Monday, March 19, 2018

Resurrection Witnesses Lived More Than Half A Century

Resurrections, both in the sense of resuscitation and in the higher sense of transformation into an immortal state, are often considered the greatest of the miracles attributed to Jesus and the apostles. But the documents that attribute those miracles to them are often dated to the closing decades of the first century or later. I've argued elsewhere that three of the gospels and Acts were written in the mid sixties or earlier. But even if we dated them to later decades, would their testimony about resurrections be too late to be credible? One way of approaching that issue is to ask how many resurrection witnesses would still have been alive in those later decades.

The claims of resurrection come from a large number and variety of sources, and the claims are placed in highly public settings. There's no effort to explain a lack of evidence by claiming that the resurrections were more private. Jesus' reputation as somebody who raised the dead in Matthew 11:5 comes in the midst of a context unlikely to be made up (the doubts of John the Baptist) and is often considered early Q material. (See the discussion in Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 333-34, where he mentions that most scholars accept the historicity of Jesus' comments in Matthew 11:5-6.) The raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17) is highly public. Its public nature is mentioned frequently and emphatically (7:11-12, 7:17-18, 7:24). Paul refers to hundreds of witnesses of Jesus' resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). And so on.

Most of the witnesses of these resurrections would have been dead well before the closing of the first century. But it's likely, upfront, that some would have lived into the last decades of the first century and the early decades of the second.

There's a lot of evidence that John the son of Zebedee lived until the late first or early second century. And he was a prominent church leader at the time and is reported to have traveled a lot and to have been in contact with people in other regions even in the last years of his life. So, he not only lived that long, but also was highly active and accessible during the decades in question.

And he probably wasn't the only apostle who lived so long. Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John, and Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp. Irenaeus tells us that Polycarp, who was born around 70 A.D., was taught by multiple apostles (Against Heresies, 3:3:4). Similarly, the Muratorian Canon refers to at least two other apostles, with Andrew named as one of them, being alive when John composed his gospel, which most scholars date to the late first century.

In the second century, Papias reported that people raised from the dead by Christ "survived till the time of Hadrian [early to mid second century]" (see fragment W3 here). Around the same time, Quadratus wrote:

"But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were genuine:— those that were healed, and those that were raised from the dead, who were seen not only when they were healed and when they were raised, but were also always present; and not merely while the Saviour was on earth, but also after his death, they were alive for quite a while, so that some of them lived even to our day." (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 4:3:2)

We don't know whether Papias and Quadratus are referring to any individuals identified as being raised from the dead in the New Testament. But a plausible possibility is the daughter of Jairus. She was twelve at the time of her resurrection (Mark 5:42). She could have lived until the time of Hadrian if she lived to be in her late nineties or a little older. Given how young she was when Jesus died, she would have lived into the 70s (a decade many non-conservative scholars date one or more of the relevant documents to) even if she died at, say, age fifty-five. Eutychus, who was raised from the dead by Paul (Acts 20:9-12), could easily have lived into the second century.

The dating of the gospels and Acts isn't all that's relevant here. Even the most liberal scholars believe that there were earlier sources the gospels and Acts used, such as Q and the sources Luke refers to in the opening of his gospel. There probably were at least a few resurrection witnesses alive, including some who were in prominent positions in the church and highly accessible, during the timeframe to which the gospels and Acts are usually dated. There would have been even more alive when earlier oral reports and documents, including the ones the gospels and Acts draw from, were circulating.


  1. If there were earlier reports of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, would those sources show us how Q is a valid document? If so, would it tell us anything significant beyond the traditional Gospels and History of the Church (Book of Acts) about the life of the Savior?

    1. There's a lot of significant information the New Testament documents don't address (most of what Jesus said during his life, many of the details involved in the resurrection appearance to James, many of the details involved in the resurrection appearance to more than five hundred people mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:6, etc.). The early Christians and other individuals alive at the time would have had that kind of information. It would be deeply irrational to conclude that only what's recorded in the New Testament is significant. Not only did the earliest Christians have a lot of significant information that we don't have today, but so did the earliest non-Christians. We come across that sort of information frequently in archeological discoveries, for example. Or we come across more information about the Greek language or other subjects relevant to early Christianity, which in turn affects how we translate the New Testament documents, how we interpret passages, etc.

    2. Right, there is much information about how to interpret the NT, and there is much that it refers to in passing without showing us more than, say, the five hundred witnesses, who are mentioned to testify to Paul's claim of being such an eyewitness himself. I was wondering if the hypothetical Q document would be reconstructed from the above mentioned witnesses such as John the son of Zebedee or another witness to construct such a hypothetical written testimony, rather than just having an eyewitness with a testimony given by word of mouth. So would the early Christians such as Polycarp, a witness to the testimony, be a source for the Q document?

    3. Polycarp wasn't born until around 70 A.D., so he'd be too late a source for Q under most views of what Q was. There's no way to determine Q's sources in the manner you're referring to.

  2. Great article, thank you for this. Great article for apologetics.