Does the historicity of the Resurrection even matter? Are the claims of men like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg acceptable, that the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is unimportant to the Jesus of faith? Is there even a viable faith, without a historical resurrection?
The answer to the question of whether or not the Resurrection matters is given to us explicitly in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19.
Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19)
The word in verse 17, translated as "worthless" is translated as “futile” in the NIV, as “mere delusion” in the Amplified Bible, as “useless” in the NLT, and as “vain” in the KJV. There is no way around it: the Apostle Paul makes it very clear that the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the foundation of Christianity. Without it, our faith is worthless. We might as well find something else to do with our lives. Clearly, the answer to the question of whether the Resurrection is fact or fiction is very important!
All of the various hypotheses -- that Jesus was a myth or a legend; that he existed but never claimed to be divine but this was added later to him; or that the resurrection was a historical event -- exist to try and explain the phenomenon that is Christianity. Regardless of its origin, Christianity exists. People today believe that a man named Jesus was raised from the dead sometime between AD 30-33. These same people worship Jesus as God. So, what is the most reasonable thing to believe regarding Jesus, both rationally and historically? On the surface, without examining any details, the Resurrection is the least plausible -- because dead people don't come back to life as a general rule. Certainly, if it happened, it was a very unique event!
So the first issue is this: Did Jesus of Nazareth Really Exist?
There are only two possibilities for the proposition “Jesus existed.” That statement is either true or it is false. Jesus was a historical person, or he was not. There is no middle ground. The question is did Jesus exist, or was he a merely a mythical figure?
The contention that Jesus never existed, that He was a myth, is a relatively new movement. This hypothesis can be traced back to two French philosophers in the 1790’s. The first academic attempt to make a case for this theory was made by Bruno Bauer in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most well-known current proponent of the so-called “Jesus Myth” hypothesis is Earl Doherty. The first piece of Doherty’s “Jesus Puzzle” is this:
The Gospel story, with its figure of Jesus of Nazareth, cannot be found before the Gospels. In Christian writings earlier than Mark, including almost all of the New Testament epistles, as well as in many writings from the second century, the object of Christian faith is never spoken of as a human man who had recently lived, taught, performed miracles, suffered and died at the hands of human authorities, or rose from a tomb outside Jerusalem. There is no sign in the epistles of Mary or Joseph, Judas or John the Baptist, no birth story, teaching or appointment of apostles by Jesus, no mention of holy places or sites of Jesus’ career, not even the hill of Calvary or the empty tomb. This silence is so pervasive and so perplexing that attempted explanations for it have proven inadequate.
This is quite a claim. However, there are two alarming problems with this statement. First, this is nothing more than an argument from silence. That means that Doherty is arguing, not from positive evidence, but from a lack of evidence that he deems appropriate. In his argument from silence, he rejects the testimony of the gospels, which are themselves historical documents, saying that there is nothing before or outside of these sources that acknowledge a historical Jesus. Essentially, he has acknowledged that the sources that do claim a historical Jesus ought to be disqualified from consideration, and then when we consider what is leftover (after eliminating those sources that disagree with his hypothesis), he finds a “pervasive and perplexing silence” from which he concludes that Jesus never existed! This is clearly faulty reasoning.
Secondly, this assertion that Jesus of Nazareth cannot be found either before the Gospels, or outside of them as a historical figure is demonstrably false. It is either poor scholarship or willful dishonesty.
Unlike Jesus, the historicity of the Apostle Paul is not in dispute. Although some aspects of Paul’s life are in dispute, the fact that he lived in the first century and died in Rome sometime between AD 63-65 is accepted as a historical fact. And of the 13 epistles that are traditionally ascribed to Paul, only 7 are undisputedly Pauline; meaning that 6 of the epistles most Christians recognize as being authored by Paul are disputed by some scholars as being written much later. The 7 that are not disputed are: Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon.
We’ve already seen from the undisputably Pauline letter of 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul thought the physical resurrection of Jesus was essential to the faith, and this epistle was written and circulated prior to the Gospel of Mark, contrary to the assertion of Doherty. In fact, the earliest epistle written by Paul, was Galatians. This short book is dated to have been written in AD 48, which is approximately only 15-18 years after the supposed Resurrection event occurred.
Keep in mind the context of this epistle to the Galatians. If Jesus really lived and was crucified, then this event happened in either AD 30 or 33 (probably AD 30). After the Resurrection event, Jesus’ followers began spreading the good news and Paul began persecuting these believers. Something happened to Paul, and he gave up persecuting Christians and became one of the persecuted himself, dedicating the rest of his life to spreading the gospel that he once persecuted. In Galatians 1:11-12, Paul says this: I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
In what follows in Galatians, Paul lays out a timeline of his travels and ministry. He says that immediately after his conversion he went to Arabia and then back to Damascus. After 3 years he went to Jerusalem and got to know Peter and James. Then he traveled again preaching the word. After another 14 years he returned to Jerusalem because the gospel was in dispute (you can read about this council in Acts 15). This puts at least 17 years between Paul’s conversion and the time of writing this epistle. Jesus was likely crucified in AD 30, and this epistle was likely written in AD 48, a time period of 18 years. Paul has been actively preaching the gospel, establishing churches, and now after the first dispute over the gospel, one of the churches that he established is falling for this false gospel. This brings about the historical occasion for the first writing, the first book, of the New Testament to be written — predating the Gospels — and it is being written to people who were contemporaneous (i.e. lived during the time the events supposedly took place) with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
And what does Paul say to these individuals, 18 years after the supposed events, in order to convince them of their mistake? Galatians 3:1: You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.
If Jesus of Nazareth never existed – if there was no such historical person – how could Paul be so foolish as to think that this would be an effective argument? Can you imagine this being an effective means of persuasion if the Galatians read this letter and say, “Ummm… Paul, what are you talking about? We didn’t see Jesus crucified… in fact, we aren’t even sure if Jesus ever existed!”
Quite frankly, the hypothesis that Jesus never existed can only be reached by suppressing a vast amount of historical evidence, both biblical and extra-biblical. And although we have only considered biblical testimony so far, the conclusion of Edwin Yamauchi, professor of Ancient History at Miami University (of Ohio) is that we have more and better historical documentation for Jesus than for any other founder of a major world religion. Doctor Yamauchi says:
Even if we did not have the New Testament of Christian writings, we would be able to conclude from such non-Christian writings as Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger that: (1) Jesus was a Jewish teacher; (2) many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; (3) he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; (4) he was crucified under Pontias Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; (5) despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by AD 64; (6) all kinds of people from the cities and countryside—men and women, slave and free—worshipped him as God by the beginning of the second century.(Yamauchi, JUF, 221,222)
The "Jesus as Myth" hypothesis does not stand up to scrutiny, and I just plain do not have enough faith to believe, against all of the evidence, that Jesus never existed. The most reasonable conclusion is that Jesus is a historical person.
In Part 2, we'll examine the second issue: Did Jesus claim to be God?