Psalm 23:6 — Abiding in the Lord

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

–Revelation 21:3 (ESV)

The Hebrew for this passage leaves a lot of room for interpretation, so I figured that, before I get into my mediation, that I would put six of the most popular English translations side-by-side to illuminate the various ways this verse is translated (I omitted the KJV because, c’mon, you already know that one):

  • Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (ESV)
  • Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (NRSV)
  • Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (NIV)
  • Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD as long as I live. (CSB)
  • Certainly goodness and faithfulness will follow me all the days of my life, And my dwelling will be in the house of the LORD forever. (NASB)
  • Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever. (NLT)

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” In my meditation on verse four, I conjured the image of evil following us around. However, if we remain on the path of righteousness, we shall only be accompanied by goodness, mercy, and unfailing love (see the CSB translation). The Hebrew word for “follow” radaph has the sense of being pursued, chased, or even persecuted. The hound of heaven wants to bless us so badly that He will chase us down if He has to! We have the sure and certain promise that our Shepherd will bless us if we remain in his will. As Jesus reminds us: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11). Notice that all the translations agree that this goodness, mercy, and love is a daily blessing. This links up nicely with Christ’s admonition to take up our cross “daily” to follow him (Luke 9:23). If we do our part to bear our cross daily, and die to self each morning, God promises to follow after us and shower us with all the grace and mercy and love that we could ever need. Our cup overflows.

“And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” We usually read this phrase as a promise our heavenly reward and just move on. While that’s an acceptable interpretation, I think that there is a lot more going on here. An alternate version of the ESV translation using the footnotes reads: “and I shall return to dwell in the house of the LORD for length of days.” Keep in mind that to the original Jewish readers of this passage, the house of the Lord meant the Temple. The only people who lived in the temple would be the Levites, and David was not a Levite. Thus, the reading of “returning” again and again to the house of the Lord (e.g. at the feast of Passover) makes more sense. To the Jews, God literally and physically dwelled in the Holy of Holies within the Temple. No wonder that they desired to live in the Temple even though that was only reserved for the priests. To return to a quote from my meditation on verse one: “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10). This desire is made most explicit in Psalm 27: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (v. 4). All of this leads to a sort of melancholy wistfulness. We can only spend a little time in the presence of the Lord, and even then, the Holy of Holies is denied to everyone but the High Priest, and he only gets to experience the Lord’s presence one day in the year. Nevertheless, for the “length of days”, a good Jew desired to dwell in the Lord’s temple, even if they could never truly dwell with Him.

The young woman was frantic. She looked at her husband with exasperation: “I thought he was with you.” Her face red, her heart about to beat out of her chest, the woman burst into the temple not with joyful anticipation, but with abject terror. And there he was, calmly conversing with the teachers of the Law. With that motherly combination of relief and rage, with tears stinging her eyes, Mary grabbed her child by the wrist and all but spit out: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” To which Jesus replied: “Why were you searching for me?…Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:41-49, quotes from the NIV). Jesus shared the psalmist’s desire to dwell in God’s house, but this time it was personal. God was just “Dad” to Him. Going to the temple wasn’t a visit to a deity; it was a return home. But Jesus went much further than that: He spoke of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. Only after His death and resurrection did the disciples understand. Indeed, at the moment that Jesus died on the cross, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51). The Holy of Holies was now open to all people. For God’s dwelling was not in the temple, but in a man. The author of Hebrews puts it beautifully:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Hebrews 10:19-22

Through Christ’s death, the dividing wall between us and God has been broken down. Christ as both priest and victim has offered the perfect sacrifice that reunites us with the Father, allowing us to dwell in his presence forever.

And that is why I don’t think this phrase is about heaven after we die. The psalmist desires to dwell in the Lord’s house “my whole life long” (NRSV) or “as long as I live” (CSB). Old Testament Jews did not really have a concept of the afterlife beyond the vaguely-defined concept of sheol or “the grave”. So to dwell somewhere forever meant to spend your whole natural life there. The salvation offered by Jesus is not just to get us into heaven, but to redeem our lives now. If we want to dwell in the house of the Lord today, well…”do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). We could not live in God’s house forever, so God came to live with us and in us. Even in heaven, in the New Jerusalem, there is no temple “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22). We are invited to live not just in the Lord’s house, but in Him forever. Truly, the dwelling place of God will be with men. And death will be no more and He will wipe the tear from every eye. Alleluia!

In this psalm, God is reminding us of our dependent state, that we are sheep in need of a shepherd. He gives us all the provision we could ever need if we but trust Him. His green grass and living water truly satisfy in a way that world never can. He restores our souls to their former glory, making us new as we walk along the paths of righteousness that He has already laid out. Even though we live our lives in the shadow of our own mortality and haunted by evil both without and within, the Lord will never abandon us and will gently guide us through even the most treacherous times and protect us from the evil one. He has given us His own body and blood as a feast of overflowing blessing that gives us victory over our foes and promises abundant life. God will chase after us to shower us with His blessing. And He will dwell with us, and we with Him, forever. This psalm is much more than a comfort to the grieving at funerals. It is one of the most glorious proclamations in Scripture of God’s provision and guidance for our lives today. So let us dwell with Him today and every day.

Psalm 23:5 — Sharing the Wedding Feast

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Now the metaphor abruptly shifts, from a shepherd to the host of a great banquet. This shouldn’t be too jarring for us as Jesus used both images of Himself. He is the host of a great wedding banquet where the invited guests proved unworthy, so he flings open the doors to invite anyone and everyone to feast (Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners not to take the best seat at the banquet, but the lowliest, so that the humble might be exalted (14:7-14). Jesus’ final night with his disciples was spent at the Passover banquet, where he offered nothing less than Himself as the meal. And finally, after the triumphal defeat of wicked Babylon in Revelation, we have this: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7-9). The feast to which Christ invites us is our own wedding feast — He is the bridegroom, and we, somehow, are His bride. Thus, the feast is about so much more than God’s provision in tough times. It is a promise of eternal life as children of the king and as the Lamb’s pure bride.

That is why this feast is given “in the presence of my enemies”. It’s a victory feast. When Christ offers Himself in the bread and the wine, He reminds us that it is through his sacrifice that death is defeated and we are saved. He sustains us and restores our soul with green grass and pure water. But this water is not just a temporary fix for our daily problems. He gives us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Only by tapping into this “living water” can we hope to survive the valley of the shadow of death. What this verse tells us is that we can expect more than mere survival by the skin of our teeth — we can expect total victory over all the enemies of our souls. Again, this is not a promise of some heavenly future after we die. All enemies are defeated in heaven. No, we dine in the very presence of our enemies, in this life, today.

I glossed over the Last Supper in that first paragraph because it kind of gives away the game. The table that our Shepherd/Host sets before us is, of course, the Eucharist. Jesus makes this quite clear in John chapter 6: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (vv.51, 53). The feast that He offers us, the life that He offers us, is His own self. That is why Paul said that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). When we take Holy Communion, we literally take Christ into our bodies. Every Holy Eucharist is a victory feast, a wedding supper of the Lamb. What an honor and an awesome privilege to be invited to such a feast, not only as a guest, but as a Bride.

“You anoint my head with oil.” In the Old Testament, it was priests and kings who were anointed with oil. But this verse hints at how such honors would be extended to all who are in the Lord. As Peter reminds us, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9, emphasis added). As the Body of Christ, we participate in Jesus’ triple office of prophet, priest, and king. The anointing of our head is more than cleaning us up or showing us honor. We are being invited to participate with Christ in his royal and eternal priesthood. Another aspect of this anointing with oil is preparation. Tying into the message of repentance from yesterday, this anointing is a cleansing balm that washes away impurities while rejuvenating our bodies and souls. The bride must be made ready for her bridegroom, spotless and shining with beauty. Only then will we be found worthy to become one with Christ and join him as a royal priest bathed in marvelous light.

“My cup overflows”. God is, as the kids say, extra. He always gives of Himself lavishly. Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana perfectly encapsulates how he is a God who loves to give extravagant gifts (John 2:1-12). Their cups were literally overflowing with new wine at that feast! Indeed, Jesus reminds us that we will need new wineskins for the new wine that he plans to pour into our cups (Matt. 9:14-17 and parallels). Once again, it is clear that the wine that fills our cup past the brim represents the life that Jesus gives us. I think sixth-century monk Cassiodorus (c.490-583) put it quite well:

The cup is…the Lord’s blood, which inebriates in such a way that it heals the mind, restraining it from wrongs, not inducing it to sins. This intoxication renders us sober; its fullness empties us of evils. He who is not filled from this cup ends up hungry and in perpetual need.

Explanation of the Psalms 23.5

Only by becoming inebriated upon the new wine of Christ’s blood can we satisfy the deepest hunger of our souls. And thanks be to God that He provides more of that than we could ever need. The strength to walk the right path in the valley of death comes from drinking the Lord’s cup and eating at the Lord’s table. Obviously, this is about more than just participating in the Eucharist every Sunday. This is about an ongoing, daily relationship with Jesus where His life is lived through us and, therefore, He provides for our every need.

So what do we do with all this? I think at least one key lies in a New Testament parallel to this final phrase of verse 5: “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38). If we want to receive the blessings of God, to enjoy the feast and to be fed by the Lord, we cannot hoard these treasures for ourselves. Our lives must be marked by generosity, and the more we give Christ away, the more of Him that we will receive. The cup overflows so that we will have no choice but to share our bounty with others. Let us share Christ with all whom we meet today.

Psalm 23:4 — Walking in Light in the Midst of Darkness

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willin’ to die to even do this job. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet somethin’ I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say: ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world.’

–Sheriff Ed Tom Bell from the movie No Country for Old Men

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

–1 Corinthians 15:26

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Here we have the turning point of this psalm, the verse that transforms this otherwise nice but unmemorable work into one of the most beloved and oft-quoted pieces from all of Holy Scripture. While we earnestly desire green pastures, still waters, and the restoration of our souls, much of the time all we can see is darkness. Many translations say that we walk through “the darkest valley” (NIV, NRSV, NLT, CSB), or, in one version I like, “valleys as dark as death” (CEV). Fear of the dark is among the most primal phobias of our species. A predator in the noonday sun may be just as dangerous, but we can at least take its measure. But who can know what unspeakable dangers lurk in the dark? I am reminded of the “dark island” in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a land shrouded in fog-like darkness where dreams come true. Except that the dreams are all nightmares, and anyone who spends too long there (like poor Lord Rhoup) are driven insane with terror. Perhaps this valley is just the “dark night of the soul”, a temporary state where God seems absent and all hope feels lost. For those who struggle with anxiety or depression, this state is far from temporary. For those who live with chronic pain or abuse or grinding poverty or persecution or any of the other “whips and scorns of time” this dark valley may seem interminable. The devil may be defeated, but that is cold comfort on an empty stomach or with a broken heart. Our efforts to follow the shepherd in even the best of times seem haunted: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom 7:21, NIV). We are told over and over in Scripture “do not be afraid”, but how am I supposed to do that when evil lurks in the dark, dogging my every step? It steals any joy that might be had from the green pastures and still waters. Like the thorns from the parable of the sower, the darkness has a way of choking the life out of even the most vibrant Christian.

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? This dark valley is, indeed, under the shadow of death. Whatever we do in this life is always shadowed by the inevitable way it will end. We cannot escape our mortality. We have no choice but to push our chips forward, put our soul at hazard, and go out to meet the incomprehensible. That is why this verse is so beloved — it grapples with the central question of how to live our lives in the face of inevitable death. That is also why so many “feel-good” philosophies, ideologies, and spiritualities fall short. They cannot answer the question that death raises, or at least, they can only put it off until it is unavoidable. Christianity, by contrast, has a rich tradition of memento mori in which we are encouraged to ponder our death to tame our vanity and to spur a sense of urgency to live holy lives. We don’t have much time on this planet and it behooves us to remember that we live in the shadow of death. Rather than being a source of sorrow, memento mori is intended to be an invitation to wonder, to prayer, and, ultimately, to action.

