Few years ago, while engaging an atheist on the subject of resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I was taking aback by the reply of the said person, which might just be a peep into the thought process of the twenty first century skeptics. He insisted that the subject was not thoroughly debated by ancient people. According to this my erudite neurosurgeon friend, the ancients were not as intelligent as people of our time. But it’s very likely that friend didn’t infact know that the subject of death and resurrection of Jesus have been in contention for as far back as the first century, during the time of his Apostles.
Many of such instances around: one of such is the case of Athenians who were demonstrably skeptical when Paul informed of them that Jesus has resurrected. They mocked and jeered, dismissing him as been a charlatan and illiterate.
Very early in the second century, a Roman historian named Publius Cornelius Tacitus referred to the resurrection of Christ as a “pernicious superstition.” Gaius Suetonius, another Roman historian writing about the same time, called it a “new and mischievous superstition.” It was a subject of mockery then as now. It was as much a ridiculous subject as it was in the first century, even among Pagans who could readily believe any myth or legends and were demonstrably hero worshippers.
Against the principle of putting the best foot forward, it is pertinent to examine the argument against the resurrection of Jesus. Could it be that Jesus indeed didn’t resurrected as skeptics claimed? What possible reasons did they have to justify this claim?
JESUS DID NOT DIE AS CHRISTIANS CLAIM
Chief among the major proponent of this seemingly extreme position are the Muslim, the basis of whose belief hinged on the Quran, a document purported to have been dictated by Allah to Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century after the event.
“That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise;— Quran 4:157–158.
While it is likely that this belief is influenced largely by gnostic writings of second century, it cannot be justified historically by its proponents. In fact, the internal contradictions of such position makes it highly unlikely. For one, it implied God as someone who deceived the Jews into believing someone else was crucified and not Jesus. While it portrayed the miraculous, in which such an act isn’t beyond the power of God, it doesn’t take away the glaring misrepresentation of God, as been a deceiver, liar and swindler. It shows God in bad light. Another thing is how, we can’t tell what exactly happened. The mainstream belief among Muslims is the substitutionary theory, in which case didn’t answer who in fact was substituted in Jesus place. Aside the internal inconsistencies in the Islamic narrative, it is too late to be accepted as true historical record of an event said to have taken place about seven hundred years from the time of the said occurrence. Such writings would amount to mere legends, since it is far removed by centuries from the date of the event and could have suffered intense retellings and changes over the course of centuries. Historians will rather chose to rely on eyewitness accounts of the four Evangelists who “independently” wrote in details about Jesus’s crucifixions and resurrection. Besides, the early disciples, here are some of the early non-Christian sources that attest to Jesus’ death.
“Pilate condemned him [Jesus] to be crucified and to die.”
“When Pilate, upon hearing him [Jesus] accused by men of the highest standing amongst us [i.e., the Jewish leaders], had condemned him to be crucified….”
Flavius Josephus, Jewish Historian (ca. AD 37-97) in Antiquities 18.3, 63-64
“Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty [referencing crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
Cornelius Tacitus, Roman Historian (ca. AD 56-120) in Annals 15.44
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.”
Lucian of Samosata, Greek Satirist (ca. AD 120-195) in The Death of Peregrine
“Or [what advantage came to] the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them?”
Mara Bar-Serapion, Stoic Philosopher (ca. AD 73) in a letter to his son while in prison
“On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu was hanged [a synonym for “crucified” – as seen in Galatians 3:13 and Luke 23:39].”
The Babylonian Talmud, Jewish writings from the Tannaitic period (ca. AD 70-200) in Sanhedrin 43a
These diverse, non-Christian sources which all independently attest to Jesus’ death by crucifixion make the historicity of the event difficult to refute. Besides, these writings are extremely early and just couple of years to the said event.
The argument that Jesus could have survived the event of scourging and crucifixion is so ridiculous and unrealistic that medical scientists find it impossible for any serious person to believe . Certainly, the sort of beatings, trekking and suffering Jesus was subjected to is enough to drain him of body fluid leading to suffocation and heart burst before his crucifixion. The Roman soldiers were so careful to conduct a post mortem examination of his death by piecing a spear through his side, to check whether he was dead or not. The body fluid coming out of his side was in fact demonstrative of that fact.
HIS BODY WAS STOLEN
The stolen body hypothesis posits that the body of Jesus Christ was stolen from his burial place. His tomb was found empty not because he was resurrected, but because the body had been hidden somewhere else by the apostles or unknown persons. But, we don’t have evidence for this claim.
There was an engraving scientists traced to a Greek islands of Kos, near Turkey South Western coast. Its 22 lines of text begin with “Edict of Caesar” and then proclaim that tombs and graves shall stay “forever unmolested.” Should anyone remove human remains for illicit purposes, or disrespect or destroy remains in any way, “he shall suffer capital punishment on the charge of desecration of graves,” the inscription went on.
One possibility is that the inscription was a stern response to an incident that took place on Kos in the 30s B.C. After an unpopular official named Nikias died, locals broke into his tomb and desecrated the body; Nikias had been a powerful figure, and it’s likely that the Roman edict promising to punish grave desecration was a response to the fate suffered by Nikias’ corpse, according to study. Meanwhile, this edict was decades before Jesus emergence of Earth. The disciples risk death if they steal his corpse. It is curious to note that the Jewish Sanhedrin who purportedly spread the news of his body been stolen had no evidence to push such narrative, else they could have condemned his disciples to death for so doing since capital punishment hangs on any such offenders.
