An evangelistic talk about skeptics who changed, evidence for, and the significance of Jesus’ resurrection (1)
Frederik Mulder, PhD Promovendus
1. Status quo in parts of Great Britain
Is this life really all there is? Or, is there more? The status quo in at least parts of Great Britain goes something like this:
• “There is no after-life, none what so ever. It’s nonsense” - Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
• “It doesn’t matter that the universe has no ultimate purpose” – Richard Dawkins (1941-)
• “Anyone who says the resurrection is a historical fact is advertising a willingness to believe in absolutely anything” – Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
It is assumed that faith in Jesus and his resurrection is based on the authority of a dogmatic interpretation of a book of scripture governed by quasi-magical rules independent of all criteria used in evaluating other historical texts. The Bible, argued by some individuals, is nothing more than the “anachronistic superstition of first century Christians”.(3)
You might be surprised to know that the Apostle Paul has a similar sceptical slogan in 1 Cor 15:32 which says: “If the dead do not rise, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”. This quotation is probably a slogan Paul is quoting from philosophers of his time, Epicureans and others who said there’s nothing beyond death, so we can do whatever we like and however we want to.(4)
These kinds of slogans (Paul’s personal belief and experience excluded of course!) want to convey at least the following: You are probably a religious fanatic to believe that there is an after-life; that the universe has an ultimate purpose; and that Jesus really rose from the dead literally (cf Act 17:32).(5)
In my paper, I will first look at a few interesting life-stories of atheists, skeptics and biblical scholars who changed and believe today (on request). After this I will look at eight pieces of evidence that might help us to understand and interpret the resurrection of Jesus, and then I will conclude with a personal testimony.
2. Inconvenient but Astonishing Stories
Since moving to England from South-Africa about five years ago, my assumptions about what’s going on at many different levels here have changed quite considerably. Among other things I went to large bookstores like Waterstone’s in Cambridge where one obviously find the usual Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Jonathan Humphries books, but, to my surprise, I also found fascinating stories of atheists and skeptics who changed their minds, and today believe with integrity that Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross and really rose from the dead. They have decided to become Christians. So I started reading some of these books, and also personally met former atheists at churches and in coffee shops. (Over Christmas 2011, I had another such encounter when Dr Simon Gathercole, New Testament scholar of the Department of Divinity, Cambridge University who shared with me his journey to faith after being an atheist in high school). I was quite taken by these stories: how can Post-Enlightenment, rational thinking atheists, skeptics or biblical scholars at foremost universities and companies, change their minds about Jesus of Nazareth and Christianity? I share a few of these diverse stories. The first one is quite intriguing, because the person involved is still an atheist today.
Parris then reflects back on a tour of Africa in his twenties with friends:
“Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away ... The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall”.
Remarkably honest, Parris acknowledge that the above encounter
“confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God”.
In the end Parris says: “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”. As one can imagine, after publishing this article in January 2009, Parris got mocked and ridiculed by other atheists in the media. It struck me that Parris held the view that what those African Christians believed (obviously built on what Jesus Christ did for them on the cross and through his resurrection) resulted in honesty, diligence, optimism, liberation, liveliness, curiosity and an engagement with the world. These African Christians’ faith and behaviour was built on the premise that there is life after death –that the universe has an ultimate purpose, and that Jesus really rose from the dead – and because of that, they were changed, transformed and wanted to make a difference in this world – here and now. What they believed about Jesus made all the difference in their communities. To them an after-life made sense, gave them purpose and was based on the belief that Jesus really rose from the dead.
But this is but one story from Africa, and Parris remains an atheist. What about post-Enlightened Europe?
Also while studying in Durham, one day a vicar had a second-hand book sale at Cranmer Hall’s common room, where Anglican students study for ordination. In a large box full of theological books on the coffee table, I saw a highly rated book in liberal theological circles: Parables of Jesus (1966) by Professor Eta Linnemann, the first female professor of theology in Germany in the 1960’s. I eagerly bought the book because I realised in 1978 Linnemann probably caused one of the biggest uproars in German theological scholarship when she renounced her “liberal” theology and became an evangelical Christian believing in a Jesus who really did miracles and was miraculously raised from the dead.
Formally she was a student of the famous Professor Rudolf Bultmann of Marburg who, among other things rejected the literal truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Bultmann proposed it be de-mythologized for our “modern” time because, in his eyes
That day in Durham, I held Professor Linnemann’s famous book in which, among other things, she argued that the Gospels “do not owe their origin to historical and biographical interest, but to a theological motive”. The New Testament does not attest to a “historical” resurrection of Jesus, but a “theological” one which made him “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Reading between the lines it was fairly obvious that Linnemann, in this, her acclaimed and widely read Parables of Jesus did not regard Jesus’ resurrection as a historical event. But in 1985, some 19 years on, Linnemann expressed her change like this:
“I have clear knowledge that my former perverse teaching was sin. At the same time I am happy and thankful that this sin is forgiven me because Jesus bore it on the cross ... I regard everything that I taught and wrote before I entrusted my life to Jesus as refuse ... I have pitched my ... books ...Whatever of these writings I had in my possession I threw into the trash with my own hands in 1978. I ask you sincerely to do the same thing with any of them you may have on your bookshelf”. (8)
After asking for early retirement, Linnemann became a missionary biblical scholar who, until her death on 9 May 2009, taught theology at a Bible College in Indonesia and continued to write academic books, countering her previous work.