“For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” This is the solution to the problem of death, and why we need not fear evil. To return to Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the ship only escapes the dark island when Lucy prays to Aslan and he appears as an albatross, bringing light and guiding the ship out of the darkness. And Aslan’s message, whispered to Lucy, is a message for all of us: “courage, dear heart.” We need not fear death or despair or darkness for we have a shepherd who has promised to guide us through it. It seems paradoxical to us modern people that implements of discipline, the rod and the staff, would be a source of comfort. But we know that God is a good father who disciplines us as a father disciplines his child (read Hebrews 12:5-11). He uses his rod and his staff not to cause pain, but rather to gently guide us back onto the paths of righteousness. We can only truly be hurt by evil if we stray from the shepherd and the path that He has laid out for us. Remember that it was Him and His path that led us into this valley in the first place. Why would he do that? Because, as I’ve said before, He cares first and foremost about the salvation of our souls. In order to restore our souls to the glory for which they were created, sometimes he must take us through tough times. His rod and his staff not only guide us, but they are also formidable weapons against the enemy. When David (the author of Psalm 23) is trying to convince Saul to let him fight Goliath, he appeals to his experience as a shepherd:

David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.

1 Samuel 17:34-37

Notice that David’s confidence is not in his own abilities (which are quite impressive), but in the Lord’s deliverance. God will not allow us to come to ultimate harm and will work all things for our good if we allow Him control of our lives (Rom. 8:28). Our Shepherd’s staff has a two-fold purpose: to pull us out of the trouble we get ourselves into and to beat back the evil one. We have a good shepherd who has defeated every enemy that could possibly come against us, even death itself. He has triumphed over our sin and Fall “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). As John reminds us, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Therefore, we have nothing to fear from the darkness so long as our God stays with us, which he has promised to do for eternity.

So what are we to do? Perhaps we should continue reading that passage from 1 John: “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:7-9). We must walk together in fellowship along the paths of righteousness, and then we shall be in the light as Jesus is in the light. We do this by confessing and repenting of our sins. Only then can we experience the comforting embrace of our shepherd and the restoration of our souls.

Psalm 23:3 — Walking the Right Path

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

–Isaiah 30:21 (NIV)

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

–Revelation 21:5 (ESV)

He restores my soul.” This sentence really belongs with the previous verse. By shepherding us into pastures of green grass and slaking our thirst with still water, the Lord restores our soul. St. Augustine equates the “green pastures” with the Word of God, meaning that our soul is restored by feeding upon Him and His word. What really struck me in thinking about this verse was the implication of the word “restores” (or, in some translations, “refreshes”). To restore something is to return it to the way it was originally. We often get so caught up in our sinfulness, in the moral corruption of our heart and its desires, that we forget a crucial truth: God created us good. Our soul is fundamentally good and holy. The Fall has corrupted what God created, but our soul is not evil. In Western Christianity, we have such an emphasis on human sinfulness (in order to appreciate the atoning work of Christ) that we have, in some cases, blasphemed against God’s good creation. Entering God’s rest means becoming, or, more accurately, returning to that which we were created to be. Again, the green pastures and still waters are not a break from our lives — they are the life that God intends for us. The whole purpose of Christ’s incarnation was to restore our souls, to repair the rupture of the Fall and reconcile us back with the Father. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to do — far from it. Just as someone who restores a car must often replace parts and buff the chassis and apply coats of paint and reupholster the seats, so must God do quite a bit of work on us to return us to our former glory. And we must be willing to cooperate with what he is doing in order to see that transformation in our lives. If we do that, if we allow God’s restoration project to be brought to completion, we will see that we have become something beautiful in His hands.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” As I said in my mediation on verse one, so many people in our society want to forge their own path. They get our their spiritual machete and hack through the wilderness, hoping to find the hidden treasures of meaning, purpose, and hope. But our shepherd has already cut out a path for us. Some translations have Him leading us down “right paths” (NIV, NLT, CSB, CEV). Indeed, there are many wrong paths, just as a math question has many wrong answers but only one right answer. Following a pre-planned path seems restrictive and narrow-minded to many people. But that is what Jesus calls us to: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14). Staying on the path is not easy when there are so many tempting fruits growing just out of reach. But those fruits will prove to be poison in the long run. Only the right path, the path that our shepherd guides us down, leads us to the green pastures and still waters that truly restore the soul. Notice in the teaching from Jesus that the narrow gate verse immediately follows the “Golden Rule” (Matt. 7:12). Following the right path is as much about our relationship with other sheep as it is in following to the shepherd. So this is not actually limiting at all. Following the right path frees us from the constant work of hacking through this wilderness of sin in which we find ourselves and allows us to love God and love others as we ought to. And when we do that we will find that we shall not want for anything — all of our needs, emotional, physical, and spiritual, will be met.

I think that Isaiah verse above illuminates an important facet about being shepherded: the shepherd is not always in front of us. The Lord wants us to mature in him (see, e.g., Eph. 4:13-16), and so he will allow us to follow the path on our own. That doesn’t mean we are truly alone, however. He will always be behind us with a gentle reminder not to stray and with an occasional nudge as needed (more on that tomorrow). Some people wait around their whole lives for God to “give them a sign” when it is He who is waiting for them! Scripture gives us clear guidelines for what a righteous life looks like. How we actualize that in the world in which we find ourselves is up to us. God is there with us every step of the way, but He does expect us to do our part. He cannot walk the path for you. So many people just want someone to tell them how to live their lives, be it a pastor, a therapist, a self-help guru, or a psychic. But the older I get, the more I realize a truth both comforting and terrifying: nobody knows what they’re doing. Even if we were all trying to follow the same path of righteousness, it would look different for every one of us simply by virtue of our individual identities. That isn’t to say that pastors or therapists can’t help illuminate the path a little more clearly (n.b.: psychics are charlatans who just want your money). But many adults seem to want someone to tell them how to live and make their decisions for them. Well, Jesus has given us the model, he has left us the Holy Scripture as a guide, and He has given us the Holy Spirit to be a constant companion. If you are waiting for a sign, here it is. Jesus did not leave us a 12-step program or a self-help philosophy. No, He said “follow me”. The path is laid out in front of you. Walk on it, knowing that our shepherd will never leave us or forsake us (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5).

What does it mean that he leads us in paths of righteousness “for his name’s sake”? The Name of the Lord is synonymous with His character, with who He ultimately is. Thus, leading us along the right path and restoring our souls is a revelation of who God is. For God is love (1 John 4:8), and love never fails (1 Cor. 13:8). God is inviting us to test His character and see that it is true and trustworthy. We don’t walk down righteous paths because of what we can get out of it. Even the spiritual benefits are secondary to our ultimate goal: Jesus. Our Shepherd Himself is the goal of our quest. He guides us along the path so that we can be with Him just as He is with the Father (John 17:21). If we are all following the same path, we will be united with one another and united with the Lord. Thus the two parts of the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37-40) are brought together as our love for God feeds into our love for our neighbor and vice versa. All this will magnify the name of the Lord — “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). So let us commit ourselves today to walk in the path that Our Lord lays out before us, trusting that it will lead to the restoration of our souls. For I really do believe, despite the desperate state of the world today, that Jesus is busy making all things new.

Psalm 23:2 — Entering God’s Rest

The old prayer speaks of God “in whose service is perfect freedom.” The paradox is not as opaque as it sounds. It means that to obey Love itself, which above all else wishes us well, leaves us the freedom to be the best and gladdest that we have it in us to become.

–Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God….Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

–Hebrews 4:9, 11 (ESV)

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” If the God who created and who sustains the universe has offered to guide us through life as a shepherd guides a sheep, then why don’t we follow him? There are many answers, of course — arrogance, stubbornness, apathy, laziness, self-interest, etc., etc. But I think the primary reason we do not follow the shepherd boils down to one word: fear. We don’t really trust, not deep down, that God has our best interests at heart. We are afraid that the place he is leading us will be barren, a land of pain and privation. We believe the vision of green pastures and still waters are just a mirage. We know for a fact that it will be different than where we are now, and change is scary. Better the devil we know and all that. We would rather live in squalor and hopelessness that is sure and certain than trust ourselves to God’s plan, which leads to a land we have never seen before. That is why the shepherd has to make us lie down in green pastures and lead us to the still waters. He knows that we don’t trust Him fully and that we must be compelled, again and again, to see His goodness to us. We are perverse and foolish creatures that run away from the very thing that will give us life and peace. Even when we do follow the shepherd, it is only halfheartedly, waiting at all times for the other shoe to drop. But the invitation of our Lord is clear: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). All we hear when we read these verses is the bit about having to take up a yoke. But all of us carry a yoke no matter what — “you gotta serve somebody” as Bob Dylan wrote. Only Christ’s yoke is easy and light. In his service is perfect freedom. It is only under his yoke that we find rest.

Some of our hesitancy to enter the Lord’s rest comes from a desire to be holier than God. We believe that our God-given desires must be sinful and that we are only doing the Lord’s will if we are suffering. C.S. Lewis (as usual) has us all pegged:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

The Weight of Glory, p. 26

We allow our souls to languish, while attempting to appease our bodies with gluttony, lust, and sloth. Yet the Lord offers nourishment for both body and soul if we would but trust Him. That is the ultimate meaning of the green pastures and still waters. It’s not about rest; it’s about provision. The grass is food and the water is drink. Since this psalm is often read at funerals, people sometimes mistakenly equate this verse with a vision of our heavenly reward after death. But a shepherd like David would have known that sheep need grass and water to sustain life. This is a promise for today, for this very moment. God is inviting us to enter into his rest today so that we may have all we need to live life to the fullest. That is why the author of Hebrews exhorts us to “strive to enter that rest”. It seems counterproductive (or at least paradoxical) to strive in order to rest. But we must make the active choice to follow the shepherd out of our barren circumstances and into His provision.

The other false idea associated with this verse is that God’s green grass and still water represent worldly comfort. This is the heresy of the prosperity gospel rearing its ugly head. God’s grass does not sate gluttony, his water will not slake lust, his rest will not relieve sloth, and his provision will not satisfy greed. We may not have all we want, the desires of our flesh that Paul speaks about in Romans, but the Lord will always give us what we truly need. Don’t get me wrong: your life may include poverty, sickness, and suffering. It is guaranteed to include death (more on that in verse four). Yet those who walk through such things can still experience the rest offered by the shepherd, while those who live in luxury, health, and worldly comfort never find true peace. God’s priority is the salvation of our souls and He will stop at nothing to have us, even if that means leading us to the very doorstep of death. But I’m getting ahead of things. Today, let us simply accept the good gifts which our shepherd offers to us. Let us take His yoke upon ourselves and learn from Him, trusting that He is for us (Rom. 8:31) and that He only wishes our good. May we never settle for less than being the best and gladdest version of ourselves that we can be. Enter into His rest.

