Or is it merely a matter of faith? Or perhaps an invented myth? Did the disciples truly find the empty tomb? What if they simply made it all up? Are there naturalistic explanations? Were the appearances of the risen Jesus hallucinations or psychological projections?
1. THE HISTORICITY OF JESUS’ BURIAL.
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The first argument that contributes to the final judgment regarding the historicity of the resurrection is the historicity of the burial.
It is evident that if Jesus of Nazareth was not buried, it would be impossible to give credence to the Christian texts when they speak of the discovery of the empty tomb, and it would be very difficult to consider the Easter accounts reliable in general.
But what does the academic community say about the burial of Jesus? Is it unanimously attested as historical in the same way as the trial, crucifixion, and death on the cross are considered to have occurred? Yes, although in this case, there is a minority of scholars who do not actually regard it as historical for certain reasons (which we will address).
According to the Gospel of Mark, it was Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, who requested and obtained permission from Pontius Pilate to take custody of Jesus’ body and bury it in a tomb (cf. Mk 15:42-47), likely one that he owned. This account is confirmed by three other independent sources, with some minor additional details: the evangelists Matthew (Mt 27:57-66), Luke (Lk 23:50-53), and John (Jn 19:38-42).
As we will show in more detail later on, the most important scholar of the Markan text, Rudolf Pesch, has dated the pre-Markan source on which the evangelist relies for the account of the Passion to 37 AD, thus «in close proximity to the events narrated within the first Aramaic-speaking community in Jerusalem».
Among the majority of contemporary scholars and historians, there are few doubts that the burial of Jesus of Nazareth is an event that actually took place. Jacob Kremer, professor of New Testament Biblical Studies at the University of Vienna, certifies that «most exegetes firmly consider the biblical statements regarding the empty tomb to be reliable».
The eminent Raymond E. Brown, professor emeritus at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, regards it as a story that is «very likely historical», based on the fact that the account satisfies three of the historical criteria through which scholars analyze ancient narratives.
The “criterion of multiple attestation” is satisfied as the account is consistently supported by four independent sources, which certainly cite earlier sources (pre-evangelical); the “criterion of dissimilarity” is also met as the figure of Joseph of Arimathea is surprisingly dissimilar to the prevailing attitude of the early Christians towards the Sanhedrin; and the “criterion of embarrassment” is fulfilled as it is embarrassing for members of the early church to have valorized a prominent figure from the Jewish authorities, who were morally responsible for Jesus’ death.
The presence of Joseph of Arimathea, confirmed by all Christian sources, is what makes the account truly plausible: if the evangelists had invented Jesus’ burial, they would have never included such a specific figure as a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, as the fabrication would have been immediately refuted by the Jewish authorities.
«Although high probability does not equate certainty», concluded Raymond E. Brown, «there is nothing in the pre-evangelical account of Joseph’s burial of Jesus that cannot plausibly be considered historical».
Taking into consideration that the Gospel of Mark is citing a very ancient pre-Markan source that attests to the burial (which we will discuss later), John A. T. Robinson, Emeritus Dean of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, even concluded that it is «one of the oldest and best attested facts about Jesus».
Even the skeptical theologian Gerd Ludemann, one of the main proponents of alternative objections to the resurrection, admits that denying the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea and the burial of Jesus would be «going too far».
Many scholars, furthermore, have argued that the reference to Arimathea, a little-known city with no theological or historical significance, lends further historical credibility to the figure of Joseph.
One of the most significant consequences of the historicity of the burial account, apart from harmonizing and making the subsequent story (starting from the empty tomb) coherent, is that the location of Jesus’ tomb was known to the Jews and Christians in Jerusalem. Certainly, the historical presence of a member of the Sanhedrin, like Joseph of Arimathea, makes it plausible that the Jewish authorities had information about the tomb.
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As mentioned, not all scholars agree on the historicity of Jesus’ burial.
The most popular objection, at least until the mid-19th century, was that referring to an individual burial demonstrated ignorance of Jewish customs, suggesting that the Gospel authors were Greeks from the second or third generation of Christianity.
The most prominent scholar to support this view was the historian John Dominic Crossan, who argued that Jesus was likely never buried because crucifixion victims were typically left on the cross to be eaten by wild animals or buried in shallow graves.
This refers to Jewish rules according to which those sentenced to death were given a common burial, as indeed stated in the Mishnah Sanhedrin (found in the Mishnah and the Talmud).
However, archaeological excavations carried out in Jerusalem in 1968 revealed an ossuary in a Jewish tomb containing the remains of a crucified man contemporary to Jesus or dating back to the early years of Christianity (probably the late 20s AD).
José Miguel Garcia, director of the Chair of Theology at the Complutense University, reported that this discovery is evidence that «not always were the condemned to death buried in a common grave» and that «if their families or friends requested the bodies, a dignified burial could be granted to them».
Since this discovery, no specialist has raised objections to the individual burial of Jesus as described in the Gospels.
N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, and C.A. Evans, Professor of New Testament at the Acadia Divinity College, after studying ancient Jewish literature (such as the Babylonian Talmud), have directly challenged the notion that Jewish customs never allowed for a dignified burial even for those who died by crucifixion.
For the Jews, on the contrary, it was a duty to grant the dead a proper burial, even concerning «Jews executed by pagan authorities», a tradition attested in one of the Qumran scrolls. In it, as the two scholars write, «the requirement to bury the executed on the same day of their death» is emphasized to avoid the desecration of the land since the man put to death is cursed by God. However, the Roman authorities did not always comply with Jewish customs.
In another text found at Qumran, the Temple Scroll, it is confirmed that «even in the case of a criminal put to death, a proper burial was provided». Thus, the two scholars concluded: «The commandments of Scripture, considered together with traditions concerning piety (as exemplified in the book of Tobit), corporeal impurity, and the obligation not to desecrate the land, undoubtedly suggest that under normal circumstances (i.e., in peacetime) no corpse should remain unburied: neither Jew, nor pagan, neither innocent nor guilty. All should be buried».
Even Raymond E. Brown, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York, clarified that Roman policy often aligned with Jewish religious practices regarding burial and allowed for the possibility of individual burial for some crucifixion victims.
Finally, archaeologist and biblical scholar Jodi Magness, President of the Archaeological Institute of America, also commented on the matter, confirming: «The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial appear to be largely consistent with the archaeological evidence».
2. THE HISTORICITY OF THE EMPTY TOMB.
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Prior to the 1950s, the idea of the empty tomb was considered «an offense» to intelligence and an embarrassment for Christian theology.
However, starting from the mid-20th century, with the decline of Bultmann’s influence and the beginning of the modern phase of the quest for the historical Jesus, German historian Hans von Campenhausen was one of the first to defend its historical credibility. This was followed by so many publications that the academic orientation on this topic was literally «reversed».
First and foremost, the account satisfies the historical criterion of «multiple attestation», being substantially confirmed in an identical manner by six ancient sources considered independent: the four canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:29; 13:36), and implicitly, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:4). In particular, the latter will be examined as separate evidence in the next chapter.
The renowned New Testament scholar Klaus Berger, professor at the University of Heidelberg, has emphasized that «the accounts of the empty tomb are reported by all four Gospels (and other writings of early Christianity) in an independent form from one another […]. We have a great abundance of accounts».
Based on this starting point, many scholars in recent decades have indirectly demonstrated the reliability of the account by presenting serious arguments that are now shared by the majority of researchers.
This was demonstrated by Gary Habermas, President of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, who analyzed over 2,000 specialized publications by leading international scholars of Christian origins. He concluded: «The majority of critical scholars (75%) agree that Jesus’ tomb was actually found empty». It is impossible to cite them all, so let’s limit ourselves to a few.
James Dunn, a distinguished professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the University of Durham, wrote, for example: «I must state clearly: the probability is on the side of the tomb being empty. Apart from historical reconstruction, the weight of evidence strongly indicates this conclusion […]. There are no possible alternative explanations».
Wolfhart Pannenberg, a theology professor at the University of Munich, wrote: «Can you imagine how the disciples of Jesus could have proclaimed His resurrection in Jerusalem if they could have been constantly contradicted by looking at the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid? Their announcement would not have withstood even a day, not even an hour, if the empty tomb had not been an established fact».
In turn, British historian and classicist Michael Grant concluded: «The historian […] cannot reasonably deny the empty tomb in any way». The application of the historical criteria normally used by scholars indicates that «the evidence is sufficiently solid and plausible to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty».
The eminent Austrian biblical scholar Jacob Kremer, professor of New Testament biblical studies at the University of Vienna, wrote: «By far the majority of scholars consider the biblical statements regarding the empty tomb to be reliable».
Furthermore, it has been pointed out that the empty tomb was indirectly confirmed by Jewish authorities themselves when they began accusing the Christians of stealing the body of Christ (without explaining how they would have done it).
This controversy also found expression in dissident Jewish works towards Christians, such as the Toledot Yeshu, whose Aramaic core may contain an ancient oral tradition dating back to the 1st century. In these works, there is the unintentional admission that «the body was not found after burial», as noted by the historian of Judaism Riccardo Calimani. The explanation they gave is that the body was taken by a gardener, but this would have been impossible to write if the Jews were aware that the tomb was not empty.
The Spanish specialist José Miguel Garcia also emphasized that «during the entire time they sought to prevent the spread of Christianity, members of the Sanhedrin did not deny the fact of the empty tomb; they simply explained it by appealing to rumors of the theft of Jesus’ body by the apostles».
In Matthew 28:11-15, it is reported that the chief priests paid the soldiers to declare that the disciples stole the body while the guards were sleeping. Some believe that this detail is not historical but an addition by the evangelist Matthew. However, it has been argued that it would have served the purposes of apologetic propaganda only if the guards had remained awake.
The accusation by the Jewish authorities logically presupposes that the body of Christ was not found in the tomb. Nowhere in contemporary Jewish or pagan literature about the events in Jerusalem do we find denials of the empty tomb (nor alternative explanatory theories). There are no competing burial traditions either.
Another argument is that the tomb must have been empty because, otherwise, the preaching of Christianity itself would have failed. E. Earle Ellis, Emeritus Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and founder of the Institute for Biblical Research, even assuming that the disciples could have invented a bodily resurrection out of thin air, wrote that «it is doubtful that they would have generated any following. A bodily resurrection without an empty tomb would have been as meaningful as a square circle».
If the early Christian community gained followers, both among Jews and Gentiles, it implies that no one could produce the corpse of Christ in the tomb or anywhere else.
If they could have, the Jewish or Roman authorities would certainly have quickly suppressed that troublesome Christian movement that caused turmoil in Jerusalem; all they had to do was point to Jesus’ body in the tomb, and the disciples would have had nothing to testify about anymore. The fact that they couldn’t do that indicates that the tomb was indeed empty.
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Even the most skeptical scholars have had to admit that the Gospel account of the empty tomb is historically unassailable. Therefore, they have resorted to alternative explanations without attempting to cast doubt on the historicity of the empty tomb.
The specialist Gerd Lüdemann, Professor of Theology at the University of Göttingen, is one of the many secular scholars who have confirmed the lack of substantial objections to the historicity of the discovery of the empty tomb. However, he argues that it was the Jewish authorities who disposed of Jesus’ body to prevent excessive veneration of the mortal remains of that troublesome 1st-century revolutionary.
It is easy to counter-argue (as many of his colleagues have done) that it is frankly unlikely that the members of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish authorities suffered from collective amnesia. When the early Christian community suddenly began proclaiming that Jesus had bodily risen, why didn’t they silence them by simply revealing where they had deposited the body?
Lüdemann himself, on the other hand, has acknowledged that «the Jews showed interest in the place where the body of Jesus was laid and, of course, in the proclamation of Jesus as the Risen One […]. This raised questions about the fate of his body on the part of opponents or non-believers». Furthermore, the Jewish and Roman authorities would have had all the power to refute the Christians by producing Jesus’ corpse or publicly announcing what they had done with it (perhaps citing eyewitnesses). Yet, they accused the Christians of stealing it.
If they could have, the Jewish Sanhedrin would have presented the body of Jesus on one of the many occasions when Jerusalem was in turmoil due to the sermons of the apostles about Christ’s resurrection. But in no ancient Jewish or pagan source are the early Christians refuted by pointing out the corpse or the occupied tomb.
After considering the arguments in favor and against in a comprehensive and organic manner, José Miguel Garcia, Director of the Chair of Theology at the Complutense University of Madrid, concluded: «All the mentioned characteristics oblige us to conclude that historical criticism cannot deny the authenticity of the discovery of the empty tomb».
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With few doubts about the historical reality of the empty tomb and the implausibility of the Jewish authorities disposing of Jesus’ body, the objection remains that the disciples stole the body, hiding or burying it somewhere unknown.
Indeed, it was the first and immediate reaction of the members of the Sanhedrin (and this, as mentioned, implies that the tomb was empty). The controversy is reflected in the Gospels themselves, such as in Matthew 28:11-15. This theory was later taken up in the form of a conspiracy by 18th-century deists.
Today, contemporary scholars have no problem dismissing this objection, which largely survives in popular media and anti-religious blogs. «I do not consider deliberate fraud to be a plausible explanation. Many of the people who claimed this would have spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the Lord risen, and many of them would have been martyred for this», wrote E.P. Sanders, an eminent New Testament scholar at Duke University.
Typically, specialists reject this hypothesis with several decisive considerations, of which we highlight only four.
1) First and foremost, apart from simple accusations, there is no documentary basis or historical sources to support it. It is not enough to hypothesize that the followers of Jesus (a small group of fishermen, tax collectors, and a few women) would have been psychologically predisposed to such a criminal scheme, so well organized that they could deceive their contemporaries, the Jewish and Roman authorities. In the New Testament, there is no evidence to support a criminal psycho-biography of the disciples.
In the Christian writings, the opposite is actually narrated: at the time of the crucifixion, the disciples were confused, disorganized, fearful, doubtful, and burdened with grief. They were certainly not mentally motivated, coordinated, or equipped to plan a thriller-like operation. They fled, denied (Peter did so three times), and abandoned Jesus. Only two women and one disciple remained at the foot of the cross.
2) Secondly, even assuming the theft of the body from a sealed tomb, possibly guarded by armed soldiers (cf. Matthew 28:11-15 and Matthew 27:62-66), what would they have done with the body? Their Master could not have been buried in an anonymous grave; they would have found an extremely dignified burial, which would inevitably have become the object of visits, prayers, and more or less clandestine veneration. All of this without anyone among the Jews and pagans of Jerusalem noticing (including relatives and acquaintances of the disciples). Needless to say, the tomb of Jesus, a destination for inevitable pilgrimages, would have inevitably left archaeological traces.
Furthermore, if they were so skilled and organized to carry out such an operation, why did they forget to fabricate an alibi to escape the obvious accusation of being the perpetrators of the body’s disappearance? The more seriously we take this objection, the more it collapses under its own weight.
3) The third issue is the impossibility for a 1st-century Jew to invent an individual bodily resurrection before the end of times, which was totally foreign and repugnant to their belief (we will discuss this further below). So, after planning the theft and hiding of the body, would they have invented an inconceivable (for themselves, first and foremost) bodily resurrection of their Master, contrary to the Scriptures? Whom did they hope to convince?
As the biblical scholar José Miguel Garcia wrote, «If the disciples really stole Jesus’ body, to explain its disappearance, they would not have had to resort to the difficult hypothesis of resurrection; they could have relied on the Jewish concept of bodily ascension to heaven, as Jewish tradition claims in the case of some of its characters».
It would have been more natural to argue that Jesus was bodily taken up, as happened to Enoch, Elijah, Ezra, and Baruch in the Old Testament. «Nevertheless», the Spanish exegete continued, «the apostles insistently affirmed that Jesus’ body had disappeared from the tomb because of the resurrection from the dead».
If they wanted to convince someone, why did they deviate so heavily from Jewish tradition? If after stealing the body, they wanted to assert that Jesus was the Messiah, the one who fulfilled the biblical prophecies, why invent a resurrection that was completely unknown and foreign to the Old Testament?
N.T. Wright, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, has observed that such invention by the disciples «presupposes that they would have expected other Jews to be open to the conviction that an individual could rise from the dead. But none of this was possible. The people of that time would have considered bodily resurrection impossible, just as many people in our time do, albeit for different reasons».
4) Finally, there is a lack of motive. They did all of this, invented absurd things according to the mindset of the time, for what purpose? They gained nothing, they lost everything, they ended up being persecuted, scourged, imprisoned for over ten years, and ultimately martyred. No one subjected to such pressures would have continued to uphold a lie, and yet there is no trace of surrender, confession, or betrayal by the companions.
«This is not how one invents» even the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote.
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Incredibly, several German rationalists between the late 18th and early 19th centuries supported the hypothesis of apparent death (or fainting) on the cross, a thesis also embraced by the idealist Friedrich Schleiermacher.
According to this theory, Jesus did not die on the cross but somehow survived. He was placed alive in the tomb, where he revived and escaped, convincing his disciples that he had risen from the dead. Needless to say, today this theory is abandoned by everyone.
Apart from the inexplicability of surviving physical torture and crucifixion, it is truly difficult to imagine how a dying man could have opened the tomb from the inside, confronted the guards (if they even existed), reached the disciples, and somehow convinced them that he had bodily risen, eliciting worship and becoming the one who conquered death. The only convincing thing in that state would have been the need for urgent medical care.
And then? What would have happened next? Would he have gotten married and given the rights to his biography to Dan Brown? “Only ignorance or ignominy can create an invention so far from reality,”, commented indignantly J.M. Garcia, Professor of New Testament at the Complutense University of Madrid.
The crucifixion death of Jesus is beyond discussion for scholars. “The fact of Jesus’ death as a result of crucifixion is indisputable, despite the hypotheses of a pseudo-death or deceit that are sometimes put forth. There is no need to further discuss it,”, even responded the German scholar Gerd Ludemann, one of the few academics accustomed to controversial theses.
