Category Archives: Resurrection

How Does James’ Belief in Jesus Corroborate the Resurrection?

The astute reader will be astonished to see, in Acts 12, that James, the half-brother of Jesus, is mentioned by name by Peter before Peter leaves Jerusalem to escape Herod Agrippa. Let’s quickly review what we know of James from the Gospels.

  1. Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him during his ministry (Mk 3:21, 31-35; 6:3; Jn 7:1-10).
  2. Jesus’ brothers taunted him (Mk 6:3; Jn 7:1-10).
  3. Jesus’ brothers were apparently absent at Jesus’ crucifixion, where Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to one of his disciples, suggesting his brothers were nonbelievers at the time (Jn 19:25-27).

Given the fact that Jesus’ family, including James, rejected his messianic claims while he was alive, why would Peter want his Christian brothers and sisters in Acts 12 to tell James what had happened?

Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, explains that James seems to have changed his mind about Jesus after Jesus was crucified. He notes:

  1. Jesus’ brothers were in the upper room with Jesus’ disciples and mother after the resurrection (Acts 1:14).
  2. James was an apostle and leader in the Jerusalem Church (Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12; Acts 12:17; 15:13).
  3. Paul reported his activities to James (Acts 21:18).
  4. It would appear that at least some of Jesus’ brothers became believers (1 Cor 9:5).

The best explanation for James’ change of heart is that he saw his brother after he was raised from the dead. Licona writes, “James’s transformation from skeptic to believer is plausibly explained by his belief that Jesus had been raised and by a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him (1 Cor 15:7). James believed his risen brother appeared to him.”

Licona adds:

“[Gary] Habermas asserts that the majority of critical scholars writing on the subject grant the conversion of James as a result of what he perceived was a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him. As examples he lists Betz, Conzelmann, Craig, Davis, Derret, Funk, Hoover, Kee, Koester, Ladd, Lorenzen, Ludemann, Meier, Oden, Osborne, Pannenberg, Sanders, Spong, Stuhlmacher and Wedderburn. We may add Allison, Bryskog, Ehrman and Wright to Habermas’s list.

There is significant heterogeneity within this group that includes atheists, agnostics, cynics, revisionists, moderates and conservatives. With James, we have significant evidence that indicates he and his brothers were not among Jesus’ followers. However, sometime after the crucifixion of Jesus, James became a follower of his brother, a leader in the church Jesus had started and finally died as a Christian martyr.

The best explanation for this change of heart is that James came to believe that his brother had risen from the dead. It is probable that James had an experience that he perceived as being a postresurrection appearance of Jesus. However, it cannot be stated with certainty whether his conversion was prior to the experience or resulted from it.”

Something caused James to go from skeptic to believer. If James had seen his crucified brother alive days later, we could all understand why he converted. Absent the resurrection, there seems to be every reason for James to remain a skeptic the rest of his life. After all, following Jesus was a death sentence for most of the apostles.

Was Jesus’ Resurrection a Physical Resurrection? Part 2

Some skeptics of orthodox Christianity argue that the New Testament writers never meant to communicate that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Instead, Jesus rose in a spiritual and immaterial sense. But can this point of view be defended from Scripture? Theologian Norman Geisler does not think so. He continues his case from the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics:

 

Jesus’ Body Was Recognized. The usual words for ‘seeing’ (horao, theoreo) and ‘recognizing’ (epiginosko) physical objects were used over and over again of Christ in his resurrection state (see Matt. 28:7, 17; Mark 16:7; Luke 24:24; John 20:14; 1 Cor. 9:1). Occasionally Jesus was not initially recognized by some of the disciples, some perhaps supernatural. Luke says of one occasion that ‘their eyes were prevented from recognizing him’ (24:16) and later ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized him’ (vs. 31). However, often there were purely natural factors, such as their perplexity (Luke 24:17–21), sorrow (John 20:11–15), the dimness of the light (John 20:14–15), the visual distance (John 21:4), the suddenness of Jesus’ appearance (Luke 24:36–37), the different clothes he had on (John 19:23–24; 20:6–8), or their spiritual dullness (Luke 24:25–26) and disbelief (John 20:24–25). In every case the difficulty was temporary. Before the appearances were over there remained absolutely no doubts in their minds that Christ had arisen in a literal, material body.

