Evidence for the Resurrection

bertram_kruis_grtWhen considering the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, we need to separate two issues. First, what are the historical facts that require an explanation? And, second, what is the best, most plausible, explanation for those facts?

What are the facts to consider in relation to the resurrection?

First, Jesus died on the cross, a victim of Roman execution as a common criminal. The Romans were very experienced at this, and knew how to check that someone was dead. If they had not died soon enough, then they broke the legs of the victim who would then suffocate, unable lift themselves up on their legs to take a breath. In John’s gospel, this is recording in some detail.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19.31–34)

What is fascinating about this account is that the writer sees the water and blood as having symbolic significance; it proves that Jesus promises, of giving ‘living water’ to those who believe (John 4.10) and that ‘living water will come from his side’ (John 7.38). We now see this as medical evidence of Jesus’ death, as the red blood cells and serum have separated after the heart has stopped beating—which John has quite inadvertently recorded.

Secondly, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and influential member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish Council, who was also a secret follower of Jesus. This is attested in all four gospels, in slightly different ways (Matt 27.57, Mark 15.43, Luke 23.51, John 19.38). This would have been an odd thing to make up; if Joseph were invented, or Jesus not buried here, then it would have been an easy thing to refute. Given that the Council were hostile to the early Jesus movement, it would also be an unlikely invention.

Thirdly, on the Sunday morning the tomb was found to be empty. There are several striking things about this fact and the way that it is related in the gospel accounts.

First, the tomb was guarded by Jewish temple guards; in Matt 27.65 Pilate tells the Jews to post their own guard, and in Matt 28.11 the guards report back to the Jewish leaders. This was quite understandable; anyone who looked as though they might lead a rebellion against Roman rule could cause real trouble. Such a rebellion in 66–70 led to the destruction of the temple, and another in 136 led to the expulsion of all Jews from the land of Judea. Matt 28.11–15 recounts the bribing of the guard to say that Jesus’ disciples stole the body—but this is never subsequently brought up as an accusation, in NT or Jewish literature of the time. And if the disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, the Jewish leaders could simply have produced the body from the right tomb to end the movement.

Secondly, it is clear from the gospel accounts that, despite Jesus’ teaching, none of his followers expected to find anything other than his dead body in the tomb when they went to anoint it. This is not surprising; their expectation is that the dead would be raised at the end of the age (see John 11.24 for a typical expression of this), which would involve all of humanity. No-one expected an individual to be raised from the dead now. All the signs were that Jesus’ death meant the end of all their hopes (see Luke 24.19–21)

Thirdly, John’s account includes a curious note about the cloths that had been used to bind Jesus’ body in the customary way.

Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. (John 20.6–7)

AUFERSTapostelNot much is made of this, and it appears to be an allusion to the earlier account of Lazarus being brought back to life in John 11.44. But it is a sign of what had happened to the body; if it has been stolen, then there would be no grave clothes, or they would have been taken off and left together. The fact that the soudarion from Jesus’ head was separate from the othonion, the linen shroud for his body, meant something else must have happened. Each piece of material was still in the place that it would have been when wrapped around Jesus.

Fourthly, all the gospel accounts agree that women were the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb, and that they reported this to the male disciples. In a culture where women’s testimony was not accepted in court, this would have been a silly thing to have made up—their word counted for nothing.

In recounting all this, it is striking that the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are quite different, each with their own perspective. In fact, their reports diverge in their details more than at any other point in their recounting of Jesus’ life. Despite this, they all agree on the core details: that women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning; that the stone had been rolled away and the guard gone; that the tomb was empty; and that various of Jesus’ followers believed that they met him, bodily alive again. This is entirely consonant with the gospels being independent accounts based on different eyewitnesses to these events. (Note, for example, the mention of ‘Peter’ in Mark 16.7; there is a strong case for reading Mark’s gospel as based on Peter’s own testimony.) And there is now an overwhelming consensus amongst scholars that all four gospels were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses, and widely circulated amongst the early Christian communities.

Lastly, it is also striking that none of the gospel accounts actually record the resurrection—they simply record the fact of the empty tomb. A legendary fabrication of the event would surely do something else—as in fact the Gospel of Peter, an invented account written in around 125, does in some detail.

Fourthly, there was a long list of eyewitnesses who believed they had met the bodily, risen Jesus, which Paul recounts in 1 Cor 15.3–8. Paul notes that this was ‘handed to him’ as an early statement of belief, and it is most likely that he received it from Peter three years after his conversion (Gal 1.18). (Note that Paul’s experience of meeting Jesus was quite different; his was visionary, whereas the earlier witnesses all believed that Jesus was bodily, since he ate and drank with them.) Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written in the early 50s, just 20 years after Jesus’ death, and as he notes, most of the eyewitnesses were still alive.

And the remarkable thing about these people is that, whatever they experienced, it transformed them from a small, dispirited and disillusioned group to being the start of an extraordinary movement that, within a few decades, had a following across the civilised world of its time. This group became sufficiently important that, by AD 49, they seem to have caused Claudius to expel a good number of Jews from Rome, the capital of the Empire.

