- Christ's Resurrection - the foundation of our faith
- Dating the New Testament writings
- The trustworthiness of the testimony of Christ's death
- The trustworthiness of the testimony of Christ's resurrection
What is the most essential point of Christian teaching? What is the most important message of Christian faith? What is the foundation of Christianity?
The foundation of Christian faith lies in the historicity of the two most important events in the history of mankind: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian faith is based upon the historical claim that Jesus bodily resurrected from death after being dead for three days. According to Christian historical testimony, Jesus was killed by crucifixion, but three days after his death, he resurrected from death. According to this historic testimony, he showed himself first to his closest disciples as a man who conquered physical death through his bodily resurrection. During the forty days after his resurrection, he showed himself not only to his closest disciples, but also to other people. The Apostle Paul reports that more than 500 people saw and met the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:6). The same apostle said: "And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins (1 Cor. 15:17). "
Thus, the answer to the question of the foundation of Christianity is the historical authenticity of Christ's bodily resurrection. The historical claim of Christ's resurrection is not only the fundamental point of Christian confession, but it is also the foundation of Christian apologetics (apologetics, a scientific and philosophical discipline dealing with the intellectual defense of Christian faith). The reason that the resurrection ought to be the foundation of apologetics is that it is not sufficient to provide good reasons for a mere belief in God's existence, e.g. by invoking the cosmological argument for God's existence. Moslems can also provide such arguments, e.g. the kalam cosmological argument of al-Ghazali, because these kinds of arguments do not necessarily prove the existence of the Christian God. However, if we have good reasons for believing in Christ's resurrection, then, having accepted the historicity of Christ's resurrection, it takes but a small step to show that the God of the Bible exists. Therefore, if someone asks us why we are Christians, i.e. if someone asks us for the reasons for accepting Christian faith, our primary answer ought to be an appeal to the historical fact of Christ's resurrection. Our arguing for the Christian faith should focus exclusively upon Christ's resurrection. However, would not this kind of arguing be question-begging, an arguing in circles of sorts: (1) we are Christians because we believe in Christ's resurrection; (2) we believe in Christ's resurrection because we are Christians.
The problem is that the very claim of Christ's resurrection is quite dubious to people who are not Christians. Non-Christians expect us to provide reasons for the truthfulness of our historical proposition about Christ's resurrection. If we can show that Jesus did indeed resurrect, then we ought to accept other statements about Jesus, namely that he is the unique Son of God and the Saviour of our world, who was heralded by ancient prophets. Christ's birth, his mission as a healer and a miracle performer, his death, as well as his resurrection were proclaimed in ancient prophetic scriptures whose origin has been confirmed as dating back to times before Christ. The prophetic writings in question are the writings of the ancient Jewish prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and many others. It is estimated that there are more than 300 prophecies about Christ written in their scriptures. All these prophecies are known as "messianic prophecies" because they are about the promised Messiah, who is a very special servant of God with the mission to save mankind. The word "messiah" comes from Hebrew and literally means anointed (one), referring to Israelite priests, prophets and kings who were anointed by oil in consecration to their respective offices. "Christos" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "messiah." As Christians, we believe that all messianic prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus' life, from his birth to his death and resurrection. For this reason we recognize and address Jesus as Christ. If Jesus had not resurrected, then he would not have been the Christ. In the same vein, if Jesus had not resurrected from death, then the Christian faith would be a false faith. However, as Christians, we are very certain that Christ did indeed resurrect from death. Our certainty is not a fanatical conviction, but rather grounded upon good historical reasons which every reasonable person should accept.
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What reasons lead us to believe that Jesus' resurrection is an authentic historical event?
Our reasons are based upon the reports of the apostles and their disciples. The apostles were the closest friends and disciples of Jesus. They wrote their testimony to Jesus' mission. Likewise, the disciples of the apostles were Jesus' contemporaries who wrote down the testimony of the apostles about Jesus' life, death and resurrection. These reports were written in the scriptures of the New Testament, which also contain reports of the beginnings of the church and the practices of the early Christians. The scriptures in question are the four books known as the gospels, one writing known as the Acts of the Apostles , many letters and epistles written by the apostles James (Jesus' brother), Paul, John, Peter and Jude.
