Friday, April 10, 2009

Resurrection Faith (part three)

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;

Here Paul begins to list the eyewitnesses – not to the Resurrection itself, but to the risen Christ. Keep in mind that these reports were in circulation within 2-3 years after Jesus’ death. There can be no doubt that these people actually reported having seen Jesus after his death. Those reports were either true or false. One thing they were not were myths and legends that developed over a long period of time. Paul himself checked with the apostles to verify the contents of his preaching as he writes in Galatians 1:18-20. He says, “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother. Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.”

Skeptics sometimes like to use the illustration of the game where you have a line of people and the person at the start of the line gives a message to the next person. They pass it to the next person and so on, until it gets to the other end. Then you see how the message got garbled in the process. This, they say, is how we got the stories about Jesus in the New Testament. The problems with this illustration are numerous. The biggest problem is this: all you need to do to find out what the original message was is to ask the person at the front of the line. In fact, that’s the only way you can tell that the message was changed is by comparing the last person’s story with the first person’s story. So in order for this to be the process by which we arrived at the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, you have to assume that nobody checked with those who were reported as eyewitnesses. However, we have specific claims that people DID check with the eyewitnesses, and not just by Paul. Luke also specifically claims to have checked with eyewitnesses, as does John. Paul even basically swears an oath here in Galatians that he’s telling the truth. But if those claims were false, then these men were lying. Is it possible Paul was lying? The early and consistent testimony of church history is that Paul died a martyr’s death in Rome around 64 AD under Nero after having risked his life countless times to proclaim the Gospel message throughout the Roman Empire. Of first importance in that proclamation was the eyewitness testimony of those who had seen Jesus after his Resurrection. This was not a game for Paul and for the other eyewitnesses – it was quite literally a matter of life and death.

He Appeared to Cephas

The first appearance Paul reports is one to Peter (Cephas is Peter’s name in Aramaic), and evidently to Peter by himself since it’s listed separately from the appearance to the Twelve. Some skeptics object that we have no report in the Gospels of such an appearance. But this is not entirely correct. It’s true that there’s no narrative of such an appearance, but in fact an appearance to Peter by himself is mentioned by Luke. This happens after the narrative of Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke writes, “And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, ‘The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon’” (Luke 24:33-34). Simon is Peter’s original name which Jesus changed to Cephas (or Peter), meaning rock. So here in Luke we have a clear reference to this first appearance to Peter mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians. We have no other details of this appearance, but Luke indicates that Peter, after going to the tomb himself to verify the incredible story of the women, returned to his home “marveling at what had happened” (Luke 24:12). This private appearance to Peter most likely occurred at his home.

Then to the Twelve

The next appearance listed by Paul is to the Twelve. Luke and John both record an appearance of Jesus to his disciples on the evening after his resurrection. In Luke it occurs immediately after the passage given above. The Emmaus disciples return to Jerusalem to find the eleven and others who are with them talking about Jesus’ appearance to Peter. The two from Emmaus then recount their own testimony. Jesus then appears to all of them. Interestingly, Luke records that they became frightened thinking that it was a spirit. Jesus says to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” He then asks them if they have something to eat, and eats a piece of broiled fish in front of them. This is an absolutely remarkable story given the completely unexpected nature of it. Luke does not portray Jesus here as a spirit-like being at all, but as having the properties of a normal human being. At the same time, he also can do things normal people can’t do, like appearing and disappearing at will. But the Gospel narratives give nothing else unusual about Jesus, except that he is sometimes recognized immediately and sometimes not recognized until later. If this was a legendary development, why does Jesus’s body not glow or something else to indicate its supernatural qualities? Luke indicates that the angels in the tomb were “dazzling” in appearance – why not Jesus? Even the disciples seem to have doubts and questions about their experiences. This is consistent with what we would expect from anyone who sees a person they’ve known after their death, but hardly as an apologetic for the Resurrection written afterwards to dupe a gullible populace.