JesusTomb-1200x760This raises a wider question about the Jesus movement altogether: how do you explain the rise of this religious movement, following an otherwise unknown itinerant preacher from an obscure province on the edge of the Roman Empire? When you compare this with other religious movements, it is notable that Jesus lived a short life, never travelled far, never wrote anything, left a relatively small body of teaching, died young, was executed as a criminal, never held any political or military office, and never had a large following. No other religious or political movement had such unpromising and unlikely beginnings.

So those are the historical facts, which are well attested: Jesus died; he was buried; his tomb was found to be empty; and the small group of dispirited followers were transformed into the confident beginnings of a world-wide movement in a remarkably short time.

Alternative explanations either contradict well-established facts, or they cannot explain these phenomena. The only plausible explanation is that something quite extraordinary happened, and the notion that Jesus was raised back to life is the only one that fits these facts.

Here is Tom Wright on what difference the resurrection makes:

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51 thoughts on “Evidence for the Resurrection”

  1. Attempts to “prove” the resurrection all run into the same problem: if a miracle is claimed, probability judgments are meaningless, as probability needs a stable frame of reference. As Diarmaid MacCulloch so rightly said, historiography isn’t equipped to answer these kinds of questions.

    Perhaps Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected. But if he was, it’s something that must be believed on faith.

    • James, I think you have misread my post. I nowhere set out to ‘prove’ the resurrection, but to explore the historical facts which require adequate explanation. Historiography is perfectly equipped to identify such facts. If God acts in history, then even the miraculous will leave a historical footprint which can be investigate.

      I don’t think I accept your (and MacCulloch’s) separation between history and faith. Christianity is an inescapably historical faith, and the step of faith is about taking a rationally responsible step based on evidence.

      And that evidence is worth laying before a sceptical world.

      • I agree that historiography is equipped to identify such facts (insomuch as it’s equipped to identify any facts): the problem is in drawing supernatural conclusions from them. That can be done as a “step of faith,” certainly, but that step exceeds the evidence.

        E.P. Sanders said it well: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”

        • But I think what you are missing is that *any* explanation is a ‘step of faith’, as are most of our (confident) epistemic conclusions.

          I don’t know the context of the Sanders quotation. But it is worth noting that, if the disciples had heard him say that, their reply would likely have been ‘But we do…let us tell you about it.’

  2. I laugh when I’m told that “resurrection is the only explanation that fits the facts”.

    Firstly, there are no “facts”, just hearsay. All we have are ancient writings corroborated by no indepedent physical, archaeological or historical evidence whatsoever.

    Secondly, that these accounts agree with each other is hardly surprising given the winnowing process of successive Church councils. If you’re faced with many versions of a story, is it likely you’d choose 4 completely different ones to make your holy book? Or would you be more likely to choose similar stories that back each other up? If you’re concerned about the credibility of your faith, the choice is clear. And it was clearly made. The Bible as we have it is proof of one thing only, which is the early Church’s determination to have a clear and non-contradictory narrative of Christ’s life.

    Thirdly, there are other more plausible explanations that require no resurrection to have taken place. For example we know that bribery and graft were commonplace in the Roman Empire, so might not someone have bribed the guards to remove Christ’s body from the tomb? Is bribery really less plausible than resurrection?

    If you want to believe in resurrection then fine, but if you claim as “fact” passages in a book that amount to nothing more than hearsay, don’t be surprised if others scoff at you as gullible, credulous or even deceitful. Say rather that you believe the Bible story because you have faith, but don’t start bandying the narrative about as “fact” unless you can prove it beyond all reasonable doubt.

    • We don’t even know if there was an empty tomb: the earliest account of it, in Mark’s Gospel, dates from A.D. 70, some forty years after Jesus’ death. We don’t know where Mark was written, or who its author was. (It’s attributed to John Mark from the 2nd century on.)

      Paul doesn’t mention an empty tomb, or the women, in his 1 Corinthians 15 resurrection account: he instead says that Jesus appeared to Peter, the disciples, apostles, 500 unnamed Christians, James, and finally Paul himself. Fascinatingly, Paul groups his experience with the others, which contradicts the Luke-Acts account, which places Paul’s Damascene conversion after Jesus’ ascension to heaven.

      The gospel resurrection accounts grow more elaborate, from Mark’s sparse version (later expanded), to Matthew’s Cecil B. DeMille spectacular. It’s a lot easier to mine them for info on the beliefs of the early church than it is to uncover the underlying events. We know that Jesus was crucified; we know that his followers came to believe he conquered death in some way; beyond that, it’s a question of faith.

      • Hmm…that’s a slightly odd argument. For one, most believe Mark was written before 70 for a number of reasons, and there is good evidence (e.g. the fact that he does not need to name the high priest) that any ur-text was very early indeed. There is powerful evidence that it expresses Peter’s perspective (see comment in the second half of this http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/can-leaders-say-i-am-sorry-i-was-wrong/).

        Paul doesn’t mention the empty tomb? Why would he need to, when he talks so often about Jesus’ resurrection?

        I don’t think your Cecile B deMille comment rings true. Compared with non-canonical accounts (like Gospel of Peter) all four are remarkably low key. Assuming John’s is the latest, it is striking how unelaborated it is, and how it simply does not describe ‘the resurrection’ as there was no eye-witnesses to it.

        • Corinthians’ omission of an empty tomb isn’t so interesting as the fact that Paul lists his resurrection experience as being of a kind with those of the other disciples: if we go by Acts, since it was post-ascension, Paul’s vision wasn’t a resurrection experience at all.

