The Historical Argument (II)

My last post commenced a series exploring the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I will look at the evidence we have for seven facts, and then examine how we can explain them. The relevant facts are:

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • His body was buried.
  • His tomb was found empty.
  • The disciples had experiences they believed to be of the resurrected Jesus.
  • Paul’s life was changed, reportedly because of an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
  • James’ life was changed, reportedly because of an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
  • Before his death, Jesus claimed to have a unique relationship with God.

In my last post I also presented a few reasons for accepting the historical reliability of the New Testament writings. (Only briefly, because so much has been written on that subject elsewhere.) Again, the argument is not that these writings are Scripture and therefore they are reliable – that would be circular reasoning. Rather, when we treat them as we would any other historical documents, we find that there are indications of historical reliability, so that we have reason to trust them.

The general historical reliability of the New Testament is sufficient to establish the above facts, but it is worth looking into them in more detail, so that is what I will begin doing here.

Jesus Was Crucified

We have a number of accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, most obviously in the Gospels, but the event is also referenced in the letters of Paul, and there is really no good reason to doubt that it occurred. There are some among the “Jesus mythicism” camp who claim that the Gospel accounts are later inventions, and the early references in Paul’s letters were mythical rather than historical statements. Frankly, these mythicist claims are about as well-regarded among historians as are flat earth claims among physicists, but it is good to look at a couple of reasons why this is the case.

First, Jesus is clearly thought of as a historical figure, not a mythical figure, in the letters of Paul. Paul writes that Jesus was a man born of Jewish descent who had real flesh-and-blood brothers. Paul had even met at least one of these brothers, James, in person. (Tim O’Neill goes into more detail about Paul’s reference to James in this post on his excellent “History for Atheists” blog.) And for that matter, Jesus is also clearly represented as historical in the Gospels.

Second, the idea that Jesus was crucified is extremely unlikely to have been invented, for the simple reason that crucifixion was regarded as an incredibly shameful and humiliating way to die. Roman writer Cicero called crucifixion so horrendous that it was unsuitable for Roman citizens to even contemplate. Jews held crucifixion to be a sure sign of having been cursed by God. For early Christians to invent a crucifixion for their Christ would have been asking for ridicule.

Third, there is simply no evidence that any early “mythical” form of Christianity ever existed. We have writings of opponents of Christianity and writings defending orthodox Christian beliefs from various heresies, and none of these even come close to hinting that there was ever a time when Christians did not believe that Jesus lived and died (and lived again) in the early first century.

On top of all that, we have clear references to the crucifixion of Jesus in non-Christian accounts, principally those of Josephus and Tacitus. That these two secular historians record this event (less than a century after the fact, and corroborating details of the event such as the trial under Pilate, and also the origin of Christianity in Judea) is strong evidence of its historicity.

(Incidentally, from the information in the Gospel accounts we can place the crucifixion on Friday, April 3, 33 CE, at around 3:00pm.)

Jesus was Buried

The burial of Jesus is widely considered to be among the most well-established facts about Jesus, taking second place after the fact of his crucifixion. (His baptism takes third place, incidentally.) We have multiple early sources for the burial:

  • The passion narrative (theorized to be an oral tradition forming one of the sources used in writing the Gospel of Mark, dated to within 7 years after the crucifixion) includes the account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, with details about the manner of burial and the kind of tomb used.
  • The additional sources used for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke corroborate the details of the burial. (These additional sources are recognized as independent from the Passion narrative by most scholars.)
  • The Gospel of John corroborates the details of the burial. (John is recognized as an independent source by most scholars.)
  • The early Christian creed preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (dated to within 5 years after the crucifixion) states that Jesus was buried.
  • The sermons of the apostles in Acts, for example in Acts 13, mention the burial. Though written down by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, these are very likely to have been summarized from what the apostles actually preached.

There are parallels between the passion narrative in Mark, the early creed in 1 Corinthians, and the apostolic sermons in Acts which scholars take to be indications of their historicity. (They all follow the same basic outline: Jesus was crucified, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.) That is, these parallels make it likely that the independent oral traditions used in the different sources all developed from what was actually being said in the early first century about the burial of Jesus.

Thus, there is multiple, independent, early attestation of the burial; good odds in favour of historicity. But on top of that, one of the strongest arguments for the historicity of the burial is the identity of the person who is reported to have done it: Joseph of Arimathea.