Psalm 23:1 — Being a Sheep

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

–Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1.263)

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

–Psalm 84:10b (ESV)

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” It is a verse so famous that it is almost invisible to us now, worn away by overuse. It’s a flannel-board cutout of Jesus with a lamb slung over his shoulder, looking off into the middle distance with an expression somewhere between mild amusement and boredom. Few of us have any experience with shepherds. The closest many of us get to a sheep is seeing one grazing on a distant hillside as we speed by on the interstate at 70 miles per hour. The image of a shepherd herding sheep speaks of another, slower era, long gone now. To be called a “sheep” is the ultimate insult, a damning accusation of intellectual inadequacy and moral laziness. We live in an era ruled by the sovereign individual. Each of us must forge our own path and, what’s more, determine our own truth. All the authorities that demand our trust have proven to be false and unworthy idols. The government, the media, the educational system, big business and capitalism, the military, the police, the nuclear family, and, yes, even the Church have failed. To follow authority is to be a sheep taken in by wolves, inevitably to be devoured. That is why our most active political ideologies speak of “getting woke” (for SJW lefties) or “taking the red pill” (for alt-Right atavists, in reference to the pill that reveals the true nature of reality to Neo in the movie The Matrix). To have faith or to put your trust in anyone other than yourself is a recipe for disaster. Truth, meaning, and hope can only be found within yourself, through “self-care” and by nurturing an individual spirituality that meets your needs. Joining a “herd” of others and following a leader who demands your total commitment — well, that’s just a cult, isn’t it? Wake up, take the red pill, and realize that the only path is one that you forge for yourself.

When Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead”, it wasn’t a triumphal cry of a victor. It was the wail of a mourner at a funeral. In a godless world, we are utterly, terrifyingly, alone. We can either make the best of it, and strive to overcome the weakness of who we are and become Nietzschean Übermensch. Or we can give into despair and live our lives wandering aimlessly around the edge of the abyss. To which Nietzsche would remind us: “if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” I feel like this most-famous of atheists understands the spiritual reality of Psalm 23:1 better than most Christians, and certainly better than the “spiritual-but-not-religious” Americans who believe themselves liberated from organized religion. While none of us wants to be sheep, it is our inescapable lot in life. To believe that you can go it alone is not to be more awake than others, but rather more in danger. We are all like ignorant children playing near the edge of a cliff. And the endless abyss below would love to claim us for itself. Nietzsche’s solution, however, is totally inadequate. We cannot overcome ourselves through force of will — there is nothing a sheep can do that will cause it to turn into a lion. In a godless world, you can fight against the abyss all you like (“rage, rage, against the dying of the light”), but it will claim you all the same. The best you can hope for is what Milton’s Satan desires: to rule over the ashes of your dreams and everything (and everyone) you once held dear. At least you will be in charge of your own life. Just try to ignore the fact that it’s all meaningless.

Unless….”The LORD is my shepherd”. To recognize your own utter dependence is the first step. The next is to recognize where, or more accurately, in whom to put your trust. We in the Church are just as guilty of this as anyone, putting our trust in charismatic leaders, both spiritual and political, and in earth-bound power. What this verse calls us to instead is radical humility and total abnegation of self. In order to follow the shepherd, we must renounce all attempts to forge our own path, whether it involves becoming “woke” or being “red-pilled” or anything else that makes our self and our identity the center of the universe. This can involve anything from openly occult practices that attempt to manipulate the spiritual to our own ends (Tarot cards, psychics, astrology, “white magic”, and the like) to simply living a self-centered lifestyle around our career or our “self-expression” that makes all of our relationships parasitic. To accept that the Lord is our shepherd is to re-center our universe around Him and to live for Him alone. Ironically, this will have the added benefit of actually making the spiritual world (or, to be specific, the Holy Spirit) work for our good, which “magic” will never do, and of sanctifying our relationships, strengthening everything from the marriage bond to the parent-child dynamic to friendships. But first we have to die. Only then can Christ live his life through us and make us into the new creations that he intends us to be.

Let’s not neglect the second part of the verse: “I shall not want” (KJV, ESV, NASB); or “I lack nothing” (NIV, NET); or “I have everything I need” (NLT, CSB). On the surface, this is pretty straightforward. God will provide us everything we need if we just follow his lead as sheep follow a shepherd. But I think it goes further than that. I think you could make this verse one sentence (it’s only four words long in Hebrew) and add a “therefore”: “The LORD is my shepherd, therefore I lack nothing”. It is not so much that God gives us everything we need, but that He is everything we need. The only thing we need, our only lack, is a shepherd to guide us. I like the classic “I shall not want” translation because of the (perhaps inadvertent) double meaning. The Lord’s shepherding guidance means we want for nothing, but it also means we should not “want” anything else. Following the Lord reorients our priorities so that our old wants, the needs of the flesh and the desire for self-fulfillment or self-actualization, melt away. Once we allow the Lord to be our shepherd we are freed from the constant need for more “stuff” (physical, emotional, or spiritual) to fill the hole inside. He alone becomes enough for us. By doing this, we actually become what we were made to be: creatures in perfect union with the One who created us. In trying to define ourselves apart from God, we become increasingly alienated from ourselves. It is only in giving up our sense of self that we truly find it, only in service that we find freedom, only in dying that we can resurrect to a new and better life. But it gets even better: not only does God not consider us mere slaves or doorkeepers in His house; He calls us His children (John 1:12; Rom. 8:16; 1 John 3:1). And if we are children then we are also heirs: “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Our Father will make us like His Son, the Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5). Lambs can become lions after all.

A Historical Investigation of Jesus: An Annotated Bibliography

The Most Helpful Sources I Consulted

Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018)

Balancing readability and scholarship, this is probably the best place to start for any layman investigating the historical reliability of the gospels. Clocking in at a slim 160 pages, it punches above its slender weight with terrific coverage of non-Christian sources, gospel accuracy, undesigned coincidences, and textual criticism. Peter J. Williams (Ph.D. Cambridge) is principal at Tyndale House Cambridge, has taught New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, is chair of the International Greek New Testament Project, and was on the ESV translation committee. In other words, he really knows his stuff.

Pitre, Brant. The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ. (New York: Image, 2016)

Bringing a helpful Roman Catholic perspective amidst all the evangelical sources I used, Pitre’s book is the best source for defending the traditional authorship of the gospels as well as a helpful chapter about genre, and for using the Jewish context of Jesus’ time to illuminate His self-understanding as God. As you might expect, this is also a good source for the Church Fathers’ perspective on the historical Jesus debate. Pitre (Ph.D Notre Dame) is Distinguished Research Professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute (Denver, CO) after previously teaching sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016)

While I recommend reading the previous two sources, this comprehensive, 750-page reference work/textbook is more for looking up a specific topic. That said, this is the magnum opus of the dean of historical New Testament studies and the most helpful source I consulted. It’s surprisingly readable and accessible, while not sacrificing scholarly rigor. Blomberg (Ph.D. Univ. of Aberdeen) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado where he has taught for 35 years.

Hill, C.E. Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Written in the midst of the frenzy of conspiratorial theorizing about the early Church in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, Hill’s book should put to rest once and for all the ridiculous idea that the early Church conspired to suppress legitimate gospels. His coverage of the apocryphal gospels and the canonization process is clear, although his attempts to prove a first-century gospel canon strike me as a bit of a stretch. Hill (Ph.D. Cambridge) is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Bock, Darrell and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007)

This book was written largely in response to Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and is very helpful on the subject of textual criticism. It also has good sections on the gospels of Thomas and Judas. Wallace (Ph.D. Dallas Theological Seminary) and Bock (Ph.D. Univ. of Aberdeen) both teach at Dallas Theological Seminary. Wallace wrote a standard textbook on biblical Greek, was New Testament editor for the NET bible, and founded the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Bock is Dallas Seminary’s Executive Director of Cultural Engagement.

Habermas, Gary and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004)

This book’s “minimal facts” approach to arguing for the resurrection revolutionized the field. Habermas’s cautious approach yields big dividends and makes his case (in my mind, at least) practically airtight. Habermas (Ph.D. Michigan State) is distinguished research professor and chair of the department of philosophy and theology at Liberty University. Licona (Ph.D. Univ. of Pretoria) is Associate Professor in Theology at Houston Baptist University.

Other Sources I Consulted

McLaughlin, Rebecca. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019)

The best and most winsome book of apologetics in years. Answers questions both intellectual and emotional that non-Christians often raise about the faith, with a needed touch of empathy that is often missing in apologetics. Highly recommended.

Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006)

This source is particularly useful for the apocryphal gospels, although it’s a bit disjointed for my tastes.

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

This source was cited more than almost any other in my research. Other scholars seem to stand in awe of Bauckham (Ph.D. Cambridge; professor emeritus at Univ. of St. Andrews), although this tome was a bit dry and scholarly to me. I gather that the entire tenor of New Testament scholarship changed with Bauckham’s work.

Study Bibles

The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008) is the gold standard of study Bibles that also features (in my opinion) the gold standard Bible translation. An ecumenical work with a Reformed bent, this Bible is both beautifully laid out and comprehensive in its coverage while being usable for even a Bible newbie. Highly recommended.

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019) is my new favorite study Bible. Available in both the NIV and NRSV translations (I own the latter), this Bible has taught me something every time I’ve opened it. As the title suggests, it gives the cultural and historical background for the text, with numerous pictures, maps, and articles that illuminate the geography and culture of the Bible. It also helps that it is edited by two of the premier Biblical scholars working today: John Walton (Old Testament) and Craig Keener (New Testament).

All of the notes in the Ancient Faith Study Bible (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2019) are quotations from the early Church fathers. There are also “articles” containing longer selections from the fathers, biographies of the fathers, small articles about prominent heresies, and (most surprising of all from a Baptist publication) the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. The only disadvantage of this Bible is the CSB translation, which is fine but not my favorite.

YouTube Channels

Inspiring Philosophy (real name: Michael Jones) is an apologetics YouTuber who does terrific, sober, scholarly work. He has a number of videos that helped in my research. Check out his playlists on the reliability of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus. Highly recommended.

The Ten-Minute Bible Hour (real name: Matt Whitman) is smart and funny in equal measure. His “Nuts and Bolts of the Bible” playlist helped out this series immensely. His most popular videos are “Learning About Other Churches” where he learns about different faith traditions than his own (e.g. Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) with winsome curiosity and humility.

Other Sources by Topic (lightly annotated)

This is a select group of books from the source notes at the end of each post. See individual posts for more resources.

Extra-Biblical Evidence for the Historical Jesus:

Bock, Darrell. Studying the Historical Jesus. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002)

Evans, Craig A. Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005)

Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000)

Authorship, Dating and Genre of the Gospels:

Burridge, Richard. What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004)

The best resource on the genre question

Eve, Eric. Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014)

Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)

A comprehensive work on the historical Jesus debate. Keener (Ph.D. Duke) is one of the deans of New Testament scholarship and a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Historical Accuracy of the Gospels and Unintended Coincidences:

Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. (New York: New Press, 2012)

Evans, Craig A. Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture. (Peabody [MA]: Hendrickson, 2015).

McGrew, Lydia. Hidden in Plain Sight: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Chillicothe [OH]: DeWard, 2017)

Notley, R. Stephen. In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2014)

The Gnostic Gospels, the New Testament Canon, and Textual Criticism

Komoszewski, J. Ed, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006)

Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)

Metzger, Bruce and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005)

Porter, Stanley E. How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013).

Perrin, Nicholas. Thomas: The Other Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007)

Apologetics:

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008)

The most comprehensive apologetic resource by the most prominent living Christian apologist

Groothius, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011)

Another all-inclusive resource with a slightly more popular slant than Craig’s standard text

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952)

Still the best book to put into the hand of a curious and intelligent agnostic. See also Lewis’s book Miracles

Science and Faith:

Behe, Michael. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution Rev. Ed. (New York: Free Press, 2006)

The book that destroyed the myth of unmediated evolution. Atheist scientists have attacked this book, but they have never been able to refute it.

Collins, Francis. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006)

Dembski, William. Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know in Plain Language (Eugene [OR]: Harvest House Publishers, 2008).