Today Peter is a Christian journalist, still working for The Mail on Sunday and other papers, appearing on TV, and writing books. Whereas in his atheist days he regarded Jesus’ resurrection as just another one of those mythological “dying and rising gods” stories of antiquity, he recently expressed his disappointment that the singing of an Easter hymn on the morning of Eater Day appears to have been quietly discontinued on the BBC. (13) Peter changed and now, whole heartily believes in the reality of sin, of conscience, of eternal life and divine justice. (14) Today he and his family (his wife a former Marxist Atheist) attends a small village church in England. (15)
Frank Morison – Who Moved The Stone?
In the years leading up to Morison’s book, his serious study of the life of Jesus brought him to the definite feeling that, “if I may so put it, His history rested upon very insecure foundations”. (16) For Morison, nineteenth-century German scholarship succeeded in spreading a very prevalent impression among students that the particular form in which the narrative of His life and death had come down to us was unreliable. Also, the physical sciences convinced him that one cannot accept the miraculous elements in the Gospels. To him the possibility that the laws of the universe should go back on themselves in a quite arbitrary and inconsequential manner seemed very improbable. At best, one had to emulate Matthew Arnold who in his “Sweet Reasonableness” had spent a great deal of his time in trying to evolve a non-miraculous Christianity. (17)
With this in mind Morison’s plan was to write a book entitled “Jesus, the Last Phase”. Why? Because the last seven days of the life of Jesus seemed remarkably free from the miraculous; the Gospel writes devoted much space to this period; and the trial and execution of Jesus was a reverberating historical event. Morison wanted to
“... take the Last Phase of the life of Jesus, with all its quick and pulsating drama, its sharp, clear-cut background of antiquity, and its tremendous psychological and human interest – to strip it of its overgrowth of primitive beliefs and dogmatic suppositions”. (18)
Today, 33 years on, Lee has written more than 17 books, is a minister and has appeared on CNN, ABC, FOX News and has a television program on PAX TV called Faith under Fire.
See also, among others, former atheists Alister McGrath and C. S. Lewis’ significant stories. (23)
You may perhaps say: “Nice stories, very interesting, but ... did Jesus really rise from the dead? Are the Gospels credible? Will I one day rise from the dead?” Despite our postmodern culture and the accompanying search for meaning instead of absolute truths and facts, these kinds of questions which some would want to label as very modernistic or outdated-post-Enlightenment questions, are actually still asked by many sceptics. (24)
I’ll never forget the fascinating dialogue I had with a sceptical Dutch girl a few months ago on a Ryanair flight from Stansted Airport to Dusseldorf Weeze in Germany. I had a large volume on the resurrection open in front of me, and was preparing a paper for a conference on my laptop computer. She was talking to her boyfriend sitting next to her most of the time, but now and then she was staring in my direction. She seemed to be curious about my book. Eventually she asked me: “What are you doing?” So I told her that I’m busy with a PhD looking at possible historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and how the early Christians lived as a result of their faith in him. She was completely surprised and couldn’t believe that one could do a PhD about that! We then had a very interesting and friendly dialogue. Just before the plane landed, she said something I’ll never forget: “Well, if there is credible historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, then I will probably have to look into it”.
I’m going to try and unpack eight pieces of evidence that might assist us to come to an informed understanding of the circumstances surrounding the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. There is, of course much more that can and should be added. There are substantial volumes like The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2003) by N.T. Wright, or The Resurrection of Jesus. A New Historiographical Approach (Apollos: Nottingham, 2010) by Michael R. Licona for those who want to go deeper. The evidence I discuss is not necessarily the “best” pieces of evidence, they are just matters I am currently interested in which might hopefully be of interest to some of you.
1. Hostile Evidence
If there’s a car accident in front of your church and the police ask the parties involved what actually happened, in our modern day and age one would not be surprised to get two radically opposing and different stories. More so if a no-claims bonus for your car insurance is on the line I suppose. Eyewitnesses standing at a distance might give a more credible account of what actually happened. The latter is the kind of evidence valued in a court of law. We call this hostile evidence – thus, credible evidence from outside the sphere of the interested parties. (25)
Do we have such evidence for the events reported in the canonical Gospels? I name a few (not all directly related to the resurrection as such, but still indirectly significant).
