The Philosophy of History:
Exploring Creation & History

 Faith Under Fire #3: Jesus?

Great PDF on the unique nature of Jesus:

Is someone asked you if the historical Jesus or His resurrection were legitimate - what would you say?

Again - How would you answer a skeptic?

A liberal view of Jesus? How would you respond to someone?

Gary Habermas walks us through how we know we can trust the Jesus of the Gospels and the historicity of the Resurrection.

Again - This is just to stir your thinking and research but 1 Peter 3:15 (or even one who is an atheist/agnostic) should want to have answers to all sides to not only be better informed but to know the "truth".

And always remember that discussing these topics do not always have to be a "debate" but more a "dialouge":

(Please note that long-time atheist Anthony Flew did end up accepting the fact that God did in-fact exist)


The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology

Originally published in Sewanee Theological Review 39, 1996. Reproduced by permission of author.

he quest for the historical Jesus began as a protest against traditional Christian dogma, but when the supposedly ‘‘neutral” historians peered into the well, all they saw was a featureless Jesus. Even when scholars decided that other biblical figures—John the Baptist, the evangelists, Paul, the “Q” people, and so on—were at home in a richly-storied and symbolic world. Jesus himself was not allowed to act symbolically, to criticize his contemporaries, to think theologically, to reflect on his own vocation, or to evoke any of the various meta-narratives with which his Jewish world was replete. At this point objectivist historiography begins to eat its own tail; it has now decided that it dislikes the taste, which is hardly surprising.

So what are we doing now, talking about the historical Jesus and Christian theology? We are taking Hermann Reimarus’s challenge seriously: investigate Jesus and see whether Christianity is not based on a mistake.1 We are taking Albert Schweitzer’s challenge seriously: put Jesus within apocalyptic Judaism and watch bland unthinking dogma shiver in its shoes.2 If this is too dangerous, escape routes are available. First, Wilhelm Wrede: Mark is theological fiction, and Jesus is a non- apocalpytic, teasing teacher.3 This is alive and well over one hundred years later. Second, Martin Kähler: the true Christ is a Christ of faith detached from the Jesus of history.4 This, too, is alive and well today. The church may urge this latter escape route, part of the academic guild may urge the former. Both should be resisted. Instead, we should accept both Reimarus’s challenge and Schweitzer’s proposal.

Schweitzer’s account of apocalyptic must, however, be seriously modified. First-century Jewish apocalyptic, is not the same as “end-of-the-world.” Instead, it invests major events within history with their theological significance. It looks, specifically, for the unique and climactic moment in—not the abolition of—Israel’s long historical story. We must: renounce literalism, whether fundamentalist or scholarly. Apocalyptic is the symbolic and richly-charged language of protest, affirming that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven—not in some imagined heavenly realm to be created after the present world has been destroyed. In particular, apocalyptic is the language of revolution: not that YHWH will destroy the world, but that he will act dramatically within it to bring Israel’s long night of suffering to an end, to usher in the new day in which peace and justice will reign.5

“Apocalyptic” therefore is the natural context for a truly subversive “wisdom.” Wisdom and folly within this worldview are not abstract or timeless. They consist in recognizing (or failing to recognize) that the long-awaited moment is now arriving. Apocalyptic and wisdom fit snugly together, and are mutually reinforcing. One of the major critical tools proposed by Wrede’s contemporary successors is, therefore, shown to be blunt beyond all usefulness.

When we make the adjustments required by this historical redefinition of “apocalyptic,” the major division in contemporary Jesus studies is clear. The current debate, though far more complex, is essentially comprehensible as a re-run of Wrede’s “consistent skepticism” against Schweitzer’s “consistent eschatology.” John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar offer a non-apocalyptic Jesus: not just a Jesus who did not expect the end of the space-time universe, but a Jesus who did not think that Israel’s long and checkered story was now reaching its dramatic and decisive climax.6 I take the other view, claiming descent from Schweitzer. While agreeing that Jesus did not expect the end of the space-time world, I insist, like E. P. Sanders and many others, that Jesus was not a religious reformer but an eschatological prophet.7 Like other first-century eschatological prophets—and messianic or quasi-messianic figures—Jesus really did believe that Israel’s God was acting through him and his movement to do for Israel at last what die prophets had promised.