The skeptic likes to raise the objection that at this point in the story the Twelve was no longer twelve, since Judas had reportedly committed suicide after betraying Jesus. In fact Luke says the disciples on the road to Emmaus returned to “the eleven.” So how can Paul say that Jesus appeared to the Twelve? One solution immediately presents itself in Luke’s account of the election of a replacement for Judas in Acts 1. We are told that Matthias was chosen for this role. But we are also told that Peter gave the necessary qualifications for this office in Acts 1:21-22: “Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us -- beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us -- one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” So the only candidates were apparently those who had accompanied the apostles from the beginning. Luke has already indicated that there were others gathered with the eleven when Jesus appeared, so it’s quite possible, even probable, that Matthais was one of those present at that appearance on the first evening. Of course, John reports that Thomas was NOT present for that first appearance, but that eight days later Jesus appeared to them again when all of the disciples were present.

Then to more than 500

Paul makes a remarkable report that Jesus also appeared to a group of more than five hundred people at one time. He also adds the note “most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” This obviously was not part of the original creed which Paul had received, but was added by him when he wrote the Corinthians. Skeptics will argue that this appearance must be fictitious, because there is no record of such an appearance in the Gospels. Some suggest that the appearance in Matthew 28 on the mountain in Galilee may have been this event, although Matthew only mentions the eleven. It’s conceivable that Matthew just omitted reference to a large crowd besides the disciples, although arguments from silence make for poor evidence. But the skeptic’s argument is itself an argument from silence: the Gospels do not specifically mention such an appearance, so there must not have been one. Of course, even when multiple accounts mention the same appearance (such as the one to Peter and to the Twelve), the skeptic says those ones didn’t happen, either for some other reason!

What is remarkable about the five hundred is Paul’s statement that most of these eyewitnesses are still alive. For one thing, it indicates that he must have known who these people were and had some sort of up-to-date information on their whereabouts in order to make such a claim. After all, he was writing to the Corinthians some 20 years after the events in question. How could he claim that most of these eyewitnesses were alive without having some reliable source of information on them? And of course it also raises the question of why he would add this to his letter. He’s clearly using this list as evidential support for the claim that Jesus had really risen from the dead. The information could be verified by his readers, and Paul is staking not only his own apostolic authority on the veracity of his claims, but also the entire truth of the Gospel message itself, a message which he had risked his life to proclaim and eventually gave his life for it. Would he have made a claim like this if such an event had not been reported by eyewitnesses? And again, since the event itself appears to have been part of the early creed and was thus in circulation within 2-3 years after Jesus’ death, how could such a story have originated? Skeptical theories such as hallucinations absolutely won’t work. For more than 500 people to have a hallucination of the same person at the same time would be at least as great a miracle as the Resurrection itself.

Then He Appeared to James

This James is not the same James as the member of the original apostles by that name, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. Paul is referring here to James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3) who became a leader in the early church (Gal. 1:19) and wrote the book of James. This is in itself a remarkable fact. The portrait of Jesus’ siblings in John’s Gospel is that they did not believe in him and may in fact have been somewhat embarrassed by him. How is it, then, that one of Jesus’ brothers not only became one of his followers after his death but a leader in the early church? According to this early church creed, it was because Jesus himself appeared to James after his resurrection. Paul himself met personally with James to confirm this story. So there can be no doubt that James, the brother of Jesus, reported having seen his older brother after he had risen.

Then to All the Apostles

The penultimate appearance on Paul’s list is to “all the apostles,” apparently meaning a different group than the Twelve. The word “apostle” means one who is sent or commissioned and is used in the New Testament to refer to individuals other than the Twelve. A.T. Robertson believes this final appearance to be the one narrated in Acts 1 at Jesus’ ascension. While this is a plausible explanation, we don’t have enough information to be certain.

The list of eyewitnesses that Paul gives here is impressive. He says that all of these people claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection. As we have already learned, this creed was almost certainly in circulation among the churches within 2-3 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Is it possible that these stories had developed as legends in such a short period of time? That’s out of the question. Legends take far longer than that to develop. As A.N. Sherwin-White notes, even two full generations is not sufficient to wipe out a core of historical facts. Besides that, Paul himself met with at least some of these eyewitnesses personally, and was also able to make the claim that most of the 500 were still alive at the time of the writing of his letter to the Corinthians 20 years after the crucifixion. They weren’t legends.