In the likely event that Jesus’s disciples ACTUALLY stole his body to deliberately push a lying narrative of his resurrection, we should expect a recant of such colluding conspiracy from at least one person in history(seen there were over 500 of them who held on to this and defended it with their lives), considering the intensity of persecution, threat to life, killings, shaming and hatred suffered by them. It’s ridiculous to die for a lie that you know would end you in such dehumanizing situation as the disciples of Jesus encountered during their days. These men spread the news of his resurrection. One will be more than willing to die for evidence than a belief that’s recantable.
THE POSSIBILITY OF GROUP HALLUCINATIONS
Could the disciples of Jesus had been hallucinating about his resurrection? For instance, the so called Marian apparition seems a fertile ground to discredit the resurrection of Jesus.
A Marian apparition is a reported supernatural appearance by Mary, mother of Jesus, or a series of related such appearances during a period of time. In the Catholic Church, in order for a reported appearance to be classified as a Marian apparition, the person or persons who claim to see Mary (the “seers”) must claim that they see her visually located in their environment. If the person claims to hear Mary but not see her, this is known as an interior locution, not an apparition. Also excluded from the category of apparitions are dreams, visions experienced in the imagination, the claimed perception of Mary in ordinarily-explainable natural phenomena, and miracles associated with Marian artwork, such as weeping statues.
The Marian apparition and others like it are however different from the appearances of Jesus to his disciples. The said hallucinations experience is said to have occurred for a short while, like say, minutes or seconds. It is also said to have been private experience to individuals at different periods of history, in which case cannot be multiply verified by a group of persons, as against the appearance of Jesus to about five hundred disciples who were Paul referred the Corinthians to verify his claim from (1Corinthians 15:5,6) and at various occasions and places (John 20 & 21) within the space of forty days consecutively (Act 1: 3). Jesus convinced doubters among his disciples that he has risen from death(Luke 24:36-40) he ate with his disciples(Luke 24:41-43) , taught and did taught his disciples after his resurrection. This is not how hallucinations or apparition is like.
LEGENDARY EMBELLISHMENTS AND CONTRADICTIONS IN GOSPEL NARRATIVE
The first century Jews were particularly careful scribes. Their tradition of literacy wasn’t like the Arabians. They value both literary and oral tradition, so much that they commit the Torah to heart. Jesus’s disciples been part of the culture also engaged the scribal and oral tradition in their records of Jesus life, death and resurrection. It was they referred to as “apostolos didactalia”- the doctrine of the Apostles. This, Paul said, was handed down to him too.
It is noteworthy to say the writers of the four gospel who independently penned down the gospel did this on the basis of this rich scribal tradition and appear to be very careful not to add or subtract as the Apostle John implied in the book of Revelation. More so, they wrote these books while the Apostles who seems to have community regulation for beliefs and writings were alive to checkmate whatever is been circulated in Christ name. Meanwhile, lots of the stories in the four gospels didn’t portray the Apostles in heroic light, rather we have embarrassing details been highlighted of them by the writers, making it altogether unlikely for them to have allowed self indicting narratives against themselves if it were not true. A legendary embellishment will present a hero out of Peter, for instance. But, for all we see, these writings were written during the first century when the Apostles were very much around as not to have allowed the narrative suffer any form of alterations
Moreover, the central issue about Jesus death and resurrection were very much intact as to make any outsider not consider the possibility of not worrying about contradictions. If four persons are talking reporting an event, it’s expected for them to have differing perspectives but on the said event but, they will always agree on important details. But, if all of them are giving the same details of same event, one will definitely say, the reporters planned it all. Eyewitnesses can always unite in important details but differ in unimportant ones. And even some of the so called contradictions which are actually contradistinctions are reconcilable.
For instance, Dr Lydia MCGrew noted, “Something very exciting just occurred to me while drafting Testimonies to the Truth: Mark 16:6 (echoed in Matthew) records that the angel at the tomb gave the women a message for Jesus’ disciples and Peter: “Jesus will go ahead of you into Galilee.” If, as told in Luke and John, Jesus was going to see the eleven disciples that very evening, why give this message to the women, especially with the specific mention of Peter? It’s true that the women were probably supposed to give this message to a larger group, including those who wouldn’t see Jesus that day. But why the emphasis on Peter? It certainly sounds like this message is intended for the eleven among others. This has been used to argue that Jesus didn’t appear to his disciples at this time in Jerusalem at all. Luke and John, in that case, would have invented meetings between Jesus and the male disciples in Jerusalem. It just occurred to me today that the only place where we find Jesus stating to the disciples that after he is risen he will go ahead into Galilee is at the Last Supper. I looked up to confirm, and sure enough, it’s recorded only at the Last Supper (in both Mark 14:28 and the parallel passage in Matthew). The women were almost certainly not present at this time and would not see Jesus again until after his arrest. If this was indeed the only time Jesus said this before his arrest, the message to Peter and the rest of the eleven, “Behold, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” at the resurrection should have functioned as a kind of password. If the male disciples were thinking correctly, they would have realized that the women would have no other way to know this, and this should have clued them in that the women’s story was true. Jesus must have known that the men would not believe the women (Luke says that they didn’t), but God does sometimes give us opportunities that we don’t take. And it would give him an “I told you so” to say to them later. This point makes a nice complement to what I have said before about this alleged problem with the message, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee”–namely, that the message was intended for a larger group, many of whom wouldn’t see Jesus in Jerusalem first. I would say that this “password” idea and the fact that the women were almost certainly not present at the Last Supper does constitute a new undesigned coincidence”.
Dr McGrew wrote other important books on same subject of undesigned coincidences.
It becomes hard to prove that Jesus did not die, or resurrect in the face of evidence and sound argument against such position. What any sane person will do is proceed to check evidence for themselves and change their mind without much ado upon been convinced, like the atheist cold case detective, J. Warner Wallace.