Hutchinson, Ian. Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science (Downers Grove: IVP, 2018)

The Death and Burial of Jesus

Edwards, William D. et. al. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Journal of the American Medical Association 255.11 (March 21, 1986), pp. 1455-63.

A landmark article that killed the “swoon theory” with a barrage of unassailable medical science.

Gibson, Shimon. The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

Sloyan, Gerald S. The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995)

Magness, Jodi. “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” Biblical Archaeology Review 32:1 (January/February 2006)

McCane, Byron R. Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Harrisburg [PA]: Trinity Press, 2003)

The Resurrection of Jesus

Allison, Dale C. Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005)

Copan, Paul and Ronald K. Tacelli, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000)

John J. Johnson “Were the Resurrection Appearances Hallucinations? Some Psychiatric and Psychological Considerations” Churchman (Autumn 2001), pp. 227-238

A terrific article that refutes the hallucination and mass hysteria theories by simply citing the scientific literature on those topics.

Licona, Michael. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010)

Licona’s stand-alone work is quickly becoming the new standard on this topic.

Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003)

Wright (D. Phil. Oxford), an Anglican bishop and Oxford professor, is another scholar that fellow scholars frequently cite. This is volume 2 of his four-volume magnum opus, “Christian Origins and the Question of God”. It is the most comprehensive defense of the historical resurrection in print. For a more accessible, popular apologetic work by Wright, I highly recommend Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

Is the Resurrection of Jesus a Historical Event? Part 3: The Risen Lord

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

–Philippians 3:10-11 (NRSV)

The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.

–G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 50

And so we have reached the end of our journey. It is Holy Saturday, the day in which Jesus lay quietly in the tomb (although Christians believe he was still busy), and the final day of Lent. We have also reached the end of the road in the search for Jesus, the man from Nazareth. We have found ample evidence of his existence and impact on the world. We have seen how the gospels are eyewitness accounts of his life and work that pass every conceivable test of historical reliability. And this week we have explored in depth the story of his resurrection, the confounding facts and the inadequate theories. Still, like Mary Magdalene, we stand before the empty tomb dumbfounded. Secular historical inquiry has brought us as far as it can. We are sailing off the map and into uncharted waters. So let us look today at one final theory.

Theory 5 — The Resurrection Theory

When looking at historical documents like the gospels, there is one possibility that sometimes gets overlooked: maybe they were telling the truth. Maybe they actually saw Jesus standing before them alive in a new and immortal body. Maybe Jesus ate and drank with them as he had so many times before, only this time it was different. Maybe he demonstrated his ultimate power and gave the disciples the charge to tell the world the good news that death no longer had mastery over the human race. It is almost too much to hope for. Maybe it’s all true.

Analyzing the Resurrection Theory

The reason to not believe this theory is obvious (dead people stay dead), so let’s look at a couple of reasons it might be true. First of all, Jesus predicted that it would happen: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31; see also Matt. 17:22-23; Luke 9:22). We have already seen in John’s gospel that he said he would “rebuild this temple” in three days. He also told the people that the only sign he would give them was the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:39-40; 16:4), whose journey to the heart of the sea in the belly of a fish and eventual deliverance represented death and resurrection. Even Jesus’ enemies understood what he was saying, as Matthew records the Pharisees saying to Pilate: “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’” (27:63). The disciples did not recognize or expect the resurrection, but all the signs were there. This is important as historical evidence, because it means the theory is not ad hoc. There is a context in which this theory is at least minimally plausible.

Furthermore, Jesus claimed to be and acted like a deity, specifically the incarnation of the monotheistic God of the Jews. This is much too big a topic to cover in one paragraph or even one blog post (“christology” is an entire subset of Christian theological study). However, I hope a few data points should suffice. As I have mentioned, Jesus called himself “the Son of Man” in all four gospels, which is a direct reference to the prophecy in Daniel 7 where it says of the Son of Man: “to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (v. 14). Jesus himself says before Caiphas and the council that “from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64; see also Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69). Secondly, Jesus claimed the power to forgive sins, which every Jew knew was only something God could do (see Matt. 9:2-7; Mark 2:7; Luke 7:47-48). Third, when Jesus walked on the water and the disciples cried out in fear thinking him a ghost, he told them to have courage by claiming the name of God — “I am” (Gr. ego eimi see Matt. 14:27). His power over nature was a demonstration of his divine nature. No wonder that the disciples in the boat worshiped him, saying “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). Fourth, God declared Jesus to be his Son at both Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (Matt. 3:17; 17:5 and parallels). Notice that I have been staying in the synoptic gospels. If I add the gospel of John, the evidence becomes overwhelming. There, Jesus asks the disciples to pray in his name (16:23-24), claims authority to judge the world (5:27), and says simply “I and the Father are one” (10:30). As C.S. Lewis famously pointed out, these are either the ravings of a lunatic, the deceptions of a liar, or the revelation of the Lord. With the reliability of the gospels firmly established, no other option is available to us. If only we had some incontrovertible proof that he was who he said he was. Perhaps something like rising from the dead. Let’s see if that lines up with the facts.

Does the Resurrection Theory align with the facts?

Fact #1: The most logical reason that the disciples believed and proclaimed that they had seen the Lord alive was that it actually happened. A legend did not have time to develop, a conspiracy would have been uncovered, and a hallucination would have been easy to discount after enough time. But a resurrected Lord would explain why the disciples preached the message immediately and with such passion. Fact #2: The only way the gospels would record women as the ones to discover the empty tomb was if it actually happened. No legend or conspiracy would ever make it up, and the male disciples would never believe a hallucinatory story recounted by a bunch of women (indeed, Luke tells us that they didn’t believe the women’s story). But how beautiful, and how like Jesus, to reveal himself first to those that society discounts and despises. What a powerful demonstration that, unlike what the Gospel of Thomas says, women are not second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven, but instead heirs of the resurrection promise just as much as men. Fact #3: While you could presume that the disciples were truly bold conspirators or operating under a powerful delusion, the best theory to explain the immediate proclamation of the resurrection in the very city of Christ’s death is that the resurrection happened. Far from needing to remove themselves from the evidence to start a cult, the disciples started the religion in the heart of enemy territory and in walking distance from Jesus’ tomb. Fact #4: None of the alternate theories come close to explaining why Paul or James would convert to Christianity. They would not have believed a legend, would have suspected a conspiracy, and would have laughed at hallucinations. Nothing else could convince a staunch opponent and persecutor of the Church like Paul to completely change course. Nothing else could convince a man who had grown up with Jesus like James to worship his older brother as the Lord of all creation. Only an encounter with the risen Lord could accomplish something so remarkable. Fact #5: People do not suffer and die gruesome deaths for a nice story. They do not lose everything they once held dear for something they know to be a lie. When being led off to crucifixion, even the most delusional man will begin to doubt his hallucinations. But if they saw and heard and touched Jesus, and were there when he disappeared from their sight in the sky, then it makes perfect sense that the disciples would gladly suffer anything, pay any price, for Jesus’ sake. Indeed, they “rejoiced to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus]” (Acts 5:41). Fact #6: The tomb was empty because Jesus is alive. Not metaphorically alive, not alive as a vision from heaven, but physically and eternally alive. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5-6).

The resurrection theory is the only theory we have investigated that accounts for all of the facts, and it is the theory that best satisfies each piece of historical evidence. Primary-source evidence; archaeology; circumstantial evidence — it all points in one unmistakable direction. The grave is empty and Jesus is alive.

From Knowledge to Knowing

In the epigraph above, Paul says that he wants to know Christ. That is what we have spent the last seven weeks attempting to discover: who is Jesus? But Paul doesn’t stop there — he wants to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings. What Paul wants is not head-knowledge, but a deep, heart-level “knowing”. Secular historical inquiry only seeks, and can only provide, knowledge about historical figures. The most frustrating part about studying history is that you can’t just sit down a talk to the people, to really get into their heads and their hearts to see what made them tick, who they really were. But if Jesus is alive, we have that opportunity. We can go beyond merely knowing about Him to knowing Him. And He invites us to do just that. For the past 40 days we have been participating, in a tiny way, in his sufferings. Now he invites us to know the power of His resurrection in our lives. And we experience that by knowing Him. You see, even the gospels, as reliable and comprehensive as they are, are not the primary sources about Jesus. He is the primary source. He is the source of everything, the creator of the universe, and in Him is life (John 1). Our rational selves balk at such grandiose notions. Well, our reason has done good work to this point and led us to the precipice of the mystery. Indeed, as Chesterton noted, we cannot look directly at this mystery, but we can see the light that it sheds on everything else. If we accept that Jesus is who He says He is, then everything else we have looked at over the past seven weeks makes sense. More than that, everything about the world, indeed the universe, begins to come into focus. As Paul so aptly put it, “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). So I am asking, if you are like me and get stuck in your head more often than not, for you to move beyond knowledge about Christ to knowing Christ. My prayer is the same as Paul’s for the Ephesians: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:17-19). It is only love that will complete our journey to discover who Jesus really is.

Conclusion

Whatever your beliefs and whatever your conclusions, I hope you have found this historical search for Jesus of Nazareth to be as enlightening, fascinating, and encouraging as I have. I hope you have come away, as I have, with a greater appreciation for the historical reliability of the New Testament and the overwhelming evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I pray that this study may encourage anyone in a season of doubt about their faith that they are not crazy (at least about this) and that following Christ is not a journey to a dead end. On the contrary, it is a journey of transformation, full of thickets and thorns to be sure, but a journey to eternal life. I have debated how to end this series properly. But I think the best way is to join the ancient chorus that the Church universal, around the world and in heaven, declares with loud and joyous voices: Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A Note on Sources

Next week, I will post an annotated bibliography of the sources I used along with other frequently cited sources that you may wish to investigate if you want to go deeper on any topic I have discussed. I will try to point you, one layman to another, toward the most accessible and readable books on the topics and avoid overly-academic tomes. If you want to go any deeper than that, graduate schools and seminaries abound. As for me, I’m ready to move on to the next thing. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

Is the Resurrection of Jesus a Historical Event? Part 2: The Theories

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

–2 Peter 1:16 (ESV)

In my last post, I went over the undisputed facts surrounding the death of Jesus and its immediate aftermath. These facts (listed below) cry out for an explanation, as does the immediate and explosive growth of a brand new religion that won converts among both Jews and Gentiles. Today, I will go over the various theories about the resurrection story offered by those who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The theories fall into four categories: (1) Legend Theories; (2) Conspiracy Theories; (3) Psychological Theories; and (4) Combination Theories The first three theories have sub-categories and I will try to cover each one. I will briefly explain each theory and then apply each theory to the available facts. In my previous post, I established that almost all historians agree that Jesus died by crucifixion and was buried. I then established six additional facts. As a reminder, those facts are:

  1. The disciples believed and proclaimed that they had seen Jesus resurrected bodily
  2. It was reported that women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb and encounter the risen Jesus
  3. The resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem immediately after the death of Jesus
  4. Skeptics like Paul and Jesus’ brother James were converted to Christianity
  5. The disciples (and Paul and James) suffered persecution and were martyred proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus
  6. The tomb was empty (this fact is attested by a majority of scholars, but is controversial enough that I will not use it as the sole basis for confirming or denying a theory)

Theory 1.1: The Story was Embellished Over Time

The most common belief among those who deny the resurrection is that the story simply got embellished over time, a classic “fish tale”. The disciples loved Jesus so much and wished he wasn’t dead, so they started saying that he was still alive (maybe in a spiritual sense). Over time, this grew into the idea that Jesus had actually come back from the dead with a human body. Given that Jesus was already rumored to work wonders, this story really caught on and it makes sense that people could believe it. It was a story they wanted to be true, and they simply made it so.

