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



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 capturing 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). Central to this ongoing debate is the apparent intention of the authors to assert a factual, historical narrative.[1]

The difficulty modern scholars have with the text, which reads like biographical and historical accounts, is the inclusion of fantastical claims of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus and theological statements, many of which are penned as statements made by Jesus.

From the early to mid-19th Century, much of the biblical scholarship has leaned in a skeptical direction, and that inertia continued robustly into the 20th Century. That scholarly trend produced a skeptical consensus weighted toward a view for instance, that the Gospels, were written long after the events they describe, probably in the 2nd Century, making the resurrection and appearance of Jesus to his followers something akin to legend.

This thread of scholarship suggested that early formulations of the message of Jesus did not include his resurrection or appearances. These things were believed to have been added many decades and two or more generations after the events took place.

The 20th Century view began with skepticism and ended with a skeptical conclusion explaining the resurrection claim by the kind of embellishment that comes with the passage of time. This was the consensus view when I studied religion in the late 1970’s.

But one man, wrestling with his own doubts, took the facts the skeptics would give him and pieced together an analysis that does not square with the view that the resurrection claim is a later embellishment of what the first followers of Jesus believed. These “minimal facts” have changed the views of most 21st Century Scholars, even skeptical ones.

The Scholarly consensus has now changed on when the Gospels were written and on what the early message of the first followers of Jesus was. For instance, the scholarly consensus now agrees that all the Gospels were written in the First Century. Even skeptical scholars date the Gospels between 70 AD and about 95 AD. The scholarly consensus also agrees that the message included the death and resurrection of Jesus from very early on.

Gary Habermas did his dissertation that changed the scholarly consensus 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 himself where the truth lay when he set out to do the work of forming a thesis.

For him, it was more than a hoop to jump through to get his PhD. He wanted to resolve the matter for himself, one way or the other, whichever way the evidence took him. So, he took only what the skeptics would allow him. He took the “minimal facts”, and he did the 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 following facts:

  • 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,
  • that these occurrences included individual and group experiences, and
  • that Paul was a skeptic and persecutor of the followers of Jesus, who converted to Christianity after what he claimed was an appearance of the risen Jesus to him, personally.

Paul’s conversion might be considered similar to Osama bin Laden converting to Christianity after claiming that Jesus appeared personally to him. Paul was a “fundamentalist” Jew who was zealous and committed to eradicating the upstart following of Jesus, but he claimed a personal experience with Jesus risen from the dead.

After this experience, Paul became, perhaps, the most ardent follower of Jesus the world has seen. Paul described his experience in his own words in a letter he wrote 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 personally and directly. Paul says he spoke to no one about the encounter. Instead, he went away to his home town, Damascus, in Arabia. (The same experience is described in the third person in Acts 9:3-9 and in the first person again in Acts 22:6-21.)

Skeptical scholars accept that this 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 purportedly 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 the proconsul of Achaia only from 51 to 52 AD.

Paul, the Jewish scholar, educated in the best Jewish tradition by the most reputable 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 burgeoning 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. The fact that Paul seems to have believed it is the significant point here. (He believed it sincerely enough to suffer hardship, be imprisoned, be beaten and be killed for it.)

At end of the first chapter of Galatians, Paul says that he went back to Jerusalem three (3) 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 English word, history. It suggests earnest inquiry, like a historian or a reporter, inquiring of the facts of a story. Thus, Paul says that he interviewed Peter and James carefully like a reporter or historian would interview eyewitnesses.

Continuing into the second chapter of Galatians, Paul says that he went back to Jerusalem 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]

One significant thing Habermas saw in the Galatians letter is the timeline. Paul converted through a direct encounter with Jesus, but he spoke to no one about it initially. Three years later Paul spent two (2) weeks interviewing the people who knew Jesus intimately. Then, 14 years later (17 years after his conversion), he confirmed with those same people that the message he was preaching was the same message that those closest to Jesus were teaching, and 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 a legend than a 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 when he first visited them. We already know his first visit was in 51 or 52 AD, because Gallio was proconsul when Paul was there. This is what Paul wrote to the Corinthians about that first visit:

“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 (from Jesus, which he confirmed with the closest followers of Jesus three (3) years after Paul received it himself). Paul uses similar language to his description of the encounter with Jesus in Galatians:

“[T]he 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:

“[T]hat 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”. From this we know the following:

  • The message Paul gave to the Corinthians in 51-52 AD was that Jesus rose from the dead;
  • This is the message Peter and James confirmed to him 14 years after Paul first visited with them;
  • This is the same message Paul received from Jesus directly 17 years earlier.

Another other key element 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; and
  • 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 identified, and last of all to Paul.

From these “minimal” facts we can know with a great deal of assurance of the historical accuracy that the message Paul received, which he confirmed with the closest followers of Jesus, including the brother of Jesus, goes all the back to within a few years, and maybe just 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 35-36 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]

The conversion of Paul in 33-36 AD fits with the death of Jesus in 30-33 AD. It also 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 when he passed on the message he received and confirmed with the people who were closest to Jesus. These people, of course “had” the message before Paul did.

The scholarly consensus now admits that the gospels were written within a generation of the death of Jesus, and the resurrection and appearances of Jesus were part and parcel of the earliest message of the church. Even skeptical 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 many years, not even 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!

If most of those people were still alive when Paul penned those words, they would be able to dispute what Paul said. The point of saying that most of them were still alive is likely to offer the proof of their witness. In essence, Paul was saying, “If you don’t believe me, go talk to them!”

Not only can we be sure that the gospel message that Jesus rose from the dead is not a Second 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 the list of people, including more than 500 “brothers”, saw Jesus alive after the crucifixion. For these reasons, scholars now agree that the message of the resurrection of Jesus did not develop as a legend. It was asserted as a fact by the earliest followers of Jesus.

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

[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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