Sunday, April 04, 2010

An Historical Look at Jesus' Resurrection - Two Views

The foundation of the Christian faith (and the Easter holiday) is the belief that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. If you don't believe that Jesus rose from the grave, you aren't Christian. If you do believe Jesus rose from the dead, then you reject - by extension - the fundamental laws of nature.

I find it interesting that the same general belief holds in Buddhism. If one does not believe in rebirth or reincarnation, one is not a Buddhist in the eyes of most Buddhists.

Strange, that. But that is whole other issue and blog post.

What follows are two views of the resurrection - the first from an apologist for Christian history (Jack Wellman), and the second from an historian of Christian beliefs (Elaine Pagels). Finally, I offer a third perspective from a believer who has come to doubt the accuracy of the Bible (Bart D. Ehrman).

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Let's begin with an apologist look at the "historical" element of the Jesus myth, from Ovi Magazine. And by historical, I mean mythological, faith-based, and entirely unprovable. By relying on the Biblical accounts, which we know have been rewritten and revised many times through the centuries, the author fails to prove anything except his own faith.

Wellman is an evangelical Christian who thinks his book, Blind Chance or Intelligent Design?, Empirical Methodologies and the Bible, debunks "the myth of evolution.'
An Historical Look at Jesus' Resurrection
by Jack Wellman

Christianity is the only religion that had its leader come back to life after a widely witnessed death. Christianity’s authenticity rises or falls with the resurrection. Either it did happen and Christians can also believe that their own resurrection is assured, or that it did not happen and Christianity is a hoax.

themasterstablefileswordpresscome_400In all of Judea and Samaria and the Roman occupied areas, the Bible plainly says there were hundreds of witnesses who saw Jesus crucified and die on the cross. (Luke 24:15-24, Act 1:3-4, 2:31-32, 9:3, 17, I Cor 15:4-8, 9:1, II Pet 1:16-21, John 3:2, 15:27, I John 1:1-3, 14). Most of the major historians, including the Jewish Historian Josephus, recorded this as a fact, and not as hearsay. None of the historians dispute it, nor did the hundreds of eye witnesses.

Besides the hundreds of Jews that witnessed Jesus’ death, it was common knowledge in all of Judea, in Jerusalem, among the Roman Guard, the Sadducees, Pharisees, and even the Chief Priests. They intentionally witnessed it to ensure that the order for His death sentence was carried out and that His crucifixion took place beyond a shadow of doubt. The last thing the religious leaders wanted was for Jesus to somehow survive and continue to be a threat to their dominion and rule over the Jews.

Ravi Zacharias [] once said that, “…the fact is the resurrection from the dead was the ultimate proof that in history, and in an empirically verifiable means, that the Word of God was made certain. Otherwise, the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration would have been good enough. But the apostle Peter says in 2 Peter 1:19: “We have the Word of the prophets made more certain…as to a light shining in a dark place.” He testified to the authority and person of Christ, and the resurrected person of Christ. And Christ told Peter and all who would believe, that they too will be resurrected, for God said it, and that settles it (I. Cor. 6:14).

The fact of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection was so important to the early church that within three to eight years after His death, a Creed was created to ensure its validity. The Creed’s purpose was intended to protect these eye witness’s accounts and codify their testimonies accurately for those that would come into the church after they eye witnesses had all died. The Creed was both for the present church and future Christians.

Regardless, within a few years, some churches had already been infiltrated with other doctrines like the Gnosticism. The Gnostics felt it was through knowledge that salvation comes and was only for a privileged, special few. However, the Creed publicly stated that the only way to salvation is only through Jesus, who had lived, died and was resurrected. The Creed was not written from a blind-faith perspective or suppositions, but from the early church leaders and eye witnesses who had seen these things with their own eyes. Most people would live for a lie, but few would die for one.

Since there is not statute of limitations in a court of law over murder, the evidence is so significant and the eye witnesses so many, that this case could hold up in a court of law today. Witnesses’ testimony is still valid in court cases, even if the witnesses are no longer living.

If ever there was an expert in court testimony and eyewitness accounts of criminal evidence for a felony trial, it was Dr. Simon Greenleaf, an American attorney and jurist (1783-1853). Dr. Greenleaf saw the multiple eye-witness accounts of Jesus and His death and resurrection as so concrete and credible as to still, today, be considered admissible evidence fit for a court of law. [1] He concluded that the testimonies recorded in the New Testament, would be considered as valid today as they were then by a jury. He did not consider their testimony as “third party” or as “hear say”, but a large enough number of real people who were really there. It is hard to fathom that this was done before such a large audience and that they were all deceived at the same time.

