If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, do so now!
In Part 1 we looked at evidence for five different facts, that when put together give strong evidence to suggest Jesus’ bodily rose from the dead. Those facts are:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- The disciples at least believed that they had experiences of Jesus after his death.
- James was a sceptic but had a transformation, and was suddenly willing to die for what he believed in.
- Paul was also a sceptic but had an experience that transformed him into a believer, willing to become a martyr for his faith.
- Jesus’ tomb was found empty a few days after his death.¹
Given these facts, and the supporting evidence, it raises the question of why doesn’t everyone therefore believe in Jesus? Why do some scholars disagree? How do they explain these facts?
I’m not going to presume to answer all of those questions here. What I will do is go through some of the most prominent theories scholars and others have proposed to explain the historical evidence, and examine whether these theories are good theories that explain all of the evidence. We’ll briefly discuss the idea, look at its possible problems, and see how it fits with our historical facts established in Part 1.
If we agree that the facts presented in Part 1 are trustworthy, alternate theories need to explain all of the above historical facts if that theory is going to succeed. If, based on the evidence, that the disciples saw Jesus’ after his death, and that he died on the cross, the theory MUST account for those facts, or dispute the facts.
Key Scholar: Gerd Ludemann
Idea: People have hallucinations after the death of a loved one, and we still have hallucinations today. How can we know the disciples didn’t all hallucinate some kind of experience with Jesus?
- Group hallucinations are very rare, and wouldn’t explain the wide variation in Jesus’ appearances to different people. He appeared to groups that included men and women, was seen by both individuals and groups, friend and foe, doubters like Thomas, both indoors and outdoors, and not just once but over a period of forty days.²
- Hallucinations don’t explain the empty tomb, and it would be very difficult to say James and Paul also experienced these hallucinations, as they weren’t in the right mindset to have hallucinations.
2. Conspiracy – stolen body
Key proponent: Early Jewish authorities, popular media today.
Idea: The tomb was empty because of some kind of conspiracy either by the disciples or someone else.
a) Disciples stole it
- Disciples sincerely believed they saw the risen Jesus, evidenced by their willingness to die for this belief. People may die for their beliefs all the time, but this may be based on false teaching. The disciples were dying for their belief in something they had seen with their own eyes – Jesus’ resurrection.
- Paul visited Jerusalem, probably within 3 years after the resurrection, and met with the Jerusalem elders (which included Peter). Because it was so close to the events of the resurrection, Paul was able to check his facts, and be confident enough to encourage people to check the facts with eyewitnesses that actually saw Jesus’ in his post-resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15:3-7). If the disciples stole it, they also had to maintain a solid story to an educated Jewish man like Paul, and also convince 500 eyewitnesses to lie about what they saw.
- This theory also has problems explaining James’ moving from skepticism (Mark 3:21) to a willingness to die for proclaiming his faith in Jesus.
- The tomb was guarded.
b) Someone else stole it
- Doesn’t explain conversion of Paul. Paul was converted by a real experience, and would have suspected fraud. It’s the same with James.
- It also doesn’t explain the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, which was based on Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.
- Again, the tomb was guarded.
3. Swoon theory
Key Scholar: Friedrich Schleiermacher
Idea: Jesus didn’t die on the cross, he merely swooned and was resuscitated later.
- This theory has been basically dead in scholarship since David Strauss’ critique. Basically, the nearly dead Jesus would have had to push away the stone, beat up the guards, walk for ages on his pierced feet, appear to his disciples and somehow convince them he had risen from the dead.
- Romans knew their business when it came to death. When people were sentenced to be crucified, they died. The only instance we can see historically that defies that is where the Jewish historian Josephus asked for his friends to be pardoned – and even though they were taken off immediately 2 out of 3 still died.
- It doesn’t account for Paul’s experiences with the risen Jesus.
4. The lost tomb
Key scholar: Kirsopp Lake
Idea: How do we know that the women actually found the tomb? How do we know they weren’t mistaken or forgot? After all, wouldn’t there have been a whole heap of tombs in the area?
- Even if they found the wrong tomb, it wouldn’t explain Jesus appearances to James, Paul and to the disciples.
- It’s very unlikely that they didn’t find the tomb, however. The Jewish and Roman authorities would only have to produce Jesus’ body in the real tomb, and it would have crushed Jesus’ disciples.
- The tomb was also well-known – Joseph of Arimathea was a prominent member of Jewish society.
- No evidence from ancient sources point to the disciples finding the wrong tomb.
5. Jesus was a myth/legend
a. Embellishment over time
Key Scholar: Robert Price
Idea: Jesus’ disciples didn’t claim he rose from the dead, but his story grew into legend over time. Sometimes legends even begin whilst the subject of the legend is still alive. So how do we know that it isn’t the same with Jesus, especially when his claims seem so bizarre?
