Did historians and archaeologists find Jesus’ bones? The end of Christianity discussed.

Source: Crosswalk

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Note: This discussion does not assume as a starting point the Bible is God’s Word nor does it foolishly assume or ever accept Christians are better people than non Christians. If you have trouble accepting either of these assumptions, this is probably the article for you! If you are convinced God or supernatural forces exist you may want to start at point 2, if not or you are unsure start at point 1.

This is a topic which plagues many. How could anyone possibly believe in such a seemingly mythical event? Surely the disciples were hallucinating? Or did Jesus even exist? Or maybe the disciples just took the body because they were bored or wanted an excuse to gain power through a new movement and oppress the masses? How would such a big event in the annual calendar be based off this work of fiction?

Here are a few points for consideration regarding this issue of the resurrection.

1. Being aware of our underlying assumptions/ internal consistency

Many people dismiss the idea of the resurrection of Jesus at face value as something which is impossible or highly improbable. However, we must ask why we think it would be impossible? If God exists, it most certainly would be possible and potentially even probable based off what we know of Jesus self understanding and life. Regarding probability, sure it is not something we see usually or ever occur naturally (that is not the contention here!) but must be assessed in terms of background facts and what we already know of Jesus, a probability given other factors similar to what we see in Bayesian theory.

If God does not exist then could, as well as the resurrection being impossible, it also be impossible for you to wilfully rationally assess whether or not the event even took place or even rationally conclude it is an impossibility? Just think about it for one second. You live in a universe which came from nothing but somehow managed to be purely governed by physical forces, laws, matter and the impact of these factors over time. What you think is much like how a predetermined machine would operate. You are given set inputs governed by laws outside your control which drive the brain gas you produce as a physical object in the universe. If you feel otherwise, it is simply an illusion instilled in you for survival purposes. Thus, your “rational” position is self defeating under this worldview as you can’t intentionally weigh anything up but what you think is your mind operating is really no different to a limb growing out of a tree branch.

The idea of will or rationality or assessing options is completely foreign in such a universe. To quote Eric Chaisson describing this type of a world in Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos, “The two go hand in hand like a dance: chance flirts with necessity, randomness with determinism. To be sure, it is from this interchange that novelty and creativity arise in Nature, thereby yielding unique forms and novel structures.” CS Lewis sums it up nicely, “If minds are wholly dependent on brains and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”

You might say that you don’t believe you exist in such a universe but that the resurrection is not a historically valid event. For this I would guide you straight to points 2 and 3. However, before we get to that I would again challenge your assumptions. Is there a spiritual side to the universe or not? If yes, then it would at least be a possible option that Jesus rose from the dead as a supernatural event which needs to be assessed against a backdrop of historical data. If not and you hold to the idea the physical world is all there is, I would again ask how you would be in a position to rationally assess something according to your own will when you are simply the result of physical forces which shape everything you do and are. Your mind comes from chaos (unguided process), you exist in a purposeless planet, you have a sense of truth as if it is something objective outside of your own existence when you only exist and evolve for survival, not truth. The idea that in that context, coming from a universe from nothing and driven by physical forces you would be able to rationally assess the resurrection would be wildly improbable, far more dare I say than the resurrection itself.

None of this proves or supports the resurrection, it just illustrates why we should be open to having a discussion about it particularly given its sheer unparalleled impact on the world. After all in a purposeless, chaotic, changing planet which is purely physical even sceptics find themselves assuming uniformity in nature (uniformity in chaos), laws of logic which transcend an individual human’s predetermined mental state (objective and immaterial standards in a chaotic purely material world) and having a sense of will as they discuss driving personal change, setting goals and wilfully setting aside time to disprove the resurrection (will in a predetermined chemical state).

Instead I would argue if that natural universe had a beginning, by definition, the cause would be outside of nature or supernatural, that transcendent laws and standards point to a transcendent being, that uniformity implies a rational mind/ external order behind the universe and that the fact you have intelligence and will points to the fact a mind with intelligence and will brought about your existence as purposeless objects would not logically produce rational, intelligent beings with purpose. Thus, before we are quick to shut off possibilities we must look inward and assess our own internal consistencies.

With this in mind we look outwards and turn to the historical information at hand.

2. Historical support for resurrection

In the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Christianity is a worldview which claims to be rooted in history. Disprove the credibility of the resurrection and that is Christianity gone.

To rise, Jesus must first exist and then die. Famous critic of Christianity Dr. Bart Ehrman addressed the topic Jesus’ existence in the following way in a 2007 interview, “I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing. I don’t know anyone who is a responsible historian, who is actually trained in the historical method, or anybody who is a biblical scholar who does this for a living, who gives any credence at all to any of this (idea Jesus does not exist).” Regarding Jesus’ death, Ehrman claims, “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.” Atheist scholar Gerd Ludermann adds, “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”

We must then ask what about the resurrection? Based on criteria used by historians such as dissimilarity, embarrassment, multiple independent attestation and enemy attestation, we can establish the following three facts agreed upon by the vast majority of New Testament scholars whether atheist, Christian or agnostic. Notice as scholar William Lane Craig points out, the dispute largely lies not in the facts but the explanation for them.

  1. Jesus’ burial/ female witness discovery of empty tomb.

Jewish historian Josephus reminds us female testimony was not taken seriously in first century Palestine. It would make no sense to create a work of fiction to trick people with female witnesses. Moreover, the burial process involves Joseph of Arimathea who, being a member of the Sanhedrin, a council which despised Jesus, is unlikely to be a character of fiction given this detail would be embarrassing to early Christians.