“Ananus thought he had a favourable opportunity because Festus was dead and Albinus was still on his way. So he convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, and certain others. He ... delivered them up to be stoned”. (27)
Before his death, James had been the leader of the church in Jerusalem and presided over a large community (cf. Gal 1:19, 2:9; Mark 6:3; Acts 15:23-29; 21:20). We hear nothing of Jesus’ resurrection in Josephus, but it is fair to say that implicitly, we do find traces of the consequences and implications of it on his followers. In 1 Cor 15: 7 Paul reports that Jesus appeared to his brother James who, before that did not believe in Him (John 7:5).
NT Wright makes the interesting point that given the fact that James had probably not been a disciple of Jesus during the latter’s public career,
“it is difficult to account for his centrality and unrivalled leadership unless he was himself known to have seen the risen Jesus”. (28)
It therefore seems reasonable to argue that Josephus’ independent reports confirm that something significant happened following Jesus’ crucifixion, resulting in a “tribe of Christians” who remained faithful to him in the decades that followed; and the execution of his brother who was a sceptic but became the leader of the Jerusalem Church following Jesus’ crucifixion.
Pliny the Younger
Paul Barnett is probably correct to deduce from the above evidence that the “appointed day” points to the resurrection-day meetings, on “the first day of the week”; and the apologetic tone of “food of the harmless kind” suggesting the Eucharist, commemorating Jesus’ death and future return. (30) The reference to hymns being sang to “Christ as if a god” is particularly interesting. If Pliny had regarded Christ as a god comparable to Asclepius or Osiris, he would obviously have written “to the god Christ”. Instead Pliny reports of “Christ as if a god” which therefore makes sense to approximate the latter to the New Testament conviction that by his resurrection, the man Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified was worshipped as the exalted Kyrious and God (cf. Thomas’ confession in John 20:28 after seeing the resurrected Christ).
This inscription has been dated to between AD 40-60. Some biblical scholars argue that it could be significant given the gospel of Matthew’s description of the Roman soldiers who reportedly fell asleep at Jesus’ tomb and the events that followed:
This does not, of course provide us with conclusive evidence that Jesus really rose from the dead, but it does suggest that the Christians, Jewish authorities and perhaps even the Roman rulers knew that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. (31)
Archaeological excavations since the 19th century have provided us with solid evidence for previously disputed place names and titles of important figures which the Gospels and Acts refer to. (32)
2. Eyewitness Testimony
In especially critical German circles, a theory is held that by the time the canonical gospels were written, none of the eyewitnesses were still alive. Apparently, the eyewitnesses and their valuable reports, have been long lost in the anonymity of collective and legendary transmission by that time. (33)
Really? If this theory is to be rejected, how do we know that the New Testament provides us with genuine eyewitness accounts of what happened?
Eyewitnesses in 1 Cor 15:3-9
Even the liberal biblical scholar Gerd Lüdemann (who does not believe in the literal resurrection) acknowledge that in 1 Cor 15:3-9 we have a very early report of eyewitnesses who believed they saw the risen Jesus. Paul makes clear that what he hands down to the Corinthians is what he “first received” (15:3). Even more significant is that there is virtually consensus among biblical scholars that 15:3-5b comes from within three to five years following the events that took place in Jerusalem. (34) The formulaic structure in the verses is very early. We are told further that Jesus appeared to Peter (15:5), James, the brother of Jesus (15:7), Paul (15:8) and also to
over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep (15:6). (35)
The reference to the “greater part” that remain alive at present indicates that Paul offers evidence that can be tested. These brethren can be consulted in order to confirm what Paul is reporting. Bauckham is therefore on target when he states: “... the events were well within the living memory of people to whom easy access was possible”. (36) If this particular report was made up, Paul would have done much better to exclude the part of the sentence that spoke about those still alive after witnessing the risen Christ. The fact that he includes it shows that he i) trusts the source; ii) that he possibly spoke to some of the brothers himself; iii) and that the evidence can be cross-checked by the eyewitnesses - some who were possibly in the Corinthian church as well as others scattered all over the Roman Empire.
Eyewitnesses in Luke 1:1-4
Another relevant example is Luke 1:1-4 where Luke (who most probably knew and accompanied Paul on some mission trips) specifically mentions that he consulted eyewitnesses. He states, in proper and conventional historiographical fashion how carefully he went about investigating the events he reports on:
“... most excellent Epaphroditus, I ... devote a brief treatise ... in order to ... instruct all who desire to know the truth concerning the antiquity of our race”.
But what evidence outside of the New Testament writings do we have?
