An Introduction to the ‘Minimal Facts’ Argument for Jesus Christ’s Resurrection

Here we offer a brief introduction to the so-called “Minimal Facts” approach to the resurrection of Jesus Christ often employed by apologists to demonstrate the truth of the Christian religion. We will note what is meant by Minimal Facts and why Christian apologists argue that the resurrection hypothesis, which is that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, explains these facts best, especially when compared to other naturalistic theories.

Presenting evidence for the Christian faith (1 Peter 3:15) is important for a Christian living in a secular culture. In such a culture, he finds himself having to provide evidence and arguments demonstrating his faith to be credible. It is important to advertise one’s religious perspective as reasonable in a highly contentious pluralistic marketplace of worldviews and ideologies. It cannot just be assumed that others will accept a particular faith or belief. To market his faith as reasonable, the Christian argues that the resurrection hypothesis, which posits that God raised Jesus supernaturally from the dead, is convincing on historical and evidential grounds.

Historical Evidence and the Minimal Facts Approach

When historians wish to learn about the historical Jesus they turn mostly to the New Testament sources. This, explains the agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, “is not for religious or theological reasons… It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” (1). When the historian examines these documents, he does not assume that they have been inspired by God or any supernatural being. Instead, history is a secular discipline and the historian studies texts on secular grounds. He approaches the New Testament as a large compilation of historical documents and vets them through stringent historical criteria as he would any other ancient text from history.

The academic consensus is that, if we are speaking in a very reductionist manner, four facts concerning the historical Jesus are beyond a reasonable doubt. Scholar Gary Habermas has studied more than 3000 academic articles on the historical Jesus and found several facts that “are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar… even the rather skeptical ones” (2). These are the so-called Minimal Facts (MA):

Fact 1: Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion.
Fact 2: Jesus’ burial in a tomb.
Fact 3: That the tomb in which Jesus was buried was found empty.
Fact 4: That Jesus’ disciples, skeptical brother, and the church persecutor Saul had experiences in which they believed Jesus has appeared to them after his death.

Let us briefly outline each fact.

Fact 1, explains Professor James Dunn, “command[s] almost universal assent” (3) while according to Gerd Lüdemann the “crucifixion is indisputable” (4). It is attested to in no less than eleven independent sources. It is important to underscore this point regarding independent attestation. The more sources the historian has concerning a supposed historical event (or saying of some historical figure), the more probable it is that it occurred. Historians are content to have just two independent sources for such events to deem them historical (5). Certainly, the sources for the crucifixion of Jesus surpass this standard. 

Fact 2 is regarding Jesus’ burial, which is also attested in important sources. The historian finds it attested in early sources (the creed in 1 Cor. 15 and the Pre-Markan narrative). It is also independently attested in M (the Gospel of Matthew’s unique material) and L (the Gospel of Luke’s unique material), and John. Five sources therefore attest to the burial. According to John Robinson, the burial is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (6). 

Fact 3 concerns the empty tomb. Unlike these other facts which command universal consensus, the empty tomb is accepted by roughly 75% or three-quarters of historians. This makes it the exception in the MA approach concerning where skepticism is to be found. However, most historians still accept the empty tomb as historical on evidential grounds. For example, the burial is independently attested in the early pre-Pauline creed (1 Cor. 15:1-11), the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative, and in all four gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John). According to Habermas, that “at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources” attest to the empty tomb and is why it is “taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars” (7). 

Concerning fact 4, the historical consensus is that James (Jesus’ skeptical brother), Saul (the early persecutor and enemy of the Church who after his conversion took on the name Paul), and the disciples experienced resurrection appearances of Jesus after he had already been put to death. Historian Lüdemann, who is an atheist, states 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” (8). According to E. P. Sanders “we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it” (9). Historian Ehrman writes that “We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that… he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead” (10).

We are on good historical grounds to accept these four facts as historical. What is important then is what best explains the four facts.

Naturalistic Hypotheses Cannot Explain the Minimal Facts

Many critics try to explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus away as hallucinations. But the evidence is stacked against this explanation. 

Paul, James, and the disciples constitute no less than thirteen individuals who believed they witnessed Jesus appearing to them. Paul also tells us that Jesus appeared to a group of 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6, which is the early creed we have already mentioned. This creed is the earliest information we have for the historical Jesus dating to within five years to a few months of his crucifixion and cannot be the result of legendary development). It is incredibly unlikely that such a large number of individuals and groups had the exact same hallucination, especially since we know that hallucinations are subjectively unique to individuals and are extremely unlikely to be shared by more than one person.

