What is the Argument from Jesus Christ’s Resurrection?

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The argument from Jesus Christ’s resurrection is an argument that posits God as the best explanation for the resurrection of Christ. It seeks to ground Christ’s supernatural resurrection (that affirms that Christ was raised bodily from the dead as an act of God) in history and upon historical fact and reasoning. God is deemed the best explanation of the resurrection and, by consequence, the Christian religion is asserted to be true.

There are several variations of the resurrection argument presented by Christian scholars and apologists, but this entry will focus on historian and philosopher Gary Habermas’ minimal facts approach (MFA). The MFA, explains Habermas, “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones” (1). The minimal facts are derived through Habermas painstakingly sifting through 3000 peer-reviewed academic articles penned in several languages on the topic of the historical Jesus. Habermas identifies 12 such facts (2), but we shall focus only on four that he and other apologists use to make the case for Christ’s resurrection:

  1. Jesus’ crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ burial.
  3. Jesus’ empty tomb.
  4. Jesus’ post mortem appearances.

General Reliability

As becomes clear, apologists need to, in most cases, focus on the New Testament, notably the gospels and the Apostle Paul’s letters, to make the resurrection argument. The notion of the ‘general reliability‘ of the gospels is adopted by apologists and asserts that one can trust the gospels as historical documents in the central narratives and events they communicate. Being ‘generally’ reliable does not mean one views the biblical texts as inspired or inerrant; rather, they are simply viewed as one would any ancient historical document. That the gospels contain historical information is uncontroversial in New Testament scholarship. Contemporary critic Bart Ehrman affirms that one can make use of the “New Testament Gospels,” and that this is “not for religious or theological reasons… these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” (3). Professor Richard Burridge agrees stating that when “judged by the criteria of the 1st century I think they [gospels] are pretty reliable documents” (4).

The gospels hold historical information on many things ranging from the person of Christ to other real historical persons who lived in the first century. The consensus today is that the gospels are the “genre of biographies” (5), “ancient biographies” (6), and “as modified ancient biographies” (7). This is an important detail as genre is informative concerning an author’s motive and reason for writing. If one writes a biography it is indicative that the author wishes to provide an account of what really happened. It would be different had the author intended to write romantic fiction or lyric poetry instead. However, genre is one of five areas that apologists use to affirm the general reliability of the gospels/New Testament. The other four include archaeology, the earliness of our textual evidence, manuscript attestation, textual transmission.

Regarding archaeology, historians have noted that the empirical, historical record in many ways supports the gospel accounts. Being able to ground ancient texts within tangible history, although not proving authenticity in narrative per se, provides confidence in their historical value. Equally, texts that make blunders where their details can be compared to the archaeological record, or that deliberately create fictional locations and people, would not inspire much confidence. In the gospels, there are numerous artifacts that have been confirmed; Professor Craig Evans explains that “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the book of Acts—these are the basic narrative books of the New Testament. They talk about real people, real events, real places, and the archaeologist can show that” (8). Scholar Paul Johnson agrees writing that “Historians note that mounting evidence from archaeology confirms rather than contradicts the accounts of Jesus” (9).

In their favour, historians and New Testament scholars are privileged to possess extra-biblical (or non-biblical) attestation to gospel events and people. According to Habermas, “When the combined evidence from ancient sources is summarized, quite an impressive amount of information is gathered concerning Jesus and ancient Christianity” (10). There are many of these sources, of which the earliest and most valuable are Josephus Flavius, Cornelius Tacitus, Mara Bara Serapion, several Church Fathers, and more. These typically date within a century of Christ’s own life.

Moreover, general reliability is further established through manuscript attestation. Historians and textual critics have over 5000 copies of the gospels in the original language of Greek which surpasses anything else we have from other ancient Greco-Roman works. Habermas explains the importance of this,

“What is usually meant is that the New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing…In this regard, the classics are not as well attested. While this doesn’t guarantee truthfulness, it means that it is much easier to reconstruct the New Testament text” (11).

