Why the Hypothesis that God Raised Jesus from the Dead is the Best Explanation

Introduction

When it comes to the Christian faith, there is no doctrine more important than the resurrection of Jesus. Biblical faith is not simply centered in ethical and religious teachings. Instead, it is founded on the person and work of Jesus. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, we as His followers are still dead in our sins (1Cor.15:7).

Here are four reasons why I think the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead is the best explanation:

1. The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Explains the Post-Mortem Appearances to the Disciples

In his recent book called The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, New Testament historian Mike Licona discusses what is called “The Historical Bedrock.” These three facts about the Historical Jesus are held by many critical scholars and historians.

The three points included as part of The Historical Bedrock are:

1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion

2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul became a follower of Jesus after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

Licona is more than aware that just because there is a list of agreed upon facts that is agreed upon by historians and Biblical scholars will not make it true. If so, that would be what is called a “consensus gentium fallacy” which is the fallacy of arguing that an idea is true because most people believe it. As Licona says, “Something doesn’t become a “fact” just because the majority of scholars believe it.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg 279).

However, as Gary Habermas says, “Certainly one of the strongest methodological indications of historicity occurs when a case can be built on accepted data that are recognized as well established by a wide range of otherwise diverse historians.” (see Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman, Why I Am A Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2001), 152.

After looking at #2, 3, I find it interesting that many New Testament scholars/historians agree that the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

Allow me to mention few quotes here:

“We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg 230).

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” (E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280)

“That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever can agree.” (Reginald H. Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology, 142)

Some skeptics have tried to utilize the hallucination hypothesis to explain away the resurrection appearances. I think Glen Miller’s work on group hallucinations is helpful in this area.

But why can’t some historians/New Testament scholars admit that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is what led the disciples to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them? Let me offer a couple of suggestions:

The reason many scholars and historians don’t accept the bodily resurrection as a possibility is mostly due to their presuppositions. A presupposition is something that is assumed or supposed in advance (e.g., miracles are not possible). For example, in a debate with John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, William Lane Craig exposed Crossan’s naturalistic presuppositions. Craig asked Crossan if there was anything that would convince Crossan that Jesus rose from the dead as an historical fact.

Crossan responded by saying a person has the right to say,” I by faith believe that God has intervened in the resurrection event.” However, Crossan then goes on to say, “It’s a theological presupposition of mine that God does not operate in that way.” (see Paul Copan. Will The Real Jesus Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan.Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 1998). To read more about the argument from miracles, see here:

2.The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Explains Paul’s Use of the Word “Soma”

Whenever the New Testament mentions the word body, in the context of referring to an individual human being, the Greek word “soma” always refers to a literal, physical body. Paul was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. What is significant is that Paul uses the word soma to describe the resurrection body of Jesus (1 Cor.15:42-44).Greek specialist Robert Gundry says “the consistent and exclusive use of soma for the physical body in anthropological contexts resists dematerialization of the resurrection, whether by idealism or by existentialism.” (1) Furthermore, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God shows that the Greek word for resurrection which is “anastasis” was used by ancient Jews, pagans, and Christians as bodily in nature, with this being the case until much later (A.D. 200).

The only explanation that can be given to the emphatic insistence on the early proclamation of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, rather than translation or even a spiritual body is the fact that the apostles did in fact actually witness a material resurrection.

3.The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Explains The Early Worship of Jesus

Let’s look at this quote by Greg Boyd/Paul Eddy in The Jesus Legend A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition,

“During the reign of Pilate and Herod, when Caiaphas was high priest, we find a Jewish movement arising that worships a recent contemporary alongside and in a similar manner as Yahweh-God. To call this development “novel” is a significant understatement. In truth, it constitutes nothing less than a massive paradigm shift in the first century Palestinian Jewish religious worldview.”(2)

As of today, traditional or Orthodox Judaism still upholds the position that Jewish people are forbidden to pray and worship anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9).

In light of this issue, one theory is that Jesus’ deity can be attributed to an apotheosis legend. In an apotheosis legend, a human becomes one among many gods. The New Testament seems to show the rejection of an apotheosis category for Jesus given that the early Jewish followers of Jesus refused worship (Acts 14:15) as did angels (Rev. 22:8–9). There are also references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). Gentiles were regarded as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23).

Let’s look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 8: 5-6: “For though there are things that are called gods, whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many gods and many lords; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him.”
Here is a distinct echo of the Shema, a creed that every Jew would have memorized from a very early age. When we read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which says, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is our God, the Lord is one,” Paul ends up doing something extremely significant in the history of Judaism.