Does The Embellishment Theory align with the facts?

Fact #1: The main problem with this theory is that there was not enough time for a legend to develop. We can see that the disciples were proclaiming the resurrection in the creed from 1 Corinthians 15 that dates to less than ten years from Jesus’ death. Secondly, we have gospel accounts of the resurrection within the lifetime of eyewitnesses. Third, if the embellishment theory is true, that would mean that the original preaching of the disciples did not include the resurrection and we have seen that this is not true. Fact #2: If you were going to make up a story about the resurrection, you would not make women the ones who discovered the tomb (see the N.T. Wright quote in my last post). More likely, we would have seen that fact become less prominent in works written later when in fact the opposite is true (e.g. the gospels include it, while 1 Cor. 15 does not). Fact #3: The immediate proclamation of the resurrection in Jerusalem belies legendary embellishment. Fact #4: Skeptics like Paul and James would not be converted at such an early date by a vague, embellished story about a risen Jesus. People do not give up fiercely-held beliefs on account of rumors. Fact #5: The disciples would not have died for a story that had not been made up yet. Lastly, this theory is simply being asserted without evidence. Saying that the early oral tradition did not include the resurrection is not the same as proving it. If your theory flies in the face of the facts, you need better evidence than “it must have gone like this”.

Theory 1.2: The Resurrection Accounts were Metaphors

Another common belief about the resurrection accounts in the gospels is that they were not meant to be taken literally. John Dominic Crossan has made his career on this theory. Jesus was a revolutionary prophet whose teachings lived on in the hearts and minds of his disciples. Just as he spoke in parables, so did his students. They were honoring his legacy by showing that he would “live on” forever. To take him literally is to miss the point. Nancy Gibbs, in an article for Time magazine summarizes this theory nicely:

It is not blasphemy to say the Resurrection never happened, because accounts of Christ’s rising are meant metaphorically….One robs the Bible of its richness and poetry by insisting it should be read literally. Jesus was resurrected in the lives and dreams of his followers; the body of Christ is the Church, not a reconstituted physical body. The Resurrection represents an explosion of power, a promise of salvation that does not depend on a literal belief in physical resurrection.

“The Message of Miracles”, Time Magazine, 10 April 1995, p. 70

Does the Metaphor Theory align with the facts?

Facts #1-3: The main problem with the metaphor theory is that it doesn’t line up with how the disciples preached. In my last post, I have an entire section showing that the apostles made it very clear that they were talking about a physical, bodily resurrection. Jesus ate and drank in front of them; the women grasped his feet; Thomas put his hands into Jesus’ wounds. None of this smacks of metaphorical language. Furthermore, I have shown in my post on the subject that the gospels are not in the genre of folklore/legend, but biography. The earliest message of the apostolic proclamation was “Jesus returned from the dead, which proves that He is God and that He can resurrect your body, too.” Fact #4: A parable or a comforting story would not convince a skeptic like Paul or James to upend their entire lives. Paul is likely to have initially seen the proclamation about Jesus as half-baked midrash, fables that he could easily dismiss. To follow such stories would be to risk apostasy and imperil his soul. Something else must have happened to change his mind. Fact #5: How many of us are willing to die for a metaphor? Even if you want to believe that the disciples would die for “a promise of salvation”, that is not the message that they were proclaiming. Fact #6: The empty tomb was literally, not metaphorically, empty. Indeed, Jewish and pagan skeptics pushing back on the resurrection narrative in the first and second centuries did not say it was all a metaphor. Instead they accused the disciples of grave robbing or performing some kind of magic or deception (see, e.g., quotes from Celsus in Origen Contra Celsum, 1.68; 2.56; 2.59). In short, while this theory feels good and allows us to escape the implications of physical resurrection, it is simply an assertion and does not line up with any of the historical facts.

Theory 1.3: The Resurrection Story is Borrowed from Pagan Myths

This one is a favorite of what I might call “very-online” skeptics, although it has its origins in a book entitled The Golden Bough (1890) that has been dismissed by twentieth-century scholars. They argue that the idea of a god dying and rising again was simply borrowed from many pagan predecessors and applied to Jesus. Examples include Adonis, Attis, Marduk, Tammuz, Osiris, and Horus. Even Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) compared Jesus’ resurrection to stories from Roman mythology like Asclepius, Hercules, Baccus, and even the supposed deification of the emperor Augustus (see First Apology 21). Jesus is no different than these other supposedly “resurrected” deities.

Analyzing the Mythic Theory

None of the commonly-cited myths have anything to do with the resurrection of Jesus. For his part, Justin Martyr was simply trying to show the Romans that persecuting Christians was inconsistent with allowing other religions to continue to operate. In any case, let’s go through each example to see how far-fetched this theory is.

  • Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, was killed by one of Zeus’s thunderbolts and was placed among the stars as a constellation. Later, at Apollo’s request, he was resurrected on Olympus. He never had a bodily or earthly resurrection.
  • Heracles/Hercules, the famed Greek/Roman demigod, died when he donned a shirt covered in Hydra blood, which ripped the skin from his bones. His human side died while his god portion rose to Olympus. This is quite different from Jesus bodily resurrection as a human being on earth. Also, Jesus is never portrayed as a demigod, a completely foreign concept to Judaism.
  • Bacchus/Dionysus, the Greek/Roman god of wine, has a very complicated mythology, but in one version of his story he was torn apart by the Titans, but Zeus was able to save his heart which he mixed into a drink and fed to the mortal woman Semele. She thus became pregnant and gave a second birth to Dionysus. This is reincarnation, not resurrection.
  • The spirit of the Roman emperor Augustus was supposedly seen ascending to heaven while his body was being cremated. This is not a resurrection story.
  • Adonis, the mortal lover of Aphrodite in Greek mythology, is not depicted as resurrecting until a story from the late second-century AD by Lucian, a full century after the gospels. Also, that story more resembles an ascension to heaven than a physical resurrection.
  • The Greek god Attis was said to have gone insane and emasculated himself. Flowers grew from the blood and he was reincarnated as a pine tree. Only after Christianity, in the third century or later, does the cult of Attis start to talk of physical resurrection. Attis was influenced by Christ, not the other way around.
  • I can find no evidence that the Babylonian god Marduk either died or was resurrected in any of the many versions of his mythology. The connection with Jesus is just made up.
  • Tammuz, the Sumerian god of shepherds, was killed by raiders from the nether world and is said to return to life with the cycles of vegetation. He is never resurrected in his previous form.
  • The Egyptian fertility god Osiris was killed by his jealous brother who chopped up his body into pieces. Then the goddess Isis, his sister/wife, reassembled and reanimated him. He thus became Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, a sort of zombie king. He never returned to earth.
  • Lastly, Egyptian god of the sky Horus never died or was resurrected. As far as I can tell online skeptics simply took the debunked theories of a nineteenth-century poet, “spiritualist”, and Egypt-enthusiast named Gerald Massey at face value without doing any research.

In short, the apostles were not writing in a “resurrection style” because such a style did not yet exist.

Does the Mythic Theory align with the facts?

Facts #1-3: As I have just shown, the message that the disciples declared bears no resemblance to earlier pagan myths. If anything, the pagan resurrection stories borrowed from Christianity, not vice versa. The idea that a bunch of Jews, steeped in monotheism from birth, preaching to a bunch of other Jews, would re-purpose pagan myths to deify their rabbi is laughable. Fact #4: Am I supposed to believe that skeptics like Paul, the Pharisee to end all Pharisees, and Jesus’ own brother were converted by pagan mythology with a little Jewish seasoning? Give me a break. Fact #5: The only way to believe the disciples would die for something they knew to be a myth is if they were in the midst of utter delusion, a theory dealt with below. Otherwise, it makes no sense whatsoever. I really have no time for this theory, which is usually promulgated by somebody who has done a quick Google search and read a couple of Wikipedia pages. Get back to me when you have historic, primary source evidence for your claims.

Theory 2.1: The Disciples Stole the Body

As we saw in my last post, this is the theory offered by early skeptics of the resurrection. The disciples did not want three years of their lives to have been wasted (the sunk-cost fallacy) and to look like fools, so they stole the body from Jesus’ tomb under cover of darkness and then made up a story about his resurrection. A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth, and so it was with the “resurrection” of Jesus.

Does the Conspiracy Theory align with the facts?

This theory, of course, explains Fact #6, so let’s move on to Fact #1: Conspiracies require a very small group of people to be “in the know”. Yet Paul claims that, in addition to the disciples, 500 others saw him alive and that some of those people were still alive when he was writing in AD 53 or 54 (1 Cor. 15:6). Were all of them in on it? Furthermore, the disciples could not even keep Judas from betraying them while Jesus was still alive. Are we to believe that these country bumpkins suddenly became genius conspirators overnight? As Chuck Colson liked to point out, the Watergate conspiracy that he was a part of, which involved only a handful of intelligent and powerful men, fell apart in two weeks! All that said, while it is very unlikely, this fact is at least possibly accounted for by a conspiracy theory. Fact #2: Why would conspirators make up the idea that women found the empty tomb? You would not want anyone to have reason to question or investigate your story and this fact would be a huge red flag. I cannot see any reason they would have made this up. Fact #3: If you are going to start a cult based on a lie, you had better do it far away from where your leader was killed in humiliating fashion. Cults generally separate people from society and anyone who can disprove their theories in order to control the information they receive. However, we see the opposite happen with Christianity. The disciples preached in Jerusalem (directly to the Sanhedrin no less!) and in other large cities. On top of that, they included the conspiracy theory in one of their gospel accounts (Matthew 28:12-13), which would be an insane thing to do if you were trying to hide the fact. Lastly, how did they get the body of Jesus out of the city when it was swelling with pilgrims for Passover? Where could they stash it that it would not be found? All this does not even mention that Jews consider touching a dead body to make a person unclean (Num. 19:11). None of this adds up. Fact #4: Paul and James likely suspected that the resurrection story was a lie made up by the disciples. Something else must explain why they changed their mind. Fact #5: Here is the big problem with this theory. As I have said, people will die for a falsehood they believe, but nobody dies for something they know to be a lie. Even if you believe that some of them could, do you really think that all of the disciples held out through torture and persecution with none of them breaking and admitting “we made it all up”? Self-preservation is a powerful motivator. This brings up the issue of motive. People who start a conspiracy usually do so to get something — money, power, fame, sex. What did the disciples get? Social ostracism, persecution, torture, and death. Even the power of delusion and the comfort of community cannot hope to overcome these disincentives. As a historian I can say that it’s almost never a conspiracy theory. In this case, such a theory does not line up with several important facts.

Theory 2.2: The Disciples were Deceived

There are two versions of this theory that I am combining here. The first states that grave robbers stole the body of Jesus and the disciples were thus duped into believing that Jesus had risen again. The other version says that the women and the disciples went to the wrong tomb and finding said tomb empty believed it to be evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. This is why I say you should always double-check where you put a body before starting a new religion.

Does the Deception Theory align with the facts?

