The Resurrection: 2nd Century Legend? or 1st Century Factual Claim?


Silhouette of Jesus in the sunlight

Easter is just around the corner so thinking about the Christian claim that a man from Nazareth in 1st Century Palestine died and rose from the dead three days later is a timely consideration. The accounts of this event don’t read like mere story or legend. They have all the characteristics of Greek biographies that are to be considered historical accounts.

Many modern scholars accept the Gospels as part of the Greco-Roman biography genre (focusing on the similarities), while others find them uniquely Jewish (focusing on the differences). Overarching this ongoing debate is the apparent intent of the authors to assert a factual, historical narrative.[1] This is true even though they include fantastic claims of miracles and the resurrection and all of the theological statements, most of which are penned as coming from Jesus, himself.

From early to mid-19th Century, much of the biblical scholarship has leaned in a skeptical direction, and that inertia has continued robustly into the 21st Century. That scholarly trend has produced a progressive consensus that has viewed the Gospels, for instance, as 2nd Century manuscripts, written generations after Jesus lived and died, morphing the original message into something akin to legend. And, this, they say, accounts for the message of the resurrection.

This view begins with skepticism and ends with a skeptical conclusion explaining the resurrection claim by embellishment that comes with the passage of time. This was the consensus view when I studied religion in the 1970’s. But one man, wrestling with his own doubts, took the facts the skeptics would give him and pieced together an analysis that seems to nail the coffin shut on the view that the resurrection claim is a later embellishment of what the first followers of Jesus believed.

Gary Habermas did his dissertation at the University of Michigan to a panel of skeptical college professors. Any claim that rested on the statement, “because the Bible says so”, was out of the question.  He wasn’t sure his self where the truth lay. So he took only what the skeptics would give him. He took the “minimal facts”, and he did his analysis.

Those minimal facts that virtually all scholars who study these things agree are historically accurate, including skeptical scholars who do not even believe in God, include the fact that Jesus lived in the 1st Century and died by crucifixion, that subsequent to his death his disciples had experiences that they interpreted as Jesus appearing to them risen from the dead, and these occurrences included individual and group experiences. Finally, a skeptic and persecutor of the followers of Jesus, Paul, converted to Christianity after what he claimed was an appearance of the risen Jesus to him, personally.

Today, this would be like Osama bin Laden converting to Christianity after claiming that Jesus appeared personally to him.  Paul described this experience in his own words in his letter to the Galatians[2]:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

In this statement, Paul claims that Jesus appeared to him directly, and Paul spoke to no one about the encounter. Instead, he went away to his home town, Damascus in Arabia.

Skeptical scholars accept that the letter to the Galatians was written by Paul. Skeptical scholars also accept that 1 Corinthians was written by Paul, and they agree that Paul visited Corinth between 51 and 52 AD. They agree on that time frame because Luke, the companion of Paul who wrote the Book of Acts, says that Paul was in Corinth when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia.[3] We know from the Gallio Inscription[4] that Gallio was only the proconsul of Achaia from 51 to 52 AD.

Paul, the Jewish scholar, educated in the best Jewish tradition by the greatest Jewish teachers at the time, was a dramatically significant convert to Christ. His zeal for the purity of the Jewish tradition could not be questioned as he sought to put out of the fire of the uprising Christian challenge to Judaism.… until he had a dramatic and sudden change of heart.

The skeptics will not concede that Paul speaks factually when he says he “received [the gospel] through a revelation of Jesus Christ” directly, and not from any man, but they will concede that Paul made that claim and believed what he claimed to be true. Perhaps, they might think that Paul had some crazy dream, but they concede those words are Paul’s.

At end of the first chapter of Galatians, Paul recounts that he went back to Jerusalem three years after his encounter with Jesus, and he and “visited”[5] for fifteen days with Peter, one the closest followers of Jesus, and James, the brother of Jesus.[6] The Greek word translated “visited” is historéō, from which we get the word, history. It suggests earnest inquiry, like a historian or a reporter, inquiring of the facts of a story. The import of Paul’s statement, then, is that he interviewed Peter and James like a reporter or historian would interview eyewitnesses.

Continuing into the second chapter of Galatians, Paul says that he went back to Jerusalem again fourteen years later “in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain….”[7], and he says, they “added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised,… James, Cephas [Peter] and John … gave me … the right hand of fellowship….”[8]

The significance of this from an historical standpoint is the timeline. Paul spent two weeks interviewing the people closest to Jesus three years after he claimed he had a direct encounter with Jesus and converted. Then, 14 years later (17 years after his conversion), he confirmed with them that the message he was preaching was the same message that those closest to Jesus were teaching. They “added nothing” to him.

So what was that message? If we can know what that message was, would it affirm the liberal scholarship? Would it affirm that the early message is conspicuously missing any reference to the resurrection of Jesus? Would it affirm that the resurrection idea developed generations later and is more legend than fact?