A glance at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 shows that according to Paul’s inspired understanding, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of the Lord. In giving a reformulation of the Shema, Paul still affirms the existence of the one God, but what is unique is that somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, Paul’s understanding of this passage begets no indication of abandoning Jewish monotheism in place of paganism.

For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity. Furthermore, it would have been no problem to confess Jesus as prophet, priest, or king since these offices already existed in the Hebrew Bible. After all, these titles were used for a human being. There was nothing divine about them.

So what has the best explanatory power for birth of Christology? If one has decided to not rule out any explanation that isn’t naturalistic, then I concur that it is the resurrection itself and the post-resurrection appearances that provides the best hypothesis for the birth of Christology.

4.The Bodily Resurrection Explains the Birth of Early Christianity/The Messianic Movement Pre-70 AD.

Given I have written about this issue, I will briefly summarize: Jesus’ crucifixion is attested by all four Gospels. Therefore, it passes the test of multiple attestation. It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3. According to Martin Hengel, “The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the Roman world can hardly be overstated.” (3)

Roman crucifixion was viewed as a punishment for those a lower status- dangerous criminals, slaves, or anyone who caused a threat to Roman order and authority. Given that Jewish nationalism was quite prevalent in the first century, the Romans also used crucifixion as a means to end the uprising of any revolts.

There is a relevant verse about crucifixion in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

Furthermore, this theme became more interesting in the discovery of what is called The Temple Scroll in 1977.This scroll is one of the longest scrolls of all that was found at Qumran.  It can be observed in column 64:7-12 that the passage just mentioned in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 is seen as referring to the crucifixion. However, the theme in the Temple Scroll is expanded to include those who are crucified are cursed by God and men. It says:

If a man passes on information about his people and betrays his people to a foreign people and does evil to his people, than you shall hang him on the wood so he dies. On the strength of two witnesses or the strength of three witnesses he shall be killed and they shall hang him on the wood. If a man has committed a capital offense and fl ees to the nations and curses his people, the Israelites, then you shall also hang him on the wood, so that he dies. Yet, they shall not let his corpse hang on the wood, but must bury it on the same day, for cursed by God and man are those who are hanged on the wood, and you shall not pollute the earth.

The context of this verse is describing the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. The New Testament writers expanded this theme to include persons who had been crucified (Acts 5:30; 13:29; Gal 3:13;1 Pet.2:24). To say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”-the very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not to be the Anointed One of God. Paul could not of made it any clearer when he stated, “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor.1:23-24)

In the words of N.T. Wright:

“ If nothing happened to the body of Jesus, I cannot see why any of his explicit or implicit claims should be regarded as true. What is more, I cannot as a historian, see why anyone would have continued to belong to his movement and to regard him as the Messiah. There were several other Messianic or quasi-Messianic movements within a hundred years either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader being killed by authorities, or by a rival group. If your Messiah is killed, you conclude that he was not the Messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family (But note: Nobody ever said that James, the brother of Jesus, was the Messiah.) Such groups did not go around saying that their Messiah had been raised from the dead. What is more, I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless they were telling the truth.” (4)

To read more about this, read here:

Conclusion:

I have barely covered all the arguments for and against the resurrection of Jesus. If you want to go deeper, see this scholarly article called The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth

While the Christian has a responsibility to uphold and defend the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:15), Christians also are called to make daily application of the resurrection into their daily lives (Romans 6:1:7:25). If Christians understood that God wanted to radically transform their lives through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the world would be a different place. The Gospel is not simply a message about the death of Jesus, but his resurrection as well (1 Corinthians 15:1-12). We as Christians are called to live the resurrected life by bringing restoration and justice to a world that desperately needs hope.

Sources:
1.Norman Geisler. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books 1999), 668.
2. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books, 2007), 132
3.See Martin Hengel: Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).
4.John Dominic Crossan and N.T Wright, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2006), 71.

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2 thoughts on “Why the Hypothesis that God Raised Jesus from the Dead is the Best Explanation

  1. Greg West January 18, 2012 / 5:09 pm

    Excellent post, Eric. I was having an exchange on this subject with a skeptic acquaintance of mine and I asked him how he could explain the disciples/apostles very early spread of Christianity against centuries of Jewish tradition, with most of them going to their martydom proclaiming it. His answer was, “They thought it was a really good story.”

    I think it was Aristotle who said that likely impossibilities are to be preferred over unlikely possibilities.

  2. Rob Lundberg April 8, 2012 / 12:37 pm

    Great post Eric. Your post brings forth the applicational as well as the biblically theological. Thanks Brother

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