Also important is the earliness of the gospel textual materials. The entire New Testament, all 27 documents, dates prior to the end of the first century. Christ is traditionally believed to have died around 30 CE, and most scholars date the earliest gospel (Mark) at 70 CE and the latest (John) at 95 CE, leaving a gap of 40 years. Luke and Matthew are placed at 80 to 85 CE. The Apostle Paul, to whom 13 letters in the New Testament are attributed, is the earliest Christian writer. Some of Paul’s letters date to the 50 CE, merely 20 or so years post the life and ministry of Christ. This is not to mention source materials used by the gospel authors which are earlier than 70 CE, such as Q, L, and M. One can more fully appreciate this when he compares textual attestation to Christ to that of other religious figures: for the Buddha, historians are dealing with materials at least four centuries removed or more. For the Prophet Muhammad, the earliest biographies only come in 150 to 200 years later, and for Confucius, it’s about a century. All considered, a gap of 40 to 60 years for Christ is not very large, and many traditions are much earlier than this. Scholar Michael Bird agrees and says that the source materials for Christ are early in “comparison to other historical figures” (12).

The apologist concludes that what these several premises affirm is that the gospels can be deemed generally reliable. This does not mean that the gospel authors did not have their biases and motivations for writing their accounts, for they certainly did and it no doubt influenced them. What general reliability means is that even given such factors, the gospels do contain historical information and that rather than working from a paradigm of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, the historian can afford the gospels the benefit of the doubt unless there is a reason not to do so.

The Minimal Facts Argument

With the general reliability of the gospels established, this entry works from the basis that two independent sources confirming an event of history is likely historical. We will also make reference to the Criterion of Authenticity (CoA). The CoA is a methodological tool historians use to assign a probability to the deeds and sayings of a historical figure, and, of course, the greater the probability of the saying and deeds (or event) in question the more confident one can be that it resembles objective history. The following criteria are the most important and we will see how apologists fit them into the four facts presented by Habermas above (13):

  1. Independent and early attestation: Event appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which it is alleged to have occurred.
  2. Embarrassment: Event is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information. It is highly unlikely to have simply been made up.
  3. Enemy attestation: Event is attested to by enemies which gives it a high probability.

Fact [1] Jesus Christ’s death by crucifixion.

It is important for the Christian that if Christ is believed to have been raised from the dead that he was actually dead in the first place. As such, no professional historian doubts that Christ was crucified and died as a result. Professor James Dunn says that the crucifixion of “Jesus command[s] almost universal assent” and “is impossible to doubt or deny” (14). Ehrman agrees that it “is one of the most secure facts we have about his life” (15). Professor Luke Johnson says the evidence “is overwhelming” (16), Professor Gerd Ludemann says the “crucifixion is indisputable,” John Crossan takes it “absolutely for granted” (17), Marcus Borg calls it “so probable as to be certain” (18), and Paula Frederickson says it “is the single strongest fact we have about Jesus” (19).

The reason for broad consensus is that it satisfies several criteria in the CoA. It is, for example, attested in no less than 11 independent sources from both within and outside the New Testament: Pre-Mark Passion Narrative, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter 2:24, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, and Cornelius Tacitus. This attestation is also early: Pre-Mark and Q are very early dating to within years of the actual crucifixion. Other later, less valuable, sources such as Lucian, Serapion (depends on dating), Thallus, and the Talmud all affirm a constant tradition of Christ’s crucifixion. The crucifixion further passes the criterion of embarrassment (20), coherence (21), as well as being archaeologically consistent (22). Gospel crucifixion details also match what we know from contemporary medical science which gives them credibility (23).

Fact [2] Jesus Christ’s burial

The Christian claim is that Christ was raised from the dead as well as out of the tomb in which he was buried. Academic consensus agrees that Christ was buried in a tomb. In light of CoA, the burial it is early and independently attested. It is attested in an early pre-Pauline creed that the Apostle Paul received less than five years post Christ’s crucifixion. According to Habermas these creeds “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50” (24). The burial is further attested in Mark’s Pre-Passion Narrative material which, according to exegete William Craig, “is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony and dates to within several years of Jesus’ crucifixion” (25). Richard Bauckham dates pre-Mark prior to 40 CE and probably “goes back to the Jerusalem church” (26). The burial is further independently attested to in unique material M and L, Acts, and the Gospel of John. In total, the historian has six independent sources with several very early ones attesting to Christ’s burial in a tomb. Recall that most historians are happy with just two independent sources. According to John Robinson, the burial is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (27).