Jesus’ Body Could Be Seen and Heard. Jesus’ resurrection body could not only be touched and handled, it could also be seen and heard. Matthew says that ‘when they saw him, they worshiped him’ (Matt. 28:17). The Emmaus disciples recognized him while eating together (Luke 24:31), perhaps from his bodily movements (cf. vs. 35). The Greek term for recognize (epiginosko) means ‘to know, to understand, or to recognize.’ It is a normal term for recognizing a physical object (Mark 6:33, 54; Acts 3:10). Mary may have recognized Jesus from the tone of his voice (John 20:15–16). Thomas recognized him, probably even before he touched the crucifixion scars (John 20:27–28). During the forty-day period, all the disciples saw and heard him, and experienced the ‘convincing proofs’ that he was alive (Acts 1:3; cf. 4:2, 20).

Resurrection Is Out from among Dead. Resurrection in the New Testament is often described as ‘from (ek) the dead’ (cf. Mark 9:9; Luke 24:46; John 2:22; Acts 3:15; Rom. 4:24; 1 Cor. 15:12). Literally, this Greek word ek means Jesus was resurrected ‘out from among’ the dead bodies, that is, from the grave where corpses are buried (Acts 13:29–30). These same words are used to describe Lazarus’s being raised ‘from the dead’ (John 12:1). In this case there is no doubt that he came out of the grave in the same body in which he was buried. Thus, resurrection was of a physical corpse out of a tomb or graveyard. As Gundry correctly noted, ‘for one who had been a Pharisee, such phraseology could carry only one meaning—physical resurrection’ (Gundry, 177).

Sōma Always Means a Physical Body. When used of an individual human being, the word body (sōma) always means a physical body in the New Testament. There are no exceptions to this usage in the New Testament. Paul uses sōma of the resurrection body of Christ (1 Cor. 15:42–44), thus indicating his belief that it was a physical body. The definitive exegetical work on sōma was done by Gundry (ibid.). As evidence of the physical nature of the resurrection body, he points to ‘Paul’s exceptionless use of sōma for a physical body’ (Gundry, 168). Thus he concludes that ‘the consistent and exclusive use of sōma for the physical body in anthropological contexts resists dematerialization of the resurrection, whether by idealism or by existentialism’ (ibid.).

For those who think Paul should have used another word to express physical resurrection, Robert Gundry responds: ‘Paul uses sōma precisely because the physicality of the resurrection is central to his soteriology’ (Gundry, 169). This consistent use of the word sōma for a physical body is one more confirmation that the resurrection body of Christ was a literal, material body.

The Tomb Was Vacated. Joined with the appearances of the same crucified Jesus, the empty tomb provides strong support of the physical nature of the resurrection body of Christ. The angels declared, ‘he is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay’ (Matt. 28:6). Since it was a literal, material body that was placed there, and since that same physical body had come alive, it follows that the resurrection body was that same material body that died.

The Grave Clothes Were Unwrapped. When Peter entered the tomb he ‘saw strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen’ (John 20:6–7). Certainly, if thieves had stolen it, they would not have taken time to take off and fold the head cloth. Nor if Jesus had vaporized through the grave clothes would the head cloth have been in a separate place all folded up by itself. These details reveal the truth that the material body of Jesus that had once laid there had been restored to life (Acts 13:29–30). John was so convinced by this evidence of a physical resurrection that when he saw it he believed Jesus had risen, though he had not yet seen him (John 20:8).

More can be said, but it seems abundantly clear that the New Testament writers definitely had a physical resurrection in mind. Making the opposite case requires a person to ignore or distort numerous New Testament passages beyond recognition.