Thus what Papias says in this passage provides us with an outside source that can be placed alongside Luke’s reference to the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2) as well as the resurrection testimony Paul quotes in 1 Cor 15:6. It appears that Luke, Paul and Papias had access to those (the “disciples of the Lord” as Papias puts it) still alive who were direct participants in the historical events. (42) A careful analysis of the available fragments further shows that Papias, when writing up his testimony had access to the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John. (43)
From the same area and time as Papias, Polycarp (AD 69-155), bishop of Smyrna, provides us (through Irenaeus AD 130-200) with similar reports of eyewitness testimony and the transmission of Gospel tradition:
And finally (and in continuity with the above) the author of the martyrdom of Polycarp records his prayer as he goes to the fire in 14:2:
“I bless you, because you have counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a share in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of your Messiah, for the resurrection of eternal life of both soul and body in the incorruption of the Holy Spirit”. (47)
Thus, the available evidence in Polycarp provide us with possible eyewitness testimony for the apostles; Polycarp’s understanding of the resurrection (which is in line with the New Testament); as well as the next generation’s belief in future bodily resurrection following Polycarp’s martyrdom.
If we combine the probable evidence for eyewitness testimony, we have at least the following:
1 Cor 15:3-9 (Paul) +- AD 39-45
Mark (Mark) +- AD 60-70 (48)
Luke 1 (Luke) +- AD 80
Exposition of the Logia of the Lord (Papias) +- AD 80-106
Letter to the Philippians (Polycarp) +- AD 110-140
Letter to Florinus (Irenaeus) Polycarp +- AD 140-150
3. Four Gospels, Not One
Why were there four Gospels canonised and not just one? Why four different accounts of what happened at Jesus’ empty tomb? There was a time in biblical scholarship that sceptics actually argued that the events reported in the gospels cannot be taken seriously and should be regarded as legendary because the church canonised four distinct gospels and not one. Stephen J Patterson from the Jesus Seminar in the United States for instance, regards the differences between them as reason to disregard them as careless fiction. Actually today historians think the credibility of the gospels are more plausible because we have four different and no just one story. Bauckham states that the divergences, properly understood, demonstrate the scrupulous care with which the Gospels present their stories. Wright puts it strikingly:
“The stories exhibit ... exactly that surface tension which we associate, not with tales artfully told by people eager to sustain a fiction and therefore anxious to make everything look right, but with the hurried, puzzled accounts of those who have seen with their own eyes something which took them horribly by surprise and with which they have not yet fully come to terms”. (50)
4. Women the First Witnesses
What sort of person will be regarded as a credible and reliable witness in a high profile London High Court case? If a judge were to choose between evidence given by, lets say a traveller with a criminal record and an Oxbridge educated businessmen, which will he choose? Obviously the latter.
In first century Palestine, a women’s testimony was not deemed as reliable. In a Jewish court of law, it counted only half of a man’s testimony. In a Roman court of law, it counted nothing. We can push this dire situation even further with a modern day ultra orthodox Jewish example. After attending a “Jewish Learning Exchange program” in the early 1980’s lead by Rabbi David Gottlieb of Ohr Someyach in Jerusalem, a female attendee reflected back on the Rabbi’s interesting statements about the difference between men and women. He suggested that,
“to follow the change introduced in the Conservative service (instead of thanking God for ‘not having created me a woman, the new blessing [for men] seeks to avoid invidious comparison and thanks God for ‘having created me a man’) would mean putting one’s own existence in the forefront”. (54)
The female attendee indicated that the most radical response however came from Rabbi Krupnick, Dean of Brovender’s Shappel for Women, who, highlighted three blessings of the morning prayers for men: Thanking God for not having created one a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. These were apparently added to the prayer for men to counter the former Jew Paul’s egalitarianism in Galatians 3:28. (55)
With these (tragic!) examples of the inferiority of women in mind (as well as the insignificance of their testimony in ancient court contexts), what do we find in the canonical Gospels? Mark, probably the earliest Gospel reports in chapter 16:1-4 as follows:
“When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, that they might come and anoint Him ... they came to the tomb ... when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away...”
If the gospel writers wanted to create a “perfect” story to convince sceptics and gentiles about the empty tomb, the first witnesses would certainly not have been women. In a “perfect” story, Peter, John and the other disciples ought to have been the first to know. NT Wright captures this nicely:
“If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding, reliable male witnesses being first at the tomb, they would have done so ... Nobody inventing stories after twenty years, let alone thirty or forty, would have [placed the women in] it like that”. (56)
It was a question of time before someone like Celcus, the second-century intellectual despiser of Christianity dismissed the testimony of Mary Magdalene by calling her “a hysterical female”. (59) Instead of undermining the credibility of the stories of the women at the empty tomb, we have a situation where in 2010, probably the most contentious biblical scholar in Europe, Gerd Lüdemann (who regards the empty tombs stories as legendary), at a large conference in Belgium acknowledged that in academic circles, the resurrection stories have steadily gained more credence and, in particular, the story of the empty tomb has received a historical boost. (60)
5. Personal Names
Think a moment: are we inclined to remember the name of a person we spoke to a few days ago better than a person we spoke to a few years ago? It might depend on the kind of a conversation we had, but generally speaking, we are prone to forget personal names rather quickly. The chances are good that we will remember significant events of years gone by, but the names are more often than not forgotten rather quickly. (61)
When it comes to the Gospels, Rudolph Bultmann thought otherwise. He argued that personal names in the Gospels like Rufus and Alexander - Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross’ two children; or some ladies at the tomb of Jesus like Mary mother of James and Joses, and Salome were actually secondary additions and are examples of “novelistic interest”. (62)
This theory has recently received a significant blow in Richard Bauckham’s extensive treatment of personal names in the Gospels. Here are a few good questions to ask:
- Why does Mark mention Simon of Cyrene’s two children Rufus and Alexander who really don’t need to be named? (They are absent from the other Gospels).
