In my previous blog post a while back, I made it my business to refute, or at least provide links to scholarly refutations, of several popular objections that are put forward by ‘sceptics’ and atheists pertaining to the historicity of the Christmas narratives. Subsequently I received several comments by someone who goes by the name of ‘NotAScientist’ who raised a few objections and broad questions with regards to the existence of Jesus, New Testament reliability and Jesus resurrection. In formulating a response, I ended up going into a lot more detail and research then I intended to. I ended up writing almost a 3000 word essay! This is a congenital weakness on my part. I suppose this could be seen as both a good and bad thing. My response also serves a larger purpose as it addresses many common objections in this area so decided to use it as a main article. Hopefully it will be informative and edifying to other readers also.
NotAScientist wrote “…I’d like to know what you think the evidence is, and what has convinced you of the accuracy of Christianity’s claims.”
Some of the evidence that convinces me of the accuracy of Christianity’s claims was included in my previous comment (see bottom of the previous post). Using the many extra-biblical sources alone, there is a lot that we can discern. I have expanded on this point further down. NotAScientist writes: “An itinerant rabbi named Jesus (or Joshua, or Yeshua) probably did exist in one form or another.” I think to say that he probably existed is actually an understatement. Jesus’ existence is about as historically certain as anybody’s in the ancient world and this is not merely an opinion. He asserts that the consensus among historians is lukewarm. Not so. Since 1975 to the present, there have been over 2000 scholarly publications on the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Historian Gary Habermas conducted an exhaustive study of all these publications which are in English, French and German. Most of the critical scholars are theologians or New Testament scholars, while a number of philosophers and historians, among other fields, are also included. Overall it turned out that 75% of these scholars Christian and non-Christian, agreed on several facts: The crucifixion of Christ, his burial, the empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances. All these facts could be defended just by using non-Christian scholars.
I am not claiming that just because we know a man named Jesus existed historically, that this implies he was divine. I’m claiming the the evidence points much further than him just being a man. The question is whether or not an individual by the name of Jesus Christ existed, who claimed to be God’s son possessing supernatural powers. A large number of reputable historians do think this can and has been confirmed historically. Scholars on both sides admit the following facts:
Fact 1- Death by crucifixion
Multiple independent Christian sources (which are quite early) attest to this. Aside from this Jewish historian Josephus records the crucifixion and also Roman historian Tacitus. In John’s eyewitness report in chapter 19:34, he makes an interesting observation. He notes that blood and water came out of the spear wound in Christ’s side while he was on the cross. Various medical doctors have been very interested in this observation. John would not have had the medical knowledge to know what this meant, but it is proof of post-mortem evidence that he had died. It shows he would have died from heart failure, a separation of red blood cells from the serum of the blood. William Lane Craig mentions “… Moreover, the crucifixion of Jesus is incontestably a historical fact. Hence, even the sceptical Robert Funk, chairman of the Jesus Seminar, declares, “The crucifixion was one indisputable fact which neither [the early Christians] nor their opponents could deny.”
Fact 2- Jesus’ burial
Liberal scholar Gerd Ludemann argues “Jesus was obviously buried. There’s a tradition of burial in Paul’s letters, it is a very old tradition and likely to be historical.” The most sceptical scholars agree that Joseph of Aremathea was probably the historical figure who buried him. This is because it is highly implausible that the early Christians would make up a person, give him a name and a near by town of origin and place the fictional character on the historical council of the Sanhedrin (the members of which were well known). It is unlikely to be a fabrication also because it would be a pretty crummy one and they would have known this. If they were fabricating things they would have made up a far more plausible story. Again as John Robinson claims (a liberal scholar) “The burial of Jesus is one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”
Fact 3-The empty tomb
The reports about the empty tomb are related by all four gospels and other writings in early Christianity in a form independent of each other. This means we have multiple independent witnesses to the empty tomb. Reports of the empty tomb were first given by women. This is a significant point. Unfortunately the standing of testimony from women around this time period in Palestine was extremely low. The fact that the first witnesses are reported to be women means that it passes the historical criteria of embarrassment. This historical criteria states that if a reported fact is embarrassing to the reporter, then it is more likely than not to be true. People don’t go about saying things that they know full well would hurt their own case! Geza Vermes (not a Christian!) writes that “The evidence furnished by female witnesses had no standing in male dominated Jewish society. If the empty tomb had been manufactured by the primitive church to demonstrate the reality of the resurrection Jesus, one would have expected a uniform and fool proof account attributed to patently reliable witnesses.” The scholarly consensus admits this fact.
Fact 4-The Post-mortem appearances
After his crucifixion it is agreed that a number of individuals and groups of people had experiences that they perceived to be of Christ. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:3-9 he quotes an early creedal formulation for Christians. He talks about the teachings that were passed onto him and talks about the eyewitness claims. He mentions that several of the apostles and groups of people witnessed appearances. It is generally agreed that this is early eyewitness testimony. Jesus died in either 30 or 33 AD and Paul’s letter is dated around AD 54, not a very big historical time gap there. But note that Paul is reiterating teaching that was passed onto him when he set up the church there, which is known to be in around AD 50. Furthermore remember that Peter, John and James must have had it before Paul. Most scholars think that Paul probably received this creed in Jerusalem from Peter and James in AD 35 at which time they would have already formulated the creed within the early church. They were right on top of the events! James D.G Dunn says “this tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’s death‘. Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish scholar, says that 1 Corinthians 15 ‘may be considered a statement of eye witnesses.” Given its early date and Paul’s acquaintance with the people involved, the list of people in 1 Corinthians guarantees that such appearances occurred. The data also passes through the multiple attestation criteria for historicity. Geza Vermes concludes that: “No doubt the new testament characters believed in the reality of their visions of Jesus”. Also note that many of these people were martyred for their claims which tells us that they were completely sincere in their belief. Afterall, liars make poor martyrs! Of course from this fact, I am not arguing that just because the eyewitnesses sincerely believed what they did, that therefore what they believed was true. That is a separate issue that I’ll explore further on. But, an interesting point to note is that these people were in a position to know whether it was true or false! Considering the consequences of their testimonies (torture or death), I think this shows us to some degree, that what they thought the saw, was what actually happened.
After assembling these facts we have to put the pieces together and ask what the best explanation is. This is the real issue! It is admitted on both sides of the debate that we can get solid historical facts from the New Testament. The sceptic has no substantive reason to doubt them. I submit that the most plausible explanation that satisfies in explanatory power is a physical resurrection. There are several naturalistic explanations (hallucinations, wrong tomb, twin Jesus, apparent death etc) but as Geza Vermes concludes after surveying them “All in all, none of the six suggested theories stands up to stringent scrutiny.” They simply do not adequately explain the facts and we are looking for an explanation that does.
For part 2 go here…