Was Jesus’ Resurrection a Physical Resurrection? Part 1

Some skeptics of orthodox Christianity argue that the New Testament writers never meant to communicate that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Instead, Jesus rose in a spiritual and immaterial sense. But can this point of view be defended from Scripture? Theologian Norman Geisler does not think so. He presents his case in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics:

Jesus Was Touched by Human Hands. Jesus challenged Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side’ (John 20:27). Thomas responded, ‘My Lord and My God!’ (vs. 28). Likewise, when Mary clung to Jesus after his resurrection he commanded, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father’ (John 20:17). Matthew adds that the women clasped Jesus’ feet and worshiped him (Matt. 28:9). Later, when Jesus appeared to the ten disciples he said, ‘look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see’ (Luke 24:39). Jesus’ resurrection body was a physical body that could be touched, including the nail and spear prints.

Jesus’ Body Had Flesh and Bones. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the physical nature of the resurrection body is that Jesus said emphatically ‘Touch me and see; a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have’ (Luke 24:39). Then to prove his point he asked for something to eat and ‘They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence’ (vss. 41–42).

Paul correctly noted that corruptible ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor. 15:50), but Jesus did not have corruptible flesh; he was sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). He was fleshy but not fleshly. He did not have sinful human flesh (Heb. 4:15); nevertheless, he died and rose from the dead in actual human flesh (sarx, Acts 2:31). John stressed Jesus’ continuing incarnation in flesh, when he warned: ‘Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming [and remaining] in the flesh, have gone out into the world’ (2 John 7). The use of the present participle in Greek means Christ remained in the flesh even while this was written. The claim that it was physical flesh before the resurrection but non-physical flesh after is a form of Gnosticism or docetism.

Jesus Ate Physical Food. Another evidence Jesus offered of the physical, tangible nature of his resurrection body was the ability to eat, which he did on at least four occasions (Luke 24:30, 41–43; John 21:12–13; Acts 1:4). Acts 10:40 indicates that Jesus ate often with the disciples after his resurrection, speaking of the apostles who ‘ate and drank with him after he arose from the dead.’

Unlike angels, Jesus’ resurrection body was material by nature (Luke 24:39). Given this context, it would have been sheer deception by Jesus to have shown his flesh and bones and offered his ability to eat physical food as proof of his physical body, if he had not been resurrected in a physical body.

Jesus’ Body Has His Wounds. Another unmistakable evidence of the physical nature of the resurrection body was that it possessed the physical wounds from Jesus’ crucifixion. No so-called ‘spiritual’ or immaterial body would have physical scars (John 20:27). Indeed, in this same physical body Jesus ascended into heaven where he is still seen as ‘a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain’ (Rev. 5:6). And when Christ returns, it will be ‘this same Jesus, who has been taken away from you into heaven’ (Acts 1:11). These same physical scars of his crucifixion will be visible at his second coming, for John declared: ‘Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him’ (Rev. 1:7).

Geisler continues his analysis in part 2.

 

How Do Women Eyewitnesses Lend Credibility to the Resurrection Accounts?

In Matthew, Mark, and John, women disciples of Jesus are reported as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus. Many biblical scholars have argued that this lends historical credibility to these Gospel accounts. Why?

Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus, provides an explanation.

The main argument posited for the historicity of the appearance to the women, and the empty tomb for that matter, is that the early Christians would not have invented the story, since the low view of women in first-century century Mediterranean society would raise problems of credibility. Bauckham provides evidence that in the Greco-Roman world educated men regarded women as ‘gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive in religious practices.’ A number of Jewish sources indicating the low view of women in Jewish culture may likewise be cited, although those from the Talmud are admittedly later. We may also note Luke 24:11.

Precisely because of the low view of women in antiquity, many see the appearance to the women, and to Mary Magdalene especially, as historical given the criterion of embarrassment. It seems unlikely that the Evangelists, especially Mark, would either invent or adjust existing testimonies to make the women the first witnesses of the risen Jesus if that is not what was remembered in the earliest traditions.

Why fabricate a report of Jesus’ resurrection that already would have been difficult for many to believe and compound that difficulty by adding women as the first witnesses? If [the Gospel authors] originated the story of the appearance to the women disciples, it seems far more likely that [they] would have depicted men as being the first to see the risen Jesus . . . . Why not list Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, and avoid the female issue altogether? Thus, as Bauckham assesses, the reason for the report’s lack of credibility in the first century is a reason for its credibility in the twenty-first: ‘Since these narratives do not seem well designed to carry conviction at the time, they are likely to be historical, that is, believable by people with a historically critical mind-set today.’ Accordingly, the most plausible explanations for the inclusion of women witnesses in the resurrection narratives is that the remembrance of the tradition was so strong and widespread that it had to be included.

