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IMPORTANT BIBLE TOPICS

  • A replica of a rolling stone tomb from Nazareth
  • Picture Ian Scott CC-BY-SA-2.0 via wikimedia

Evidence for the Resurrection

of Jesus Christ from the Dead


Part 1


The Bible is emphatic that the first Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead in bodily form. This was the basis of the original gospel preached on the day of Pentecost as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: "Whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death… This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses."

  • Acts 2:22-32

Belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus was a basic requirement for faith as the Apostle Paul so dramatically puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians 15. He explains that if Jesus hasn’t risen from the dead then his preaching of the gospel is vain and a person's faith in that gospel is also vain. In which case he concludes " we are of all men the most pitiable"

  • 1 Corinthians 15:19

Picture from callofthewild.co.uk

A conjuring trick with bones? No!

With this background it is therefore somewhat surprising that the late Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins (1925-2016), a leading Anglican theologian, when commenting about the resurrection, dismissed the idea of the empty tomb as: "just a conjuring trick with bones" saying that he did not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. He later tried to clarify his position by saying that he maintained that ‘the resurrection is real’. Exactly what he meant by a real resurrection that was not physical he left to the imagination of his audience. Despite his playing with words in this way, David Jenkins' public statements on the topic caused great controversy among his flock. A petition was signed by more than 12,000 people and submitted to the Archbishop of York concerning his suitability to be a bishop.

Why, we may ask, would a bishop and theologian want to make statements that appear to undermine basic biblical teaching on so fundamental a subject? I venture two suggestions: Firstly, the concerns of bishops and theologians are rarely the stuff of media headlines, but Jenkins' public pronouncements on this topic caught the imagination of copywriters and journalists in the media and produced a great deal of public interest.

  • David Jenkins, one time Bishop of Durham. Public archive.

Church teaching not based on the Bible

The second and more fundamental reason why he would make such statements is related to his religious background in the Anglican Church. As an upholder of the doctrine of the trinity, like clergymen of all the mainstream churches, his basic position was that Jesus is God the Son and has always been so. This is important to remember in this context because it has a bearing on the idea of a bodily resurrection. The Anglican Church is founded upon "The Thirty Nine Articles" first published in 1562. The first of these articles states: "There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power , wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

The first thing to note about this statement is that it makes no reference to the Bible. Whilst parts of this first article are true, taken overall this statement is objectionable from a biblical point of view. Leaving any objections aside for a moment, and taking the first article of the Anglican Church at face value, we might consider what the implications are for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus is God then as such he has no body. If he had a body during the years that he lived as a man what use would he have for such a thing now that he has ascended to heaven? Looking at the question in this way we can see why a theologian might have doubts about the physical and bodily resurrection of Jesus. To put it bluntly, if Jesus is God why make a fuss about a bodily resurrection?

Bible teaching about the resurrection

The Bible insists that Jesus literally and physically rose from the dead. Our faith is meaningless without it. This is the full quotation from 1 Corinthians 15.12-19:

"Now if Christ is preached that he has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ, whom he did not raise up - if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."

To make it plain, David Jenkins' starting point was faulty. According to the Bible, Jesus is not God, contrary to the first of the Thirty Nine Articles. Furthermore, all existence in the Bible is portrayed as bodily existence. Nowhere do we find the idea of disembodied spirit existence. The idea of an "immortal soul" is derived from paganism and not from the Bible (see note at end of this article). In the Bible all souls are mortal: "The soul who sins shall die."

  • Ezekiel 18:20

Deathlessness is never associated with a soul. Not only do souls die but they are always represented as being naturally subject to death. Life after death is only to be hoped for through the resurrection of the body. The Bible teaches that a soul is nothing more than a living, breathing being and this is confirmed in the Genesis record of creation where we are told that ‘man became a living soul'

  • Genesis 2:7 KJV

The Hebrew word translated ‘living soul' in the KJV is more correctly translated "living being" in the NKJV. The death of the soul is just the reversal of that process.

A little further on in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 we have bodily existence and resurrection explained: ''"There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour, 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. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body."''

  • 1 Corinthians 15:41-44

The bodily resurrection of Jesus is a pattern for believers

Natural bodies are weak, subject to corruption and death, but spirit bodies are glorious, incorruptible and not any more subject to death. Those raised from the dead will be given spirit bodies to die no more. It is important to grasp this principle because the death and resurrection of Jesus are portrayed in the Bible as a pattern for the saving of the faithful. Jesus is described as the ''"first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep"'' (1 Corinthians 15:20). Just as Jesus rose from the dead, so the faithful can hope to be raised: ''"For if we have been united together in the likeness of his death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection"''

  • Romans 6.5

If Jesus has not been bodily raised, then we cannot hope to be. Jesus, from his birth, had a natural body subject to sin disease and death. When raised from the dead his body was changed to a spirit body, glorious, powerful and no longer subject to sin and death. To have a body like that was the hope of the first Christians. To achieve this glorious prospect required a belief in the gospel and, at the very heart of the gospel that was preached, was the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Hence Paul’s insistence on a belief in the resurrection of Christ. Thus the true Christianity of the Bible is not just a moral code for life or a framework for doing good works. Whilst of course it is both of these things, it also requires a belief in the historical fact of the resurrection. Belief in the resurrection is the bedrock of Christian faith.

People of the modern generation like David Jenkins, have difficulty in accepting the idea of a literal bodily resurrection. After all, it is by no means a natural occurrence and so it requires a belief in miracles. Though many today reject the notion of miracles, it is a fundamental part of the message of the Bible. It is vital, therefore, that we examine the question as to whether in our day it is reasonable to believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus actually happened.

We wish to examine this in Part 2 in this series, looking at evidence from a variety of historical sources, both biblical and secular, and consider their reliability. We then hope to go on to examine the motivations of the various parties involved and see that, though nearly two thousand years have elapsed, there is still good evidence that needs an explanation. We also plan to take a critical look at various explanations that have been attempted to try to explain away what happened in a non-miraculous way.

Scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (photograph below): the soul is processed through the judgement hall of Osiris, God of the Dead. The idea of the immortal soul passed to the Greeks and was later incorporated into Christianity, but the original hope of both Old and New Testaments is of bodily resurrection.

  • The Book of the Dead. Picture in the Public Domain

Note:

  • Herodotus, the Greek writer and historian (c484 BC–c425 BC) wrote: "The Egyptians were the first who asserted the doctrine that the soul of man is immortal". (The Histories ii 123) Mosheim, a German Lutheran church historian (1693–1755) referring to the immortal soul wrote: "Its first promoters argued from the known doctrine of the platonic school, which was also adopted by Origen and his disciples, that the divine nature was diffused through all of human souls". (Ecclesiastical History v.1 p86)

Part 2


The New Testament records

It might seem that too much time has elapsed since the death of Jesus Christ for us to be able to come to any firm conclusion as to what may have happened. Evidence, we might think, has by now been lost with the passing years, but there are some facts that have withstood the passage of time and stubbornly refuse to go away. We wish to examine some of these in this article.

From a historical point of view our major source material for the resurrection of Jesus is the New Testament, particularly the four Gospel records. It is often suggested that these writings are not reliable from a strict historical perspective but were compiled by enthusiasts to tell a spiritual story. It has been further suggested that they are the product of a later age, at least one hundred years after the events they narrate. So we pose the question, how reliable are they? The New Testament was undeniably recorded by enthusiasts who were telling a profound spiritual story, but that does not count as evidence that what they wrote was not historically true. Indeed the system of belief that they put forward in the gospel was called "the way of truth" (2 Peter 2:2) or simply "the truth" (from Romans 1:18; 2 Corinthians 4:2; Galatians 3:1; 1 Timothy 2:4 etc). If they considered that they preached "the truth" why would they base it on a falsehood? The resurrection, as we noted in the first article, was fundamental to the preaching of the gospel. It was both the motivation for, and the substance of their teaching. It must also be remembered that most of the early exponents of the gospel suffered greatly for their belief and many were put to death for it (see below). This is not the behaviour of people who knew they were teaching fables.

