Sound Bite Intellectuals, Biblical Illiteracy and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ ©
Dr. Kevin Shrum
Every New Testament scholar and biblical theologian takes a risk in responding to every theological fad and/or new discovery that supposedly sheds light on the claims of Christianity. To respond to these ‘trendy notions’ is to give recognition and dignity where it is not deserved. However, from time to time, a response is required not so much because of the validity of the new claims as it is that the general public no longer possesses the wherewithal to appropriately respond. The public in general, and many in the church in particular, no longer possess the basic information required to respond to the outlandish claims of those who would seek to diminish the basic assertions of historic Christianity. This brief overview of the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is, I believe, in order.
Introduction: The Advent of Biblically Illiterate ‘Sound Bite Intellectuals’
Here we go again. Every Christmas and Easter either the secular press or a select group of ‘biblical scholars’ unveil supposed new and startling revelations about the church, the gospel, and/or the central character of the Christian story, Jesus Christ. These new revelations are offered in an effort to 1) expose the alleged secrecy of the church (i.e. Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code) that has clouded the real truth about Jesus Christ, 2) to shed new light on the gospel in such a way that the gospel is diminished and its content destroyed (i.e., John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk, co-founders of the Jesus Seminar, and Bishop John Shelby Spong in Resurrection: Myth or Reality?) and to 3) ultimately take off some of the supernatural and other-worldliness luster of the gospel that the church has affirmed for two thousand years (i.e., Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino’s recent, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History). In fact, this latest book will be on display in a Discovery Channel’s TV special to be aired Sunday evening, March 4th, 2007, 9 ET, 8 CT.
The disappointing thing about these ‘new discoveries,’ and the others that have preceded them and that will surely follow, are that they are not new. Many of the arguments presented in the Jacobovici and Pellegrino’s book have been around for decades. Most of them have been thoroughly debunked by sound, biblical scholarship, archeological discoveries, and textual verifications. It is apparent that those who produce and publish such materials have a financial motive. In other words, Jesus sells. In my humble opinion, the steady stream of these ‘new revelations’ in books and magazines each Christmas and Easter is driven by 1) greedy marketers, 2) all-too-willing and obscure bible scholars looking to make a name for themselves and 3) an ill-informed public that is always on the prowl for a scandal. And what better person to scandalize than Jesus, what better institution to scandalize than the church, and what better claim to scandalize than the claims of the gospel?
Even more disappointing is the reaction of an entertained crazed culture that is easily beguiled and deceived. Why is it that the average layperson readily accepts the errant propositions of already debunked, illegitimate scholarship? Three factors are at play: First, with the rapid development of media technology and techniques (most of which can be used for the good, if properly used), the vast majority of Americans have become ‘sound bite intellectuals’ who are prepared to uncritically accept whatever they hear and see from radio and TV as ‘the gospel truth.’ Most Americans have stopped doing the hard work of the kind of intellectual engagement that is required to sift through differing truth claims, an engagement that is required of a mature human being, particularly of a self-proclaimed Christian. In other words, many will view the Discovery Channel special and accept the assertions made on the program simply because it is being aired on a major cable network. Americans have somehow lost the notion that just as there are no completely objective individuals there are no completely objective media outlets – everybody has an angle.
Second, with the onslaught of ‘sound bite intellectuals’ the realization has come that we are a biblically illiterate society. I am continually amazed how biblically uninformed the general public is concerning God’s Word. Not only are all kinds of notions and phrases attributed to God’s Word that are not there – i.e., ‘God helps those who help themselves’ – but all kinds of notions and phrases that are there are denied on the basis of a truncated view of God and His Word – i.e., ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.’ Combine the gullibility of the public with a parallel biblical illiteracy and it makes for a receptive audience for the enemies of the cross and a minimalistic gospel.
Third, and maybe most tragic, is the lack of authentic, sound, thorough, and comprehensive Bible teaching in the church that only exacerbates the aforementioned problems. The gospel that is preached in thousands of churches across America is, at best, a mere shadow of the life-changing, historical, supernatural, revelatory gospel of Jesus Christ that is clearly and unequivocally outlined in God’s Word. The gospel that is preached today talks little of sin, minimizes the need for repentance, diminishes the ‘otherness’ of God, destroys the divinity of Jesus and virtually obligates God to meet the so-called felt needs of a self-centered public and childish church. Combine the factors of a sound bite society and a biblically illiterate public with a ‘gospel-less church’ and the result is fertile ground for heresy.