Could the reports have been mistaken in some way? Did people simply think they had seen Jesus but they actually didn’t? Natural explanations involving things like hallucinations are just not plausible. Hallucinations are subject-dependent, so it’s not possible for two people to have identical hallucinations at the same time, let alone 500 people! Even taking just the testimony of the apostles, it’s impossible that they could have all been deceived into thinking that they had seen Jesus when in fact they had not.

It’s also inconceivable that they could have fabricated the story. What would have been their motive? To achieve fame and glory? If that was there motive, they would have had plenty of opportunity to recant after it became clear that their “reward” for their deception was going to be persecution, imprisonment, and martyrdom. But tradition records that all of the apostles except for John were martyred for their faith without ever recanting of their testimony. Skeptics have challenged how good the evidence is for the martyrdom of all of the apostles. The accounts for some of the apostles are admittedly sketchy, but there are good early traditions for many of them, including James the brother of John who was put to death by Herod in Acts 12:2, Peter, and Paul among several others. As Tim and Lydia McGrew point out, even the fact that the apostles had seen others of their number put to death would have been enough to give strong motive to recant on their testimony. So how strong is this eyewitness testimony? Strong enough for the eyewitnesses themselves to have risked, and in many cases given their lives for it, to deliver their message to future generations.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Resurrection Faith (part two)

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures

Paul begins here to lay out what exactly it was that was of “first importance.” Three historical events are given here: that Christ died, was buried, and was raised on the third day. Paul also uses the expression “according to the Scriptures” twice. Finally, he states that Jesus died “for our sins.” N.T. Wright points out that Paul probably doesn’t have any specific proof-texts in mind, but the Scriptural revelation as a whole. The themes of redemption and atonement are, of course, prominent themes in the Old Testament. Jesus’ death is shown in the New Testament as being prefigured in the Passover, and in the Old Testament sacrificial system. Paul may have meant that Jesus’ Resurrection was prefigured in the Scriptures (Jesus himself referred to it as the “sign of the prophet Jonah”), or perhaps even that the Resurrection on the third day was prefigured. Some have seen this in Hosea 6:1-2: “Come, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him.” Some messianic passages in the Old Testament were originally predicated of the nation of Judah. This is the clearest passage in the OT that looks like a resurrection on the third day.

Christ Died For Our Sins

The death of Jesus by crucifixion is, of course, recorded in all four Gospels. Some critics have alleged that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, that he just fainted and then later revived. This is sometimes known as the “swoon” theory, and is an attempt to explain how the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive after his death (or apparent death as the theory goes). However, this idea is utterly implausible for several reasons. First, Roman centurions were very experienced in executing people, and knew how to tell when someone was dead. We have testimony from John’s Gospel that indicates that the soldiers took Jesus to be dead. In order to hasten death for the two criminals executed beside Jesus, the soldiers broke their legs with a heavy mallet. This would result in death in short order, since crucifixion victims must push up on their legs in order to take a breath. Lacking the ability to do that, they would die of asphyxiation quite quickly. But when the soldiers came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead and didn’t break his legs. Furthermore, John records that one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear to double-check that he was dead.

According to John, “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (John 19:33-34). This is a remarkable statement. First, the fact that this is given not one but two attestations as to its veracity (“the man who saw it has given his testimony which is true and he knows it’s true”). This sounds almost like an oath in a court of law. Second, what the eyewitness saw was blood and water flowing out of Jesus’ side. Apparently this was unexpected and unusual which is why he commented on it and reinforced the comment with an oath as to its veracity. But it’s also consistent with the mode of death. According to Dr. Alexander Metherell (M.D.), “Even before he died . . . the hypovolemic shock would have caused a sustained rapid heart rate that would have contributed to heart failure, resulting in the collection of fluid in the membrane around the heart, called a pericardial effusion, as well as around the lungs, which is called a pleural effusion.” This unexpected event was noteworthy to John. It’s consistent with Jesus’ medical condition at the time of his death. It also proves that he was, in fact, dead.