Put simply, legendary accounts of Jesus’ risen body would have featured men, not women, as the first eyewitnesses. Accounts featuring men would have been far more persuasive to a first-century audience, and the Gospels are all written to first-century communities in the Roman Empire.

The only reason to assert women as the first eyewitnesses is because that was what actually happened, and the oral traditions of the women were so well-known that even if the Gospel authors wanted men to be the eyewitnesses, they could not have succeeded in lying about it.

What Explains the Massive Changes in Jewish Social Structures Among Early Christians?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Lest anyone forget, Christianity was born out of Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and his disciples were Jews. Immediately after Jesus died, and his teachings were carried forward by his disciples, they continued to attract mostly Jewish followers. The Book of Acts even reports Jewish priests and Pharisees joining the movement in the early years (see Acts 6:7; 15:5). The Christian movement would eventually become dominated by Gentiles, but only years later.

Something that is usually forgotten is that these early Jewish believers left behind several foundational social structures of Judaism. Philosopher J. P. Moreland explains how important these key structures were in his book Scaling the Secular City:

In New Testament times and earlier, at least five religious and social beliefs formed the very core of Jewish corporate and individual identity. Centuries of dispersion and captivity by Gentile nations reinforced the social importance of these beliefs which were already valued for their religious content. These structures defined the Jews as a people and kept them from falling apart as a nation.

They were major elements in education of the young, and the early converts to Christianity, including the disciples (most of the early church was composed of Jews for the first few years of its existence), would have been taught to cherish these structures from their youth.

What are these social structures?

First, there was the importance of the sacrifices. While obedience to the law was slowly eroding the centrality of the sacrificial system, nevertheless the importance of sacrificing animals for various sins was a major value in first-century Judaism.

Second, emphasis was placed on keeping the law. Regardless of whether one was a Sadducee or a Pharisee, respect for the law of Moses and its role in keeping people in right standing with God was a major value.

Third, keeping the Sabbath was important; several laws were formulated to help define Sabbath-keeping and to maintain its prominence.

Fourth, clear-cut non-Trinitarian monotheism was a defining trait of the Jew. The Shema asserts that God is one, and this doctrine was nonnegotiable. Specifically, there was no belief that God could ever become a man.

Fifth, the Messiah was pictured as a human figure (perhaps super-human, but not God himself), a political king who would liberate the Jews from Gentile oppression and establish the Davidic kingdom.  No conception of a crucified messiah who established a church by raising from the dead was known.

Moreland reminds us that “the early church was a community of Jews who had significantly altered or given up these five major structures” and he asks, “What could possibly cause this to happen in so short a time?”

Keep in mind that

society did not change rapidly in those days. Jews would risk becoming social outcasts if they tampered with these five major beliefs, not to mention that they would risk the damnation of their own souls to hell. Why was such a change made in so short a time after the death of a carpenter from Nazareth – of all places – who had suffered the death of a criminal on the cross, a death expressly detested among the Jews in their belief that “cursed is he who dies on a tree”?  How could such a thing ever take place? The resurrection offers the only rational explanation. (emphasis added)

What could cause these Jews to abandon their beliefs, their social institutions that had survived for centuries? Something dramatic, something never before seen, something amazing – Jesus rising from the dead. That is what the New Testament historical documents report, and there has never been a better explanation offered.

Why Is Paul So Important to Historians Studying the Resurrection of Jesus? #5 Post of 2012

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Historical scholar Mike Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, asks just this question.  His answer is important to understand.

A priority must be assigned to Paul because he is the earliest known author to mention the resurrection of Jesus, and there are numerous extant texts he wrote that give us clues pertaining to the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.  Paul’s letters are the only verifiable reports by a verifiable eyewitness of the risen Jesus himself.  And he personally knew the other disciples, who were also claiming that the risen Jesus had appeared to them in both individual and group settings.