What, more precisely, was that? With the Exodus as their symbolic and narrative backdrop, the prophets declared that Israel would be released from the bondage that had begun with Babylon and that continued into Jesus’s own day. Nobody in Jesus’s day would have claimed that the visions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel had yet been fulfilled. The Babylons of this world would be defeated, and Israel would be free. And this real “return from exile”—that is, this complete liberation—would, of course, involve the return of YHWH to Zion. Prophet after prophet says so; nowhere in Second-Temple literature does anyone claim that it has actually happened. The prophets, moreover, interpreted the exile as the punishment: for Israel’s sin; the end of exile would, therefore, be “the forgiveness of sins.” It would mean Israel’s redemption, evil’s defeat, and YHWH’s return. All of this can be summed up in a single phrase: “the kingdom of God.”8

Where does Jesus belong on this map, and what effect does this have on Christian theology? I have set out elsewhere a worldview model focusing on praxis, story, symbol, and question, leading to aims and beliefs.9 When we apply this to Jesus, it produces the following analysis.

First, Jesus exemplified the praxis of a prophet. He was known as a prophet; he spoke of himself as a prophet. He was both an oracular prophet and a leadership prophet. His movement grew out of that of John the Baptist, who was also a prophetic figure. Both men were clearly eschatological prophets. They were not merely visionary teachers. They were not merely advocating subversive wisdom or behavior. They were announcing, in symbol and narrative, that Israel’s story was reaching the point for which Israel had longed. Second, Jesus’ stories—not just his parables but his whole announcement—consisted at bottom of this: the time had arrived. To say “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17) was to supply the missing line in the story that many wanted to hear. To speak of the return of a disgraced young son (Luke 15:11-32), and to use that as the validation of open and celebratory commensality (Luke l5:1-2), was to claim that table-fellowship as the embodiment of the real return from exile. To speak of the fall of the house (Matt. 7:26-27) evoked the theme of evil’s defeat. To speak of the master returning after a long absence (Luke 19.11-27) hinted strongly at YHWH’s return to Zion. These were among Jesus’ characteristic kingdom-stories.

The stories did, however, have a twist for which Jesus’s listeners were unprepared. Like all kingdom-stories of the time, they invited Herod and Pilate, Caesar, and Caiaphas to tremble in their beds. If Israel’s God was going to become king, all other rulers would be demoted. Like most kingdom-stories of the time, moreover, they also offered a critique of other kingdom-stories. If the Pharisees’ kingdom-story was correct, the Essenes’ was not, and vice versa. Jesus’s kingdom- story, like all others, was doubly subversive: subversive of the great empires and their representatives, but subversive also alternative Jewish kingdom-stories.

Still within Jesus’ narrative world, there are two other points to he made. First, Jesus invited his hearers to become part of the story. His radical narrative summoned all and sundry to celebrate with him the real return from exile, the real forgiveness of sins. He was offering the latter precisely because he was enacting the former. This is eschatology, not reform. Jesus’s so-called “ethics” belong just here: they were part of the story, the story of what God’s renewed Israel would look like. Like other Jewish leaders before and since, Jesus was urging his contemporaries to follow turn in the subversive way of peace. He was radically opposed to the way of ultra-orthodoxy, of violent nationalist revolution. This was not, of course, because he was supporting the status quo (or was “non-political”), but precisely because he was not.