Another secular scholar, the eminent John Dominic Crossan, commented: “The death of Jesus by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is more certain than any other historical fact. Even if no follower of Jesus had written about it in the hundred years after his crucifixion, we would still know it from two authors unrelated to his followers. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus,”, who reported, as we have shown in another report in Italian language, about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
3. SOURCES DATED CLOSE TO THE EVENTS.
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The third argument in favor of the historical hypothesis of the resurrection is the absolutely early dating of the historical sources.
If the principle holds that the closer a source is to the events narrated, the greater the likelihood of it telling the truth about historical facts, then the Christian sources reach the maximum probability of reporting the truth.
The early dating of the Christian sources is evidence that has been widely accepted in the academic world and has definitively put an end to common speculations in past centuries about the late creation of the Easter accounts.
For decades, it was argued that the Gospel accounts were formed as a result of the psychological impact of Jesus’ death and the simultaneous acquisition of a gradual conviction and spiritual awareness that his mission did not end with death. Thus, Christian communities would have progressively begun to explore the Scriptures and use the language of resurrection to articulate their experience. Finally, towards the end of the 1st century, some would have begun to invent stories about an actual resurrection.
This interpretation is no longer sustainable today. The first reason is precisely the near-contemporaneity of the early Christian sources to the events. Here are the sources:
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The first useful source is the one written by Paul of Tarsus, a Jewish persecutor of Christians who suddenly converted in 32 (or 33) AD. He went to Jerusalem to meet the apostles Peter and James in 35 (or 36) AD. and stayed there for fifteen days (Gal 1:18-20). It is here that Paul received the information that he later included in his letters, starting with the First Epistle to the Corinthians (generally dated to 50-55 AD).
Within this letter, historians (firstly Joachim Jeremias) have identified for decades certain verses (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7) in which Paul uses words that are not his own (including terms such as “appearance,” “for our sins,” “according to the Scriptures,” “the Twelve,” etc.) and he does not repeat them in his other lengthy letters, which is evidence that he is quoting something that was passed on to him and predates him.
Here is what is written in this ancient pre-Pauline passage:
«For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles» (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).
The author summarizes in a few lines the main events that will later be detailed in all the Gospels, including the resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, he states that he wants to pass on to the readers what he has received (παραλαμβάνω) directly from the disciples.
When can we date this pre-Pauline formula? B.D. Ehrman, Professor of New Testament at the University of North Carolina, believes that it «probably goes back to a couple of years after Jesus’ death», which is around 32 AD, almost contemporaneous with the events (only 24 months after the crucifixion of Christ).
Indeed, after his conversion, Paul came into contact with «informants who spoke from direct knowledge».
According to B.D. Ehrman, «It strains credulity to think that Paul spent more than two weeks with Jesus’s closest companion without learning anything about him (for example, that he had lived)». Ehrman further acknowledges that Jesus had risen and appeared to multiple individuals (the agnostic Ehrman understandably feels uncomfortable acknowledging that this ancient Christian formula also speaks of Jesus’s resurrection and appearances).
Furthermore, Bart D. Ehrman clarifies: «Paul must have met Cephas and James three years after his conversion, receiving the traditions he reported in his letters, around the mid-30s, let’s say 35 or 36. The traditions he inherited were, of course, older and probably dated back to around 2 years after Jesus’s death […]. It is evidence that faith in the crucified messiah goes back to a very short time after Jesus’s death».
Ehrman, who is famously agnostic, appropriately uses the pre-Pauline source as evidence of an immediate faith “in the crucified messiah.” However, his non-religious bias leads him to overlook that in addition to the crucifixion, this ancient source also reports Jesus’s resurrection and post-mortem appearances. He should have written: “It is evidence that faith in the crucified and risen messiah goes back to a very short time after Jesus’s death!”
More accurately, in a subsequent passage, B.D. Ehrman concludes: «We do not have to wait for the Gospel of Mark, dated around 70 CE, to hear about the historical Jesus. The evidence we derive from Paul’s writings perfectly coincides with the data provided by the Gospel traditions, whose oral sources almost certainly go back to Roman Palestine of the 1930s of the first century. Paul demonstrates that just a few years after the time when Jesus lived, his followers were discussing what the Jewish Palestinian teacher had said, done, and lived. It is an extraordinary convergence of evidence: the Gospel sources and the accounts of our earliest Christian author».
Even another prominent non-believing scholar, Gerd Lüdemann, professor at the University of Göttingen, recognizes: «The elements of the tradition cited by Paul must be dated within the first 2 years after Jesus’s crucifixion, no later than 3 years. The formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls between 30 and 33 CE». As observed, Lüdemann does not share Ehrman’s personal reservations in mentioning Jesus’s appearances (although he “forgets” to mention the resurrection).
John Dominic Crossan, eminent scholar (also famously skeptical) of early Christianity and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, states: «Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s CE. But at the moment, the most probable source for the ancient tradition contained within it comes from Jerusalem in the early 30s when he went to visit Cephas (Peter) and stayed with him for fifteen days».
The dating of the pre-Pauline formula cited by Paul to 32-33 CE is an opinion shared by multiple scholars of caliber such as E.P. Sanders, John Kloppenborg, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, J.P Meier, Peter Stuhlmacher, C.E.B. Cranfield, James Dunn, and Pinchas Lapide.
In 2006, the eminent scholar Gary Habermas compiled in a peer-reviewed article the conclusions of the main scholars (including critics, agnostics, or non-believers) on the First Letter to the Corinthians. Here is the conclusion:
«Contemporary scholars agree that the apostle Paul is the primary witness of the early resurrection experiences. An ex-opponent, Paul, claims that the risen Jesus appeared to him personally. The academic consensus is well attested, and few other conclusions are more widely recognized than the fact that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul records an ancient oral tradition. This pre-Pauline account summarizes the central content of the Gospels, namely, that Christ died for the sins of men, was buried, resurrected from the dead, and then appeared to many witnesses, both individuals and groups»
Among the scholars mentioned by Habermas, we highlight the papyrologist Ulrich Wilckens, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at the University of Berlin, for whom «undoubtedly, the first letter of Paul dates back to the earliest phase in the history of early Christianity».
While Walter Kasper, a renowned scholar of early Christianity, optimistically suggests that 1 Corinthians 15:2-7 was already «in use by the end of 30 AD.», the biblical scholar and humanist from the University of Birmingham, Michael Goulder, believes that the passage «dates to what Paul received when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion».
As already mentioned, the near contemporaneity of the first written Christian source to the events contradicts the thesis of a later theological construction by the early Christian community. There was no time to develop legends, imaginative lies, or create a “retrospective justification” of the supposed divinity, as has always been argued by the theologian Rudolf Bultmann and the so-called “form criticism”.
«The belief in the resurrection of Jesus», wrote Robert Funk, a non-believing biblical scholar and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar and the Westar Institute, «had already taken root by the time Paul converted around 33 AD. Since Jesus died around 30 AD, the time for their development was therefore no more than two or three years».
When Paul wrote down 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, moreover, all the participants in the events (Jews and Christians, friends and enemies) were still alive, with the possibility of a dramatic refutation in case of false information. This is why he wanted to ensure the truthfulness of his message by making a second trip to Jerusalem (cf. Galatians 2:1-10) to further verify what he had been told by eyewitnesses (cf. Galatians 2:2) and to ensure doctrinal accuracy in the early church.
If Paul had reported falsehoods, he would have been immediately contradicted. Howard Clark Kee, an emeritus professor of biblical studies at the Boston University School of Theology and the Pennsylvania University, concluded that Paul’s investigation «can be critically examined and compared with other eyewitness testimonies of Jesus, just as one would evaluate evidence in a modern court or academic context».
Clement of Rome (died 99 AD) and Polycarp (69-155) most likely had direct knowledge of the apostles Peter and John and refer to Paul (and Peter) as «the greatest and most righteous pillars» (1 Clement 5:1) and «the good apostles» (1 Clement 5:3), acknowledging the «wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul», who «taught with accuracy and certainty the word of truth» (Letter to the Philippians).
These observations, noted by Licona, «are not what we would expect if Paul had taught a message essentially different from that of Peter and John; they would not surprise us, however, if Paul was honest in saying that he was preaching the same message as the apostles of Jerusalem».
«The letters of Paul», concluded M.R. Licona, «are the voice of the apostles of Jerusalem on the subject, they are primary sources for the resurrection of Jesus».
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In addition to the ancient pre-Pauline tradition, historians identify a source that predates him, which was used by the evangelist Mark. While his Gospel is dated no later than 70 AD, the source he used dates back to 37 AD, only 7 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
This view is particularly supported by Rudolf Pesch, the leading international scholar of the Markan text, who has emphasized the presence of «linguistic and content details» that are more «connected to the concrete situation rather than adapted to a post-Easter Christology» and indicate «the ancient origin of the text».
It is complicated to list here all the elements gathered by Pesch; we will mention just one more. Surprisingly, the evangelist Mark never refers to the High Priest by name, assuming that «the hearers of the passion story were familiar with the local situation, and this leads us to the almost inevitable deduction that Caiaphas was still functioning as the high priest when the pre-Markan passion story was composed and narrated for the first time». Considering that Caiaphas served from 18 to 37 AD, the maximum limit «for the origin of the pre-Markan passion story is consequently indicated as 37 AD».
After discussing many other reasons, Pesch concludes that «overall, all these indications clearly point to the pre-Markan passion story having its origin in close proximity to the events narrated within the first Aramaic-speaking community in Jerusalem».
Confirmation of the antiquity of the pre-Markan source has come from several other scholars who suggest, for example, that the texts of the other canonical Gospels indicate that Mark’s account was not their only source but that they used additional sources for the narratives of the burial and the discovery of the empty tomb.
Marcus Borg, Professor of New Testament at Oregon State University, explained that this multiplicity of independent sources is important because «if a tradition appears in one ancient source and in another independent source, then not only is it certainly early, but it is also unlikely to have been invented».
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A third very ancient source that attests to the risen Jesus is found in the early tradition (Acts 13:29-31; Acts 13:36-37) contained in the Acts of the Apostles, another book of the New Testament.
Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of a monumental work on the historicity of the Acts of the Apostles (comprising 4 volumes and over 4,000 pages), has concluded that the author of the Acts of the Apostles is the same as that of the Gospel of Luke and was a traveling companion of Paul. From this, it is deduced that he was able to report as an eyewitness the content of Paul’s preaching, having familiarity with the early apostolic proclamation (thus, the Acts of the Apostles are also considered a primary source).
The Acts of the Apostles is dated around 80 AD, but some scholars argue for an earlier dating shortly after 60 AD, particularly noting its abrupt ending after a lengthy account of Paul’s second imprisonment and his anticipation of his appearance (around 63 AD). If the Acts of the Apostles were composed later, they would certainly not have omitted the execution and martyrdom of Paul (which occurred in 66 AD). The earlier dating has also been supported by the rationalist and historian of Christianity Adolf von Harnack.
However, it is not so much the dating of the Acts of the Apostles that is of interest here, but rather the ancient formula within it. The tradition about the Easter events contained in the Acts of the Apostles also has a high antiquity.
While Gerald O’Collins of the Pontifical Gregorian University believes that the text «incorporates resurrection formulas that date back to the thirties», Scottish theologian John Drane concludes that this material «almost certainly goes back to the time immediately following the presumed resurrection».
Although there is not the same unanimity of judgment among specialists in this case, however, «the majority of scholars concludes that some of these passages reflect the early proclamation of the Gospel message», reports Gary Habermas.
B.D. Ehrman, Professor of New Testament at the University of North Carolina, first acknowledges that «the book of Acts represents an independent tradition» from the Gospels. Furthermore, it «records traditions that date back at least half a century earlier, to the early Christian community in Palestine», even «considerably earlier than that of the Gospels», especially regarding the accounts of Easter.
In general, the entire text contained in the Acts of the Apostles has been the subject of thorough studies over the years. In particular, the Anglo-Saxon school has compared the historical, geographical, political, and religious data described in this text with known ancient sources and has found that the information it contains is consistent. Furthermore, comparative studies between Acts and Hellenistic authors demonstrate that Luke adheres to all the parameters of historiography of the time, and many of his exclusive pieces of information have been corroborated by archaeological and papyrological findings.
For this reason, the archaeologist William M. Ramsay exclaimed, «Luke is a first-rate historian!», while L.T. Johnson, Professor of Early Christianity at the Candler School of Theology, reported that «Luke, according to the standards of Hellenistic historiography, is precise in what he affirms».
For further exploration on this topic, we particularly recommend the studies of A.N. Sherwin-White, Edward Plumacher, Martin Hengel, Colin J Hemer, and William Mitchell Ramsay.
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A fourth very ancient source is another letter by Paul, the First Letter to the Thessalonians. In it, it is clearly stated that God «raised Jesus from the dead» (1 Thessalonians 1:10), also referred to as «His Son» (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
This writing only confirms what is contained in the previously mentioned pre-Pauline source, which dates back to just 2 years after the events described. However, it is still important to cite this second letter in order to complete the coherence of the earliest sources.
The scholar B.D. Ehrman, Professor of New Testament and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, has reported that the Pauline passage «was written around 49 AD», just 19 years after the narrated events.
In another work, he argued that the First Letter to the Thessalonians can «plausibly be situated in the early Christian movement of the 40s and 50s of the common era, when Paul was active as an apostle and missionary». This dating is also confirmed by J.M. Garcia, a Spanish theologian at the Complutense University of Madrid.
The American scholar has also rejected, with compelling arguments, the minority thesis of later interpolation: «I believe that it was Paul who wrote that paragraph of the letter to the Thessalonians. It is certainly in his own hand up to the sixteenth verse».
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Therefore, there are 4 very ancient sources that consistently reflect the preaching of the earliest Christian community immediately after the death of Jesus. The core of this tradition is the resurrection of Jesus and His appearances to some disciples.
This does not directly prove that the resurrection must have historically occurred, but rather that it was certainly what the first apostles suddenly proclaimed after the discovery of the empty tomb, even though they did not expect such a thing and, like no other contemporary Jews, did not consider it conceivable (we will see this later).
Secondly, the antiquity of the sources also disproves a later and tardy theological construction of the Easter events. If they contain the same information that will later be included in the Gospels, there is no legendary fiction as argued by David Friedrich Strauss and the liberal theology of past centuries (led by Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann) until the second half of the 20th century.
Thirdly, it should be emphasized that historical sources so close to the events are an extremely rare exception in all ancient literature. Some examples: the first mention of Herodotus comes from Aristotle 100 years after his death; the deeds of Augustus are narrated 105 years after his death by Suetonius; the first history of Rome was written in Greek by the Roman senator Fabius Pictor around 200 BC, approximately 300 years after the birth of the republican form of government in Rome; the main information about Alexander the Great comes from Plutarch and was written 260 years after his death, and the most reliable source is over 370 years removed. Yet historians have little doubt in considering these accounts credible and historical.
Therefore, the renowned scholar John A.T. Robinson stated that the New Testament is «by far the best attested book of any writing from the ancient world», a statement confirmed by the skeptic Helmut Koester of the Harvard Divinity School when he attests that «the textual criticism of the New Testament has a much more advantageous basis than that for the textual criticism of classical authors».
It is enlightening how A.N. Sherwin-White, President of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies and one of the most important contemporary historians of the Roman and Greek era, explained that Roman sources are generally biased and composed at least one or two generations or even centuries after the events they narrate. Yet, he observes, scholars have no qualms about using them to confidently reconstruct what really happened.
Thus, in his famous study, the eminent historian criticized the critics of the New Testament, accusing them of not understanding the invaluable historical sources that the Gospels are, a multiple independent attestation written shortly after the events and containing traditions dating back to almost contemporary times. If the “rate of legendary accumulation” is invoked when several generations pass between the events and their first account, it is precisely the opposite of what happened with the New Testament. «Simply, there was not enough time to accumulate a significant legend at the time the Gospels were composed», he concluded.
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Scholar Gary Habermas, Chair of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, conducted a study of over 2,000 academic publications on the resurrection of Jesus published between 1975 and 2005 in French, German, and English. He concluded that a “minority position” of scholars (25%) “accepted one or more reasons against the historicity of the empty tomb”.
One of the most commonly cited opposing arguments is the lack of mention of the discovery of the empty tomb in the ancient pre-Pauline source (dated, as mentioned earlier, 2 to 3 years after the events) found in the First Letter to the Corinthians. Indeed, the author writes: “…he was buried, and he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).
However, it is quite implicit that burial in a tomb and subsequent bodily resurrection imply something in between, namely, that the tomb was found empty. A first-century Jew would not have thought otherwise, even though they might have found it incomprehensible and contrary to Jewish thought.
“There is no doubt that both Paul and the early Christian formula he cites presuppose the existence of the empty tomb”, wrote philosopher William Lane Craig of Houston Baptist University.
Since Paul wrote letters instead of an organic narrative, it is understandable that he did not go into details about the resurrection of Jesus. The pre-Pauline formula is a brief summary of what will be recounted in more detail in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 13:28-31) and in the Gospel of Mark (see Mark 15:37-16), in a completely consistent and corresponding manner. Please refer to the comparison we have created graphically.
Finally, the pre-Pauline source reports that Jesus rose “on the third day”: since no one witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, how did the Christians date the resurrection “on the third day”? The third day coincided with the discovery of the empty tomb by the women followers of Jesus, so the resurrection itself was dated on that day. This shows that when Paul quotes the ancient Christian formula spread by the early Jerusalem community, he was aware of the discovery of the empty tomb.
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An objection that primarily comes from anti-religious and non-academic circles argues that Christian sources are not reliable because they are Christian and therefore biased. They say, “You can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible!”.
Those who make this claim simply do not understand the methods of critical analysis of texts. Historians are well aware that all sources are “biased,” and they themselves have non-impartial interests and personal opinions. Yet, they have no problem separating the truth of a text from the apologetics when they do not align.