Furthermore, the burial and the female witnesses collectively are attested by multiple independent sources. Some sceptics raise seeming contradictions between accounts as a means to discredit this fact, however, the differences prove independent sources are being used and none of the differences throw into question the core facts. We could also assess whether the differences are reconcilable or irreconcilable and I would argue nearly all, if not all, are reconcilable, however, that is not the purpose of this article as the core facts remain.

2. The fact the disciples believed they had post mortem appearances of Jesus.

There is little disputing this. It is widely attested throughout early sources and in the context of an empty tomb and multiple witnesses, it is highly unlikely to have been a purely hallucinatory experience. Furthermore, in a Jewish context there were no resurrections to be expected until the last day so this is a dissimilar concept to what a first century Palestinian Jew would have thought or expected to take place.

In 1 Cor 15:3–8, Paul lists multiple witnesses to the resurrection including a group of more than 500. Many of the witnesses were alive at the time and could easily disprove the claim if false. New Testament scholar James Dunn dates the creed in this passage to within 18 months of Christ’s death, “This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death.” Even atheist scholar Gerd Ludermann writes in his book The Resurrection of Jesus, “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3–8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.”

3. Origin of disciples belief and willingness to die for their faith.

The willingness of the early disciples to die for their faith is well documented. Note willingness to die for something does not prove it to be true but in this case in the light of an empty tomb, the divine self understanding of Jesus and the post-mortem appearances it would seem unlikely the disciples were prepared to die for pure fiction. To quote Dr. Sean McDowell in the case of Peter, “The earliest evidence is found in John 21:18–19, which was written about 30 years after Peter’s death. Bart Ehrman, in his book Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, agrees that Peter is being told he will die as a martyr. Other evidence for Peter’s martyrdom can be found in early church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus, Tertullian and more.” Would you genuinely enjoy such pain and end your life for a story you made up or for a story which ignored the simple fact you could find Jesus’ bones still lying in a tomb?

The best explanation of these facts would seem to be that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead and that the disciples, despite the Jewish idea that the resurrection could only happen at the end of the age, were willing to die for beliefs dissimilar to what they grew up with. It makes no sense to argue that the disciples stole the body and were still willing to die for the idea of the resurrection or that hundreds of them were hallucinating collectively (hallucinations tend to be individual and in line with something you expect), despite every predisposition not to believe in a resurrection and when the Romans or Jews could easily pull out Jesus body to prove that He was still dead if he was.

Scholar NT Wright reminds us conspiracies are based off greed, power and lust and I can hardly see how being willing to die for a lie would help feed greed, power or lust.

Dr. Michael Licona also makes a case for the resurrection without even assuming there is any slightly accurate historical information in the gospels as these facts can be established from historic content outside the gospels (let alone a belief they are inerrant/ infallible). It is called the minimal facts approach and is outlined below:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion (supported by Roman and Greek sources)
  2. Jesus disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them
  3. Church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
  4. James was suddenly changed.
  5. The tomb was empty.

This brings us to our final point.

3. Examining potential motives

Naturalistic explanations such as the disciples stealing the body, hallucinations or Jesus only seeming as if he had died do not make sense of the three facts. We are reminded of NT Wright’s points of cause for conspiracy as greed, power and lust and see these would not make sense as motivations for people such as the disciples who were stripped, beaten and killed for their beliefs. The idea Christianity was created as some sort of oppression tool for the masses makes absolutely no sense in light of the historical context.

Roman historian Tacitus spoke of the persecution of first century Christians in The Annals book 15 chapter 44, “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” Sounds exactly like Christianity was set up as a first century oppression tool and a self made deception to gain power based off this quote!

This makes us wonder, could truth have been motivating the disciples? Could it be that these experiences made them realise Jesus was no ordinary person but that the resurrection was a vindication of Jesus’ standing before God? By using historical criteria such as reference to the original historical context (historical congruence) and multiple attestation, we can establish Jesus thought that he was God’s Son through the parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21, Luke 20 and Mark 12. Moreover, Jesus’ use of the term Son of Man to refer to himself appears widely throughout the gospels and is reference to a figure from Daniel 7:13–14 who receives dominion, worship and power only due to God. In Mark 14:61–64, Jesus’ use of this term to describe himself is considered blasphemy worthy of death, while in Mark 2 the Son of Man can forgive sins (Mark 2:10) while no one can forgive sins but God alone (Mark 2:7) according to the same passage. Could it be given this divine self understanding of Jesus, which the disciples properly realised post the resurrection encounters, that the disciples were actually driven by truth and a love for Christ? This context is what gives the resurrection so much meaning.

Perhaps they had realised they were worthy of judgement without the help of Christ and his atoning sacrifice for their sins. Paul definitely seemed to hold this view in Ephesians 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This comes back to our comment at the start, Christianity is not a holiness game. It is about recognising your own limitations and need for a saviour. Paul adds in Romans 10:9 speaking of the resurrection, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Could it be this was what was motivating the disciples who turned the world upside down as Christianity spread like a wildfire through the Roman world despite the most intense persecution imaginable and every effort to thwart it?

With this in mind it is time to look inwards. What is motivating your view on the resurrection? Is it research or hate or negative feelings? Is it an assumption that God does not exist while you sit down trying to use your intelligent mind and will to assess the issue? Is it maybe even the fact your life has been transformed by your experience of Jesus much like many through the ages?

For the disciples and many after them it was clear faith was not to be some purely blind experience founded on imaginary tales but a trust to hold in God founded on God’s works in history and a transformation they experienced. These were not people who were holier or wiser than others as they judged the world from a position of pride. These were people who had their lives transformed through grace and forgiveness, not their own works. Where are you going to sit on this topic as you look inwards?

“As a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind Him.” — N. T. Wright

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