Second, the apologist argues that the hallucination hypothesis cannot explain the empty tomb. The early claim by Jesus’ followers was that he was raised from the dead after he had been put to death. If that had not happened, his body would still quite obviously have been in the tomb. Some early critics strongly opposed early Christian claims of the resurrection (see Matthew 28:11-15, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108. Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30) and, to prove their point, would have only needed to check the tomb in which Jesus was buried and produce his body for all to see. This would have destroyed the claims made by Jesus’ early followers that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The Christian faith would not have gotten off the ground at the very beginning. This view is supported by historian and scholar N. T. Wright who explains that this is the very reason “why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him” (11).

Several other difficulties face the hallucination hypotheses. Notable is that the hypothesis cannot account for gospel details suggesting the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection body. The resurrected Jesus ate fish (Luke 24:42), offered the disciples an opportunity to touch his resurrection 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 Jesus’ body (John 20:27). As far as we know, hallucinations are not physical. 

Other naturalistic hypotheses have also tried to explain away the Minimal Facts. The Swoon hypothesis claims that the crucified Jesus never died on the cross but was later revived. Of course, this is wild based on what we know about Roman crucifixion in history and the many victims of crucifixion, as well as the independent sources we have attesting to Jesus’ death. The swoon hypothesis also fails to explain Minimal Fact 4 because a severely injured Jesus (who supposedly would have survived intense flogging before his crucifixion, a great loss of blood, and having been pinned on a cross with nails; let us also notice that Jesus, on the swoon theory, would have had to escape his tomb in a sorry state by somehow rolling a massive stone away from its entrance only to then travel a distance to meet his disciples) would never have convinced the earliest disciples of his bodily resurrection. 

Since this article is an introduction, we will leave our criticisms of skeptical hypotheses here. Let us then turn to the resurrection hypothesis.

The Resurrection Hypothesis Explains the Facts

The apologist argues that the actual historical bodily resurrection of Jesus best explains Minimal Facts 3 and 4 and is therefore richer in explanatory scope. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead then it seems highly unlikely that we would have Minimal Facts 3 and 4 in the first place, namely that Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty and that Jesus’ disciples, skeptical brother, the church persecutor Saul, and a large group of 500 people had experiences in which they believed Jesus has appeared to them after his death. Few would doubt that facts 3 and 4 are at least compatible with a resurrection. Apologists argue that they can only be sufficiently explained by a resurrection.

In the absence of satisfactory naturalistic explanations for Minimal Facts 3 and 4, the apologist argues that we should accept the resurrection hypothesis, namely that Jesus was supernaturally raised from the dead. According to William Lane Craig: “These three great facts–the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith–all point unavoidably to one conclusion: The resurrection of Jesus” (12).

References

  1. Ehrman, Bart. 2000. The New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 229
  2. Habermas, G. & Licona, M. 2004. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications. p. 44.
  3. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing. p. 339.
  4. Ludemann, G. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. New York: Prometheus Book. p. 50
  5. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
  6. Robinson, J. 1973. The Human Face of God. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 131.
  7. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
  8. Ludemann, G. 1995. What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 80.
  9. Sanders, E. 1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin Books.
  10. Ehrman, B. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 230-231
  11. Wright, N. 1993. “The New Unimproved Jesus” in Christianity Today. p. 26.
  12. Craig, W. Jesus’ Resurrection. Available.



8 comments

  1. You’ll probably be shocked to hear that I don’t buy any of this any more than other so-called apologists explanations for anything supernatural in scripture. Where did you get the highly dubious “75% of historians” data point? Personally it sounds like something completely made up out of whole cloth as is most of Christianity.

    I don’t doubt that someone named “Jesus” was crucified; w know there many multiple “Jesus’” caught and crucified. However I do not believe for one second that Jesus was actually taken down of the cross. Anyone that knows anything about Pilate has to seriously doubt that this ever happened. He was a harsh and brutal person; even punishing his own soldiers without mercy, sometimes for even minor infractions. The fact that Christian’s had to manufacture a “Joseph of Arimathea” to get Jesus off the cross demonstrates the ludicrous nature of such a baseless claim.

    • And we’re supposed to accept your “it’s false because I say so” argument? Where is the evidence for your claims? The resurrection has far more evidence for it than does your nonsense.