Scholars employ the same critical analysis (in many cases, even more stringent) when dealing with Christian sources as they do with all ancient texts. They seek to understand: who are the authors? What is the date of composition? What might have been their sources? For whom were they written? For what purpose? In what context? What was the author’s objective? What biases might they have had? This is the critical and forensic examination of texts, which is also applied to the Gospels.
The fact that other Christians, long after the authors’ deaths, placed the Gospel texts in the canon known as the New Testament has nothing to do with the truthfulness of the accounts.
The evangelists recounted and described a historical event, albeit one that was unprecedented, difficult to believe, and completely implausible for their contemporaries. They did not set out to create sacred texts for a religion, although that is what happened later. This “claim” is taken seriously in all major universities around the world in their New Testament studies.
Furthermore, if we were to consider only impartial sources, ones that are neutral and disinterested in the content they convey, we would have to eliminate all works from antiquity. Even texts that oppose Christianity, both ancient and modern (blogs, articles, popular books), being biased sources, would be deemed unreliable a priori. The same individuals who reject the Gospels as unreliable are far from impartial themselves. Are we sure we want to proceed in this manner?
Even the Roman historian Tacitus was not impartial when he wrote the Agricola in 98 AD, narrating the exploits of his father-in-law, Julius Agricola. It is a work of blatant favoritism. The history of Rome was written by Titus Livius in 9 AD, who admits to wanting to praise the glorious actions of the greatest people on Earth, the Romans. The war accounts that scholars work on are predominantly written by the “victors” (such as the American War of Independence). Would we consider all of them unreliable because they are biased?
«For the same reason, one should also doubt the biographical data of Socrates transmitted by his disciples Xenophon and Plato», commented José Miguel Garcia of the Complutense University of Madrid. «What about the veracity of the deeds performed by Caesar, as narrated by the emperor himself, given that this information comes from biased witnesses? No serious scholar has questioned the value of these sources for reconstructing historical events».
Even B.D. Ehrman, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, weighed in on the matter, stating:
«The stories about Jesus told by the evangelists carry no more or less weight than the writings of any other ancient biographer (such as Suetonius or Plutarch), or perhaps, to make a more appropriate comparison, anyone who has written a biography of a religious figure, like Philostratus and his account of the life of Apollonius of Tyana. We do not discard the earliest accounts of the War of Independence because they were written by Americans. We acknowledge their bias but do not refuse to use them as historical sources. Otherwise, it means sacrificing our main access to the past, and for ideological, not historical reasons. Regardless of whether they are considered inspired historical sources, the Gospels can be regarded and used as important historical sources».
With his proverbial irony, the French philosopher Jean Guitton highlighted the absurdity of this objection: «The unbelievers deny that the Gospels are historical documents because, they say, they are written by believers, that is, by men who did not believe before the events but changed their opinion because the events they narrate led them to modify their initial state of mind. The unbelievers are difficult; what do they require in order to consider us honest in their eyes? They demand documents written by witnesses who, having seen the same events, do not attribute any significance to them. It is contradictory».
Furthermore, let’s observe that at the beginning of his gospel, Luke writes that he published it so that Theophilus (the person to whom he addresses his text) may «know the truth concerning the things about which you have been informed» (Luke 1:4). What’s the issue? It was normal and customary to transparently declare the thesis one wanted to defend right from the beginning of the work, and the evangelist was in good company with all the ancient and Roman historians.
Finally, we should note again that the dating of Christian sources in proximity to the events is a unique exception compared to all the previously mentioned ancient works. From AD 48 to AD 70 (thus 18 to 40 years after the death of Christ), Paul of Tarsus wrote 13 letters (of which 6 can certainly be attributed to him) that fully confirm the content of the Gospels, and both these letters and the evangelists include even older traditions, almost contemporary to the events. No other biography from antiquity is better attested than that of Jesus of Nazareth.
Furthermore, we have already highlighted that in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul cites an ancient formula (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) that historians date to only 2-3 years after the events (around 32 or 33 AD) and that includes the resurrection and post-mortem appearances. Moreover, from AD 70 to 90 (thus 20 to 70 years after the events), the evangelists write their accounts in perfect coherence with Paul’s letters, using pre-gospel sources that have a very early dating, going back to the first twenty years after the narrated events.
If the cardinal principle of historical investigation is that the closer the texts are to the narrated events (and the more texts agree with each other), the higher the probability that they narrate genuinely historical events, then the Christian texts fully satisfy this principle. Their early dating rules out any possibility of subsequent theological creation and the development of an invented legend.
4. WOMEN AS WITNESSES OF THE RESURRECTION.
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A fourth argument used by scholars strongly undermines the possibility of a literary fiction of the Easter events. The early Christian community maintained that it was women who discovered the empty tomb and witnessed the first appearance of the risen Jesus.
Mary Magdalene, in particular, is identified by all four evangelists as a key witness to the crucifixion and burial of Jesus (cf. Mark 15:40-41) and as one of the witnesses to the empty tomb (cf. Mark 16:1-8). The traditions in Matthew and John even present her as the recipient of an appearance of the risen Jesus prior to his manifestation to the group of male disciples (cf. Matthew 28:8-10; John 20:11-18). The significant role of women is also confirmed in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:29 and 13:29).
However, it is well known that in the Judaism of that time, women had little value. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote that «woman is inferior to everything. Therefore, she must obey, not in order to be humiliated, but to be guided». Women were not even allowed to testify in Jewish courts because their testimony was deemed insignificant and had no value.
«Whether one likes it or not», write N.T. Wright, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, and C.A. Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, «women in the ancient world were not considered valid eyewitnesses».
Who would be foolish enough to entrust the heart of the Gospel message to witnesses who, by definition, were not considered credible? Furthermore, if it had been possible to manipulate the Gospel texts at a later time, this detail would have been immediately erased or modified (including male eyewitnesses). Even if we assume that the apostles managed to steal Jesus’ body, deceiving everyone, how is it possible that they would sabotage everything by entrusting the eyewitness testimony to women? Moreover, one of them being a former demon-possessed woman like Mary Magdalene.
The distinguished American biblical scholar J.B. Meier, after emphasizing that the prominence of women in the Easter events is inevitably historical and satisfies the historical criterion of multiple attestation (as already mentioned), focuses on the criterion of embarrassment: «It seems improbable that early Christian tradition would have gone out of its way to cast doubt» on the accounts of the resurrection and the first appearance of Jesus by «unmotivatedly» entrusting the testimony to a woman. «For what purpose would such an invention have served? The vulnerability of a female witness, who was a former demoniac, did not escape the notice of male critics of the Gospels, from Celsus in the 2nd century to Ernest Renan in the 20th».
Indeed, the Greek philosopher Celsus wrote a pamphlet mocking the Christians: «The Galileans believe in a resurrection witnessed only by some hysterical women».
Ben Witherington III, a well-known biblical scholar and prominent member of the Society for the Study of the New Testament, also commented that «it is difficult to believe that the earliest Christians would have made up the story that Jesus appeared first to some women. In the patriarchal world in which those Christians lived, frankly, it is not credible that a group with such a mentality would have invented such a story». There is no doubt that if the episode had been invented, the witnesses would have been men.
In 2020, even Gerhard Lohfink, professor of New Testament at the University of Tübingen, remarked: «In the story of the empty tomb, there is also an observation that presents itself as a sort of “historical corroboration”: it is discovered by women whose names are mentioned. If this story were fictitious, it would not have involved women but men. After all, the testimony of women did not carry much weight in the world of that time. For the historian, this is an indication that the account cannot simply be dismissed historically».
The scholar Raymund Schwager, dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Innsbruck, confirmed the customary practice among specialists to positively evaluate the historicity of the account regarding the role of women at the crucifixion and on Easter morning. Even the (skeptical) specialist Gerd Lüdemann defines it as «historically certain» that it was the women who found the empty tomb.
Another related argument is presented by José Miguel Garcia, director of the Chair of Theology at the Complutense University of Madrid. «It is certainly surprising that such Christians try to offer as evidence of the resurrection something that is not even sufficient proof for themselves».
In the Gospel accounts, neither the women nor the apostles interpret the phenomenon of the empty tomb as “proof of the resurrection” (in fact, Mary Magdalene thought that Jesus’ body had been stolen, cf. Jn 20:2). «If it is stated that it was the women who found the empty tomb on the morning they went to visit it», concluded Garcia, «it is because it actually happened that way».
The early Christian community and the evangelists reported what actually happened, without worrying about the more embarrassing and counterproductive aspects of the account. This adds plausibility to the historical foundation of the Easter events.
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The skeptical scholar Gerd Lüdemann, who is always very active in proposing alternatives, while acknowledging that the role of women in the resurrection accounts refutes the hypothesis of a hypothetical forger, has argued that the women simply went to the wrong tomb. This is actually a thesis that was already put forward by Kirsopp Lake, an eminent New Testament scholar at the Harvard Divinity School.
According to Lake, the women did indeed find an empty tomb (that cannot be denied!), but it was not the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, they also misunderstood (perhaps due to shock?) the words of a young man inside the tomb who tried to assist them (cf. Mk 16:5-7), and they hurried away and reported this strange experience to the disciples. The disciples, even more confused, drew the conclusion from this account that Jesus had risen from the dead.
It is worth noting, first of all, that Lake did not have much belief in this hypothesis and mentioned it only once in his numerous books on the historical Jesus. He also never considered it as an argument to doubt the Easter accounts. Finally, Lake’s hypothesis has generated no significant following (except for Ludemann, to some extent) among specialists in the field.
This objection fails to consider the fact that if the women had indeed gone to the wrong tomb, the Jewish authorities would have been all too happy to publicly point it out when the disciples began preaching the resurrection. They could have simply indicated the true tomb of Jesus, with His body inside.
Furthermore, the hypothesis of the wrong tomb needs to assume as true other unverified hypotheses: that the women didn’t notice the mistake, didn’t understand the words of the risen Jesus, the disciples misunderstood and translated the women’s account into a (for them inexplicable) bodily resurrection, and the Jewish authorities did not publicly highlight the error. The more an hypothesis requires adopting additional hypotheses, the less credible it becomes.
The idea of the wrong tomb is a comical objection, devoid of any logical context. It holds the same value as someone hypothesizing that the soldiers guarding the tomb made Jesus’ body disappear as a retaliation against the Roman authorities for their low wages. Without the guarantee of historical and documentary support, anyone can propose the most bizarre objections.
5. RISKY DETAILS AND ABSENCE OF THEOLOGICAL EMBELLISHMENTS.
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If the central role of women as eyewitnesses has been considered as a separate argument, it is not the only highly “risky” element of the account regarding its credibility.
Furthermore, related to this, we should also consider that the Easter narratives are (almost) entirely devoid of theophanies and theological embellishments, as one would expect in a late account that allowed time for theological and scriptural interpretation.
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Those who preached the resurrection of Jesus did not fear refutations and included specific details and references. In contrast, when a legend is created retrospectively, one tends to avoid referring too specifically to facts, places, and people in order to prevent being contradicted.
We must remember that the earliest sources of the resurrection are very close to the narrated events (dated from 2 to 19 years after the events). Almost all the eyewitnesses were still alive, not only the disciples but also the Jewish authorities and pagan opponents of early Christianity. It would have been impossible to invent or add false details.
For example, the Spanish exegete José Miguel Garcia has observed that the evangelist Mark mentions the role of Joseph of Arimathea, “an influential member of the Sanhedrin” (Mk 15:42-47), in the burial of Jesus. «If it were a story invented at a later time, it is surprising that such a specific detail is offered. Fiction would necessarily require imprecise information, which would be difficult to objectively contest». If the Gospels had invented such a specific figure as a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, they would not have been able to withstand immediate refutation.
Another detail reported by the evangelists is the discovery of the empty tomb after three days. It is a risky and precise temporal reference that identifies exactly the day of the discovery (Sunday). A forger would have remained vague. Some have tried to explain it by referring to formulas from the Old Testament, according to which the people of Israel would be regenerated and God would “revive us after two days; on the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live in his presence” (Hos 6:2).
However, biblical scholars easily counter that the passage alludes to Israel’s spiritual regeneration, not to a bodily resurrection that would occur on the third day. The same rabbinic tradition interprets the passage in this way. The evangelists speak of the “third day” simply because that was when the women actually found the empty tomb.
Even the 500 people mentioned in the ancient pre-Pauline creed (1 Cor 15:3-7) as witnesses of the resurrected Jesus can be seen as a risky detail, especially if we are close to the actual events. Were they perhaps the listeners of the early speeches of the early church? Some are known to Paul himself (who received the information from the first apostles), as he knows that they had died in the meantime. The apostles did not fear refutations from anyone.
The French philosopher Jean Guitton observed in this regard that «it was not a myth told vaguely by folk singers, but a story that was immediately preached in public, at the same time, in the same places, under the same circumstances. If this preaching was able to take place without being immediately rejected and proven false, it was because there had truly occurred in those same places and before the eyes of contemporaries some strange and unexplainable event, undeniable by its evidence, which had imposed itself on both friends and adversaries».
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Another relevant observation often mentioned by biblical scholars and scholars of early Christianity is the absence of any theological embellishment or coloring in the Easter accounts.
Even in the preceding accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there are various references to the Old Testament, theological quotations, and allusions. Yet, the academic community has no doubt that these were events that certainly took place in history, being able to distinguish the facts from the theological interpretations of the authors.
Even more so, this is even truer in the Easter accounts, where (surprisingly) every trace of theophanies and theological embellishments disappears, leaving only the raw chronological sequence of events.
“In the Easter accounts, we notice the strange absence of Scripture. What happened to all those scriptural allusions?”, wondered N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, and C.A. Evans, Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College. «No mention of specific passages or even the faintest echo of the Old Testament».
The most likely explanation for the two scholars is that these accounts, once again, «reflect the very earliest eyewitness testimony and developed at a time when there was not yet any concern about whether that unusual chain of events fulfilled any of the Scriptures. They were perhaps too eager to tell their friends, neighbors, and family members the extraordinary things they had seen and heard. Therefore, let us consider the absence of scriptural references as a kind of supporting evidence indicating that the stories should be traced back to the very earliest oral tradition».
The apologetic elements are abundant in the late and legendary accounts of ancient literature, while in the Gospels, the resurrection is not even described—no direct witnesses, no theological reflection on Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, no use of christological titles or fulfilled biblical prophecies, no description of the risen Lord.
The only hint of theological interpretation is when two out of the four evangelists (Matthew and Luke) mention an angelic figure (or two figures, in Luke) communicating to the women who went to the tomb what had happened (Mark, on the other hand, mentions the presence of a “young man,” cf. Mk 16:5-7, while John does not report any messenger, cf. Jn 20:1-10). Some scholars consider it a literary device to provide the readers with a minimal interpretation of the empty tomb. But in general, the narration is decidedly unadorned, further dispelling any suspicion of a legend created afterward.
C.A. Evans and N.T. Wright also point out the absence of future Christian hope. «Almost anywhere else in the New Testament» as seen in writings composed toward the end of the 1st century, «where people speak of Jesus’ resurrection, they also speak of the future resurrection and the ultimate hope that one day everyone will rise like Jesus. However, the Gospels say nothing like: ‘Jesus has risen, therefore there is life after death’; or: ‘Jesus has risen, therefore we will go to heaven when we die.’ Or even: ‘Jesus has risen, therefore we will rise in the end.’ No, as far as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are concerned, the event has no other meaning than that it is a past event».
One only needs to compare these sober Gospel accounts with the evidently legendary ones found in the apocryphal gospels of the 2nd century. For example, in the Gospel of Peter (dated by the more cautious scholars to the first half of the 2nd century), it is written:
«The soldiers saw the heavens open and two men descending, clothed in great splendor, approaching the tomb. The stone that had been placed against the door, rolling away by itself, moved aside, and the tomb opened, and both young men entered. As they saw this, the soldiers woke up the centurion and the elders, for they too were standing guard. And while they were explaining to them what they had seen, they see three men coming out of the tomb again, and the two were supporting the other and a cross followed them. The heads of the first two reached up to the heavens, while the head of the one they were leading by the hand went beyond the heavens» (GosP 35-40).
It is precisely by referring to the evidently legendary nature of these accounts (in contrast to those of the canonical Gospels) that the controversial Italian ufologist Mauro Biglino can support his fantasy theories of an alien Jesus!
J.P. Meier, professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, wrote: «The event of Jesus rising from the dead is never narrated directly. In this, the canonical Gospels diverge significantly in their sobriety from the later apocryphal Gospels, such as the Gospel of Peter, from the 2nd century AD.».
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Outside the academic world, many people don’t even consider the possibility that the Gospel accounts say something true. It doesn’t matter the ancient dating of the primary sources, it doesn’t matter that they are an exception compared to historical texts from the past. Prejudicially, they would all be legendary inventions. This is the hypothesis of deliberate fraud.
This hypothesis finds no credibility among historians and professional scholars of Christian origins, whether they are Christians, atheists, Jews, or agnostics. We will still offer a brief response, even though we are aware that those who raise this objection are already biased without a serious commitment to further investigation.
Even those unfamiliar with history and critical analysis agree that people lie or invent for personal gain (financial gain, gain in relationships, gain of power). No one is willing to continue telling falsehoods if they are losing everything because of it, including their life. Well, the early Christians had everything to lose (and lost everything!) by claiming the resurrection of Christ.
Almost all members of the early Christian communities suffered persecution, stoning, public floggings, humiliation, social dishonor, and imprisonment for over ten years. They were rejected by their families, thrown to the lions for public entertainment (confirmed in 2018 for the Colosseum in Rome), lost their social status, their jobs, their wages, and ultimately, almost all of them were martyred, one after another.
Despite this, there is no record of anyone surrendering and saying, “Okay, it’s all false, we made it all up, now leave us alone.” There is no other group in ancient history that, while being completely peaceful, was persecuted so much and for so long because of such a deeply held belief. It is impossible to believe they were lying about everything.
«I do not regard deliberate fraud as a useful explanation», concluded E.P. Sanders, renowned professor of New Testament at Duke University. «Many of the people who claimed this would have spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the resurrection, and many of them would have died because of it».
