Tag Archives: 1 Corinthians 15

Did the early church invent the divinity of Jesus over a long period of time?

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity

How early is the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus?

When I answer this question, I only want to use the earliest, most reliable sources – so I can defend them on historical grounds using the standard rules of historiography.

The 4 sources that I would use are as follows:

  • The early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, and 1 Corinthians 1
  • A passage in Philippians 2
  • Two passages from Mark, the earliest gospel
  • A passage from Q, which is an early source of Matthew and Luke

So let’s see the passages.

1 Corinthians

I’ve written before about the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which skeptical scholars date to 1-3 years after the death of Jesus, for a variety of reasons I covered in the previous post. Here’s the creed which definitely makes Jesus out to be more than an ordinary man. Ordinary men don’t get resurrection bodies after they die.

Here’s the passage: (1 Cor 15:3-8)

3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.

6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,

8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Additionally, 1 Corinthians 1:21-25 talks about Jesus being “the power of God and the wisdom of God”. Paul is identifying Jesus with the divine.

21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,

23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

But it gets even stronger! You all probably already know that the most important passages in the Old Testament for Jews is the famous “Shema“, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The Shema is a strong statement of Jewish monotheism.

Here’s the passage:

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.

7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

So how does Paul fit Jesus in with this strong statement of Jewish monotheism?

Paul alludes to the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.

4So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.

5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),

6yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Holy mackerel! How did that get in there? Paul is splitting the roles of God in the the Shema and identifying Jesus in one of the divine roles! Jesus is not an ordinary man. That passage “through whom all things came” foreshadows John identifying Jesus as “the Word of God”, which “became flesh and dwelt among us”. Holy snark – did you guys know that was all in here so early?

The date for 1 Corinthians is 55 AD. It should be noted that skeptical scholars like James Crossley accept these passages, and you can check it out in the debate audio yourself.

Philippians

Check out Philippians 2:5-11.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!

9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,

10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The date for Philippians is 60-61 AD. Still within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, and written by an eyewitness who was in contact with the other eyewitnesses, like Peter and James, whom Paul spoke with numerous times on his journeys to Jerusalem.

Mark’s gospel

Mark’s gospel is the earliest and atheists like James Crossley date it to less than 40 AD, which is 10 years after the death of Jesus at most. When you read the gospel of Mark, you are getting the earliest and best information available about the historical Jesus, along with Paul’s epistles. So what does Mark say about Jesus? Is Jesus just a man, or is he something more?

Check out Mark 12:1-9:

1He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.

2At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.

3But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.

4Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully.

5He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

6“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

7“But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’

8So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

9“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.

And Mark 13:32, talking about the date of the final judgment.

32“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

And again, this passage is establishing a hierarchy such that Jesus is being exalted above all men and the angels, too. And the passage is embarrassing to the early church, because it makes Jesus look ignorant of something, so they would not have made this passage up. Jesus is not an ordinary man, he is above the angels – God’s unique Son.

The “Q” source for Matthew and Luke

Here’s Matthew 11:27, which is echoed in Luke 10:22:

27“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

22“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Since this passage is in both of Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, scholars believe that it is in the earlier “Q” source used by both Matthew and Luke. Q predates both Matthew and Luke, and so it is also fairly early (maybe 67-68), although not as early as Mark and Paul. Bill Craig writes that this passage is also embarrassing because it says that no one knows Jesus.

What are the historical arguments for the empty tomb narrative?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

I wanted to go over this article by William Lane Craig which includes a discussion of the empty tomb, along with the other minimal facts that support the resurrection.

The word resurrection means bodily resurrection

The concept of resurrection in use among the first converts to Christianity was a Jewish concept of resurrection. And that concept of resurrection is unequivocally in favor of a bodily resurrection. The body (soma) that went into the grave is the body (soma) that came out.

Craig explains what this means with respect to the fast start of Christian belief:

For a first century Jew the idea that a man might be raised from the dead while his body remained in the tomb was simply a contradiction in terms. In the words of E. E. Ellis, “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.”