In a recent op/ed piece in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ, 3.2.07, W13), Ben Witherington, III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., defined the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves when it comes to dealing with novel claims about Christianity:
"Year after year in spring, a new crop of religious dandelions pop up in our post-Christian culture. Like the real ones growing in my yard, they make a colorful splash that briefly captures our attention, until we realize that they are only shallow-rooted weeds, not beautiful flowers planted long ago in the deep rich soil of the past, such as Easter lilies.
Last year (2006), it was the Gnostic nonsense of the “Da Vinci Code.” We’ve had the “gospel of Judas Iscariot,” written centuries after the eyewitnesses were dead. This year it’s a variation on the “Da Vinci” theme. We are not only being told that there was a Mrs. Jesus (aka Mary Magdalene). We are also informed that her tomb and that of Jesus have been found in Jerusalem; that DNA testing has proved that they are not related and so must have been married (how exactly does it prove that?) and that an ossuary or small casket of at least one of their offspring has been found as well. News at 11! R, in this case, Discovery Channel’s documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” scheduled for Sunday night (4.4.07).
In a surreal moment on “Larry King Live” earlier this week, the film’s producer, James Cameron (of “Titanic” fame), told us with a straight face that we should all be thankful that we now have tangible evidence that Jesus existed. Actually, no serious historian of biblical antiquity has ever doubted that there was a historical Jesus. Yet it tells us a lot about the state of our culture that Mr. Cameron’s remark, backed by pseudo-science, could be seriously made on national television and that the film’s book has already shot up to No. 5 on Amazon’s rankings. We are a Jesus-haunted culture that is so historically illiterate that anything can now pass for knowledge of Jesus.
No doubt there are those who welcome “evidence” that undermines the foundation of Christianity. Many people, though, are simply beguiled by the “obsolescence factor” in our technologically driven society - the “newer” must be “truer” and “better.” This outlook, when applied to a subject like the historical Jesus, attracts all sorts of unbridled speculation, and worse.”
Witherington is correct. The recognition of what he calls “obsolescence factor” is key. He is not arguing against all aspects of modernity. He is simply noting that modernity can fool a person into thinking that nothing in the past is credible, verifiable, worthwhile or substantive. So, what do we know about the historical events surrounding the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What we can know about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection may surprise you!
Resurrection: What are we talking about?
Before we make a case for the resurrection, we must establish what it is we are talking about. What does the term mean? For example, the great German New Testament scholar of the 40’s and 50’s, Rudolf Bultman, willingly used the term ‘resurrection,’ but did not mean by it what Christianity has historically claimed. Rather than using the term to describe the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, Bultman used the term to describe the resurrected ‘spirit of Jesus’ and the subsequent resurrection of the depressed spirits of the disciples, most of whom had abandoned Jesus and who thought that the movement Jesus started had ended with His death. In contrast to this view, historic Christianity has always claimed that while Jesus did experience a new spiritual dimension as a result of His resurrection, His resurrection also included the raising and transformation of His body. In other words, the resurrection was both a corporeal event in that it encompassed the material body of Jesus and a spiritual event in that Jesus was free of previous physical constraints in inhabiting a resurrected, glorified body.
In addition, by resurrection we do not mean resuscitation. For example, in John 11 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But is this the same type of resurrection Jesus experienced and that one day we will experience? Yes and no! Yes, Jesus overcame the power of death in order to raise Lazarus from the dead. But notice that Lazarus returns to his previous state of being instead of experiencing a new dimension of existence. It may be better to say that the raising of Lazarus from the dead was more akin to a resuscitation than a resurrection, without diminishing Jesus’ power over death. Lazarus would die again. The kind of resurrection Jesus experienced was not a resuscitation because Jesus was raised to never die again. Thus, by resurrection we mean that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead to a glorified state of being that He previously enjoyed prior to His incarnation; it is a resurrection we will one day experience as we are raised to a new state of existence that we have yet to experience as our souls are joined with a glorified body that will eternally exist in the presence of God.
What are we to Make of These New Claims?