Second, Jesus warned his contemporaries that failure to come his way would result in ruin. He stood in the great tradition of Israel’s prophets, notably Elijah and Jeremiah. His story had two possible endings between which his hearers had to choose. If they followed his way, the way of peace, they would be the light of the world, the city set on a hill that could not be hidden. If they went the other way, as Jesus saw many of his contemporaries eager to do, they would call down on themselves the wrath of Rome. Jesus, like Amos or Jeremiah, warned that Rome’s wrath would constitute God’s wrath. To follow his teachings, his subversive wisdom, would be the only way to build the house on the rock. To follow the raise prophets who were leading Israel into nationalist revolution would cause the house to fall with a great crash,

After praxis and story, symbol. Consider Jesus’ work in relation to the regular Jewish symbols one by one. Family: Jesus regarded his followers as a fictive kinship group, subverting normal family loyalty, which was ultimately loyalty to the people. Land: Jesus urged his followers to abandon their possessions, which in his world mostly meant land. Torah: Jesus acted and spoke with a sovereign authority, and challenged in particular the two symbols—Sabbath and food—which distinguished Galilean Jews from their pagan neighbors. Temple: Jesus symbolically enacted its destruction, recognizing that its guardians, and the people as a whole, had refused his way of peace. He constructed his own alternative Jewish worldview (as, mutatis mutandis, the Essenes had done) around key symbolic actions and styles. In his case these were: healings, which were seen by sonic as subversive and “magical”; open and restive table-fellowship; the call of the twelve; the offer of the eschatological gift of forgiveness; the redefined family; and, of course, his own agenda and vocation. Jesus’s critique of his contemporaries’ use of traditional symbols came together in his action in the Temple (Mark 14:12-25) and the symbols of his own work in the Last Supper. These two actions belong together and interpret each other.

Does all this mean that Jesus was in some sense anti-Jewish? Of course not. Was Elijah anti-Jewish for telling his contemporaries that they were under judgment? Were the Essenes anti-Jewish for denouncing the present Temple and its rulers, or for attacking the Pharisees? The debate, tike some tragic current debates, is essentially “inner-Jewish.” Once again, Jesus’ critique was based not on religion but on eschatology. Jesus did not “speak against the law”— as though he were a Lutheran born out of due time. He did not regard the symbols of Israel’s worldview as bad, shabby, offensive, strange, or representative of a wrong sort of religion—as though he were a nineteenth- or twentieth- century liberal. Nor did he simply offer a new option to be chosen by those who fancied it—as, though he were a postmodernist. He claimed that the day had arrived in which the God-given Mosaic dispensation was being overtaken the eschaton, and this was highlighted for him by the fact that he saw the God-given symbols of Temple, Torah, land, and family being used to undergird the ultra-orthodox zeal for revolutionary violence, Jesus’ work aroused opposition, not in the form of an intra-Pharisaic dialogue about the finer points of Torah, but in the form of a radical clash, of agendas. We of all people ought not to be surprised if zealous students of Torah turn violent against someone who advocates peace at the cost of ancestral land.

Jesus’ praxis, stories, and symbols thus indicate his answers, implicit and sometimes explicit, to the five major worldview questions. Who are we? Jesus and his followers form the real return-from-exile people, the remnant, the seed, the little flock. Where are we? We are in the land, though still slave, but our God will make us inherit the earth. What time is it? The hour of crisis, the great tribulation through which the kingdom will come, the long-awaited moment when the Exodus will be re-enacted, when exile will end, evil will be defeated, and YHWH will return to Zion. What is wrong? Evil is rampant not merely within paganism but within Israel: from the oppressive regime of the chief priests to the populist revolutionary movements, the world’s evil has radically infected Israel also. What is the solution? Everything we know about Jesus suggests that in his heart of hearts he gave the answer: “I am.”

But how? Without in any way psychologizing Jesus, we can as historians attempt to understand the network of motivation—and even of vocation—that seems to have been present to him We: can move, in other words, from a worldview to specific aims and beliefs.