Once again, Fact #6 is explained by this theory. So, Fact #1: The disciples did not believe the resurrection on account of the empty tomb. Upon seeing the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene assumed that someone had stolen the body and Peter did not immediately believe either (John 20:1-10). Thomas did not even believe when the disciples told him that they had seen Jesus. An empty tomb by itself was not enough to convince the disciples of the resurrection. Indeed, their proclamation was not an empty tomb, but a risen Lord. Fact #2: In addition, Luke tells us that the disciples did not initially believe the women (Luke 24:11). Here would be a good place to point out that the gospels make a point to tell us whose tomb Jesus was buried in (Joseph of Arimathea) and that Mary Magdalene and another Mary saw where he was laid (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55). That the women would somehow forget where the tomb was a day later strains credulity to say the least. Fact #3: If the “grave robbing” theory were correct, one assumes the robbers would have eventually fessed up, to brag if for no other reason. Also, as I said, conspiracies are almost always uncovered eventually. If the “wrong tomb” theory happened, the Jewish leaders could have just gone to Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb and pointed out the error. Fact #4: Paul and James would not have been convinced of resurrection, even if they were shown an empty tomb. They too could have suspected grave robbing. Only an appearance could have changed their minds. Fact #5: It is hard to imagine that all of the disciples suffered what they did with such scant evidence as an empty tomb. Even so, this fact could be explained by the theory, if barely. In conclusion, I don’t know of any scholar who takes either of these theories seriously. The disciples were uneducated, but they weren’t idiots. Let’s move on.

Theory 3.1: The Disciples Were Hallucinating

This theory has become very popular in recent skeptical scholarship. Hallucinatory visions of Jesus are said to have caused the disciples to believe he had returned from the dead. This would explain the sincerity and intensity of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection story.

Analyzing the Hallucination Theory

Hallucinations are false perceptions, that is, sensory experiences that occur in the absence of sensory stimulation. They are usually associated with mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or drug or alcohol use. However, they can also be triggered by intense emotional distress such as grief or post-traumatic stress disorder, which the disciples might have experienced. That said, there are a number of problems with applying a hallucination to the evidence we have. First off, according to psychologists Gary Sibcy (see Licona, TROJ, p.484) and Gary Collins (see Habermas, CFRJ, p.303, n.4), and in my (admittedly limited) survey of the professional literature, there is no evidence of the existence of group hallucinations. In the words of a scholarly book on the topic: “hallucinatory and related perceptual experiences are essentially private and subjective. That is, at the instant in time at which the experience occurs, no other person shares the same experience” (Slade and Bentall, Sensory Deception, qtd. in John J. Johnson [see sources below]). In a study of Navy SEALs during “Hell Week”, where the recruits are deprived of sleep and food and put through traumatic exercises, 75% of candidates reported experiencing hallucinations (see Habermas, CFRJ, p.107). Yet none of them reported having the same hallucination, even though most of the recruits experienced them during an exercise when they were set adrift in the middle of the ocean on a raft. For example, one recruit saw a train coming out of the water, while another saw an octopus waving at him (!), yet nobody else saw the same thing. Given all this information, it is highly unlikely that all eleven of the disciples would have had the same hallucination at the same time with Jesus doing and saying the same thing.

Secondly, multi-sensory hallucinations are exceedingly rare. Most hallucinations are auditory, some are visual or tactile, a rare few include taste or smell, but none include all of the above. Furthermore, visual hallucinations are usually in black-and-white, and so terrifying that most who experience them are reluctant to tell anyone. The apostles’ accounts of seeing Jesus involve seeing and hearing him; eating with him; and spending time with him in multiple locations over a long period of time in different states of mind. And, far from being traumatized, they were energized to tell everyone they met about what they saw. This does not line up with how the psychological literature understands hallucinations in the slightest.

Thirdly, while there are rare instances of hallucinations brought on by the power of suggestion, this doesn’t really line up with our facts. Gerd Ludemann opines that Peter, wracked with guilt and grief, hallucinated seeing the Lord individually and then convinced the other disciples to “see” Jesus (this story conveniently omits Mary Magdalene). The problem here is that for such an event to occur the hallucinators must have expected to see Jesus again, which the disciples embarrassingly admit that they did not, and the suggestible hallucinators are usually informed of the possibility of seeing the hallucination beforehand, which the disciples were not (see Lyndon and Corlett article in sources). But this gets into the realm of “mass hysteria”, which I will deal with below. Let’s move on to the facts.

Does the Hallucination Theory align with the facts?

Despite its problems, this theory could explain the reports of the women (Fact #2), if they were the ones who hallucinated first, and the willingness of the disciples to preach in Jerusalem (Fact #3) and be martyred (Fact #5), if they truly believed they saw the Lord. However, there are still the other data points. Fact #1: As we have already established, the disciples insisted that the appearances of Jesus were physical and bodily. The disciples were well aware of, and believed in, spiritual visions (see Matt. 1:20; 2:13; Luke 1:5-23; Acts 9:10-16; 10:9-17; 18:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:1-10; Rev. 1). Look at the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison in Acts 12. First off, Peter doesn’t believe he’s actually escaping prison, but thinks he’s having a vision (v.9). When Peter arrives at the gate to Mark’s house, the servant girl Rhoda tells the other Christians in the house about it and they assume that she is either out of her mind or “it must be his angel” (v. 15). Ancient people knew the difference between a physical person and a spiritual being. And all the accounts of Jesus’ appearance are physical. Furthermore, are we to believe that 500 people participated in this hallucination? On top of that, these hallucinations happened in the daytime and the nighttime, inside and outside, to individuals and to groups, to women and to men, and even on schedule (Matt. 28:16). This is not how hallucinations work. Fact #4: The hallucinatory ramblings of a group of Galilean bumpkins would not have convinced either Paul or James to convert. Even if you want to argue that Paul’s encounter with Jesus was itself a hallucination, he does not fit the profile of one who would be suggested into such an experience. He was self-righteously content in his life of persecuting Christians, feeling neither guilt, grief, shame, nor PTSD. As for James, he may have been grieving for his brother, but he had no expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead. If either man had a dream, they would have called it a dream and written it off. Something else must have happened. Fact #6: Even if the women, the disciples, Paul, and James all experienced hallucinations, it still would not explain the empty tomb. And once again, if they were preaching in Jerusalem about the risen Lord and the tomb was not empty, the Jewish authorities could just point to the still-sealed tomb to shut them up. That nobody did this is evidence that the tomb was empty and thus the hallucination explanation does not account for this fact. In conclusion, the hallucination theory does not account for key facts and requires us to ignore too much scientific literature.

Theory 3.2: The Disciples were in the grip of Delusion or Mass Hysteria

Delusions are false beliefs that are clung to in the teeth of contrary evidence, such as a widow insisting that her husband is still alive while sitting next to his cold corpse. Mass hysteria (or, more scientifically, mass psychogenic illness) doesn’t really fit the resurrection since its about the appearance of a physical illness in multiple people brought on by suggestion rather than a medical cause. However, it can also include such widespread phenomena as belief in “phantom killers”, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abductions. Perhaps the disciples were in the grip of some kind of similar hysteria or delusion.

Analyzing the Delusion/Hysteria Theory

In 1879, on a rainy night in the village of Knock in County Mayo, Ireland, villager Mary Byrne saw an apparition of three figures on the gable of the local church. A group from the village gathered and soon they all agreed that the three figures were the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist. A farmer who was a half mile away claimed to see a shining light over the church. As many as 25 people gathered for nearly two hours, praying the rosary and gazing upon the beatific sight. It is these sort of scenarios that people have in mind when positing the mass hysteria theory. However, there are problems with the correlation. The visions at Knock occurred in the rain at night, when your eyes can play tricks on you. The apparitions did not speak or move and the vision was confined to a single location and a limited period of time. Lastly, the visions occurred to people who were primed to have these sort of miraculous encounters. None of these facts line up with the gospel accounts of the resurrection, which occurred at different times of day in different locations, were multi-sensory, and experienced by those who were not expecting it. Also, many of these kind of visions include a natural phenomenon such as a bright light (like the farmer saw), which perhaps prompted the crowd to see something. We have no similar reports surrounding Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.

The real problem with this theory is that the result of mass delusion events don’t line up with the results of the resurrection. First off, mass hysteria always ends in tears. Just look at the Salem Witch Trials for an example of that, or the deadly ends of the cults of Jim Jones and David Koresh. Secondly, mass hysteria eventually dies out. One researcher notes how a Sasquatch sighting hysteria “dies a natural death” because believers fail to produce “even a shred of credible evidence regarding the existence of Bigfoot…outbreaks of collective delusion seem to have within them the seeds of their own destruction” (qtd. in John J. Johnson, p. 236). Third, mass hysteria that is centered on a charismatic, messianic leader dies with said leader. “When the pathological leader is removed the pathological spell seems to disappear. Every mass delusion, however intense, disappears once its cause is eliminated” (A.M. Meerloo, qtd in ibid. p. 237). None of this lines up with the resurrection movement, which produced many positive societal benefits, only got bigger over time, and only began after the death of the messiah.

Does the Delusion/Hysteria Theory align with the facts?

This theory could possibly account for facts 2 & 3. I’ve already covered the problems around fact #1. The nature of the disciples encounters with the Lord do not smack of mass hysteria. If based on delusion, said delusions would have included over 500 people, a highly-improbably occurrence. Fact #4: Paul and James had no reason to be delusional about Jesus and would have no motive to get caught up in mass hysteria. They were whatever the opposite of a “true believer” is. Fact #5: I find it difficult to believe that intense persecution would not have broken the spell of delusion or hysteria for at least some of the disciples. Again, if it was all just a mind trick, that not a single person in that group defected (a new “Judas”, if you will) is hard to believe. Fact #6: If the tomb had a body in it, mass hysteria could be easily dispelled. Some disciples might have held on to their delusions, but the Church would have been strangled in its cradle. If the tomb was empty, this theory is just wrong. In short, while this theory seems appealingly “scientific”, a closer examination reveals major and insurmountable flaws.

Theory 4: Some Combination of the Previous Theories Explains the Evidence

Skeptical scholars, including Bart Ehrman and Gerd Ludemann, generally posit complex combinations of the preceding theories when attempting to debunk the resurrection. I’ve already alluded to Ludemann’s theory above. Ehrman posits a theory that the disciples preached that Jesus was vindicated in heaven (Metaphor Theory), which turned into the idea over time that he was resurrected and would soon inaugurate a Messianic kingdom (Embellishment Theory), which caused some people to make up visions and others (like Paul) to begin having real “visions” of the resurrected Jesus (Hallucination and Hysteria Theories). Ehrman accounts for the empty tomb problem by bizarrely claiming that the body had already completely decomposed by the time the resurrection story got going. Rather than a pure version of any of the previous theories, this is the sort of theory you will encounter from academic skeptics.

Analyzing Combination Theories

The main problem with combination theories is the improbability involved. If you flip a nickel once, you have a 50% chance of landing on heads. If you flip it twice, you have a 25% chance of landing on heads both times. The same applies to adding theories together — they actually become less probable as you add them together. Of course, Ehrman would argue that resurrection is the most unlikely theory of all. Except that I have already argued that God’s existence is plausible and that the gospel accounts are reliable by any historical standard. I am only positing one unlikely thing: that a man who claimed to be God and claimed he would rise from the dead did in fact do so. And that theory actually aligns with all the facts! Meanwhile, Ehrman’s theory requires a bunch of increasingly unlikely things to have to be true all at once, as long as we disregard all the most reliable primary sources and basic scientific facts about the decomposition of corpses. So which of us is peddling improbabilities?

The second problem is that the combination theories fall into the traps that each individual theory does. For example, in Ehrman’s theory, I can debunk it at the very start by pointing out that the disciples preached a bodily resurrection of Jesus less than a decade after his death. As for Ludemann’s theory, it leans heavily on the concept of group hallucinations, which are refuted in the two sections above this one. Cobbling together multiple faulty theories does not a good theory make.

Lastly, these theories suffer a major case of the ad hoc fallacy. That is, they are theories made up to support a conclusion rather than conclusions developed based on the data. The authors of these theories merely assert that their version of the story must be true because resurrection from the dead cannot happen. Thus, a story made up with little to no data to support it is better than the resurrection theory because at least it could have happened. This is borderline scholarly malpractice. In short, I won’t go over every possible combination of the above theories or we’ll be here all day. Suffice it to say, each combination theory fails at various points to account for the bare facts of the case.