      • No, no, no….sorry. Where is all YOUR evidence? You see, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, it’s that simple. There isn’t a single shred, not a scintilla of evidence for any of this nonsense anywhere, certainly not here. I’m waiting to hear from someone and, since James is obviously very intelligent, very well-educated in theology & philosophy, (and I enjoy many of his blogs) I figure this could be a good place to find it. However I have still not read a single “fact” from him or anyone else that can be called “evidence.” Saying that 75% of historians believe that the tomb was empty is as vacuous a statement as it sounds. We don’t even know if Jesus made it into a tomb! Everyone knows (except for Christians and evangelicals) that “Joseph of Arimathea was a fictional character from a fictional location (and supposedly a Pharisee, no less and a “friend” of Pilate) used as a writing device to get Jesus into a tomb. This is pure nonsense which you believe because you want to, you’ve been “educated” to believe; nothing else. If I told you this story today you would take it as hogwash and you should.

        • Wow, I have seen few as intellectually dishonest as you. And no, for extraordinary claims, you just need evidence, plain and simple. This whole article contained a lot of the evidence you say there isn’t a shred of. But, you do you and keep your fingers in your ears while saying, “blah, blah, blah”.

    • So you just dismiss all the historical evidence and say, “It’s false because I say so.” We’re supposed to buy that? And according to you the Romans left the dead bodies on the crosses indefinitely? Jesus was taken off the cross after He had died and put in Joseph’s tomb. The only thing ludicrous and baseless is your (non) argument.

  2. Four fundamental reasons why rational people cannot believe the New Testament accounts: (1) The claim that a man dead three days was restored to life is the most extreme type of extraordinary claim which requires commensurately extraordinary evidence to be believable; (2) We have no good evidence, much less the highest kind of extraordinary evidence. There are no primary sources from the time of Jesus about Jesus. The only firsthand biblical report of the resurrection is Paul’s visionary experience which took place years later; the rest is hearsay in nature: the Gospels were written decades later by anonymous second- (or third-) generation Christians living outside Palestine, with a propagandist agenda (Jn. 20:30-31), in a language foreign to Jesus’, using overlapping source materials based on stories that had been in circulation for many years; (3) The New Testament accounts of the resurrection are riddled with contradictions, do not agree on who went to the empty tomb, what they saw, and what they did next; and they exhibit unmistakable signs of evolution, legendary embellishment and editorial manipulation; and (4) Typical of very superstitious times, residents of 1st century CE Palestine were prone to believe resurrection stories (see, for example, Mt.14:1-2; 27:52-3; Mk. 6:14; Luke 9:7).

    The earliest resurrection account in the NT is found not in the Gospels but in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

    “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (I Cor. 15:3-8)

    There is only one person from all of early Christianity in the writings of the NT who personally tells us that he saw Jesus – the apostle Paul – and Jesus’ appearance to Paul was clearly visionary: He only saw a light and heard a voice (Acts 9:3-9). By equating Jesus’ appearance to him with his appearance to other disciples (the same Greek word is used in all cases), Paul implies that all the resurrection appearances were visionary in nature.

    Consistent with how such legends are created, this is how the resurrection belief likely came into existence: Motivated by any number of factors (e.g., powerful grief, wish-projection, cognitive dissonance, the need to make sense of it all), some of Jesus’ followers said they saw him in a vision or dream – a psychological response vividly experienced by those suffering great loss. Others believed them. They told others — who believed them. More stories began to circulate. Add an exaggeration here, and a substitution there, and pretty soon there were stories of seeing the resurrected Jesus in person, then groups of disciples having seen him alive again, and finally larger and larger groups which supposedly saw him. Naturally as these stories were passed around, they continued to evolve as new features were gradually added, like a rolling snowball, including Jesus’ efforts to prove he’d been raised from the dead.

    Jesus offering “proofs” of his resurrection raises an interesting question, the answering of which supports the assertion that the resurrection stories are based, ultimately, on purely visionary experiences. In these “proof” narratives, Jesus really is raised, he really does appear to the disciples, and even though he is standing right in front of them, many, some, or all of them doubt that he is standing right in front of them. What’s to doubt? And why does Jesus have to “prove” it to them (either by showing his wounds, by having them touch his body, by eating fish, or by “doing many proofs”)? All four Gospels, plus Acts, mention these doubts among the disciples.

    What’s really going on is that the early Gospel writers knew full well that there were followers, including members of the twelve disciples, who did not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. That would explain the tradition that “some” doubted. And that, in turn, would suggest that those who doubted did not actually have an experience of seeing Jesus raised from the dead. If that’s the case, then the belief in the resurrection most likely did originate with visions of Jesus that some, possibly only a few, possibly only one or two of them had. They themselves believed. Others among them did as well. But not all of them did.

