph of Arimathea to check the account to disprove it. But, once we admit Jesus was buried in the tomb of a famous man, then we must acknowledge how easy it would have been to prove the corpse was still in the tomb, had it actually been there. But, this did not happen. Hence, the tomb was empty.
And now the Case of the Early Martyrs as presented by Apologist William Lane Craig:
Think of the situation the disciples faced following Jesus’ crucifixion: Their leader was dead, and Jewish Messianic expectations had no idea of a Messiah who, instead of triumphing over Israel’s enemies, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.
Nevertheless, the original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief. But then the obvious question arises: What in the world caused them to believe such an un-Jewish and outlandish thing? Luke Johnson, a New Testament scholar at Emory University, muses, “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.” and N. T. Wright, an eminent British scholar, concludes, “That is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”
This combined defense of the historical reliability of the resurrection narrative does seem to make a certain amount of sense. It does makes sense that the cult of the Risen Christ would have been easily debunked in the first century had the corpse of Jesus still lain in the Tomb. We know from numerous independent historic sources that the first century Christian church did in fact experience persecution that waxed and waned with the decades. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, and these Disciples had not seen a risen Christ, then it does strain credulity to believe that these men would have gone to their deaths for something they knew to be a lie. Doesn’t it?
I acknowledge the superficial appeal of this argument, however we will find, when we apply a little study and critical analysis, that this cumulative defense of the Risen Jesus is predicated on poor standards of Historicity which presuppose that the story is true. While there are numerous problems with these arguments I will focus on those that I think are most erosive to the narrative and easy to understand for those who have not spend hours buried in New Testament scholarship.
Before carrying on with my rebuttals I think I had better lay a little ground work and set up a few basic scholarly and non-controversial principles for those who may not be aware of them. We need to understand both the influence of Hellenism on the Jews, and the time line of early Christian writings. These are the kinds of things you can, remarkable, remain completely ignorant of even if you attend regular Sunday School for years.
It is absolutely vital, when understanding the rise of and reaction to Jesus, to understand the larger historic context of the era. One of the great things about history is understanding the complex and fascinating ways in which events and people are connected by long and twisted threads. Nearly 400 years before the birth of Christ, Phillip of Macedon was assassinated by his former lover Pausanias. Pausanias was racked in guilt and shame after abuse and molestation by Macedonian Courtier Attalus, who Phillip refused to punish in order to avoid political trouble. As a result of this drama and subsequent murder the Macedonian empire was handed to Phillip’s young son Alexander who spread the Greek culture and language to almost every corner of the known world in an incredible and history-altering process known as Hellenization.
After the death of Alexander his Empire was splintered into four factions, each carrying on different flavors of the Hellenistic tradition. Some people within this vast and fragmented empire welcomed the Greek traditions, and others fought against it continuously for centuries. The area of the Middle East which we now consider to be the Holy Land was deeply divided over the issue. There were many Jews who took the Hellenizing of the culture in stride, and others who saw it as a repressive force that eroded Jewish values and angered God. The attitude of the conservative Jews towards Hellenism is well represented in the Prophetic Book of Daniel, which was written during the height of Jewish anti-Hellenistic sentiment (around 160 BCE). The Book uses ancient Babylon as an allegory for the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire which ruled the region at the time, galvanizing the people against Emperor Antiochus and prophesying his downfall. Additionally, around the same time that the Book of Daniel was being authored, the most famous Jewish uprising in history, the Maccabean Revolt, was storming across Judea in an attempt to reclaim the Promised Land.
It is out of this cauldron of cultural tension, armed conflict, and apocalyptic preaching that the Prophecy of the Messiah arose. Prophecy foretold that a Messiah was to come from the Line of David, the true king of Judea, to overthrow the foreign rulers and restore God’s kingdom. It was also during this same time that the idea of the Messiah became joined to the idea of Apocalypse. When reading the Book of Daniel, the influence on the later Book of Revelation is palpable. This Apocalyptic tradition taught that not only would the Messiah end the age of the Hellenistic invaders, but that he would bring an end to the entire world, followed by a rebirth and a new era. Additionally it is in this time that we begin to see the veneration of Martyrs among the Jewish people, a theme which would be adopted and greatly amplified by the Christianity that was to come.