First, Jesus believed he was Israel’s messiah, the one through whom YHWH would restore the fortunes of his people. The word “messiah” had, of course, nothing to do with trinitarian or incarnational theology. Simon and Athronges had been hailed as messiahs when Jesus was a boy. The Sicarii regarded Menahem as messiah until a rival group killed him. Simeon ben Kosiba was hailed by Akiba as “son of the star.” Presumably, they all regarded themselves as messiah. People in out world today mostly do not think like that, but Jesus was a first century Jew and not a twentieth-century liberal. Anyone doing and saying what Jesus did and said must have faced the question? Will I be the one through whom the liberation will come? All of the evidence—not least the Temple-action and the title on the cross—suggests that Jesus answered, “Yes.”

Second, Jesus’s radical and counter-cultural agenda, subverting both the political status quo and the movements of violent revolution, was focused in his awareness, of vocation, John the Baptist re-enacted the Exodus in the wilderness; Jesus would do so in Jerusalem. Jesus’s gospel message constantly invokes Isaiah 40-55, in which YHWH returns to Zion, defeats Babylon, and liberates Israel from her exile. At the heart of that great passage there stands a job description. Schweitzer argued a century ago that Jesus saw the Great Tribulation, the Messianic Woes, coming upon Israel and believed himself called, like the martyrs, to go ahead of Israel and take them upon himself. This would be the victory over evil; this would be the redefined messianic task. Jesus had warned that Israel’s national ideology, focused then upon the revolutionary movements, would lead to ruthless Roman suppression; as Israel’s representative he deliberately went to the place where that suppression found its symbolic focus. He drew his counter-Temple movement to a climax in Passover week, believing that as he went to his death Israel’s God was doing for Israel (and hence for the world) what Israel as a whole could not do. Schweitzer divided the “lives of Jesus” into those that had Jesus going to Jerusalem to work and those that had him going there to die. Schweitzer chose the latter. I think he was right.

Third, Jesus believed something else, I submit, that makes sense (albeit radical and shocking sense) within precisely that cultural, political, and theological setting of which I have been speaking. Jesus evoked, as the overtones of his own work, symbols that spoke of Israel’s God present with God’s people. He acted and spoke as if he were in some way a one-man, counter-Temple movement. He acted and spoke as if he were gathering and defining Israel at this eschatological moment—the job normally associated with Torah. He acted and spoke as the spokesperson of Wisdom. Temple, Torah, and Wisdom, however, were powerful symbols of central Jewish belief: that the transcendent creator and covenant God would dwell within Israel and order Israel’s life. Jesus used precisely those symbols as models for his own work. In particular, he not only told stories whose natural meaning was that YHWH was returning to Zion, but he acted—dramatically and symbolically—as if it were his vocation to embody that event in himself.

I suggest in short, that the Temple and YHWH’s return to Zion are the keys to gospel Christology. Forget the titles, at least for a moment; forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that is the mirror-image of that unthinking would-be orthodoxy. Focus instead, if you will, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, by symbolizing the Temple’s destruction, and by celebrating the final Exodus. I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of vocation, a vocation given him by the one he knew as “Father,” to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, Israel’s God had promised to accomplish. He would be the pillar of cloud for the people of the new Exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God.

This bald, unsubstantiated summary of several lengthy historical arguments will not, perhaps, convince by itself. The main argument in its favor is double similarity and double dissimilarity with Jesus’s Jewish world and with the early church. The picture I have drawn is not obviously what the early church believed, but we can see how early Christian beliefs might have grown out of it. It is thoroughly credible within first-century Judaism while not being at all what most first-century Jews were thinking. It is not the featureless Jesus of modernist reconstruction. Then again, why should not Jesus have been just as much aware of symbol, story, theology, and vocation as the other figures whom we enthusiastically ascribe them?

Thus far, so much we may say of the history—which is, of course, completely theological, both in itself and in our reading of it. I turn, in conclusion, to three wider remarks, again about history and theology.