Secondly, no Jew would have ever invented something like the resurrection of Jesus. As we will see, what that small group of (probably illiterate) Jewish fishermen began to proclaim after the death of Jesus was an idea unknown and foreign to Jewish and Old Testament culture. Where did they get it from? If they wanted to convince their contemporaries, why invent such a legend, especially one that included even more counterproductive and highly risky details? Neither pagan literature nor Jewish Scriptures could be used as a source of inspiration.
There were other things they could have said, in accordance with the Scriptures. Here’s how N.T. Wright, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, and C.A. Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, explain it:
«One might have expected them to imagine the risen Jesus shining like a star: that is, after all, what the popular text of Daniel 12 says about the people who rise from the dead. But the Christians did not do that; none of the resurrection accounts hints at such a thing. On the contrary, Jesus appears as a human being with a body like any other: he can be mistaken for a gardener (Jn 20:15) or a fellow traveler on the road (Lk 24:13-35). No one would have invented this way of telling the story; such a narrative is unparalleled. No biblical text predicted that resurrection would have to do with this category of body. No speculative theology charted such a path that the evangelists might have followed».
According to some, the Gospels of Luke and John were written at the end of the 1st century to counter docetism, the heresy that claimed Jesus was not a true human but only appeared to be. Certainly, they include descriptions of Christ that are very “human,” such as eating a roasted fish on the beach and inviting Thomas to touch the nail wounds, but these accounts «are the very ones in which Jesus appears and disappears, transcends materiality, and finally ascends to heaven. Those stories are so extremely peculiar, and the kind of peculiarity they possess cannot be invented. It almost seems as if the Gospel authors were struggling to describe a reality for which they felt they had no adequate language».
Finally, the Gospel accounts of the Easter events contain numerous contradictions, as we will see in the appropriate paragraph. If they had conspired to invent such a story or copied from one another, they certainly would not have contradicted each other, raising even more doubts about authenticity. Contradiction is precisely what one should avoid when inventing. Furthermore, it is better to remain vague without enriching the story with details and historical references that can easily be disproven. In this case as well, the Gospel writers did the opposite.
6. NO PLAUSIBLE ALTERNATIVE VERSION.
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Throughout history, various alternative explanations for the Easter events have been proposed (the most plausible ones are mentioned in this dossier), such as conspiracy theories, the theory of apparent death, the theory of hallucinations, and so on. However, all these different versions have been rejected by contemporary scholars.
This can be argued as evidence in favor of the historicity of the original version of the Easter events by following the principle that the more one option fails, the more likely the others become. And the more convincing one option is, the less likely the others are.
The historical criterion of “superiority over rival hypotheses” is taken very seriously by scholars investigating the historicity of a narrative compared to alternative versions. None of the many alternative explanations to the resurrection proposed throughout history has ever reached an acceptable level of plausibility, and currently, there is no other explanation truly in competition with the one presented by the primary sources.
Despite skepticism, Stephen T. Davis, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, identifies the critics’ inability to provide a possible naturalistic explanation for the sequence of Easter events as one of the proofs that the resurrection of Jesus is «the most plausible explanation of these facts».
Furthermore, there are no alternative Christian versions either. That is, ancient sources written by Christians in a period more or less contemporaneous with the original ones that contain alternative, different, and competing testimonies. As William L. Craig, Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in Los Angeles, has pointed out, «nowhere do conflicting traditions appear». For example, there are no competing burial traditions (whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan).
Yet, all ancient accounts concerning, for example, pagan deities, besides being blatantly legendary and lacking events considered historical (not even by the authors themselves), have been transmitted with many alternative versions contradicting one another. In contrast, there is no conflicting account from any disciple of Jesus, family member, eyewitness (including antagonists, both Jewish and pagan) regarding the Easter narratives. The only known variations are the apocryphal Gospels, clearly dependent on the canonical Gospels, not contemporary to the primary sources and undoubtedly legendary.
There were no “different Christianities” either, where each community contradicted the other, as one would expect if everything had originated from fables or legends invented in Jerusalem. One of the leading contemporary biblical scholars, J.P. Meier, Professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, has explained that “there was no period in which parts of the tradition about Jesus circulated in a church lacking the larger grid constituted by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus”, based on the texts of the New Testament.
Finally, even the rejection of the supernatural is not a valid alternative explanation. These accounts are on the same level as the account of the crucifixion, for example. Any historian, as a historian, can ask the question: “What happened to the body of Jesus of Nazareth?”, with the same simplicity as asking: “How did Jesus of Nazareth die?”. If the cumulative evidence for the burial of Jesus, the discovery of the empty tomb (and the testimonies of the risen Jesus) is rejected, then equally convincing evidence of alternative theories is required.
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This objection is more related to methodological naturalism than historical inquiry. Miraculous events cannot occur, so there must be an alternative natural explanation for the resurrection of Jesus.
This is a philosophical assertion that even the prominent (agnostic) scholar B.D. Ehrman stumbled upon when he wrote, «There is a common misunderstanding about my viewpoint. What I say about the resurrection of Jesus or his other miracles, or anyone else’s miracles (such as Apollonius of Tyana or Elijah), is the same as what I had when I was a Christian, when I believed in God, when I believed that miracles could happen. Now I have the same viewpoint as I did then, so it is not an atheistic viewpoint. My view is that even if miracles did happen in the past – let’s just grant that they did happen – there is no way to establish whether they happened using the historical disciplines».
While what Ehrman reports is correct, the problem with these objections to miracles is that they fail to grasp that we are evaluating the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead in a supernatural manner, not a natural one! There is no reason to consider it improbable that God could have raised Jesus from the dead. The real objection is not the impossibility of miracles, but rather the impossibility or improbability of the existence of a Creator of the Universe. If God exists, miracles exist.
This has been elegantly explained by Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford:
«If there is no God, then the ultimate determinant of what happens in the world are the laws of nature, and someone dead for 36 hours coming back to life is a clear violation of those laws, and is therefore impossible. But if there is a God of the traditional sort, then the laws of nature operate only because He makes them operate and has the power to suspend them for a moment or forever. Therefore, if Jesus has risen from the dead, God raised him».
Considering that the hypothesis of the existence of God is neither impossible nor improbable (even today, it raises curiosity when someone staunchly claims the opposite), it is not possible to affirm that the resurrection of Jesus is impossible or improbable from a strictly philosophical point of view.
It should also be noted that the debate is not focused on the probability of resurrection in and of itself, without any evidence, but rather on a series of historical facts that imply the hypothesis of resurrection as the best explanation (which is what we are doing in this dossier).
The renowned theologian Michel R. Licona argues that the resurrection can be investigated as a hypothesis even from a historical perspective, without crossing the boundaries between history and theology: «If the Resurrection hypothesis is better at satisfying historical criteria than alternative hypotheses, the historian can affirm that Jesus rose from the dead, without being able to claim that God was the cause of Jesus’ miraculous rebirth to life (although the historian may still suggest that the God hypothesis is the best candidate for the cause). Thus, one is free to suggest that there is not enough evidence to confirm that Jesus rose from the dead, or that there is a better hypothesis to explain his resurrection. But, in principle, there is no good reason why historians cannot investigate a claim of miracle».
Clearly, the debate among philosophers and historians remains open on this topic. Let’s present a third position.
It was articulated by J.P. Meier, one of the leading contemporary biblical scholars and a professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame: «Such questions, like whether miracles can happen, are legitimate in philosophical and theological contexts, but they are illegitimate or at least unsolvable within a historical investigation that aims to limit itself to empirical documentation and the rational deductions that can be drawn from that documentation».
According to Meier, it is wrong both to pursue an apologetic purpose in favor of miracles aprioristically and to «pursue a critical approach to history» that is absolutely naturalistic, for which «miracles cannot happen and therefore do not happen». In fact, «the judgment of an atheist is just as philosophical and theological as that of a believer, determined by a particular worldview and not a judgment simply, solely, and necessarily derived from the analysis of the documentation”.
How far can a historian go? The answer given by J.P. Meier is not far from that of Licona:
“The historian can determine whether an extraordinary event took place in a religious context, whether someone claimed it was a miracle, and – assuming there is sufficient documentation – whether human initiative, physical forces of the universe, or error of perception, illusion, or fraud can explain the episode. If all these explanations are excluded, the historian can conclude that an event, which some claim to be a miracle, has no reasonable explanation or adequate cause in any human activity or physical force. To go beyond this judgment and affirm either that God directly acted to bring about this surprising event or that God did not, is to go beyond what any historian can assert in his or her capacity as a historian and to enter the realm of philosophy and theology”.
These three scholars, whose positions are not necessarily incompatible with each other, nevertheless agree in maintaining that both in the philosophical and purely historical spheres, the possibility of the existence of miracles cannot be denied aprioristically.
Another problem with the “anti-miracle” objection (already mentioned by Meier) is that it is extremely dogmatic and cannot be reconciled with an unbiased historical investigation. Naturalists a priori exclude the possibility of supernatural explanations as hypothetical options in the pool of various possibilities to be investigated, thus violating the standard research criteria that require not excluding any hypothesis a priori, regardless of how uncomfortable or unacceptable it may be for the subjective view of the researcher and the dominant cultural orientation in which they live.
Moreover, numerous philosophers in general have rejected the denial of the possibility of the existence of miracles, such as Rodney D. Holder, Director of the Faraday Institute in Cambridge; George N. Schlesinger, Philosophy Professor at the University of North Carolina; John Earman, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh; Richard Otte, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Finally, it is worth noting that those who appeal to methodological naturalism usually invoke the ancient assertions of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. However, as explained by Thomas V. Morris, former professor at the University of Notre Dame, «in the references theologians make to Kant or Hume, most of the time we find these philosophers simply mentioned. Rarely, if ever, do we see an account of what arguments are supposed to have been used for the alleged demolition of miracles».
Stephen T. Davis, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, while rejecting the resurrection for philosophical reasons (though he considers it «the most plausible explanation» historically), acknowledges that «it is generally recognized that Hume overstates his case. The possibility of miracles cannot be a priori excluded».
Indeed, although it is well-known that the general rule is that the dead remain dead, this does not automatically exclude a specific case if there is compelling evidence in defense of such an exception.
By the way, David Hume’s argument against miracles was already refuted in the 18th century by Gottfried Less and George Campbell, and numerous contemporary philosophers reject it as fallacious, including Richard Swinburne, John Earman, George Mavrodes, Antony Flew, and William Alston.
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An even more superficial objection often circulates on social media and the web in general: university professors and researchers specialized in Christian origins, biblical and New Testament studies, and Christian sources, are supposedly Christians themselves. Therefore, their conclusions would lack meaning.
Those who raise this opinion demonstrate a lack of understanding of the system of academic publication, which abhors the appeal to authority and is based on the objective and rational demonstration (or argumentation) of theses before the scientific community. The personal orientation of the individual counts for nothing in strictly scientific contexts (popularizations are another matter); authority in academic circles is solely based on the technical validity of the content and the general consensus of one’s theses among scholars.
Furthermore, it is false that all historians of Christianity are Christians. Gary Habermas, author of an impressive review study of thousands of specialized publications from the last fifty years, has clarified that «traditional Christians constitute only a small percentage of scholars».
Among the leading specialists in the study of early Christian sources, there are scholars of every belief (with various faith perspectives): progressives, Protestants, Jews, evangelicals, agnostics, Catholics, atheists, skeptics, nominal Christians, and hyper-traditionalists. And yet, «even the majority of non-believing scholars», as Habermas reports (citing names, surnames, and works), accept a significant portion of the conclusions on the historicity of the Easter events, stopping somewhere before the supernatural hypothesis. Some of them are also mentioned in this dossier (Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Lüdemann, John Dominic Crossan, B.D. Ehrman, Pieter F. Craffert, Dale Allison, etc.).
Moreover, if we consider B.D. Ehrman, an agnostic and professor of New Testament at the University of North Carolina, we have already highlighted his reluctance to mention that the ancient pre-Pauline source (dated to 2 years after the events) also includes the resurrection of Jesus. On another occasion, he wrote, «In all the traditions that have come down to us, Cephas and James are always on the same side. They are two Jews who believe in the resurrection of Jesus and actively lead the ecclesial community in their city». A few pages earlier, he stated, “Simon Peter and James are two great people to know if you want to know something about the historical Jesus».
In this latter case, Ehrman recognized Peter and James as reliable sources for knowing the historical Jesus, emphasizing that Peter is the source of Paul when the latter speaks of the resurrection of Jesus. However, for personal reasons, he chooses to suspend judgment (or give a negative one) on the reality of the historicity of the resurrection. Until the discovery of the empty tomb, however, he agrees with the Christian scholars’ theses.
7. THE JEWS COULD NOT HAVE INVENTED THE RESURRECTION
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One of the arguments considered to be “strong” and statistically most cited in favor of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection emerges from the study of Jewish thought in the 1st century.
For a 1st-century Jew, it would have been impossible to invent the resurrection of Jesus due to the Jewish background; they wouldn’t have even understood it. Neither they nor the people they addressed. Moreover, no one even expected that the long-awaited Messiah of Israel could be crucified and cursed by God on the cross, let alone resurrect corporally before the end of time.
Sometimes it is taken for granted that the concept of resurrection in the 1st century was as familiar as it is for us today, and it is forgotten that the early Christians were not Jerusalem rabbis, theologians, Old Testament exegetes, or Jewish authorities, but a small group of humble Jewish fishermen, tax collectors, and a few women from the small and poor villages of Galilee. They were probably even illiterate.
No one would have invented something so unprecedented for Judaism and the Scriptures themselves as the resurrection of Jesus. And even if they could have come up with it, who would they have hoped to convince? As if that weren’t enough, as we have seen, they also added details to increase doubts (such as the central role of women).
«For the Jews, that claim – at the heart of the Christian profession of faith – was absurd, offensive, and potentially blasphemous», wrote American scholar B.D. Ehrman. «Yet that’s precisely what a small group of Christians was saying about Jesus just before the year 32. It is almost impossible to explain such a claim in that place, at that time, among those people».
Joachim Jeremias, professor of New Testament at the University of Göttingen, extensively examined ancient Jewish literature and concluded: «In ancient Judaism, there was no expectation of a resurrection as an event in history. Certainly, resurrections of the dead were known, but these were simply resuscitations for a return to earthly life. Nowhere in Jewish literature is there anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus».
This was also confirmed by N.T. Wright, a distinguished professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews and one of the leading experts in the Anglo-Saxon world. He is also the author of an extensive study on the thinking of the Jewish people in the 1st century:
«Unlike the Greeks and Romans, death was not seen by the Jews as liberation from the material world but as a tragedy. According to Jewish teaching, there would be a bodily resurrection of all the righteous at the moment when God would renew the entire world and remove all suffering and death. However, resurrection was only part of the complete renewal of the world, and the idea of an individual resurrected in the middle of history while the rest of the world continued to be burdened by disease, decay, and death was inconceivable. If someone had said to a first-century Jew, “He has been raised from the dead!” the response would have been, “Are you crazy? How can that be? Has disease and death disappeared? Has true justice been restored throughout the world? Has the wolf made peace with the lamb? Ridiculous!” The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been literally unimaginable to both a Jew and a Greek».
For the Jews, the Messiah would have defeated the enemies of Israel, rebuilt the temple, restored the throne of David, and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies. He would not have been shamefully executed as a “curse from God” by the Jewish court.
The ignominious execution of Jesus was a resounding denial in the eyes of the Jews that he was the expected Messiah of Israel. He was simply another failed pretender, not a novelty for those times (think of Simon Bar Giora). Usually, the followers only had two alternatives: either renounce or find a new Messiah.
Some Jewish groups, when their leader was killed, simply found a new Messiah, «perhaps his brother, cousin, nephew, or son”, explained C.A. Evans, a professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College. “The most authoritative leader in the early Church was James, the brother of the Lord. He was a highly respected figure among Christians and Jewish authorities, a man of prayer, an excellent teacher. Everyone knew he was one of Jesus’ relatives, yet no one dreamed of saying that he was the Messiah. According to custom, they should have done so, but if they did not, there is a very good reason: they believed that Jesus was truly the Messiah, and the only valid reason to believe such a thing about someone who had been crucified was that he had truly risen from the dead».
The very notion of considering the crucified Jesus as the Messiah was absurd. «Jesus was so different from the expectations of all Jews regarding the Son of David that his own disciples found it almost impossible to apply the idea of the Messiah to him», wrote Millar Burrows, one of the leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls and a professor emeritus at Yale Divinity School.
Similarly, Donald Juel, a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul and a member of the Society for the Study of the New Testament, emphasized that «the idea of a crucified Messiah is not only unprecedented in Jewish tradition; it is so contrary to the entire biblical narrative of liberation through the line of David, so incongruent with the constellation of biblical texts, that terms like ‘scandal’ and ‘folly’ are the only appropriate responses. Irony is the only means of telling such a story because it turns out to be counterintuitive».
Even Paul acknowledged that the preaching of the expected Messiah as Jesus, crucified and resurrected, was “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:21-22). Not only the Jews but also the Gentiles completely rejected the idea of bodily resurrection. «Ancient paganism encompasses all kinds of theories», declared N.T. Wright, «but when resurrection is mentioned, the response is firmly negative: we know that it doesn’t happen».
On this matter, Ben Witherington III, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, was surprised by the language used by the early Christians: «Why would a community that seeks to attract Gentiles construct a story of resurrection, emphasizing even a bodily resurrection of Jesus? This notion was not part of the regular pagan lexicon of the afterlife. In fact, as Acts 17 suggests, pagans were more likely to ridicule such an idea».