And:

Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection of Jesus, it is doubtful they would have generated any following. So long as the body was interred in the tomb, a Christian movement founded on belief in the resurrection of the dead man would have been an impossible folly.

It’s significant that the belief in the resurrection started off in the city where the tomb was located. Anyone, such as the Romans or Jewish high priests, who wanted to nip the movement in the bud could easily have produced the body to end it all. They did not do so, because they could not do so, although they had every reason to do so.

There are multiple early, eyewitness sources for the empty tomb

Paul’s early creed from 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion, implies the empty tomb.

Craig writes:

In the formula cited by Paul the expression “he was raised” following the phrase “he was buried” implies the empty tomb. A first century Jew could not think otherwise. As E. L. Bode observes, the notion of the occurrence of a spiritual resurrection while the body remained in the tomb is a peculiarity of modern theology. For the Jews it was the remains of the man in the tomb which were raised; hence, they carefully preserved the bones of the dead in ossuaries until the eschatological resurrection. There can be no doubt that both Paul and the early Christian formula he cites pre-suppose the existence of the empty tomb.

The dating of the resurrection as having occurred “on the third day” implies the empty tomb. The date specified for the resurrection would have been the date that the tomb was discovered to be empty.

The phrase “on the third day” probably points to the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is that since no one actually witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, how did Christians come to date it “on the third day?” The most probable answer is that they did so because this was the day of the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus’ women followers. Hence, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus’ empty tomb.

A few quotes from atheist historians not from Dr. Craig’s article: (thanks to Eric of Ratio Christi OSU)

Michael Goulder (Atheist NT Prof. at Birmingham) “…it goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.” [“The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford, 1996), 48.]

Gerd Lüdemann (Atheist Prof of NT at Göttingen): “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.” [The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. by Bowden (Fortress, 1994), 171-72.]

Robert Funk (Non-Christian scholar, founder of the Jesus Seminar): “…The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” [Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, 466.]

The early pre-Markan burial narrative mentions the empty tomb. This source pre-dates Mark, the earliest gospel. The source has been dated by some scholars to the 40s. For example, the atheist scholar James Crossley dates Mark some time in the 40s. (See the debate below)

The empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story and is therefore very old. The empty tomb story was probably the end of Mark’s passion source. As Mark is the earliest of our gospels, this source is therefore itself quite old. In fact the commentator R. Pesch contends that it is an incredibly early source. He produces two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

(a) Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Cor. 11:23-5 presupposes the Markan account. Since Paul’s own traditions are themselves very old, the Markan source must be yet older.

(b) The pre-Markan passion story never refers to the high priest by name. It is as when I say “The President is hosting a dinner at the White House” and everyone knows whom I am speaking of because it is the man currently in office. Similarly the pre-Markan passion story refers to the “high priest” as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from AD 18-37, this means at the latest the pre-Markan source must come from within seven years after Jesus’ death. This source thus goes back to within the first few years of the Jerusalem fellowship and is therefore an ancient and reliable source of historical information.

So we are dealing with very early sources for the empty tomb.

Lack of legendary embellishments

The empty tomb narrative in the gospels lacks legendary embellishments, unlike later 2nd century forgeries that originated outside of Jerusalem.

The eyewitness testimony of the women

This is the evidence that has been the most convincing to skeptics, and to me as well.

The tomb was probably discovered empty by women. To understand this point one has to recall two facts about the role of women in Jewish society.

(a) Woman occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women” and “Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.”

(b) The testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that they were not even permitted to serve as legal witnesses in a court of law. In light of these facts, how remarkable must it seem that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legend would certainly have made the male disciples to discover the empty tomb. The fact that women, whose testimony was worthless, rather than men, are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly accounted for by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb and the gospels accurately record this.

The earliest response from the Jewish high priests assumes the empty tomb

This report from Matthew 28 fulfills the criteria of enemy attestation, although Matthew is not the earliest source we have. Oh, well.