Rather it shows that they believed what they were preaching was true. To them it would seem the resurrection was something worth dying for.

The change in outlook between the early believers, sometimes called the primitive church, and the later established church is profound. The establishment of the church as the state religion of the Roman Empire took place nearly three hundred years after the death of Jesus Christ. From being a persecuted minority they became the established majority and took on the trappings of authority, political power and influence. It is therefore important to establish when the New Testament documents were written. Were they the product of the early church or the later product of the church establishment? Was there a long tradition of passing on the gospel message by word of mouth before it was written down in the form we have today, or was it written down within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses? If a late date for the writing of the Gospel is true, then it leaves room for corruption and embellishment of the original message.

The age of New Testament documents

Evidence of an early date for the writing of the four Gospel records is found within the pages of the Bible itself, particularly the letters of the Apostle Paul. In about the year AD 66 he sent a letter to his companion Timothy. In that letter he wrote: ''"For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain", and "The labourer is worthy of his wages"'' (1 Timothy 5:18). This is interesting to us because the first quotation he makes, concerning the ox, is taken from Deuteronomy 25 verse 4 in the Old Testament. The second quotation he makes about the labourer is taken from Luke 10:7 which is in the New Testament. He treats both of these quotations as "Scripture". By this he means they are both inspired writings (see 2 Timothy 3:16). In other words the Gospel of Luke was available at the time that Paul was writing, and this Gospel record was regarded as inspired Scripture, equivalent to what might be found in the Old Testament.

Our next piece of evidence for an early date of the Gospels comes in another of Paul's letters. In about the year AD 59 he wrote: ''"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures"''

  • 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Nowhere in the Old Testament is it stated that

  1. Christ died or
  2. that he was buried or
  3. that he rose on the third day.

The Old Testament Scriptures were completed some four hundred years before that time. Whilst there are prophecies of these things in the Old Testament, nowhere do we find them explicitly linked together. Rather this is reference once again to the New Testament Scriptures, the Gospel records, all of which clearly record these things and were evidently available at the time when the Apostle Paul wrote this letter (see for example Matthew 27 and 28).

  • The Apostle Philip is recorded as dying for his faith in the same way as Jesus, by crucifixion. Painting by Rubens
  • Picture in the Public Domain

Our third reference for the early writing of the Gospel records comes once again from one of Paul's letters. The letter to the Galatians was probably written around the year AD 58. Paul wrote: "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?"

  • Galatians 3:1 KJV

The original Greek word for "evidently set forth" is "proegraphe" which means "set forth in writing". The passage would therefore be better translated as "... before whose eyes Jesus Christ was set forth in writing among you as crucified". Once again there is reference to the written Gospel records, in circulation among his readers at this time, which set forth in writing the crucifixion of Jesus.

The fall of Jerusalem AD 70 - a historical milestone

  • Photo from wikipedia commons
  • A relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing Roman soldiers carrying off the sacred temple furniture , including the candlestick (Menorah) from the Holy Place.

More evidence which points to an early date for the writing of the Gospels comes when we consider the historical setting of the New Testament. The Jewish nation, which is the background to these times, was a vassal province under the sway of the Roman Empire. Just under forty years after the death of Christ there was a Jewish rebellion against the Romans which was crushed and the city of Jerusalem destroyed in the year AD 70. This marked the end of the Jewish state, its capital and its temple.