Without this background of a centuries-long Jewish repression by Hellenistic invaders it is impossible to imagine that the Christian tradition would have arisen at all. The expectation of a Messiah, the idea of ushering in a new age, the veneration of Martyrdom, the Restoration of God’s Kingdom, all these core Christian concepts grew from soil fertilized by the corpse of Alexander the Great and his ruined Empire. I find myself arrested by the weight of history when I consider that had Phillip of Macedon chosen to punish Attalus for his crimes against Pausanias, we can be all but certain that Jesus of Nazareth would have lived out his days as a mere Galilean carpenter.
Now, lastly, I must outline a few basic facts about the development of the New Testament cannon, and how that development can give us insight as to what the earliest Christians actually believed. It may be alarming to some to know that Paul did not believe in the same Christianity that we do today. It may be disquieting to discover that many tenets that are taken today as being core to Christianity were either heavily disputed or not believed at all in the early decades following the Crucifixion.
Throughout this article I will be referring to “generations of Christianity”. By “generation” I do not mean human generations, I mean developmental stages of the Christian Narrative along the path from early eye-witness oral accounts to a fully canonized scripture preached by a structured Church. The original Disciples who knew Jesus personally are what I would call First Generation Christians. Apostles like Paul and Barnabas, who did not experience the actual events but heard the stories second-hand, would be Second Generation Christians. Those who came to the faith through the house-churches and ministries founded by those second generation evangelicals are what I will refer to as Third Generation Christians. Those who first began to develop institutions, offices, codified liturgy, and a structured Church around the faith would be Fourth Generation Christians. These Generations do nave have hard points of delineation, but serve merely as useful models for keeping track of the earliest church in the century following Christ’s death.
The first thing to realize about the New Testament, for those not accustomed to reading the text in a historical rather than theological manner, is that the order in which the books were written does not match the chronological order of the Story. The earliest known Christian writings are those of the Paul, himself a Second Generation Christian writing approximately 30 years after the death of Christ. The earliest Gospel, that of Mark, was written about twenty years after Paul began his Ministry with the Gospel of John being the last of the four written about sixty years after the death of Jesus. What we do not have are any texts authored by First Generation Christians. The Disciples either never wrote down their stories or their manuscripts did not survive. We know that they were active in the early Church, since Second and Third Generation Christians record their deeds, but no writings of their own are known to exist. I ask that you keep this context in mind as we explore whether the Resurrection story has any basis in history at all, or is utterly mythic.
First, the Case of the Empty Tomb: Anyone with any sense knows that the Bible is, like all ancient legendary texts, part history and part myth. I am willing to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, around whom a cult following formed. This man ended up on the bad side of local authorities (probably due to assaulting the Temple and scourging the Money Changers) who eventually had him executed as a political dissident. However, I would like to make the argument that the story of the finding of the Empty Tomb is, from bottom to top, pure myth; almost certainly an invention of at least Third Generation Christians.
The best evidence that the Empty Tomb narrative is a later mythic tradition is that the story of Jesus rising bodily from tomb is completely absent from the earliest Christian writings. Paul does not mention the bodily resurrection of Christ, or a word about his empty tomb, in any of his numerous letters. I propose that this is because Paul, like many early Christians, almost certainly believed in a spiritual resurrection of Christ, not a bodily one.