- Why is only one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Cleopas) named and not the other? Wouldn’t logic require either both or none to be named?
- Why does the Gospel of John have anonymous characters in such stories as the Samaritan women, the paralysed man, and the man born blind (which are significant stories!), but name the high priest’s slave Malchus, whose ear is cut off in the garden of Gethsemane?
But why are some named and others remain anonymous even in significant stories?
And then I discovered Richard Bauckham’s 2009 prise winning work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. In it Bauckham describes astonishing oral recollections and testimonies of Holocaust survivors, some fifty years after their horrific experiences. Some of the stories were astonishingly successful, characterised by “deep living memory”, “authenticity” and not your “typically literary embellishments”. The testimonies were conveyed “without distorting the truth they witnessed”. (66)
Bauckham found four possible similarities between the Holocaust and the history of Jesus:
i) The Holocaust, through unique testimony discloses what we could not otherwise know about the nature of evil and atrocity and the human situation in the modern world. The history of Jesus, through unique testimony discloses God’s definitive action for human salvation (through the horror of the cross and God’s definitive action in the resurrection).
ii) The qualitative uniqueness of the Holocaust and history of Jesus cannot be fully appreciated through ordinary experiences and understanding of our ordinary world. Its uniqueness breaks through conventional methodological models!
iii) Despite the incredibly traumatic nature of both the Holocaust and history of Jesus, participant witnesses in both events have felt the imperative to communicate and bear witness of what happened. They both caused a “new literature of testimony” – within which we get access to surprisingly accurate eyewitness testimony!
iv) So-called 21st century detached historians cannot fully grasp or comprehend the exceptionality of the events which only Holocaust survivors and eyewitnesses of Easter can give us. They alone can give us access to the truth of the events. (67)
“Shakes the foundations of a century of scholarly study of the Gospels. There are surprises on every page. A wealth of new insights will provoke lively discussion for a long time to come. Readers at all levels will be grateful for Bauckham’s detective work that uncovers clues missed by so many”.
7. Next Generation Confirmation
A controversial Patristic scholar from Kings College, London, recently claimed that following the Apostle Paul’s death, the resurrection of Jesus disappeared from the scene for a generation or two until the middle of the second century when Marcion, the wealthy ship builder from Sinope (who tried to buy the church’ favour with money) resurrected belief in the resurrection. (68)
“Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and confirmed in the word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come”.
“For I know and believe that after the resurrection he was in the flesh. And when he came to the people around Peter, he said to them, Take, handle me and see, that I am not a bodiless phantom ... And after his resurrection he ate with them and drank as a fleshly being, even though he was spiritually united to the father”.
Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (AD 69-155), in his letter to the Philippians, is in line with the New Testament understanding of the resurrection. Jesus himself was raised and will be judge of both living and departed. Those who do his will will also be raised as chapter 5:2 states:
“For if we please him in the present age, we shall receive also the age to come, just as he promised us that he would raise us from the dead ... we shall also reign with him, if we have faith”.
Those who report on Polycarp’s martyrdom also confirm belief in the future resurrection.
In fragments that survived through others, Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (AD 60-130) clearly also believed in the resurrection of Jesus and of believers in the future. Papias reflects on Revelation 20 and describes Christ’s return and the establishment of the kingdom of God in bodily and material form.
Other relatively early figures in who’s work the resurrection is well attested include the likes of Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Theophilis, Minucius Felix, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus.
And then came Celcus!
Celcus thinks the Christians have misunderstood Plato’s doctrine of reincarnation,
“and believe in the absurd theory that the corporeal body will be raised ... and that somehow they will actually see God with their mortal eyes and hear him with their ears and be able to touch him with their hands”. (71)
Celcus also thought that Christians saw a phantom or ghost, rather than a corporeal Jesus. It was the great Alexandrian writer Origen (185-254), (72) whose father was martyred for his faith who took up the task of engaging with Celcus’ arguments. Origen was more nuanced about the composition of the future resurrection bodies of believers than his predecessors, but remained within the broad New Testament boundaries. We need not discuss his rebuttals in the wake of Celcus’ attacks in detail. Perhaps, to conclude this section, his statements regarding Celcus’ claim about believers seeing a ghost or phantom, provides us with a suitable bridge to the next part. Origen writes:
“How is it possible that a phantom which ... flew past to deceive the beholders, could produce such effects after it had passed away, and could so turn the hearts of man as to lead them to regulate their actions according to the will of God, as in view of being hereafter judged by him? And how could a phantom drive away demons ... making its divine power felt through the whole world, in drawing and congregating together all who are found disposed to lead a good and noble life?” (73)
Origen’s answer in which the growth of the Christian community is mentioned supplies a suitable bridge to the next section, the exponential and non-violent growth of the Christian church.