Historians know that that group of fishermen Jews could never have created or drawn from previous literature, whether pagan or Jewish, any inspiration for the resurrection of Jesus. As stated by B.D. Ehrman, a professor of New Testament and the director of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina:
«The death and resurrection of Jesus are a unique event; among the ancient deities of the Near East, there is nothing similar. Anyone who thinks that Jesus was shaped by patterning him after such deities must produce some kind of evidence —of any kind— that the Palestinian Jews were influenced» by those tales. In any case, «the differences between Jesus and the gods of death and resurrection show that Jesus was not fashioned after them, even if there were people in his time who talked about those deities… The death and resurrection of Jesus should be considered a unique event. Moreover, death was seen as a substitute for the atonement of sins. Among the ancient deities of the Near East, there is nothing similar».
Even Mariano Herranz Marco, professor of New Testament Exegesis and Semitic and Oriental Languages at the Madrid Seminary and a prominent figure in the Spanish exegetical school, observed that in Judaism, «the resurrection from the dead was expected as an event that would take place at the end of time; resurrection from the dead and the end of the world were closely interconnected».
In contrast, shortly after Jesus’ death, the apostles began proclaiming something radically different: that «the world continues as before, and yet these men proclaim that the resurrection from the dead has begun, that in the risen Jesus the end of the world and the new creation have already begun». In ancient literature, «we do have accounts of resurrections from the dead, in which the deceased person returns to the life that death had interrupted, but the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed by the apostles is radically different».
If the German biblical scholar Ben Witherington III believes that “there are no valid reasons to think that these accounts of the appearances originated in the Old Testament, which hardly mentions the concept of resurrection from the dead”, even the theologian (layperson) Gerd Lüdemann acknowledges that «historical analysis leads to a sharp origin of the Easter faith of the disciples».
Some references to resurrection in the Old Testament have been identified by John Dominic Crossan, emeritus professor of religious studies at DePaul University, in Jewish exaltation: «Within the Jewish tradition, there were certainly holy people who ascended to heaven rather than being consigned to an earthly tomb, for example, Enoch among the Patriarchs or Elijah among the prophets. The Greek-Roman equivalent was apotheosis: the Augustan coins showed the spirit of Julius Caesar ascending like a star upward, taking his place among the heavenly deities. Those were individual cases only, with no connection to the fate of all the others. If the disciples had meant this about Jesus, they would have used the specific terms of exaltation, ascension, apotheosis. Not resurrection».
We unusually quote the words of an important mathematician, John C. Lennox, emeritus professor at the University of Oxford. After extensive research on this topic, he reported that «the early Christians were not a group of gullible individuals, ignorant of the laws of nature and therefore ready to believe any miraculous story. The first opposition to the Christian message of the resurrection of Jesus Christ came not from atheists but from the high priest Sadducees of Judaism». These devout Jews, Lennox continued, «when they first heard the assertion that Jesus had risen, did not believe it. They had embraced a worldview that denied the possibility of the physical resurrection of anyone, let alone that of Jesus Christ».
Another confirmation comes from Ulrich Wilckens, an important New Testament scholar at the University of Berlin: «Nowhere in the Hebrew texts do we find mention of the resurrection of an individual occurring before the final resurrection of the righteous; nowhere does the participation of the righteous in salvation depend on their belonging to the Messiah, who would have been resurrected prematurely as the ‘first fruits of those who have died’ (1 Cor 15:20)».
For the Jews, resurrection would have been spiritual and would have occurred after the end of the world and for all members of the people of Israel. God would have raised the righteous from death and received them into His Kingdom. On the contrary, the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed by His Jewish followers was physical, in history, and for a single person.
One of Rudolf Bultmann’s students, Heinrich Schlier, a professor of New Testament at the University of Bonn, abandoned his teacher’s skeptical views to firmly adhere to the divinity of Christ. He wrote, «The account given by the New Testament of the resurrection», he wrote, «has no mythological character, and no valid parallel can be drawn from ancient religions and mythology. Furthermore, it is not presented as a miracle. Instead, it is described as a real event sui generis of unusual power and significance».
Someone objects that Jesus of Nazareth himself raised the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:22-24), the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-15), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44) from the dead. So, it would not have been an unknown occurrence. José Miguel Garcia, a specialist in the New Testament, responded that the gospel account «clearly states that it is a return to temporal life, therefore subject to death».
Even Lazarus’ sister Martha responded this way when Jesus announced the resurrection of her brother: “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day“ (Jn 11:24). She had no idea that her brother was about to be brought back to life at that moment. When Jesus announced to his disciples that he would rise from the dead, they thought he meant at the end of the world (cf. Mk 9:9-13). This is what the Jews believed.
Even J.P. Meier, a renowned American biblical scholar, emphasized the uniqueness of the phenomenon: «The specific resurrection of Jesus is fundamentally different in content: it is not conceived in terms of a ‘return’ to earthly life. In this regard, the Gospels agree with Paul: ‘Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him’ (Rom 6:9-10) […]. Furthermore, during his public ministry, Jesus himself was the agent who raised some from the dead. Instead, the New Testament attributes Jesus’ resurrection to the action of God the Father». And even the literary form is different: «Surprisingly, there is absolutely no account of Jesus’ resurrection; the event is never narrated directly. In this respect, the canonical Gospels differ markedly in their sobriety from the later apocryphal Gospels».
The Italian scholar Mauro Pesce, an anthropologist and professor of History of Christianity at the University of Bologna, also observed that «from a historical, religious, or anthropological point of view, it is clear that the seer ‘sees’ only what his cultural schemas allow him to see». The Jewish cultural schemas of the disciples could not produce what they proclaimed.
A century after the events, Tertullian wrote about the resurrection of Christ: “I believe it because it is absurd.” He employed a classical argumentative form of Aristotelianism, according to which the more improbable an event is, the less likely it is for anyone to believe it without strong evidence.
The philosopher of science David C. Lindberg, former president of the History of Science Society, explained in this regard that «in other words, the resurrection of the dead is such an improbable event that the apostles would not have believed in the resurrection of Christ unless they had encountered such undeniable evidence that, in this particular case, the improbable had occurred. This truth makes Christ’s Resurrection more probable than some other event whose reality has been accepted merely on the basis of general plausibility».
In line with this, N.T. Wright, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, and C.A. Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, explained:
«After the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, no one would have ever claimed that he was the Messiah after two days, three days, three weeks, or even three years unless something extraordinary had happened: something that would convince them that God had redeemed him; something more significant than simply going to heaven in some state of glorious exaltation. This is what they believed happened to martyrs, and there were many different ways to speak of it. They would have almost certainly said that Jesus would rise from the dead in the future, but never that such a thing had already occurred».
It is also worth quoting in full the words of the philosopher Wiliiam Lane Craig:
«Among the facts about Jesus generally accepted by historical scholars is the sudden and sincere conviction of the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead despite their predisposition to the contrary and despite Jewish beliefs about the afterlife that precluded anyone from rising to glory and immortality prior to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. Neither the story of the transfiguration nor the biblical story of the witch of Endor are accounts of resurrection from the dead. Since this is exactly what the earliest disciples came to believe, the question arises as to what could have induced them to believe something so un-Jewish and highly eccentric. Why not simply report that he appeared to them in glory, just like Elijah and Moses?».
After the death of Jesus, the disciples were preparing to await the final day when all the righteous of Israel would be raised by God to glory. In the meantime, they would likely have carefully preserved the tomb of their Master as a sanctuary where his mortal remains could rest. No one had any idea or could remotely imagine that he would bodily rise again after three days.
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The activity of the so-called mythicists, the supporters of the Christ myth, in citing alleged parallels between Jesus and numerous pagan deities from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, is well-known.
No mythicist is a professional historian; they are primarily writers, bloggers, spiritualists, militant atheists, and self-taught individuals. One of the most notable mythicists in recent decades was Dorothy Murdock (also known by the pseudonym Acharya S). Many of their books rely on the writings of a 19th-century spiritualist named Gerald Massey. The gap between mythicists and serious scholars is similar to that between biblical creationists and the scientific community.
The most cited deities of “death and resurrection” from the ancient Near East by mythicists are Horus, Mithras, Dionysus, Apollonius of Tyana, Krishna, and Choni. They are said to have been born on December 25 in a cave from a virgin mother, performed miracles, taught publicly, had twelve apostles, died by crucifixion, and rose from the dead. Each mythicist advocates their own parallelism between Jesus and a particular deity while criticizing the parallelism of another mythicist with a different deity.
We will soon dedicate a dossier to each pagan deity used by mythicists as a source of inspiration for the story of Jesus. For now, let us mention a few serious scholars who have analyzed these alleged parallels.
For example, Tryggve Mettinger, professor of Hebrew Bible at Lund University (Sweden), wrote the following at the end of his monumental comparative study on pre-Christian deities and myths:
«The deities of death and resurrection were closely tied to the seasonal cycle, and their death and return were seen as reflections of changes in plant life. The death and resurrection of Jesus, however, are a unique event, not repeated and not related to seasonal changes. The death of Jesus is presented in the sources as an atoning act for sins, while there is no evidence of this for dying and rising gods. There is, as far as I know, no evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus are a mythological construct drawing on the myths and rituals of dying and rising gods in the ancient world. Faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. The enigma remains».
One of the prominent scholars who has recently addressed mythicists is Bart D. Ehrman, an agnostic scholar of the origins of Christianity and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. After responding to various parallels between Jesus of Nazareth and numerous pagan deities, he concluded:
«One of the most recurring theses in mythicist literature is that Jesus was invented by the early Christians, who were deeply influenced by the prevalent concept of the death and resurrection god that was widespread in the pagan religions of the ancient world. Jesus would be the Jewish version. There are serious doubts about whether there were actually deities of death and resurrection in the pagan world, and if so, whether they had anything in common with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The once commonly held view that death and resurrection gods were widespread in the ancient pagan world has fallen out of favor among scholars […]. One of the reasons why scholars do not believe that Jesus was shaped with the characteristics of one of those deities is also the lack of evidence to support the claim that any of his followers were aware of their existence at the time and place where Jesus would have been invented. The death and resurrection of Jesus are a unique event; there is nothing similar among the ancient deities of the Near East. Anyone who believes that Jesus was shaped by modeling those deities must provide some proof – of any kind – that Palestinian Jews were influenced. The differences between Jesus and the death and resurrection gods demonstrate that Jesus was not shaped with their characteristics, even in the case that there were people at his time who spoke of those deities».
8. HISTORICAL ATTESTATION OF THE APPARITIONS OF JESUS
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The substantially unanimous verdict of contemporary scholars of Christian origins, despite significant disagreements in other areas, is that it is historically reliable that the disciples of Jesus were absolutely convinced that Jesus was alive, resurrected from the dead, and appeared to them (this does not automatically mean asserting that he actually appeared to them, as it would not be directly demonstrable as a transcendent event).
Even better, «all critical scholars agree that these convictions of the disciples are completely historical», explained the American scholar Gary Habermas.
One of the clearest conclusions on this matter is from E.P. Sanders, renowned professor of New Testament at Duke University:
«That the followers of Jesus (and then Paul himself) had appearances of the Risen One is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. I do not consider deliberate fraud a useful explanation. Many of the people who claimed this had nothing to gain and a great deal to lose. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did!’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some to suggest mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions […]. After his death, his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person after his death. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it».
Even the agnostic scholar Bart D. Ehrman, professor of New Testament at the University of North Carolina, has admitted:
«Why did some of the disciples claim to have seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimonies, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he’s making it up. And he knew at least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the events (Gal. 1:18-19) […]. So, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection».
In another work, B.D. Ehrman (although opting as an agnostic for naturalistic rather than supernatural explanations) acknowledged: «We can say with absolute certainty that some of his disciples maintained that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead». He then added: «Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record».
Finally, in 2014, B.D. Ehrman concluded that personally, he believes that «it was the visions, and nothing else, that led the earliest disciples to believe in the resurrection». At the same time as his book, a popular volume written by some of his direct colleagues, analyzed and countered point by point his conclusions.
The accounts of the apparitions satisfy some of the historical criteria used by scholars in analyzing the narratives, starting with the “criteria of multiple attestation“: the appearance to Peter is attested independently by Paul and Luke (1 Cor 15:5; Lk. 24:34); the appearance to the twelve by Paul, Luke, and John (1 Cor 15:5; Lk. 24:36-43; Jn. 20:19-20); the appearance to the disciples by Matthew and John (Mt. 28:9-10; Jn. 20:11-17); and the appearances to the disciples in Galilee by Mark, Matthew, and John (Mk 16:7; Mt. 28:16-17; Jn. 21).
Regarding the “criterion of embarrassment”, we have already mentioned that the first eyewitnesses were women, a category of people considered less credible at that time.
Historians cannot conclude that the origin of those testimonies was a truly supernatural manifestation of the risen Jesus. However, the academic community believes that something important, sudden, and completely unexpected happened to the disciples and transformed them. They had no doubt that they had seen the risen Jesus, even though they could not conceive an individual bodily resurrection within history (as we have seen).
As written by Luke Johnson, an important scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins at the Candler School of Theology, «some kind of powerful transformative experience is necessary to generate the kind of movement that was early Christianity and the kind of literature that is the New Testament».
Likewise, James Dunn, emeritus professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Durham, wrote: «Today it is almost impossible to dispute that some form of visionary experiences lies behind the historical origins of Christianity, that the early Christians did have visions of Jesus as risen from the dead».
Gary Habermas, Chair of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, has done commendable work by collecting over 2,000 contributions from leading scholars and historians of early Christianity (both believers and non-believers) on the attestations of the appearances of Jesus.
Here are some of the most significant ones:
Reginald H. Fuller, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, refers to the disciples’ faith in the resurrection of Jesus as «one of the most indisputable facts of history”, convinced that the disciples had real experiences characterized as appearances or visions of the risen Jesus, “regardless of whether these experiences can be explained in a natural or supernatural way».
In his important work, the eminent Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg examined attempts to ground the New Testament Christology in the pre-Easter claims of Jesus, concluding that the only foundation for the Christology presented by the evangelists is the resurrection of Jesus. It also gives meaning to the mission to the Gentiles as an expression of Jewish eschatology. Finally, he concluded that the attestations of the appearances of the risen Jesus and the empty tomb arose independently and complement each other, considering the resurrection «historically very probable, and to be assumed until contrary evidence appears».
After transcribing the ancient pre-Pauline formula (1 Cor. 15:3-7), dating back to around 32 AD, Paul affirms that the resurrected Jesus appeared personally to him as well (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; also mentioned in Gal. 1:16). There is broad consensus among scholars that the former persecutor of Christians truly had a vision (real? Hallucinogenic?).
Even Michael Martin, a (atheist) philosopher at Boston University, recognized this when he wrote: «We have only a contemporary account of an eyewitness to a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, namely that of Paul».
Regardless of the nature of these appearances (natural, hallucinogenic, subjective projections, or supernatural), the fact that the disciples reported and were completely convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus «is something on which both the believer and the non-believer can agree», wrote Reginald H. Fuller, emeritus professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, United States. «Even the most skeptical historian can propose an explanation different from the one given by the disciples themselves to account for their experiences, and, of course, both natural and supernatural options have been proposed».
The conviction that Jesus was seen alive after his crucifixion can be considered historically established. Helmut Koester, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, wrote that the appearances of Jesus «cannot be called into question in a convincing manner».
Even Traugott Holtz, a scholar of New Testament at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, confirmed that «the resurrection experience of the disciples […] is indeed an undeniable historical event».
Even the skeptical scholar Gerd Ludemann, professor of New Testament at the University of Göttingen, acknowledged that «it can be considered historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after the death of Jesus in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ».
Regarding the impossibility of dismissing the appearances as legendary, even Norman Perrin, a renowned scholar of the New Testament at the University of Chicago, wrote: «The more we study the tradition concerning the appearances, the more solid the rock on which they stand appears».
An interesting comment comes from the Jewish scholar Paula Fredriksen, emeritus professor of Scripture at Boston University.
«I know that in their terms, what they saw was the resurrected Jesus. That’s what the disciples say. All the historical evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that this is what they saw. I’m not saying that they actually saw the resurrected Jesus. I wasn’t there; I don’t know what they saw. But as a historian, I know they must have seen something. The disciples’ belief in seeing the risen Christ […] has historical foundations, undoubtedly known facts of the early community after Jesus’ death».
In 2018, another scholar (secular), Giorgio Jossa, professor of History of Christianity and Ancient Church History at the University of Naples, took a position regarding the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, pushing to the limit permitted by historical objectivity: «For the believer, Jesus is resurrected. The historian cannot affirm it. They can say: the disciples had an extraordinary experience; an event occurred that gave meaning to their mission».
Another argument presented by scholars in favor of the credibility of the accounts of the appearances is the conversion of the apostle James, described as skeptical of Jesus himself before his crucifixion (cf. Mk. 3:21, 31-35; Mk. 6:3; Jn. 7:5). Not long after, James becomes one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and is encountered by Paul of Tarsus during his two visits (Gal 1:18-19; Gal 2:1-10; Acts 15:13-21). He died a martyr because of his faith in Christ, as reported by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
As we explained in the paragraph dedicated to the sudden changes that occurred, James’ skepticism is historically founded and meets the historical criteria of multiple attestation, embarrassment, and coherence. How can we explain this conversion if not in accordance with what is mentioned in the ancient pre-Pauline declaration: «…then he appeared to James» (1 Cor 15:7)?
After analyzing the major historical publications on Jesus, Gary Habermas wrote:
«No critical scholar doubts that the disciples’ convictions regarding the risen Jesus caused their radical transformation, leading them to be willing to die for them. Their sudden change does not in itself demonstrate the reality of the appearances of the risen Jesus, but it is a clear indication that the disciples genuinely believed they had experienced the risen Jesus».
Alternative explanations must account for this deeply rooted, sudden, and historically well-attested conviction.
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This objection is true, as the Gospel of Mark (the oldest) does not mention the appearances of Jesus after his death and the discovery of the empty tomb. We have also highlighted this in the section dedicated to the contradictions among the evangelists.
Scholars are convinced that the authentic text of Mark concludes with verse 16:8, and the subsequent passages that mention the appearances of the risen Jesus are later additions (this indicates that specialists can accurately identify and separate the authentic text from later interpolations!).