- The textual purity of the New Testament is almost unquestioned in critical scholarship – very few words are questioned and even passages where there is doubt never affect whether the resurrection took place or not. So if Jesus’ resurrection was a legend that happened over time, it must have taken place before the writing of the New Testament.
- Even if legend crept in prior to the writing of the NT there are still significant problems to deal with. If embellishments add details over time, then it’s only the final story that would have included the story of Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection would not have been part of the original story – and yet it clearly is when we read the Gospels.
- Paul and James were both Jews that were familiar with preachers claiming to be the Messiah. Paul was a zealous Jew, James a sceptical brother, yet after Jesus’ resurrection they have a radical transformation and start proclaiming the risen Messiah. If Jesus was just a legend, it’s almost impossible to understand this transformation.
- Asserting that the Gospels are legend isn’t enough, you have to provide evidence to support that claim.
b) Dying and rising gods’ myth
Key Source: Zeitgeist, Acharya S.
Idea: There a whole heap of ancient dying and rising god myths from around that time. Rather than say there is some kind of crazy miracle event like a resurrection, doesn’t it seem far more likely Christianity just plagiarized from these pagan mythologies? After all, wasn’t Horus, the ancient Egyption god, born of a virgin, performed miracles, and was crucified, buried for 3 days then resurrected? Wasn’t it the same with Attis, and similar with Mithra, Dionysus and Krishna?
- This is probably the worst alternate hypothesis as rather than being a poor theory it actually makes up ‘facts’. There are so many I won’t go into them all here, but check this if you want to know more.
- The Bible never claimed Jesus was born on December 25.
- Even if you were to establish these ‘god myths’ existed, you would have to show that they predate Christianity. They don’t – the first clear parallel is more than 100 years after Jesus resurrection. If anything, they copied Christianity.
- This idea also relies on the Gospels being written in a non-historical genre, which is not the case.
- If Jesus’ resurrection is just a borrowed pagan myth, it wouldn’t have convinced James and Paul (zealous Jews) to become believers willing to die for their faith. Paul was certainly a very educated man, and if the original message was written in a non-historical genre, Paul would have noticed. When Peter and Paul both write about the resurrection they are very clear that they believe the event they’re describing is historical (Acts 2:22-32, 13:34-37).
- It doesn’t explain the empty tomb.
6. Combination theories
Idea: The historical facts may be explained by a combination of the above theories. After all, isn’t an unlikely combination of ideas far more likely than a resurrection? For example, the disciple’s experienced hallucinations of the risen Jesus and Jesus’ early followers and the authorities forgot where Jesus’ tomb was located.
- Whilst combination theories fit more of the historical facts, the theory becomes far more unlikely. If anything, this amplifies the problems inherent to each theory.
- Say someone’s theory is both 1 and 2b, that the disciples experienced hallucinations of Jesus after his death and that someone else stole the body. Not only do you now have to explain why group hallucinations occur in a variety of different circumstances, you also have to explain James and Paul’s conversions, which are major problems for both theories. Finally, you have to explain how whoever stole the body got past the guards.
- The more complicated you make a theory, generally speaking, the less likely it becomes (Occam’s Razor).
When we look at the historical facts concerning Jesus death and resurrection, it becomes clear that Jesus’ resurrection is the best explanation of these facts. Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, the conversions of James and Paul (and their willingness to become martyrs), and the empty tomb all stand as significant pieces of history. Any theory must explain what happened in that first century AD that caused a group of normal disciples that thought their Messiah had just died, and were returning to their trades, to suddenly run around Judea proclaiming Christ had risen.
Alternate theories don’t seem to explain these facts in an adequate way. Hallucinations, conspiracy theories that involve the theft of the body, the swoon theory, the lost tomb theory, Jesus just being a myth or legend that developed over time – none of these theories do justice to the historical facts and they all lack explanatory power. This leaves us with a question – if alternate theories don’t explain the facts, what does? The idea that Jesus actually died and rose again as a historical figure seems to best explain the historical facts we have.
When we look at the range of historical information we have from the first century AD, from historians such as Josephus and Tacitus, and historical sources such as the Gospel authors and Paul, we are able to learn a significant amount about the life of Jesus. Many have attempted to paint Jesus as a deluded apocalyptic Jewish prophet, a failed revolutionary, a schizophrenic, or a myth. But to me, the historical case seems compelling. That Jesus Christ is who he said he was. Jesus, son of God, the word made flesh, the Messiah, risen from the dead.
Please note that the articles written here are a summation of a significant amount of scholarship and are brief, and do not address all of the issues. I am indebted to the following sources in producing this article. Much of the scholarship above is from Licona’s ‘The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach’, and ‘The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus’ by Licona & Habermas.
The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach – Mike Licona
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus – Mike Licona & Gary Habermas
The Resurrection of the Son of God – N T Wright
- The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus – Licona & Habermas.
- 1 Corinthians 15:3-7