According to the majority of scholars, we can reliably date the writings of the New Testament to between 50 and 70 A.D., i.e., they were written during the lifetimes of eyewitnesses of Jesus. No scholar today would dispute that the writings of the New Testament are from the first century. The theories that claim that the New Testament writings are documents written in the second or third century are obsolete 19th-century theories and are no longer accepted as valid.
The key to dating the New Testament lies in dating the Acts of the Apostles, a book written by Luke, who also wrote the Gospel bearing his name. Almost all scholars, both liberal and conservative, regard the Acts of the Apostles as written after the synoptic gospels. [The synoptic gospels are the gospels written by Matthew, Mark and Luke. They are called synoptic because they share many common features in the way they narrate Jesus' life. The term "synoptic" comes from the Greek syn (together) + optikos (seen)]. Many scholars regard the Acts of the Apostles as having been written at the beginning of the 7th decade of the first century for the following reasons:
- There is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It is remarkable that Luke does not mention such a significant event, especially because the first part of the book deals with the events which occurred in Jerusalem. Moreover, Luke does not mention the war that broke out between the Jews and the Romans in 66 A.D. which led to the fall of Jerusalem, though throughout his work he is concerned with Roman-Jewish relations. For example, he mentions the minor skirmish which occurred between them in 44 A.D. Why would he then ignore to mention the war which resulted in the destruction of the Jewish temple and the sacking of all Jerusalem? The most interesting fact is that in Luke's Gospel Jesus prophesies that Jerusalem would fall (Luke 21). It is most unlikely to suppose that Luke missed the opportunity to show how this prophecy was fulfilled if the book was written after 70 A.D.
- Acts does not mention Nero's persecution of Christians in the mid-60s, which was also the first Roman persecution of Christians (Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, who reigned between 54 and 68 A.D.). Luke's view of the Roman government is positively peaceful. This requires us to place the document at a time when the Roman government was not hostile to Christians, a time before Nero.
- Luke does not mention the martyrdom of Paul (64 A.D. ) and Peter (65 A.D.), although he is very concerned to note the martyrdoms of "lesser" Christian leaders, e.g. Stephen. This is especially remarkable because half the book is about Paul, while a large part of it is about Peter. This is impossible to make sense of if Luke were writing after their deaths.
Therefore, we have to conclude that Acts can be dated to no later than the mid-60s, and probably a little earlier. The Gospel of Luke was written just prior to Acts - they form a two-volume work. It is almost universally argued that Luke's gospel was written after Mark's. It is also usually argued that Matthew's and Luke's gospels are roughly contemporaneous. One reason for this assumption is that they both made use of Mark, in roughly the same form, and both made us of another source (called "Q") in roughly the same form. So the date of these three gospels must fall sometime before the mid-60.
This means that we have documents that were written no more than 30 years after the events they report. This time interval of 30 years is, historically speaking, relatively short. There was no time for the development of legends. The eyewitnesses, especially those hostile to the Gospel message, were still living, and living in the very same vicinity of the place where these works were being circulated. Therefore, the first Christians were very careful to provide a trustworthy testimony that could not be disputed by those who were hostile towards the Gospel message.
The historical testimony of Jesus' resurrection is based upon reports written by Jesus' contemporaries. The content of these reports consists of two elements: (1) the testimony of Jesus' death, and (2) the testimony of meeting the resurrected Christ.
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According to reports of the apostles and their disciples, Jesus was killed by crucifixion, an extreme and painful punishment in which the condemned person is nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead.
The account of Jesus Christ's crucifixion in the Gospels begins with his scourging.
