With the imaginary war on Christmas looming dark in their thoughts, Christmas is one of those times of year that conservative Christians get really insistent that Jesus was resurrected. David Limbaugh, at World Net Daily, writes that, ” At the very core of Christianity is the historical authenticity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. But for His resurrection, we would not be celebrating His birth.”
And Limbaugh is determined to reassure his fellow doubters that Jesus really was resurrected. I mean, really, really, for sure resurrected. You have to wonder each Christmas, what happened to belief?
Christians have always recognized that without Jesus there is no Christianity. But more than that, Christians need, as Paul early recognized, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. But the present level of conservative Christian stridency smells to me of a lack of faith in what is, after all, a matter not of proof - because miracles stand outside of history - but of belief in what Kierkegaard called the absurd.
Jesus’ resurrection has had many defenders over the centuries. In the Pagan world of old, with Christianity fighting for legitimacy in the face of traditional religion, Justin Martyr ironically defended the resurrection by appealing to the example of Aesclepius! If Aesclepius can be resurrected by Zeus, why not Jesus by YHWH? Apparently, one absurdity can prove another.
Today, we find apologists still hard at work defending the resurrection. Limbaugh relates,
Christian apologist Josh McDowell spent more than 700 hours studying the subject of the resurrection and concluded that it “is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, or it is the most amazing fact of history.” When a university student asked him why he was unable to refute Christianity, McDowell responded, “For a very simple reason: I am not able to explain away an event in history – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Those who would answer that McDowell was not trying very hard would be right: he was not. McDowell’s motivations are, as for any apologist, theological, not historical. He is no more a disinterested observer than the authors of the gospels. Explaining away anything having to do with Jesus is the furthest thing from his mind.
This obsession with the resurrection was not always present. Jesus’ first followers were not obsessed with his death. As Helmut Koester demonstrates, we can see that Paul’s focus on Jesus’ death was not original to the Jewish Community.
One of the most striking features of the Gospel of Thomas is its silence in the matter of Jesus’ death and resurrection – the keystone of Paul’s missionary proclamation. But Thomas is not alone in this silence. The Synoptic Sayings Source (Q), used by Matthew and Luke, also does not consider Jesus’ death a part of the Christian message. And it likewise is not interested in stories and reports about resurrection and subsequent appearances of the risen Lord. The Gospel of Thomas and Q challenge the assumption that the early Church was unanimous in making Jesus’ death and resurrection the fulcrum of Christian faith. Both documents presuppose that Jesus’ significance lay in his words, and in his words alone.
Paul of Tarsus on the other hand, was obsessed with Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the differences between Paul and Jesus are profound.
Bart Ehrman points to some of the central differences: Jesus called the one who would come to judge the “Son of Man” but Paul said it would be Jesus himself; Jesus taught his followers that to escape judgment that they must keep the Law; Paul said what was required was a belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ definition of faith is trust in YHWH to bring his kingdom to his people but Paul defines it as faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus saw himself as the one who proclaimed the coming kingdom and in “correct interpretation of the law” but for Paul it was Jesus’ death and resurrection. “The end of the age began in the lives of Jesus’ followers,” Ehrman says, “who accepted his teachings and began to implement them in their lives” but Paul differs again, saying that the end of the age “began with the defeat of the power of sin at the cross of Jesus.”
New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann will tell you that dead people stay dead - that’s the consensus scientific view, whatever apologists tell us. But the resurrection has always been problematic beyond the probability of a dead person not staying dead. In the Synoptic Gospels we see that Jesus proves the necessity of resurrection by a reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But in John (11:25) Jesus is himself the resurrection and the life, an example of the degree to which the gospels are theology, not history.
But for believers, four conflicting accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are not problematic. We might argue that the “difference is in the details” but Christian apologists will counter with “the details are nothing. Have faith.” This is precisely what they told the Pagan Celsus: “Do not ask questions; Just believe.” But the problems with this sort of thinking are insurmountable unless you have that faith that it is somehow possible for everything about Jesus in the Gospels is true, even when it is asserted by one author and denied by another. Details do matter.
We have to differentiate between facts and belief. Christians can believe Jesus was resurrected but it cannot be proven. And why are they so anxious to prove it? Because atheists are so quick to doubt it? Or because it’s so much easier to legislate it if it’s fact and not belief?
It’s a matter of belief, after all, as early Christians and their creeds recognized. The Nicene Creed of 325CE says,
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Notice the word “believe.” It does not say “we can prove” or “it is a fact.” We believe…
But belief is not enough for those who are not certain of their belief. Some believers need evidence every bit as badly as non-believers, so we find Limbaugh stressing that “secular writings of Jewish historian Josephus, Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, Roman author Pliny the Younger and Greek satirist Lucian all refer to Christ.”
Limbaugh neglects to mention that none of these authors bought into the divinity of Jesus, let alone his resurrection. Belief or acceptance that Jesus existed does not equal belief in a resurrection. Limbaugh skips merrily over a vast gulf of skepticism and absence of evidence.