In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection. That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded to this by reciting the story of the guard at the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep. Now the noteworthy feature of this whole dispute is not the historicity of the guards but rather the presupposition of both parties that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the adversaries of the disciples provides evidence in support of the empty tomb.

Note how careful Craig is not to imply that the guard tradition is historical, because we can’t prove the guard as a “minimal fact”, since it doesn’t pass the standard historical criteria.

See it used in a debate

You can see the arguments made and defended from criticism in this debate with the atheist scholar James Crossley.

This my favorite resurrection debate.

1 Corinthians 15: the earliest source for the basic facts about the life of Jesus

The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us
The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us

First, the creed – which is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.

6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,

8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Almost all historians accept this creed as dating back to within 5 years of the death of Jesus. But why?

Here’s a great article from Eric Chabot, director of Ratio Christi Apologetics Alliance, The Ohio State University to explain why.

Excerpt:

The late Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide was so impressed by the creed of 1 Cor. 15, that he concluded that this “formula of faith may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.” (5)

Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

[…]While the word “received” (a rabbinical term) can also be used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine (1 Cor.11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal. 1:9, 12 [2x], Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6), it also means means “to receive from another.” This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. 1 Corinthians is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. But the actual creed here in 1 Cor. 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.

[…]Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:

“Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (11).

This comment by Crossan makes sense because within the creed Paul calls Peter by his Aramic name, Cephas. Hence, if this tradition originated in the Aramaic language, the two locations that people spoke Aramaic were Galilee and Judea. (12) The Greek term “historeo” is translated as “to visit” or “to interview.” (13) Hence, Paul’s purpose of the trip was probably designed to affirm the resurrection story with Peter who had been an actual eyewitness to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:5).

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Hey WK, isn’t John Dominic Crossan that wacky liberal atheist who is on the far-left fringe of historical Jesus scholarship? So wacky, that he actually thought that Secret Gospel of Mark was real, instead of just being a hoax?” Yes, that’s the nutty John Dominic Crossan I mean. The very one.

Here’s a bit more about this early creed from Gary Habermas.

Quote:

Paul is clear that this material was not his own but that he had passed on to others what he had received earlier, as the center of his message (15:3). There are many textual indications that the material pre-dates Paul. Most directly, the apostle employs paredoka and parelabon, the equivalent Greek terms for delivering and receiving rabbinic tradition (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23). Indirect indications of a traditional text(s) include the sentence structure and verbal parallelism, diction, and the triple sequence of kai hoti Further, several non-Pauline words, the proper names of Cephas (cf. Lk. 24:34) and James, and the possibility of an Aramaic original are all significant. Fuller attests to the unanimity of scholarship here: “It is almost universally agreed today that Paul is here citing tradition.”[4] Critical scholars agree that Paul received the material well before this book was written.[5]

The most popular view is that Paul received this material during his trip to Jerusalem just three years after his conversion, to visit Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:18-19), both of whose names appear in the appearance list (1 Cor. 15:5; 7). An important hint here is Paul’s use of the verb historesai (1:18), a term that indicates the investigation of a topic.[6] The immediate context both before and after reveals this subject matter: Paul was inquiring concerning the nature of the Gospel proclamation (Gal. 1:11-2:10), of which Jesus’ resurrection was the center (1 Cor. 15:3-4, 14, 17; Gal. 1:11, 16).

Critical scholars generally agree that this pre-Pauline creed(s) may be the earliest in the New Testament. Ulrich Wilckens asserts that it “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.”[7] Joachim Jeremias agrees that it is, “the earliest tradition of all.”[8] Perhaps a bit too optimistically, Walter Kasper even thinks that it was possibly even “in use by the end of 30 AD . . . .”[9]

Indicating the wide approval on this subject, even more skeptical scholars frequently agree. Gerd Ludemann maintains that “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus. . . . not later than three years. . . . the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE. . . .”[10] Similarly, Michael Goulder thinks that it “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.”[11] Thomas Sheehan agrees that this tradition “probably goes back to at least 32-34 C.E., that is, to within two to four years of the crucifixion.”[12] Others clearly consent.[13]

Overall, my recent overview of critical sources mentioned above indicates that those who provide a date generally opt for Paul’s reception of this report relatively soon after Jesus’ death, by the early to mid-30s A.D.[14] This provides an additional source that appears just a half step removed from eyewitness testimony.