In any court of law, it only takes two or three witnesses to convince a jury of a guilty verdict, but with hundreds of eye witnesses providing such a strong, supportive written testimony, it is incongruous that all of these testimonies would thrown out of a court trial. The fact is that these testimonies meet or exceeded evidential requirements so strongly that Dr. Greenleaf even saw the martyrdoms, exponential church growth and the persistent-through-persecution faith of the believers (often, even up to death), also as the most consequential evidence that could possible exist. Dr. Simon saw it “…as impossible that the apostles could have persisted in affirming the truths they had narrated, had not Jesus Christ actually been raised from the dead. [1] It’s important to note that eye witnesses can still convene a jury for something that happened decades ago, even with all the witnesses deceased. And all the mores since there are no statute of limitations for murder.

Anthony Flew, perhaps one of the world’s most famous ex-atheists, looked at all the other claimed miracles, of all other religions in the world, and stated that the difference is that, “There leaders are buried and still in their graves. Jesus tomb was found empty! “. [2]

The 19th-century history professor at Oxford, Dr. Thomas Arnold, said, “I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer…” [3] There are five historical facts about Christ, agreed to by nearly all ancient Historians: That He lived, that He died, and that He was crucified and then buried and was seen again, alive, after the resurrection. Even Jewish authorities acknowledge the empty tomb in their histories in Jewish schools.

Discovery Channel’s 2007 special “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” by director James Cameron and presented by Simcha Jacobovici, a Jewish investigative journalist, drags up thirty-year-old news in declaring this “find“. The Princeton Theological Seminary’s Bible scholars flatly rejected the claims that an ossuary found in Jerusalem in 1980 is that of Jesus and His family. Those scholars, archaeologists and epigraphers who presented papers on the Talpoit Tomb all declare that this is not Jesus tomb. Both conservative and liberal theologians and scholars agree that His tomb was commonly known to have been Joseph of Arimathea’s. All of the symposium’s participants, including its organizer, signed this statement to show their full rejection of the Talpoit Tomb as Jesus’. Something the Discovery Channel left out of this program, alone with other important facts.

What the vast majority of theologians, scholars, historians and archaeologists, both liberal and conservative, use in considering the resurrection, all do not dispute the fact of His resurrection. Nearly all believe that the resurrection did occur and that Jesus was raised from the dead. They realize that the testimonies of several hundred eye witnesses of these events can not be treated as inadmissible evidence. That many witnesses simply can’t all be wrong, nor would they be willing to suffer persecution, ex-communication from family and friends, even death, for something that never happened.

~ This is an excerpt from Chapter Three of Blind Chance or Intelligent Design?, Empirical Methodologies and the Bible.

1. Greenleaf, Simon. An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice. In which he emphatically stated: "it was impossible that the apostles could have persisted in affirming the truths they had narrated, had not Jesus Christ actually risen from the dead”. (Simon Greenleaf, An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice, p.29).

2. Gary Habermas and Anthony Flew. Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Harper and Row, 1987. ( p. XIIIf, 142).

3. Arnold, Thomas. God and the Bible, 1875, as quoted in Arnold and God. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983. Super, (CPW, VII, pg. 384).
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On the other side of the "debate" is Elaine Pagels, perhaps the most widely known expert on early Christianity, who has written several highly regarded books on the toptic, including the National Book Award winning The Gnostic Gospels, as well as Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.

What follows is a long passage from Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels, in which she examines some of the early discrepancies and politics around the notion of the resurrection (pages 19-22).
Whatever we think of the historicity of the orthodox account [of the resurrection], we can admire its ingenuity. For this theory—that all authority derives from certain apostles' experience of the resurrected Christ, an experience now closed forever—bears enormous implications for the political structure of the community. First, as the German scholar Karl Holl has pointed out, it restricts the circle of leadership to a small band of persons whose members stand in a position of incontestable authority.33 Second, it suggests that only the apostles had the right to ordain future leaders as their successors.34 Christians in the second century used Luke's account to set the groundwork for establishing specific, restricted chains of command for all future generations of Christians. Any potential leader of the community would have to derive, or claim to derive, authority from the same apostles. Yet, according to the orthodox view, none can ever claim to equal their authority—much less challenge it. What the apostles experienced and attested their successors cannot verify for themselves; instead, they must only believe, protect, and hand down to future generations the apostles' testimony.35

This theory gained extraordinary success: for nearly 2,000 years, orthodox Christians have accepted the view that the apostles alone held definitive religious authority, and that their only legitimate heirs are priests and bishops, who trace then-ordination back to that same apostolic succession. Even today the pope traces his—and the primacy he claims over the rest—to Peter himself, "first of the apostles," since he was "first witness of the resurrection."