First, Schweitzer was right to see that his eschatological Jesus would shake comfortable Western orthodoxy to its foundations. I have modified his scheme by interpreting apocalyptic historically, but the Jesus that I discover remains shocking. Western orthodoxy has for too long had an overly lofty, detached, and oppressive view of God. It has approached Christology by assuming this view of God, and has tried to fit Jesus into it. Hardly surprisingly, the result has been a docetic Jesus; this in turn generated Reimarus’s protest, not least because of the social and cultural nonsense which the combination of deism and docetism reinforced. That combination remains powerful and still needs a powerful challenge. My proposal, then, is not that we assume that we know what the word “God” means, managing somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew, possessed of a desperately-risky— indeed, apparently crazy—vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, dining once more with his friends, and dying on a Roman cross, and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word “God” to be re-centered around that point,

Second, the story of Jesus does not generate a set of theological propositions, a “New Testament Theology.” It generates, as Schweitzer saw with prophetic clarity, a set of tasks. The great exegetical mistake of the century (perpetrated by Schweitzer himself)—the idea that first-century Jews (including Jesus) expected the end of the world and were disappointed has so occupied the minds of scholars that the real problem of delay has gone almost unnoticed, and people now come upon it as though it were a novelty. If for Jesus, and indeed for the whole early church for which we have any real evidence, the God of Israel defeated evil once and for all on the cross, then why does evil still exist in the world? Was Jesus, after all, a failure? The New Testament answers this question with one voice. The cross and resurrection won the victory over evil, but it if the task of the Spirit, and those led by the Spirit, to implement that victory in and for all the world. This task demands a freshly-drawn worldview: new praxis, stories, symbols, and answers. These come together into a fresh vision of God in which—precisely because of this re-discovery of who God is—history, theology, spirituality, and vocation recover their proper relationship. For Jesus’s followers, finding out who Jesus was in his historical context meant and means discovering their own task within their own contents.

Third, and last. Several first-century Jews other than Jesus held and acted upon remarkable and subversive views. Why should Jesus be any more than one of the most remarkable of them? The answer must hinge upon the resurrection. If nothing happened to the body of Jesus, I cannot see why any of his implicit or explicit claims should be regarded as true. What is more, I cannot as a historian see why anyone would have continued to belong to his movement and regard him as its messiah. There were several other messianic or quasi-messianic movements within a hundred years on either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader being killed by the authorities or by a rival group. If your messiah is killed, naturally you conclude that he was not the messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family. (Note, however, that nobody ever said James, the brother of Jesus, was the messiah.) Such groups did not suffer from that blessed twentieth-century disease of cognitive dissonance. In particular, they did not go around saying that their messiah had been raised from the dead. I agree with Paula Fredriksen: the early Christians really did believe that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead.10 What is more, I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless I say that they were right.


* This article is based upon a lecture given at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting in Philadelphia on November 20, 1995. Under the title of “How Jesus Saw Himself,” it was previously published in a somewhat different form in Bible Review 12:3 (June 1996) and appears here with permission.

1 See Charles H. Talbert, ed., Reimarus: Fragments, Ralph S. Fraser, trans. (London: SCM Press, 1971), 146-51. It provides two extracts from Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s Apologie oder Schuzschrift fur die verünfügen Verehrer Gottes. Reimarus (1694-1768) refrained from publishing the Apologie during his lifetime, but after his death these and other parts of it were published in 1774-78 by G. E. Lessing under the general title Wolfenbüttel Fragments.

2 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, W. Montgomery, trans (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1910, 1960), 330-403. Originally published as Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben Jesu-Forschung (Tübingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr, 1906).

3 Wilhelm Wrede, The Messianic Secret, J.C.G. Grieg, trans. (Cambridge, England: James Clarke, 1971). Originally published as Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien: Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des Markusevangeliums (Gottingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1901).