He Was Buried

All four of the Gospels record the burial of Jesus in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea who was a member of the Sandhedrin, the ruling council that condemned Jesus to death. Matthew and John both indicate that Joseph was a follower of Jesus, with John adding that he was a “closet disciple” for fear of the other Jews. It seems highly unlikely that this was a legend or an invention of the early Christians. There would have been no reason to invent a member of the council that condemned Jesus to come forward and to be the person who gave Jesus an honorable burial in his own family tomb. And while the Gospels include different details in the post-Resurrection narratives, all four include Joseph’s involvement in the burial. For these reasons the late Cambridge University NT scholar John A.T. Robinson said, “the honorable burial of Jesus is one of the earliest and best-attested facts that we have about the historical Jesus” (Strobel, 210).

Skeptics object that there is no other historical record of such an individual, and no clear identification of a city called Arimathea. However, there are many other references to Joseph in non-canonical literature. Some of it is clearly legendary, but the city of Ramah, which was the birthplace of the prophet Samuel, is called Armathaim in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (1 Sam. 2:2). This may well have been the city where Joseph was from. For the early Christians to have invented and named a specific individual from a specific group if that person did not exist would be a curious move, given that the information could be checked out.

He Was Raised on the Third Day

Some skeptics argue that Paul did not believe in a physical resurrection, but a spiritual one. Thus Paul doesn’t specifically mention the fact that the tomb was discovered empty as the Gospels indicate. These skeptics sometimes point to 1 Cor. 15:42-44 as evidence for this contention: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”

Paul makes a number of contrasts between the present body and the resurrected body, including that the present body is “natural” while the resurrection body is “spiritual.” This is taken to mean “physical” and “ghost-like" by the skeptic. However, this is a mistake. Paul uses the exact same contrast with the exact same words (“natural” and “spiritual”) at the beginning of the letter. In 1 Cor. 2:14-15 Paul writes, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.” When he speaks of the “natural” man and he who is “spiritual,” he doesn’t mean one with a physical body and one who is a ghost! Rather, he’s talking about the orientation of the person, whether towards the earthly (natural) realm or towards the heavenly (spiritual) realm. This skeptical theory is rather bizarre for another reason. Skeptics normally assert that the belief in the Resurrection was a process of accumulating myth. Yet according to the skeptics’ theory here, the earliest belief (in 1 Cor. 15) is more mythologized than the later versions which appear in the Gospels where Jesus is physically resurrected!

There is also the point that if Paul thought the Resurrection was spiritual and didn’t involved Jesus’ body coming back to life, what was significant about the third day? Why the delay? A spiritual resurrection wouldn’t require a waiting period of three days. Presumably Jesus would have gone to heaven spiritually immediately upon his death. But Paul says he was raised on the third day, the same day that the tomb was discovered empty by some of Jesus’ women followers according to all of the Gospel reports. This story is also a very unlikely invention, as women were not considered to be reliable witnesses in Jewish culture. In fact Paul’s list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15 fails to mention any of the appearances to the women reported in the Gospels. This can be explained in one of two ways. Either the story of the women was invented later and inserted into the Gospel accounts (highly unlikely), or the early church creed left out the appearances to the women in part due to the cultural stigma against having women as witnesses, and in part because creeds only record information which is deemed essential. This explanation makes much more sense of the evidence.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Resurrection Faith (part one)

In preparation for Easter, I'd like to walk through one of the key passages in all of Scripture that points to the faith of the earliest disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. I'll also be commenting on the implications of our Easter faith at the end of the week.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8

This passage is the earliest witness in the New Testament to the Resurrection. I'll be examining it one piece at a time. Skeptics, of course, regard the Resurrection as a myth or a legend, a story that simply developed over time as people told stories about a charismatic Jewish peasant preacher named Yeshua. But of course nobody today could believe such nonsense . . . could they?