8. Exponential Non-Violent Growth
Sociologists aren’t generally known for being religious. I remember attending a sociology seminar in Durham, UK in 2009 when a famous British sociologist gave a paper on the sosio- religious history of Evangelicalism in Britain. During Q & A afterwards I asked him whether he believed in God. His reply was: “You can come and speak to me afterwards”. As a general principle, sociologists try to keep their personal religious convictions out of their academic work. They try and look at the sosio-historical data as objective as possible.
One of the foundational beliefs that energised this rapid growth across the empire, was, as Stark sees it, their belief that death was not the end, which in turn led to their extraordinary care for orphans, widows, the sick, and the poor. In light of their belief that Jesus rose from the dead, and their hope of eternal life, they became what Paul Johnson calls “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services”. (74)
This is probable, as Stark quotes from a pastoral letter (to encourage believers) which Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote to his congregation towards the end of the big second plague and devastating epidemics. Dionysius writes that Christians
“took charge of the sick, attending to their every need ... they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead ... The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that in death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith”. (75)
Significant was that the pagans tossed victims (most of whom were still alive) in the streets to die, for their “gods did not offer any escape from mortality”. Pagan gods required only propitiation and beyond that had no interest in what humans did. There was therefore no religious reason to attend to the needy and the sick. Conversely, Christians believed in life everlasting. “Faith mattered” Stark declares, which resulted in unprecedented acts of kindness, mercy and love towards the outcasts of society. In his highly acclaimed work The Rise of Christianity, published by Princeton University Press in 1996, Stark puts their ethos strikingly:
Summery of Evidence
I have offered eight pieces of evidence that might assist us to come to an informed understanding of the circumstances surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. They are:
1. Hostile evidence
2. Eyewitness testimony
3. Four gospels, not one
4. Women the first witnesses
5. Personal names
6. Subjective insiders and the Holocaust?
7. Next generation confirmation
8. Exponential non-violent growth
To reiterate what I said at the beginning, the evidence discussed is not necessarily the “best” evidence available, it is just research fields I am currently interested in which might hopefully be of interest to some.
To wrap up, is belief in an after-life really nonsense? Does the universe really have no ultimate purpose? Is belief in Jesus’ resurrection really the anachronistic superstition of first century Christians? Is this life really all there is?.... Or is there more?
One can read substantial volumes about the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. It surely is interesting to me, and perhaps to some of you, and we have probably looked at a few groundbreaking one’s today! God has used the evidence and his Spirit to bring some to faith as we saw (Eta Linnemann, Frank Morison, Peter Hitchens, Lee Strobel)! But what will ultimately convince me and you? Apart from the evidence, I can only share with you a piece of my family history. It started in the late 19th century.
(78) Whatever the reasons for it, we don’t have to go into detail. But there’s one interesting thing that happened during the second war which I want to share with you. The English, under Lord Charles Somerset decided to import Scottish ministers to South Africa which included the very prominent Rev Andrew Murray. Since at least 1822 they were tasked, among other things to convince the Afrikaners to speak English rather than Afrikaans. Somerset had a strategy to rid the Cape of Afrikaans and thought the Scottish ministers will preach to the Afrikaners in English which in time will lead to the disappearance of Afrikaans.
During the second war (1899-1902) captured Boers were put in concentration camps. Dr Andrew Murray (the son of Rev Murray - through the Retief family far related to my own family) decided to go to some of these camps to preached the gospel (in Afrikaans!). (Some of the Boers lost their wives and children in concentration camps [+- 28 000], farms were burnt etc - most of them were bitter and angry with the English). Andrew Murray’s preaching among the Boers bear fruit. After the war an estimated one hundred of these Boer prisoners of war decided not to go back and rebuild their farms. Instead, they decided to become missionaries in Zimbabwe, Malawi and other places. I am somehow related to those traditions.
My father and mother (full-times missionaries at an African Bible College in Mpumalanga, northern South Africa) visited us here in Cambridge over December 2011 and shared with me things about the Boer War I never knew before. My father told me that his grand mother was raped by three British soldiers in a concentration camp. I was stunned, but I think I eventually smiled and said something like this “Daddy, you know why we can forgive? Because of what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross and rose from the dead”. That is why I can stand here before you today and testify about Jesus who died and rose from the dead.
We have numerous helpful pieces of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, but perhaps, for those of you not interested in the latest archaeological finds, or the most recent monograph on the historical evidence, I offer my ordinary story: I came to this country as a normal South African youngster to study further. All I can tell you is that in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, I found not just an exciting academic theme to study, but I also found what I hold to be true meaning, true reconciliation and true forgiveness. Maybe you’ve also struggled and have been searching for that your whole life, trying to find ultimate meaning.