The Roman soldiers then mocked him as the 'King of the Jews' by clothing him in a purple robe and a crown of thorns and led him slowly to Mount Calvary, or Golgotha. On the cross Jesus hung for three hours of agony. The soldiers divided his garments and cast lots for his seamless robe; various onlookers taunted him. Crucified on either side of Jesus were two convicted thieves, whom the soldiers dispatched at eventide by breaking their legs. The soldiers found Jesus already dead; but, to be certain, one of them drove a spear into his side, from which poured blood and water. He was taken down before sunset (in deference to Jewish custom) and buried in a rock-hewn tomb. (A brief account borrowed from Britannica)
There are many historical documents written by non-Christians confirming Gospel reports, e.g. the writings of the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, the writings of the Jewish historian Josiph Flavius, and many others. These writers were contemporaries of the apostles, and most of them, as Tacitus and Suetonius, held hostile attitudes towards Christians.
It is indisputable that the crucifixion of Jesus was the most testified historical event of the classical era. No serious historian would doubt the historic authenticity of the event because it was testified by both friends and opponents of Christianity. If we had doubts about Christ's crucifixion, then we should also doubt the historic authenticity of other important events that are regarded as indisputable. In this context, let us compare Christ's crucifixion with one such "indisputable" event, namely Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon River. This event is historically significant because it marked the beginning of civil war in the Roman empire in 49 B.C. It is considered as a model of an incontrovertible historical act, although we neither know the location of the Rubicon nor the date of Caesar's crossing. Caesar's crossing is recorded in only four historical reports, only one of which was written in the first half of the first century after Christ, whereas the other reports were written at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century. The reports apparently are based on only one eyewitness source, that of Asinius Pollio, which has disappeared without a trace. Furthermore, the four accounts vary at least as much as the Gospels do when reporting the same event. One writer, Suetonius, attributes Caesar's decision to cross the Rubicon to seeing "an apparition of superhuman size and beauty," who was "sitting on the river bank, playing a reed pipe." Nevertheless, all historians accept Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon as an indisputable historical fact even though there are few sources (only one) and reports (only four). The testimony of Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon is indeed poor comparing to the testimony of Christ's crucifixion.
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We have seen that the testimony of Jesus' death is historically reliable. How is the case with the Christian testimony of Jesus' resurrection? What does this testimony consist of ? Is it reliable?
Generally speaking, a resurrection is the rising from the dead of a divine or human being who still retains his or her own personhood, or individuality although the body may or may not be changed. In our context, Christian testimony is about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, i.e. Jesus' body was risen from death. According to the testimony, Jesus became alive after being dead for three days, and it is important to stress that his death and his rise from the dead is understood in psychophysical terms: (a) his body was dead for three days, (b) after being dead for three days, his body became alive again, and (c) his personhood or individuality was retained through the resurrection.
We do not know how the event of Jesus' resurrection occurred because no one witnessed the event itself. However, we do have testimony that a resurrected Christ appeared to his closest disciples, and afterwards to a wider public before he ascended to heaven. Before Christ's ascension, about 500 people saw the resurrected Christ, cf. 1 Cor 15:6.
The testimony of Jesus' resurrection consists of three elements:
- The appearances of the resurrected Christ
- The empty tomb
- Martyrdom for the testimony of Christ's resurrection
The main aspect of the testimony is accounts of how the apostles met the resurrected Christ. In these accounts, the apostles could confirm that they did meet Jesus because they saw him and touched his body. An interesting account is the following one:
And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them. (Luke 24:33-34)
Luke describes one of the encounters between Jesus and his closest disciples. We read that his disciples were very confused and frightened while meeting Jesus. Other evangelists report that the disciples were discouraged and sorrowful because of Jesus' death. They did not expect Jesus to rise from the dead. Therefore, they were quite confused by Christ's appearance, thinking that they had encountered a spirit. That supposition turned out to be wrong when Jesus showed them his hands and feet, and when he "did eat before them" the offered food.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus appeared three times before his disciples, cf. John 21:14. In the first meeting, the Apostle Thomas was not present. When disciples told him about their meeting with Jesus, he did not believe them.
But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (John 20:24-29)
An important thing to note about the Gospel reports is the honesty of the evangelists when they depict the weaknesses of the apostles, e.g. Peter's cowardice and his denial of Christ before other people, etc. The evangelists do not hide the fact that the apostles' faith was weak. They also report of the skeptical attitude of Jewish priests towards the news about the disappearance of Jesus' body and their explanations, such as that the apostles had stolen Jesus' body; which leads us to the next point.