(3) Paul was so careful to assure the content of his Gospel message, that he made a second trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10) specifically to be absolutely sure that he had not been mistaken (2:2). The first time he met with Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-20). On this occasion, the same two men were there, plus the apostle John (2:9). Paul was clearly doing his research by seeking out the chief apostles. As Martin Hengel notes, “Evidently the tradition of I Cor. 15.3 had been subjected to many tests” by Paul.[15]

These four apostles were the chief authorities in the early church, and each is represented in the list of those who had seen the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5-7). So their confirmation of Paul’s Gospel preaching (Gal. 2:9), especially given the apostolic concern to insure doctrinal truth in the early church, is certainly significant. On Paul’s word, we are again just a short distance from a firsthand report.

(4) Not only do we have Paul’s account that the other major apostles confirmed his Gospel message, but he provides the reverse testimony, too. After listing Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Paul tells us he also knew what the other apostles were preaching regarding Jesus’ appearances, and it was the same as his own teaching on this subject (1 Cor. 15:11). As one, they proclaimed that Jesus was raised from the dead (15:12, 15). So Paul narrates both the more indirect confirmation of his Gospel message by the apostolic leaders, plus his firsthand, direct approval of their resurrection message.

That’s how solid this early creed is – even atheists like Crossan and Ludemann accept it as historically reliable. It’s historical bedrock, as Michael Licona likes to say. This is the stuff that everyone accepts – across the ideological spectrum. How do you account for this evidence in your worldview, especially given that Paul never recanted his preaching about Jesus?

Why does atheist historian Gerd Ludemann accept the post-mortem experiences of the risen Jesus?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

William Lane Craig explains why even atheist historians like Gerd Ludemann accept that the earliest followers of Jesus had experiences in which Jesus appeared to them as resurrected Lord.

Excerpt:

Fact #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is a fact which is almost universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars, for the following reasons:

1. The list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’s resurrection appearances which is quoted by Paul in I Cor. 15. 5-7 guarantees that such appearances occurred.

2. The appearance traditions in the gospels provide multiple, independent attestation of such appearances.

With respect to the first supporting line of evidence, it is universally accepted on the basis of the early date of Paul’s tradition as well as the apostle’s personal acquaintance with many of the people listed that the disciples did experience postmortem appearances of Christ. Among the witnesses of the resurrection appearances were Peter, the immediate circle of the disciples known as “the Twelve,” a gathering of 500 Christian believers (many of whom Paul evidently knew, since he was aware that some had died by the time of his writing), Jesus’s younger brother James, and a wider group of apostles. “Finally,” says Paul, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (I Cor. 15.8).

The second supporting line of evidence appeals again to the criterion of multiple attestation. The Gospels independently attest to postmortem appearances of Jesus, even to some of the same appearances found in Paul’s list. Wolfgang Trilling explains,

From the list in I Cor. 15 the particular reports of the Gospels are now to be interpreted. Here may be of help what we said about Jesus’s miracles. It is impossible to ‘prove’ historically a particular miracle. But the totality of the miracle reports permits no reasonable doubt that Jesus in fact performed ‘miracles.’ That holds analogously for the appearance reports. It is not possible to secure historically the particular event. But the totality of the appearance reports permits no reasonable doubt that Jesus in fact bore witness to himself in such a way.38

The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Paul and Luke (I Cor. 15.5; Lk. 24.34), the appearance to the Twelve by Paul, Luke, and John (I Cor. 15.5; Lk. 24:36-43; Jn. 20.19-20), the appearance to the women disciples by Matthew and John (Mt. 28.9-10; Jn. 20.11-17), and appearances to the disciples in Galilee by Mark, Matthew, and John (Mk. 16.7; Mt. 28. 16-17; Jn. 21). Taken sequentially, the appearances follow the pattern of Jerusalem-Galilee-Jerusalem, matching the festival pilgrimages of the disciples as they returned to Galilee following the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread and traveled again to Jerusalem two months later for Pentecost.