4 Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historical Biblical Christ, Carl E. Braaten, trans. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964). Originally publish as Der Sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus (Leipzig, Germany: A. Deichart, 1892)

5 See the seminal discussion in G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1980), 243-71, see further N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress; London: SPCK, 1992), 280-338.

6 John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco Harper-Collins, 1995).

7 E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 237-41. See also C. H. Dodd, “Jesus as Teacher and Prophet,” in Mysterium Christi: Christological Studies by British and German Theologians, G. K. A. Bell and Gustav Adolph Deissmann, eds. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1930), 53-66; Martin Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers, James C.G. Grieg, trans. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1981), 33-83.

8 Wright, New Testament and People of God, 284-6

9 Wright, New Testament and People of God, 122-39.

10 Paula Fredrikson, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), 133.

The Resurrection of Jesus

William Lane Craig

Examines the historical grounds for belief in Jesus’ resurrection, focusing on the empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.


I spoke recently at a major Canadian university on the existence of God. After my talk, one slightly irate co-ed wrote on her comment card, “I was with you until you got to the stuff about Jesus. God is not the Christian God!”

This attitude is all too typical today. Most people are happy to agree that God exists; but in our pluralistic society it has become politically incorrect to claim that God has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus. What justification can Christians offer, in contrast to Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, for thinking that the Christian God is real?

The answer of the New Testament is: the resurrection of Jesus. “God will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17.31). The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus’ radical personal claims to divine authority.

So how do we know that Jesus is risen from the dead? The Easter hymnwriter says, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!” This answer is perfectly appropriate on an individual level. But when Christians engage unbelievers in the public square—such as in “Letters to the Editor” of a local newspaper, on call-in programs on talk-radio, at PTA meetings, or even just in conversation with co-workers—, then it’s crucial that we be able to present objective evidence in support of our beliefs. Otherwise our claims hold no more water than the assertions of anyone else claiming to have a private experience of God.

Fortunately, Christianity, as a religion rooted in history, makes claims that can in important measure be investigated historically. Suppose, then, that we approach the New Testament writings, not as inspired Scripture, but merely as a collection of Greek documents coming down to us out of the first century, without any assumption as to their reliability other than the way we normally regard other sources of ancient history. We may be surprised to learn that the majority of New Testament critics investigating the gospels in this way accept the central facts undergirding the resurrection of Jesus. I want to emphasize that I am not talking about evangelical or conservative scholars only, but about the broad spectrum of New Testament critics who teach at secular universities and non-evangelical seminaries. Amazing as it may seem, most of them have come to regard as historical the basic facts which support the resurrection of Jesus. These facts are as follows:

FACT #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. This fact is highly significant because it means, contrary to radical critics like John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, that the location of Jesus’ burial site was known to Jew and Christian alike. In that case, the disciples could never have proclaimed his resurrection in Jerusalem if the tomb had not been empty. New Testament researchers have established this first fact on the basis of evidence such as the following:

1. Jesus’ burial is attested in the very old tradition quoted by Paul in I Cor. 15.3-5:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:

. . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.

Paul not only uses the typical rabbinical terms “received” and “delivered” with regard to the information he is passing on to the Corinthians, but vv. 3-5 are a highly stylized four-line formula filled with non-Pauline characteristics. This has convinced all scholars that Paul is, as he says, quoting from an old tradition which he himself received after becoming a Christian. This tradition probably goes back at least to Paul’s fact-finding visit to Jerusalem around AD 36, when he spent two weeks with Cephas and James (Gal. 1.18). It thus dates to within five years after Jesus’ death. So short a time span and such personal contact make it idle to talk of legend in this case.