          I agree that Matthew has nothing on the tripped-out gnosticism of Peter, but angels from heaven, earthquakes, and a hoard of resurrected saints descending on Jerusalem are plenty to be getting on with.

          Mark is usually placed around A.D. 70, either in the late 60s, or just after the destruction of the Temple, but this is, admittedly, informed guesswork, especially when it moves on to proto-Mark.

          • ‘Paul lists his resurrection experience as being of a kind with those of the other disciples’ Except that he doesn’t. He clearly distinguishes his own encounter as ‘ektrauma’, as abnormal.

      • I am also curious as to your own position. In other comments, you have appeared to present as someone within the community of faith. But on this, you appear to present as someone outside it.

        • Probably ’cause I’m separating faith & history. 🙂

          My religious position is somewhere between Paul Tillich and Don Cupitt: ideally, I should be able to set that aside when looking at the sources.

    • Etienne, thanks for the comments. I don’t know what you have done in the way of biblical studies, but the comments you make are a long way from current scholarship on the NT.

      ‘Firstly, there are no “facts”, just hearsay. All we have are ancient writings corroborated by no indepedent physical, archaeological or historical evidence whatsoever.’ Actually, that is not the case. Leading NT scholars such as Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham have won the consensus that the gospels are ancient ‘lives’ which match the best in standards for their time as ‘factual’ history–and a number of these measures are close to what we would expect.

      Second, in the scholarship of John’s gospel, the consistent track record is that what was thought to be the ‘spiritual’ gospel with no historical value has been proved by archaeology to be historically reliable. The best-known example is of the five porticoes at the pool of Bethesda in John 5.

      ‘Until the 19th century, there was no evidence outside of John’s Gospel for the existence of this pool; therefore, scholars argued that the gospel was written later, probably by someone without first-hand knowledge of the city of Jerusalem, and that the ‘pool’ had only a metaphorical, rather than historical, significance.[1] In the 19th century, archaeologists discovered the remains of a pool fitting the description in John’s Gospel.'[from Wikipedia]

      ‘When Jesus heals the paralytic in the Gospel of John, the Bethesda Pool is described as having five porticoes—a puzzling feature suggesting an unusual five-sided pool, which most scholars dismissed as an unhistorical literary creation. Yet when this site was excavated, it revealed a rectangular pool with two basins separated by a wall—thus a five-sided pool—and each side had a portico.’ from http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/the-bethesda-pool-site-of-one-of-jesus’-miracles/

      Something similar has happened in relation to the stone water jars in John 2.

      Thirdly, ‘If you’re faced with many versions of a story, is it likely you’d choose 4 completely different ones to make your holy book? Or would you be more likely to choose similar stories that back each other up?’ Well, your comment here is simply disproved by the diversity of the stories, as Ravi below comments. Lack of divergence and apparent contradiction did not, in fact, play a part in decisions about canon. What did matter is whether the gospels represented reliable eye-witness testimony.

      • I have done absolutely nothing in the way of biblical studies and didn’t realize that faith required a university degree. Do people with master’s degrees in theology get to heaven quicker than common garden bachelors? And at what point during undergraduate studies do you go from unsaved to saved?

        In any case, if architectural details are all the proof required of the veracity of a story, I guess I’ll have to start believing not only in the Gospels, but also in Dan Brown’s inventive narratives about Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail. After all, he’s been to the Louvre and gives a very accurate account of its internal layout. So everything else must be true too, right?

        Your “evidence” proves nothing except that whoever wrote the relevant passage had knowledge of the layout of a building. It doesn’t put him in the building at the time of the events he claims took place there any more than Dan Brown was in the Louvre to see a ritual murder.

        Tall stories (the Holy Grail, the Resurrection…) remain firmly in the realm of fiction until firm evidence proves them to be true. Unless, of course, you just decide they’re true on faith alone. Which is totally your prerogative. But if you want to persuade others then you need something more concrete than a floor plan.

        • I thought you must have done, because you made such sweeping and (in my view) rather sweeping comments about what could and could not be known in relation to the NT.

          The big difference between the NT and Dan Brown is precisely that his stories are based on a twisting of the facts and are easily disproved.

          But you said on another post ‘Whatever happens eventually, my current concern is the here and now. And in that here and now there is precisely zero chance of me being able to marry in an Anglican church. So I’m going to leave you all to your “facilitated conversations” (a.k.a. bald-faced filibustering) and get on with my life in a church that takes me seriously.’

          If you believe that the resurrection is fiction, then I don’t think it is a Christian church you are looking for as a home.

  3. Great piece, Ian. Thanks. And thanks James for the Sanders quote. I would summarise/synthesise your two positions as: it seems clear that the disciples had res experiences (as per Sanders) and that the tomb was empty (as per Vermes?) and the resurrection is actually the simplest and most effective explanation for both these facts. Stolen body or psychological theories don’t account for ET. So, Occam’s razor (or Sherlock’s Law?) could support the orthodox view…

    Meanwhile, I had to laugh at Etiennes suggestion that the church produced a non-contradictory account of Jesus’ life. All I can say is they didn’t have a very good continuity editor for that final scene….

    • In his resurrection debate with William Lane Craig, Bart Ehrman made the point that, in historiography, *any* natural explanation, however out-there, beats a supernatural one. HIs inventive example was the theft of Jesus’ body by grave robbers who met their end at the hands of a Roman patrol.

      This can run into the gleefully absurd: how about a time traveller who goes back, finds no resurrection, and, in one of those paradoxes beloved of sci-fi, stages it? That fits the evidence just as well as a supernatural event, and since it’s natural, it’s by definition more likely.

      I’m not mocking faith here, but illustrating the hopelessness of making evidential judgments about miracles.

      • Yes, I read the Ehrman/Craig debate (I know Craig a little). I think Craig offers an answer, though (like Ehrman) I didn’t find Craig’s mathematical expression of it very helpful.

        There are a couple of important things that you time traveller and Ehrman’s theft theories don’t engage with. Firstly, it is not simply a question of testing any old explanation: one is actually on offer, from the lips of the disciples and the testimony of the NT, and it is this one (Jesus’ resurrection) that we need to assess.

        Secondly, imagine this scenario. You know someone who, as a teenager, had a serious accident which left them with one leg shorter than the other. This was a real medical and psychological issue for this person. Some years later, this person was prayed for, and the shorter leg actually grew to the same length as the longer one. Someone took a video and this is posted on YouTube. But the key thing is–this person is a friend of mine, so I am listening to first hand testimony. And this person is a BBC radio presenter, so not someone given to fantasy. What is the best explanation for this?

        It is quite clear that Ehrman’s dictat that ‘*any* natural explanation, however out-there, beats a supernatural one’ is simply not true. And I don’t think you can argue that, once it becomes a written historical event, the game changes. I am sure my example (a real life one, a friend of mine) will be written up, and I don’t think the criteria for assessment will then change.

        So Craig was quite right in his observation: Ehrman’s assumption was metaphysical and ideological, and does not belong to the realm of historical assessment.

        • Ehrman’s point wasn’t so much that natural explanations beat supernatural explanations, but rather, that historiography isn’t equipped to assess miracle claims.

          Principle extends to science: your example of the regrowing leg may, on examination, defy explanation. All a scientist can say at that point is, “I don’t know what happened.”

          It may be that the leg regenerated and Jesus rose, but when it comes to the supernatural, disciplines rooted in naturalism have to take a position of principled agnosticism.

    • Ravi, thanks. I have been struck, rereading them in a Synopsis, how divergent they are. But I think there is a strong case to see this as a feature of eyewitness testimony from different perspectives.

      Have you ever read ‘The Easter Enigma’ by John Wenham? He offers a historical account of all the events.

    • So Christianity has nothing to do with the person of Christ or the message he communicated, but everything to do with a single miraculous event. No resurrection, no faith, eh?

      What moves me about Christ is not what the chroniclers say he did, or the miracles they claim for him. That all reads like fiction written by a bunch of boys boasting about how their superhero has better superpowers than anyone else’s superhero.

      I mean, imagine a Christ without superpowers. No resurrection, no miracles, just a man with a profoundly moving message. I don’t think many people can imagine such a Christ, because their understanding of divinity is like their understanding of Superman. If Superman can’t fly through the air and leap tall buildings in one bound, he can’t be a superhero. And if Christ can’t come back from the dead and turn water into wine, he can’t be the son of God.

      But why? Why isn’t Christ’s message enough to sustain faith? Why must he have superpowers too? And why must the Christian faith be conditioned upon belief in those superpowers?

      • Well said, Etienne. The liberal Christianity you describe has a fine history. Problem is, it’s a secret history.

        Modernist theologians like Bultmann and Tillich should be better known. They liberated Christianity from the cosmology of the 1st century A.D., but that liberation has become a trade secret, quarantined in seminaries. Attempts to popularize it have been made by bishops like Robinson and Spong, but with the institutional weight of the church against them, it’s yet to take root.

        By contrast the great strength of evangelicalism is its integrity: it draws no distinction between seminary and pew. Liberalism ought to learn from that example, and do away with its elitism. If its advocates look ashamed of their beliefs then why should anyone join them?

        • James, the reason that Bultmann et al are kept secret in seminaries is that he has been proved to be completely inadequate. He did not understand the context of the first century (nor did he understand his own culture); he mistakenly thought that the ideas of the gospels were Greek philosophy read back into the historical Jesus; his notion of demythologising was based on an unconvincing epistemology. The thing that is against him and Spong is not institutional weight so much as convincing argument. Few NT courses will even bother with Bultmann now.

          • Specifics of Bultmann’s work have, as you say, been superseded, but the demythologization mechanism outlined in “The New Testament and Mythology” remains compelling.

            The NT is framed by the cosmology of the 1st century, something illustrated most starkly in the ascension story, which assumes a three-tiered universe. The split between “natural” and “supernatural” is a modern attempt to harmonize the fruits of ancient cosmology with later discoveries. As Bultmann said, the two are incompatible.

            Looking for Bultmann’s kerygma allows the gospel to transcend the limits of 1st century knowledge. Acknowledging our fallibility is a profoundly humble epistemology.

          • ‘the demythologization mechanism outlined in “The New Testament and Mythology” remains compelling’

            Not to anyone who has read anything about hermeneutics. Bultmann is suppressing the horizon of the text by his own, dominant, horizon of thought, which he takes as axiomatic.

        • I’m not sure whether my Christianity is liberal or not. It’s my own personal interpretation once I realized the eight year old boys turned dads were just doing in church what they used to do in front of TV cartoons.

          Quite frankly miracles and resurrections don’t interest me. They can’t be proven, so rather than accept the unlikely on faith and leave myself open to accusations of gullibility and credulousness (accusations which I hasten to add come from me rather than anyone else), the only alternative is to look past all the magic and see if what remains makes any sense. And it seems to.

          Those who need the magic are welcome to it. …

          • Etienne, I have clipped your post since in it you are simply declaring your own views to be right, and anyone else to be a fool.

            You are very welcome to contribute, but please do so

            a. by actually engaging with the issues and

            b. doing so respectfully of the views of others.


      • ‘No resurrection, no faith, eh?’ Yes, that is correct. According to Paul ‘If Christ was not raised, then our preaching is empty and so is your faith’. (1 Cor 15.14). Paul’s preaching was about ‘Jesus and resurrection’ (Acts 17.3 and 17.18).

        Why did he say that? Because that is what Jesus said. The promised kingdom of God—the centre of Jesus’ teaching—came in his person and through his actions. ‘If by the finger of God I drive out the demons, then the finger of God has come upon you’ (Luke 11.20). ‘I am the resurrection and the life…no-one comes to the Father but by me’ (John 11.25, John 14.6).

        The ‘liberal’ gospel that you mention does not carry much weight since it is not true either to Jesus himself or the first teaching about him.

        • In other words, it’s all about superheroes.

          I always suspected the same sentiments that drive eight year old boys to worship Superman in front of the TV on Saturday also motivate their dads in church on Sunday. Hardly surprising considering most of the first group turns into (I hesitate to say “grows up”) into the second.

          Did Jesus propagate his own superhero myth or was it written like that by more of those eight year old boys who “grew up” clutching a quill?

          But then history always has been written by the victors.

          • ‘In other words, it’s all about superheroes’. In one sense, yes it is. It is about what God has done for us, which we cannot do for ourselves—bring what is dead to life. That is the heart of the gospel. The opposite is moralism—what we might do for ourselves, others or God.

            Of course, this can be misused to make us either passive or less than human. But the testimony of the NT is that, rightly understood, this good news—and this alone—is truly transformative and energising of human life.

            You are entitled to be cynical about human motives, but there is within that always a danger of mocking what God has done.

        • Since Jesus of Nazareth believed in an imminent eschaton, *no* theology can be “true” to him, for the simple reason that we’re still here. Albert Schweitzer’s observation that we remake Jesus in our image is as devastating as it’s accurate, and goes right back to the gospel portraits.

          The millenarian prophet of Casey and Allison passes the Schweitzer test but presents a radical challenge to the church. Liberal theology’s strength is in slaying sacred cows and following the evidence wherever it leads. If it can find a way to embrace the eschatological Jesus of history, it could build the most authentic theology of all.

          • ‘Since Jesus of Nazareth believed in an imminent eschaton…’ I don’t think he did, and I don’t think the gospel writers thought he did either. I don’t agree with Schweizer.

  4. Pannenberg suggests that the “footprint” left in history by the resurrection is the community of faith…….

    • Yes, which is my last point. But it is interesting that the gospel accounts themselves want to suggest other evidence is there too. They themselves do not separate history from experience…

  5. Thanks again Ian. Reading the comments above reminds me of a saying from Prof George Caird, “Christianity appeals to history and to history it must go”!

  6. Hmm. I find your definition of “evidence” and “facts” to be somewhat broader than what most people would accept in their normal life. How can you claim historicity based on a piece of writing in which the claims are made? By that standard, all religions are true, and factual, and historical. What makes the gospel accounts different from those other religious claims that you apply “historic” and “fact” to them? (And I mean this question extremely seriously; I really would love to know)

    • Alexander, thanks for comment–welcome! One could spend a whole book answering this question (and in fact a good, though older one, would be ‘I Believe in the Historical Jesus’ by Howard Marshall).

      The history of NT scholarship in the last 300 years goes something like this. In the 18th century, it was felt to be an embarrassment that the NT talked about the miraculous, and this was an obstacle to faith amongst intellectuals, not least with the rise of Enlightenment thinking and its ‘positivist’ view of knowledge, particularly under the influence of people like Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that there are two kinds of knowledge: the empirically verifiable, which was ‘true’, and the aesthetic, which could never be verified, but was still of some value in giving beauty and ornament to life. Theology belonged to the second kind, and not the first, therefore so did the NT. So the NT was understood to be making few if any historical claims.

      This led to a process to discern the historical core behind the theological texts of the NT, using various criteria. A minimum was found–that Jesus existed, that he taught about the kingdom of God, and that he probably thought the world was about to end. That was it. All else was the theological creation of the early church after the event.

      The long journey since then in scholarship is to recognise that life is not actually as Kant suggested. Language is inherently metaphorical, as are all our truth claims, and even science shares this structure in its formulation of hypotheses.

      So in the NT, we do in fact have historical claims, though these are always in the context of being interpreted, not just as ‘bare facts’. This is because they are testimony to what happened and to the meaning of what happened—which again is what we find in contemporary testimony. Facts are always selected and presented so as to make sense of them, to understand their significance.

      There is now a really good body of evidence that the gospel accounts give us a reliable, accurate picture of life in first century Judea/Samaria/Galilee. Archaeology continues to confirm this, and (in part as a result) there is a widespread consensus, even amongst ‘secular’ scholars, that the gospels were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses and were circulated freely amongst those eyewitnesses. (This is a big change from the dominant view, say, 50 years ago.)

      This concern for holding together history and testimony is distinctive to the Christian tradition, and is not something you find in the same way in the Quran, or in the mythologies of Hinduism or the teachings of the Buddha. The key reason for this is that the Christian ‘good news’ (gospel) has always been that God has done something–something has happened in history–and not simply some collection of teachings or truth.

      (I think it is credible to argue that this conviction is in fact behind Western thinking about history, science and facticity…)

      Does that start to engage with your question?

  7. Hiya,

    Thanks for that extensive reply. A few follow-up questions;

    “Facts are always selected and presented so as to make sense of them”

    I thoughts facts were supposed to be free from selection and interpretation? Ie, that’s why they’re facts, and not opinion?

    “the gospels were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses”

    I see a very broad span here, and find it hard to get to some consensus about this. Given the number of years after the fact and the average lifespan for people of the time, what do we know about this? What can be said for certain about it?

    “[it] is not something you find in the same way in the Quran, or in the mythologies of Hinduism or the teachings of the Buddha” and “something has happened in history–and not simply some collection of teachings or truth.”

    Hmm. All of the above have writings and religious importance rooted in various degrees of history where testimony is an important part of their doctrine (and, well, Hinduism can’t even be claimed to be a religion as much as a merger practices and beliefs and perhaps not really comparable?).

    The Quoran has quite a bit of historic relevant doctrine baked into it, and their Tawatur sounds quite similar to the blend of oral and historic writing you speak of. Are there some distinction between them that makes either more or less reliable?

    In Buddhism and especially the Dhammapada there’s plenty of contextual actual events for each verse, even if neither concentrate on one single event (which, frankly, for the most part neither do the gospels). But of course it also comes out of a much older tradition in a far less literate region, so hard to trace as such, and even harder to pin down into a collection (as it was widespread before more common literacy kicked in).

    A stronger contender still is Zoroaster, turning up in quite a few other religions, as well as baking in history and a philosophy that’s oral until literacy kicks in (through some movement of culture). But this is just an example of some religious figure somewhat attached to history. I wonder what makes Jesus better attached than others?

    To bring it back; yes, Christianity certainly has a stronger link to at least one major event (most other events somewhat harder to pin down, and strictly, it’s not pinned down to a historical event as much as historical figures), but I don’t think you mean that Christianity is unique in some way which makes it “more true” as all the religions are unique in *some* way? So we have to focus on the reliability of the gospels as historical retellings, yes? Which brings us to ;

    “There is now a really good body of evidence that the gospel accounts give us a reliable, accurate picture of life in first century Judea/Samaria/Galilee.”

    Well, it depends on what – exactly – you are referring to by “life”. If you mean the cultural stuff, the gospels are on even footing with other contemporary writing, including Greek and Roman philosophy and myths, Buddhism and so on; they all are texts that accurately picture the culture in their context at a given time, so you must mean something more than this, I think. Is the gospel’s accurate description of a Roman foot soldier’s sandal considered evidence of any claims made *outside* of the strictly cultural? Because we all know that the juicy parts are the claims of the fantastical, yes? 🙂

    So, how do we get from “accurate depiction of the cultural context it was written in” to “miracles are hence true”? This is the bit that has me confused the most.

    • I don’t think I can answer all these divergent points in one response…and we are moving some way away from the original post. Just a couple of reflections:

      ‘I thoughts facts were supposed to be free from selection and interpretation? Ie, that’s why they’re facts, and not opinion?’ Well, someone has recently said ‘Facts were invented in the 18th Century.’ The idea that we can express ‘facts’ quite separate from their interpretive framework is now widely recognised as the hubris of the Enlightenment/modernist project.

      And, yes, I think Christianity is a uniquely historical religion. The other examples you cite do not have public, historical events at their core in the same way. This post from another blog makes the point well.

      ‘This belief has been a source of contention with many people, even Christians, in the past. But the more I research, the more I find it to be the case that Christianity is the only viable worldview that is historically defensible. The central claims of the Bible demand historic inquiry, as they are based on public events that can be historically verified. In contrast, the central claims of all other religions cannot be historically tested and, therefore, are beyond falsifiability or inquiry. They just have to be believed with blind faith.

      Think about it: The believer in the Islamic faith has to trust in a private encounter Muhammad had, and this encounter is unable to be tested historically. We have no way to truly investigate the claims of Joseph Smith (and when we do, they are found wanting). Buddhism and Hinduism are not historic faiths, meaning they don’t have central claims of events in time and space which believers are called upon to investigate. You either adopt their philosophy or you don’t. There is no objective way to test them. Run through every religion that you know of and you will find this to be the case: Either it does not give historic details to the central event, the event does not carry any worldview-changing significance, or there are no historic events which form the foundation of the faith.’

      You comment ‘So, how do we get from “accurate depiction of the cultural context it was written in” to “miracles are hence true”? This is the bit that has me confused the most.’

      I don’t think we do, immediately. But what we do have is a set of historical facts, for which there is good evidence, which call for an explanation. So I think you either need to dispute the facts or offer a more convincing explanation. I don’t think this is the case with other religious traditions.

      • Hi Ian, and thanks for the reply. I appreciate that not all these questions are fit for this blog post, and recognize that we both have busy lives, hence this somewhat late reply. 🙂

        “… separate from their interpretive framework …”

        Could you explain this one? Why is it hubris? I can understand that too little or too much context can render “a fact” pointless, but regardless of which way one means “fact”, the truth is always the primary consideration, and hence “interpretation of a framework” when there are a multitude of such should still imply the framework we mostly agree on, no? Otherwise the word is synonymous with opinion. (And facts since the 18th century is probably meant as scientific facts; the word was used much earlier than that, but still in a similar fashion, especially philosophy) My initial reaction here was your use of “interpretation” which implies a far sloppier treatment of the word than more commonly used.

        “The other examples you cite do not have public, historical events at their core in the same way”

        I agree with you to a large degree, but just to be clear; what public, historical events are at the core of Christianity that you are thinking about?

        “The central claims of the Bible demand historic inquiry, as they are based on public events that can be historically verified.”

        Hmm, that’s not true? The central claims of the Bible are the ones about the super-natural, ie. what we cannot gleam from historic events. That those claims lives in history is, well, not really surprising, though? Take something like, oh, I don’t know, transubstantiation, for example; there are some central claim to its religious importance and meaning, but none of those are proven or disproven through any historic event.

        Unless you mean the resurrection specifically, about being alive, then killed, and then alive again? If that event had contemporary historic evidence then that would certainly be good evidence, but that’s not the case. I guess I’m a bit unsure about what you mean by a historic event as evidence of central bible claims?

        “There is no objective way to test them.”

        What do you mean by objective in this case?

        “I don’t think this is the case with other religious traditions.”

        I don’t know. One could question both Mohammed and Buddhas historical existence, even important events in their history, or archaeological artifacts of their time, just like with Christianity / Judaism. I’m really interested in what grounds the latter more formally in history than others. Surely the historical self-records of Egyptians (which is far superior in many ways to Jewish records) say very little about the validity of Egyptian gods?

        Again, I agree with Christianity being in the middle of an interesting historic and physical place, but what can be said about the link between the historical and the spiritual? I like what you write;

        “which call for an explanation”

        So how do we explain? Probabilities? Similarities? Historicity? Plausibilities? Revelation? Imagination? Interpretation?

        I guess the answer is; all of the above?

  8. Ian
    Another fantastic post – a very sound apologetic for the truth of the Resurrection.
    Wishing you a Blessed Easter

    • Thanks, Peter. What I find fascinating about the comments is the general reluctance to actually engage with the questions of whether these things happened and what we might infer from them.

      • I have no reluctance in engaging ‘with the questions of whether these things actually happened and what we might infer from them’. You state in a reply to Alexander (who certainly does seem to be engaging with the issues!), ‘The idea that we can express “facts” quite separate from their interpretive framework is now widely recognised as the hubris of the Enlightenment/modernist project.’ But it appears that in your blog, you seek to present the ‘facts’ without any such framework and then suggest what you understand to be the only interpretative framework which satisfactorily explains these ‘facts’. It is not surprising that ‘the only plausible explanation [of these ‘facts’] is that something extraordinary happened, and the notion that Jesus was raised back to life is the only one that fits these facts’, when the ‘facts’ are drawn from documents for which Jesus being raised back to life is a fundamental interpretative plank. At least to some extent, it seems you have to dissect the facts out of their interpretative framework first, then put them back in again – into the same interpretative framework from which you removed them in the first place, stating that ‘alternative explanations either contradict well-established facts, or they cannot explain these phenomena’. It seems to me that this is a very-well developed practice in the Church, performed with considerable sophistication by some very clever theologians (and hence often difficult to argue against as a relatively uninformed ‘lay person’) as well as by ‘the person in the pew’.

        However, the facts are only well-established (or ‘well attested’ as you state earlier) on the basis of the New Testament itself – there is little or (probably) no independent evidence that: 1) Jesus died on the cross; 2) he was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb; 3) his tomb was found to be empty. In relation to point 4), there is the remarkable spread of Christianity to account for … just as we have the remarkable spread of some other religions to account for … or, indeed, the remarkable spread of some stories in the media today (particularly social media), or other rumours, which prove at best to be inaccurate. If one doesn’t have confidence that the New Testament is a reliable source for such ‘facts’, there is really nothing to go on.

        Archaeology doesn’t help in this respect. For example, you state that John’s gospel ‘has been proved by archaeology to be historically accurate’, but I think that is somewhat misleading. In certain respects it has been shown to be accurate, but in terms of its portrayal of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, there IS no archaeological evidence (aside, of course, from the textual evidence of the New Testament itself). There is no archaeological evidence for the stories about Jesus, nor, of course, for the miracles, nor for the empty tomb – and certainly not for the resurrection or the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (and presumably these are the aspects of the Gospels which are important for faith … or for establishing the ‘facts’ about Jesus).

