Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Alleged Absence Of References To Physical Evidence In The Earliest Accounts Of Jesus' Resurrection Appearances

I want to repost, in its own thread, something I wrote elsewhere. James McGrath recently repeated a common claim about the early Christian accounts of Jesus' resurrection appearances:

Luke and John, written some 50 years after the fact, are the first to introduce a physical element to the encounter with Jesus.

The creed of 1 Corinthians 15 is a creed, not a biography or church history, for example, so we wouldn't expect many details about the nature of the resurrection appearances there. Still, the details we do have there (the fact that some of the witnesses were unbelievers beforehand, the involvement of coordinated group activity, etc.) are inconsistent with naturalistic theories.

Mark's gospel doesn't narrate any resurrection appearances, so, again, we wouldn't expect the details McGrath is referring to there. But the empty tomb implies a physical resurrection, the Jewish context suggests that the witnesses would have looked for physical evidence, and human nature in general suggests that physical evidence would have been sought. The idea that hundreds of resurrection witnesses living in a first-century Jewish context would have all, or even mostly, failed to seek physical evidence is highly unlikely. It's even more unlikely that such a lack of interest in physical evidence would have continued for decades, until around the time when McGrath thinks Luke and John were written.

How does McGrath know that Luke significantly postdates Matthew? He doesn't.

As the contrast between the discussion of the resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 and the lack of such details about resurrection appearances in Mark's gospel illustrates, a later account can be a less detailed account. An author can leave out details he's aware of. Luke suggests that his material goes back to the original witnesses (Luke 1:1-4). The absence of some of his details in a source like Mark's gospel or Matthew's gospel isn't sufficient reason to reject Luke's account.

Matthew tells us that the risen Jesus' feet were touched (Matthew 28:9). And when a passage like Matthew 28:17 tells us that people "saw" Jesus, with references to an empty tomb and the touching of His feet in the context, the likely meaning of "saw" is a reference to physical vision.

The same observation applies to 1 Corinthians 15. Paul was a Jew writing about other Jewish resurrection witnesses, referring to a physical burial of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:4), referring to how the same "it" that was buried is raised (1 Corinthians 15:36, 15:42-44, 15:53-54), etc. Thus, when Paul refers to how Jesus "appeared" and was "seen" (1 Corinthians 9:1), the likely implication is that physical appearances and physical vision were involved.

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