However, no one claims that Mark was unaware of the appearances. Instead, the common opinion is that the evangelist did not intend to end his account so abruptly, but was unable to complete it, possibly due to illness, imprisonment, or death. Another highly credited hypothesis is that the ending of Mark has been lost.
Commenting on the Jerusalem Bible, the Italian Bishops’ Conference added the following note:
«Between verse 8 and verse 9, there is a break in the narrative. Moreover, it is difficult to accept that the second Gospel in its initial composition abruptly ends at verse 8. Hence, the supposition that the original ending has disappeared due to an unknown cause, and the current ending was redacted to fill the gap. It presents itself as a summary of the appearances of the risen Christ, with a redaction that is significantly different from Mark’s usual concrete and picturesque style. Nevertheless, the current ending has been known since the second century, as attested by Tatian and Irenaeus, and it has found its place in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts and translations of the early centuries. While it cannot be proven that Mark was the author, it remains, according to the words of Henry Barclay Swete, an authentic relic of the early Christian community».
In his well-known study, N. Clayton Croy, a professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, even argued that the beginning, as well as the ending, has been lost from the original Gospel of Mark.
Michael R. Licona, a theology professor at Houston Baptist University, has observed that in the text certainly attributable to the evangelist Mark, there is a hint at what will be the subsequent appearances of Jesus. Specifically, when the risen Jesus, in the form of a young man, announces to the women who came to the tomb about the resurrection and invites them to go and tell the disciples, saying, “There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7).
Even though Mark does not mention the appearances, abruptly interrupting the narrative for some reason, the pre-Pauline source (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) that predates Mark already reports them within 2 years of the events.
For this reason, the American scholar Michael R. Licona concluded:
«The traditions of the appearances appear very early in the letters of Paul, and they can be traced back to the disciples of Jesus with a good degree of certainty. Paul probably wrote before Mark, and if the Acts of the Apostles are reliable (see chapters 12 and 15)», and most scholars consider them reliable, «Mark knew Paul and traveled with him on one of his missionary journeys. It is therefore very likely that he was familiar enough with the traditions that Paul mentions. So, why doesn’t Mark mention them? It is difficult to provide an answer, although I suspect that the ending of his gospel has been lost. We cannot know for sure. But to claim that Mark was unaware of the appearances is entirely speculative and, in my opinion, a mistaken idea».
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If contemporary historians consider the accounts of Jesus’ appearances to be historically reliable, meaning that the group of Jesus’ followers actually proclaimed his resurrection starting from 30 AD, what was the nature of these appearances?
Many scholars say, “Yes, it is true that the disciples’ accounts of Jesus’ appearances are authentically historical, but this does not mean that they actually had supernatural visions,” despite their conviction to the contrary. The hypotheses put forward by skeptical scholars, «whose attempts reached their peak in the nineteenth century», revolve around a series of naturalistic theories.
First, they accept the undeniable historicity of the accounts of Jesus’ appearances, and then they turn in a naturalistic direction to explain their nature, as an alternative to resurrection.
The most cited naturalistic hypothesis is that of hallucinations (individual or group) experienced by the disciples. This was a popular theory in the nineteenth century but gradually declined in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, it is a minority view in academic circles.
The most well-known contemporary scholars openly advocating the naturalistic explanation are Gerd Ludemann, Michael Goulder e Jack Kent. More agnostically, Bart D. Ehrman has not taken a definitive position, generally asserting the improbability of miracles.
The non-believing theologian Gerd Ludemann, while not doubting the historicity of the accounts of the appearances, believes that it all began with the apostle Peter, who, consumed by guilt over his denial of Jesus, found psychological relief by projecting a vision of Jesus, believing him to have risen from the dead and asking for forgiveness.
Peter’s experience would then spread to all the other disciples, who, although not sharing his trauma, also had hallucinations of the risen Lord. Only when the Jewish authorities opposed them and asked where Jesus’ body was, «it would immediately be reported that the women had found the empty tomb and later that Jesus had appeared to them as well».
Meanwhile, even Paul of Tarsus would have struggled internally with remorse for persecuting Christians, which generated in him a secret attraction to the Christian message. According to Lüdemann, «if one had been able to visit Paul before his appearance near Damascus, the analyst would probably have detected a strong inclination towards Christ in his subconscious; in fact, the assumption that he was unconsciously Christian is not so implausible».
On the road to Damascus, the repressed struggle would have exploded into a hallucination of Jesus, leading him to convert to the faith he once persecuted. «The guilt complex that arose from the persecution was resolved through the certainty of being in Christ».
It is important to underline the courage and determination of Gerd Ludemann in proudly supporting such theories alone. This reconstruction was already in vogue in the 1920s with Emmanuel Hirsch, Klaus Berger has commented on Ludemann’s work, arguing that it contains almost exclusively old theories resurrected and reheated, the same ones that dominated the Bultmann school for over 50 years.
Analyzing this objection, it can be observed that it does not satisfy the criteria used by historians to assess the credibility of a hypothesis. It lacks sufficient explanatory power, as it obliges one to multiply the formulation of other hypotheses, seeking an uncritical connection between them to justify the initial assumption of Peter’s hallucination. A theory is all the more artificial in proportion to the number of additional hypotheses it requires to adopt. Furthermore, it offers no explanation for the discovery of the empty tomb.
The hypothesis does not even satisfy the criterion of plausibility. Despite the lack of sufficient data, Ludemann improvises as a psychoanalyst (but historians reject the writing of psycho-biographies!) and theorizes about Peter and Paul’s alleged guilt complex. While Paul only provides a few autobiographical passages in his letters, information about Peter’s psyche is, according to Ludemann himself, “incomparably worse”.
These are therefore imaginative conjectures about their psyche, also criticized by the historian of early Christianity, Martin Hengel: «Ludemann […] does not recognize the limits of the historian».
Another limitation of the guilt complex thesis is that, according to the texts, Peter did not feel that he had disappointed the Lord but rather that he had been disappointed by Him! Ludemann struggles to enter into the mindset of a first-century Jew who witnessed the messianic claim of his leader fail, ignobly dying on the cross and therefore being cursed by God.
As Hans Grass, a theologian at the University of Marburg, wrote, «one of the major weaknesses of the hypothesis of subjective vision in hallucinations is that it fails to take seriously what a catastrophe the crucifixion was for the disciples’ faith in Jesus».
Peter was not struggling with his own guilt but with the disappointed messianic expectations, and, as already mentioned, there was no belief among Jews of the 1st century in a bodily resurrection after death, neither regarding the Messiah nor regarding an individual.
Regarding Ludemann’s claim about the “unconscious Christian devotion” of Paul of Tarsus (a classic Freudian reference), he perceives it in Romans 7:7-25. However, this interpretation has been rejected by all contemporary Pauline scholars and the German theologian himself has had to admit that his thesis is «almost universally rejected». Furthermore, Ludemann completely overlooks the testimony of Paul himself when he states that he had no remorse when he was a zealous persecutor of Christians (“to me it was a gain”, Philippians 3:4-14).
Christopher Bryan, Professor of New Testament at the University of the South in Sewanee, wrote:
«Even if one were to grant that the visions described by Ludemann were common in antiquity (and, in a sense, the more common they were, the stronger this objection becomes), neither then nor now are they normally considered evidence of resurrection. On the contrary, they are considered at worst hallucinations and at best authentic communications of comfort from the dead. But in no case are they considered or were they considered statements that the dead person had been raised from the dead».
Even Raymond Edward Brown, Professor Emeritus at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, refers to these hypotheses as «baseless accusations» and highlights their superficiality, while James Dunn, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at the University of Durham, argues that these «alternative interpretations do not provide a more satisfactory explanation».
Another argument against the hallucination objection is to refer to what the scientific literature says on the matter. Hallucinations are associated with mental illnesses or drugs, but in the case of the disciples, there seems to be a lack of prior psychobiological predisposition. Furthermore, being projections of one’s own mind, hallucinations cannot contain anything that is not already known in some way. And, as mentioned before, the resurrection of Jesus completely differed from the Jewish disciples’ understanding.
Considering their Jewish background, they could have psychologically projected a glorified Jesus “in the bosom of Abraham”, the place where, according to the Old Testament, the righteous of Israel would rest until their final eschatological resurrection. But none of them reported such visions. The inference «he has risen from the dead,” which sounds natural to our ears, would have been completely unnatural for a first-century Jew. Let alone being the object of a hallucination. “It is not necessary to demonstrate that this faith and mentality were not the appropriate predisposition for the proclamation made by the apostles», explained José Miguel Garcia.
The biblical scholar Ben Witherington III has also addressed the objection of hallucinations:
«The theories that the apostles had hallucinations or visions present certain misleading aspects. Firstly, in all the accounts, the disciples doubted, abandoned, and eventually denied Jesus, except probably for some of his followers. It is hard to believe that they were in psychological conditions that would create fantasies about a risen Jesus. Their hopes had vanished in less than three days due to his crucifixion. Secondly, there is no need to allude to a mass hallucination since all the traditions at our disposal indicate that Jesus appeared at different times and places, the last being Paul. I know no valid evidence that suggests contagious hallucinations».
In the study conducted by J.W. Bergeron and G.R. Habermas, assisted by psychologists and psychiatrists C.J. Dietzen, S.L. Marlow, and G.A. Sibcy, the “psychiatric hypothesis” as an explanation for the appearances of Jesus was directly refuted.
By studying the behavioral traits emerging from the Gospel texts, the authors disproved the hypotheses of hallucinations, conversion disorder, and grief-related visions. These theses, the researchers wrote, are supported «mainly by people who do not have medical expertise. Consequently, the analysis of possible psychological causes for these hallucinatory symptoms is generally flawed and often absent. From a comprehensive search of Pubmed for medical literature from 1918 to 2012 on this topic, there are no scientific articles on hypotheses that would support hallucinatory symptoms regarding the appearances».
The scientific literature «cannot explain the simultaneous group encounters of the disciples with the risen Jesus», wrote Gary A. Sibcy, psychiatrist at the Piedmont Psychiatric Center. «I have examined professional literature (journal articles and peer-reviewed books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other healthcare professionals over the past two decades and have not found a single documented case of a group hallucination.” Lastly, the investigation also rejected the etiology of pain and grief, which would be incompatible, among other things, with “launching a widespread public campaign proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus based on such grief illusions».
The authors of the study concluded:
«The disciples were certain that Jesus had risen after his death by crucifixion. Their experiences were personal and had a clear effect on their psyche; however, these experiences of the risen Jesus cannot be reduced to purely psychological phenomena. The hallucinatory hypotheses for the biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection are inconsistent with the various neuro-psychiatric pathologies underlying hallucinatory symptoms. Furthermore, it is incompatible with the current psychiatric understanding that personal hallucinations can be experienced identically within a group. The psychiatric hypotheses do not provide acceptable explanations for the individual or simultaneous group encounters of the disciples with the risen Jesus. Therefore, we must conclude that attempting to explain the disciples’ relationships with the risen Jesus is a clinically implausible and historically unconvincing action»
The nature of the appearances was so varied that it cannot be explained by a single natural cause. «The Pauline tradition, according to which 500 people saw Jesus simultaneously, has led some to suggest mass hysteria commented E.P. Sanders, renowned New Testament professor at Duke University. «But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions».
The scholar and Jewish rabbi Pinchas Lapide strongly doubted the natural hypotheses, writing: «If that terrified band of apostles could suddenly change overnight into a missionary enterprise full of confidence… then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation»
Even N.T. Wright, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, and C.A. Evans, professor of New Testament at the Acadia Divinity College, have reflected on this objection:
«Suppose, hypothetically, that the disciples saw – or thought they saw – someone whom they mistook for Jesus. That in itself would not have given rise to the stories we possess today: in the ancient world, everyone took it for granted that strange experiences of encountering the dead could occur; they knew at least as much as we do about visions, ghosts, and dreams; they also knew that when someone mourns a recently deceased person, they can sometimes quickly catch sight of an apparition resembling the departed individual. This is by no means a modern discovery: ancient literature is full of it. There was a specific language for this category of phenomena, and it did not mention ‘resurrection’: rather, it described these situations as a type of angelic experience (cf. Acts 12). Without an empty tomb, people would have been ready to say that it was his ‘angel.’ And yet they did not: on the contrary, they said that he had risen from the dead – he was not dead anymore, but alive».
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The main work of responding to the naturalistic objections put forth by skeptical scholars of the 19th century was carried out by other skeptical scholars, as each proponent of naturalistic theories criticized the “alternative” theories of others.
«There is a different naturalistic explanation for every skeptic who seeks to explain the origins of Christianity», ironically commented D.B. Wallace, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Several skeptical scholars reject the explanation of Christ’s resurrection and also the hallucinatory thesis, stating that the appearances of the risen Jesus were rather subjective projections of the subconscious mind, arising from the unwavering faith and desire of the disciples to refuse to believe that everything ended with the death of their Master.
This is the famous view advocated by the French historian Charles Guignebert and, before him, by Ernest Renan in the mid-18th century, convinced of the self-suggestion of the disciples caused by affection and mythologization. Did faith give rise to the appearances, or did the appearances give rise to the disciples’ faith in Christ?
Even in this case, very few true specialists in the study of Christian origins support such hypotheses. On the other hand, the primary Christian sources depict the disciples, immediately after Jesus’ death, in a state completely opposite to people convinced of his victory over death.
José Miguel Garcia, a professor of New Testament at the Complutense University of Madrid, wrote: «The Gospel accounts describe the disciples as overwhelmed and dejected due to Jesus’ condemnation and death; full of fear, they lock themselves in the upper room where they celebrated the Last Supper. It is the appearances of Jesus that gave birth to the faith in his followers».
Even the eminent German biblical scholar Gerhard Lohfink, a professor of New Testament at the University of Tübingen, observed:
«All these reconstructions agree in stating that faith wells up in the souls of the disciples, and faith produces the visions. But, on the contrary, the New Testament says just the opposite: only the appearances of the Risen One gave birth to faith in the resurrection. It is inconceivable that a serious historian could distort such a clear statement from the sources—especially the personal testimony of St. Paul—to read the exact opposite into it».
Furthermore, how can one explain through the projection of faith the conversion and the appearance experienced by Paul of Tarsus, a notorious persecutor of the early Christian community? What predisposition to “faith-generated visions” did he have? Trained in the school of Rabbi Gamaliel, he detested Jesus and the Christians as public blasphemers, yet he inexplicably converted and suddenly stopped fighting them, sacrificing everything, enduring persecutions, tirelessly preaching the Gospel from city to city until he reached Rome, where he was imprisoned and died as a martyr.
The Italian television commentator Corrado Augias, citing the thoughts of Viennese theologian Adolf Holl, even went so far as to argue that the «most extreme and least institutional form of religious fervor» would manifest in very vivid and collective visions. Thus, the disciples would have convinced and exalted each other, «sometimes aided by herbs or fumes», and they would materialize a figure, human or supernatural, effectively managing to see it among themselves. It could be an explanation».
The level of argumentation significantly diminishes. We will just emphasize that there is no evidence in scientific literature that “religious fervor” would produce supernatural visions, both because—once again—these were claimed by individuals who were skeptical of Jesus’ divinity (James), antagonistic toward Christians (Paul), and generally devout Jews who were in no way predisposed to seeing the risen Jesus in that manner due to their Jewish background (all the disciples).
The Italian scholar Mauro Pesce, an anthropologist and professor of History of Christianity at the University of Bologna, usually a proponent of controversial theses, in this case, merely admitted: «It has been hypothesized that the appearance to Mary Magdalene may have occurred as a result of a crisis or unbearable pain. There are no elements to support this hypothesis». And further: «From a historical, religious, or anthropological point of view, it is clear that the seer “sees” only what his cultural patterns allow him to see». It is indeed correct that the Jewish cultural patterns of the disciples could not have produced visions of Jesus, inconceivably (for them and for all their contemporaries) risen from the dead.
In a 2020 interview, scholar Gerhard Lohfink, a professor at the University of Tübingen, responded to the objection of subjective visions by fully accepting the challenge:
«Are there psychogenic elements in the Easter appearances? In other words, is it believed that in the souls, deep in the souls of the disciples, images and words arose that showed them Jesus as the Risen One. I could not exclude it at all! Theologians say that when God acts, He always acts through “secondary causes,” that is, through creation, the forces, and structures of the world. It could then be presumed that He revealed the risen Jesus through the inner powers of the souls of the Easter witnesses without violating the laws of creation. I have no problem considering the inner processes of the soul in the Easter experiences of the disciples. What is decisive is that God Himself acts through these processes in the soul and reveals the Risen One».
Two other international authorities on the origins of Christianity, N.T. Wright, a professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, and C.A. Evans, a professor of New Testament at the Acadia Divinity College, concluded:
«The disciples would have been so disturbed by the catastrophic defeat and death of Jesus that they ended up longing for the resurrection as a way to cope with their bitterness. The hypothesis is not at all plausible as a historical account of something that happened in the 1st century. We are aware of several other movements whose leader—on whom everyone had placed their hopes—had been killed: in no case did such movements suffer from that blessed 20th-century ailment called “cognitive dissonance”, which would have led them to proclaim stories about something glorious solely to come to terms with their affliction. That is not how history is made».
The two specialists refer to liberal theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Edward Schillebeeckx, for whom the minds of the disciples in front of the tomb were so filled with light that it didn’t matter if there was a body or not. «At that moment, Schillebeeckx ceased to be a historian of the 1st century and became a 20th-century fantasy writer», commented C.A. Evans and N.T. Wright. «People in the 1st century knew quite a bit about minds filled with light, and so on. They had specific language to talk about it. But all this has nothing to do with saying that someone rose from the dead».
