Easter as a historical event

2012-04-09 by . 5 comments

Post to Twitter

Last month, I gave a definition of Evangelicalism that mentioned one of our four core values: “crucicentrism”. We believe (along with most Christians) that the cross of Christ represents the turning point in human history and the start of God’s victory over evil. That the early Christians interpreted the death of their Messiah as a victory and not the defeat of a failed revolutionary rabbi stands testimony to their belief that Jesus stepped out of the tomb alive.

Here’s how Paul of Tarsus put it in a letter to the church in the Roman colony city of Corinth:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.—1st Corinthians 15:3-9 (ESV)

Scholars agree that the letter was written by Paul sometime between 53 and 57 AD, which places it, at most, 27 years after the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Interestingly, the Corinthians were skeptical that Jesus could have risen bodily from the tomb and Paul gives this passage as evidence. A portion of the passage (“that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”) was most likely a creed or statement of belief that scholars have dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion. So it’s not so much evidence of the resurrection per se as evidence of the belief of the Jerusalem church.

The creed lists witnesses to the events in chronological order of when they saw the risen Jesus. Most intriguing is the mention of more than 500 brothers (and possibly sisters—the Greek is ambiguous on the point). We have independent accounts of when Jesus appeared to all the other witnesses (including Paul) but we don’t know for sure who the 500 plus were. However, Paul did and almost challenges his readers to contact them: “most of whom are still alive”.

It wasn’t an idle challenge either. We look back on ancient travel and communication as dangerous and unreliable. There’s truth to that, but in the ancient context, the Roman system of roads and sea routes was vital to the operation of empire. Corinth (or Corinthus) was a critical waypoint between the Eastern and Western provinces. Acts 4:33 talks about apostles “giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” and Paul mentions apostles traveling to Rome before he got there, so the Corinthians likely had direct access to witnesses of the resurrection.

Corinth was at the crossroads of Empire.

Paul also refers to a problem that was fast approaching: “Some have fallen asleep” is a euphemism meaning “some have died”. How would the church continue to bear witness to its creed when the eyewitnesses had gone? Sometime between 65 and 80 AD somebody wrote down the first Gospel (or biography of Jesus). The book includes an account of the resurrection:

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.—Mark 16:1-8 (ESV)

Believe it or not, that’s how the story ends; Mark 16:9-20 is marked as a later insertion in most modern editions. There are several theories about why Mark ended there, but it’s possible the author intended the reader to seek out a Christian to answer the burning question: “What happened next?” In any case, Mark began a transition from a largely oral tradition to written history. In the decades to follow, Christianity produced a remarkable corpus of four written accounts of the life of Jesus.

To understand why our written history of Jesus is so remarkable, let me turn our attention to one of the biggest stories of the early Roman Empire: the Great Fire of Rome. That event had roughly a million eyewitnesses. In terms of significance, it was in the same league as 9/11. We have three surviving accounts, all of which are secondary and at least 50 years removed from the event. In turn, those sources draw on three primary sources which are now lost. None of the accounts, however, agree on the central facts: who set the fire and why, and where Nero was at the time. Even so, with a great deal of detective work, historians feel confident in claiming the fire was an accident that Nero blamed on the Christians.

Considering there were at most a few hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus, it’s remarkable that we have four written histories. Occasionally skeptics point to the various contradictions between the gospels as evidence that the story is made up. But the truth is that multiple historical accounts increase our certainty that the event happened. Historians usually extrapolate from meager evidence in ancient text (a passing reference or an incomplete narrative), so four secondary sources that reflect at least as many primary sources is highly unusual. We have orders of magnitude more biographical data about Jesus than we do about, for instance, Shakespeare who we know mostly from scraps of business and legal documents outside of his plays and poetry.

As it turns out, all four accounts agree with the three points of the creed Paul repeated:

  1. Christ died
  2. he was buried
  3. he was raised on the third day

They agree that third day was the first day of the week: Sunday. They also agree on several details that seem to have no theological significance: the first witnesses were women who worried about how to move the stone door of the tomb, which was donated by Joseph of Arimathea. Quite likely Paul left out the women in his list of people who saw Jesus alive after the cross because, in the ancient world, they would not be seen as reliable witnesses. But without the women, the gospel writers would be left without a narrative.

When it comes to disagreements among the gospels, probably the most famous concerns the messengers who were already at the tomb when the women arrived. Were they angels or men? Did they sit on the stone or were they inside the tomb? How many were there: one, two, more? What, if anything was their message? These stories are difficult, even impossible, to harmonize. But these are exactly the sort of oddities we should expect from several, independent memories of the same event.

There is no solid archaeological evidence for the empty tomb. Most likely, the site was destroyed by the city of Jerusalem remaking herself. At any rate, the tomb might have looked like this one, which was uncovered in 1874:

Tomb that might resemble the one donated by Joseph of Arimathea.

Early Christianity showed little interest in the site of the tomb, or even in travel to Palestine before the 4th century, which isn’t surprising since the New Testament asserts that there was no body to be found there. For the gospel writers, the important thing to establish was that Jesus had, in fact, risen.

There is so much more to tell, but I need to stop somewhere. If you would like to explore more, I suggest N. T. Wright’s article “Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins” or, for the ambitious, his book The Resurrection of the Son of God. Don’t worry if the material above made you question presuppositions; as I was writing the post I had many doubts. But doubt is the sign of self-honesty, so it’s a good thing.

Tune in next week when Peter Turner writes about something many Evangelicals wouldn’t expect.


Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  • Very interesting! I hadn’t thought about Paul’s statement about 500 witnesses, most of whom were still alive as possibly being an invitation to ask them about it.

  • Jon,

    Regarding Mark 16:9-20 — most modern editions of the NT do not have footnotes that sufficiently describe the pertinent evidence. If you would like to find out more about the evidence pertaining to Mark 16:9-20 (and why the footnotes in versions such as the NIV and ESV are rather misleading to the typical reader), please contact me and ask for a copy of my research-book on this subject.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr. Minister, Curtisville Christian Church Indiana (USA)

    • Jon Ericson says:

      Hi James!

      First, I encourage you to take a look at the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. We have a wide variety of viewpoints there and it seems you would fit right in. I asked one question that assumes Marks 16:9-20 was a late addition. But there’s no reason you couldn’t provide an answer that challenges that assumption or even ask a question of your own and answer it. You might even enjoy answering our questions over there!

      Second, I looked over your website and am impressed with the research shown that the longer ending of Mark is well represented in the manuscripts. I think we can agree that the internal evidence strongly suggests a separate author wrote that section. But you make a good case that we ought not to dismiss it quickly as being part of the Bible. I’ll have to put some more thought into that.

      Third, because of Bart Erhman’s popularizations of textual criticism, I think Christians ought to begin thinking about the sometimes messy way our Scripture was written, compiled, and copied. Rather than feeling threatened by the origins of the texts, I think we ought to be in awe of how God speaks so clearly though them. We should acknowledge the complications, not run from them. In the end, I will trust that God has provided the portion of His Word that we need.

      Thanks for the comment and I hope to hear more from you in the future, Jon

  • gary says:

    Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

  • gary says:

    Newsflash: The majority of New Testament scholars no longer believe that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. It’s not just my opinion, my Christian friends, it is the consensus of scholars.


  • Comments have been closed for this post