Historical Fact I - The Empty Tomb
How do we know Jesus rose from the dead? In this article, we will focus on the "minimal facts" strategy, made popular by Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig. First, we will look at a small number of facts on which virtually everyone agrees. This consensus of agreement on historical facts includes Christian, atheist, and agnostic experts. Second, we will ask what best accounts for these historical facts and most fully explains them. This process is called inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning begins with a few known facts and uses reason to discover the best possible explanation. Science and criminal court-cases use this type of reasoning -- the facts are put forward, and the jury has to decide the best explanation of those facts.
Virtually all historians recognize that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and killed by Roman leaders in Jerusalem around 2,000 years ago. What happened after Jesus' crucifixion is the controversial question.
Generally all scholars accept three historical facts: the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus after his death, and the sudden origin of Christianity. The overwhelming majority of historians, believers and unbelievers alike, agree on these three facts. Historians may disagree on what best explains these facts, but they agree that these are historical facts.
First, how do we know that Jesus' tomb was found empty? Here are a four reasons we can know that Jesus' tomb was found empty.
The first line of evidence is the early eye-witness accounts of the empty tomb. We have no less than six independent accounts of Jesus' burial and the empty tomb. Historians think they have hit the jackpot if they have two independent accounts of the same event, we have six. Two of the sources, scholars believe, date back to within 5-10 years of Jesus' death -- Mark's passion narrative and 1 Corinthians 15 -- exceptionally early.
Mark's passion narrative is part of ancient source material he has used in writing his gospel. Mark's gospel is composed of brief snapshots of the life of Jesus and can seem loosely connected and not always chronologically arranged. The passion narrative, on the other hand, is a smooth, continuously-running narrative. Scholars consider Mark's gospel the earliest gospel and this passion narrative is one of Mark's sources and is therefore even earlier. When we compare all of the passion narratives in the gospels, they do not diverge until after the burial. The story is simple and lacks signs of legendary development. Mark does not embellish it with theological motifs. The simplicity is an excellent reason to trust it, according to scholars.
A second reason to believe in the empty tomb is that Jesus' burial is an ancient tradition quoted by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve" (1 Cor 15:3-5). Paul uses typical rabbinical terms "received" and "delivered" to describe what he is handing on, and these verses are a highly stylized four-line formula that lacks Pauline characteristics. This tradition most likely dates back to around A.D. 36, when he visited Jerusalem and spent two weeks with Cephas and James (see Galatians 1:18). The short time span and personal contact with Jesus' apostles place it within five years of Jesus' death, which makes it impossible to cast as mere legend.
The third line of evidence is the women witnesses. First-Century Jewish society regarded women's testimony as not credible; courts would not permit their testimony. In this context, if you were to make up a story, you would not use women as the protagonists. If it were a legend, you would use the male disciples as the primary witnesses. The fact that women appear first at the tomb, in all of our accounts, suggests that whether the authors liked it or not, they recorded this fact because that's the way it happened.
The fourth line of evidence is the early attempts of the Jewish authorities to disprove the empty tomb. St. Matthew relates that the religious leaders made up a story, accusing Jesus' disciples of stealing Jesus' body (see Mt 28:15). The Jewish leaders' response to the disciples' proclamation of Jesus risen from the dead was not to point to the occupied tomb and laugh at them but to claim that they took Jesus' body from the tomb. The very opponents of the early Christians, then give supportive evidence of the empty tomb.
These reasons when taken together explain why the overwhelming majority of historians and scholars today agree that Jesus' tomb was discovered empty after his burial.
In the next post, we will cover the second historical fact, Jesus' appearances after his death.
William Lane Craig: https://www.reasonablefaith.org
Gary Habermas: http://www.garyhabermas.com
Brandon Vogt: www.ClaritasU.com
What's at Stake?
In 2014, Study of Relationships in America asked over 15,000 people questions about the afterlife, heaven and hell, and bodily resurrection. In this study, Catholics self-identified as either “Traditional (5.7%),” "Moderate (7.5%)," "Liberal (5.8%)," or "Other (3.2%)." The percentage attending church on a given week was 58%, 44%, 21%, and 18%, respectively. Overall, 37% of Americans believe there will be a bodily resurrection of the dead. 58% of "Traditional Catholics," 51% of "Moderate Catholics," 30% of "Liberal Catholics," and 49% of "Other Catholics" believe in bodily resurrection. I find this statistic disturbing considering bodily resurrection is an article of the faith. Our belief in a bodily resurrection depends on our belief in the Resurrection of Jesus.
What we believe about the Resurrection of Jesus, determines what we think about our life on earth, its purpose and meaning, and eternal life. God through the Resurrection of Jesus, defeats the last enemy, death, and proves to us that love is stronger than death. We are not cosmic orphans, but beloved children whose deepest desire for everlasting life is promised in the Resurrection of Jesus.
The great importance of the Resurrection is not in the past, “Christ rose” - but in the present - “Christ is Risen.” “Why do you seek the living among the dead,” asked the angels at the tomb (Lk 24:5). The same question is asked of us today. If only we would not keep Christ in the past, He would set our lives and the world on fire as He did two millennia ago. If the power of the Resurrection did it then, it is certainly the answer to our new pagan culture. Conversion of our world is the dominant meaning and possibility of the Resurrection.
“We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this day he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:32-33). The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, a faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by Tradition; established by the documents of the New Testament; and preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross" (CCC 638).
The Resurrection of Jesus is the most important, influential, and transforming truth of the faith: Pope Benedict XVI, in his second book on Jesus of Nazareth, writes:
“The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead. If this were taken away, it would still be possible to piece together from the Christian tradition a series of interesting ideas about God and men ... but the Christian faith itself would be dead. Jesus would be a failed religious leader...and his authority would extend only so far as his message is of interest to us ... the only [thing] left would be our own judgment in selecting ...what strikes us as helpful. In other words, we would be alone.”
As St. Paul said, 20 years after Jesus’ death on the Cross, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The Catholic faith, the Christian life ultimately depends on the truth of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Did Jesus rise from the dead is the pivotal question. If Jesus rose from the dead, then Christianity is true and Jesus is God. If He didn't, then Christianity is false and Jesus is at best one nice teacher among many.
Over a series of posts, therefore, we will seek clarity to understand and share the truth of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. First, we will look at the historical data that needs a sufficient explanation. Second, we will explore five criteria that historians lean on to examine different theories. Third, we will apply these criteria to the five most logical theories (logical doesn’t mean they are adequate explanations) to determine which best explains the data. Fourth, we will examine and answer the best objections to the Resurrection. Finally, we will ask if Jesus gave us a hint about the proof of the resurrection in his preaching?
I hope you join me on this journey to a deeper understanding of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. What's at stake is eternal life!!
I am a Catholic priest writing about Catholic things.
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