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March 21, 2016 / BTM

20 b4 twenty: The Basic Facts that Everyone Agrees on About Jesus’ Death and Resurrection

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This is the sixth post in a series on the twenty things everyone should know before they reach the age of twenty.

Something you must know by the time you reach twenty is that there are five minimal facts that virtually all New Testament scholars – Christian or skeptic – agree to be strongly evidenced and historical concerning the death and alleged resurrection of Jesus. These facts have been established through the same methods scholars would use to validate information in any other book of antiquity.

These five facts are not disputed by the overwhelming majority of experts.

Someone who refuses to accept these minimal facts is taking a position that even the majority of skeptical (non-Christian) New Testament scholars in this field (the people who should know) will reject. In that case, the burden of proof (the requirement to prove their point) is on the skeptic’s shoulders, not yours.*

With no further ado, here are the five strongly evidenced facts about Jesus death and alleged resurrection:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ tomb was found empty (of his body).
  3. The disciples claimed to have seen a resurrected Jesus.
  4. Jesus’ disciples had an early and sudden belief in the resurrection (i.e. this was not something that was invented by Christians centuries after the fact).
  5. Paul (an enemy to Christianity) and James’ (a skeptic of Jesus) change of heart to accepting Jesus as God.

Even if we threw out the Bible entirely, these minimal facts are documented in ancient texts outside the Bible written by Christians and non-Christians. That’s why they are so accepted, even by skeptics.

Then why all the debate about whether or not Jesus really rose from the dead?

I said that the facts are not under debate. But, the interpretation of these facts is. There are many rival explanations for these facts.Many feel that there it not one logical conclusion to explain these accepted facts. There are many competing explanations.

Let’s investigate some of the most significant explanations for these facts to determine which is the best. As always, the best explanation will have the best explanatory power for all of the data (all of the minimal facts). In keeping with good detective skills, it is often the simplest, most straightforward explanation that is the correct one (the one where there are no backflips required to make the explanation fit the facts). This is an exercise that you could do as a family, with a Bible Study group, or by yourself.

Consider the minimal facts stated above and ask yourself:

1. What are the possibilities that would explain the change in the disciples (#4)?

2. What are the possibilities that would cause a skeptic (James) and enemy (Paul) of Jesus to end up being martyred for belief in something that they were once hostile to?

Now, consider this list of some of the more popular explanations for the minimal facts. (For an exhaustive list, see Habermas and Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. I highly recommend this book.).

a) Jesus wasn’t really dead (He survived the crucifixion).

b) Jesus’ disciples moved the body and lied about the resurrection.

c) The Jews, Romans or somebody else moved the body and lied about it.

d) The early church hallucinated the resurrection appearances (swoon theory).

e) The resurrection account was embellished over time.

f) Being willing to die for one’s belief does not prove that it is true (the disciples were deluded).

g) Jesus had a twin brother who posed as Jesus after Jesus died (the resurrection was faked).

h) Jesus rose bodily from the dead and appeared to the disciples.

Referring to the list of minimal facts, assess each of these explanations to see which provides the best explanation for all of the facts.

The answers follow below. If necessary, use the first answer to help you get a feel for how to assess the various explanations of the resurrection based on the minimal facts.

1) Jesus wasn’t really dead (He survived the crucifixion).

  • Crucifixion is brutal and lethal. It is reasonable to conclude that it is impossible to fake your own crucifixion. It would be very unlikely that Jesus could be speared in the side and still pretend to be dead.
  • This doesn’t explain the early belief in the resurrection, since a half-dead Jesus would not inspire a belief in the resurrection. It would make the disciples want to rush Jesus to a doctor.
  • A half-dead Jesus would not have been able to get out of the tomb (remember the stone across the tomb entrance).
  • Doesn’t account for the appearance to James and Paul, and their dramatic change and martyrdom.
  • Also, this is a minimal fact that everyone agrees on (i.e. that Jesus died)

2) Jesus’ disciples moved the body and lied about the resurrection.

  • Even if the disciples stole the body, it can only call into question the cause of the empty tomb.
  • It doesn’t explain why the early church was willing to be persecuted (people don’t die for a lie – the disciples were in a position to know if Jesus actually rose from the dead).
  • Doesn’t account for the appearance to James and Paul, and their dramatic change and martyrdom.
  • Jesus’ disciples weren’t expecting a bodily resurrection, so they wouldn’t have thought of stealing the body.

3) The Jews, Romans or somebody else moved the body and lied about it.

  • The Jews/Romans had no interest in helping a rival or trouble-making sect.
  • The Jews/Romans would have produced the stolen body to end the growth of Christianity and the resurrection claims.
  • Doesn’t account for the appearance to James and Paul, and their dramatic change and martyrdom.
  • There is no evidence to support the claim that someone else (or Jews/Romans) moved the body.

4) The early church hallucinated the resurrection appearances (swoon theory).

  • Group hallucinations are impossible.
  • There were too many independent appearances (indoors/outdoors, friends/foes, men/women, etc).
  • It doesn’t explain the empty tomb.
  • It doesn’t explain the theological change in the disciples’ expectations of the resurrection.
  • Seeing a ghost or a hallucination does not imply a bodily resurrection.
  • Doesn’t account for the appearance to James and Paul, and their dramatic change and martyrdom.

5) The resurrection account was embellished over time.

  • We have early eyewitness accounts of the Biblical text; there was no room (no time) for embellishments.
  • Doesn’t account for the appearance to Paul, and Paul’s dramatic change and martyrdom.
  • Paul and James came to believe apart from the testimony of the disciples (or of anyone else).
  • We have extra-Biblical accounts which confirm the gospel accounts.

6) Being willing to die for one’s belief does not prove that they are true (you could be deluded).

  • It was not just the disciples belief, they claimed to be eyewitness and therefore were in a position to definitely know whether it was true or not (as opposed to someone now dying for their faith who is not in the same position to know whether it is true or not).
  • The fact that the disciples were willing to die for their belief at least proves that the disciples were not lying.
  • Doesn’t account for the appearance to James and Paul, and their dramatic change and martyrdom.

7) Jesus had a twin brother.

  • There is no evidence to support this.
  • Does not explain James or Paul’s dramatic change and martyrdom.

Summing it all up

It’s easy for people to claim an alternate explanation for the minimal facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but why should we believe them? They have to give us evidence to support their proposed view and it has to fit all of the minimal facts better than any other competing explanation.

You now have a tool to use to support the resurrection: these five minimal facts are agreed to by almost everyone (even hostile scholars), and the most plausible explanation of these facts is that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

I hope this gives you something to think of this Easter – and something to discuss as a family or with friends over your celebrations. Happy Easter!

.

* I think we can agree that NO fact or theory EVER receives universal acceptance by experts, so it would be ridiculous reject something purely on the basis that a very small minority isn’t 100% on board. Extreme, radical positions will always exist, but they are always held by a very small minority. Side with them if you want, but make sure they have extremely good efacts.

 

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