    What began as purely visionary sightings eventually evolved into corporeal resurrection accounts. Not surprisingly, it is only the two latest Gospels, Luke and John, which have Jesus proving his real flesh and blood nature by eating with his disciples and showing them his crucifixion wounds. This transformation from visionary to corporeal represents the first and most profound evolutionary step this story underwent.

    Working chronologically through the Gospel accounts from earliest (Mark) to latest (John), pulls into plain view the steady process of embellishment which ensued as the story grew larger, more miraculous and more elaborate at each stage. The reader literally gets to witness a legend in the making.

    Mark’s entire resurrection narrative is a very no-frills 8 verses long, contains no resurrection appearances at all, no ascension into heaven, and only depicts a white-robed young man instructing the women visiting the tomb to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mk. 16:7) Earlier in Mark, Jesus had told his disciples about the Galilee meetup while on the Mount of Olives right before his betrayal: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Mk. 14:28) However, neither the Galilee meeting nor any other meeting is ever depicted.

    Mark ends his very brief account by saying that the women “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” For obvious reasons, later copyists weren’t comfortable with such a deficient narrative and embellished Mark with a fuller ending that included three appearances (16:9-20), an obvious mash-up drawn from the other later Gospels (other copyists devised various other endings). Verse ten of this embellishment says that Mary Magdalene saw Jesus and reported this to the disciples, a correction which directly contradicts the true ending of Mark which states that the three women at the tomb, including Mary Magdalene, were so afraid that they told no one. Of much greater import than this contradiction however is this incontrovertible evidence that Christians did, in fact, feel free to embellish, and change, the resurrection story.

    Matthew devoted 15 verses to describe two resurrection appearances, first to the women and then to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, thereby tying up some critical loose ends left by Mark. Like Mark, it contains no reference to an ascension into heaven. But in direct contradiction to Mark’s ending, Matthew corrects his source by stating that the women not only ran away from the tomb and told the disciples but that they told them immediately.

    Additionally, Mark’s prosaic terse verse is heavily spiced up with several new and exotic features: a violent earthquake, Roman guards commissioned to seal and guard the tomb and, instead of a mere young man in a white robe in the tomb, an angel of the Lord, whose appearance was like lightning, so frightening in fact that the guards were paralyzed with fright.

    Mark depicted the women discussing how they would roll back the large stone in order to access Jesus’ body for anointing, only to find the stone already rolled back. Matthew correctly realized the serious problem that Mark’s account created, a deficiency that left the door open (pun intended) to alternative explanations which directly undercut the resurrection claims, most importantly, the claim that “his disciples came by night and stole him away” (Mt. 28:13). To fix this vulnerability, Matthew explains how and when the tomb was opened: After the women arrived on the scene, an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and then sat on it. Problem solved. But another problem was created however: In order to plug this hole, Matthew had to directly contradict Mark by stating that the women found the tomb sealed and guarded, rather than already open.

    Another contradiction involves the “tomb tour”. In Mark, the women, upon finding the stone rolled away, entered the tomb on their own and were alarmed to find a “young man” sitting inside: “And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.” (Mk. 16:5) Matthew, however, depicts the angel removing the stone, then speaking from his seat on the stone and inviting the women in to inspect the tomb: “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.” (Mt. 28:6)

    The most fantastic of Matthew’s new features is the story of many dead people who came out of their graves and went around Jerusalem visiting people (what some call the zombie apocalypse, Mt. 27:53). Even for the great apologist William Lane Craig, this far-fetched story is a bridge too far. He argues, conveniently, that “the passage should not be taken literally”, despite the fact that there is nothing to indicate that this one detail should be interpreted differently than any other part of Matthew’s resurrection narrative. Nothing except the embarrassment of an obviously fanciful tale.

    Luke expanded Mark’s story at every turn. His narration is four times the length and includes three appearances. The young man in Mark and the angel of the Lord of Matthew, whose appearance was like lightning, have now been conflated and expanded into two men gleaming like lightning. To strengthen the resurrection testimony, the group of three women who visited the tomb in Mark (two in Matthew) has now grown to a group of five or more by Luke: “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women who came with them” (Lk. 24:10).

