Why I Am a Christian, Part 3a: Because of the Resurrection

Historically, whenever a claimant to the title of “Messiah” has rallied a movement around himself and then gotten killed, what has happened to the movement?  It has always dissipated.  To my knowledge, there are no contemporary followers of Simon Bar Kokhba (killed by the Romans in 135 AD) or of any of the other messianic claimants of that general period in history.

Except one.  Jesus of Nazareth, like Bar Kokhba after him, was killed by the Romans, put to death by the pagans, and yet the movement he had gathered only spread like wildfire afterwards.  This is something totally unexpected, and it can only be attributed to the fact that Jesus’ followers proclaimed him as risen from the dead.  That this was the early Christian message (and has been the central message of Christianity down to this day) is indisputable.  The question for us to consider here is how we explain that proclamation.  It seems to me that one of the following must be true:

(1) Jesus’ followers proclaimed his resurrection, but by that they did not refer to a bodily resurrection; they meant instead that Jesus’ inspiring influence continues, so that he still “lives” in his followers today.

(2) Jesus’ followers proclaimed his resurrection because they pulled a fast one on everybody; they stole his body and propagated a lie that took the world by storm.

(3) Jesus’ followers sincerely believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, but they were mistaken.  There are several possibilities about how this could have occurred, but hallucination seems to be the most likely one.

(4) Jesus’ followers proclaimed that he had risen from the dead because he really did rise from the dead bodily, and they saw him alive after he had died.   

If we approach this question without an anti-supernatural bias that posits a closed universe, unable to be affected miraculously by outside powers, then the only explanation that makes sense is number 4.  This is another reason why I find the claims of Christianity compelling.

Explanation number 1, sometimes propagated by liberal Protestants, simply will not do.  Jesus’ followers were first-century Jews, and while not all first-century Jews believed in a bodily resurrection (i.e., the Sadduccees), most of them certainly did.  But even the few that didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection didn’t use the word “resurrection” and related terminology to refer to something else.  There may not have been unanimous agreement on the doctrine itself, but there does seem to be something close to a unanimous agreement on the terminology among first-century Jews.  That Jesus’ followers would have started proclaiming a message of resurrection, by which they meant something totally different from the accepted usage of that terminology in their cultural milieu, without bothering to make it clear to everyone that they did, in fact, mean something totally different, is simply incredible.

If this is the case, it means either that Jesus’ followers proclaimed what they knew to be a lie (Jesus’ bodily resurrection) or they sincerely believed he had been raised from the dead.  We will consider these options in the next post.

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2 Responses to “Why I Am a Christian, Part 3a: Because of the Resurrection”

  1. zilch Says:

    You have left out another possible explanation:
    (5) Whether or not Jesus was a real person, the Resurrection is simply a myth.

    This seems the most likely explanation to me, as the Resurrection is only documented in the Bible: there is no other contemporaneous evidence for it. Unless there are other a priori reasons for accepting the word of the Bible at face value, I would say that the Resurrection is just as likely as Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying the Bull of Heaven.

  2. fenderpooh Says:

    Zilch,

    No one with any credibility today (whether Christian or not) denies that Jesus was a real person. His existence is documented not only in the New Testament but also in a number of other sources: Pliny the Younger, the Babylonian Talmud, Josephus, and there even appears to be a reference to him by Seutonius.

    As for the resurrection, there is plenty of evidence for it. First of all, the New Testament is the work not of one author but of a number of authors who wrote without knowing that their works would one day be put together into a single book. So what you have there is not one witness but about seven or eight. But add to this what we know about the facts of history: Jews of this emerging sect started to gather for worship on the first day of the week, a day that had no significance to their Jewish faith previously; why would they have done so if something significant had not happened on that day? They started proclaiming the resurrection from the dead; this was accepted Jewish belief, but in the hands of Christians it was dramatically modified to refer not to the whole of humanity at the end of history, but to one man in the middle of history. There were no previous categories, therefore, for them to make up this kind of message.

    The differences between the New Testament and the Gilgamesh epic are like those between night and day. Gilgamesh was not born during the rule of a known historical figure (Caesar Augustus) in a known location (Bethlehem) and then crucified under another known historical figure (Pontius Pilate) in an even more prominent location (Jerusalem). There is no movement of “Gilgameshians” that can be traced back in history to an original circle of the disciples of Gilgamesh, contemporaries of the events described in the Gilgamesh epic that could confirm whether the events were historical or not. The Gilgamesh epic comes to us as mythological; that is clearly the author’s purpose. The Gospels of the New Testament are filled with attention to historical details and bear the marks of eye-witness testimony. On top of that, the letters of the New Testament (many of which were written earlier than the Gospels) give evidence of passing on an accepted oral tradition about the resurrection that was already well in place (see Paul’s account of this tradition in 1 Corinthians 15). The point I am making here is that, if Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in the 50’s (widely accepted by all kinds of scholars), then the tradition he quotes must be significantly earlier than the 50’s in order to be accepted tradition. This message of the resurrection, then, must have been shaped into an accepted oral tradition by the 40’s or even 30’s. This means that it arose very early after the time of Jesus. It is simply impossible that such an outlandish claim, if not true, could have possibly become accepted tradition in the early church so long as there were living eyewitnesses who could have discredited it or opponents of the church who could have produced the body of Jesus. This is why myths take many generations to develop; you have to wait until there is sufficient historical distance for the myths to be accepted. In the case of the resurrection, there is simply no amount of historical distance between the time of Jesus and the proclamation of his resurrection from the dead. This is unparalleled in history.

    But aside from that, how would you explain the early Christian movement that gave rise to Christianity if Jesus never existed? This is really a variation on my explanation number 2, which posits that the disciples were evil geniuses who pulled a fast one on everybody. That seems a more difficult explanation than the resurrection.

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