Further, the burial is enemy attested. The religious Jewish enemies of Christ accused the disciples of stealing his body from the tomb according to Matthew 28:13, Martyr (Dialogue with Tryphyo, 108), and Tertullian (De Spectaculis, 30). Such an accusation assumes that Christ was buried within the tomb and that it was later found empty and needed to be explained away by the movement’s opponents.

Fact [3] Jesus Christ’s empty tomb

If Christ was raised from the dead then this would require that his tomb be vacant. If the early Christians claimed that God had indeed raised Christ from the dead but the tomb still held his corpse then it is unlikely that the church would have flourished or gotten off the ground to begin with.

The empty tomb, according to Habermas’ MFA, is held by roughly 75% of scholars. This is a somewhat less majority than the apologist has for the other three facts, but it is nonetheless a sizeable consensus. Habermas reveals that “a strong majority of contemporary critical scholars seem to support… that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was subsequently discovered to be empty” (28).

What reasons underpin this consensus? First, the empty tomb is implied in the early pre-Pauline creed of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Craig writes that “For in saying that Jesus died – was buried – was raised – appeared, one automatically implies that the empty grave has been left behind” (29). This creed affirms that the empty tomb narrative was accepted right at the beginning of the Christian movement for it dates to within five (some scholars date it to 18 months) of Christ’s death.

Second, apologists have pointed out what is to many quite compelling, and this is that Christianity would have hit a wall if the tomb wasn’t actually empty of Christ’s body. We learn that the early Christian preaching and teaching of the resurrection was a stumbling block (i.e. an obstacle) because it was deemed blasphemous by the Jewish authorities and therefore met fierce resistance very early on. The easiest way for the movement’s enemies to have disproved the resurrection message would have been to go to the tomb where Christ was buried and expose the lie for what it was. Everyone would have known where the tomb was located. The gospel narratives reveal that Christ was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and Joseph was a wealthy man and a reputable member of the Sanhedrin. According to Paul Althaus, the resurrection proclamation “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned” (30).

Third, is that Christ’s women followers were the first to discover the empty tomb. This detail alone passes the criterion of embarrassment for such an event (namely that women, as opposed to men, were the first discoverers of the empty tomb) would have been an embarrassment to the early Christian men. We must remember that Christianity formed in a patriarchal culture in which the testimony of women was worthless, especially in relation to men’s testimony. Theologian Chris Price illumines that “In light of this cultural context, if you are going to create a story about an empty tomb you don’t make women the first eyewitnesses. This is a counterproductive detail included by the writer simply because he was committed to telling the truth” (31). Rather, if the story was a fabrication engineered to be compelling it is far more likely that the fabricators would have made men the first witnesses to the empty tomb in order to bolster the story.

Finally, the empty tomb boasts independent attestation. It is early and independently attested in the 1 Cor. 15:1-11 creed and the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative (32). It is also attested in the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and John. In total this is four independent sources; according to Habermas: “[the] empty tomb is reported in at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources” which is why it is “taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars” (33). It was also an important part of the early Christian preaching in Acts (3:29-31 and 36-37 ) and is likewise enemy attested (34).

Fact [4] Jesus Christ’s post mortem resurrection appearances

Consensus holds that James (Christ’s brother), the Apostle Paul, and the disciples had resurrection experiences of Christ. Ludemann writes that “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (35). James Crossley says it is “the hardest, best evidence we have” (36), and Ehrman calls it “a historical fact” (37).

However, there is a hesitation here on behalf of many scholars who, operating within the secular discipline of historical studies, do not wish to attach a value judgment to the resurrection appearances. As a result, many simply leave the resurrection appearances unanswered or adopt the position of agnosticism. But those historians who have tried to account for the appearances either attempt to explain them away as something akin to hallucinations or they will affirm that they really occurred. Even the most skeptical historians, such as Ehrman and Ludemann, at least concede that the disciples, James, and Paul had some type of experience(s) of Christ, and therefore that something happened to convince them that he had been raised from the dead.