Lüdemann himself concludes, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”39 Thus, we are in basic agreement that following Jesus’s crucifixion various individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Christ alive from the dead. The real bone of contention will be how these experiences are best to be explained.

Triablogue notes that most historians accept these post-mortem experiences of the risen Jesus:

In their 2004 book, Gary Habermas and Michael Licona mention five facts accepted by the large majority of scholars:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
5. The tomb was empty.

Habermas and Licona write:

“On the state of Resurrection studies today, I (Habermas) recently completed an overview of more than 1,400 sources on the resurrection of Jesus published since 1975. I studied and catalogued about 650 of these texts in English, German, and French. Some of the results of this study are certainly intriguing. For example, perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. A critic may claim that what they saw were hallucinations or visions, but he does not deny that they actually experienced something….roughly 75 percent of scholars on the subject accept the empty tomb as a historical fact.” (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], pp. 60, 70)

Habermas and Licona explain that even “the majority of nonbelieving scholars” (p. 149) accept such facts, not just Christian scholars. And even many professing Christian scholars are Christian in name, but reject much of what Christians have traditionally believed. Skeptics sometimes suggest that a scholarly consensus on facts related to Jesus’ resurrection isn’t of much significance, because so many of the scholars are Christians, but traditional Christians make up only a small percentage of scholarship.

When talking about the appearances, the challenge is always to make the move from “through they saw” to “they actually saw”. In chapter 6 of their introductory book on the resurrection of Jesus, “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus“, Mike Licona and Gary Habermas give some reasons why the post-mortem appearances of Jesus were not hallucinations. First, they argue that hallucinations are had by individuals, not groups. Second, they argue that the hallucination hypothesis leaves the empty tomb unexplained. It also doesn’t explain the appearances to skeptical James and antagonistic Paul. Finally, the appearance narratives are too varied to be hallucinations, i.e. – individuals, groups, friends, enemies, different times and different places.

If you want to read a scholarly response to the hallucination hypothesis, it’s right in the article by Dr. Craig that I was quoting from above. He assesses the hallucination hypothesis as put forward by atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann against the standard criteria for judging multiple competing historical explanations. It’s too much to quote here, but click through and read it when you can. If you want to see a good summary of the arguments for the empty tomb, go right here.

See it used in a debate

You can see the arguments made and defended from criticism in this debate with the atheist scholar James Crossley.

This my favorite resurrection debate.

What are the historical arguments for the empty tomb narrative?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

I wanted to go over this article by William Lane Craig which includes a discussion of the empty tomb, along with the other minimal facts that support the resurrection.

The word resurrection means bodily resurrection

The concept of resurrection in use among the first converts to Christianity was a Jewish concept of resurrection. And that concept of resurrection is unequivocally in favor of a bodily resurrection. The body (soma) that went into the grave is the body (soma) that came out.

Craig explains what this means with respect to the fast start of Christian belief:

For a first century Jew the idea that a man might be raised from the dead while his body remained in the tomb was simply a contradiction in terms. In the words of E. E. Ellis, “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.”

And:

Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection of Jesus, it is doubtful they would have generated any following. So long as the body was interred in the tomb, a Christian movement founded on belief in the resurrection of the dead man would have been an impossible folly.

It’s significant that the belief in the resurrection started off in the city where the tomb was located. Anyone, such as the Romans or Jewish high priests, who wanted to nip the movement in the bud could easily have produced the body to end it all. They did not do so, because they could not do so, although they had every reason to do so.

There are multiple early, eyewitness sources for the empty tomb

Paul’s early creed from 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion, implies the empty tomb.