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is universally recognized as an authentic letter of Paul, written to the church in Corinth around 55-57 AD. This passage from Paul is recognized as having the form of an early church creed. It’s stylized as a creed and uses some early expressions such as Peter’s Aramaic name (Cephas) and “the Twelve.” Paul tells his readers that he had delivered this creed to them that he had previously received, the contents of which consist of a number of historical claims. The words Paul uses are important – he uses two technical rabbinic terms for receiving and handing on of sacred tradition1. He wasn’t merely passing on gossip that he’d heard. The accepted date for Paul’s previous visit to Corinth was 51 AD. So when Paul says he had delivered this message to the Corinthians, he was referring to something he had done on his previous visit. But when did he receive it? Obviously prior to that. It’s also significant that he says this was “of first importance.” James D.G. Dunn notes that “he assuredly does not imply that the tradition became important to him only at some subsequent date. More likely he indicates the importance of the tradition to himself from the start; that was why he made sure to pass it on to the Corinthians when they first believed.”2

Thus it appears that this creed was received by Paul very early after his remarkable conversion, which occurred on his way to Damascus in about 33-34 AD, within just a couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s possible he received it in Damascus, or he may have received it on his visit with the apostles which he mentions in Gal. 1:18, which would have been no later than 37 AD. But this creed would have already been in circulation before that. Thus Dunn writes, “this tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death [emphasis original].”3 Even liberal New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann says, “We can assume that all the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus.”4 N.T. Wright agrees, saying this creed was likely formulated with 2-3 years of the crucifixion.5

If all of this is true, and there’s no good reason to doubt it, then these historical claims simply cannot be dismissed as myths and legends that developed over decades or even centuries as some skeptics claim. Many skeptics point to supposed late dates for the writing of the Gospels to bolster the myth argument, but those arguments are irrelevant (besides being generally mistaken). The historic core of the events surrounding the first Easter can be traced back to within months of the death of Jesus by crucifixion on that Good Friday almost 2000 years ago.

It’s interesting that the creed which Paul delivered so carefully to the Corinthians was not a statement of doctrine, dogma, moral teachings, or esoteric religious philosophy. It was rather a set of very specific historical claims. The only item in it that could be called doctrine is the phrase “for our sins.” This is significant. The foundational claims of Christianity do not have to do with doctrine, dogma, or a philosophical system. They have to do with specific claims of specific historic events. Why is this important? Historic truth claims are true or false. It’s not a question of whether they are true for some people but not for others. And if the historic truths of Christianity can be shown to be true, then Christianity is true, and it’s true for everybody.

It’s also worth mentioning that these claims were quite literally a matter of life and death. Paul had persecuted the church and had been present for the execution of believers, giving his approval. After his amazing conversion, he put his own life on the line repeatedly to proclaim this very message around the Roman Empire, ultimately giving his life for it in martyrdom in Rome. Skeptics may say there were lots of miracle stories, although you will not find any miracle story attested like this one. And you will not find another miracle story for which so many eyewitnesses were willing to give their lives in order to testify to the truth of what they had seen. This was not merely idle gossip or tall tales, but a life-transforming message that survived against all odds to continue to be preached today.

As Paul said in his sermon to the people of Athens in Acts 17,

Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.

Acts 17:30-31

Interesting that in the crowd that heard Paul that day, some scoffed, some said, “we’d like to hear more about this,” and some believed. These are the same responses that you still see today whenever this message is preached. In 2000 years, nothing has changed! One of my favorite things about that sermon of Paul’s is that one of those who believed on the same day was Dionysius the Areopagite. This was a member of the Athenian ruling judicial council, a leader of the city and probably a man learned in law, arguments, and evidence. That message changed his life that day, just like it continues to change lives the world over.

1N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 319n13.
2James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 855.
3Dunn, 855.
4Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. London:SCM, 1998. Cited in Dunn, 855n129.
5Wright, 319.

About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.