It is highly unlikely that Joseph of Arimathea is a Christian invention. The early Christians were not really on good terms with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council: they accused the religious elites of having engineered the death of Jesus by judicial murder. Hence, there is very little chance that Christians would have invented an account speaking so positively about a member of that council.

Occasionally, skeptics reject the burial account as implausible because in a typical Roman crucifixion, the body would be left to hang on a cross and rot, and then be disposed of unceremoniously in a common grave. However, we have evidence that it was normal for the Jews to have the bodies taken down and buried, a practice which developed from the command in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, and there is a passage in Josephus’ The Jewish War which gives evidence that the Romans allowed the Jews to do just that. So the burial account really is not all that implausible.

Thus, we can be reasonably certain that after his crucifixion, Jesus was buried, and moreover, that he was buried by one Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb cut into the rock, with a stone rolled over the entrance.

The Tomb Was Found Empty

The Gospels report that on the Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion, his tomb was found empty by a group of women who were among his followers. This fact can be reasonably established as historical for the following reasons.

First, the historical reliability of the burial account supports the empty tomb account. According to the burial account the location of Jesus’ tomb was known, since he was buried by a prominent member of the Jewish religious council, and his burial was observed by some of his women followers. But in that case, Jesus’ tomb must have been empty by the time the disciples began proclaiming that he had been raised from the dead. Otherwise, their proclamation would not have gotten off the ground.

Neither the disciples nor anyone else in Jerusalem would have believed in the resurrection if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb. In his massive tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright shows that the Jewish concept of resurrection was a that of a physical, bodily resurrection. Your body was an essential part of you in Jewish thought. Someone could not be raised from the dead if their body was still dead in the ground: the best that could happen to you in that case was your spirit being assumed into heaven, to await the resurrection that would happen in the end times.

So the disciples of Jesus, all of them Jews, would not have believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead if his corpse was still kicking around. And no one else would have believed them when they started preaching. Since the location of the tomb was known, it is highly implausible that no one would have gone to check it out. Even if the corpse was decayed beyond recognition, the claim that it was Jesus’ corpse would have been eminently believable – it was in his tomb, after all, and a number of features would have still been identifiable (sex, height, crucifixion wounds).

If the location of the tomb was known, the Jewish authorities would have used it to refute the resurrection claim if they could have. They were understandably concerned about the Christian movement, as we see in Acts and as is testified by the apostle Paul – just as they were concerned about Jesus himself, enough to have him crucified. But there is no record of a dispute about whether or not the tomb was empty, or about the identification of Jesus’ remains. Instead, we have a dispute about whether or not the body had been stolen! (More on that in a moment.)

So the fact that Jesus was buried in a known location provides good support for the empty tomb.

Second, the empty tomb account is itself fairly well-established. We have many of the same early, independent sources for the empty tomb account as we have for the burial account, including the passion narrative in Mark and the account in John. (This is hardly surprising, since the early Christians were not likely to circulate a story that ended with Jesus in the tomb.) Moreover, the parallels between Mark’s passion narrative, the apostolic sermons in Acts, and the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15, combined with the Jewish concept of the resurrection as a bodily resurrection, mean that the empty tomb is implicit in the latter two sources. The mention of his burial in conjunction with his resurrection would entail that the tomb did not remain occupied.

There are a couple other features of the empty tomb account in Mark that further supports its historical reliability. For one, it completely lacks the kind of legendary embellishment that we would expect to see if it was a later invention. Mark’s empty tomb account is fairly matter-of-fact, particularly when compared to the empty tomb stories in something like the Gospel of Peter. (William Lane Craig uses this as an example of what real legendary development looks like in this episode of his Defenders class. It’s quite entertaining, actually.)

For another, the phrase “the first day of the week” that occurs in Mark 16:2 is reflective of a very early tradition. If the empty tomb account was a later invention, it almost certainly would have used the more prevalent “third day” motif instead, which was already present in the early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15. And the “first day of the week” phrase probably represents a translation from Aramaic, the disciples’ native language: it is rendered awkwardly in Greek (like saying “the one of the Sabbath”) while it is a natural idiom in Aramaic.

So the empty tomb account is well-established by early sources.