    As far as the experience at the tomb, Luke essentially follows Mark. Unlike in Matthew in which the women find the tomb sealed and guarded, they find the stone rolled away. Rather than being invited into the tomb by the angel, per Matthew, they went into the tomb of their own accord and did not find the body. Only then did the two men in dazzling apparel appear and announce the resurrection. Both Mark and Matthew in their “tomb tour” have the angel direct the women to the place where Jesus’ body was laid. Because Luke had earlier reported that “the women who had come with him from Galilee…saw the tomb and how his body was laid”, it would not make sense to have the angel guide them in this way. Different details between the narratives is one thing; it’s quite another to have elements in one that make no sense in another. So, Luke removes this element from the story.

    The first appearance that he narrated occurred the day of the resurrection and depicted Jesus appearing to two disciples who were traveling to Emmaus, a town about 8 miles outside Jerusalem. In their conversation with Jesus, they mentioned that the women at the tomb had seen a “vision of angels,” perhaps a remnant of the earliest stratum of the resurrection tradition which depicted these experiences as visionary in nature. Excited once they realized Jesus had appeared to them, these two disciples are said to have hurried back to Jerusalem where they found the eleven disciples assembled. The Eleven shared their excitement and told them that Jesus had appeared to Peter, but made no mention of an appearance to the women, contra Mark and Matthew. In direct contradiction to Mark’s insistence on a Galilee meetup, and Matthew, wherein Jesus first appeared to the disciples in Galilee as directed by the angel, Luke’s newly resurrected Jesus appeared to the assembled disciples that same day in Jerusalem. He showed them his crucifixion wounds, ate with them, and instructed them. Then he led them out near Bethany and ascended into heaven, the first reference to the ascension, a major new embellishment.

    But Luke didn’t just switch the location of Jesus’ first meeting with his disciples – he cleansed Galilee from the resurrection narrative altogether. He clearly limited Jesus’ resurrection appearances to in and around Jerusalem, and thoroughly removed any meeting in Galilee or directive to meet his disciples there. In his version of the story, on the evening of his resurrection Jesus explicitly tells his disciples while meeting in Jerusalem not to leave the city until they “receive the power from on high”, a reference to the Holy Spirit, to be given on the day of Pentecost. In Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, we are told that the disciples saw Jesus ascend to heaven after he spent forty days with them, in Jerusalem, and then on the Day of Pentecost, while still in Jerusalem, they received the Holy Spirit.

    But what of Jesus’ and the angel’s instructions to meet him in Galilee reported in two places by Mark, and actually depicted as happening in Matthew? The editor’s pen is all-powerful. Luke simply removed Jesus’ statement on the Mount of Olives reported by Mark, and then changed the angel’s instructions to match. Note Mark’s and Matthew’s angelic commission to meet Jesus in Galilee:

    “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:6-7)

    “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” (Mt. 28:5-7)

    Luke simply removed the Galilee-meetup directive and substituted a reference to a time past when Jesus spoke of his resurrection when they were with him in Galilee. Basically, Luke is saying: “All that meet in Galilee stuff, well that was all just a big misunderstanding. He foretold his resurrection while he was in Galilee, not that he wanted to meet you there after rising again”:

    “He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ (Luke 24:6-7)

    Clearly, Luke was trying to fix the embarrassing problem of having the disciples told one thing (meet in Galilee), only to have Jesus do another (meet in Jerusalem). This example is also airtight proof that the Gospel writers manipulated the resurrection story when they felt the need to clean up earlier versions.

    John’s narration is the longest of all and expands the resurrection appearances to four – first to Mary, and then three more appearances to the disciples – complete with lengthy dialogues, as well as some cleanup of the earlier accounts. Where discrepancies existed in circulating resurrection narratives, John preferred an “all of the above” strategy to reconcile them. So, he resolved the Galilee-Jerusalem provenance conflict by including both Jerusalem and Galilee appearance stories in his narrative. (The ending to Mark added by later copyists also took this approach.) In another attempt at harmonization, the young man of Mark, angel of the Lord of Matthew, and two men of Luke, have been conflated into the two angels of John’s Gospel.