Is there a thoughtful, measured, biblical response to the claims of Jacobovici and Pellegrino? I believe there is. Let me begin with two assertions that nearly everyone agrees with, both liberal and conservative scholars alike. First, no one disagrees with the fact that just a few days after His crucifixion the tomb of Jesus was empty. This fact is not in dispute. What is in dispute is how the fact of the empty tomb is explained. Even Jacobovici and Pellegrino offer an alternative explanation for the assertion that Jesus’ tomb was empty – it was the wrong tomb. An empty tomb has been replaced by a new tomb discovered in 1980 in a Jerusalem suburb known as Talpiot. Nevertheless, it is an alternative explanation to the biblical account that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was raised from the dead. But a new tomb location is not the only theory offered to explain the empty tomb. Down through the years numerous explanations with varying degrees of acceptance have been offered as theoretical hypothesis for the fact of the empty tomb. We will look at some of these theories.
Second, nearly all scholars affirm the veracity of texts that have import on this subject. For example, virtually all New Testament scholars, both those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus and those who do not, affirm that 1 Corinthians 15 is the earliest formulation (circa AD 55-56) of the gospel that is rooted in the belief that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead: (v. 3-5ff.) “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared…” What follows the assertion of Jesus’ appearance is a substantive list of those who were privileged to personally and corporately encounter the resurrected Christ. Again, the authenticity of this text is not in question.
The veracity and authenticity of the biblical narratives is given tedious attention in Philip Comfort’s monumental work, Encountering the Manuscripts (Broadman/Holman Press, 2005). Needless to say, the New Testament documents we possess are as authentic as any ancient documents we possess, probably more so! The number of full and partial documents we possess (15,000+) that attest to the Bible’s authenticity, along with the multiple copies of the New Testament books we possess demonstrate a remarkable level of verifiability. What is in question is how these texts are to be interpreted in relation to the traditional claim that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead on the third day. In other words, is the plain reading of the text the best explanation for the empty tomb? Or, are we to look for alternative explanations? In summary, we have two assertions upon which we can begin a thoughtful response to the claims of Jacobovici and Pellegrino – an empty tomb and historically verifiable texts. Let us now look at some of the theories that have been given in explaining the empty tomb.
Empty Tomb Theories
The ‘empty tomb’ theories are numerous and range from plausible to bizarre. These will be listed these in no particular order:
· The Stolen Body Theory - The first and most obvious theory is recorded in Matthew 28:11-15: “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” The stolen body theory has been an oft-repeated theory, discussed in differing forms and motifs, but with the same outcome.
· The Swoon Theory – This theory “posits that Jesus fainted on the cross and only appeared to be dead. Jesus then awoke and recuperated in the damp coolness of the tomb and subsequently fully recovered.” (Doug Powell in Christian Apologetics: A Clear and Complete Overview, Holman Reference, 2006, p. 270). While this theory may sound plausible, it also raises more questions then it answers - i.e. How did Jesus recover? Where did he recuperate? Doesn’t this contradict the well-documented Roman practice of not taking a person off a cross until dead?
· The Twin Theory – This rather bizarre theory argues that Jesus had an unknown, identical twin that assumed the role of the resurrected Jesus after the crucifixion (Powell, Christian Apologetics, p. 274). This theory is akin to a fraud, a motive that would have been completely contrary to what we know about Jesus from the four gospels. Further, there is no evidence to support such a theory historically, textually, or biographically.
· Hallucination Theory – This theory suggests “that in the midst of their profound grief, the disciples and other followers of Jesus experienced hallucinations in which they saw Him raised from the dead.” (Powell, Christian Apologetics, p. 278). The reason this theory has never been widely accepted is due to the nature of the public appearances of resurrected Lord. If Jesus had appeared to His followers individually or in small groups it could be argued that they may have hallucinated in seeing the resurrected Lord. However, 1 Corinthians 15 states that Jesus appeared to individuals and to a large number of the disciples, making it nearly impossible to postulate a comprehensive hallucinatory experience for such a large number of people. This theory also carries with it the weakness of failing to explain the empty tomb.