Conclusion

I have not covered every possible theory about what happened on that early Sunday morning in Jerusalem in the spring in the early 30s AD. Some non-Christians who are willing to engage with the spiritual and paranormal offer increasingly-outlandish ideas that no scholar would take seriously. (Maybe Jesus was an extraterrestrial who came to earth to mess with humans –the star of Bethlehem was a spaceship and Jesus’ ascension was just him returning to his home planet!) I have offered what I consider the most plausible theories about the resurrection story and tried to treat each one seriously and fairly. However, each of these theories fails to account for multiple attested facts about the event and none of them can explain the mass conversion of Gentiles, the willingness of Jews to abandon their faith and practice, or the birth of the Church in general. We are left with one inescapable and awesome conclusion. We will wrap up with that on Saturday. Until then, may you all have a blessed Maundy Thursday and Good Friday!

Sources

Once again, the indispensable source on this subject, which I cribbed from liberally, was Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. See the source notes on my previous post for additional resources.

On hallucinations, I consulted the article on “Hallucinations” in Paul Moglia, ed. Salem Health: Psychology and Behavioral Health (Ipswich [MA]: Salem Press, 2015) Vol. 2, pp.859-861; and John J. Johnson “Were the Resurrection Appearances Hallucinations? Some Psychiatric and Psychological Considerations” Churchman, Autumn 2001, pp.227-238

For more on the science of hallucinations and mass hysteria:

Andre Aleman and Frank Laroi, Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception (Washington [DC]: APA, 2008)

Stanley Lyndon and Philip R. Corlett. “Hallucinations in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Insights from Predictive Coding.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 129, no. 6 (August 2020): 534–43.

A.M. Meerloo, Delusion and Mass Delusion: Nervous and Mental Disease Mongraphs, No. 79 (New York: Smith Ely Jelliffe Trust, 1949)

Peter B. Slade and Richard P. Bentall, Sensory Deception: A Scientific Analysis of Hallucination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988);

James R. Steward, “Sasquatch Sighting in North Dakota: An Analysis of an Episode of Collective Delusion,” in Exploring the Paranormal: Perspectives on Belief and Experience, George K. Zollschan et.al. (eds.) (Gard City Park [NY]: Avery Publishing Group, 1989)

Is the Resurrection of Jesus a Historical Event? Part 1: The Facts

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

–1 Corinthians 15:17-19 (ESV)

The resurrection of Jesus is at the very center of the Christian faith. Paul summarizes “the word of faith that we proclaim” in this way: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). When the indignant Jewish authorities ask for a sign to accompany his cleansing of the temple, Jesus answers: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John goes on to explain that “he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:21-22). In other words, when asked for evidence to back up his grandiose claims, Jesus simply predicted his own resurrection. The greatest proof that Jesus is who the gospels say he is comes in the form of his resurrected body. This puts Christianity in a unique position. The truth of our faith, the entire basis for our hope, is founded upon the historical reality of a risen Lord. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, he was a liar with delusions of grandeur who should be mocked and ignored. If he did rise, then we must follow Paul’s advice and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. So let us carefully look into the historical evidence for this momentous event and see if it holds up to scrutiny. As always, I will be treating the gospels as historical sources whose facts must be confirmed, not as divine revelation. Let’s begin by establishing a few facts that almost all scholars of the ancient world would agree upon.

Fact #1: Jesus was crucified and died

This is the most uncontroversial fact we will encounter. The resurrection skeptics we will meet from Bart Ehrman to Gerd Ludemann to John Dominc Crossan all agree that Jesus died via crucifixion. Crossan says “that [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 145). Not only is the crucifixion recorded in all four gospels, Jesus’ execution is also attested by non-Christian authors Tacitus, Lucian, Josephus, and Mara bar Serapion. Keep in mind that crucifixion was a gruesome, humiliating, and torturous form of death reserved for the worst of criminals (slaves, rebels, the treasonous). Cicero said that Roman citizens should not speak or even think of “that most cruel and disgusting penalty” (Against Verres 2.5.64, 165). The Jewish scriptures say that those who are hung from a tree are cursed by God (Deut. 21:23) and the Jewish leaders certainly viewed Jesus’ death as a sign of God’s disfavor. In short, there is no reason to believe that the Church would have invented this method, out of all executions, as the one by which their Lord would die.

There is a theory that Jesus did not actually die upon the cross, but merely fell into a coma and revived later, only to convince the disciples that he was risen. Let’s start with the fact that Jesus would have been close to death even before being nailed to the cross due to his receiving 39 lashes with a Roman flagellum (Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1). Once upon the cross, severe blood loss would ensue, along with dehydration and slow asphyxiation as exhaustion would eventually cause the victim not to be able to push up (painfully) on the nails to get a gasp of air. The gospel of John also tells us that Jesus’ side was pierced with a spear to make sure that he was dead “and at once there came out blood and water” (19:34). This was probably the result of the spear rupturing the pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart, causing onlookers to see both blood and clear pericardial fluid. Such a piercing would mean certain death. Keep in mind that these trained Roman soldiers knew how to kill people and had seen their share of dead bodies. Even if he somehow survived crucifixion, are we supposed to believe that Jesus, in his severely emaciated state, moved the stone from in front of the tomb (a job usually performed by multiple healthy men), got past trained guards, figured out where the disciples were hiding, and walked the many blocks to get there on wounded feet? Even if he somehow managed that, would the disciples have seen this pathetic husk of a man as a triumphant, resurrected messiah? More likely, they would have seen it as a miracle that he survived crucifixion and rushed him to a doctor. The “swoon theory” stretches plausibility to the breaking point. I’ll instead stick with the nearly-unanimous opinion of ancient scholars who agree that Jesus died by crucifixion.

Fact #2: Jesus was buried

All four gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Receiving the body, he had it wrapped in a linen shroud and laid it in a newly-hewn tomb in which no one else had been laid. Mary Magdalene and another Mary (not Jesus’ mother) were listed as present for the burial. However, skeptics like Ehrman and Crossan assert that the Romans would have just left the body to rot on the cross, or, at best, thrown the body in a ditch to be eaten by animals. Both of these treatments of crucifixion victims are attested by primary sources. However, these sources do not speak specifically about Roman practice in Judea. Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC-AD 50) wrote of how the Jews appealed to Pontius Pilate (over a different matter) “not to make any alteration in their national customs, which had hitherto been preserved without any interruption, without being in the least degree changed by any king or emperor” (On the Embassy to Gaius, 300). In other words, the Romans usually let the Jews keep their customs (see also Josephus, Against Apion 2.73; Jewish Wars 2.220). And Jewish law required that a body hung from a tree must be buried in order to not defile the land (Deut. 21:22-23). Indeed, Josephus confirms this specifically about crucifixion: “the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun” (Jewish War, 4.5.2). Philo (On Joseph, 25) and the book of Tobit also speak of the importance to Jews of burying all dead bodies. In fact, there is archaeological evidence of a Jewish crucifixion victim being buried. A 1st century ossuary containing the bones of a man named Johanan ben Ha-galgula has a nail used in crucifixions lodged firmly in the heel. Indeed, while many Roman sources report crucifixion victims being left in place, others also report that family members could request the body for burial. Taken together, all this indicates that Jesus could have been buried.

As for positive evidence that Jesus was buried, first of all we have the multiple attestation of all four gospels as well as Acts (see 13:29) and 1 Corinthians 15:4. That 1 Corinthinans passage, as we shall see below, is generally thought to be a creed dating to less than a decade from Jesus’ death and the word for “buried” in it (Gr. etaphe) specifically means to inter a body in a tomb. Secondly, the disciples had no reason to make up a burial account — Jesus had already been humiliated on the cross and the resurrection account does not require a proper burial (indeed, the prophecy in Isaiah 53:9 could be seen as predicting his burial in a mass grave). Third, Pilate would probably have not wanted to keep the body of such a notorious traitor on the cross during the Sabbath on Passover. He was skating on thin ice with both the Jewish leaders and the emperor back in Rome, so he likely would have wanted this problem out of his hair and to avoid unrest during a major Jewish festival. Fourth, why would the gospel authors make up the fact that a member of the Sanhedrin, the very group that just condemned Jesus to death, was the one whose tomb was used? It is an embarrassing admission by the gospel authors that they left it to a member of a group they despised to bury their Lord, with only women to look on. There is also no competing early Christian tradition about the fate of Jesus’ body after his death. Taken together, I see no reason to doubt the basic facts about Jesus’ burial as recorded in the gospels.

Fact #3: The Disciples Believed that Jesus Rose from the Dead and Appeared to Them

The most important fact pointing to the resurrection is the simple truth that the disciples believed and proclaimed it. This is agreed upon by almost all scholars, secular and religious, due to the fact that it is attested in eight different ancient sources. (1) The apostle Paul, who knew Peter, James, and John as well as Jesus’ brother James (see Acts 9:26-30; 15:1-35 & Gal. 1:18-19; ch. 2). Paul’s authority to speak on behalf of the apostles is confirmed in the writings of the apostle John’s disciple Polycarp (Phil. 3:2; 12:1) as well as apostolic fathers Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Romans 4:3) and Clement of Rome (1 Clem. 5:3-5). In both First Corinthians (15:9-11) and Galatians (2:1-10), Paul proclaims that he heard from the apostles directly the message that he preached, i.e. that Jesus was resurrected. (2) Early oral tradition. This includes early creeds and hymns recorded in the New Testament. By far the most important is the creed recorded in First Corinthians 15. I will include it here, as we will be returning to it frequently.

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.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8

Gerd Ludemann, in his skeptical analysis of the resurrection stories (see sources) makes the surprising admission that this creed shows evidence of oral tradition of a catechetical nature and probably dates from Paul’s conversion, within two or three years of Jesus’ death. The use of the Aramaic “Cephas” for Peter, the parallelisms in the text, and the use of many non-Pauline terms all point to this being the case. Many scholars believe that Paul received this creed from Peter and James in Jerusalem at that time, which means the creed would have been formulated no later than two years after Jesus’ death. If nothing else, First Corinthians is an undisputed Pauline epistle written in AD 53 or 54, and so Paul received this teaching less than 20 years after Jesus’ death. This creedal affirmation of the resurrection is thus clearly of apostolic origin. (3) Sermons in Acts (see chs. 1-2, 10, 13, 17) that date to the earliest formation of the Church. These sermons similarly appear to be based on an oral, catachetical tradition. They also, like First Corinthians 15, assert that Jesus appeared not just to individuals but to groups of people. (4), (5) & (6) Matthew, Luke, and John (also Mark, if you accept the longer ending). Of course, the canonical gospels contain stories of Jesus appearing to the apostles. I hope I have demonstrated in this series that the gospels should be trusted as sources, especially since they date to 25 to 65 years after Jesus’ death. (7) Clement (c.35-99) was bishop of Rome from AD 88 to 99. He was consecrated by the first bishop of Rome, the apostle Peter. Both Ireneaus (Against Heresies 3.3.3) and Tertullian (Prescription Against Heretics 32) confirm that Clement knew the apostles. In his epistle to the Corinthians (1 Clement), dated to around AD 95, the bishop writes: “Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and confirmed in the word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, [the apostles] went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come” (42:3). Thus, Clement gives us extra-biblical confirmation of the apostolic preaching of the resurrection. Lastly, (8) Polycarp (c.69-155) was a disciple of John the apostle who consecrated him bishop of Smyrna. Ireneaus (Ag. Her. 3.3.4) confirms that the bishop knew the apostles. Polycarp mentions the resurrection of Jesus five times in his Epistle to the Philippians (c. 135-137), for example: “in faith and righteousness, and that [Paul and the apostles] are now in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead” (9:2). In summary, this overwhelming amount of early evidence of apostolic preaching of the resurrection gives us confidence that the apostles believed that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to them.