But the gnostic Christians rejected Luke's theory. Some gnostics called the literal view of resurrection the "faith of fools."36 The resurrection, they insisted, was not a unique event in the past: instead, it symbolized how Christ's presence could be experienced in the present. What mattered was not literal seeing, but spiritual vision.37 They pointed out that many who witnessed the events of Jesus' life remained blind to their meaning. The disciples themselves often misunderstood what Jesus said: those who announced that their dead master had come back physically to life mistook a spiritual truth for an actual event.38 But the true disciple may never have seen the earthly Jesus, having been born at the wrong time, as Paul said of himself.39 Yet this physical disability may become a spiritual advantage: such persons, like Paul, may encounter Christ first on the level of inner experience.

How is Christ's presence experienced? The author of the Gospel of Mary, one of the few gnostic texts discovered before Nag Hammadi, interprets the resurrection appearances as visions received in dreams or in ecstatic trance. This gnostic gospel recalls traditions recorded in Mark and John, that Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ.40 John says that Mary saw Jesus on the morning of his resurrection, and that he appeared to the other disciples only later, on the evening of the same day.41 According to the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene, seeing the Lord in a vision, asked him, "How does he who sees the vision see it? [Through] the soul, [or] through the spirit?"42 He answered that the visionary perceives through the mind. The Apocalypse of Peter, discovered at Nag Hammadi, tells how Peter, deep in trance, saw Christ, who explained that "I am the intellectual spirit, filled with radiant light."43 Gnostic accounts often mention how the recipients respond to Christ's presence with intense emotions—terror, awe, distress, and joy.

Yet these gnostic writers do not dismiss visions as fantasies or hallucinations. They respect—even revere—such experiences, through which spiritual intuition discloses insight into the nature of reality. One gnostic teacher, whose Treatise on Resurrection, a letter to Rheginos, his student, was found at Nag Ham-madi, says: "Do not suppose that resurrection is an apparition [phantasia; literally, "fantasy"]. It is not an apparition; rather it is something real. Instead," he continues, "one ought to maintain that the world is an apparition, rather than resurrection."44 Like a Buddhist master, Rheginos' teacher, himself anonymous, goes on to explain that ordinary human existence is spiritual death. But the resurrection is the moment of enlightenment: "It is ... the revealing of what truly exists . . . and a migration (metabole—change, transition) into newness."45 Whoever grasps this becomes spiritually alive. This means, he declares, that you can be "resurrected from the dead" right now: "Are you—the real you—mere corruption? . . . Why do you not examine your own self, and see that you have arisen?"46 A third text from Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Philip, expresses the same view, ridiculing ignorant Christians who take the resurrection literally. "Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error."47 Instead they must "receive the resurrection while they live." The author says ironically that in one sense, then, of course "it is necessary to rise 'in this flesh,' since everything exists in it!"48

What interested these gnostics far more than past events attributed to the "historical Jesus" was the possibility of encountering the risen Christ in the present.49 The Gospel of Mary illustrates the contrast between orthodox and gnostic viewpoints. The account recalls what Mark relates:
Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene . . . She went and
told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had
been seen by her, they would not believe it.50
As the Gospel of Mary opens, the disciples are mourning Jesus' death and terrified for their own lives. Then Mary Magdalene stands up to encourage them, recalling Christ's continual presence with them: "Do not weep, and do not grieve, and do not doubt; for his grace will be with you completely, and will protect you."51 Peter invites Mary to "tell us the words of the Savior which you remember."52 But to Peter's surprise, Mary does not tell anecdotes from the past; instead, she explains that she has just seen the Lord in a vision received through the mind, and she goes on to tell what he revealed to her. When Mary finishes,
she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Savior had spoken with her. But Andrew answered and said to the
brethren, "Say what you will about what she has said. I, at least, do not believe that the Savior has said this. For
certainly these teachings are strange ideas!"53
Peter agrees with Andrew, ridiculing the idea that Mary actually saw the Lord in her vision. Then, the story continues,
Mary wept and said to Peter, "My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in
my heart? Do you think I am lying about the Savior?" Levi answered and said to Peter, "Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. . . If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her?"54
Finally Mary, vindicated, joins the other apostles as they go out to preach. Peter, apparently representing the orthodox position, looks to past events, suspicious of those who "see the Lord" in visions: Mary, representing the gnostic, claims to experience his continuing presence.55