My question to you and to me today is this: After truthfully wrestling with the evidence and witnessing the changed lives following claims about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, can we honestly think that this life is really all there is? Maybe there is something more...
Lord I’m sorry for becoming emotional. I know its not the right thing to do, especially in England. But I can’t help to be excited, not about all these scientists, professors and historical findings in the first place, but because I’ve come to realise that there is really more to this life than eating and drinking and dying. I’ve come to see in Jesus’ cross and resurrection that there is hope beyond death, and because of that we want to live now as true and new people. Thank you Lord for this beautiful country. Thank you Lord for this lovely congregation. Perhaps there’s one or two people who are doubting and not sure about You. May it be that You plant a seed in their hearts. Will You take them by the hand and lead them through all their difficulties and questions and bring them to the other side knowing that there is meaning in life because Jesus changed everything. We pray this in your wonderful name, Amen.
- This is a reworked version of my talk at the Parish of the Icknield Way Villages (South of Cambridge) on 17 March 2012. I have added valuable recommendations by some who attended the meeting.
- David Jenkins, The Calling of a Cuckoo. Not Quite an Autobiography (Continuum: London, 2002), 178-179. Cf. also “I am wrestling, in the light of God’s unique presence in and as Jesus Christ, with what miracles actually are in a realistic and down-to-earth way”. Jenkins is sceptical of belief in the bodily resurrection and empty tomb of Jesus as historical events. He states further “The resurrection narratives are far more about encounters and namings and joyful recognitions than about the empty tomb” (180).
- Ibid, 59.
- See also the Old Testament reference in Isa 22: 13.
- It would be unfair to include Jenkins here, although one can indeed have valid reasons to differ from him about things like the historical reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
- Matthew Parris, “As an Atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”, The Times, 27 December 2008.
- Rudolf Bultmann, The New Testament and Mythology (SPCK: London, 1972), 5.
- Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible. Methodology or Ideology? Reflections of a Bultmannian Turned Evangelical (Kregal Publications: Grand Rapids, 1990), 20. One need not agree with all of Linnemann’s insights, especially her almost complete negative stance towards “critical” scholarship to recognise her courage to challenge historical criticism in its classic Troeltschian formulation. For a balanced description of Linnemann’s post-1978 work, discussing both critical and supportive reviews see Robert W. Yarbrough, “Eta Linnemann. Friend or Foe of Scholarship?” TMSJ 8/2 (Fall 1997) 163-189.
- Christopher has written New York best-sellers like God is Not Great (Atlantic Books: London, 2007), and The Portable Atheist (Da Capo Press: Philadelphia, 2007). Apart from his atheistic works he is also known for his critiques of Mother Theresa and his support of the American invasion of Iraq.
- Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God (Continuum: London, 2010), 11.
- Ibid, 75.
- Ibid, 76.
- Ibid, 90.
- Ibid, 98.
- Ibid, 82.
- Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Faber: London, 1930), 9.
- Ibid, 10.
- Ibid, 11.
- Ibid, 12.
- Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1998), 15.
- Ibid, 16.
- McGrath’s story is shared in numerous YouTube’s, some in dialogue with Richard Dawkins; C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. The Shape of My Early Life (Harcourt: London et al, 1955).
- Cf. Professor NT Wright’s February 2012 paper at the Conference of Italian Bishops in Rome with the title Jesus, Our Contemporary when he states: “The question ‘But did it happen?’ was the question asked by the Enlightenment, not only about the resurrection but about a great deal besides. Some devout Christians have shied away from this question, believing with Proverbs 26.4 that if you answer a fool according to his folly you will be a fool yourself. In this instance, I have taken the opposite view, based on Proverbs 26.5, that you must answer the fool according to his folly, otherwise he will be wise in his own eyes. It remains enormously important that we investigate the historical origins of Christianity”.
- Richard Bauckham is also right however that such evidence is not necessarily more “objective”, given the extraordinary nature of the Easter events. I deal with the interesting Holocaust/ Auschwitz/ Easter testimonies in Bauckham’s work later.
- I have learnt a lot from Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (After Jesus, Vol. 3; Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/ Cambridge, 2009), 46-64. My citations of Josephus and Pliny the Younger below comes from Barnett. Ant 18.63-64 LCL.
- Barnett, Historical Christ, Ant 20.200-201 LCL.
- NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress: Minneapolis, 2003), 560.
- Barnett, Historical Christ, 60, Epistle 10.96.7.
- Ibid, 61.
- David Instone Brewer, The Jesus Scandals. Why He Shocked His Contemporaries (and Still Shocks Today) (Monarch Books: Oxford & Grand Rapids, 2012), 79-80. Also see Michael Green, Man Alive (Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, 1973), 68.
- See for instance Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity. How The Jesus Movement Became The World’s Largest Religion (Harper One: New York, 2011), 54-59; and also the classic F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).
- Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2006), 20.
- Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus. A Historical Approach to the Resurrection (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1995), 14; Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus. A New Historiographical Approach (Apollos: Nottingham, 2010), 318-339.
- Lüdemann used to hold the view that the five hundred brethren was an interpolation from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts. In April 2010 at the Resurrection of the Dead conference in Louvain-le-Neuve, Belgium, he renounced the theory. Cf. http://resurrectionhope.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/raisanen-lehtipuu-and-luedemann-on.html (28/03/2012).
- Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 37.
- Barnett is of the opinion that Luke was in Rome in AD 64 while Paul was imprisoned awaiting execution (2 Tim 4:11). “Of particular importance here are Paul’s request to Timothy in Ephesus. He asked Timothy to bring Mark to Rome ... and with him ‘the scrolls’ and ‘the parchments’”. Barnett believes the latter not to be for Paul (since he faced death), which means that Paul was securing these for Luke in Rome (cf. 2 Tim 4:11) (Barnett, Historical Christ, 114).
- Ibid, 111.
- Contra Eusebius’ prejudiced jibe, see Kürzinger in Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 25 n 52. It is reasonable to suggest that Eusebius’ distrust of Papias’ intellectual capabilities could actually add credibility to the testimony he discusses.
- Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 14. Unfortunately, we have only fragments of this important work.
- My emphasis, from Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3.39.3-4, in Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 15-16.
- Ibid. 24.
- Ibid, 20.
- Irenaeus, Letter to Florinus, apud Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 5.20.5-6 in Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 35 n 73. Cf also Bauckham’s arguments for rejecting many scholars’ suspicions of this claim (35-37).
- Wright, Resurrection, 486.
- There are legendary elements in this letter, including movements beyond New Testament descriptions of the future resurrection, but Wright maintains that the hope of a future bodily resurrection remains evident in it (Ibid, 486-488).
- I do not discuss Mark here, though the view is generally held that it was the first written Gospel.
- Wright, Resurrection, 612, n 63.
- Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 51.
- Paul Foster, “Tatian” in Early Christian Thinkers. The lives and legacies of twelve key figures (SPCK: London, 2012), 23.
- Ibid, 33.
- The context was that of a Talmudic discussion on the meaning of life [during which] the academies of Hillel and Shamai agreed after a two-and-a-half-year debate that ‘It were better to offer thanks for what existence one has not been made to suffer than to offer thanks for one’s existence when one addresses The Cause and Master of All Existence (M Herbert Danzger, Returning to Tradition. Contemporary Revival of Orthodox Judaism [Yale University: Yale, 1989], 291.)
- Ibid, 292 n 15 see Heineman 1977; compare BT, Berachot 20b with BT, Menhot 43b.
- Wright, Resurrection, 609-610.
- Richard Bauckham, Jesus. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011), 106.
- Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Apollos: Nottingham, 2010), 351.
- Cf Origen, Contra Celsum 2.55.
- For an “eyewitness” account of Lüdemann’s paper see http://resurrectionhope.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/raisanen-lehtipuu-and-luedemann-on.html (28/03/2012).
- Bauckham says it like this: “... personal names are usually the least well remembered feature of remembered events” (Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 46).
- Ibid, 41 n 4.
- Ibid, 39-66.
- I attended one of these presentations at Tyndale House in early 2011. Pete gave it again at the following venue and occasion: Dr Peter Williams, public lecture at the Lanier Library Lecture Series entitled: “New Evidences the Gospels were based on Eyewitness Accounts”, 5 March 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5Ylt1pBMm8
- Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus. History, Experience, Theology (London: SCM Press, 1995), 81-83.
- Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 499.
- Ibid, 490-508.
- Markus Vinzent, Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament (Ashgate: Farnham, 2010). See my review in the British journal Theology (March/April 2012, Vol 115 No. 2, 123-124).
- Jeffrey W. Hargis, Against the Christians. The Rise of Early Anti-Christian Polemic (Lang Patristic Studies: New York, 1999) 19-20.
- Hoffmann, 1987, 67-69 in Wright, Resurrection, 521.
- Hoffmann, 1987, 110 in Wright, Resurrection, 522-523.
- One need not agree with Origen on everything. His theory that the devil might in the end be saved was later condemned by Augustine and in AD 543 condemned by the Council of Constantinople.
- Contra Celsum 7.35.
- Paul Johnson, in Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (HarperOne: New York, 2011), 113 n 43.
- Ibid, 117.
- Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1996), 161-162.
- Although I have not quoted from him directly, some of the eight pieces of evidence discussed here are aptly discussed by Dr Tim Keller in his 24 February 2011 talk to promote his book King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Penguin Books: London, 2011), www.youtube.com/watch?v=1o6nxkhbbF8&feature=related Personally, I would encourage skeptics to listen to this YouTube message. Dr Keller’s discussion about myths and how C.S. Lewis became a Christian is special!
- See my recent dialogue with NT Wright about this here: