Friday, October 30, 2009

Don't Overestimate The Empty Tomb

You may think I meant to say "underestimate" rather than "overestimate". But the title of the post is correct. Here's something I recently wrote at the Stand To Reason blog:

I agree with your main point. The case for Jesus' physical resurrection is made significantly stronger by bringing in the empty tomb. I would include the empty tomb if I were to debate the subject, and I would include other evidence often not mentioned by people like Mike Licona and William Lane Craig in their debates.

But I think you're underestimating the strength of the argument without the empty tomb. It's not as though non-physical supernatural appearances of Jesus would be consistent with Bart Ehrman's view. You refer to "apparitions", but something like a supernatural vision could serve as evidence for Christianity. A non-physical appearance of Jesus could be inconsistent with naturalistic theories. The data Licona cited concerning the nature of hallucinations would be relevant even if every appearance of Jesus had been non-physical.

I agree with you that Licona would have to take on an added burden if he were to appeal to "the Gospel accounts that speak of Jesus' appearances as being physical in nature". But he could argue for the physical nature of the appearances without even doing that. The gospels and other early sources reflect an underlying theme in first-century Israel that would have to be addressed even if the gospels didn't exist. The reports of physical evidence for Jesus' resurrection are found in every gospel and in Acts (Matthew 28:9, Mark 16:4-6, Luke 24:42-43, John 21:9-13, Acts 10:41, etc.), as well as in a possibly independent passage in Ignatius of Antioch (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 3; note the added detail in Ignatius as compared to the gospels). That widespread early concern for physical evidence is consistent with what we know of the mainstream view of resurrection in the Judaism of that time. How likely is it that so many people (hundreds referred to in 1 Corinthians 15 alone) would think they had seen the risen Christ without seeking physical evidence and without coming into contact with physical evidence regardless of whether they were seeking it?

What Matthew's gospel mentions in passing, the incident in which some women touch Jesus' feet (Matthew 28:9), is the sort of thing we would expect to happen at some point, probably multiple times. The idea that hundreds of people living in the context of first-century Israel would think they had seen a resurrected man, yet have sought no physical confirmation of it or sought it and never received it, is unlikely. Peter may have been present during three of more appearances (the appearances to Cephas, the Twelve, and all of the apostles in 1 Corinthians 15). Did he hallucinate three times, and did he never successfully seek physical confirmation? The more people and appearances there are, in a setting like first-century Israel, the more difficult it is to argue that there probably wouldn't have been any physical evidence involved. Documents like the gospels make the case stronger, but the case can be made to some extent even from a passage like 1 Corinthians 15.

I would add that defending the gospel accounts (and the accounts of Paul's experience in Acts, which also have physical elements) is less difficult than is often suggested. The earliest Christians were highly concerned about eyewitness testimony (Richard Bauckham, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006]). The highest church office, that of apostle, was reserved for eyewitnesses. The most prominent churches of the second century were churches that had been in historical contact with the apostles (Rome, Smyrna, Ephesus, etc.), since the early Christians valued eyewitness testimony so much. Etc.

How likely is it that none of the eyewitnesses' accounts of seeing the risen Jesus would have been preserved? Or that some were preserved, but that every reference to physical evidence within those accounts is inauthentic? A skeptic could assert such a position, but on what convincing basis would he expect others to agree with him? And, of course, a Christian could argue for the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels and Acts. For example, there seems to have been widespread corroboration of those attributions among the early enemies of Christianity. The early Christians were honest about the doubts they had concerning other authorship attributions, and we have other reasons for trusting what they said about gospel authorship. There are so many reasons to trust what the gospels and other early sources report about physical evidence for the resurrection. It would place an added burden on somebody like Mike Licona to argue for such data in a debate, but I think people often underestimate how successfully it could be done.

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