This of course had a profound effect on the Christian community, which at the beginning was an entirely Jewish body. Jesus preached exclusively to the Jewish people, as he said: ... "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"

  • Matthew 15:24

It was some seven years after his death that the gospel message started to be preached to Gentiles (see Acts chapter 10) and only gradually was Christianity seen as anything more than a sect of the Jews.

If the Gospel records were compiled after AD 70 then this would be evident from the way things were recorded. The fact that there is no reference to the end of the Jewish state is clearly consistent with them being written before the fall of Jerusalem.

  • Reference is made to the fall of Jerusalem in the Gospel records e.g. Matthew 24:1-2 but only ever in the form of prophecy. This was something yet to happen.

John’s description of the pool of Bethesda is a case in point: ''"Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches"'' (John 5:2). We should note this is recorded in the present tense –it was the state of things at the time of writing. The pool of Bethesda used to be situated just to the north of the Temple area in Jerusalem, but this area was subject to the severest destruction during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. If this had been written after that time, then at the very least it would be recorded as, "Now there was in Jerusalem...". Many similar examples could be cited to illustrate this point.

The description of the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid also has a historical bearing. We read: "and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed"

  • Matthew 27:60

The type of tomb described here was only used for a short period of time and is only found in the land of Israel.

  • A replica of a rolling stone tomb from Nazareth
  • Picture Ian Scott CC-BY-SA-2.0 via wikimedia

The ‘rolling stone’ tombs were only used between about 30 BC and AD 70. They were unknown after this time. If the Gospel accounts were the product of a later age then it is extremely unlikely to be described like this.

The integrity of the gospel writers

Even a casual reading of the Gospel accounts of the circumstances of the death and burial of Jesus reveals the freshness of a first-hand eyewitness. There is no hint of tradition or legend in the record as one would inevitably expect if they were the product of a generation or two of being handed down by word of mouth. We have every reason to believe that the authors of the Gospels were indeed Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and John feature in the accounts themselves and would therefore have been eyewitnesses to the events. Luke alone amongst the Gospel writers does not appear to have been an eyewitness to the events, but his reputation for meticulous historical accuracy is widely recognised in all of his writing, and we need have no doubt that what he wrote, although from second-hand sources, is equally an accurate record of events.

Mark is widely believed to feature in the events surrounding Jesus' arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. In an incident only recorded by Mark himself we read of a "certain young man" who fled away into the night.

This we can understand to be Mark’s way of saying, "Yes I was there too, I know what happened." He wrote: "Then they all forsook him and fled. Now a certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked"

  • Mark 14:50-52

Internal evidence for connecting this episode with Mark comes from Acts 12 verse 12 where we are told that Mark's mother had a house in Jerusalem that was used as a meeting place. It was most likely the place of the keeping of "the Lord's supper" from whence the young Mark followed the disciples to the garden.

The ring of truth

Do men tell false stories that show themselves in a bad light? If the apostles made up the story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, then surely they would want to frame their story to show themselves in the best possible light. Yet this is far from the case. They openly record their own disbelief when first confronted with the evidence of the resurrection. Luke records the risen Christ castigating the disciples for not believing: "Then he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?""

  • Luke 24:25-26

Further apostolic disbelief is recorded by Mark: "And when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe"

  • Mark 16:11

Why do they record the witness of women? Under rabbinic law the testimony of women was despised and not allowed as legal witness. Yet it was the women disciples who are on record as the first to see the risen Christ. Why record Nicodemus, a leading Jew, in a good light at the death of Jesus if it was not a true record? "And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds"

  • John 19.39

This behaviour, we should note, was in sharp contrast to the disciples at this time who are recorded as having forsaken Jesus and fled. The Gospel accounts portray a traumatised and frightened group of disciples who were genuinely taken aback by the evidence of the resurrection. The sheer honesty of their records, testifying to their own failures of belief and action at a critical time for their faith, bears witness to the truthfulness of the words they wrote.

Author: Ian Giles, Norfolk, UK
Source Light on a New World - Volume 32/4 and 33/1

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