Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Significance Of The Resurrection Evidence

Critics of Christianity often object that if Jesus rose from the dead, He should have appeared to more people. Richard Carrier raised the issue in his recent debate with William Lane Craig, adding that Jesus mostly appeared to "fanatical" followers and that the appearance to Paul is diminished by the fact that Paul was an "obscure" individual.

I've discussed some of the problems with such objections in the two articles linked above. What I want to do here is make some additional points about the nature of the resurrection evidence. Saying that Jesus didn't appear to many people, or saying that the people He appeared to weren't of much significance, misses some of the larger implications of the evidence we have and, in some cases, is incorrect.

Before I proceed, I want to clarify something about my intention here. I don't deny that there's an element of truth to the objection I'm addressing. Saul of Tarsus wasn't as prominent in first-century Israel as Caiaphas, for example. But there's a large gray area between somebody like Caiaphas and the most unknown Jews of that era. My point is that Paul's significance was much more than Richard Carrier's dismissive reference to an obscure individual would suggest.

A Roman Tomb

As I explain in the first article linked above, seeing the risen Christ would be only one means among others of being persuaded of the resurrection. The empty tomb is another line of evidence that would lead people in the direction of concluding that a resurrection had occurred.

I refer to "a Roman tomb", but I'm not denying that the tomb belonged to a Jewish man, Joseph of Arimathea. It was a Jewish tomb, but with Roman associations and of Roman interest.

Scholars, including conservative Christians, disagree about whether the guards at the tomb in Matthew's gospel were Roman or Jewish guards. R.T. France, who changed his mind on the subject between his two commentaries on Matthew, now holds that the guards were Jewish. But he notes that "the majority of recent commentators suppose the troops to be Roman" (The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007], n. 19 on p. 1095). Even if the guards weren't Roman, France explains that "the guard had been set up with the governor's knowledge, if not his direct approval, so that if he heard about it [the guard's failure] he might be expected to treat such failure, even by Jewish guards, as a matter for discipline." (p. 1105) Jesus had been executed by the Romans. They had an interest in ensuring His death (Mark 15:44). Although the guard at the tomb is addressed only by Matthew (selectivity is common in the recording of history), all of the gospels refer to Pilate's involvement in the burial of Jesus (Mark 15:43-45, Luke 23:52, John 19:38).

The empty tomb was a public shaming of both the Jewish and the Roman authorities. Whether the seal on the tomb was Jewish or Roman, the Romans were involved in putting Jesus in that tomb, and the resurrection was a reversal not only of what the Jewish leaders had done to Jesus, but also what the Romans had done to Him. The empty tomb was widely known and discussed among Christianity's early enemies (Matthew 28:15; Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 108). Somebody like Caiaphas or Pilate didn't need to see the risen Christ in order to be aware of such evidence and its implications.

An Unbelieving Brother

The unbelief of Jesus' relatives was humiliating, as the "even" of John 7:5 suggests. James Edwards writes, "The opposition of insiders is more troubling, for Jesus' associates ought to be advocates, not adversaries." (The Gospel According To Mark [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002], p. 119) Critics of Christianity use the unbelief of Jesus' family as an argument against the religion to this day.

Apparently, James still couldn't be trusted with Jesus' mother as late as the time of the crucifixion (John 19:26-27). Jesus' resurrection appearance to James (1 Corinthians 15:7) is the best explanation we have for his conversion. Gary Habermas writes:

"Critical scholars usually recognize that James, the brother of Jesus, was a rather skeptical unbeliever prior to Jesus' crucifixion (Mk. 3:21-35; Jn. 7:5). Not long afterwards, James is a leader of the Jerusalem church, where Paul finds him during his two visits (Gal. 1:18-19; 2:1-10; cf. Acts 15:13-21). In-between, the pre-Pauline statement in 1 Corinthians 15:7 states that the risen Jesus appeared to James. Scholars find several reasons for believing that James was an unbeliever before this event. John Meier points out that James' unbelief is multiply attested. Further, the criterion of embarrassment is probably the strongest consideration, since it would be highly unlikely that the early church would otherwise sponsor what would potentially be some 'deeply offensive' statements regarding Jesus' brother, as well as a major leader. To a lesser extent, the criterion of coherence indicates a similarity between Jesus' frequent call to place God before one's family, and Jesus' own example, in that he did the same although some of his own family members were unbelievers. Surprisingly, Fuller concludes that even if the New Testament had not referenced the resurrection appearance to James, 'we should have to invent' one in order to account for his conversion and his promotion to his lofty position in the Jerusalem church! The majority of recent scholars, including many rather skeptical ones, agree that James was converted from unbelief by Jesus' personal appearance."

I would add that there are many different passages in the gospels that involve the unbelief of Jesus' family. It's not something only mentioned once in one or two gospels. It's mentioned in every gospel in some manner, and it's mentioned more than once in each. For a discussion of these passages, see Eric Svendsen, Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001). It's a widespread theme that appears in a wide variety of contexts, sometimes subtly and sometimes explicitly. It can't be dismissed just by arguing against the historicity of one or two passages or arguing against the reliability of one or two sources. Moreover, a fabrication involving multiple individuals prominent in the early church would be more difficult because of the involvement of more than one person and people who were prominent. Jesus' brothers were active in church leadership and widely known and discussed for decades (1 Corinthians 9:5).

Although a critic could dismiss James as just one individual, the quantity of resurrection witnesses isn't the only relevant factor. If an individual, like James, had been opposed to Jesus, then his testimony to the resurrection becomes more significant, even though he was only one person.

As the sealed tomb of Jesus represents Jewish and Roman authority, James is representative of another sort of opposition Jesus faced prior to the resurrection, the humiliating opposition of His own family. The fact that James was only one individual (though other siblings converted as well) and the fact that he was relatively obscure in first-century Israel don't change the fact that the conversion of a sibling who had opposed Jesus so trenchantly is significant. The opposition of a brother is significant even if the brother was a relatively obscure figure in world history at the time.

A Persecutor

As I said above, Saul of Tarsus wasn't as prominent in first-century Israel as somebody like Caiaphas. But he was a Pharisee, traveled widely, and was prominent in the persecution of the early church, with the approval of the Jewish authorities (Acts 8:3, 9:1-2, 22:4-5, 26:9-11, 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13-14, Philippians 3:4-6, 1 Timothy 1:13-16). He was known to the Jewish leadership (Acts 9:1-2, 22:4-5), was discussed by "many" Christians (Acts 9:13), had persecuted the church "beyond measure" (Galatians 1:13), was "advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] contemporaries" (Galatians 1:14), etc.

No contemporary records that are extant refer to Saul of Tarsus, but the same can be said of the vast majority of individuals in ancient history. We sometimes see Jewish rabbis or other Jewish religious authorities not mentioned in any extant documents until after their death (Gamaliel and John the Baptist, for example). And Paul's pre-Christian prominence seems to have lasted for only a short period of time. He converted to Christianity at a young age (Acts 7:58). He could have been prominent at the time of his conversion, yet not have been mentioned in the extant writings of his contemporaries because his prominence was so brief. People alive at the time wouldn't have been dependent on records extant to us in the twenty-first century in order to judge Paul's significance.

Writers are highly selective in what they do and don't mention. A Roman mathematician writing a treatise on mathematics isn't going to discuss Paul in that treatise just because he's a contemporary of Paul and Paul had done some things that we would consider significant. Even somebody writing about the history of first-century Israel, like Josephus, can have reasons for not mentioning Paul and not mentioning other first-century Jewish figures we know about from other sources.