Craig writes:

In the formula cited by Paul the expression “he was raised” following the phrase “he was buried” implies the empty tomb. A first century Jew could not think otherwise. As E. L. Bode observes, the notion of the occurrence of a spiritual resurrection while the body remained in the tomb is a peculiarity of modern theology. For the Jews it was the remains of the man in the tomb which were raised; hence, they carefully preserved the bones of the dead in ossuaries until the eschatological resurrection. There can be no doubt that both Paul and the early Christian formula he cites pre-suppose the existence of the empty tomb.

The dating of the resurrection as having occurred “on the third day” implies the empty tomb. The date specified for the resurrection would have been the date that the tomb was discovered to be empty.

The phrase “on the third day” probably points to the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is that since no one actually witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, how did Christians come to date it “on the third day?” The most probable answer is that they did so because this was the day of the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus’ women followers. Hence, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus’ empty tomb.

A few quotes from atheist historians not from Dr. Craig’s article: (thanks to Eric of Ratio Christi OSU)

Michael Goulder (Atheist NT Prof. at Birmingham) “…it goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.” [“The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford, 1996), 48.]

Gerd Lüdemann (Atheist Prof of NT at Göttingen): “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.” [The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. by Bowden (Fortress, 1994), 171-72.]

Robert Funk (Non-Christian scholar, founder of the Jesus Seminar): “…The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” [Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, 466.]

The early pre-Markan burial narrative mentions the empty tomb. This source pre-dates Mark, the earliest gospel. The source has been dated by some scholars to the 40s. For example, the atheist scholar James Crossley dates Mark some time in the 40s. (See the debate below)

The empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story and is therefore very old. The empty tomb story was probably the end of Mark’s passion source. As Mark is the earliest of our gospels, this source is therefore itself quite old. In fact the commentator R. Pesch contends that it is an incredibly early source. He produces two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

(a) Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Cor. 11:23-5 presupposes the Markan account. Since Paul’s own traditions are themselves very old, the Markan source must be yet older.

(b) The pre-Markan passion story never refers to the high priest by name. It is as when I say “The President is hosting a dinner at the White House” and everyone knows whom I am speaking of because it is the man currently in office. Similarly the pre-Markan passion story refers to the “high priest” as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from AD 18-37, this means at the latest the pre-Markan source must come from within seven years after Jesus’ death. This source thus goes back to within the first few years of the Jerusalem fellowship and is therefore an ancient and reliable source of historical information.

So we are dealing with very early sources for the empty tomb.

Lack of legendary embellishments

The empty tomb narrative in the gospels lacks legendary embellishments, unlike later 2nd century forgeries that originated outside of Jerusalem.

The eyewitness testimony of the women

This is the evidence that has been the most convincing to skeptics, and to me as well.

The tomb was probably discovered empty by women. To understand this point one has to recall two facts about the role of women in Jewish society.

(a) Woman occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women” and “Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.”

(b) The testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that they were not even permitted to serve as legal witnesses in a court of law. In light of these facts, how remarkable must it seem that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legend would certainly have made the male disciples to discover the empty tomb. The fact that women, whose testimony was worthless, rather than men, are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly accounted for by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb and the gospels accurately record this.

The earliest response from the Jewish high priests assumes the empty tomb

This report from Matthew 28 fulfills the criteria of enemy attestation, although Matthew is not the earliest source we have. Oh, well.

In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection. That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded to this by reciting the story of the guard at the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep. Now the noteworthy feature of this whole dispute is not the historicity of the guards but rather the presupposition of both parties that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the adversaries of the disciples provides evidence in support of the empty tomb.

Note how careful Craig is not to imply that the guard tradition is historical, because we can’t prove the guard as a “minimal fact”, since it doesn’t pass the standard historical criteria.

See it used in a debate

You can see the arguments made and defended from criticism in this debate with the atheist scholar James Crossley.

This my favorite resurrection debate.