· Additional Theories – In addition to these major theories, such minor theories as:
o 1) The ‘bait and switch’ theory that argues that Jesus was replaced with a stand-in at the last minute and was never crucified at all. This theory is sometimes based on a spurious reading of Luke 23:26 where is it is noted “As they led Him (Jesus) away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.” It is argued that Simon from Cyrene replaced Jesus on the cross. Again, this theory carries no historical evidence and fails to explain the empty tomb.
o 2) The ‘Islamic theory’ is that Jesus was never crucified at all but somehow escaped the cross, only to reappear to His disciples. They, in turn, wrongly applied the concept of resurrection to Jesus Christ. According to the Qur’an Judas was crucified instead of Jesus (see the Qur’an, surahs 3:55 and 4:157-58 and Ergun and Emir Caner in Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at the Muslim Life and Beliefs, Kregel, 2002).
o 3) The ‘shallow grave theory’ has been suggested by John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar. This theory suggests that the empty tomb can be explained by arguing that Jesus died and was then subsequently buried in a shallow, unmarked grave where a pack of dogs consumed the body. The weaknesses of this theory are obvious as well. Not only does it fail to explain the empty tomb and the well-known, well-publicized request of Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus in his own tomb (Lk. 23:50-56; Mt. 27:57-61; Mk. 15:42-47; Jn. 19:38-42), but it also fails to explain the well-documented post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (1 Cor. 15).
o 4) A final ‘catch all’ theory is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was simply a legend that was perpetuated by the disciples in order to start a movement that had actually failed with the demise and death of their leader, Jesus Christ (see Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality, A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity, Harper Collins, 1994).
In summary, those who propose such theories go out of their way to avoid a plan reading of the text. In fact, one could argue that it takes greater faith to believe some of these theories than to believe the truth. Having surveyed some of the alternative explanations of the empty tomb and the resurrection, let’s survey some reasons, both biblical and logical, as to why it is plausible and probable that Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead on the third day.
The Biblical Foundations and Logical Supports for the Resurrection:
An Overview of William Lane Craig’s article entitled ‘Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? In Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, ed., Zondervan, 1995, pp. 141-176).
In what may be one of the best, most succinct, brief arguments for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Professor William Lane Craig (Ph.D., University Birmingham, U.K.), begins his article with the following declaration: ‘In seeking the best historical explanation of the evidence concerning the resurrection of Jesus, we employ a model of inference common to all inductive reasoning, including the natural sciences, known as inference to the best explanation. According to this approach, we begin with the evidence available to us. Then out of a pool of live options determined by our background beliefs, we select the best of various competing explanations to give an account of why the evidence is as it is and not otherwise.’ (p. 143) Craig begins with three well-known, well-documented, widely-accepted facts: 1) Jesus’ empty tomb, 2) the postmortem, post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and 3) the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. These three factors must be accounted for before accepting an alternative claim other than the one offered by the scriptures and the gospel – Jesus was bodily raised from the dead.
Jesus’ Empty Tomb
According to Craig, there are numerous plausible, biblical, and logical reasons that support the historical fact that the tomb of Jesus was empty soon after His death and burial. What is the supporting evidence for the empty tomb?
· The historical credibility of the burial based upon the gospel texts is largely undisputed (i.e. Mt. 27:57-61; Mk. 15:42-47; Lk. 23:50-56; Jn. 19:38-42).
· Paul’s testimony provides further verification in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared…” The dating of this confessional tradition is often dated to AD 30-36, making it nearly impossible to deny that Jesus was buried.
· The burial story is considered to be a part of the pre-Markan passion story, since Mark was one of the first gospels and records Mark’s insights as a reflection of the Apostle Peter’s testimony.
· The story of Jesus’ burial is simple and basic and lacks theological reflection and apologetic development, making it an unadorned claim. Too often lies, fables, or myths come with flowery language that clouds the issues of truth and verifiability. Not so with the burial accounts of Jesus.
· Joseph of Arimathea is a historical character.
· Joseph burying Jesus in his own grave is probably historical.
· Jesus was buried late on the Day of Preparation; the body could not have been left on a cross according to the Jewish regulations for holy days.
· The observation of the burial by the women is probably historical. According to Mark 15:40-41: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” Since the testimony of women in Jesus’ day was often discounted, why would the early gospel writers mention their names in both observing Jesus’ burial and in recording their witness as the first appearance of the resurrected Lord if it would have undermined their story, unless the claims of the disciples were true?
· The graves of Jewish holy men were often well-preserved and cared for, so that you also have Joseph of Arimathea’s reputation at stake.
· No other burial tradition exists.
