“We really cannot know if Jesus even existed, never mind rose from the dead.”
Have you ever met a “flat earther”? I haven’t, but apparently there is a Flat Earth Society. Have you met someone who believes that Jesus never existed? I have, and you probably have as well. But believing that Jesus never existed and believing the earth is flat are quite comparable.
So why does belief in the former continue to hold on, especially in certain corners of the internet? There are several reasons, including a good deal of chronological snobbery and a heaping helping of anti-Christian polemics from popular atheist hucksters such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.
But you’ll be hard-pressed to find any reputable historian of the ancient world — that is, a scholar who reads and studies ancient texts such as those in the New Testament — who will deny Jesus existed.
Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina and author of more than two dozen books (both academic and popular) about the Bible and Jesus, has written books arguing many of the narratives in the Gospels are substantially revised or corrupted. A former fundamentalist Protestant, he now says he is an agnostic. Yet in Did Jesus Exist? he strongly criticizes “mythicists” — those who deny that Jesus was a real, historical figure.
Ehrman, hardly an ally of orthodox Christianity, points out that few mythicists have any training “in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field,” or teach early Christianity at “any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world.” Why? Because belief that Jesus didn’t exist is simply “so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99% of the real experts” that they don’t qualify for such academic posts.
As Ehrman concludes: “Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”
“We cannot trust the accuracy of the Gospels, as they aren’t actual biographies but works of mythology.”
Skeptics who make this sort of statement are not, in fact, usually discussing historical evidence, but appealing to a materialist philosophical belief: Miracles are not possible — and so the Gospels must be mythology and legend, as they depict miracles, most notably the Resurrection.
Some village atheists make jokes about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, revealing just how unserious they are about the evidence. But they do have something of pedigree, following the lead of various Enlightenment-era thinkers, certain 19th-century liberal German Protestants, and the more recent “new atheists.”
However, we must seriously ask: What did the first followers of Jesus — including the authors of the Gospels and the St. Paul — believe about the man from Nazareth? Why did those men believe in Jesus’ existence and his resurrection, to the degree that most of them suffered and even died for those beliefs? No one, after all, has turned up evidence of anyone accepting martyrdom for belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
To discredit such testimony simply because it runs contrary to one’s presuppositions is not rational, but deeply biased.
Recent decades have seen a renewed recognition that the four Gospels should be taken seriously as historical texts, especially mindful of the first-century Jewish context. And notbecause they are accepted by Christians as canonical, but because they are the earliest and best sources that exist.
As the noted New Testament scholar Craig Keener points out, contrary to what some modern writers assume, the “bias” of the Gospel writers doesn’t mean their biographies of Christ are novelistic or fictional. All ancient historians had a certain “bias”; in fact, all historians have a “bias,” if by that we mean coming from a certain perspective and holding specific beliefs about the subject at hand. The key is recognizing and acknowledging one’s perspectives — or what another New Testament scholar, Michael R. Licona, calls “horizons” — in assessing information, analyzing texts and reaching conclusions.
In short, it’s important to know that many New Testament scholars today accept that the Gospels are forms of ancient biography and that the authors sought to present what they knew about Jesus — whether firsthand or from witnesses — in a reliable, truthful way. Even when critics say:
“The authors of the Gospels and the early disciples weren’t objective enough and were easily confused — especially when it comes to the Resurrection.”
C.S. Lewis, in Surprised by Joy, reflected on how he had to recognize and overcome his “chronological snobbery” in order to clearly assess the claims of Christianity. He described that snobbery as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”
One example of this is how many skeptics dismiss the first Christians as naive or gullible simpletons. Yet the New Testament writers were well aware of such criticisms: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). And Luke, at the start of his Gospel, states:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1:1-4).
The phrase “from the beginning,” argues Anglican scholar Richard Bauckham, is a specific “claim that the eyewitnesses had been present throughout the events from the appropriate commencement of the author’s history onward.” In other words, Luke was intent on using primary sources — people who saw and experienced firsthand what he recorded in his Gospel.
In a similar way, the fourth Gospel concludes with this emphatic statement: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:24-25).
Just as significant is how the Gospels describe the reaction of the disciples to news of the empty tomb. The women who came to anoint the body on Sunday morning went away trembling and astonished, “and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). So afraid, in fact, that they said nothing to anyone. Who would believe them? Whywould anyone believe them?
And, sure enough, when Mary Magdalene told the grieving disciples that Jesus had appeared to her the following morning, “they would not believe it” (Mark 16:11). In the words of Luke, the account given “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).
“For the early Christians,” observes Keener, “neither the empty tomb nor the testimony of the women was adequate evidence by itself (Luke 24:22-24); they also depended on the testimony of the men for the public forum (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).”
The disbelief of the male disciples is, by any measure, both understandable and embarrassing, and Keener states that the “criterion of embarrassment indicates that no one had apologetic reason to invent the testimony of these women.”
“The disciples may have made up the Resurrection.”