Limbaugh can crow that “Renowned Christian apologist Dr. Norman Geisler wrote, “The documentary evidence for the reliability of the New Testament is greater than that for any other book from the ancient world.” but as Bart Ehrman explains,
“The early Christian gospels…were never intended to be disinterested descriptions of historical data. They are, after all, called ‘Gospels,’ which means something like ‘the proclamation of good news.’ Whoever wrote these books meant to show that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus brought salvation – that is – they had a theological agenda. These books aren’t ‘objective’ descriptions of what Jesus said and did.”
In this regard we should do well to remember, as Helmut Koester reminds us, that “both Luke and Justin Martyr confirm that authors were at liberty to change the text of the older writings as it was required by their arguments.”
History? Not so much. Belief? You betcha. They even convince themselves that those who disagree with them – vehemently – agree with them. As Limbaugh claims:
In his book “The Resurrection: The Unopened Gift,” Gerard Chrispin wrote, “There is an amazing accord between nearly all the friends and foes of Christianity, about the historical facts surrounding the life and death of Christ. … The fact that He died and three days later the tomb was empty is what the lawyer calls common ground. … Interestingly, one rarely meets a genuine historian who doubts the empty tomb.”
I suspect Chrispin is not talking to any actual historians, though we have to acknowledge that for conservative Christians David Barton qualifies as not only a historian but an “eminent” historian. So go figure.
As a result of this bizarre reality bubble they have constructed for themselves, we get Limbuagh offering this as though it has any meaning at all: “Geisler said there is ‘more evidence Jesus died than that [sic] most important people of the ancient world ever lived.'”
This claim is so absurd that no refutation is required. But I suppose it’s what fundamentalists tell themselves to feel better about the problematic nature of the evidence.
But where does this supposed evidence come from? The New Testament. The same New Testament of which the following can be said:
- The earliest witnesses, contrary to second century tradition, give no sign of authorship, but are anonymous.
- From 90 to 130, the forty or so years following the composition of the synoptic gospels and possibly John as well, we have no quote from any gospel source. Not by 1 Clement, not from Ignatius, not from Polycarp and not from Barnabas.
- It was not until the time of Justin Martyr, that is, the 150s, that we get our first quotes from some of the gospels, here called only “memoirs of the apostles” but the quotations we get do not agree with the versions currently in our possession.
- The idea of four gospels was first mentioned by Irenaeus in 180 CE, 150 years after Jesus died and some 50 years after the last of them was penned.
- The four gospels are not named until Irenaeus.
If we are to judge by the historical record, and not by Christian belief, we can only agree with Michael Grant’s assessment, that before this, “the early Fathers of the Church show remarkably little reflection of Gospel material.”
Yet now this Gospel material the early Christians either did not care about or were ignorant of, is supposed to be the ultimate proof of Jesus’ resurrection.
The biggest problem with the gospel “evidence” is that the earliest Gospel, Mark, did not have a resurrection story when it was written. Mark ends at 16:8 in its earliest witnesses (Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). In support of this, Origen comments on resurrection stories in Matthew, Luke and John, but not in Mark. Origen wrote in the third century. His version, at least, did not have 16:9-20. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215CE) also fails to mention Mark 16:9-20. Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, did know of an extended version (ad Marinum) as did Augustine (writing in the early 400s in his Easter sermons.
In other words, the resurrection stories did not originate with the earliest account of Jesus’ life and teachings, and they were added to that account only to bring it into accord with the later gospels: Matthew, Luke, and John.
As Bart Ehrman writes, “Christianity is a religion rooted in a belief in the death of Jesus for sin and his resurrection from the dead. This, however, does not appear to have been the religion that Jesus preached to the Jews of Galilee and Judea. To use a formulation that scholars have tossed about for years, Christianity is not so much the religion of Jesus (the religion that he himself proclaimed) as the religion about Jesus (the religion that is based on his death and resurrection).
In truth, rather than debating proof of Jesus’ resurrection, we should, like S.G.F. Brandon, be debating how a belief in his resurrection gained currency in so short a time: S.G.F. Brandon says of Paul’s Christianity,
His incarnation and crucifixion he sees as part of a divine plan to save mankind from enslavement to the daemonic powers who, he believed, controlled the world and the destinies of men. That so transcendental a conception of Jesus, integrated into an esoteric soteriology unparalleled in contemporary Jewish thought, should have developed within some two decades of his crucifixion by the Romans, constitutes one of the fundamental problems of the study of Christian Origins.
 Paul recounts the consequences of Christ not being resurrected at 1 Cor. 15:12-19. Obviously, if Jesus is not the Christ, things are just as serious.
 Justin Martyr, First Apology 21.
 Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990) 86.
 Bart D. Ehrman. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 366. See also 1 Cor. 2.6-8.
 Origen, C. Cels.I, 9ff. See Celsus: On The True Doctrine, R.J. Hoffmann ed. (Oxford University Press, 1987), 53-54.
 Bart D. Ehrman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (2006), 10.
 Helmut Koester, “Written Gospel or Oral Traditions?” JBL 113 (1994), 295.
 Michael Grant, Jesus, 189.
 Ehrman, The New Testament, 276.
 S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967), 12. cf. 1 Cor. 2.6-9.