But Christians and apologists will accuse such skeptics of letting their philosophical naturalism, which a priori rejects the possibility of miracles (of which the resurrection is one as it constitutes a supernatural event; no-one has ever claimed that Christ was raised from the dead by natural processes; instead most agree that if he was raised from the dead it would require some supernatural agent to bring about the event), prejudice their investigation. According to the apologist, of course, if one approaches the gospels with a naturalistic bias they would never conclude that a resurrection occurred, independent of how persuasive the evidence is or ever could be. In opposition to this, the apologist argues that the evidence really shows that Christ appeared to his early followers and enemies and that this supports the resurrection. Further, he argues that the appearances were not hallucinations but real encounters between Christ’s followers and enemies and Christ himself.

First, all four gospels independently attest to the resurrection appearances. The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Luke and the appearance to the Twelve by Luke and John. There is an independent witness to the Galilean appearances in Mark, Matthew, and John, as well as to the women in Matthew and John (38). The appearances are further attested in Paul’s early creed (1 Cor. 15:1-11), in Paul’s authentic and disputed epistles, Q (the earlier source used by Luke and Matthew), and Acts. The early Pauline creed is the most important evidence as it records that Peter, the 11 disciples (referred to as “the Twelve”), 500 witnesses, James, and lastly Paul had experiences of the risen Christ. As such, the resurrection appearances are not the stuff of late legendary embellishment but are in the earliest traditions and data within the New Testament and Christian history.

Moreover, Clement of Rome provides first-century and Polycarp early second-century supporting evidence of the resurrection appearances. Both Clement and Polycarp knew the original disciples and this provides their testimonies with some level of credibility.

The disciples, James, and Paul were sincere in the proclamation of the risen Christ. This is affirmed in nine early and independent sources. Before his conversion, Paul persecuted the early church until Christ appeared to him personally (39). James was known to be Christ’s unbelieving brother who was likewise convinced on the basis of a resurrection appearance (40). We also have 11 sources that attest to the disciples’ early proclamation of the resurrection and their willingness to suffer and die for it (41). We know that the early Christians Paul, James (Christ’s brother), James (brother of John), Stephen, and Peter were martyred for their belief in the risen Christ. Now, sincerity, states the apologist, does not prove that the message was true, but it certainly evidences that the disciples and Christ’s enemies (Paul) and unbelievers (James) were convinced that Christ had been resurrected. As some apologists have said, “No-one is willing to face persecution and even death for a lie”, and this is especially so when such persons were in the position to know that what they believed was a lie or the truth.

Finally, the apologist argues that these appearances cannot be explained away as hallucinations. Paul, for example, believed in a physical resurrection and that God had raised Christ physically from the dead (42). The apologist points out gospel details that also undermine the hallucination hypothesis: the risen Christ ate fish (Luke 24:42), offered his disciples an opportunity to touch his resurrected body (Luke 24:39, John 20:27), had some grab hold of his feet in worship (Matt. 28:9), and the disciple Thomas allegedly put his finger and hand into the place where the nails had been in Christ’s body (John 20:27). Also posited is the extreme unlikeliness of multiple people on multiple occasions all have the same hallucination of the risen Christ. Yet we read that Christ appeared to individuals, groups, large gatherings of people, enemies, and skeptics. This, given what we know from medical literature, is unlikely to be explained by group hallucinations, especially since almost all hallucinations are subjective events. William Craig concludes that there is a “completely unanimous testimony in the Gospels that all of them [appearances] were physical” (43).

The Resurrection is the best explanation of the data

The apologist argues from these data that Christ was raised from the dead and that this is the best explanation of the accepted historical facts. Of course, this takes place in a wider religious cosmology in which the resurrection fulfills redemptive purposes and affirms the existence of God. The resurrection not only occurred historically but fulfilled the function of saving human beings from sin and alienation from God.