2. The burial story is part of very old source material used by Mark in writing his gospel. The gospels tend to consist of brief snapshots of Jesus’ life which are loosely connected and not always chronologically arranged. But when we come to the passion story we do have one, smooth, continuously-running narrative. This suggests that the passion story was one of Mark’s sources of information in writing his gospel. Now most scholars think Mark is already the earliest gospel, and Mark’s source for Jesus’ passion is, of course, even older. Comparison of the narratives of the four gospels shows that their accounts do not diverge from one another until after the burial. This implies that the burial account was part of the passion story. Again, its great age militates against its being legendary.

3. As a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention. There was strong resentment against the Jewish leadership for their role in the condemnation of Jesus (I Thess. 2.15). It is therefore highly improbable that Christians would invent a member of the court that condemned Jesus who honors Jesus by giving him a proper burial instead of allowing him to be dispatched as a common criminal.

4. No other competing burial story exists. If the burial by Joseph were fictitious, then we would expect to find either some historical trace of what actually happened to Jesus’ corpse or at least some competing legends. But all our sources are unanimous on Jesus’ honorable interment by Joseph.

For these and other reasons, the majority of New Testament critics concur that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. According to the late John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University, the burial of Jesus in the tomb is “one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.”1

FACT #2: On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers. Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:

1. The empty tomb story is also part of the old passion source used by Mark. The passion source used by Mark did not end in death and defeat, but with the empty tomb story, which is grammatically of one piece with the burial story.

2. The old tradition cited by Paul in I Cor. 15.3-5 implies the fact of the empty tomb. For any first century Jew, to say that of a dead man “that he was buried and that he was raised” is to imply that a vacant grave was left behind. Moreover, the expression “on the third day” probably derives from the women’s visit to the tomb on the third day, in Jewish reckoning, after the crucifixion. The four-line tradition cited by Paul summarizes both the gospel accounts and the early apostolic preaching (Acts 13. 28-31); significantly, the third line of the tradition corresponds to the empty tomb story.

3. The story is simple and lacks signs of legendary embellishment. All one has to do to appreciate this point is to compare Mark’s account with the wild legendary stories found in the second-century apocryphal gospels, in which Jesus is seen coming out of the tomb with his head reaching up above the clouds and followed by a talking cross!

4. The fact that women’s testimony was discounted in first century Palestine stands in favor of the women’s role in discovering the empty tomb. According to Josephus, the testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that it could not even be admitted into a Jewish court of law. Any later legendary story would certainly have made male disciples discover the empty tomb.

5. The earliest Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body (Matt. 28.15) shows that the body was in fact missing from the tomb. The earliest Jewish response to the disciples’ proclamation, “He is risen from the dead!” was not to point to his occupied tomb and to laugh them off as fanatics, but to claim that they had taken away Jesus’ body. Thus, we have evidence of the empty tomb from the very opponents of the early Christians.

One could go on, but I think that enough has been said to indicate why, in the words of Jacob Kremer, an Austrian specialist in the resurrection, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.”2

FACT #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.

This is a fact which is almost universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars, for the following reasons:

1. The list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances which is quoted by Paul in I Cor. 15. 5-7 guarantees that such appearances occurred. These included appearances to Peter (Cephas), the Twelve, the 500 brethren, and James.

2. The appearance traditions in the gospels provide multiple, independent attestation of these appearances. This is one of the most important marks of historicity. The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Luke, and the appearance to the Twelve by Luke and John. We also have independent witness to Galilean appearances in Mark, Matthew, and John, as well as to the women in Matthew and John.

3. Certain appearances have earmarks of historicity. For example, we have good evidence from the gospels that neither James nor any of Jesus’ younger brothers believed in him during his lifetime. There is no reason to think that the early church would generate fictitious stories concerning the unbelief of Jesus’ family had they been faithful followers all along. But it is indisputable that James and his brothers did become active Christian believers following Jesus’ death. James was considered an apostle and eventually rose to the position of leadership of the Jerusalem church. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, James was martyred for his faith in Christ in the late AD 60s. Now most of us have brothers. What would it take to convince you that your brother is the Lord, such that you would be ready to die for that belief? Can there be any doubt that this remarkable transformation in Jesus’ younger brother took place because, in Paul’s words, “then he appeared to James”?