Aside: The Apostolic Proclamation of a Bodily Resurrection

When I say that Jesus “appeared” to the disciples, it may seem that I am saying that the disciples saw a vision. We will deal with theories involving visions and hallucinations in the next post, but for now I want to settle the fact that the apostles preached a bodily resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps here would be a good place to list all of the resurrection appearances of Jesus:

  • Mary Magdalene and the other women (Matt. 28:9-10; John 20:11-18; Mark 16:9-11)
  • Two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32; Mark 16:12-13)
  • Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5)
  • Ten disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25)
  • Eleven disciples in the upper room (John 20:26-29; 1 Cor. 15:5; Mark 16:14)
  • Seven disciples fishing (John 21:1-23)
  • Eleven disciples on a mountain (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18)
  • 500 others at one time (1 Cor. 15:5)
  • James, brother of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7)
  • Disciples at the ascension (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:3-8)

As you can see, multiple people both individually and in groups, scheduled and unscheduled, in various states of mind and over a long period of time, saw the risen Lord. And these witnesses go out of the way to show that Jesus had a physical body. First off, almost none of them immediately recognize Jesus, but then have an “ah-ha!” moment of recognition, which lines up with Paul’s comparison of the earthly body with the resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:35-38). Secondly, Matthew records the women touching Jesus (28:9), while both Luke and John record him as eating and drinking (see Luke 24:30; John 21:9-13). Luke’s gospel makes this as overt as possible:

And [Jesus] said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.

Luke 24:38-42

Notice that Jesus says unequivocally that he’s not a ghost (or “spirit”). As the story of Jesus walking on the water demonstrates, the disciples knew the difference between a ghost and a physical person (Matt. 14:26). Third, we have the story of “doubting Thomas” in John 20:24-29, where Thomas actually puts his hand in Jesus’ nail and spear wounds. I’m not sure how much more explicit you want the apostles to get in their message.

If that’s not enough, we have further confirmation from Peter and Paul. Peter says that they “ate and drank” with Jesus after his resurrection (Acts 10:41) and contrasts King David’s dead and decaying body with Jesus’ risen body (Acts 2:25-32). Meanwhile, Paul declares that in Jesus the deity dwells “bodily” (Col. 2:9), and says that “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). In other words, Christ was raised bodily, so we can be assured of a bodily resurrection. The proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus was the resurrection of a physical, flesh-and-blood, human body.

Fact #4: The Gospels report that Women Discovered the Empty Tomb

All four gospels (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-2) report that the first people to encounter the empty tomb and the risen Lord were women. Now, in Jewish culture, the testimony of women was not trusted. To wit:

  • But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex. (Josephus, Antiquities, 4.8.15)
  • The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women (Jerusalem Torah, Sotah 3:4, 19a)
  • It is impossible for the world to exist without males and without females, yet fortunate is he whose children are males, and woe is he whose children are females. (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b)
  • The oath of testimony is practiced with regard to men but not with regard to women (Talmud, Shevuot 30a)

Even in Luke, it says that the disciples dismissed the women’s story of the empty tomb as “an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11). Indeed, the pagan critic Celsus used the women’s testimony as evidence against the resurrection: “when dead he rose again, and showed the marks of his punishment, and how his hands were pierced with nails: who beheld this? A half-frantic woman, as you state, and some other one, perhaps, of those who were engaged in the same system of delusion” (qtd. in Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.55). This is why scholar N.T. Wright says that “to put Mary Magdalene [at the empty tomb] is, from the point of view of Christian apologists wanting to explain to a skeptical audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead, like shooting themselves in the foot. But to us as historians, this kind of thing is gold dust. The early Christians would have never, never made this up” (There is a God, p. 207).

Fact #5: The Resurrection was first Proclaimed in Jerusalem

Historians agree that the resurrection message was first preached in Jerusalem. This is attested in multiple sources from Acts (ch. 2 and following), to Paul’s letters (especially 1 Cor. 15 and Galatians 2:1,9), and even to pagan author Tacitus, who called Judea “the home of the disease” (Annals 15.44). If you want to start a cult claiming your dead leader is actually alive, it wouldn’t be prudent to begin that cult in the very city where everyone just saw your leader die. Yet that is exactly what the disciples did. Furthermore, they would have known that such a message would be inviting persecution and social ostracism, and they preached the message anyway. Any theory regarding the resurrection must come to terms with this fact.

Fact #6: The Conversion of Skeptics like Paul and James

The conversion of the apostle Paul from an enemy of Jesus and persecutor of the Church into one of Christ’s most ardent advocates is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. Paul recounts his conversion in numerous letters including First Corinthians (15:9-10), Galatians (1:13-16), and Philippians (3:6-7). Of course, Luke records his conversion and Paul’s proclamation of that conversion in the book of Acts (chs. 9, 22 & 26). In Galatians, Paul mentions that his reputation preceded him in Judea with rumors wildly circulating that “he who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (1:23). This points to an early oral tradition about Paul’s conversion. All of this resulted, according to Paul, from an encounter with the risen Lord. There is no reason to believe that he would make any of this up, especially since he is portrayed as giving help to those who killed Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58) Even skeptics admit that something must have caused Paul to change course so drastically.

Similarly, James the brother of Jesus was not a follower of Jesus during his crucifixion (see Mark 3:21, 31-35; 6:3-4; John 7:5). Yet we see that the early leader of the church in Jerusalem was Jesus’ brother James. This conversion (and later martyrdom) is attested by Paul’s letter to the Galatians (1:19; 2:9-12), in the early creed quoted by Paul (1 Cor. 15:7), by early Church father Clement of Alexandria (qtd. in Eusebius, Ecc. Hist., 2.1), and even in the work of Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 20.9.1). No early Christian would dare to say that one of their most important leaders, and a blood relation of the Lord to boot, started out as an unbeliever unless it were true. That is why scholars accept that this conversion story must be true and must be accounted for in any theory about the resurrection.

Fact #7: The Disciples Suffered Persecution and Martyrdom for Proclaiming the Resurrection

That the disciples went to their deaths proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus is attested by seven ancient sources. (1) The Acts of the Apostles records Peter and John being imprisoned (ch. 4) and flogged (ch.5), and the the martyrdom of the apostle James, the brother of John (ch. 12). All this was done while they preached the resurrection (see 4:2, 33). (2) Clement of Rome writes the following in his epistle to the Corinthians:

Through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the church have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.

1 Clement 5:2-7

(3) Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), who almost certainly knew the apostles, writes the following in a letter to the church at Smyrna: “When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit. And immediately they touched Him, and believed, being convinced both by His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, and were found its conquerors.” (3:2-3). According to Ignatius, their witness of the resurrection made the apostles brave in the face of death. (4) Polycarp: in the quote already given above (under fact #3), he mentions the suffering of Paul and the apostles. As you might know, Polycarp would himself become a legendary martyr for the faith. (5) Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155-220) is often called the father of Latin Christianity. He reports the following:

That Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Cæsars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship, when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom.

Scorpiace, 15

Notice that Tertullian appeals to the Roman archives and the work of Roman historians. The suffering of the apostles was a matter of public record. (6) Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-253) records the apostles as teaching “a doctrine which they would not have taught with such courage had they invented the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; and who also, at the same time, not only prepared others to despise death, but were themselves the first to manifest their disregard for its terrors” (Contra Celsum 2.56). Jesus “led His disciples to believe in His resurrection, and so thoroughly persuaded them of its truth, that they show to all men by their sufferings how they are able to laugh at all the troubles of life” (ibid. 2.77). (7) Dionysius, bishop of Corinth in the late second century, is recorded as saying the following by Eusebius: “You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time” (Ecc. Hist. 2.25.8).

All of this evidence points to the unmistakable conclusion that the disciples truly believed that they had seen the risen Lord. People will die for falsehoods and delusions, but they will not suffer and die for something they know to be a lie. They were willing to back up their claims by making the ultimate sacrifice.

(Fact #8: The Empty Tomb)

While the previous facts are nearly universally agreed upon, this fact is (understandably) more controversial. That said, according to an exhaustive study of the literature by scholar Gary Habermas, 75% of critical scholars consider Jesus’ empty tomb to be a historical fact. There is a strong historical and logical case for believing the tomb to be empty. First off, of course, the empty tomb is attested in all four gospels (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-9), which are our best primary sources on the matter. Secondly, we have already seen that the disciples proclaimed the resurrection in Jerusalem. If the tomb was not empty, the Jewish authorities would only have to point to the tomb or even produce the body to disprove these claims. Instead, multiple sources tell us that the Jews claimed that the disciples stole the body. Just to give three examples we have (1) Matthew 28:12-13: “And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’”; (2) Justin Martyr (c.100-165) records a Jewish debater as saying: “[Jesus’] disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven” (Dialogue with Trypho, 108). (3) Tertullian records something similar: “This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again” (De Spectaculis 30). We will cover this theory in more detail in the next post, but suffice it to say that the “stolen body theory” would not be circulating if the tomb was still closed. Third, remember that the disciples reported that women found the tomb, an unlikely thing to claim unless you were very confident that no one could produce better evidence. Lastly, there are no competing claims or evidence for the existence of a tomb containing the body of Jesus. The sensational discovery of a tomb called the “Jesus family tomb” in Talpiot (East Jerusalem) in 2007 turned out to have nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth, a conclusion supported by all serious archaeologists and linguistic and biblical scholars. In short, there is ample evidence supporting the conclusion made by the majority of biblical scholars (including secular scholars) that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. However, given that this fact is not as unanimously attested, I will take this piece of evidence with a grain of salt when testing theories.

Conclusion

The average laymen may be surprised to learn how many facts surrounding the resurrection story are confirmed by almost all biblical scholars, even the skeptical ones. With the baseline that Jesus was definitely dead and buried in a tomb, any theory about what actually happened in the days following Jesus’ death must account for these six facts:

  1. The disciples really believed that Jesus rose from the dead bodily
  2. It was reported that women were the first to discover the empty tomb
  3. The resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem immediately after the death of Jesus
  4. Skeptics like Paul and Jesus’ brother James were converted to Christianity
  5. The disciples (and Paul and James) suffered persecution and went to their death proclaiming the resurrection
  6. The tomb was empty (this fact alone will not be used to confirm or deny any particular theory)

In my next post, I will examine the various theories that have been offered to explain these perplexing facts.

Sources

Primary Sources:

Thanks again to newadvent.org for the texts from the early Church fathers. The Talmud texts were found at www.sefaria.org.

Secondary Sources Consulted:

By far the best source on this topic is Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004). I also consulted Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament; Bock and Wallace, Dethroning Jesus; Pitre, The Case for Jesus; and Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?

Secondary Sources for Further Research:

On the crucifixion of Jesus, see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); Gerald S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); and William D. Edwards, et. al. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Journal of the American Medical Association 255.11 (March 21, 1986), 1455-63.

On the burial of Jesus, see Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (New York: HarperCollins, 2010); Byron R. McCane, Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Harrisburg [PA]: Trinity Press, 2003); and Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” Biblical Archaeology Review 32:1 (January/February 2006)

The best Christian scholarly sources on the resurrection include Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005); Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IVP, 2010); and N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003)

The skeptical sources cited above include John Dominc Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) and The Historical Jesus: The Life of Mediterranean Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014); and Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection Of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst [NY]: Prometheus, 2004)