The idea that Paul himself viewed the resurrection as a Spiritual event is almost beyond question. When Paul encounters Christ on the road to Damascus what he describes to us is not a physical flesh and blood man. Paul recounts that upon the road there was a sudden bright light, brighter then the noon day sun, of such splendor and force than he was knocked bodily to the ground and struck temporarily blind. From this light boomed the voice of Christ, who commanded Paul to change his ways and become an Apostle. Paul makes no mention of this being at all different from or at odds with the Risen Christ experienced by the Disciples. Paul spends a considerable amount of time in his letter to the Corinthians establishing that his vision of the resurrected Jesus was just as valid as that which the Disciples experienced. In his letters Paul addresses the question of resurrection multiple times, and while his language is poetic and metaphorical, he speaks of the dead body returning to the dust and a new body being prepared for the next life.
Furthermore, by reading the letters of Paul we can get a good idea of what his fellow Christians of the day were unclear on. Paul spent decades travelling about and preaching the word of Christ, answering numerous questions and challenges, and it nowhere is it recorded that anyone asks him about the empty tomb or the bodily resurrection of Christ. In fact, early Christian’s seemed not to care about the Tomb of Christ at all. Is it not strange that the location of the tomb was almost immediately lost to history? Nobody in the early church bothered to visit it or note its location, let alone build a temple around it and make it a place of veneration as we might expect. The entire first century church seems to have been utterly uninterested in the place where Christ rose from the dead. How does Paul’s apparent belief that Jesus rose as a spirit, and the early Church’s completely apathy towards what should have been considered sacred ground, make any sense?
It all makes perfect sense if we consider that Jesus was not believed to have risen bodily from the dead by his first generation of followers. If the earliest Christians believed Christ’s resurrection to be a spiritual one, with his human body having rotted to bone just like any other, then his tomb could well have been unimportant or even actively avoided. Former Theologian and Atheist Activist Dan Barker goes one step further and argues that Jesus was never entombed at all. It is most likely that the body of Christ was cast into a communal grave outside of Jerusalem along with other executed criminals where it was either burned or eaten by wild animals. This practice was fairly common at that time, this would be the normal destination for the corpse of an executed criminal, and would also explain why the earliest Christians don’t seem to care at all about a tomb or a body. This theory accounts for Paul’s description of Christ as a spirit and of the resurrection body being made of different stuff than the body of earth. Importantly, this theory also explains why Jewish or Roman authorities did not drag out the body of Christ for display in an attempt to halt the spread of the new religion. Producing a rotted corpse, if one even still existed, would have been utterly irrelevant to those earliest Christians if they did in fact believe that the resurrection was spiritual, and would have only served the purpose of solidifying in history the spiritual resurrection narrative as opposed to the one of bodily resurrection.
It seems as if it was not until the Third Generation of Christianity that the bodily resurrection of Christ, along with the narrative of the Empty Tomb, rose to prominence and overshadowed alternate traditions. Thirty to Forty years after the Crucifixion, as Mark was being scribed, if there ever had been a tomb at all, the location was forgotten, with the old bones inside being unrecognizable even if some now aged Apostle knew where they lay.
But what about the women that Mr. Fernandes references? Doesn’t the discovery of the empty tomb by women constitute a kind of evidence against interest and lend credence to the story? Not at all. It is important to recall the early Christian church was spread by the persecuted to the downtrodden. Underdogs were the target audience. It is not at all strange to allow woman a place in the story, or to embellish the small roles they did have. The Acts of Paul and Thecla may be an Apocryphal book but the account in this text seems to indicate that outreach to women was an important part of the early evangelical efforts of Paul. Furthermore, the task of tending to the bodies in the tombs was commonly delegated to women, and there is nothing out of place or strange in the narrative about having women be the first to visit the tomb on that third day. Perhaps if they were the only witnesses of the resurrection, their testimony may be suspect, but since their story is very quickly collaborated by a cadre of men, their presence in the story is no kind of liability.
Now I would like to move on to the argument made by William Lane Craig, that the conviction among the early Christian martyrs is a testament to the strength of their belief, and that the strength of that believe is a testament to the likelihood that the belief was true.