Even the (secular) scholar John Dominic Crossan, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and former President of the Society of Biblical Literature, explained that even if we were to admit the hypothesis of a subjective vision, it would still be fundamentally different from the concept of resurrection as affirmed by the early Christians:
«Resurrection is not the same as appearance. The question is not whether appearances or visions occur because this was normal in the ancient world; for example, Hector appears to his father Anchises at the end of the Trojan War and at the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid. It also happens in the modern world: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV does not consider them as mental disorders but as common characteristics of grief. This could happen after the death or sudden, tragic, or terrible disappearance of a loved one. Therefore, even if no Christian text mentioned appearances or visions of Jesus after His crucifixion, we could safely hypothesize their occurrence. But, this is the real point, the appearance is not the same thing as the resurrection, nor is it anything remotely similar».
Stephen T. Davis, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, in response to the naturalistic theses put forth by the (atheist) philosopher Michael Martin, concluded that «all alternative hypotheses that I know of are historically weak; some are so weak that they collapse under their own weight once articulated […]. The alternative theories that have been proposed are not only weaker but much weaker in explaining the available historical evidence».
Asserting the naturalistic thesis with conviction, contrary to expectations, has proven to be much more difficult than anticipated, and this also explains why «the vast majority of critical scholars reject this option». Many scholars have concluded that every proposed naturalistic option generates more problems than it seeks to solve.
Thus, theologian Hans Küng, Emeritus Professor at the University of Tübingen, concluded: «It was not the faith of the disciples that resurrected Jesus, but it was the resurrected Jesus who led them to faith». John A.T. Robinson, Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, wrote: «It is indeed very difficult to ignore the appearances of Jesus and still find a credible explanation».
9. UNEXPLAINABLE CHANGES AFTER THE DEATH OF JESUS
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Another argument that leads to considering the event of resurrection as the most plausible is the otherwise unexplainable nature of the sudden and radical changes that occurred in the behavior of the disciples who followed Jesus until his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.
Primary sources describe the followers of Jesus as disillusioned, fearful of being captured and executed themselves, which is why they quickly disappear and do not even appear at the foot of the cross (except for “the beloved disciple,” Jn 19:26, traditionally identified as John). Even the most charismatic apostle, Peter (also known as Cephas), denied knowing Jesus three times.
This description is considered by historians to be certainly historical because it is embarrassing for the disciples themselves to be portrayed in this way. If it were not true, it would never have been written.
However, just a few days after the burial of Jesus, these devoted Jews suddenly questioned long-standing Jewish customs, challenged the judgment of the Sanhedrin (the voice of God, for the Jews), changed the previously followed Jewish doctrine, and dared to contradict the laws of Moses regarding the sacred day (from Saturday to Sunday), all publicly and openly.
They say that the resurrection of Jesus changed the course of history and repeat this without gaining anything in return, enduring persecution, stoning, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom for decades. How else can such a transformation be explained?
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«For every faithful Jew», recalled José Miguel Garcia, Professor of New Testament at the Complutense University of Madrid, «the condemnation of the Sanhedrin represented the judgment of God. And this judgment determined that Jesus was a blasphemer, an unbeliever, cursed by God».
But then, «how is it possible that some Jews did not accept the judgment of the Sanhedrin as definitive?», the scholar asked. «And furthermore, how is it possible that those men, immediately after the death of their Master, dared to preach that the fullness of human life is granted to the followers of Jesus? In other words, how can we explain the fact that they publicly recognized this condemned man from the supreme Jewish court as the savior of humanity?».
According to the law of the Old Testament (followed by the Jews, including the disciples), anyone who is condemned and hung on a tree is accursed by God (cf. Deut. 21:23), and the Jews applied this verdict even to those condemned to crucifixion. Seen through the eyes of a first-century Jewish follower of Jesus, the crucifixion was not the death of their beloved Master but a true catastrophe. It meant that, far from being the Anointed One of God, Jesus of Nazareth had been rejected by God. They had followed the wrong man whom God Himself had unequivocally rejected.
«Today it is difficult to understand how offensive the idea of a crucified Messiah was for the majority of Jews in the 1st century», wrote B.D. Ehrman, a New Testament professor at the University of North Carolina. «If it is difficult to think that the Jews invented the idea of a crucified Messiah, where does it come from? From historical reality». And furthermore: «His death radically contradicted everything his followers had thought and hoped for because, evidently, Jesus was anything but the Messiah. But then something else happened».
In the first century, there were many other “revolutionaries” who were executed and crucified, but, as written by N.T. Wright, an eminent New Testament professor at the University of St. Andrews, «despite the disappointment, their followers never claimed that their hero had been resurrected from the dead. The resurrection was inconceivable as a private event. The Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been killed by the authorities and who managed to escape arrest had only two options: to give up the revolution or find another leader. Asserting that the leader had come back to life simply was not a reasonable option. Unless, of course, it had really happened that way».
«The astonishing fact of the resurrection», added the Spanish exegete J.M. Garcia, «is the only truly explanatory reason for the existence of Christian preaching».
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, also a distinguished scholar of historical Jesus, observed that «the disciples were overwhelmed by a phenomenon that appeared to them as an unexpected reality, initially incomprehensible, and faith in the resurrection arose from this overwhelming experience, an event that preceded their thinking and willing, and in fact, reversed it». This led them to question even the judgment of the supreme Jewish court.
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Another sudden change, testified by primary sources from the early days after Jesus’ death, is the surprising celebration of Sunday as the “Lord’s Day” by the early members of the Church (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2).
If we still consider it a day of rest today, it is because suddenly some Jews of the 1st century claimed that Jesus had risen on Sunday, while “for the Jews, the sacred day is the Sabbath, as established by the Mosaic law”.
Setting aside the event of the resurrection, observed Spanish scholar José Miguel Garcia, “the change in the celebration of the sacred day would have no explanation. However, it is understandable if the change is due to the day when the empty tomb was found and the appearances began, namely when they had tangible proof of Jesus’ resurrection”.
Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, also emphasized that Christian communities spread rapidly beyond Jerusalem within three or four years of the Passion events and “brought their customs with them, including the celebration of the Eucharist. All the evidence we have suggests that there was a universal custom of celebrating the Eucharist on Sunday, the first day of the week. This must have predated the spread; otherwise, we would have heard of disputes about when to celebrate it and instructions given from above (similarly to the disputes about circumcision and the consumption of meat, resolved by the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15)”.
If Jesus had not risen and the disciples had invented everything or wanted to remember his deeds, «there would have been other days on which it would have been more natural to celebrate the Eucharist, for example, on the day of the original Last Supper, which was probably a Thursday and certainly not a Sunday», Swinburne continued. «There is no plausible origin of the sacredness of Sunday outside of Christianity. There is only a simple explanation for this universal custom, and it derives at the latest from the first two or three years after the Resurrection. The Eucharist was celebrated on Sunday from the early years of Christianity because Christians believed that the central Christian event of the Resurrection had occurred on Sunday».
The followers of Jesus were not theologians, exegetes, or prominent figures in Judaism. Suddenly and without adequate reason, this group of humble fishermen challenged the Sanhedrin (and thus God’s judgment) and dared to correct the Mosaic law regarding the Sabbath. The same ones who had fled in fear, denied Jesus, and dispersed in bitterness and disappointment. “The analysis of testimonies and events can lead to the conclusion that without the real fact of the resurrection, many things would remain unexplained”, concluded José Miguel Garcia of the Complutense University of Madrid.
The eminent scholar Larry Hurtado, Professor of Early Christianity and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, also observed that «in the early Christian circles, Jesus is the object of devotional expressions that are exclusively reserved only for God and that, simply put, have no analogy in the Jewish tradition of the Second Temple period. In other words, this cult of the risen Jesus was a radical innovation in the monotheistic Jewish religion».
Specialists Craig A. Evans, Professor of New Testament and Director of the Graduate Program at Acadia Divinity College, and N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, also emphasized the sudden centrality of the resurrection in apostolic preaching, contrary to the marginality in which the final and eschatological resurrection has always been considered in Jewish thought. In the Jewish texts of Second Temple Judaism (597 BCE – 70 CE), there is indeed a certain belief in the final resurrection of the people of God (completely different from the one claimed by the apostles), but it is still «not such an important belief».
The authors of the Qumran scrolls did not even believe in any kind of final resurrection or it was not a significant theme, and the space dedicated to it in their texts is by no means comparable to “the space assigned to other themes”. On the contrary, suddenly from 30 AD, for a small group of devout Jews, the resurrection of a man and in history becomes incredibly the focus of everything.
This mutation is also an anthropological mystery because “beliefs about life after death are notoriously among the things in a culture that most resist change“, reflect the two scholars. «People may change their minds about their creed, but what they believe about death tends to remain virtually unchanged».
«If you try to remove the resurrection – the bodily resurrection – from the New Testament, you realize how all the other arguments, one after another, collapse», concluded the two scholars. «The empty tomb and the encounters with Jesus are solidly grounded as historical data. They are the only possible explanation for the Easter accounts and for those mutations of the Jewish Creed that developed so rapidly».
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Some scholars have also extensively examined the remarkable transformation of James, described in the Gospels as highly skeptical towards Jesus during his public ministry (cf. Mk 3:21, 31-35; Mk 6:3; Jn 7:5). Yet, not long after Jesus’ crucifixion, the same James, brother of Jesus, becomes one of the leaders of the early Christian community in Jerusalem and is encountered by Paul of Tarsus during his two visits (cf. Gal 1:18-19; Gal 2:1-10; Acts 15:13-21). The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also reports that James was martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ.
According to the American biblical scholar John P. Meier, James’ disbelief is a historical fact as it satisfies both the criterion of multiple attestation from independent sources and the criterion of embarrassment, since it was embarrassing for the early church to be led by a relative of Jesus who made “deeply offensive” claims about Jesus himself. To a lesser extent, Meier concludes, it also fulfills the criterion of coherence with Jesus’ frequent call to put God before one’s own family.
Although James was a close relative of Jesus (“brother” or “cousin” of Jesus, “there is no absolute certainty […]”, but “the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings”, although “the idea that they were relatives or kinsmen in a broader sense is certainly not excluded” ), James was not even present at the foot of the cross.
How can we explain this radical transformation if not by what is reported in the ancient pre-Pauline formula: “…then he appeared to James” (1 Cor 15:7)?
Surprisingly, Reginald H. Fuller, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria (United States), stated that if the Christian writings had not referred to James’ resurrection appearance, «we would have had to invent one ourselves» to adequately account for his sudden conversion and his promotion to a leadership position in the church of Jerusalem!
«The majority of contemporary scholars», certified Gary Habermas, «including many rather skeptical ones», have no doubts about the historicity of James’ conversion and consider the personal appearance of Jesus as the most plausible explanation. See, for example, Helmut Koester, Robert Funk, Peter Stuhlmacher, and E.P. Sanders.
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Even if we were to hypothesize that the disciples somehow invented the resurrection of Jesus, they could have sustained it only for a short period. But why subject themselves to persecution and death for a lie? Without any personal gain. This is another fact that lacks justification for those who deny the historicity of the resurrection.
Why leave their families, jobs, possessions, and land to go around telling “artificially invented tales”? Moreover, they supported completely blasphemous and absurd claims, both for themselves and for the people they addressed, filled with details that only fueled doubts (such as the testimony of women).
Why continue with these preachings for decades, repeating the same lies that caused the disciples nothing but a life of hell, secrecy, persecution, imprisonment, stonings, social disdain, loneliness, excruciating suffering, and ultimately the torment of martyrdom? Their «true, human, and comfortable interest would have been to remain silent», rightly wrote Cardinal Giuseppe Siri.
Italian writer Antonio Socci also rightly observed:
«If Jesus had simply died – and his was the death of criminals, of the accursed, a death to be ashamed of – certainly he could no longer give them anything except trouble: the only sensible thing to do would have been to avoid ending up in the crosshairs themselves, turn the page, and protect themselves. And, as terrified as they were that Friday (out of fear, they had abandoned Jesus from his arrest until Calvary), they were actually only thinking of hiding and waiting for the right moment to flee Jerusalem and return to Galilee. What happened that was so shocking as to transform poor terrified individuals, who felt pursued, into daring individuals who openly challenged authorities in the squares, without fear of anything, ready for anything? What did they experience that was so enormous as to reverse their fear into ardent courage? What occurred to produce such a sudden and astounding change in them, making them all ready to undergo, with simplicity and determination, martyrdom? The only plausible hypothesis is that Jesus truly returned, alive, resurrected among them. This is the only fact that can explain such a sudden and astonishing change. If they never wanted to deny what they claimed to have seen and touched with their own hands, if they did not take it back even in the face of torment by their executioners, it means that they must have been absolutely certain and that it must have been all true».
From frightened disciples of a failed Master, crucified, humiliated, and cursed by God on the cross, to lions ready for martyrdom, unwilling to deny what their eyes had seen. Can this be explained without hypothesizing the occurrence of something imposing and overwhelming?
This is how the eminent British scholar N.T. Wright concluded: «This is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him».
The American jurist Simon Greenleaf (who converted from skepticism to the Christian faith by studying the historical sources of the resurrection), founder of the Harvard Law School, emphasized the uniqueness of these events in history:
«By propagating this new faith, even in the most peaceful and harmless manner, [the early Christians received] mockery, opposition… to the cruel death. Yet, they zealously propagated this faith and endured all those sufferings without hesitation, rather with joy. As one after another was barbarously put to death, the survivors [continued] simply their work with increased vigor and determination […]. The chronicles of military wars scarcely provide an example of such heroic constancy and patience and such invincible courage […]. Even if it were morally possible that they were mistaken in this matter, every human motivation cooperated in leading them to reflect and recognize their error. There is no escape from these [considerations] except in the perfect conviction and admission that they were honest men, testifying to what they had carefully observed… and that they knew it to be the truth»
«The indispensable foundation of the Christian community is the risen Jesus, his living presence», observed J.M. Garcia.
Because of this, and without gaining anything in return, they endured all sorts of persecution. «The writings of the New Testament show us that the nascent Church is a building sustained by the resurrection as an indispensable principle», concluded the important exegete of the Madrid school, Mariano Herranz Marco.
C.F.D. Moule, New Testament professor at the University of Cambridge, finally observed: «If the birth of the Nazarenes, an undeniably attested phenomenon in the New Testament, tears a big hole in history, a hole the size and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to explain it? The birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church remains an unresolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself».
11. CONTRADICTIONS AMONG THE EVANGELISTS.
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The last argument in favor of the historicity of the Easter accounts in the Gospels is paradoxically used by many scholars against their historical reliability.
Indeed, there are differences and contradictions among the four evangelists regarding the narrative of events that occurred after the death of Jesus. «Reader, you who are serious and a lover of truth, tell me before God: could you accept as unanimous and sincere a testimony that so frequently and clearly contradicts itself regarding people, time, place, manner, purpose, words, and narrative, in relation to such an important matter?», wrote the Enlightenment philosopher Hermann Samuel Reimarus, based precisely on the discrepancies among the four Gospels.
More recently, Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament professor at the University of North Carolina, has assumed a leading role among the main scholars who point to these discrepancies to cast doubt on their historical reliability.
Especially in the passages that speak of the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus (much more so than in the other accounts of the Passion, which reflect a more fixed and coherent pattern), the evangelists present discordant data and details that are difficult to harmonize. Let’s summarize them briefly:
a) According to Mark, the empty tomb was discovered by Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mk 16:1). According to Matthew, it was discovered by Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Mt 28:1). According to Luke, it was discovered by three women (Lk 24:10). According to John, only Mary Magdalene discovered it (Jn 20:1-2).
b) Who appeared to the women who went to the tomb and announced the resurrection? A young man, as written by Mark (Mk 16:5), an angel, as reported by Matthew (Mt 28:2-3), or two angels, according to Luke (Lk 24:4) and John (Jn 20:12)?
c) Did the women say nothing to anyone, as written by Mark (Mk 16:8), or did they say something, as reported by the other evangelists (Mt 28:8; Lk 24:22-24)? It is evident that according to subsequent events, the apostles were informed by the women themselves.
d) Were there guards at the tomb, as written by Matthew (Mt 27:62-66)? Why do the other evangelists not mention anything about it?
e) There are also minor discrepancies, such as the time of discovering the empty tomb, the purpose of the women’s visit, and how the stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb.
f) According to the pre-Pauline source (1 Cor 15:1-8), the recipients of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were Peter, the twelve apostles, 500 brothers at once, James, and Paul. However, Mark abruptly concludes his account without mentioning any appearance (some explanations have been proposed); Matthew recounts the appearances to the women at the tomb (Mt 28:9-10) and to the eleven apostles (excluding Judas) on a mountain in Galilee (Mt 28:16-20); Luke narrates the appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), to the eleven apostles (excluding Judas) in the upper room (Lk 24:36-49), and alludes to an appearance granted to Peter (Lk 24:24-34); John reports an appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb (Jn 20:11-18), to the disciples without Thomas (Jn 20:18-19), another to the disciples with Thomas present (Jn 20:24-29), and an appearance to some disciples by the Sea of Tiberias (Jn 21:1-14).
In light of these facts, some critics argue that these discrepancies are a clear sign that the testimonies are unreliable and that they are narratives of faith rather than an actual historical account.
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There are many explanations that resolve many of these contradictions and, above all, argue that their presence actually supports the historicity of the events and counters the hypothesis of invention by the evangelists.
Entire books have been published on the study of these discrepancies. We will mention just one example that resolves the enigma of who found the empty tomb. While Mark, Matthew, and Luke mention two or three women (although not always agreeing on their names), John, in contrast, mentions only Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:1).
American theologian M.R. Licona, a professor at Houston Baptist University, has provided an explanation, suggesting that John’s choice is a «literary device also used by Plutarch, which focuses the spotlight on a particular character. In his account of the resurrection, I think John is highlighting Mary Magdalene while still being aware of the presence of other women».
Indeed, the scholar explained that it is sufficient to turn to the next verse (Jn 20:2) to read that Mary runs to the disciples and says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” Who is she referring to with that “we”? Most likely, the other women who were present with her but not mentioned by John (though mentioned by the other evangelists).