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According to the Gospel reports, the first witnesses who discovered that Jesus' tomb was empty were not the apostles, but women who were in the circle of Jesus' closest friends. Among them was Mary Magdalene, a woman held in low regard. They saw that the tomb was open, but without Jesus' body. In the reports, we further read that Jesus appeared before them and commanded them to bring news of his resurrection to the apostles, cf. Mat 28:9-10.
It is interesting that Jesus wanted to appear first before women and that women became the first witnesses of his resurrection, even though testimony by women was not regarded as reliable. Thus there is no surprise when we read that their news was received with doubt. As Gregory Boyd observes, "There is also a good bit of counter-productive material. Legends lack this. The role of women in the story, for example, could, in the first century context, do nothing but damage the testimony of the authors." (Gregory Boyd, "How can you believe that a man rose from the dead?" in: Letters from a Skeptic)
And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not. Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass. (Luk 24: 9-12)
Although "their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not," the news of the disappearance of Jesus' body quickly spread because all, both friends and foes, could confirm that Jesus' tomb was empty.
However, a skeptic might ask how we know that Jesus' tomb was indeed empty. How do we know that the reports of the empty tomb are true? The reason for our assurance of the trustworthiness of these reports lies in the fact of their dating. As we have shown, the Gospels were written before 60 A.D., i.e. no more than 30 years after Jesus' death. There were still people alive who were eyewitnesses to Jesus' death. Most of them were not particularly friendly to Christians. Therefore, the Gospels could easily have been checked out and discredited if the report of empty tomb had in fact been false. It was sufficient to show that Jesus' bones were still in his tomb.
According to Acts, the core message of the early Christian and apostolic preaching was the testimony of Christ's resurrection. When reading the first Christian sermons, we observe that Christians appeal to the facts their audience knew and accepted. The first Christian sermon to a public audience was the sermon of the Apostle Peter in Jerusalem, a sermon preached just a few weeks after Jesus' crucifixion. We see that Christ's resurrection is the main theme of the sermon.
Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. (...) This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. (Acts 2:22-24, 32)
Here we see that Peter appeals to the audience's common knowledge about Jesus: Jesus was a great miracle performer and healer, and one who was crucified. It is remarkable to see Peter's courage in testifying about Christ's resurrection; he risked getting arrested and killed for his testimony. We know what Peter's behavior was like right after Christ's arrest: he behaved quite cowardly and was afraid to admit that he was one of Christ's disciples. All evangelists report of Peter's denial of being Christ's disciple. A few weeks after Christ's crucifixion, we now see another Peter, full of courage in his preaching of the resurrected Christ. Obviously, something had happened that changed him into a bold follower of Christ.
The key question is this: could Peter have convincingly testified to Christ's resurrection if Jesus' body had been decomposing in the tomb? His sermon would easily have been discredited by simply pointing out that Jesus' corpse was still in the tomb. We further read that 3000 people believed Peter's testimony and that they were the first baptized Christians.
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. (Acts 2:41-43)
It would not be possible for so many people to believe in Peter's sermon unless Jesus' tomb was empty. The success of Peter's preaching lies exactly in the fact that the news about the disappearance of Jesus' body was a big sensation in Jerusalem. The sensationalist nature of the news is due to the fact that the body in question was not that of a common man, but of a great teacher and miracle performer, who was crucified as the worst criminal. People asked curiously and speculate about the spectacular news of Jesus' empty tomb: what happened to the Jesus' body? how did it disappear? did Jesus' enemies steal the body? did Jesus' disciples perhaps steal the body in order to spread the religious propaganda of his miraculous resurrection?
All the above questions lead us to the next point which would reasonably show that Jesus' resurrection is the most plausible explanation of the empty tomb. But before moving on to the next point, it is noteworthy to quote Gregory Boyd's observations.