These gnostics recognized that their theory, like the orthodox one, bore political implications. It suggests that whoever "sees the Lord" through inner vision can claim that his or her own authority equals, or surpasses, that of the Twelve—and of their successors. Consider the political implications of the Gospel of Mary. Peter and Andrew, here representing the leaders of the orthodox group, accuse Mary—the gnostic—of pretending to have seen the Lord in order to justify the strange ideas, fictions, and lies she invents and attributes to divine inspiration. Mary lacks the proper credentials for leadership, from the orthodox viewpoint: she is not one of the "twelve." But as Mary stands up to Peter, so the gnostics who take her as their prototype challenge the authority of those priests and bishops who claim to be Peter's successors.

We know that gnostic teachers challenged the orthodox in precisely this way. While, according to them, the orthodox relied solely on the public, esoteric teaching which Christ and the apostles offered to "the many," gnostic Christians claimed to offer, in addition, their secret teaching, known only to the few.58 The gnostic teacher and poet Valentinus (c. 140) points out that even during his lifetime, Jesus shared with his disciples certain mysteries, which he kept secret from outsiders.57 According to the New Testament gospel of Mark, Jesus said to his disciples,
. . . "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so
that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again,
and be forgiven."58
Matthew, too, relates that when Jesus spoke in public, he spoke only in parables; when his disciples asked the reason, he replied, "To you it has been given to know the secrets [mysteria; literally, "mysteries"] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given."59 According to the gnostics, some of the disciples, following his instructions, kept secret Jesus' esoteric teaching: this they taught only in private, to certain persons who had proven themselves to be spiritually mature, and who therefore qualified for "initiation into gnosis"—that is, into secret knowledge.

Following the crucifixion, they allege that the risen Christ continued to reveal himself to certain disciples, opening to them, through visions, new insights into divine mysteries. Paul, referring to himself obliquely in the third person, says that he was "caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know." There, in an ecstatic trance, he heard "things that cannot be told, which man may not utter."60 Through his spiritual communication with Christ, Paul says he discovered "hidden mysteries" and "secret wisdom," which, he explains, he shares only with those Christians he considers "mature"61 but not with everyone. Many contemporary Biblical scholars, themselves orthodox, have followed Rudolph Bultmann, who insists that Paul does not mean what he says in this passage.62 They argue that Paul does not claim to have a secret tradition; such a claim would apparently make Paul sound too "gnostic."
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Finally, I want to mention Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) by Bart D. Ehrman, an excellent book of Biblical scholarship by a man who went into Princeton's Divinity School as an evangelical Christian believing in the literal truth of the Bible as the infallible word of God, and came out with the understanding the Bible is the work of men, who are fallible, and who have made MANY unintentional and intentional errors in translating the writings over the centuries.

This is from his Preface:
And so I came to Princeton Theological Seminary young and poor but passionate, and armed to take on all those liberals with their watered-down view of the Bible. As a good evangelical Christian I was ready to fend off any attacks on my biblical faith. I could answer any apparent contradiction and resolve any potential discrepancy in the Word of God, whether in the Old or New Testament. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I was not about to learn that my sacred text had any mistakes in it.

Some things don’t go as planned. What I actually did learn at Princeton led me to change my mind about the Bible. I did not change my mind willingly—I went down kicking and screaming. I prayed (lots) about it, I wrestled (strenuously) with it, I resisted it with all my might. But at the same time I thought that if I was truly committed to God, I also had to be fully committed to the truth. And it became clear to me over a long period of time that my former views of the Bible as the inerrant revelation from God were flat-out wrong. My choice was either to hold on to views that I had come to realize were in error or to follow where I believed the truth was leading me. In the end, it was no choice. If something was true, it was true; if not, not.

I’ve known people over the years who have said, “If my beliefs are at odds with the facts, so much the worse for the facts.” I’ve never been one of these people. In the chapters that follow I try to explain why scholarship on the Bible forced me to change my views.

This kind of information is relevant not only to scholars like me, who devote their lives to serious research, but also to everyone who is interested in the Bible—whether they personally consider themselves believers or not. In my opinion this really matters. Whether you are a believer—fundamentalist, evangelical, moderate, liberal—or a nonbeliever, the Bible is the most significant book in the history of our civilization. Coming to understand what it actually is, and is not, is one of the most important intellectual endeavors that anyone in our society can embark upon.

Some people reading this book may be very uncomfortable with the information it presents. All I ask is that, if you’re in that boat, you do what I did—approach this information with an open mind and be willing to change if change you must.
Happy Easter!

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