Third, the identity of the ones who first witnessed the empty tomb provides an interesting indicator of its historicity: namely, Gospels report that the tomb was first discovered empty by women. This is relevant because women were not considered to be reliable witnesses in ancient Jewish and Roman cultures. So had the Gospel writers (or earlier traditions that the Gospels were based on) invented the empty tomb narrative, they would have given the discovery to witnesses their audience would have considered more notable and trustworthy.

Fourth, the earliest Jewish objection to the claims about Jesus’ resurrection presupposes the empty tomb. Matthew’s Gospel, in the account of the guard at the tomb, reports that the Jewish authorities accused the disciples of having stolen the body, and that this story continued to be circulated at the time when Matthew’s Gospel was written.

The account of the guard at the tomb is not accepted as historical by many scholars, though there are some indications of its historicity. (For example, it contains some language that is unusual for Matthew, suggesting prior tradition.) But even if it were an invention, the most likely rationale for inventing it implies that the tomb was empty. Namely, the story of the guard would only have been invented in response to the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole the body: and that accusation would only have arisen if the tomb was indeed unoccupied.

In other words, the account of the guard at the tomb shows a history of developing assertions and counter-assertions that likely stretches back to the earliest time of Christianity:

  • First, the Christians proclaim: “He is risen!”
  • Then, the Jews respond: “No he’s not! The disciples merely stole his body!” (Note that they didn’t say: “No he’s not! Look at the corpse in his tomb!”)
  • The Christians: “The disciples couldn’t have stolen the body, there was a guard at the tomb.”
  • The Jews: “No, the guards fell asleep.” (Note that they didn’t say: “What guard?”)
  • The Christians: “No, the chief priests bribed the guards to say that!”

And since Matthew writes that the accusation against the disciples had been spread among the Jews to time of writing his Gospel, it is reasonable to believe that he was responding to what was actually being said. Otherwise his audience would have said “What empty tomb? This is news to me.” or “Well, I’ve never heard this story that you claim has been spread among the Jews to this day.” If Matthew was lying, it was a lame lie and easily falsified. But as far as we know, no one came out and falsified it.

So we have good reason to accept that the earliest Jewish response to Christianity presupposed the empty tomb – even if Matthew’s account about the guards is an invention.

For the above reasons, the majority of New Testament scholars accept the historicity of the empty tomb. Which means we can be reasonably certain, as a matter of historical fact, that Jesus was crucified and buried, and that his tomb was found empty two days later.

In my next post, I will continue to explore the evidence surrounding the origin of the Christian faith by looking at the claimed resurrection appearances of Jesus.

The Historical Argument (I)

While all of the arguments for God’s existence that I have explored so far combine to give us a powerful concept of God, as I said in my last post, they still leave the precise identity of God unknown. But I believe we can know, with even greater specificity, who God is, for he has revealed himself by entering into human history in a unique way.

My contention in this series of posts will be that there is sufficient historical evidence to know that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and that because of this, it is reasonable to believe in what Jesus taught and proclaimed. This I call the historical argument for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, but it may also be called the argument from the resurrection.

The basic starting point for this argument is the existence of the Christian faith and certain writings of the New Testament. This argument does not begin by assuming that the writings of the New Testament are scripture and therefore authoritative. Rather, it investigates these writings as one would investigate any other historical documents, and looks for the best explanation for why they exist, why they say what they do, and how the religion of Christianity began.

Overview of the Evidence

There is abundant evidence tracing Christian beliefs back into the first century. Among these key beliefs, of course, are that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person who had a following of disciples, that he was crucified and raised from the dead by God, that he was in fact God incarnate, that after the resurrection his disciples proclaimed that they had seen him, and that they preached the hope of eternal life for those who put their faith in him.

The most obvious examples of the presence of such beliefs in ancient times are the writings which became the New Testament. But we also have abundant writings from early church fathers in the second and third centuries, which quote the New Testament and affirm the same beliefs, for example:

  • Ignatius of Antioch (50 – 117 CE)
  • Polycarp of Smyrna (69 – 155 CE)
  • Justin Martyr (100 – 165 CE)
  • Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202 CE)
  • Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 CE)
  • Tertullian (150 – 225 CE)
  • Hippolytus of Rome (170 – 235 CE)

(The list of church fathers here is taken from this blog post on Stand to Reason.) Some of these men, such as Ignatius and Polycarp, personally knew the apostles, and their writings attest to the origin of Christianity.

From non-Christian sources, there is clear evidence for the existence of Christianity and for Jesus as a historical figure in the histories written by Josephus and Tacitus. There are a number of references to Christianity in other sources, such as the writings of Pliny the Younger, the Roman Emperor Trajan, and Lucian of Samosata, to name a few. Archeological evidence is present for early Christian beliefs as well. Two examples are a mosaic dated to around 230 CE in a third century church which describes Jesus as God, and a piece of Roman graffiti from around 200 CE mocking someone for worshipping a person who was crucified.

As for the New Testament writings themselves, we have enough ancient copies and quotations of them that we can reconstruct what the originals said with 99.5% accuracy. (See here for some information about the textual reliability of the New Testament.) It is also fairly clear that they were, at least for the most part, completed by the end of the first century. The earliest manuscript fragments that we have for the Gospels of John, for example, dates to the middle of the second century. Critical scholars typically date the Gospels to between the 70s and 90s at the latest – and I find there are good reasons to believe they were produced even earlier, from the 40s or 50s to the 60s.

From what I have seen, the arguments for later dates for the Gospels ignore the internal evidence for who wrote them and when they were written (that is, what the text themselves and other early Christian writings say about them), in favour of presuppositions against the supernatural (such as, Jesus’s prophecy of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem could not have been genuine). Since what we are investigating is whether something supernatural happened in the life and death of Jesus, an anti-supernatural presupposition is simply begging the question, and the earlier dates for the Gospels are a live possibility.

But even the later dates for the Gospels are fairly close chronologically to the events they describe, compared to many other ancient sources. This is a very significant point in favour of their historical reliability, since there simply was not enough time for the development of legends. People who remembered the events, or who had been told about the events by those who had experienced them, would have still been around to check the veracity of what was being written.

Further to that, we have other important indications of historical reliability: including evidence that the Gospel accounts are based on eyewitness testimony, the presence of what are called undesigned coincidences in the texts, archeological evidence showing that the accounts get the historical details correct, and more.

Probably the most significant objection to the historical reliability of the Gospels are the supposed contradictions between them. But the vast majority of these can either be easily harmonized, or understood as instances of narrative flexibility. That is to say, if the Gospel writers chose for example to narrate events out of chronological order in order to emphasize certain themes, or to simplify details for the sake of brevity, this is not a mark against their historical reliability. The accounts can still present a faithful portrait of what really happened according to literary standards of that time period.

In addition to the Gospels (and the book of Acts, which is closely tied to the Gospel of Luke), we also find important historical information in the letters of the apostle Paul. These were composed from the mid 40s to the mid 60s in the first century. Though a few are contested, scholars are almost unanimous in accepting seven of the New Testament epistles as authentic letters written by the historical apostle Paul in this time period.

For further reasons to accept the historical reliability of the New Testament, Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend are all good resources.

Overall, the New Testament writings have every appearance of being generally historically reliable. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether the supernatural elements of these narratives should be taken at face value, it is reasonable to take the accounts of the Gospels and Acts as genuine reports of what people in the mid-first century believed to have happened in the life of Jesus and the origin of the Christian church.

Of course, this does not by itself prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but it does provide substantial evidence that Christianity began as Christians have always said: with Jesus appearing risen from the dead to his disciples after he had been crucified, and an empty tomb where his body had been laid. In the next few posts, I will explore the evidence for some specific facts in greater detail:

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • His body was buried.
  • His tomb was found empty.
  • The disciples claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected, and they believed it.
  • Paul, persecutor of the early church, was radically changed and became its foremost apostle.
  • James, skeptical brother of Jesus, became a believer and a leader in the church.
  • Before his death, Jesus claimed to have a unique relationship with God.

Then I will explore the possibilities for how these facts may be explained.

Natural Theology

Over the past few months I have explored a number of different arguments for the existence of God. In other words, I have been exploring the area of philosophy known as natural theology, reasons to believe in God apart from any religious claims of special revelation. Before I move on, I want to summarize what I have covered so far.

The Epistemological Argument

We can know that God exists, or at least be justified in believing in him, on the basis of religious experience.

  • The principle of critical trust is valid.
  • Theistic experiences are a well-established type of experience.
  • Defeaters of theistic experiences are not successful.
  • Therefore, theistic experiences may justify belief in God.

This gives us the impetus to explore the existence of God through further arguments.

The Cosmological Argument

God is the best explanation for the origin and contingent existence of the universe. In terms of the origin of the universe:

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  • The universe began to exist.
  • Therefore, the universe has a cause.

In terms of the existence of the universe:

  • Everything that exists contingently has a cause.
  • The universe exists contingently.
  • Therefore, the universe has a cause.

These arguments are primarily based on the principle of sufficient reason, which I find to be a principle necessary for scientific inquiry and rational thought. This is combined with a further premise based on an analysis of what a cause of the universe most plausibly is like:

  • If the universe has a cause, then God exists.
  • Therefore, God exists.

I think the first two premises of each of these arguments are rationally compelling, while the third premise is quite plausible – especially when combined with the next argument.

The Teleological Argument

God is the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe for life.

  • The universe is fine-tuned.
  • If the universe is fine-tuned, this is explained either by necessity, chance, or design.
  • The fine-tuning is not explained by necessity or chance.
  • If the fine-tuning is explained by design, then God exists.
  • Therefore, God exists.

The first premise is justified by the extraordinary evidence for fine-tuning from physics and cosmology, and the second premise simply lists the available options for how it is to be explained. The third premise is justified by the inadequacy of the necessity and chance hypotheses, including the multiverse hypothesis, relative to the design hypothesis. And the fourth premise is justified by an inference to the best explanation for what the designer of the universe must be like.

The Noetic Argument

God is the best explanation for the existence of consciousness.

  • Consciousness exists and is correlated with certain physical phenomena.
  • If consciousness exists and is thus correlated, it either has a natural scientific explanation or a theistic explanation.
  • It does not have a natural scientific explanation.
  • Therefore, consciousness has a theistic explanation, and so God exists.

The first premise comes from our conscious experience. The second premise is justified by abductive inferences to what the best natural and supernatural explanations for consciousness must be like. The third premise is justified by philosophical reasoning that mental phenomena cannot be physical, the failure of reductive physicalist accounts of mental phenomena, and the explanatory shortcomings of non-reductive physicalist accounts (namely, they are highly ad-hoc within the framework of naturalism).

The Axiological Argument

This argument is really six arguments in one. God is the best explanation for the objectivity of moral, rational, and aesthetic values and duties, and God is the best explanation of our knowledge of those values and duties.

  • Moral, rational, and aesthetic values and duties are objective, and we have knowledge of these values and duties.
  • If God does not exist, then these values and duties are not objective, or at least we cannot have knowledge of them.
  • Therefore, God exists.

The first premise is justified by our powerful moral, rational, and aesthetic intuitions. The second premise is justified by an inference to the best explanation for how such objective values could be grounded in reality, and how we could come to know them.

The Ontological Argument

Finally, it can be reasoned that the very concept of God implies that he exists. This is a valid argument in modal logic:

  • Possibly, God exists.
  • Necessarily, if God exists, he exists necessarily.
  • Therefore, God exists.

The first premise is justified by the conceptual coherence of God, and the second premise is part of the concept of what God is like. Moreover, a somewhat more complex ontological argument allows us to infer the existence of God as a perfect being, having properties such as omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection.

Who Is God?

All of these arguments can reasonably be combined into a cumulative case for the existence of God. For example, if the cosmological argument reveals a cause of the universe, and the teleological argument reveals a designer of the universe, Occam’s razor recommends the hypothesis that these are the same being. So natural theology reveals a God who is:

  • Necessarily existing
  • Eternal
  • Immaterial
  • Transcending space
  • The creator and designer of the universe
  • The ground of objective values and duties
  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Perfectly good
  • Perfectly rational
  • The paradigm of beauty and worth
  • The unique greatest possible being

This is a very strong concept of who God is. I believe that these arguments from natural theology rule out naturalism, as well as polytheistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic conceptions of God. (Though I will not be fully justified in making this claim until I respond to objections to belief in God.) But all this still leaves the precise identity of God unknown.

The reasoning of my epistemological argument allows that we can come to a more specific knowledge of God’s identity through religious experiences. While I believe this is valid, it is good to have another source of confirmation, since religious experiences are not fully reliable. So in my next post, I will begin exploring some historical evidence for the precise identity of God.