The location of Jesus' tomb was well known by all, so if Jesus had not risen from the dead, if His body were yet in the tomb, this could have been easily checked out. Both Jesus' followers (who would suffer persecutions for their faith) and the opponents of Jesus (who would want to falsify the Christian claim) would have a motive for checking this out. But all agreed, the tomb was empty. How is this agreement to be explained?
Related to the above, no one disputes that the Christian church began in Jerusalem just a few weeks after Jesus' crucifixion. It exploded in growth. And the content of the message that caused this explosion was that Jesus was the Messiah, the Lord of all, as was evidenced by His miracles and resurrection from the dead (see Acts 2:16ff). They do not present to their audience some unknown figure in the distant past. They are talking about one of their audience's contemporaries! How is this growth to been explained?
As I stated earlier, the Resurrection narratives lack the characteristics common to late legendary narratives, and embody many of the characteristics common to early eyewitness-based reports. There is, for example, much detailed, much of it being irrelevant to the story line. To give one illustration, Mark mentions the name of the well-known member of the Sanhedrin (a Jewish councilman) who donated a tomb for Jesus - Joseph of Arimathea. Now if one is going to fabricate an account, one doesn't create this sort of detail. One certainly doesn't drop names of such prominent people, people who can easily be cross-examined. (Gregory Boyd, "How can you believe that a man rose from the dead?" in: Letters from a Skeptic)
There are three possible theories about Jesus' empty tomb:
- Jesus' enemies stole the body
- Jesus' disciples stole the body
- Jesus did indeed rise from the death
The first theory is not probable because the enemies would have readily shown Jesus' corpse, effectivelly discrediting all the preaching of Christ's ressurection. Christianity in its first years was a new and suspect sect within Judaism. Nevertheless, Christianity spread fast because no one was in a position to discredit the apostolic testimony of Christ's resurrection.
The second theory has a problem explaining the fact that the first Christians were brutally persecuted and killed for their testimony. If the apostles, i.e. the closest friends and disciples of Christ, stole his body, then this would mean that their testimony was indeed a big lie. Under that assumption, they would have been quite clear about the deceptive nature of their testimony as they would have known that they had fabricated it. How then could they have sacrificed their lives for something they knew was a lie? It is not disputed here that someone can be prepared to be killed for an idea for either political or religious motives. What is disputed here is the readiness to sacrifice not for an idea, but for a concrete lie based on a fabricated story. It is psychologically improbable for a group of people to be ready to sacrifice their lives for something they knew was a lie, especially if the lie in question was a deception of their own contrivance.
The second theory begs us to accept this very highly improbable possibility, namely that the apostles simply fabricated their stories about the resurrected Christ while being willing to die for these fabricated stories.
We know that Christian preaching instilled high moral standards in people, where moral virtues such as truthfulness, courage and righteousness were praised. Christians were even ready to pray for their persecutors and bless their enemies, which is testimony to their moral integrity. Is it psychologically possible for the first Christians to base their high moral teaching on some lie that they had made, and on top of that, to be willing to sacrifice their lives for it?
According to the earliest Christian traditions (based upon the writings of the first church fathers who met the apostles and their disciples), all of the apostles were killed for their testimony, except the Apostle John. He died a natural death in Ephesus, in the third year of the reign of Trajan. The rest of the apostles, however, were killed in various manners. The apostles Peter, Andrew, James the son of Alpheus, Philip, Simon the Canaanite and Bartholomew were crucified. James (Jesus' brother) was stoned. Matthew, James the son of Zebedee and Thomas were killed by the sword. Tadeus was killed by arrows. Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, after being dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead. Luke was hanged in Greece as a result of his tremendous preaching to the lost.
To be a witness to Christ's resurrection practically meant to be a martyr. It is interesting that the Greek word "martyrion" can mean "witness" or "martyr." The first witnesses to Christ's resurrection were indeed great martyrs. Their martyrdom demonstrated the authenticity of their testimony so that people witnessing their martyrdom believed in their testimony and became Christians. The growth and spread of Christianity in the 1st century was indeed founded on the blood of martyrs, whose martyrdom demonstrated the trustworthiness of their testimony to Christ's resurrection.
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