This argument is a mysterious one to me, and I have never understood the appeal. Is it not true that we live in a world with a long and bloody history of people willing to die for their beliefs? There have been people willing to die in battle or undergo horrific persecution for cults, religions, prophets, saviors, kings, traditions, and superstitions as far back as the written record goes. Certainly if willingness to die for a belief was a testament to the truth of it, we should be carefully re-considering the truth of a great many cults and religions which have come and gone as nothing more than a historical footnote.
The primary response from Apologists, with challenged with the relative commonality of religious Martyrdom, is that early Christians were eye witnesses to the miracles and resurrection of Christ, not zealots raised from birth in a long-standing tradition many years later. They will say that the willingness of eye-witnesses to die for what they themselves did or did not see is a very different thing from the willingness of adherents in later generations to die for, essentially, dogmatic cultural heritage. I agree, there is an important distinction here, but that distinction doesn’t escape the reply I’ve already given. Human history is a great big complex and violent thing. Christ was not unique in having followers willing to go to their death convinced of what their own eyes had seen. Martyrdom, it seems, is almost inextricably linked to Apocalyptic religion.
In the Islamic world their martyrs are known as Shahid, and while the most famous of the Shahid in the modern West would be the 9/11 Hijackers, there were Shahid who were personal contemporaries of Muhammad. During Muhammad’s own lifetime there were already people so convinced by what they had seen of the man that they were willing to kill and die for him. After Muhammad’s death, this willingness to die in defense of the faith did not wane, and there is no shortage of early Muslim Martyrs with passion and belief to match that of early Christendom.
Even in the modern world we see this willingness in people to die for what everyone else knows to be false. During the infamous Jonestown Massacre, over 900 people committed suicide in out of respect for the teachings of their Apocalyptic Prophet, Jim Jones, who promised a better world to come following a good death. This was not an army of irrational people, they were not all crazy and unbalanced individuals, but rather a group of perfectly normal, sane, rational people who fell under the spell of a charismatic Holy Man. A great many of those who died that day knew Jim Jones personally, and had for years. They saw him every day, traveled with him, preached with him, prayed with him. These people were in an ideal situation to know what the rest of us believe to be true, that Jim Jones was just a man, and a dangerous one at that. However they somehow did not see what is so obvious to the rest of us, and 900 of them died in one day, a number on level with the entire Martyr tradition of Christianity’s first 100 years. So is the willingness of people to die for what they feel is true, based on the witness of their own eyes and the conviction of their own hearts, any kind of evidence for the truth of their beliefs? I think not.
Furthermore we should address the fact that Martyrdom, opposed to being a horrific and terrible thing, was considered a rather glamorous way to go for an early Christian, particularly if you had already lead a good long life. It is worth remembering that Martyrdom has always, in all cultures, been an honorable thing. Dying for a good cause, maintaining your integrity until your last rasping breath abandons you, is the stuff of legends, and nowhere has this ever been more true than among the early Christians. In the modern world we think of Islam as being the religion harboring an unhealthy obsession with Martyrdom, but we should not forget that they inherited that obsession from the Christians who came before them.
The Jewish world around the time of Christ’s arrival already had a rich and honorable Martyr tradition, fed by the legends of the Maccabean revolt just 200 years prior. The idea that a repressed people, with no hope of conquering their oppressors by force, could at least vindicate themselves through a good and public death, was widely accepted in Iron Age Palestine. After the death of Christ the Christians took that already popular concept and fetishized it.
The New Testament is full of teachings on the willingness to undergo suffering and persecution for Faith, in fact the theme is so prevalent that one could almost say that if you are not suffering then you must be doing something wrong as a Christian. There are plenty of early Christian writings that preach on this point over, but I would like to share an example that epitomizes just how eager these Christians were to actively seek out Martyrdom.
Ignatius of Antioch was born a few years after the death of Christ, and was said to be student of John the Apostle. He was an early Church father and became Bishop of Antioch towards the end of the First Century. Ignatius is interesting because he represents the era in which the loose Apostle-based Christian faith began to form structured churches with formally recognized offices and worship practices. Ignatius was eventually arrested and taken to Rome for execution, but along the way he was permitted to write letters to put his affairs in order. It is in his letter to the Romans he goes on at great length about his imminent Martyrdom:
I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.
