Although I have encountered many opinions and claims about the evidence for and against the resurrection of Jesus it occurs to me that it might be interesting to assemble some of the key ideas in a brief review to see if it stimulates thought. I am aware that some of the readers of the review may already have feelings of strong commitment either for or against the belief in resurrection but it would be helpful if readers were to consider ideas they don’t already share with a degree of courtesy if only to encourage other readers to offer questions or to express honestly held alternative views.
First a quick preliminary review:
The New Testament Gospel record describes the crucifixion in enough detail for the readers to conclude Jesus died on the cross. We know crucifixion was a Roman punishment and although it was reserved as a highly visible public warning to show what happened to those considered a threat to public order or those who challenged Roman authority, it was used commonly and liberally – and on occasion there would be hundreds of victims.
A series of post resurrection appearances of Jesus in which he is portrayed as meeting and interacting with a number of his followers and disciples is also described by the Gospel writers. Some of these described appearances suggested a normal bodily appearance – eg Jesus eating with his disciples – other appearances eg not at first recognized, appearing in a locked room, suddenly disappearing or for Paul a disembodied voice or sensation of light suggested more perhaps hallucination.
Whatever happened still served to set the basis for a good proportion of Jesus’ followers to agree to spread the story that Jesus was resurrected. The fact that a good number of these followers died as martyrs suggests a strong commitment to their beliefs. We also know that some like St Paul placed a very high priority on a belief in the resurrection although Paul’s own experience on the Road to Damascus was clearly different to the earlier descriptions of post resurrection experiences of the disciples.
Some other aspects of the post resurrection accounts should at least give cause for reflection. First although there are only minor differences between the gospel accounts in the New Testament, the other gospels which were eventually largely rejected by those assembling the final collection of books we now call the New Testament contain versions of the resurrection which are clearly at variance with those finally chosen after years of debate. This particularly applies to the so called “Gnostic Gospels”.
There is also a remarkable absence of post resurrection stories in contemporary histories of the time. Just to take one strange omission if the Biblical record is to be trusted – when Matthew describes other graves opening and hundreds of dead walking around (in an early version of some Zombie apocalypse? some verses normally overlooked for reading in Church around Easter time!!) that if intended as literal truth, to think this particular event would not have been noticed by others seems beyond the bounds of probability.
A more serious objection is that while Matthew, Mark and Luke had roughly similar versions of the post resurrection appearances there is strong evidence for substantial editing. Mark, the first gospel, had no detail of the post resurrection appearances – and the scholars appear to agree that this was added years later. Eg the last nine verses were not present in the early version and were added in a different form of Greek to finish the Gospel. Similarly the whole of Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John was added much later and is clearly different in style from virtually all the rest of this book.
As someone who has spent much of his life involved with science I also need to say that although science cannot make definitive statements about what might or might not have happened to Jesus after death upon the cross, the balance of probability leaves me strongly suspecting there was no bodily resurrection in any conventional biological sense.
The standard argument that the early followers of Christ would not have been martyred unless they were convinced of the resurrection is certainly persuasive, yet on reflection, since there is no detail from contemporary historians about why they were martyred, their execution might simply have been because they were following the teaching of Jesus at a time when communities were under pressure to support one another with common beliefs and actions. Remember the early martyrs (some of whom would have been following other non-mainstream religious leaders) would have been contemporary with the fall of Jerusalem.
While I acknowledge that a strong belief in the resurrection would be seen by many as worth dying for, since many have gone willingly to their deaths for much less, accepting martyrdom cannot be seen as a proof of belief in bodily resurrection. Killing happens because of the views of those who decree it should happen. We do know that some of the Christian martyrs were offered the choice of acknowledging the Emperor as Lord – and they refused to do so because they wanted to hold to a pre-eminent belief in God and/ or Jesus.
We actually have no way of knowing what they thought this belief meant. We might reflect that though history some martyrs have gone to their deaths because they simply had the wrong slant on some denominational beliefs and martyrs have included those who had the wrong haircut, those who had the temerity to translate the Bible into languages other than Latin and those who insisted on following a different Church leader.
Rather than sit on the fence on the issue I wish to explain that I have gradually changed my view on the resurrection and come to state I cannot honestly say I know what happened after the crucifixion. I do however greatly admire what I see as the essence of Jesus teaching. I note that others who admire Jesus’ teaching sometimes have quite different responses and some are prepared to step right outside what most of us would be thinking of as a comfort zone. To hold to a Jesus inspired pacifist stance when the nation goes to war, to insist that the underprivileged have a just share of wealth, to identify and speak out against injustice and work for peace are just some of the possible responses to a living Christ. However I do know that since it is quite possible for whole communities to live outside a Christian influence that if I am to make Jesus come alive for others I can only do so in the way I respond to his teaching.
What have I got right? What have I left out? What also needs to be said?
(Since the Bible has a great deal to say on the subject it would be helpful not to fill up the comments section with screeds of quotations!)