Gary Habermas found the answer in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 15 of that letter, Paul reminded the Corinthians of the message he gave them:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received….[9]

From this wording, we see that Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the gospel message he delivered to them, which is also the message that Paul received. Paul uses similar language to his description of the encounter with Jesus in Galatians:

the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but a I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul reminds the Corinthians of the most important part of this message, which is the following:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.[10]

The key statement for our purposes in trying to determine whether the resurrection is a 2nd Century legend or a 1st Century factual claim is the statement that “he was raised on the third day”. The other key elements of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is the claim that Jesus appeared to the following people in the following order:

  • to Cephas,
  • then to the twelve
  • Then to 500 brothers at one time most of whom are still alive
  • Then then to all the apostles
  • Then last of all to Paul

From Paul’s own hand, we read that the gospel he preached is what he received directly from Jesus after Jesus died. Paul “received” this gospel message last, after all of the others Paul lists to whom Jesus appeared. This is the “message of first importance” that Paul received years earlier and delivered to the Corinthians when he visited them in 51-52 AD:

that Jesus died, was buried, rose again on the third day and appeared to various people, and last of all to Paul.

From these “minimal” facts we can know with a great deal of assurance of historical accuracy that the message Paul received, which he confirmed with the closest followers of Jesus, including the Lord’s brother, goes all the back to within months of the death of Jesus.

We know this because we know Paul was in Corinth between  51 and 52 AD, and 14 plus 3 years had to have passed since Paul “received” the message he was passing on based on the time frame he detailed in his letter to the Galatians. That means that the latest Paul could have received the message was 34-35 AD. This would fit the timeline if Jesus died on April 3, 33 AD, as Isaac Newton and others have proposed based on the Gospel accounts and a lunar eclipse that took place that afternoon.[11] It also fits if Jesus died April 7, 30 AD, as others have posited.

The conversion of Paul 33-36 AD fits with the death of Jesus 30-33 AD, and it fits the timeline Paul gives us – that he visited with Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion, went back 14 years later and was in Corinth during 51-52 AD passing on that message he received and confirmed with the people who were closest to Jesus who had the message before Paul did.

For these reasons, even skeptic and atheist New Testament scholars now accept that the message of the resurrection, which Paul restates in the form of an ancient creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8,  goes back to within months or just a few years after Jesus died.[12]

However we slice it, the message Paul received and delivered goes back to within months – not years, not decades and certainly not generations – after Jesus died. Paul says he received the message directly from Jesus himself as the last in a line of people to whom Jesus appeared after his death. These appearances included individuals and groups of people – notably including more than 500 brothers at one time!

Not only can we be sure that the gospel message that Jesus rose from the dead is not a 2nd century invention, but we can conclude that it was the very message the earliest followers of Jesus proclaimed going back to the beginning. Further, we can’t easily dismiss Paul’s assertion that more than 500 “brothers” saw Jesus at the same time because most of them were still alive when Paul wrote the letter sometime after 51-52 AD. Surely Paul would not have been so bold in his statements if so many people were alive, still, to refute him if he was wrong.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] See The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 1), by Tim Widowfield, posted in Vridar 3-27-2013; The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 2), by Tim Widowfield, posted in Vridar 3-29-2013; and The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?, by Neil Godfrey, Vridar 8-17-2015.

[2] Galatians 1:11-17

[3] Acts 18:1,12-17

[4] See the Wake Forest website, wfu.edu, description of the significance of the Gallio Inscription (http://users.wfu.edu/horton/r102/gallio.html)

[5] Historéō (from histōr) – properly, to learn by inquiring (doing personal examination); to gain knowledge by “visiting,” like conducting a “full interview.” Historeō (“to know through inquiry”) is making a “personal visit,” i.e. to learn through first-hand inquiring.  This goes beyond superficial asking and requires personal involvement (vigorous inquiry). Historeō is only used in Gal 1:18 and is the root of the English word, “history.”

[6] Galatians 1:18-19(“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”)

[7] Galatians 2:1-2

[8] Galatians 2:6,7,9

[9] 1 Corinthians 15:1-3

[10] 1 Corinthians 15:3-9

[11] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_Jesus (“[T]he calculated date of Wednesday 1 April AD 33 for the Last Supper allows all four gospel accounts to be astronomically correct, with Jesus celebrating Passover two days before his death according to the original Mosaic calendar, and the Jewish authorities celebrating Passover just after the crucifixion, using the modified Babylonian calendar…. The calculated chronology incidentally supports John’s narrative that Jesus died at the same hour (Friday 3pm) on 3 April AD 33 that the Passover lambs were slaughtered.”

[12] See https://beliefmap.org/bible/1-corinthians/15-creed/date/

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