Paul’s conversion is especially interesting because he was an enemy of the church when his experience of the risen Jesus occurred.  Therefore Jesus’ resurrection is reported not only by his friends but also by at least someone who was a vehement foe at the time of the experience.  Paul’s belief that he had witnessed the risen Christ was so strong that he, like the original disciples, was willing to suffer continuously for the sake of the gospel, even to the point of martyrdom.

Let’s recap what Licona is saying.  Paul is important because:

  1. He is the earliest known author to mention the resurrection of Jesus.
  2. There are numerous extant texts he wrote that give us clues pertaining to the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.
  3. Paul’s letters are the only verifiable reports by a verifiable eyewitness of the risen Jesus himself.
  4. He personally knew the other disciples, who were also claiming that the risen Jesus had appeared to them in both individual and group settings.
  5. He was an enemy of the church when his experience of the risen Jesus occurred.
  6. He was willing to suffer and be martyred because his belief in the risen Jesus was so strong.

In future posts, we will look at a couple of skeptical arguments as to why we should discount Paul’s writings as evidence of the resurrection.  Licona presents these arguments and then responds to them, so stay tuned.

What Are the Roles of Faith and Reason in Christianity? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this series Philosopher Edward Feser demonstrated that reason, not faith, brings us all the way to the conclusion that Jesus is divine.  Once we arrive here, where do we go?

Feser explains:

Suppose you know through purely rational arguments that there is a God, that He raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and therefore that Christ really is divine, as He claimed to be, so that anything He taught must be true; in other words, suppose that the general strategy just sketched can be successfully fleshed out.

What would follow?  Faith, or belief, enters and takes center stage.

Then it follows that if you are rational you will believe anything Christ taught; indeed, if you are rational you will believe it even if it is something that you could not possibly have come to know in any other way, and even if it is something highly counterintuitive and difficult to understand.  For reason will have told you that Christ is infallible, and therefore cannot be wrong in anything He teaches.  In short, reason tells you to have faith in what Christ teaches, because He is divine.

We have faith in Christ and what He teaches because of who He is.  Because He proved himself to be divine by resurrecting from the dead, we believe Him.  That is faith.

Does every Christian follow the process that Feser describes, reasoning through philosophy and historical evidence to the conclusion that Jesus is divine?  Obviously not.  Most Christians believe because they have received it on authority from someone else who does understand the arguments.

There may even be more than one link in the chain to get back to someone who understands the arguments, but this hardly matters.  What matters is that there are theologians and philosophers and other scholars who do understand the arguments, so even the person who does not understand the reasons for his faith still indirectly bases his faith on those reasons.

This is no different than anything else we come to believe in life.  For the vast majority of things we each believe we have received on authority from someone else.  Feser gives a parallel in science.  “The man in the street who believes that E=mc^2 probably couldn’t give you an interesting defense of his belief if his life depended on it.  He believes it because his high school physics teacher told him about it.”

Continuing alone these lines Feser further argues:

Most people who believe that E=mc^2, and who believe almost any other widely known and generally accepted scientific proposition, do so on the basis of faith in exactly the sense in question here.  They believe it, in other words, on the authority of those from whom they learned it.  Everyone acknowledges that this is perfectly legitimate; indeed, there is no way we could know much of interest at all if we weren’t able to appeal to various authorities.

So these are the roles of reason and faith in Christianity, a far cry from the story that atheists tell.  Some of you may be complaining at this point that you know Christians who disavow this approach, who truly do have blind faith, who say that reason has no place in their belief system.  Feser’s final words on this topic are a propos:

I do not doubt that there are and have been Christians and people of other religions whose theory and/or practice does not fit this understanding.  But I do not speak for them, and neither did Aquinas and the other great thinkers of the Western religious tradition.  And if the ‘New Atheists’ are serious about making a rational case for atheism, then, as I have said, they should be taking on the best representatives of the opposing point of view – not blabbering on for hundreds of pages about the dangers of ‘faith’ as an irrational will to believe something in the face of all evidence, when this is an attitude that the mainstream Christian theological tradition has itself always condemned.