Even Gert L¸demann, the leading German critic of the resurrection, himself admits, “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.”3

FACT #4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary. Think of the situation the disciples faced after Jesus’ crucifixion:

1. Their leader was dead. And Jews had no belief in a dying, much less rising, Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to throw off Israel’s enemies (= Rome) and re-establish a Davidic reign—not suffer the ignominious death of criminal.

2. According to Jewish law, Jesus’ execution as a criminal showed him out to be a heretic, a man literally under the curse of God (Deut. 21.23). The catastrophe of the crucifixion for the disciples was not simply that their Master was gone, but that the crucifixion showed, in effect, that the Pharisees had been right all along, that for three years they had been following a heretic, a man accursed by God!

3. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection at the end of the world. All the disciples could do was to preserve their Master’s tomb as a shrine where his bones could reside until that day when all of Israel’s righteous dead would be raised by God to glory.

Despite all this, the original disciples believed in and were willing to go to their deaths for the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. Luke Johnson, a New Testament scholar from Emory University, muses, “some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was . . . .”4 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.”5

In summary, there are four facts agreed upon by the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects which any adequate historical hypothesis must account for: Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.

Now the question is: what is the best explanation of these four facts? Most sholars probably remain agnostic about this question. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is “God raised Jesus from the dead.”

In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, historian C. B. McCullagh lists six tests which historians use in determining what is the best explanation for given historical facts.6 The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” passes all these tests:

1. It has great explanatory scope: it explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.

2. It has great explanatory power: it explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite his earlier public execution, and so forth.

3. It is plausible: given the historical context of Jesus’ own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as divine confirmation of those radical claims.

4. It is not ad hoc or contrived: it requires only one additional hypothesis: that God exists. And even that needn’t be an additional hypothesis if one already believes that God exists.

5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs. The hypothesis: “God raised Jesus from the dead” doesn’t in any way conflict with the accepted belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead. The Christian accepts that belief as wholeheartedly as he accepts the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.

6. It far outstrips any of its rival hypotheses in meeting conditions (1)-(5). Down through history various alternative explanations of the facts have been offered, for example, the conspiracy hypothesis, the apparent death hypothesis, the hallucination hypothesis, and so forth. Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. None of these naturalistic hypotheses succeeds in meeting the conditions as well as the resurrection hypothesis.

Now this puts the sceptical critic in a rather desperate situation. A few years ago I participated in a debate on the resurrection of Jesus with a professor at the University of California, Irvine. He had written his doctoral dissertation on the resurrection, and he was thoroughly familiar with the evidence. He could not deny the facts of Jesus’ honorable burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. So his only recourse was to come up with some alternate explanation of those facts. And so he argued that Jesus of Nazareth had an unknown, identical twin brother, who was separated from him as an infant and grew up independently, but who came back to Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, stole Jesus’ body out of the tomb, and presented himself to the disciples, who mistakenly inferred that Jesus was risen from the dead! Now I won’t bother to go into how I went about refuting this theory. But I think the example is illustrative of the desperate lengths to which scepticism must go in order to refute the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, the evidence is so powerful that one of the world’s leading Jewish theologians, the late Pinchas Lapide, who taught at Hebrew University in Israel, declared himself convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead!7

The significance of the resurrection of Jesus lies in the fact that it is not just any old Joe Blow who has been raised from the dead, but Jesus of Nazareth, whose crucifixion was instigated by the Jewish leadership because of his blasphemous claims to divine authority. If this man has been raised from the dead, then the God whom he allegedly blasphemed has clearly vindicated his claims. Thus, in an age of religious relativism and pluralism, the resurrection of Jesus constitutes a solid rock on which Christians can take their stand for God’s decisive self-revelation in Jesus.

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