· The investigation of the empty tomb by Peter and John is historically probable (Jn. 21:24).
· It would have been virtually impossible for the disciples to openly proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty. For example, between the crucifixion/resurrection event and Pentecost was fifty days in which the disciples prayed and waited. This would have provided plenty of time for the empty tomb and resurrection claims to have been debunked by the Jewish leaders and the enemies of Jesus. Yet, on the day of Pentecost Peter had not changed his mind or his claim concerning the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (see Acts 2).
· The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. That is, the Jewish opponents of Jesus never denied the fact of the empty tomb. Further, they attempted to cover it up by paying off the guards (Mt. 28:11-15).
· The fact that the early disciples did not venerate or memorialize the burial place of Jesus may indicate that the tomb was empty.
In summary, these accumulated affirmations concerning the empty tomb make for a good case that, in fact, the tomb was empty. But an empty tomb alone does not fully account for the claims of the gospel. Craig moves to outlines numerous reasons for his affirmation concerning the truth of the gospel by looking at the postmortem, post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
Postmortem, Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus
The numerous accounts of Jesus appearance make for a substantial argument that Jesus physically/spiritually appeared after His death.
· Paul’s testimony outlines the vast number of people who witnessed Jesus’ appearances, i.e. Peter, the Twelve, five hundred other believers, James, all the apostles, and then to Paul himself (see 1 Corinthians 15:5-8).
· The Gospel accounts of the appearances of Jesus to the women and the disciples are historically reliable.
· Jesus’ appearance at the Lake of Tiberias seems plausible (John 21).
· Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35).
· Jesus appears in Galilee (Mt. 28:16; Acts 1:6).
· Jesus’ appearances are spiritual-physical appearances. Prior to His crucifixion Jesus was limited in that He was bound by corporeal dimensions. Yet, something happened in the resurrection that gave Jesus an added dimension of experience in that He could physically appear and eat fish (Lk. 24:40-43) and at the same time appear and disappear in locked rooms (Jn. 20:19-31).
· Craig calls the transformation of Jesus’ earthly body a soma pneumatikon, a transformation that does not rescue it from materiality, but from mortality. This is the first indication of what our resurrected bodies may be capable of (see 1 Corinthians 15:42-58).
· In every account, the gospels confirm that the appearances of Jesus were physical.
In summary, Craig argues that the converse side of the empty tomb is best explained by what the biblical texts state – the tomb was empty because Jesus had been bodily, supernaturally raised from the dead to a new dimension of existence as a forerunner of our resurrection bodies.
The Origin of the Disciples’ Belief in Jesus’ Resurrection
In what may be one of the best arguments for the historical accuracy and reliability of the claims of Christianity is the Christian movement itself. Most alternative theories break down when one takes into account that not many days after Pentecost the church was under persecution for preaching the gospel (Acts 81ff.). To preach a lie is one thing, to die for a lie is quite another. And yet the early disciples were more than willing to suffer for Christ’s sake and the gospel. What would make sensible men and women preach, teach, live, and die in the way the early believers did, and every subsequent generation since? In spite of the institutionalization and politicizing of the church and in spite of her well-documented failures throughout the centuries, there is something at the very core of the church’s belief system that is substantive, historical, and necessary. Apart from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, critics have a difficult time in explaining the continuing life of the church and the relentless affirmation of the resurrection in her preaching. Underneath the forms and structures the church has adopted throughout the centuries there is a bedrock truth that cannot be denied and that will not be dismissed - “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He is risen!” (Lk. 24:5-6)
The early believers were absolutely convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead. As a result, both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ formed the content of their message (see Acts 2). While the evidence is substantive, faith remains the requirement for the Christian walk. Though Jesus appeared to enough persons to substantiate His resurrection, the vast majority of believers are dependent on the eye-witness accounts of the early disciples and personal faith. We must be reminded of what Jesus said to doubting Thomas in John 20:28-29. When Thomas realized that he was actually seeing the resurrected Lord, touching and speaking to Him, he blurted out, “My Lord and my God!” And what was Jesus’ response? “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not yet seen and yet have believed.’” We are among those who believe but have not yet seen Him. But one day all that will change for we will see Him as He is, in all of His glory and majesty! Until then, we will faithfully serve and patiently tolerate those who would claim otherwise.