What Are the Roles of Faith and Reason in Christianity? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A typical accusation of atheists toward Christians is that we only believe what we believe because of blind faith.  In other words, we have no rational reasons for believing in God or believing that Jesus died for our sins.  The person who believes in fairies or unicorns is no different than the Christian belief in God.

Richard Dawkins makes this point dozens of times in his book The God Delusion.  Here is one example: “Christianity . . . teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe.”  And elsewhere: “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.”

Is this a fair characterization of Christianity?  Is it totally based upon blind faith with no justification whatsoever?  As we’ve mentioned about Dawkins before, he avoids, at all costs, actually engaging with the best of Christian thought.  So, what has been the Christian answer to the question of faith vs. reason?

For this answer, we turn again to Philosopher Edward Feser.  In his book The Last Superstition he takes on this atheist misconception.  Feser describes what the traditional Christian account of the roles of faith and reason are.

First, we start with reason.  According to Feser, “Pure reason can reveal to us that there is a God, [and] that we have immortal souls.”  By using philosophical arguments, we can conclude these two things.

However, Christians claim to know much more than just that God exists and humans have immortal souls.  They claim to have actually received revelation from God.  Does faith come into the account now, after we have established by reason that God exists and humans have immortal souls?  No.  “For the claim that a divine revelation has occurred is something for which the monotheistic religions typically claim there is evidence, and that evidence takes the form of a miracle, a suspension of the natural order that cannot be explained in any other way than divine intervention in the normal course of events.”

By reason alone, we know that if God exists, then miracles can occur, because of God’s very nature (creator and sustainer of laws governing nature).  The God that we have arrived at by reason is a God who can suspend the laws of nature.  To what miracle do Christians point?  The resurrection of Jesus.  Feser reminds us, “If the story of Jesus’s resurrection is true, then you must become a Christian; if it is false, then Christianity itself is false, and should be rejected.”

Is this where faith comes in?  No.  Feser explains that “the mainstream Christian tradition has also always claimed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event the reality of which can be established through rational argument.”  So, the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus builds upon the philosophical argumentation that God exists and that humans have immortal souls.  The philosophy comes first, and the historical evidence second.  Please note that so far, we have only discussed reason, and faith has not yet entered the picture.

If the historical evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming, then there are “rational grounds for believing that what Christ taught was true, in which case the key doctrines of Christianity are rationally justified.”

Feser takes us back through the argument again, and it is worth reviewing:

The overall chain of argument, then, goes something like this: Pure reason proves through philosophical arguments that there is a God and that we have immortal souls.  This by itself entails that a miracle like a resurrection from the dead is possible.  Now the historical evidence that Jesus Christ was in fact resurrected from the dead is overwhelming when interpreted in light of that background knowledge.  Hence pure reason also shows that Jesus really was raised from the dead.  But Jesus claimed to be divine, and claimed that the authority of His teachings would be confirmed by His being resurrected.  So the fact that He was resurrected provides divine authentication of His claims.  Hence reason shows that He really was divine. . . .  At every step, evidence and rational argumentation – not ‘blind faith’ or a ‘will to believe’ – are taken to justify our acceptance of certain teachings.

In part 2 of this series, we will move to the role of faith.

What Are the Parallels Between Jesus and the “Divine Men” of the Ancient World? Part 4

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Mythicists claim that the stories about Jesus were merely copied from other pagan myths circulating around the Roman Empire in the first century. If this is true, it does cast some doubt on the uniqueness of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and it certainly makes one wonder if all the stories about Jesus were borrowed from other sources.

In order to discuss this claim, I will call to the stand one Bart Ehrman, a man who is no friend to Christianity. Ehrman was interviewed by Ben Witherington in a seven-part series last summer after Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus Exist?, was published.

In part 3, Ehrman cited the work of Jonathan Smith who claimed that there were no unambiguous accounts of dying and rising gods in the ancient world.  Witherington follows up with another question about the resurrection of Jesus:

In what way is the Jewish notion of a resurrection a different idea than either the fertility crop cycle idea, or what is sometimes said about pagan deities that either disappear or die?