        You state that ‘there is now an overwhelming consensus amongst scholars that all four gospels were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses’ (which I think may be an overstatment – but it makes no difference to my point), but that certainly doesn’t prove that what they say about Jesus is accurate. People’s memories of events VERY quickly become skewed or coloured – and here I speak from plenty of firsthand experience as well as lots of secondhand experience, hearing different people’s accounts of events that have taken place very recently, not least at ‘healing meetings’ or in relation to other ‘miracles’. For many people (including me now), what they (we) read in the Gospels in particular, seems too distant from what they (we) know of the realities of life (e.g., in terms of the miracles and the references to demons) to be accepted as ‘reliable historical information’. And, in addition, it seems abundantly clear that in terms of precise details, the Gospels differ from one another according to the perspective/purpose of the writer/editor(s).

        The Gospels ARE remarkable works (as, indeed, is the whole New Testament, if not the whole Bible). But I find it more likely that they are based on stories (or ‘legends’, if one prefers) which grew up around Jesus soon after his death, and some probably even before his death. It seems likely to me that the differences between the Gospels are well explained on the basis of the retelling of shared stories for different audiences (with, probably, a degree of editing at later points). This would also fit well with the ways in which the Gospel accounts differ from my experience of life (for example, I have never experienced anything that I would call a miracle, though I have experienced some amazing things which I couldn’t easily explain – some of these having nothing whatsoever to do with religion).

        My own story – as you know – is that I was a Christian believer (and a pastor for a while and a teacher of Biblical Studies for many years, though mostly Old Testament) who became less and less convinced by the biblical accounts. I examined the evidence for myself (so far as I could), read widely, considering a range of different perspectives on the ‘evidence for the resurrection’, and talked to many Christians (including ‘people in the pew’, pastors, bishops, theologians). I increasingly found the evidence to be unconvincing (though I very much wanted it to be otherwise) – and I gave up a job I loved as a result. That is to say, I seriously engaged ‘with the questions of whether these things actually happened and what we might infer from them’, and came to very different conclusions from what you argue here. There’s much more that could be said, of course – particularly about ‘the interpretative framework’ – but that’ll have to do for now!

  9. “Take it [the resurrection] away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfilment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity is a religion for wimps. Put it back, and you have a faith that can take on the postmodern world which looks to Marx, Freud & Nietzsche for its prophets, with the Easter news that the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.” Tom Wright.

  10. Hi Ian
    Reading the comments on your post as a medieval historian, I’m struck by people’s scepticism about the memory of past authors which they rarely apply to the present day. At the moment there are numerous interviews being rebroadcast with WW1 veterans. They claim to recall events of 70 years previously and the vividness of their descriptions and the profound and deeply affecting nature of what they describe means that essentially we believe them (certainly the broadcasters do, the Imperial War Museum does, and I suspect 99% of viewers do too). If they can vividly recall at that distance, it should not be difficult to accept that witnesses of the resurrection – which must have been a profoundly disturbing, astonishing and then life-changing experience – could recall it in AD 70 or 80. Assuming it happened c. AD 30 that’s as far back now as the Kennedy assassination, and I know plenty of people who can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard that news, and picture it vividly. And I believe them! So let’s apply historically criteria fairly and rigorously. It bolsters the claims of the gospel writers, but not – as you say – the claims of the apocryphal material like the Gospel of Peter.

  11. The veracity of the Christian religion rises or falls on the veracity of the Resurrection and the veracity of the Resurrection rises or falls on the historicity of the alleged post-death appearances of Jesus to his followers. Christians believe that the appearance stories in the Gospels and in the Early Creed are historical facts based primarily on the following:

    1. There were so many alleged eyewitnesses to these appearances, sometimes in large groups.
    2. These alleged appearances had a dramatic effect on the character of those who witnessed them.
    3. These alleged appearances were the impetus for many early Christians to be willing to be tortured and painfully executed for their belief in the veracity of these appearances.
    4. These Resurrection appearances were the primary reason for the rapid growth of Christianity.

    Question: Are these facts sufficient evidence to believe that a three-day-brain-dead first century corpse really did come back to life possessing supernatural powers; supernatural powers which allowed him to teleport between cities, walk through locked doors, and levitate into space? Before you answer that question I ask you to watch this Youtube video:


    In this video, HUNDREDS of very devout, sincere people of faith believe that a woman who has been dead for 20 centuries is appearing to them. I have no doubt that at least some of these “eyewitnesses” would be willing to suffer great persecution and even death defending their belief that this event really happened.

    Based on the very large number of eyewitnesses to this event and upon their very intense, sincere belief that this very extra-ordinary event really occurred…should we believe them?

    Answer: Absolutely not!

    Why? These people are very obviously experiencing an illusion. There is no dead woman to be seen anywhere in the video. Collective human experience would suggest that this is very likely what happened in the first century with the early Christians. The appearance stories in the Early Creed of First Corinthians 15, the earliest description we have of these alleged events, make no mention of a talking, walking, broiled-fish-eating Jesus. If the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels are literary embellishments, perfectly acceptable in a Greco-Roman biography as evangelical Christian New Testament scholar Michael Licona has demonstrated in his recent book, Why are There Differences in the Gospels?, it is quite possible that the actual early Christian appearance claims were based on illusions, similar to the one seen in the Youtube video above.


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