References.

1. Habermas, Gary, and Licona, Michael. 2004. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. p. 44.
2. Habermas, Gary. 2012. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available; Habermas, Gary. 12 Historical Facts (Most Critical Scholars Believe These 12 Items). Available.
3. Ehrman, Bart. 2008. The New Testament. p. 229.
4. Burridge, Richard. 2013. All Four One And One For All. Available.
5. Stanton, Graham. 2004. Jesus and Gospel. p. 192.
6. Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. p. 185.
7. Cornerstone Institute. New Testament Studies. 2015.
8. Evans, Craig. Interview: Is the Bible Reliable? Available.
9. Johnson, Paul. 1986. A Historian Looks at Jesus (Speech).
10. Habermas, Gary. 1996. The Historical Jesus:  Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 219.
11. Habermas, Gary. Dr. Habermas Answers Important Questions. Available.
12. Bird, Michael. 2014. Yes Jesus existed… but relax, you can still be an atheist if you want to. Available.
13. Craig, William. 2013. A Reasonable Response. Also see, Craig, W. 2014. Gospel Authorship – Who Cares? Available.
14. Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. p. 339.
15. Ehrman, Bart. Why Was Jesus Killed? Available.
16. Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1996. The Real Jesus. p. 125.
17. Ludemann, Gerd. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. p. 50.
18. John Crossan quoted by Stewart, R, and Habermas, G. in Memories of Jesus. p. 282.
19. Paula Frederickson, remark during discussion at the meeting of “The Historical Jesus” section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 22, 1999.
20. Hengel, Martin. 1977. Crucifixion. According to Hengel: “The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the Roman world can hardly be overstated.”; Craig, William. 2013. Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Available.
21. Wallace, Daniel. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. p. 109.
22. Edwards, W. 1986. Journal of the American Medical Association. p. 1463.
23. Ludemann, Gerd. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. p. 38.
24. Habermas, Gary. 1996. The Historical Jesus:  Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 143
25. Craig, William. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
26. Bauckham, Richard. 2008. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. p. 243.
27. Robinson, John. 1973. The Human Face of God. p. 131.
28. Habermas, Gary. The Empty Tomb of Jesus. Available:
29. Craig, William. The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus. Available.
30. Althaus, Paul. quoted by Dale Allison in: Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters. 2005. p. 317.
31. Price, Christopher. 2015. Resurrection: Making Sense of Historical Data. Available.
32. Exploring Biblical Greek. 30-60 AD – Pre-Markan Passion Narrative. Available.
33. Habermas, Gary. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
34. Flowers, D. 2013. The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Available
35. Ludemann, Gerd. 1995. What Really Happened? p. 80.
36. Crossley, James. 2015. Unbelievable? New Testament Q&A – Gary Habermas & James Crossley.
37. Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. p. 231.
38. Craig, William. The Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
39. Ehrman, Bart. 2006. Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. p. 101.
40. Habermas, Gary. 2003. The Risen Jesus and Future Hope. p. 22.
41. These sources are: Luke, Paul, Josephus, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, Origen, and Hegesippus.
42. Bock, Darrell. and Wallace, Daniel. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. p. 208.
43. Craig, William. 2008. Reasonable Faith. p. 383.

 

11 comments

  1. […] This realization confronted his Islamic beliefs but it didn’t stop there as the historical evidence for the resurrection too proved problematic, “did Jesus rise from the dead? Again, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead the Christian faith is in vain. So how can I know whether Jesus rose from the dead?” That’s when Qureshi discovered that there would be a big debate in his hometown between two leading defenders in their fields. Shabir Ally argued in favour of the Islamic view whereas Michael Licona took the opposing Christian view, “Well, as “luck” would have it God brought to town a debate, it was a debate on whether Jesus rose form the dead. It was between a Christian Mike Licona, and Muslim named Shabir Ally, both very respected in their fields. And as I was watching the debate, I was still a Muslim, I concluded that the Christian case was far stronger.” One can access a number of debates and exchanges between Ally and Licona on YouTube. One can further access my argument for Jesus’ resurrection. […]

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