Several years ago, a radical solution hypothesis was also proposed, which, however, divided the scientific community. The important exegetical school in Madrid supported the Semitic substrate (Aramaic) underlying the Gospels, the language spoken by Jesus and the apostles. The contradictions would be the result of simple translation errors that disappear when rendered in their original Aramaic. This also applies to certain incomprehensible statements contained in the Gospels.
The Spanish exegetes, by correcting errors in the Greek translation, have, for example, resolved the (apparently) incomprehensible injunctions of silence regarding Jesus’ divine nature (cf. Mk 5:40 and Mk 8:30). Why would he have ordered silence? It seems contradictory. Or the terror of the women who find the tomb empty and flee, as reported by the evangelist Mark. What are they running away from or what would they have been afraid of?
It is impossible in this context to extensively review the contents of their publications and the solutions (often enlightening!) they offer. We direct readers directly to them, recommending, in Italian, La nascita dei Vangeli sinottici (San Paolo 2009) by J. Carmignac and La vita di Gesù nel testo aramaico dei Vangeli (Rizzoli 2005) by J.M. García.
For example, the Jewish theologian and historian Pinchas Lapide, by applying this thesis, seems to have brilliantly solved the enigma of Jesus’ metaphor about a “camel” passing through the “eye of a needle” (Mt 19:24). It seemingly appears as an excessive hyperbole: what does a camel have to do with a needle? Lapide discovered that the original Semitic text spoke of a gomena (a thick rope used by fishermen) and not a camel, but «due to a mistaken consonant in the original Hebrew text, the gomena (gamta) of the parable becomes a camel (gamal)».
«To find an explanation for these anomalies and inconsistencies, it is necessary to resort to the Aramaic substrate of the Gospel tradition», explained J.M. Garcia, one of the representatives of the exegetical school in Madrid.
This thesis has encountered significant opposition within the scientific community, and today the tendency is to consider it an unverified or contradicted hypothesis. However, it is challenging to evaluate the genuineness of such surprisingly fierce opposition towards a dignified alternative scientific hypothesis. Many suspect that a substantial group of opponents (few of whom are truly experts in Semitic languages) is uncomfortable with one of the consequences of accepting this thesis: the redating of the Gospels themselves, now commonly placed between 60 and 90 AD.
The Semitic substrate, in fact, would immediately place them in close proximity to the described events, accrediting the evangelists as contemporaries of the protagonists or even eyewitnesses. According to Stefano Alberto, professor of Theology at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, this is precisely the reason for the vehement and prejudiced “hostility” of a part of the academic world towards this hypothesis.
According to José Miguel Garcia, a professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, the scarcity of contemporary publications on the Semitic substrate compared to the past «is partly due to the decline of humanistic and philological studies, but also to ideological reasons. Acknowledging the Semitic substrate of the Gospels and other books of the New Testament challenges certain existing frameworks regarding the evolution and development of early Christian tradition. Certainly, the neglect of this data fosters the persistence of certain schemes and clichés of exegetical interpretation but above all hinders the living understanding of sacred texts. Incorrect translations have introduced not only obscurity or strangeness but have sometimes obscured significant and beautiful aspects of real life or theology, which remained buried beneath the debris of incorrect translations».
Many experts have embraced the thesis of the Semitic substrate of the Gospels. For example, Charles Cutler Torrey, professor of Semitic languages at Yale University; Maurice Casey, emeritus professor of New Testament at the University of Nottingham; Claude Tresmontant, philosopher at the Sorbonne in Paris; Jean Héring, biblical scholar at the Faculty of Theology in Strasbourg; J. de Zwaan, author of John Wrote in Aramaic published in the Journal of Biblical Literature; David Flusser, historian of early Christianity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and others.
In Italy, Professor Paolo Sacchi, an expert in biblical philology and Judaic studies at the University of Turin, has supported the view that «it is simply obvious that the Greek text derives from a Hebrew translation. Knowing Greek and Hebrew is enough to realize it». There are also numerous studies conducted by Jewish scholars that confirm this perspective, such as Zwi Perez Chajes, a biblical scholar and rabbi in Vienna and Trieste, and the aforementioned Pinchas Lapide.
On the other hand, many other scholars believe that it was the pre-evangelical sources (not the Gospels themselves) that were written in Aramaic and then translated (often with errors) into Greek by the evangelists. The leading contemporary biblical scholar, Professor J.P. Meier, who teaches New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, has acknowledged that the Aramaic substratum is «reflected in the four Gospels,» to the extent that several sayings are «truly alien to Hebrew and Greek.».
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Not all contradictions are resolved by scholars, and the hypothesis of a Semitic substratum has not been fully verified. But what is the true “weight” of the contradictions within the narrative? Do they truly alter the narrative?
No, the discrepancies among the evangelists occur on more or less superficial details, without compromising the coherence of the events. On the contrary, the evangelists are entirely in agreement regarding the skeleton of the narrative, the main and salient facts, although they may vary in certain particulars depending on the primary testimonies they drew upon.
Even B.D. Ehrman, who is highly critical about this, admits that it largely consists of «small, small differences […]. I know that some of you are reading these instances of discrepancies and are not at all impressed by them.». Indeed, the difficulties of the Greek text do not represent, in themselves, a substantial objection; rather, they serve as a provocation and intellectual challenge for researchers.
The theologian Michael R. Licona has also confirmed:
«There are indeed some discrepancies that have no explanation, but they too do not alter the overall substance of the stories in which they appear […]. We have reason to believe that the evangelists present a similar portrayal of Jesus as the unique and divine Son of God, who came to bring the kingdom of God, offer salvation, was crucified, and defeated death.».
For example, no one questions the sinking of the Titanic, yet the survivors contradicted each other. Some reported seeing the ship break in two before sinking, while others said it went down intact.
«How could they be mistaken?», rhetorically questioned Licona, imitating those who are astonished by the discrepancies of the evangelists regarding the events of Easter. «It was the most terrifying night of their lives, they were intensely watching an 800-foot-long ship and hearing the screams of those still on board, friends, family, and colleagues. I don’t know how they could be mistaken, but no one cited the contradictory testimonies concluding that the Titanic didn’t sink! The difference concerned a peripheral detail that doesn’t change the essence of the story, and those who listened to their testimonies learned the accurate core of what happened as a whole. Likewise, practically all the differences in the Gospels concern peripheral details. There are no Gospels that report that Jesus was not crucified or that the tomb was occupied by Jesus’ corpse or that he did not rise.».
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If we were to consider a document “historically reliable” only if it is free from errors, then we would have to discard all ancient literature (and not just that).
Michael R. Licona, a theology professor at Houston Baptist University, observed, for example, that Roman historians Sallust and Tacitus have «moved events from their original context, transplanting them to another in order to highlight a particular aspect», but without «intentionally distorting the “truth” of the facts».
Even Suetonius, considered one of the best historians of Rome, in his historically reliable Life of the Caesars, sometimes used sources indiscriminately and inserted legendary stories.
These were common literary practices of the time, also present in the Gospels. For example, it is known that the evangelist John intentionally manipulated the date and time of the crucifixion to theologically emphasize that Jesus is the Passover lamb. Firstly, this demonstrates that historians can recognize and highlight interpolations in the Gospel texts and take them into account in their analysis of historicity.
Secondly, what John did is «one of the most common literary devices of the time», reports Licona, «also used by Greek, Roman, and Jewish historians».
A similar approach was also used by the director of the film Apollo 13 (1995), a film usually praised for its historical accuracy. For cinematic purposes, the astronauts’ lives were made much more difficult than they actually were, and even lines were spoken by the characters that were never actually said (like the famous phrase: “Failure is not an option!”).
Those who demand that the Gospel accounts be devoid of any compositional license that alters the details should then «exclude not only the Gospels, but all ancient historical literature, but this renders the term “historically reliable” meaningless».
M.R. Licona then concluded:
«Given that in 1,000 years there will be a different way of writing and telling stories, it would be unfair for future historians to consider the history of the early 21st century unreliable simply because we do not have the same writing standards they will have. Therefore, historical reliability needs to be understood in light of the literary conventions belonging to the historical genre of the time in which it was written, and not through modern conventions that demand almost forensic precision. Of course, this does not mean that the author did not include a small number of legendary stories, but rather that a large majority of what is reported is true. Naturally, artistic license has its limits, and some authors have gone so far that we deem what they have written unreliable. If we read the Gospels from the perspective of compositional devices used by some of the finest historical biographers of that period, most of the contradictions among the evangelists dissolve. The question is not whether the Gospels are of “divine inspiration,” “infallible,” or “without any error,” but whether they are historically reliable regarding the life, teachings, and resurrection of Jesus. Historical reliability does not require that everything reported by the authors occurred exactly as described, nor that the authors did not include a small number of legendary stories, theophanies, or errors. “Historical reliability” means that a large majority of what is reported is true to the extent that readers obtain an accurate understanding of what happened. The Gospels, being in line with this, are historically reliable».
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After pointing out which Gospel contradictions pose problems for authenticity critics and explaining the error in believing that they undermine the reliability of the account, we emphasize why, on the contrary, their presence is in favor of historicity of the events narrated.
Why would hypothetical forgers, so finely organized to invent the Easter accounts without receiving any refutations, stumble upon a story with contradictory details?
«A calculated deception would have had to produce a great unanimity», wrote E.P. Sanders, renowned professor of New Testament at Duke University. «Instead, it seems that there were competitors: “I saw him first!” “No! I saw him first”».
In other words, if the disciples of Jesus (or the evangelists who recorded their eyewitness testimony) had wanted to invent a common legend about the resurrection of Christ, they would not have contradicted themselves. Even less so if one evangelist had invented it and the others had copied it.
First of all, they would have told a plausible myth understandable to the eyes of their listeners whom they hoped to convince (not a bodily resurrection unrelated to the Scriptures!). Secondly, the story would have been devoid of counterproductive details (consider the role of women), without precise details and easily refutable historical references, and finally, it would have been in perfect coherence with one another, accompanied by theological embellishments and the fulfillment of prophecies. The evangelists did exactly the opposite!
There are many scholars who have argued that the presence of contradictions (even if superficial and not impacting the overall coherence of the account) is an argument in favor of the genuineness and historicity of the narrated events.
Craig A. Evans, professor of New Testament and director of the graduate program at Acadia Divinity College, and N.T. Wright, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, have written, for example: «As any good lawyer should know, when exciting and dramatic things often happen, eyewitnesses do not agree on them. This does not mean that nothing happened; rather, the opposite is true. In our opinion, this is what we should conclude» in response to the various discrepancies among the Easter accounts.
Even Mauro Pesce, professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Bologna, has observed: «My opinion is that these discrepancies rather support their genuineness».
11. HOW IMPORTANT IS HISTORICITY FOR CHRISTIAN FAITH?
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After presenting the ten “evidences” of the resurrection, we emphasize that even among Christians there is doubt about whether faith needs to be based on rational proofs and arguments.
We find the response given by Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and prominent member of the Society for the Study of the New Testament, to be very appropriate:
«A person who abandons the historical foundations of faith is renouncing the possibility of a real continuity between their own faith and that of Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalene, or Priscilla. The early Christian community had a strong interest in historical reality, particularly the historical reality of Jesus and His resurrection. It was rooted in it».
The study of the authenticity of Christian sources is truly essential to the Christian faith, especially regarding the “Easter narratives,” which describe the resurrection of Jesus. It is true that the Gospels are also books of faith, but that does not mean their testimony is not historical.
In fact, Christian faith primarily consists of the proclamation of a singular fact: the incarnation of God in the humanity of Jesus, which is essentially a historical faith. Therefore, the study of the historicity of the Gospels arises precisely from the need for the rationality of faith, to avoid reducing it to a generic belief or sentimentalism.
As Gerhard Lohfink, professor of New Testament at the University of Tübingen, responded, «faith always has something to do with reason and reasonable cognition. The proofs of the resurrection of Jesus are important so that my convictions do not become irrational».
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But can the resurrection of Christ be historically proven by historians? No supernatural or transcendent event by its nature can be the direct object of historical (or scientific) research; that falls within the realm of philosophy and theology.
The event of the resurrection, unlike the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, cannot be proven using the same tools; it goes beyond the means commonly employed by historians. Therefore, rather than “proofs,” it is more appropriate to speak of “arguments.”
The eminent biblical scholar J.P. Meier wrote on this matter: «Although it is a real event that happened to Jesus Christ, the event of the resurrection did not occur in time and space and therefore should not be called historical».
Nevertheless, since this event would have happened to a man, it has inevitably left visible and accessible traces for historians. In fact, as Mariano Herranz Marco, a prominent figure in the Spanish exegetical school, wrote, «In a sense, the historian can demonstrate the event of the resurrection of Jesus: his analysis of the testimonies and events can lead to the conclusion that without the real fact of the resurrection, many things would remain unexplained».
In other words, the hypothesis of the resurrection becomes historically plausible to the extent that it adequately justifies those historical traces (established as historical), much more so than alternative explanations.
12. CONCLUSION AND SUMMARY OF THE EVIDENCE.
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We have presented ten arguments, which we consider the most compelling in favor of the historicity of the resurrection. Furthermore, a detailed response has been provided to all the major objections raised throughout history by skeptical scholars.
Just like in a courtroom, it is the cumulative strength of all the evidence, not any single piece of evidence, that forms the basis of the verdict. No individual piece of evidence is sufficient to reach a verdict, but the overall strength of all the arguments can be enough to confidently justify a judgment beyond a reasonable doubt.
As philosopher William Lane Craig emphasized: «These proofs themselves are not inaccessible to the historian; they are not miraculous. It is the resurrection of Jesus that is the best explanation of these proofs».
The debate focuses not on the probability of the resurrection in itself and without any evidence, but rather on a series of historical facts that imply the hypothesis of resurrection as the best explanation.
In this interpretive framework, we are confronted with events that boast a substantial body of “evidence” unmatched by any other historical event in antiquity.
Let’s summarize, grouping them together:
– The earliest independent historical sources of the events date back to 2-7 years after the narrated facts (1 Corinthians 15:2-7, pre-Markan source and formula included in the Acts of the Apostles), ruling out a late creation: no other ancient historical event boasts a better attestation;
– The discovery of the empty tomb is highly historically reliable according to contemporary scholars (and the unsustainability of alternative naturalistic explanations);
– The disciples’ conviction of having seen the risen Jesus is considered historically real: they certainly saw something (alternative naturalistic explanations lack plausibility);
– The study of Jewish thought has ruled out any possibility that the resurrection of Christ could have been invented by Jews, inspired by Scriptures, or influenced by Egyptian or pagan deities;
– The accounts include counterproductive details (central role of women), precise geographical-temporal references, and contradictions among the various evangelists regarding the details of the narrative: no forger would have invented such things;
– The resurrection accounts are devoid of theological embellishments and biblical interpretation, as is common in the creation of myths and legends (see apocryphal gospels);
– Currently, there is no convincing objection or adequate alternative explanation to account for the complexity of the events considered historical. The hypothesis of resurrection is significantly superior to rival hypotheses;
– The sudden conversion of Paul of Tarsus, a well-known persecutor of Christians who later became an eyewitness of the risen Jesus, is considered historically certain;
– The testimony of Paul of Tarsus regarding the belief in the risen Jesus of the early Christian community is considered historically certain, as he interviewed the eyewitnesses of the events on two occasions;
– Without the hypothesis of resurrection, sudden changes that occurred immediately after the death of Jesus remain inexplicable: the rapid conversion of the apostle James, from disbelief to leadership in the early church; the surprising and sudden transformation of the disciples, from fearful deniers of Jesus to tireless promoters of the resurrection and the appearances of the risen Jesus, even unto martyrdom; the sudden authority of the disciples in challenging longstanding Jewish customs, including the biblical judgment of the Sanhedrin, the biblical law of Moses regarding the sanctity of the Sabbath, and placing the resurrection at the center of their faith (a theme that was little or not at all considered in Jewish thought and viewed entirely differently).
Faced with all this, the eminent scholar Gary Habermas inevitably concluded that it “produces a line of evidence that is simply astounding and interconnected, almost unknown in ancient documents”.
«The hypothesis that Jesus bodily rose from the dead possesses an unparalleled capacity to explain the events that lie at the very heart of early Christianity», wrote Craig A. Evans, Professor of New Testament and Director of the graduate program at Acadia Divinity College, and N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews.
Similarly, the prominent American biblical scholar Daniel B. Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, has acknowledged that «the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the only explanation that adequately accounts for all the data, and every alternative naturalistic explanation has died a thousand deaths in the past 200 years. I see no alternative naturalistic explanation».
In addition to these “arguments,” the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, Professor at the University of Munich, observed: «The resurrection of Jesus takes on an even more decisive significance, not only because someone was raised from the dead, but because that someone was Jesus of Nazareth, whose execution was instigated by the Jews because he had blasphemed against God. Jesus’ authoritative claim to be God was blasphemous in Jewish ears».
In other words, everything said so far is further amplified when considering that the protagonist of this resurrection was not just any man, but Jesus of Nazareth. He was the only historically known man who claimed to be the Son of God, whose words have shaped history, and whose teachings (prior to the resurrection) remain mysteriously relevant in every era for believers and non-believers alike.
A final reflection. Even if someone had been able to capture on an unquestionable video the moment of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, it would not have changed the lives of the people who have believed in Him until today. It would not have persuaded, fascinated, attracted, or dispelled the sadness in the world.
For those who believe, indeed, it is only His permanent presence, mysterious throughout history, that can inspire enthusiasm and provide ultimate meaning to people’s lives.
This is evident in the life of Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide who, at the end of his studies, came to the conclusion that the historical evidence strongly suggests the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. However, this did not change his worldview, and he remained skeptical about the incarnation and Jesus being the Messiah. Although he did not convert, he allowed the historical evidence to somehow alter his perspective and move away from the Sadducean Jewish current (while the Pharisees believed in a final resurrection on the day of Judgment). He wrote:
«As for the future resurrection of the dead, I am and remain a Pharisee. As for the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, I was a Sadducee for decades. Now, I am no longer».