Ehrman answers:

One of the reasons for thinking that the belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection is not exactly like what you can find in pagan myths about their gods is that it is solidly rooted in Jewish apocalyptic beliefs of the first century. This should come as no surprise, since Jesus and his followers were not pagans with pagan views of the divine realm, but first-century apocalyptically minded Jews.

In some pagan circles, there was a belief in fertility gods, who would spend some time in the underworld and some time in this world, alternating year after year. These gods were closely connected to the crops: they (both the crops and the gods connected with them) die in the winter and come back to life in the Spring. And they do that year after year.

That obviously is not like the early Christian belief in Jesus, who does not go into the underworld then return to this world year after year. Instead, Jesus was believed to have gone to the underworld for three days and then to have been raised from the dead and exalted to heaven where he is to stay until he returns. This is not rooted in pagan mythology, but in apocalyptic theology.

After reading through Ehrman’s answers and checking other sources, here is my conclusion on the alleged parallel accounts of “divine men” of the ancient world.  There are similarities to the accounts of Jesus, but they are on the surface, and somewhat trivial.  Given the tendencies of people throughout history to repeat archetypes and themes in their stories, it is not surprising that we would find some of these repeated in the stories about Jesus.

When we start to dig deeper into the Jesus stories and try to find parallels in ancient accounts, we find that the similarities end.  In particular, the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus are both unique in ancient history.  There just aren’t other pagan accounts that mirror these important aspects of the Jesus narratives.

Given that the evidence does not support the mythicist contention that the Jesus stories were completely cribbed, I submit that  there is no good reason to doubt the historicity of the person of Jesus based on alleged parallel accounts.  Bart Ehrman and I can agree on this point.

What Are the Parallels Between Jesus and the “Divine Men” of the Ancient World? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Mythicists claim that the stories about Jesus were merely copied from other pagan myths circulating around the Roman Empire in the first century.  If this is true, it does cast some doubt on the uniqueness of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and it certainly makes one wonder if all the stories about Jesus were borrowed from other sources.

In order to discuss this claim, I will call to the stand one Bart Ehrman, a man who is no friend to Christianity.  Ehrman was interviewed by Ben Witherington in a seven-part series last summer after Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus Exist?, was published.  In part 1 of this post series, we reviewed Ehrman’s response to alleged parallel accounts of “divine men” in the ancient world.  After allowing that there are some parallels, Ehrman argues

that all of these figures about whom such stories were told were also different in key ways from one another. They were not all the same. The stories varied from one person to the next. The stories about Jesus are different in many ways from the others (just as each of them is different from the others).

Why is this important?  Why are the differences among accounts of ancient “divine men” damaging to mythicist claims?

This is important to bear in mind because mythicists often claim that everything said about Jesus can be paralleled in the myths and legends told about other divine figures on earth. And that simply is not true. A number of the key stories about Jesus are in fact unique to him, including some of the most important.

What are some examples of stories that are unique to Jesus?  According to Ehrman,

even though there are numerous instances of divine men who are supernaturally born, there is no instance of a divine man being born to a “virgin,” as happens in the case of Jesus, for example in the Gospel of Matthew. The entire point of most of the pagan supernatural birth stories is that a (mortal) woman is made pregnant by a God, precisely by having sex with her (often in human form, though sometimes Zeus preferred being in the form of a swan, or a snake, or…. some other animal, for some odd reason). I don’t know of any instances in which a woman gives birth as a virgin.

So too: the resurrection. The Gospel understanding of the resurrection is that Jesus came back into his body (a one-time corpse) which was then transformed and raised and exalted (explicitly in Luke-Acts) to heaven. This reanimation of the body type of resurrection is not attested, so far as I know, for any other divine man in antiquity.  This is an important point because mythicists want to claim that all the stories about Jesus were simply taken over from the pagan environment. And this is simply not true.

Neither the virgin birth, not the resurrection of Jesus, find parallels in other ancient accounts of “divine men,” according to Ehrman.  As these are two of the most crucial aspects of Jesus’s life, not finding these in other ancient accounts deals quite a blow to the mythicist assertion that everything written about Jesus’s life was just copied from other sources.

In part 3, we will continue looking at Bart Ehrman’s interview with Ben Witherington.  More to come!