Just as Saul of Tarsus (as a non-Christian) isn't mentioned in the extant writings of contemporaries, so also the apostle Paul (as a Christian) is largely ignored by non-Christian sources for a long time after he's known to have achieved some prominence. As Acts, 2 Corinthians 11, and other sources suggest, Paul had become prominent not only among Christians, but also among some of the enemies of Christianity. Early non-Christian sources say little or nothing about Paul, even long after his letters began widely circulating. Origen criticizes Celsus for his neglect of Paul (Against Celsus, 1:63, 5:64). The early enemies of Christianity, especially those who were Jewish, would have had difficulty with a prominent Jewish enemy of Christianity who converted to the religion on the basis of seeing the risen Christ. They would have had an interest in not discussing him in some contexts. A lack of extant references to a historical figure isn't necessarily the result of that figure's insignificance. Paul's absence from a source like Philo of Alexandria or Josephus has to be balanced with the data we have from other sources, like Acts and Galatians, just as sources that don't discuss Philo and Josephus have to be balanced with sources that do.


Jesus publicly shamed the Jewish and Roman authorities, and reversed their verdict on His life, without appearing to them after His resurrection. The empty tomb disturbed the Jewish authorities enough for them to "send chosen and ordained men throughout all the world" (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 108) to argue against the significance Christians were attaching to it. The conversion of James reversed the humiliation of Jesus' rejection by His own family. And the conversion of Saul of Tarsus reversed the work of a prominent and rising persecutor of the church. The significance of these events can't be measured merely by asking how many people the risen Christ appeared to or whether those people were prominent in the extant writings of their contemporaries, for example. The issue is more complex than that. Though the risen Jesus didn't appear to the Roman emperor or Caiaphas, He did more than Richard Carrier's dismissive references to "fanatical" followers and an "obscure" Paul suggest.

And I wouldn't limit these observations to the three examples I discuss above (the empty tomb, James, and Paul). The same principles can be applied to other evidence for the resurrection. Somebody like Pilate or Caiaphas wouldn't need to see the risen Christ in order to have credible testimony of a resurrection appearance from somebody who did see Jesus after His resurrection (Acts 26:26-28). There are multiple lines of evidence, from multiple early sources, suggesting that men like Peter and Thomas weren't "fanatical" followers of Jesus who were prone to hallucinations and willing to suffer and die for their belief in the resurrection on such a weak foundation. Etc.

Sometimes it's suggested that the unpopularity of early Christianity is an indirect indication that the evidence for the religion, including the evidence for the resurrection, wasn't of much significance. Why didn't more people, and more significant people, convert?

But Christianity, like other belief systems, can be rejected for reasons other than the evidence. Atheists, for example, wouldn't argue that the evidence is the reason for the widespread rejection of atheism in today's world.

Near the end of his 1999 debate with William Lane Craig, Robert Price mentioned a third-century reference to a rabbi who dismissed the resurrection of Jesus as a work of Satan. You can believe in the resurrection or other miracles performed by Jesus without becoming a Christian. (Pinchas Lapide is a more recent example.) It was common for the early enemies of Christianity to acknowledge Jesus' performance of apparent miracles, but dismiss those apparent miracles as the work of Satan, magic, or sorcery, for example. When the early Jewish enemies of Christianity argued that Jesus' disciples stole His body from the tomb, the problem wasn't a lack of evidence for the empty tomb. The problem was the manner in which those enemies of Christianity responded to the evidence. People who believed that Jesus performed miracles by the power of Satan, or argued that Jesus' disciples stole His body from the tomb, shouldn't be placed in the same category as modern skeptics who deny that anything supernatural occurred or deny that the tomb was empty.

As Paul's letters, Acts, and other early sources tell us, many people did convert to Christianity shortly after Jesus' purported resurrection, including some who had been opposed to Jesus previously or who would have been in a good position to judge the evidence, such as Jesus' brother Jude and the "great many of the priests" of Acts 6:7. I don't see how it can be demonstrated that Christianity, or the resurrection in particular, was too unpopular to be credible.

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