This is a common remark, and, at first glance, it appears quite reasonable. This is a variation on what is known as the “Myth Theory,” which argues the Resurrection of Jesus is a myth or legend that gradually emerged over the years following Jesus’ death as stories circulated and teaching about Jesus became separated from the original source of his followers. Originally, Christians affirmed only some form of Jesus’ survival, which they held to be vouchsafed by some kind of vision. Then the myth of the Resurrection came to replace this belief.
There are several problems with this theory; here are just two. First, the time frame doesn’t square with the theory.
Martin Hengel, the renowned German scholar of New Testament and early Judaism, argues that “all the essential features of Paul’s Christology were already fully developed towards the end of the ’40s, before the beginning of his great missionary journeys in the West.” This means there was less than 20 years available for the primitive Christian Christology to emerge before Paul, who clearly draws upon existing creedal statements, Christological hymns and so forth. Keep in mind that it is widely agreed that Jesus probably died in April of A.D. 30 and that Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus took place between A.D. 32 and 34, and his letters were written between A.D. 50 and 57. That is a very small window.
Secondly, and closely related, is the simple matter of “Why?”
It’s understandable that Jesus’ grieving disciples would commemorate his life and teachings; it makes no sense that they would emerge on Pentecost — just weeks after his gruesome death on the cross — full of confidence and joy, proclaiming his resurrection. It makes no sense that they would, as a group, not just proclaim the same message, but then endure persecution and death for it if it was a myth. There was nothing to be gained — financially, socially or otherwise — from such a mythology.
The Gospels make it even more improbable that the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection was a later myth. Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that no eyewitnesses wrote any of the four Gospels and that the Gospels appeared in the last quarter of the first century, in the second and third generations of Christians (40-70 years after the events they purport to depict), it is difficult to dismiss their accounts as myths.
The Gospels themselves appear to pass along earlier tradition, tradition rooted in eyewitness accounts (Luke 1:1-2; John 21:24-25). It is highly unlikely that the Gospel writers — and therefore Christian leaders who would have approved and circulated the Gospels — would have lost touch with the apostolic teaching on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection in such a short time. After all, the death and resurrection of Christ are the climatic events in all four Gospels and take up substantial space in each.
“The Resurrection cannot be proven in any way; it must be accepted entirely on faith.”
The term “proven” is often used in the sense of scientific proof. But there are many other forms of evidence and proof: historical, philosophical, and even theological. One challenge is that many modern people are so dismissive of ancient testimony and are prone to view history as a hazy land of which very little, if anything, can be known. But the testimony of the early Christians is evidence of something astounding. As Richard Bauckham, author of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, argues, trusting such testimony “is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony. Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus.” All history and knowledge relies, in some way, on testimony.
“Jesus’ body was not resurrected; the Resurrection is a spiritual event only.”
The “Spiritual Resurrection” theory is quite popular; it is the idea that the Resurrection of Jesus was purely spiritual and not at all corporeal or bodily. The risen Jesus was a spirit; those who encountered him encountered the spirit of Jesus. His corpse is irrelevant, in this view. Whether dogs ate it or it remains buried in a tomb makes no difference. Jesus’ body wasn’t transformed; he was raised a spirit. This theory is held by John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg; Jehovah’s Witnesses also advocate a form of it.
One key issue here is continuity — not just Jesus’ spirit before and after the Resurrection, but also his body. To acknowledge that Jesus’ body has changed — has been glorified — is not the same as saying it is no longer a body.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, states that the resurrected body is a spiritual body, but this isn’t the same thing as a spirit or the idea of spiritual resurrection. He contrasts what is sometimes translated as a “physical body” to the “spiritual body” of the Resurrection.
He is contrasting two kinds of bodily life: the merely natural bodily life of mortal existence and the supernatural bodily life bestowed by the Spirit, which is an immortal existence. He isn’t contrasting physicality as such with the spiritual, understood as immaterial.
The “natural body” (a more accurate translation than “physical body”) to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 15:44 is the body animated by the natural life of the human soul, while the “spiritual body” is the body animated by the spiritual life of God. Both bodies are physical in the sense that they’re bodies and have the properties characteristic of bodies. But the resurrected body, the “spiritual body,” is animated by the Spirit. Among other things, that makes it immortal, but it remains a body, not a spirit.
“When Paul talks about a ‘spiritual body’ (1 Corinthians 15:44),” states N.T. Wright, “he doesn’t mean ‘spiritual’ in the Platonic sense, i.e., nonmaterial. He means a body (physical, in some sense), which is constituted by ‘spirit.’”
The Resurrection is, in the end, intimately connected to the reality of the Incarnation; it speaks directly to the fact that creation is good and that we are not just spirits, but also possess bodies. Christianity without a risen Christ — truly alive and with a real, glorified body — is an essentially empty, even false, belief system.
Carl E. Olson is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?
and the editor of Catholic World Report.
Editor’s Note: See related book review