Ignatius grows enflamed, passionate, almost erotic in his descriptions of his own martyrdom, saying at one point:
When I arrive in chains, let me die a martyr’s death – eaten by wild beasts! I long for this proof that I am a true disciple of Christ. Let me follow in the footsteps of the Lord. I no longer take pleasure in life…May I have joy of the beasts that are prepared for me. I pray too that they may prove expeditious with me. I will even entice them to devour me expeditiously, and not to refrain, as they have refrained from some, through fear.
I could go on at some length with other writings from early Christians of a similar theme, but Ignatius was a well respected early Church father, and demonstrates well that Martyrdom was hardly a thing those early Zealots ran from, but was rather seen as a desirable end for a true believer.
I believe that the willingness of humans, throughout all of history, to joyously go to their deaths for things the rest of us known to be false, things of which they were first-hand witnesses, combined with the clear and well documented Martyr Fetish that was inculcated in the early church, strips the Argument of the Early Martyrs of any power to convince.
However both of these arguments for the resurrection of Christ, the Case of the Empty Tomb and the Case of the Early Martyrs, suffer in tandem from a greater failure than they do individually. Both arguments are founded on the basic assumption that the miraculous events people believe they have experienced are, in any way, real. It is a truism of our nature that Humans suffer from a prodigious willingness to believe, and a remarkable capacity to selectively suspend our skepticism. We all, each and every one of us, can think of at least a few large groups of people who are absolutely convinced that they have experienced supernatural events, which the rest of us know to be false and illusory.
There are thousands of people who claim, with passionate certainty, to have been abducted by Aliens, and yet we brush them aside as kooks and crazies without a second thought. The Hindu Guru Satya Sai Baba, who died in 2011, commanded an enormous following numbering greater than a million, with hundreds of thousands of passionate believers willing to give their eye-witness testimony in defense of the numerous miracles that their leader had preformed. Prior to his death Sai Baba even prophesied his own resurrection after 8 years. In 20 years if some young man emerges from the peasantry of rural India, claiming to be the reincarnated Sai Baba, performing miracles and fulfilling prophesy, should we expect the Christians in the west to respect this man as a fulfillment of Prophesy and a genuine Savoir? I think not. We dismiss all kinds of claims every day without a second thought, and yet the logic of the Apologist would have us believe that if we gathered the eye-witness testimony of Alien Abductees or of the adherents of Sai Baba, testimonies we could care less about in the modern world, and transplanted them to a 2000 year old papyrus, that they would then become powerful confirmation of the truth of their claims.
The inconsistency of this logic should be too striking and clear to ignore. However, the question remains, if the cases are so weak, if the inconsistency is to striking, then how is it that educated, well spoken, thoughtful people make these arguments with such utter confidence in their validity? There is an expression I am fond of that perfectly addressed the question, “Intelligent people are incredibly good at justifying things they came to believe for unintelligent reasons.” Dr. Craig, Phil Fernandes, and thousands if not millions of others like them, are justifying a presupposition. If you assume from the outset that the Biblical narrative is true, that God is real, and that Jesus rose from the dead, if you start from that position and then seek out whatever argument or evidence you need to justify it, then these arguments make perfect sense, and are incredibly appealing.
However, if you are like me, and you care about consistency, you care about following the evidence in an earnest and clear eyed fashion to whatever conclusions it leads, then to you these arguments are vacuous, little more than white noise. While I know that demonstrating the inconsistency of these arguments wont do a thing to change the mind of a person already sentenced to the conclusion, perhaps, if I am lucky, a debunking of this nature will at least lay their special pleading and circular reasoning so bare that they will understand why their arguments remain so unconvincing to someone who doesn’t share their presupposition.