    Typical of John’s editorial tendency to demote and marginalize Peter, he doesn’t mention his appearance to him at all, despite this being the first appearance according to Luke and Paul, with all the significance that carries. Again in contrast to Luke-Acts, which depicted Jesus instructing his disciples to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit that would empower them for ministry, John contradicted and corrected the earlier account by describing Jesus bestowing the Holy Spirit on the eve of his resurrection:

    “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23)

    Modern apologists try to make much of the “empty tomb” and how this, in their minds, is such a powerful witness to the resurrection. In doing so, they break from the actual biblical witness. Paul, the first author who talks about Jesus’ resurrection and the only NT author to speak from personal experience, never mentions the discovery of the empty tomb and does not use an empty tomb as some kind of proof that Jesus had been raised. The empty tomb only created doubts and consternation in the Gospel stories, never faith. Faith was generated by stories that Jesus had been seen alive again.
    Moreover, even a casual comparison of the various burial accounts has quite a corrosive effect on their credibility. Fundamental contradictions between the stories make this an occasion for suspicion about the resurrection story itself, as the most basic facts – how, where and by whom Jesus was buried – are in disarray.

    1) Was Jesus given a proper burial? John states Joseph and Nicodemus anointed Jesus’ body with 75 pounds of spices when they buried him, while all the other accounts indicate that he never received a suitable burial anointing. (75 pounds wasn’t enough?!) In fact, Mark and Luke say the very reason why the women were visiting the tomb Sunday morning was to bring spices with which to anoint him. As Luke tells the story, the women watched the whole process of burial and then immediately went home to prepare spices and perfume because the men in their haste hadn’t given Jesus a proper burial. Then, as soon as they could, following the Sabbath, they went to the tomb in the early hours of the morning on Sunday to anoint Jesus and give him the decent burial he lacked. It stretches credulity that the women watched the burial process but missed the application of 75 pounds worth of myrrh and aloes! But consistent with his alternative telling of the story, John of course doesn’t mention the women watching the burial, bringing spices, or that anointing Jesus’ body was the reason why they came to the tomb. In fact, he doesn’t mention a group of women at all. He merely states that it was Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb and does not explain her motivation.

    This is more than a mere quibble since, in Mark and Luke, the narrative turns on this element of the story. If the men had adequately prepared Jesus’ body as John claims, then the women wouldn’t have felt the need to go right home and prepare to do what had been lacking in his burial. And, as a result, they wouldn’t have had a need to visit the tomb on Sunday morning, nor been so motivated to get to the tomb as early as Sabbath law would allow.

    2) Who took Jesus down from the cross and buried him? Paul answers this question in his speech reported in Acts 13:27-29. Unequivocally, it was Jesus’ Jewish enemies:

    “Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.”

    If Jesus’ enemies had been the ones who took him down from the cross and buried him, he would have been buried in one of the mass burial sites always used for executed criminals. The Gospels however claim that it was one (Mt., Mk., Lk.) or two (John) of Jesus’ disciples who took him down from the cross and buried him.

    These two versions of the story could not be more different on this point: The handling of Jesus’ body after crucifixion is included in Paul’s accusations, his list of Jewish crimes against Jesus. In the Gospels, the handling of his body is depicted as an act of devotion and care on the part of his disciples.

    3) Which tomb? Matthew says that it was Joseph’s own tomb; all other witnesses indicate that it was an anonymous tomb. Matthew makes it clear that the tomb was chosen because it was Joseph’s own tomb. John makes it equally clear that the anonymous tomb was chosen because it was convenient: “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”

    People often see visions after the death of someone loved or revered, and especially when the traumatic death of a great person has dashed high expectations. Throughout history there are many examples of this motif of the great person who dies but is not really dead and will return. We see it in the legends of King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick the Great, and in more modern times with figures as diverse as Davy Crockett and Elvis.

    One contemporary example, quite parallel to Jesus, involves a community of Hasidic Jews who believe that Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was the messiah. The cataclysm of their messiah’s death in 1994 has led to belief in his continued existence and even resurrection. Some, when confronted with his death certificate, will claim he never died and are awaiting his return, and that they sense his continuing presence.

    Given all of the above, the conclusion is clear: The resurrection narratives are legendary, highly contrived, and, at root, psychologically driven. The Gospel writers (and later copyists) felt free to, and did, manipulate the story at will, a story which reached them after having passed through decades of telling and retelling, evolution and embellishment. They certainly don’t provide the extraordinary evidence required to believe the highest kind of extraordinary claim.

    Finally, apologists like to claim that only the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus can explain the subsequent rapid development of the Christian movement, or the willingness to die for the faith. This is not true. Mormonism has grown at a rate roughly equivalent to the early church in its first 150 years, yet this in no way means that Joseph Smith’s silly golden tablets tale must be true. Like Mormons’ belief in Smith’s stories (also based, supposedly, on eyewitness testimony), all that is necessary is for the early disciples to have believed he had been resurrected, not for the actual resurrection to have occurred.

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